6 December 2006
In mid-2003 I completely reworked Antietam on the Web, dropping unmanageable static HTML and using a new database to store the contents. To create and deliver that content I built a rudimentary Content Management System (CMS) in PHP. Today I’d download a ready-made CMS and customize it to suit rather than build my own. No need to reinvent that wheel.
In October I volunteered to build a new website with/for an organization engaged in a good cause related to the Civil War. Among other things, their site will be updated by non-web people, so I think an off-the-shelf CMS will be a good foundation for the project.
About a month into development, here’s how it’s going …
My first goal was to build a prototype to show the group’s leadership what their site might look like and how do-it-yourself maintenance using the CMS would work.
I’d been using WordPress (WP) for my blog for a while, and had a good idea how to use it. WordPress isn’t a full-blown CMS, but for a basic website it might as well be. So I began with WP.
I had few initial design or functional requirements, so, not surprisingly, on meeting the group for the first time I found the initial prototype was wrong in almost every way. But it got us going toward what they did want as we talked about what they didn’t like.
Armed with more details, suggestions, and preferences from that meeting, I built a new WP theme and added some new elements hoping to get the feel they were looking for. Between fiddling with design options and creating the CSS and some background graphics, that took the better part of two weekends. An investment, but nothing like it would have been coding a site from scratch without the WordPress framework.
We’re still in the comment phase today, but it looks like the new design is close to what’s needed.
While waiting for everyone to weigh-in, I’ve thought about how to provide the more complex functions they want on the site. These include taking money, publishing a newsletter, showing products, and giving members special on-site privileges. There are also hints of some data-backed operations like membership management and donation accounting in the wings.
With enough plug-ins and custom PHP coding a WordPress site can be made to do all these, but the resulting hodgepodge of components would begin to defeat the original simplicity of the WP CMS. We need a more robust framework to handle these tasks and still keep the site manageable for the non-tech leadership over the long haul.
So I’ve been doing a little experimenting.
My web research and an experienced friend suggested that Joomla (forked from Mambo) might be a good choice. It’s a full-featured and robust CMS. It’s won competitions and has a large and helpful following. There are also ready-made themes to kick-start with, for the lazy like me.
Last week I downloaded and installed it, no sweat. It was as easy as advertised, but seemed “fat”. Nearly 2MB in files alone, before any content. I found it a bit cumbersome, too, with a decidedly non-intuitive interface, and a whole new jargon and structure to learn. There is immense power in Joomla, but that results in an overwhelming set of menu choices and settings. It is not for the faint of heart.
Even after playing for a couple of days, it still felt like I was working with oven mitts on.
However, I became comfortable enough getting around and it looked like the tools I needed were there, so I started looking for themes similar in structure to my prototype design. There were several promising ones. I looked more closely at each.
I noticed pervasive and apparently non-removable use of tables for page layout. It’s core to Joomla code. On the forums there’s talk of rooting it out after a couple of more releases (?!). There’s other sloppy use of presentation logic in HTML scattered about, too. Center tags, line returns for spacing, inline fonts.
Bad vibes I got.
I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to rework AotW to more semantic HTML and moving presentation to style sheets. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’ve learned to appreciate how clean web code can be, and I won’t go back.
After some further web sleuthing last weekend I downloaded and installed Textpattern.
I get quite a different feel from it as compared with Joomla. It’s light and clean, and produces elegant HTML with simple page structures and no tables for layout. Fewer of the old-school web gaffes.
The admin pages are fairly simple and I think my non-tech users would be comfortable with them. You might be thinking that Textpattern is too lightweight to be a rich CMS, but I’m finding it’s very capable for all the simplicity. There’s potential here.
Over the next few days I’ll begin styling the Textpattern site to look like my WP prototype, and work on adding the new features. I’ll let you know how it holds up through that.