Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Beautiful Nightmare

Wherein I worry that lowly end users of our content management system will turn our beautiful new Web site into an unnavigatable mess.

After years of beating around the bush, we're finally going to be getting an enterprise Web content management system (WCMS) for Chico State. We're getting Hannon Hill Cascade Server, but that's not the point of this post.

I've fought very hard for an enterprise WCMS over the past several years, but the closer we've gotten to getting one, the more misgivings I have.

I know that's heresy, but as an admittedly elitist web developer I'm wary of turning the unwashed masses loose on Web sites without adult supervision.

I'm not worried about them putting pink text on green backgrounds - we can control that with pre-made templates.

What I'm worried about is having people with no experience with or (concept of) organizing information creating and attempting to organize departmental Web sites. After all, we're talking about people whose desktops look like this:

(image stolen from this site)

We have spent years thinking about WCMS's. We've spent months reviewing products, trying to select the best one for our needs. We're going to spend more months developing the best and most beautiful templates for people to use. And we're going to hire people to manage this great piece of software and manage a smooth rollout of the technology to campus.

And then we're going to turn over virtually the entire CSU, Chico Web presence to (let's be honest) a bunch of department secretaries and let them turn it into a Web version of their computer desktop.

This isn't making sense to me.

Why bother to invest all this time, money and effort on the back end, if the people who will actually, hands on, implement and manage major pieces of the campus have no idea of what they're doing?

OK, so we'll offer - no, require - training in information architecture, organizational skills, writing for the web, etc. for everyone who will use the WCMS.


How am I going to sell that? That isn't sexy. The software is sexy (if you're into that sort of stuff, which personally I'm not). New designs are sexy. Training isn't sexy. Information architecture isn't sexy.

The very stakeholders that need to sign off the standards and requirements for the WCMS barely know what information architecture is, so they're not going to get it. If they don't get it, they won't require anyone else to get it.

End result... We end up with a beautifully designed new site, run by a sophisticated piece of content management software, but where the content is an impenetrable mishmash of confusing, redundant, mislabeled links and huge rambling pages of run-on content. Even better, there'll be no consistency across subsites with regard to terminology, labeling, organizational schemes or writing style.

For the user, our Web site will be a beautiful nightmare.

We have to prevent this. I'm open to ideas.


Stewart Foss said...

I don't know if this will help or just freak you out more, but it is worth a read.


Amber D. Evans said...

Well, at least you won't be out of a job ... but your role may change!

I'm curious to see how your experience goes. VT just purchased a (W)CMS called Ensemble. It's rolling out right now and training is underway. Not too surprisingly, people are flocking to the CMS training, but they are learning the "how-to" of using Ensemble. You are correct that (it looks like) not much thought has gone into training information architecture or content-writing or even the creation or use of writing style guidelines. Of course, this semester I am teaching several workshops directly aimed at this issue ... I'll let you know if I was able to sell any "sexy IA." ;)

Keith said...

The unwashed masses already have control of CSUC's web presence. At least they'll have a better tool now.

Tony Dunn said...

That's partly true and partly not true. We design and maintain a fair proportion of the campus's sites, and as such typically have at a lot of influence over the organization of those sites. In some cases we have almost complete influence over the organization of the site.

At the very least, we recommend to our clients what we think some good ideas for site structure would be based on their needs, audience and content.

In the coming brave new world, we won't be there to make those recommendations for them.

jnunemaker said...

@stewart foss - great link to the veen article. I had forgotten about that.

At the Notre Dame Web Group, we currently use a home grown content management system. The main purpose of it is to separate content from presentation, as much as possible. We also lock down global navigation. Granted, it is still possible to make a mess of things, but we've found it far easier with our custom CMS than our old way of using contribute.

Mike Rivera said...

I posted about a larger issue touched upon by this post- the decentralization mantra that drives the want to disperse content creation.

In short, I believe there are more cons than pros to a decentralized approach. If you can get people to at least discuss the approach, then changes can be made for the better.