Let’s make webmasters a thing again

Back in the day we used to be webmasters. We’d make a website and when the owner wanted to change something we’d get an email, have a bit of to and fro, then do the honours.

We then saw the rise of the content management system. This gave our clients power; they could log in and update their content whenever they wanted!

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether we didn’t have it right in the first place.

How much control should our clients have?

Every time I encounter Wordpress I get a wee bit sad. Let’s look past the generic themes, the awful markup and the hundreds of kilobytes of unused CSS and JavaScript – it allows our clients to change pretty much anything they want to, rightly or wrongly.

They can upload images with unchecked file-sizes and design-breaking aspect ratios, write an ill-informed 20 word heading or 6 paragraphs of intro text, install plugins unchecked; maybe even use <strong> tags as headers, capitals for emphasis, you name it! Not long after the reins are handed over, the site’s design and potentially all of your best SEO guidance can go down the pan.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a client having the power to update their own content. In fact, proper planning and building a site with a CMS that facilitates structured content is a great solution and one that I’ve used successfully for a decade.

Designing the CMS is the key: getting granular with text inputs, wrapping them in custom markup, limiting the number of characters or words allowed, getting specific with the dimensions and quality of images, deciding whether images are allowed to be uploaded in free text boxes; all this means the website’s design holds true over time. No more unrecognisable websites after a year in the editor’s hands.

How much control do they actually need?

In a lot of cases a tightly controlled CMS is the definitely right thing for a website owner, but there are some good reasons why this may not always be the case.

Designing for the unknown

Web design is difficult enough when you’re designing for unknown devices, operating systems, browsers, screen sizes, screen resolutions, internet connections, and so on. Add unknown content into the mix and you’ve got more of a headache.

There are a lot of lengthy up-front conversations about edge-cases and potential content that will never transpire.

Frequency of updates

Most website owners start out with the right intentions: they’ll update their content frequently to keep it relevant, write a blog post every few weeks, get new pictures for their gallery nice and often. But let’s be honest: this isn’t always the case. Getting content in the first place can often be a struggle, let alone expecting them to update their content on a regular basis. It’s very normal to see a few blog posts in the early days, a long gap, then a few more posts when they resolve to write more (I totally know the feeling!).

Perhaps managing expectations from the outset is wise; most website owners will likely already be in the habit of running their business day-to-day than more long-game marketing strategies like blogging.

It takes time

The more experience I gained as a web designer, the longer I spent in conversation with my clients as to what they wanted to achieve with their content. This was necessary so that I could constrain what they were able to add in their CMS so that their website remained effective. And they were happy to pay for that time. But it was time consuming, coming up with that brief so I could build the right thing.

And while a wee bit of time was saved on the UI design as I wasn’t designing for too many unknowns, when requirements were complex it could often be time consuming to develop.

Then there was the training – it’s invariably a good idea to spend some time taking the owner through their CMS, showing them how to update page content, add blog posts, and so on. Screen-casts were a great tool here, so there was always a reminder.

Changing needs

It’s not uncommon for a website owner’s needs change over time so I sometimes found myself throwing out a lot of that work that had been done after a relatively short period. Good for the site, but it can be a fairly costly process.

So maybe it’d be quicker (and therefore more cost effective) for us to simply do it ourselves. Become webmasters again!

An alternative

I think a more collaborative approach to delivering fresh content is necessary in a lot of cases. It allows a second pair of eyes to proof read, provide feedback and make adjustments; eyes that are finely tuned to design, the web as a medium, and technical constraints around the site build.

It also means conversations around content happen little and often, and are always relevant; there’s no effort put into designing (either the site or the CMS) for content that might be added.

Accountability is a big thing too – in my experience, clients appreciate a periodic nudge: “Hi! Any new blog posts for me to upload?”

I’m not saying to go back to email – email is messy; a difficult tool for keeping conversations organised. The good news is there are lots of great, and often free, tools that we can use to deliver and have a conversation around content. But the principle is the same as it used to be:

  1. The client sends through some content to be added to their website
  2. You, the webmaster, ask some questions about the content, for example:
    • Would that testimonial work better somewhere other than where they had in mind?
    • Could that paragraph be worded more succinctly?
    • Does that image fit the look and feel of the site?
  3. There’s some to-and-fro until the content is agreed on
  4. You implement the content, perhaps even being as careful as manually controlling image output quality so that the file size is just right

It’s definitely not appropriate for all sites, but the webmaster model for content updates is something we should definitely consider for any website we work on.

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