Don't let your Content Management System think for you

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

by Silumesii Maboshe

A Content Management System or CMS is a powerful tool. It can reduce the work required to launch a website to a few simple clicks. Except for moving files around, there is almost no configuration required to get started. In under an hour, one can have a fully-fledged site running with multiple roles of user access, RSS feeds, cool slidy-picture-thingys, contact forms, forums and every bell and whistle that a client would want. Spectacular! Yes?

Not quite.

With great power, comes great responsibility. Uncle Ben
Spider-Man, Columbia Pictures (2002)

The elephant in the room with the developer and the CMS is, “who actually has the power”. In the best instance it is the developer. The reality, in Zambia, is it that the power is defaulted to the CMS. Perhaps, the developer is even at the mercy of the CMS.

How does this show up?

It is no secret that Joomla! powers the most visited websites in Zambia. Perhaps, the second most used CMS is WordPress. Drupal is likely in third place. The power-play starts to show in the amount of effort a developer will make to customise a CMS.

Unfriendly URLs

One can usually tell a CMS-driven site because a link to an “About” page (for example) that could be as inviting as http://example.com/about ends up being http://example.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=2.

If the developer can’t be bothered to customise a URL to make it “human friendly”, guess who has the power.

Boring “About” pages

An about page is a chance to make a meaningful connection with a visitor to your site. What is it about the people behind this website that would make me want to engage with them? What makes them different? What makes them special?
Sadly, some sites have the generic “This is the About page” text that comes default with the CMS. Guess what, you just defaulted your power and lost my attention.

Spam

Many blog or article comments are enabled by default on a CMS. This allows anyone to post comments. This also means that smart “bots” can contribute as well. You’ve probably noticed them trying to sell you Louis Vuitton handbags when the topic is a heated discussion about the re-evaluation of the Kwacha.
If you are going to allow comments on your site, at the very least verify that the input is coming from a human being by using a CAPTCHA.

Out-of-context form options

Nobody in Zambia has a mailing address with a ZIP code. I’m pretty sure my timezone is nowhere near New York. If you are going to make me select a language how about including Silozi, Chibemba or Chichewa because I don’t know who these Portuguese, Spanish or French are.

Lorem ipsum

Lorem ipsum. On a live site. Really? That’s all I have to say about that.

Websites that look the same

This is a big issue for me. Zambia on the web has a “look”. To be honest, I much rather the personality the Zambian web had in the 90s. Every site was distinguishable from the next. Now they all look so similar and run the same advertisements, similar stock photography, icon sets or illustrations and have the same fonts. It is all very bland.

What gives?

The points above are symptoms of larger problems. One is that Zambian web developers are lazy. The other is that we are greedy.

We’re lazy

The documentation for each CMS will clearly describe how to customise it. Drupal, Joomla! and WordPress for example have entire communities dedicated to improving the documentation of every single release of the software and make it more clear. The fact that simple customisation is not done on our sites points to a lack of willingness of developers to read documentation.
Often one will pay to use a CMS Theme. The fact that so many sites use the same themes with little to no modifications indicates, again that we developers don’t make the effort.

We’re greedy

There is money on the table. With every site that goes up, money exchanges hands. The payoff using a CMS is that one can put something “functional” up in very little time and with very little effort. A CMS can have content updated by the client so once the developer is done, it may not be necessary to see them again until something breaks (which will happen) and then more money has to exchange hands.

All of this is giving the name web developer a bad reputation.

If we thought for ourselves…

The problem is not with the CMS. It is with us, developers. We need to change perspective and start to see the bigger picture. Our community and livelihood are at stake and so is the business of our clients. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, even India, the UK and USA are a click away. They could own Zambia’s Internet space if we do not get our act together.

…we’d do our due-diligence

In your interactions with your clients are you listening to what they want? Or are you simply pitching the features of your CMS of choice? Who is doing the thinking?

Let the content drive the direction of the discussion. If a single HTML page with a link to an email address will suffice why not offer that instead of a blogging-forum-photogallery-behemoth?

When the content actually does call for CMS-compatible features, tailor them to the needs of the client—carefully and specifically.

…we’d share

Once in a while, you hit a speed bump using the tools you have. There is nothing quite like the high you get after working through and debugging a technical problem. After your celebration go ahead and share what you did. Donchi kubeba might work as a political strategy but other web developers are likely facing the exact same challenge you just solved. Blog about it. Earn the respect of your peers. After all, it is likely you are using Open Source technology anyway!

…we’d be creative

I am yet to see a Zambian developed Joomla!, WordPress or Drupal theme or template. I am yet to see a Zambian website offered in a local language.
This should change. It may be that the African tech design renaissance starts in Zambia. We may never know because we as a community are not creating and contributing.

The medium is the message

We need to stop thinking of websites as “channels” of communication but as communication in and of themselves.

What does the website itself communicate about the client, the developer, Zambia? Is it even necessary to use a CMS in the first place?

When a project is done, will you invoice for the project and receive payment that the work is an accurate reflection of communication well articulated and executed? Do you put your “website by …” stamp of approval on the finished work with a sense of accomplishment?

Zambia is counting on you. Don’t let your CMS think for you!