Monday, October 25, 2010...9:00 am

Six Laws of CMS: lessons from a web site launch

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As regular visitors may be aware, I spend a lot of time with web content management systems (CMS). Having spent some time involved in a biggish web site relaunch this year, I can now reliably draft some of the Laws of CMS that anyone in this field should expect to apply.

  • Law 1: It only exists when it’s live
    No matter how far in advance you distribute the URL for the test site so people can field test it to see if it has any problems, they will only really look at the site on the day that you go live. They will also not realise that the test site has real archive content in it. Prepare to get lots of emails saying “Something’s gone wrong with [X piece of content] – it’s suddenly got a typo”, when this is the same story that’s been on the old site for two months with the same errors in it.
  • Law 2: Nobody’s fault – but yours
    When something goes wrong, IT will blame web development and web development will blame IT. And everyone in the editorial office will blame you, because you work on CMS admin.
  • Law 3: No one has thought about selling the advertising
    Weirdly, because advertising actually makes the business press go round, no one in the ad department will have thought about how to organise the selling of online ads. There will be no scheduling tool to ensure no one books the same space at the same time; no one will have been given responsibility for coordinating the online ads, and no one will have consulted with web development about what formats work or not. As an added bonus, the tracking codes provided by the client for their banner ads may clash with the tracking codes used by the publisher. Trail fail.
  • Law 4: The production desk is the last to know
    There will be a comprehensive, jargon-filled document called something like a Statement of Requirements (SOR) which will, at some point in its depths, call for a complete change in the way the editorial production desk produces some of its output. At no point will anyone in web development or management call a meeting with the production team to discuss how these changes will affect their work. About three months down the line, production will get an irate email from some other department asking why [X piece of content] is not available in the correct format “as agreed in the SOR”.
  • Law 5: Things you want to change are always hard-coded – and vice versa
    Inevitably, templates will have unchangeable text, images and functionality in exactly the places you want to be able to edit, and will be a quagmire of freedom where you want rigid rules (leading, for example, to no restrictions on the size of a thumbnail image, which can throw a whole template out of whack).
  • Law 6: No matter how thoroughly you update your CMS, it will always be out of date
    Because many publishing companies have invested too much in a bespoke CMS that was written for them at the dawn of the internet, they are unable – or unwilling – to move to open-source CMS technology. This means they will take years to rework their clunky, unsuitable CMS for the latest web innovations (video, scheduling posts by time, not just day etc) – and once this has been done, it will take years to rework the CMS again. Meanwhile, you will work on WordPress or Drupal and weep…

[UPDATE: has observed that the Laws can actually be applied to any big technology project, and he offers a more positive spin on how to avoid their worst effects…]


  • I might add a ‘Law 7′:
    HIPPO (Highest Paid Persons’ Opinion) management will continually tell you the site doesn’t work and demand that you fix it. You will get sick of patiently explaining that this is because (s)he uses IE6, which isn’t supported by your brand new site – largely because only a tiny fraction of your audience uses IE6 any more and coding the whole site to work seamlessly in IE6 would have added days and days of coding work and thousands of £s to do.
    Naturally, your HIPPO will understand none of this and keep insisting that the site is broken.
    Repeat ad nauseam. Or at least, until you’ve given in and recoded the site to work in IE6. At vast expense.

  • More laws are most welcome – input please!

  • […] Freelance Unbound has some great laws, clearly learned the hard way, about… well, supposedly about website launches with new content management systems. But actually they can be generalised to be laws of almost any kind of big project with a strong technology element. Laws of physics? Laws of the land? Either way, you don’t need to take them lying down. Here are some suggestions about how to fight back… […]

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