Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

CMS and the art of maintenance

Posted on by arlen

Sorry, it’s been a long week. But I’m back now. Just finishing up a rework of the Wisconsin Chess Association website (the link is to the new, almost-ready-for-primetime version) while in the middle of my chess “busy season” (HS team organization, working one tournament while planning/organizing three more). The chess work will slow down in about a month, the web work is picking up, thank you.

Anyway, picking up all the old WCA pages and transferring them to the CMS that’s behind the site now was a learning experience. There were over 200 pages on the old site, using four different design/interface schemes. With some effort (and some scripting — thank you Larry Wall for the most fiendishly useful scripting language on the planet!) I’ve managed to get most of them transferred successfully.

Good websites grow, in an amazingly organic fashion. This site had, for instance, sprouted several new shoots that hadn’t been planned for when the garden was first laid out. I could hide behind the fact that I wasn’t in charge when the first plan was laid, and claim the plan was incorrect, but the truth is while I was only involved, and not in charge, I thought the plan would cover it.

A major truth of site design is that you never know where the impetus for growth will come. You can guess, and your guesses, if intelligently made, will be right more often than wrong. But that’s all you can do.

I started thinking of websites as a digital landscaping project, rather than an IT project, about the time I first discovered the CSS Zen Garden. I know that wasn’t the intent of the site, but as I was involved at the time with planning my new backyard, it was an easy leap.

Website maintenance is a lot like pruning. You go through the plant, looking for branches that are crossing over each other, getting tangled, blocking the sun from their brothers. And you clip them off or carefully reroute them so every branch is in the sun, and so the final image is pleasing to the eye.

And all the while you’re doing this you realize that the final appearance of the plant is not up to you. No matter your intentions, the plant has a life of its own, and that it will send shoots wherever it finds space, searching for as much energy as it can find. In the same way, websites will grow new sections, and old ones will die, in response to the digital ecology it finds itself in.

You have plans for the site, and you carefully work the plans. But at the same time, everyone who comes to your site has their own plans, their own expectations for your site. And each one of them, if you’re listening, will nudge you in the direction they want you to take them. Your website begins to sprout little shoots, searching for the “sunlight” of usefulness, and if they find it the shoots grow stronger. Whole sections sprout up, and sometimes begin to overshadow where they came from. You have a choice, you can move with them, looking for (and finding) a “sweet spot” and trying to stay in it as it moves and changes, or you can stay disciplined and work your original plan, ignoring the conversation your visitors are trying to start.

Hear that whistle? The cluetrain’s at the station now. Are you listening?

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November 2004
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