WordPress, or roll-my-own cms?
May 12, 2016 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances in a particular career for whom operating WordPress as a user is just too overwhelming and complicated. Also, none of the themes or plugins I'm finding are actually geared to meet their industry's information presentation requirements. So do I learn WordPress theme and plugin development so I can wrestle it around to be what they need, or do I create my own lightweight CMS that does what they need while minimizing and simplifying the user backend?

Let me say at the outset that I understand creating a new CMS will be more work than I anticipate (even though I already anticipate it being more work than I anticipate).

I have a lot of friends in the same profession in the same industry who need websites. They are almost uniformly computer-phobic, and even basic WordPress back-end operations make their eyes glaze over. I'm talking about making a post and setting it to display in the right place, that's too complicated and fraught with options.

It's not that these people are unintelligent, it's just that they have obstacles that close their minds to learning these skills, it's just too overwhelming.

The audience these sites are intended to reach expects a standard set of information and media to be presented in a pretty straightforward way. There is no drive to innovate as far as the presentation of the desired info. In fact, widgets and gizmos that make websites Pop! with Excitement! are regarded as obstacles to the website's desired function and appear amateurish in this milieu.

I have found exactly zero themes, paid or free, that are designed specifically for this segment. Lists of "Top 10 Sites for [people in this career]" are always for some other type of pursuit, and while they superficially look like they have what's needed, they are really inadequate. The people putting those lists together are taking their best guess from the nearest similar-looking use case without understanding the nuts and bolts about what's required in this particular case. The customization options just don't seem to exist out-of-the-box to adapt them to this use-case's requirements.

Briefly, the websites needed are supposed to reach the people that will hire my friends to do the work, not the people who consume the work as end-users. The themes I've found are all geared toward reaching the consumer, not the people doing the hiring.

So to make WordPress work I'd have to create a custom theme and, I fear, at least three custom content plugins.

I've started developing custom themes a couple times in the past, but had to move on to paid work before they were finished. Now I don't really remember what I was doing in them and they're out of date anyway (that was back in the 3.x days). I used to work in web development but had a career change, and I haven't really kept up on the newest technologies or workflows. I'm pretty decent with PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, jQuery, css and HTML5.

If I develop a WordPress theme and plugins for this type of job category there are a lot of people who would find it useful, and it seems as though there's nothing developed specifically for this use-case. I could even make a little mailbox money off it. Even so, the whole issue of the backend being daunting for the users still exists (maybe there's a market for a Simplify My Backend plugin... or I could have a side career going around and providing training I suppose).

It just feels like I'd be doing a lot of cutting and welding to turn the Titanic into a tricycle.

So I'm torn between doing a WordPress thing and generating something new.

My development time is unfunded. My main goal in trying to solve this is so I can help my friends without having to manually update their sites for them. Money is a lower priority, although once the solution is developed it would be easy for it to serve a really large number of people. So if there's a big enough income-potential advantage to one path over the other, that will weigh in.

So... do I become more of a WordPress development expert than I ever wanted to be (and still have to overcome user obstacles to that system) or do I expend the effort coding something specific from scratch?

I suppose I could do some mockups, run a Kickstarter, use the money to hire a professional theme developer and then market the resulting theme... is that in any way realistic? I'm not a born capitalist.

PS - I've looked at Joomla and Drupal too. Same problems.
posted by under_petticoat_rule to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting problem. My instinct is to drag you away from attempting to develop a new CMS--solo, unpaid, for friends--as quickly as possible.

One concern is that, if your friends refuse (for any reason) to be trained on something as staid as the WordPress dashboard--and as long as they perceive you doing it for them as a fallback option--you will not successfully train them to use even the most streamlined, lightweight, and intuitive website backend.

I invite you to look at some other websites-for-the-tech-averse resources, such as SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, Shopify, or Jimdo. I invite you to offer over and over to teach your friends how to fish while politely refusing to fish for them.

There are so many interesting, rewarding, stimulating projects you could be giving your code brain to. And you can give no greater gift to your friends than self-sufficiency in this glorious technological age.
posted by AteYourLembas at 12:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

AteYourLembas has the right idea - you're digging yourself a scary pit to jump into offering to help like this when there's so many options available to them nowadays. Creating a custom CMS would be fun but also you'd be locked into supporting it for life - security updates, compatibility with newer web server/database/image handing libraries, et cetera... a nightmare.

If they really hate the idea of SquareSpace or Wix, I'd also recommend looking into a static site generator (jekyll is the most popular, though pelican or cactus might be worth looking at, too) - they're simpler and safer, but might require a bit more tech expertise than your friends have (though rolling your own deployment 'app' for them might satisfy your DIY urge, and would be a MUCH smaller and more feasible project than creating a custom CMS).
posted by destructive cactus at 1:01 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd try to get close by hacking the wp-admin CSS to hide things until they're ready for them. http://wordpress.stackexchange.com/questions/110895/adding-custom-stylesheet-to-wp-admin

Making your own CMS to make an interface simpler for your users is a special world of pain. I attempted to do this in the past with Rails. The problem is that they don't actually want a simpler interface, they just don't want to do anything (but don't want to pay for someone else to do things) and once they finally get in and use your interface, they'll start asking for things you haven't developed. Then, you're on the hook to make a bunch of features for free. Eventually, you *will* get to where you might as well have used Wordpress if they actually use the site. If they don't use the site (likely), you might as well have used Wordpress in that case too.
posted by michaelh at 1:39 PM on May 12, 2016 [13 favorites]

My development time is unfunded. My main goal in trying to solve this is so I can help my friends without having to manually update their sites for them.

Honestly, if it's worth doing, they should be willing to pay you. I don't expect my dentist friends to work on my teeth for free or the ones that do landscaping to come take care of my back yard.

If you write it yourself, you may find your friends and acquaintances expecting you to keep supporting it long after you lose interest. I generally try to avoid doing business with friends in general because if something goes wrong business-wise, the friendship can get strained or I'll put too much effort into something that's not worth it out of a sense of obligation. Be wary of albatrosses. Especially with computer-phobic people that will want hand holding without paying you for it.

A plug-in is something that's much easier to spin off as an open source project or to another developer than an entire CMS with a narrow market.

If all you're looking for is simple presentation of data in a plain way, I'm honestly at a loss as to what a plug-in and theme for Wordpress couldn't accomplish. Having developed an CMS, I can assure you that no matter how clever or simple you make publishing, non-computer types can still misunderstand the interface. If you stick with Wordpress, there's a ton of tutorials they can consult rather than pestering you for you help with a bespoke solution.
posted by Candleman at 1:39 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I used to use Word Press and really found it to be a drag. I moved to BlogSpot and I am much, much happier. I actually know some CSS and HTML, so I am not a totally non technical person, but I just wanted to publish stuff on the web, not futz with plug ins and updates and so on all the time. Bonus: you can, in fact, use CSS and HTML to do extra bits in BlogSpot, much more readily than I was able to use those skills to tweak things in Word Press.

I initially thought the templates for BlogSpot were like the templates for Word Press, but this is not so. In other words, I thought they were an inflexible package: You picked one and you were done. And I hated every last one of them. I thought they were all, without exception, rather hideous. But the reality is that they are a starting point and there is substantial room for moving things around the page, changing up colors and backgrounds and so on within a theme. You can do all of this with no coding knowledge. If you know some CSS and HTML, you can do custom bits (I have done this to add navigation to my web comics).

It might make more sense to spend some time learning about BlogSpot and find a good combo of theme and layout options, etc and then write a tutorial specifying the exact options that meet the requirements. Or help them set it up in person and then be done. After that, it is not much different from writing an email and it has native ability to add things like photos, a link to a map and other stuff without knowing any code or hassling with plug ins.

The one thing I have done on my sites a couple of times for which there was no native support was put up audio files. I had to find a free site supporting audio and find some html to encode it. That's it.

It is helpful to me that I know code. I pretty routinely tweak blog post formatting and what not because I know code. But it absolutely is not necessary. The blog posts have two view options, an html view and I think the other one is called "composition" or something like that. It has buttons for bolding, italics, etc. I often go into html view and futz with details, but you absolutely do not need to do that to publish things via BlogSpot.

Additionally, you can use whatever domain name you want. You do not have to use the BlogSpot.com extension. If you want it to look professional and totally remove the BlogSpot logo doohickie (in like the page tabs and stuff), that can be done. I haven't done it, but it can be done.
posted by Michele in California at 1:40 PM on May 12, 2016

I do this for a living...you should try the middle ground. Not an off-the-shelf CMS, not a roll-your-own. Give ProcessWire a shot, it's just a really simple to use API and it handles the content management for you out of the box. You bring the HTML. This made website building fun for me again.
posted by circular at 2:03 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're looking at this as a tool problem, your friends see this as a free labor problem. They won't learn Wordpress because they have someone that will update the content for free. You! It doesn't matter the cms. Now, charge them per hour to make any changes, and suddenly they'll be more keen to learn.

There are also a zillion Wordpress resources for learning. I'd stick to it just for that reason. There is probably at least one local club your friends could attend for Wordpress users. Lynda.com has tutorials; there are free ones on YouTube. There are for dummies books aplenty.

Which is why I'd say to stick with Wordpress.

Also for your time, see Fuck You, Pay Me.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:22 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Rolling your own CMS is definitely not the way to go here. It's not 100% clear if you're doing this for free or a steeply discounted rate because they're friends, but even if they're paying you something, this:
they just don't want to do anything (but don't want to pay for someone else to do things)
and this:
You're looking at this as a tool problem, your friends see this as a free labor problem. They won't learn Wordpress because they have someone that will update the content for free. You! It doesn't matter the cms. Now, charge them per hour to make any changes, and suddenly they'll be more keen to learn.
Cut right to the heart of the matter. Regardless of what tool you might select or build yourself, your friends are not going to bother to learn it as long as they can lean on you update their websites for them. If you're getting paid and if you don't mind making these updates for them, then the question is what tool you want to use to manage all this stuff. But if you're doing this for free as a favor, you're going to have a really hard time getting anyone to learn anything when there's no incentive for them not to just ask you to do it for them.

Anecdotally, I'm a web dev (mostly programming, but I've got some modest design chops too) in a company of very generally tech savvy software developers, and every time we try to re-do our web site in-house it turns into a complete quagmire because there is a tendency to overthink, overdesign and overengineer every single aspect of the site, because we're not on anybody's dime but our own. The last iteration was a little better because we brought in some outside help for design and architecture, but it was still just ridiculous. We have unanimously agreed that next time around we're just going to use Squarespace.
posted by usonian at 3:12 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

A. How long will your friends want to use this CMS?
B. How long will you be willing to maintain it?

If you can imagine a world in which A>B, you are doing your friends a disservice by saddling them with a one-off tool that will eventually break, leaving them with no recourse. My mom is in exactly this position right now: a friend of hers offered to build her a CMS from scratch (seeing it as sort of a portfolio piece for getting paying work). I warned her against it. This was 2-3 years ago. It broke a few months ago due to server changes, and the programmer has no interest in trying to resurrect it. He managed to extract some of the data from the database, which I am going to use to set her up with a Wordpress blog.

There are ways to strip down the WP interface for less sophisticated users. Go that route.
posted by adamrice at 4:19 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've done both. I have built a PHP/mySQL CMS with custom features (page view statistics, RSS feeds, custom forms and PDF-file output), and I have managed wordpress for myself and for a few clients.

My recommendation is to use the existing tool that others are building. WordPress is a great tool, and it's really not that hard to use (it makes sense to my mind, at least).
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:19 PM on May 12, 2016

I do this for a living too; except we tried to roll our own CMS in-house and it was such a nightmare to support that we eventually gave up and switched all our clients to a customized Wordpress implementation. Some wheels are just not worth reinventing.
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:26 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

is that in any way realistic?
I can't think of one compelling reason why people would pay money for you to develop a software for an extremely small niche when WordPress is literally given away and worked upon for free, especially given your own reporting of not completing previous development work.

Others have successfully pointed to the core issue here, which is not that these people are unwilling to learn, it's that you've made it too appealing for them not to.

The solution is not to roll your own CMS, which is literally reinventing the wheel, insecure, and will cause you nightmares and stress to no end. It's to get these people to internalize that learning WordPress is actually fun, easy, and saves them money. You can do this with a one-two punch of charging for updates from this point on, but offering a one-time low price (even $5, but seriously not free) class where you physically walk each person through the actions of using WordPress to publish a post, then refer them to the plethora of YouTube videos that exist showing exactly the steps they need to follow.

If, at this point, they're still not willing to lift a finger, I gently argue that these people don't value a website, and you are doing nothing more than burning your own candle down to the nub.

Learn to hide metaboxes and menu items from these users so as to make the Dashboard less scary, build a standard theme or child theme of Twenty-X (any that come with WordPress by default - these are regularly updated and truly free), use a limited set of proven, reliable plugins, custom code your own plugin to solve this niche's problem, voila.
posted by Meagan at 7:07 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't understand why the choice is Wordpress vs. your own CMS. There are a lot of other CMS options, such as Contentful, Perch, Pulse, Couch, Surreal, etc. Whether or not they would work for you is a different question.
posted by OCDan at 9:41 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

My brain works in a weird way, because I KNOW it will be easier if I go with WordPress but I lose interest if I'm not rolling my own CMS. Something to consider when making your decision. Good luck!
posted by santaglue at 10:59 PM on May 12, 2016

Seconding the suggestion that you look at smaller CMSs. I've had some very happy non-technical clients using Perch, and the Perch builders have blogged a lot about how they built it if you're interested in what kind of workload that involves.

Also nth-ing the suggestion that as long as you update their sites for free they will never learn any CMS you set up for them.
posted by harriet vane at 1:56 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Craft or MODx? Very customizable.

Include a sheet of clear instructions for your clients on navigating the CMS. Build a few hours of follow-up help into the contract. Then set an hourly rate for future work. They'll learn to update it.
posted by fritillary at 4:40 AM on May 14, 2016

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