XMess Xample for 2003

click here to see a 60k image of Christmas decorations gone bad For those of you reading this site via an aggregator, you might want to visit the visual example I’m providing my graphic-enabled browser equipped friends. It is a picture of a house in my neighborhood that goes a bit hog-wild when it comes to holiday decorations. And we’re not just talking Christmas, as you can see from an article I penned this past Easter entitled “Just Because You Can, Part 3.”

The point is, even though we’ve made great strides in creating a more usable and accessible Church online, there are still thousands of church and charity websites that offer the online equivalent of these over zealous neighbors. That is, they get so caught up in how things look that the message tends to get lost.

For example, check out the 60kb picture in all it’s glory, I’ll wait … Did you see the manger? It’s there, it’s just impossible to see among the four large inflatable snowmen, Santa Claus and Snoopy on his Dog house, candy canes, snowflakes hanging from trees and enough lights to illuminate all of Elizabeth City, New Jersey.

So it is with church websites that feel the need to include spinning animated crosses, splash pages, flash-based splash pages, flash-based navigation, animated marquees, page swipes, dhtml snowflakes drifting down the screen, pop-ups, pop-unders, cursed cursor trailers, disabled right-click, everything centered in eight bright colors using ten different fonts, all in bold.

Don’t do this. Yes they effects are all cool … for about the first five seconds, after that, they tend to drive your users away.

“Never have Christians tried to be so relevant. But never have Christians ended up so irrelevant. How can this be?” – Os Guinness, “Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance

So with that in mind, let us resolve this next year to heal our church and charity websites of these encumberances as we keep our eyes on the prize …

… and with that, I want to wish all of you a very happy new year. 2003 has been great, in no small part because of the many of you who have participated in this little project. Thank you, and God Bless!

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Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2003 #6 through 10 Explained

IMHO, Items 6 through 10 of Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2003 are written proof that users should not confuse web design with sex. What do I mean by that? While these issues might seem nitpicking at first read, between the lines, they make two very important points that those of us creating and maintaining church websites.

First is a point Nielsen asserts himself at the end of the top ten list when he writes:

“Many of this year’s top design mistakes actually indicate a happy phenomenon: we are making progress in Web usability.”

Proof of this at the church website level can be found in my critique of the “Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI.” A site so well designed by Mike Boyink that most, if not all my criticisms had more to do with “tweaking towards perfection” as opposed to discussing basic blunders (of which there were none I could find on his site).

The second point, and this one should scare those of you digging in your heels over issues of usability and accessibility, is that users are indeed purpose driven. That is they don’t want to be put in the mood. They don’t want their church website to mimic TV, Movies or Video Games. They don’t even really care if the church website looks or feels like a church. What they want and expect is their data. NOW!

Proof of this are woven throughout points 6 through 10 of Nielsen’s 2003 list. Not convinced? Well perhaps you’ll see things differently if I explain his points as they relate to church and charity websites:

6. No “What-If” Support

“Comparing and choosing between alternatives is the basis for most critical Web tasks, yet most websites don’t support users who want to consider alternatives.”

The issue here is helping the user to obtain the exact result they’re looking for, instead of a ‘near-enough’ result. Nielsen offers some good examples, all related to e-commerce. I’d suggest reading them if you’re selling books, prayer cloths, snake-oil or other fun stuff. For the rest of us, here are a few more examples to think about anytime you seek user input, especially where the result isn’t as simple as buying bottle of Jan Crouch Tear-Proof Mascara (it only comes in one color – coals of satan black):

The first example that comes to mind is one inspired by deficiencies I’ve encountered with the search feature at the Redland Baptist Sermons archive. Does your search feature allow you to search against subsets? Can your site generate new searches based upon the abstract of a particular sermon, or in English, does it provide a “Similar pages” search a-la-Google? Better yet, can your website display the search results in a comparative fashion? Yeah, neither does mine.

Another variation would be any not-so-simple input where several options are involved. This could include the use of online forms to take donations, establish reservations or even to communicate information to some parties, but not others. Basically, anything online that requires a sequence of input forms and/or has any sort of decision logic that determines the end results. Based on my own 20 years experience as a programmer, I would strongly suggest walking through any such process on paper first, simplifying it, and then testing the new process on paper until perfect before a single line of code is written.

Finally, I might add as a postscript to Nielsen’s points is that mistakes happen, and the thought that you can’t please all the people all of the time. For the first, assume the user will make mistakes using online forms and provide them options to recover. Second, and of greater importance to those of us running church and charity websites, provide a point of human contact if a user cannot obtain get their desired result online.

7. Long Lists that Can’t Be Winnowed by Attributes

“One of the main usability guidelines for category pages is to let users winnow items according to attributes of interest. To “winnow” a list basically means to filter out elements that don’t meet specified criteria, leaving a shorter list that’s easier to manage and understand.”

The above can be accomplished with navigation that is based on a realistic and reasonable outline of the data and/or services your site is offering.

All too often, I’ve visited a church website that has 20 or 30 menu options strewn along the left column. Don’t get me wrong, this is so much better than one long page that tries to include everything under the sun, but what would be better is to provide sub-categories. A good example of this can be found on the “About Us” page at the aforementioned Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI.

Again, the trick here is to think through your informational architecture, from the user’s perspective, before you write a single line of code. Whether dealing with sermons, snake-oil or staff pages, this will give your users to quickly ‘winnow’ down to the level of information they want and need.

8. Products Sorted Only by Brand

“Sites that offer many items ought to provide winnowing and sorting, which is a highly useful way to deal with lists and is fortunately fairly common. Unfortunately, many sites only let users sort items by brand.” [emphasis mine]

This comes under the category of “I’ll know it when I see it.” Imagine a Sunday School teacher who already has in mind what they’re teaching and what they need fill in the blanks, but haven’t a clue as to whether or not your sermons archives can provide them with the information needed to get the job done

So while the Redland page lists sermons by category (provided the sermon is part of a series), it would probably be incredibly helpful if I offered a provision to sort the selection by related scripture, by time of year, by topical keywords. Of course, if I built this in, I could then allow a user to ‘winnow’ down to the sermon they need (see point #7).

9. Overly Restrictive Form Entry

“Put the burden on the computer, not the human …”

Amen! For example, taking phone numbers for an event registration, use regular expressions to validate the phone number so you can accommodate parentheses, decimal points and other errant punctuation.

Another beef I have along a similar line are those entry forms that first require you to register. If the user isn’t registered, then build it into the process instead of abruptly whisking them to another set of forms. I realize this means more programming and worse, more sitting down and thinking through the user experience from their perspective.

10. Pages That Link to Themselves

Kinda hard to put up a big fight over this one. When possible, do it. If you’re a programmer geek type, definitely do it, especially if you’re using a server-side scripting language to render your pages.

Why? Users get confused and/or annoyed. When they get confused they go away. When they get annoyed, they go away mad. When they leave your site, they don’t visit your church. When they don’t visit your church, they don’t put money in the collection plate. When they don’t put money in the collection plate, your church folds because it can’t pay the rent. When your church folds, you severely limit your collective ability to share the Good News.

One other thought

You’ll notice that for several of these points, I suggest sitting down and thinking through your information. I realize this makes web design more like programming and less like an art project, but so long as users are task-oriented in nature, then you need to be servant-hearted in response.

The best way to do this is to think before you code. Or as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:26:

“Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.”
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Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2003 #1 through 5 Explained

Jakob Nielsen, arguably the godfather of online usability, yesterday announced the “Top 10 Web Design Mistakes for 2003.” I don’t necessarily agree that all ten issues are the primary issues facing what I sometimes jokingly refer to as “the great cloud of witlessness that is the Church online“, but I do think each of items enumerated in the article deserve discussion. Below are issues #1 through #5, as they are practically applied those of us creating and maintaining church and/or charity websites.

1. Unclear Statement of Purpose

“Many companies, particularly in the high tech industry, use vague or generic language to describe their purpose.”

We’ve discussed personality and purpose, often. I personally think the every element on the website should contribute to this message, otherwise it should be removed. That said, we can immediately apply this first point by taking a hard, cold, objective look at those ubiquitous mission statements that often wind up on the home pages or worse, the (unnecessary) splash pages of oh so many church web sites.

2. New URLs for Archived Content

“Archives add substantial value to a site with very little extra effort … Changing the URL when archiving content causes linkrot.”

Not much to add to this point other than to direct you to two articles I’ve penned in the past that offer technical solutions to healing your church or charity website of linkrot.

3. Undated Content

“Without dates on articles, press releases, and other content, users have no idea whether the information is current or obsolete”

We haven’t discussed this issue here, but perhaps we should. Especially those of us using content managlment and/or blogging systems to maintain our sites. Certainly, we should date events, programs, sermons and what-have-you. My question (heads-up, this means I’m asking YOU for comments) what about “About Us” or “Meet our Staff” type pages? Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea.

4. Small Thumbnail Images of Big, Detailed Photos

“… websites typically produce small images by simply scaling down bigger images. If an original photo has a lot of intricate detail, the thumbnail is often incomprehensible.”

They say a picture is worth 1000 words, so allow me to demonstrate what is meant by preserving context through “cropping”:

thumbnail example using resize only   thumbnail of imaged cropped, then resized

Which of the above thumbnails gives you a better visual clue of about the subject matter of the larger images behind the hyperlinks?

5. Overly detailed ALT Text

“The (IMAGE ALT) text should describe the image’s meaning for the interaction and what users need to know about the image to use the site most effectively. There is no need to describe irrelevant visual details.”

No argument here, though honestly, I still find most church websites are behind the curve when it comes to using the ALT attribute of their <IMG> tag, as I discussed back in April in my post entitled “A More Elite Image Rendering.”

a bit off the topic …

It’s Christmas Eve, so if I don’t get around to points #6 through #10 until Friday, let me wish each and everyone of you a very blessed Christmas. You can make mine by discussing the above issues; as I treasure your input as one treasures Christmas cards from a good friend.

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First Baptist Church of Frederick, Last in Usability

UPDATE – 04feb04 – The site originally reviewed (see Wayback Machine Archive) has since been healed. Good work!

Macromedia’s Flash is like any other power tool, like let’s say chain saw. The latter is very useful for cutting down trees, but not ideal for hammering in a nail. For that, I would suggest a hammer, though I have to admit to using in the past a rock, the heel of a shoe, the butt end of my Makita Power Drill and a few other items that were handy and expedient at the moment … and items that later required I eventually go back to my work bench and get the hammer to do the job right.

That’s how I feel about websites that are rendered entirely in Flash. Take for example First Baptist Church of Frederick, MD (FBCF). I know some the people who lead this church, the pastor, then a student, having leaded me through the Roman Roads in of all places, a public high school cafeteria. Yeah, I’m such a rebel, but I digress.

The point is, I know some of the leadership and members at FBCF and know they are bright, faithful and servant-hearted. Unfortunately, their website fails to reflect this. Ignoring Macromedia’s Top 10 Usability Tips for Flash Web Sites, the FBCF home page immediately conveys the message that you are a servant to the technology, instead of the technology serving you.

Even their HTML version of their page is a slave to the Flash inspired layout and navigation, which by most standards is noisy and confusing and obviously doesn’t index well with any search engine I’m aware of.

In other words, once again we have a website chock full of compelling content hiding it’s light under a bushel because the individuals designing the site did not approach the design from the vantage point that web users are highly purpose-driven and technologies that interfere with their purposes should be set aside. This is not just my opinion, but that of e-Vangelism expert Andrew Careaga, the godfather of usability, Jakob Nielsen, and usability guru and all-around-great-guy, Vincent Flanders … to name just a few.

My suggestion to the good folks at First Baptist Church of Frederick is to:

  • Read up on the subject of usable and accessible web design. My suggestions are:
  • Sit down and reconsider the goals of their website. What human aspects FBCF makes them unique to their community?
  • Once they’ve defined their purpose and personality, then they should create, on paper, a hierarchical outline of their content that goes no deeper then three levels.
  • The web design team should peruse successful sites, church or otherwise, and see how they render their information so that is both user and search engine friendly.
  • They should also consider a more conventional navigation scheme, not because every site should look alike, but because users are goal oriented and such conventions help them find what they need quickly and efficiently

Personally, I’d ditch the use of Flash (chain saw) for navigation altogether. Reserve that for their video presentation, which users have the option of viewing, instead of having the viewing thrust upon them. That said, if they are going to use Flash as their primary design tool, then learn how to detect whether or not a browser is Flash enabled and direct them to the HTML version of the site automatically.

If this is too much in the way of time and talent, then there are simpler solutions such as those employed by Frank Ramage, whom after reading a review of his website last year, quickly healed his church website by purchasing a template for $50 and plugged-in his compelling content using FrontPage.

Similar healings have occured at other churches by putting to good use any one of a variety commercial and/or free content management solutions.

Again, the people at First Baptist Church of Frederick are good folks; unfortunately, they’ve confused the medium of the Web with TV or perhaps even video games. Such coolness only distracts from the furtive ministry I know they already have.

What about you. What constructive criticisms or suggestions would you offer to the webservant of the First Baptist Church of Frederick, MD website?

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pop2blog : Blogging by Email

Here are a couple of hacks that might be of interest to those of us who have created low end Content Management Systems for our church and/or charity websites by extending off-the-shelf blogging or publishing systems such as MovableType and/or pMachine; pop2blog.

pop2blog checks a given pop3 email account for email from a particular list of allowed senders. When email is found, pop2blog parses the email for text and embedded jpegs posts an entry depending on the combination of text to image. Hat tip to Gadgetopia for the link.

mail2entry, the inspiration and basis for pop2blog, is a simpler script to convert email into MovableType entries.

Why bother you ask? How about this scenario, a youth mission trip? Here your youth pastor, equipped with a camera equipped cell phone could update their site remotely with text and images of what’s going on while they’re in the field.

Not good enough? Okay, let’s say a men’s paintball fellowship has a sudden change in time, location or conditions. While it would be optimal to call these individuals, you might not have all their numbers handy. However, if you have previously directed them to an event page, that might also be (automatically) rendered in WML, so participants could keep abreast of such last-minute changes from home or on the road.

Personally, I’ve thought about writing a similar yet simpler application that uses a dedicated email (as opposed to polling with cron) address that triggers a simple piece of code that calls BloggerAPI and creates or updates an entry. The real trick will be giving the user this variety of options, while working within the framework of a standard pop email format, securely.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Is there a wheel out there already that I’m about to re-invent? If so, leave a comment.

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Shouting Fire : or reserving Alert-like font colors and weights for actual emergencies

Back in June of 2002, I developed the criteria by which I review a church presence on this website. Somewhere buried within the “Look-n-Feel” section of my 88 Theses, I posed the question:

Does the information avoid the use of fire engine red, unless it is announcing an absolute, cataclysmic emergency?

Yesterday morning, I received a call that church services were canceled due to snow and ice, but that the cantata slated for later that evening would proceed as scheduled. No problem. I have inserted on the front pages for the main, music and youth websites a PHP include directive that looked something like this:

<?php include(“/home/yoursite/public_html/includes/alertbox.inc.php”); ?>

What this allows me to do is change one data file and presto, the alert box appears just below the sub-title of the center column on each site without having to recode, rebuild or re-engineer any of the pages that include the above snippet. In part because I’ve encapsulate the alert using the following custom CSS tag I’ve included in each sites style sheets:

.alert {
    border: 1px solid #990000;
    background: #FFFFCC;
    color: #990000;
    font: bold x-large;
    text-align: center;
}

That said, what makes this alert all the more effective is that I reserve the use of bold red text on a faded yellow background for those instances where the utmost urgency is required.

Which is why I would suggest to you to carefully consider the which font colors and font weights you choose to represent everyday data. Shouting too much will only cause your readers to ignore that which is truly important.

Let me put it another way. As some of you know, I’m a professionally trained opera singer. I have a really huge and loud voice. When I was a know-it-all high school kid, I proceeded under the misapprehension that loud singing equated to good singing. It wasn’t until my voice teacher in college explained to me that forte passages (a musical term for loud) was an effective means of adding dramatic intensity … but ONLY if it is surrounded it with piano phrasing (a term for singing not-so-loudly).

In other words, singing loud all the time is akin to crying wolf all the time. People begin to tune you out.

So too it is with your choice of font colors and weights. If you select a bold red theme and use bold red colors all the time, like say Liberty Baptist Church of Salt Lake City then you might find you’ve painted yourself into a corner with your color scheme. That is, your every day text appears to be yelling at your readers all the time.

My suggestion? Purpose-driven user testing. Have a set of goals, one of which is to see if users can find ‘urgent’ events after reading your page for about five minutes. Don’t tell them how the site works or what it is you’re really after. Just let them muddle through and see what happens. I guarantee, you might be shocked and awed at what they do.

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The Heal Your Church WebSite Redesign

Here’s an invitation to those of you using aggregators such as FeedDemon to come check out the redesigned Heal Your Church Web Site. What’s new you ask?

First, we upgraded from MovableType 2.21 to 2.64. With this comes a host of not-so-new-to-you features such as TrackBacks, the Search Engine, extended plug-in capabilities, XHTML/CSS compliance and a host of other goodies you can read about over at the MT Key Features page. The upgrade instructions are pretty straight-forward, though I might augment it with an example of how to backup the database and then tar and gzip the entire site. For example, from the bash shell via putty/SSH:

mysqldump -uUSER -pPSSWD -opt DBNAME > $HOME/08dec03.sql
tar -zcvf $HOME/08dec03.tar.gz $HOME/www/cgi-bin/mt $HOME/www/archives $HOME/www/images $HOME/www/docs $HOME/08dec03.sql index.shtml site-style.css

Of course, all this assumes you installed MT in a similar fashion to that described in my post entitled “Moving MovableType.”

After the backup, then you merely follow the directions to convert the database, delete the upgrade files and you’re ready to rock, unless of course you need to entirely re-write your templates, which is what I had to do first, because I used my own template tags in the original version, second, there were big changes between 2.21 and 2.64, including new template tags that allow you to things like rename MT-comments.cgi. Gotta keep them spammers on their toes you know.

Because I didn’t want to go through too much of this again, I decided to import as little template code from my old site and to use as much of the default MovableType templates as possible. Doing this would allow me to dive right into an XHTML compliant, tableless, CSS-driven design. This in turn would help in the future when MT is upgraded, or when I decide to change skins.

Two of the things I wanted to change visually were the header and the hyperlinks, especially the later with regards to color selection. There were also so font-size issues and recently, some complaints from users of the Mac-based Safari browser.

Being partial to blue, I thought I could establish the theme with a simple picture of a steeple in the upper left-hand corner. Problem was the height, and often dark and always sharp angular aspect of a steeple. Fortunately, going back to my Greek Orthodox roots, I obtained a nice picture of a church off the Isle of Minos. The off-white stucco against an azure blue background gave me the basis for color template I wanted.

I also wanted to make the header a bit less crowded, that is, while we all like the “random pithy rotatoe-slogan,” it colluded the purpose and personality of the site. By putting your catchy catch phrases in a navy blue bar below the Carolina Blue header, I was able to provide a clearer header and still have some fun. BTW, I’m always in the mood for notable quotables … it’s a fun way to get your site linked, but I digress.

Header aside, I didn’t quite like the default layout of posts. Usually, I write a post late at night, then post it early in the morning; one per day. So there is really no need to lead off with a large bold <h2> encapsulated date headers. Instead, I moved the date below the latest article, giving it less prominence. I hyperlinked the title of the post, added a link graphic for clarification and made it all-caps via CSS. There is now no question where posts begin and end.

One of the other things I decided to do was to only show the full article for the last three posts, followed by excerpts of the next eight. This is because the majority of those of you visiting my front page are regular readers, and don’t really need gobs and gobs of bandwidth consumed by articles you’ve already read.

In both full-length articles, and excerpts, I made the unvisited hyperlinks blue with a solid underline, while sites that are visited take on an “almost normal” normal text shade of gray and sport a dotted underline. This way, you know a hyperlink when you see it, and you know if it’s something you’ve seen before.

Then I went to work on the sidebars. I use my sidebars a bit differently than most bloggers, I don’t do the whole blogroll thing because I’ve got this huge list of links called blogs4God that consumes enough of my time. That and I want to use the sidebar to reveal earlier compelling content you may have missed. So first, the search engine, near the top where Jakob Nielsen likes it. Right below that, a drop-down menu for those who like to browse by monthly archives. I’m not a big fan of drop-downs, but the list was just getting too long to render any other way.

I then highlight tools you might find helpful, after all, this site is about serving your needs. Then examples of my work, so you can see if it’s worth practicing what I preach. Then I offer links to each category, each listing three of the most recent posts in that category. Since I didn’t underline the category hyperlink, I put an arrow icon next to it, hoping most users will take the visual clue. Don’t worry, those without graphics will see it as a link right away.

I still have some juxtapositioning to do there. I’ll probably move reviews of other sites up to the top. A bit of Rev’fun, the Verse of the Day, some credits, then finally some administrivia and contact information. Speaking of contact information, notice my obfuscated email address, it contains the current date, which changes every day using Server Side Includes. This way if a spammer manages to get ahold of one, I can kill it off so it doesn’t land in my catch-all email address with other date-generated email addresses.

Then there was the issue of Validation. I figured if this re-designed site didn’t at least validate on day one, I’d never hear the end of it. Aside form a few gafs on my part, most of the problems I encountered were due to changes in the International Bible Society’s Verse of the Day feed. This meant modifying VerseScrape. Expect version 0.3 sometime early next week, I want to see if I can put some code in there that will email me when their format changes.

Another thing that got in the way of validation was the ExtremeTracker, which I’m going to punt once I render the pages in the server-side scripting languge (.php) instead using server side includes (.shtml). I can then take my own advice and implement Ezboo, which I’m successfully using at some other sites I’ve recently designed.

After all the front-page template modifications were complete, it was a matter of getting portions the above changes to work for the comment system, the various archive templates and so-on.

There is still much work to do. I’m still not entirely happy about my sidebar. That and there are some other things I want to experiment with, like the way Deane Barker implements Google AdSense on Gadetopia. As I said just a paragraph or two ago, I want to render the pages using PHP. There are plug-ins I want to write and/or fix. I definately need to add MiraclePrint. I want to add the ability to post by email. Macros to catch and tag acronyms. I want to crontab a smart scheduler. And I’m still not so sure I don’t like the MT search better than the PerlFect Search Engine.

That said, look around, find bugs, snafus, whoopsies and other irritations. Don’t be shy, leave a comment, I’ll only pretend it doesn’t hurt my feelings.

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CSS Creator, more than just a cool CSS generation tool

I’m always pleased when I can turn you web guys-n-gals onto a tool that helps you get a running start at a coding project. For example, I’ve enjoyed several grateful comments every time I list the Layout-o-Matic website. With that in mind, I was delighted to find the other night yet another set of online CSS generation tool aptly named the CSS Creator.

The stated purpose of the CSS Creator website is a place for you to learn about and create CSS, Cascading Style Sheets.

And learn you can, along with a nifty online, form-based CSS (tableless) layout generator, the site offers all the source you need to implement what are known as “Suckerfish Dropdowns,” or easy-to-implement multi-level menus that use little more than unordered lists, some CSS and some javascript.

Got questions? No problem, this site also offers a free CSS Forum where you can talk about CSS, ask questions, find solutions and help each other with daunting issues such as page layouts, positioning, bugs and just about anything related to cascading style sheets.

Don’t forget to come back here and leave a comment if you find this site useful, or better yet, find yourself implementing the generated code on your church or charity website.

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Perls of wisdom in a sea of site mismanagement

I received the following ‘love note’ from Scott Christensen, webmaster at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Madison, WI where he asks:

SUBJECT: What’s the big deal with CMS?

BODY:I have been reading your blog for awhile now and have seen you touting CMS solutions as the best thing since sliced bread, so I thought, “Hey, what the heck. I’ll look into them for our church’s website.” So, for the past couple of months I have been digging left and right comparing different CMS apps and have basically come to the conclusion that I don’t get it. It seems that most of the stuff a CMS does, I could do with FrontPage or DreamWeaver and an FTP client. There are a few useful things that I have seen such as calendar plugins or to a somewhat lesser extent, polls, but it seems that in general there’s less to a CMS than meets the eye. Can you shed some light on this? I mean, what’s the big deal?

Straight-up and to-the-point, just the way I like it. Thanks Scott! But I do need to make a minor clarification. While I am in favor of using Content Manglement Systems (CMS) to create and maintain church websites, it’s not because I think they’re “the best thing since sliced bread” but because having worked with a variety of church staff and laypersons, I can tell you that an online, form-based approach that handles most if not all of the formatting, image uploads, etc… is easier for the user than teaching one of these persons the finer points about DreamWeaver, FTP, HTML and a host of other nicke-n-dime tasks.

That said, Scott has a great point. If you are a church-going code-monkey, why enslave yourself with more software than you need? A sentiment expressed in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled “Perls of wisdom in a sea of site mismanagement.” Here, David Walker, the author expresses a real concern any webmaster should consider when implementing a content mangement system when he writes:

One simple theme runs through much of the commentary about website management over the past five years – all the complications should be automated away. The goal of this approach is a single platform that controls websites, their content and applications, and that works like Microsoft Excel. You open it when you want to do something, close it when you’re finished, and never worry about it …

… The great surprise of the past five years of content management is that, despite all the hundreds of systems, no clear winners have emerged. Instead, there’s a growing dissatisfaction with the ongoing technical burden that such systems impose.

Some influential voices are starting to argue that many sites should, in effect, wait out this immature phase of website management. For the moment, they should content themselves with limited automation.

Let me translate that into plain English. This article describes exactly what happens with small organizations, such as a church and charity where one becomes an employee of the CMS, as opposed to the latter being employed by the former.

In fact, it is very this very same reason I strongly urge those using FrontPage to buy a template. It’s a learning curve thing. If a user can enter an order at Amazon or eBay, then they can certainly use a blogging tool that has been smithed into a CMS such as pMachine. This is why some others of you have left comments to consider developing a site with DreamWeaver and maintain it with Contribute.

And this is the reason I’ve opted to go “Beyond the Blog” and take a relatively simple but extensible publishing tool such as MovableType, and smith it into a CMS backend, then given my users a client tool such as w.Bloggar to quickly post and/or edit entries on my church’s website.

All of which leads me to my answer to Scott with a quote from an article I wrote this past August entitled ‘Content Manglement, Open and Shut Cases:’ “… you should NEVER, NEVER, EVER, EVER select a software application until you have at least performed some form of needs analysis.

In other words, while I say nice things about blogging and CMS applictions, please don’t get the impression that one size fits all. It doesn’t.

Hat tip to James Robertson Column Two blog via Simon Willison’s Weblog for the article link.

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(un)Holy Church of Spam

I woke-up in the middle of the night and figured I might as well deal with the slew of spam that for some reason, always occurs late on Saturday nights, when most abuse administrators have the day or evening off. SpamAssassin had slain several pitches for viagra, teen sex, breast enlargement and other stuff that really don’t interest me. MailWasher dealt with a bunch more, forwarding them to SpamCop. Still, a few managed to get through … and three of which were from Christians.

Keep in mind, I’m not skwalking about those bogus Nigerian 419 scam-like pleas I mentioned about a week or two ago on blogs4God. Nor am I describing those presumptious spam-evangelists that Rachel Cunliffe recently railed about. No, I’m talking real live, bona-fide, just like the guy sitting in the pew next to you Christians. And that bothers me.

For example, last night, one well-intentioned individual manually clicked on each and every one of the obfuscated and javascript-only email addresses on the contacts page at Redland, individually sending each and everyone of us a sales pitch for his book, in the process using the domain name of his ISP to advertise the domain of his website; even though act is outside the third party’s (the ISP) stated terms of use (permission).

When I complained directly to him about the spam, I got a terse “Sorry, God bless you” brush-off. It wasn’t until I replied with something to the effect “Do you realize how illegal this is? Give me one reason I shouldn’t report this to your service provider, at abuse@localhost?” (note – the email address has been changed for purposes of this article). To which I received a lengthier apology, where the individual informed me that they didn’t realize their action was spam.

And therein lies part of the problem. For every page that offers a definition of spam, there is a different definition. A problem cited by several sources, including Wired Magazine’s article “Spam: Much Hated, Little Defined” or the Pew Internet Project’s recent report entitled “ How it is hurting email and degrading life on the Internet.”

Even when defined by the local authorities, it can be ubiquitous at best. For example, Redland Baptist Church operates out of Rockville, Maryland, so here is how spam is defined by the State of Maryland, and governs those who would indiscriminately send the exact same message to multiple recipients, either one at a time or in bulk:

Under a Maryland law enacted in May 2002, it is illegal to send a commercial e-mail message that uses a third party’s domain name without permission; that contains false or missing routing information; or with a false or misleading subject line. The law applies if a message is sent from within Maryland; if the sender knows that the recipient is a Maryland resident; or if the registrant of the domain name contained in the recipient’s address will confirm upon request that the recipient is a Maryland resident.

Confusing yes? This is why I remedy any ambigiuities wrought by such legalease by CLEARLY STATING on both on the Redland Contacts Page and the RBC Terms of Use pageDo not use data from this site for unsolicited e-mail marketing;” which to my non-binding layman’s knowledge of the law, is legally binding.

Still, some Christians seem to think that because they’re doing God’s work, that it is okay. That they can disobey the printed and conspicious terms of use by their own hosting companies. Or worse, ignore outright the terms of use and/or desires stated on a church website such as Redland’s.

Folks, as Chrisitians, not only are we NOT above the law, but are called to live by a higher standard. It is for this reason, I am imploring my Christian brothers and sisters to stop marketing via unsolicited commercial email. Not only is it ineffective and amateurish, it is illegal, unethical and abusive.

Abusive? Yes. Redland pays good money for it’s Internet access. Why then should someone with a book, video, CD, lecture series or what-have-you be allowed to advertise on Redland’s nickle? Especially when some of that spam consumes Redlands monthly disk and bandwidth and/or requires that I take my valuable time out of publishing my pastor’s sermons to clean up the spammer’s mess? I mean isn’t taking something that doesn’t belong to you stealing?

The bottom line is this, if you want to sell something, spend the money to do it right. Sending unsolicited emails to people you don’t know to sell a product may seem cost-effective and expedient, but only up until your sin finds you out … and you find that you’re ISP and/or web host shuts you down. In the interim, it gives the World something to point their finger at us and say “see!?”

Here, I’ll make it even easier for you with a cute little jingle .. “when in doubt, don’t send it out.

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