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(20)11 content technology lessons learned

January 4, 2012
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The more traditional ‘weblog’ post I did last year on lessons learned in the content technologies arena during the preceding 12 months proved popular and as 2011 has been pretty eventful, I guess it’s worth giving it another shot …

1. In times of uncertainty be very wary of over-buying software solutions…

There’s a website I still visit from time to time that saddens me somewhat. In some ways it was one of the more successful web projects I have been involved in over the last 15 years or so, and in others the least successful.

The requirements gathering and evaluation process was smooth, with the preferred CMS solution and implementors ticking all the boxes and jumping through the hoops relatively easily. The design phase went very well with great buy-in from all stakeholders and a lot of positive feedback on the direction it was all going. The implementation was progressed expertly by the project manager, technical architect and development team and delivered within the agreed timescales and budgets. The content migration was fast and accurate and provided the main mastersite and complete framework for 5 additional languages within 2 weeks. So, with everything lined up and ready to roll, we waited…and we waited…and we waited.

Unfortunately, the product range this new multi-lingual, web marketing platform had been implemented for (as a pilot for a much wider deployment) never materialised and, to my knowledge, is still not launched over two years on from its original planned debut. It was/is a potentially great product but, realistically, there was always a relatively narrow window of opportunity to get the new range launched and established with resellers and consumers successfully.

Without the revenue stream this new product range was designed to generate, there was no budget available for expanding the new web platform further and so it remains like an iceberg – with a fraction of its capability visible above the waterline and a massive potential capability hidden passively beneath. What a sad waste of everyone’s time and efforts for something that is now being used just as a basic (and expensive) email marketing tool but also a reflection of how tough it is to develop and market consumer electronic products efficiently and effectively :(  Based on the same requirements I’d probably stick with the original recommendation but with the benefit of hindsight I would certainly have recommended directing the money elsewhere … 

2. Don’t overestimate the desire of others to be empowered …

Although skeptical of social media on a number of levels, I have always welcomed the fact that it has shown a mass majority of people how easy it is to publish content to the web and collaborate and communicate around it, because that is, in essence, what they are doing via Facebook and Twitter day in and day out. This adoption and use of technology is what the majority of content management orientated people have been trying to achieve to a greater or lesser extent within organisations since the web’s inception.

Why then, when faced with the prospect of adding and managing content for their work activities in as easy-to-use ways do they freeze like rabbits in headlights? What’s wanted is the same enthusiasm they have in their social lives for describing stuff in witty and engaging ways – what you often end up with is procrastination and lists of reasons why stuff can’t be done.

The age of participants has some part to play in their comfort levels but as in a lot of scenarios it is more about attitude than age. Ultimately though, this gap between willingness to use content technologies in social lives versus work lives comes down to the culture of the organisation. If senior management have seen the rise of social media as a means to monitor what their employees are up to they can hardly complain when those employees don’t rush online to engage with customers and talk about the organisation positively.

3. It’s easy to forget that web-based applications can still be very dumb …

Having spent most of my career using web-based tools for content creation and management, it’s easy to forget how forgiving you can become. Getting folks who are used to using high-end graphic tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to manage basic web content is a reminder of how far web solutions still have to go before the usability is as slick as it could be. Basic usability needs have been known for years, as illustrated by this type of post from early in the last decade. However, even the content technology solutions described as ‘leaders’ in their respected fields could do a lot more to address the following fundamentals …

Users hate …

  • Learning – It doesn’t make sense to learn new interactions if there’s no return on the investment we must make to learn them.
  • Repeating – Automatic data collection and the reuse of information will save your users the hassle of data entry.
  • Waiting – We hate waiting even more if we don’t know how long we have to wait.
  • Searching – Maintaining consistent navigation is important in helping users find the information they want.
  • Reading – People are good at scanning, and we recognize and remember images more easily than text.
  • Security breaches – While we’re happy to share some information with some people, we prefer to keep some information private.
  • Platform restrictions – Applications should not be restricted to a particular operating system, form factor, or user’s abilities.
  • Rigid functionality – Options to add, remove and modify different functionality should be given to the user.
  • Mistakes – Having the ability to undo our actions can allow us to recover from mistakes and learn from them.

4. Don’t underestimate the time needed to implement an Open Source solution …

For the reasons given in lesson 1, my hand was rather forced down the Open Source route by total lack of budget to continue the web development projects planned for 2011. I say ‘forced’ because although I have used WordPress, Joomla and Drupal in the past on both personal and professional web projects I have always been conscious of the fact that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ when it comes to content technology implementations, regardless of whether or not there is a licence fee.

In the past, going the Open Source route has required a lot of personal investment of time and effort to get the results at reduced expenditure and if I was doing an accurate time/cost analysis then factoring in that time – both in office hours and home hours – would be the only way to make a fair comparison.

Luckily, total lack of budget coincided with the arrival of Drupal 7 and its greatly improved usability. It didn’t take long to recognise that a lot of time and effort had been lavished by the Drupal community on addressing the types of fundamental usability issues listed in the previous point.

To date, this has been the most tangible example I have seen where the Open Source approach trumps proprietary development because it is those fundamentals that often get de-prioritised in the race to add the latest and greatest functionality or respond to the latest fad or fashion.

5. Study the previous form to back a winner…

While Drupal 7 ticks a lot of content scenarios these days – as expressed in this earlier post – there are some acknowledged gaps while the community gets up to speed in redeveloping old modules for the new core. For me, the main one was a native e-commerce solution. I’d only played around the edges of Drupal 6 and Ubercart but liked what I saw. However, it became clear that the key people behind Ubercart had set their sights on bigger and better things.

Looking back through the history of Ubercart and its development community, as well as early efforts by third parties to get support and sponsorship for the development of Drupal Commerce, a native solution for Drupal 7, I got a sense that this had good momentum and felt confident that the team and community would deliver against the proposed milestones.

Needless to say that having had some involvement in software product/project management there are many things that can push such developments off course and I have seen a lot of examples of Open Source based developments that simply run out of steam when support drops away. Now at version 1.1 Drupal Commerce looks set to continue great progress in 2012 and I am looking forward to contributing in some small ways to making that happen.

6. Know your limitations and seek expert advice…

I like to think I’m a pretty capable person. I seem to be able to get to grips with a lot of things after some trial and error and I don’t give up that easily. However, there always comes a time when you have to weigh up how long it’s going to take you to do something versus seeking the input of those who are a lot more experienced.

I fall into the ‘power user’ category when it comes to implementing content technologies and although I know my way around HTML and CSS code at a pretty basic level as soon as things start getting vaguely more technical I break out in a cold sweat.

Suffice it to say, a day spent in the company of someone who understands Drupal from a developer perspective was a complete eye-opener and within just 30 minutes or so I had learned a couple of things that have transformed how I do things.

Why had I never considered using Firebug before? Duh !!! There was I wrestling with ever more complex CSS using ‘trial and error’ approaches rather than commonsense – now at least I know where the offending stylesheet code is located even if I have no idea what to change it too :)

7. Things you think will be hard turn out easier than expected …

One project I have been working on required the migration of content from Joomla to Drupal – or more specifically, to the Drupal Commerce product catalogue structure. It’s always best to over-estimate the amount of time any content migration is likely to take and not rely too much on automation or ‘easy-to-use’ migration tools.

However, with the excellent range of plug-in components available for Joomla and the development community already moving on quickly with Drupal Commerce add-ons I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to dump content and data from Joomla and import it into Drupal Commerce using the Feeds Module.

The bottom line is that you need to be prepared for less consistency and understand how the community works as there are very few lines of accountability compared to the proprietary development environment.

8. Things you think will be easy turn out harder than expected …

Drupal Commerce does some very smart stuff with the Drupal core views and rules capabilities which can make things like complex shipping and tax calculations a breeze (once you understand the logic). Therefore, I had rather assumed that being able to add a ‘gift wrapping’ option into the purchase and checkout process would also be a breeze. Hmm – sadly not …

I’ve since noticed reference made on December 28th 2011 to a sandbox project for this type of thing but coming 3 days after Christmas Day it was a bit late for last year but hopefully early enough for Xmas 2012 ;)

As above … The bottom line is that you need to be prepared for less consistency and understand how the community works as there are very few lines of accountability compared to the proprietary development environment.

9. If it looks like bullshit, smells like bullshit, guess what? …

Sometimes when you make observations based on a gut feeling you often question how much it is distorted by your own worldview.  However, when events substantiate those observations, then you feel somewhat vindicated. Such is the case with Alterian, a company that has pumped out more than its fair share of social media related hype over the last few years.

Personally I like to celebrate British innovation and competitiveness but the direction the bigger UK Content/Marketing Technologies companies have been going over the last few years has been disappointing. I am sad that my former Immediacy colleagues lost their jobs at a difficult time and concerned that the SDL acquisition moves look far more about profit imperative than product innovation.

As with Alterian’s social media and content management strategies, time will tell if the latest acquisition boosts the UK’s credibility in this field or opens it up to even greater Scandinavian dominance.

10. Twitter is a necessary evil …

Well – if you want to drive traffic to a blog it is.

It pains me to say this but I only have to take a fleeting glance at my blog or website stats to know the importance of Twitter. On the occasions I remember some of what I’ve learned about SEO then Google search can chuck a fair few visitors my way if I structure my headlines well – “Sitecore vs Drupal” has pulled in more visits than “predictions for 2020″ as a search phrase for example. However, Twitter referrals are double search engine ones even though I have only had a Twitter account for around one of the three years this blog has been running.

Sociologically I still think we are experiencing the early growing pains of ‘social media’ and there is still much good and bad to be experienced before we can say it has reached maturity. Until then, it is at turns unpredictable, delightful, useful, dangerous and damaging.

As I write this, Rupert Murdoch and (possibly) his wife are making a new year splash by venturing onto Twitter for the first time. Although given News Corp history with social media ventures I’m not sure quite how this endorsement should be interpreted and also, I’m not yet sure whether his wife’s account is genuine or a spoof yet? (but it is quite funny) I am also reading reports questioning who owns Twitter followers and Facebook contacts in work scenarios and how a whole bunch of police officers have got into trouble for using social media ‘inappropriately. I’m sure 2012 will give plenty more examples of the pros and cons of today’s ‘social media’ environments and hopefully we will learn from the bad ones to make the good ones even better :)

11. Everyone needs a milestone to aim for

I’ve spent most of my working life in project management roles striving to reach milestones set by others and/or setting them for others to work towards. So, when it came to getting my own venture off the ground I needed to put one in place for myself, otherwise I am sure I would procrastinate for months and fuss about trying to get everything ‘perfect’.

It seems appropriate therefore that my 11th lesson follows the theme I used as a stake in the ground for my venture into self-employment. On 11.11.11 I launched Webwiser, a consultancy operation that provides services based on the type of learning described above.

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