Ack!, as the character in the middle would say.
Today, I’m taking our old “computers are too hard” refrain in a whole new direction. Ready? Content Management Systems Are Too Hard.
As we get ready to re-brand and re-deploy Answer Guy Central around Influency*, I find myself asking again and again: What’s hard about this stuff? Of course, the accompanying question is then, What’s Easy?
Years ago, one of my favorite clients, who had gotten into the Content Management System business before almost anyone else, started telling me why CMS‘s were great for his clients. And because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool geek, his simplistic explanation was that when you use a CMS, “all you have to do to completely change the way your web site works is switch templates”.
Literally, he was correct. Using a content management system, if everything you’ve done is well structured and well documented, and your old design works the same way as your new one (in a lot of ways that has everything to do with development and programming and nothing to do with the way your web sites looks), a CMS makes it so that changing your web site from one look to another takes literally seconds.
This never works in the real world.
When we redesigned Answer Guy Central early this year, we changed not only the way the site looks, but also the way it works. My client’s description overlooked the second part of that, and the problem for most businesses is that if you change the way your web site works you change a lot about the way your business works, too. If that’s intentional, great, but if you throw the switch too soon or without understanding what you’ve changed, things happen. Usually, bad things.
We were very careful about the redesign, and nothing went wrong. We got a lot of compliments on the new look, the site sped up, and our traffic and the leads we generate more than doubled. We also eliminated the need for Answer Guy Central Apps. But that wasn’t enough. Because we drink our own business change Kool Aid here, it was pretty much as soon as we rolled out Answer Guy Central 2.0 that we started looking at Answer Guy Central 3.0, which is now imminent.
I could tell you a lot about the journey, but that would make a book. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a tool, another tool that piggy-backs on that tool, and why sometimes no matter how simple tools are, you still need help using them well.
As I told you yesterday, WordPress is the most used Content Management System in the world, and there’s no meaningful challenger on the horizon. And the amazing thing about WordPress is that you really can get it started in just a few minutes, then slap a theme/design onto it that you can be proud of—all for free. Not only that, but if your web site isn’t too complicated, you can change designs easily and without too much trouble relative to what I said above.
Of course, that won’t actually happen. Thank goodness; it’s how we make a living.
Recently, I came across a tool that almost makes tweaking WordPress a simple, drag-and-drop affair, accessible by anyone with just a little bit of moxy. It only costs about a hundred dollars, and adheres to programming standards that makes it an absolutely amazing choice, both because it steadfastly refuses to litter your WordPress installation with bits of code cast to the wind, and because it addresses that “we don’t need apps any more” issue, all automatically. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Headway.
Headway is a “theme” (one of those quickly-change-the-design doohickeys) for WordPress. Except, it isn’t. Headway installs like a theme, and you can both set it up and get a default, acts-just-like-your-existing-theme-but is-probably-less-attractive-but-uses-better-standardized-structural-elements appearance in seconds. But that’s not what Headway is for. Headway makes it so that you can change everything about the way your WordPress-based content management system website looks and works just by dragging and dropping pieces around and setting characteristics of everything.
Headway is, in short, amazing.
You might think that I’m going to say something snarky about websites that look like ransom notes, and how design is best left to designers. Fair enough; using Headway, you could make an ugly mess out of your well-functioning web site, faster and more easily than ever. That’s not my concern—until you call us looking for design help.
What worries me here (and “here” isn’t actually about Headway; it’s about presenting Content Management Systems as a panacea for easy business and web site changes, in general) is the way Headway’s designed.
Headway does something very, very smart. It starts off as a quickly-grafted-on, very small piece of code that you get into your WordPress installation doing nothing more than installing it as a theme. But take a look at that code and you see none of the style declarations that WordPress themes are normally made of. Instead, Headway, once loaded as the framework controlling how your web site looks and acts, tells WordPress that everything has been crammed inside one of WordPress’ database tables, and to take design specifications from Headway’s entries there.
What this means is that Headway is almost impossible to break, which is GREAT. But then, things take a strange turn.
Ignore the fact that Headway stores all the information controlling how your WordPress website looks inside your WordPress database. Ignore, too, that Headway, in the interest of doing its magic in a WordPress-endorsed way, puts all its information into the same table that WordPress itself uses to control a lot of other things, making extraction of Headway’s information all but impossible, and portability a challenge that Headway is just now getting to. What concerns me is consistency.
The great news here is that Headway is following all the rules, and in a way following them better than mostly anyone. That means you’ll never run into the kind of situations that proprietary CMSs like Hubspot can leave you in, where once you start using them there’s no way out. There’s also no Hubspot-like pricing concern.
But there’s an absolute this-thing-works-so-well-that-now-I-can’t-use-it-safely-without-professional-help situation built into Headway. Again, that works for us, so if you need help with Headway, do contact us here.
Because honestly, the more I play with what I started out thinking was supposed to be a tool to simplify things, the more I realize that when you use Headway to control WordPress you end up with a mix of that and WordPress controlling Headway. If you want to see some of the stuff that goes into this assessment, then after you buy Headway take a look at these two support threads from the Headway web site: Moving Templates and Child Themes, Blocks, and “None of the Above”. Yes, I’m the “Jeff Y” you’ll see in there.
By the way—and this is an absolutely free plug: props to one of the developers who makes her living with Headway. Inadvertently, Corey Freeman has designed the best “first time you try to program in PHP” tutorial I’ve ever seen. Update, July 15, 2013: at some point Ms. Freeman made this a pay-only piece, and now has informed Answer Guy Central that it no longer exists at all; so apologies, but the link points to something that can no longer be accessed. Don’t worry; we have your back. In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to learn anything about programming but weren’t sure how and where to start, Corey’s video is great; it will either chase you away screaming or serve as that light-bulb moment where you realize what programming “is”.
But if you look at her responses to me in the Headway support forum you’ll see that Corey has also backed up both my old point about what older people are better at that younger people simply cannot grasp, and also why using a CMS—even as easy a CMS as WordPress—is rarely as simple as “changing the theme”.
These computers, it turns out, really are hard.