Website updates – you really must do them

Website updates: do them or pay someone but do them

Website updates don’t follow the logic a lot of us inherit from the era of software updates that arrived in the mail on a disc of some kind.

Before there ever was broad public access to the internet, going forever without updating your software was a  point of pride for most people who did a lot of computer-driven communications work.

Or it was a mark of world weary wisdom because we’d arrived at the point where we knew that the X.0 release of anything was going to suck rocks. We’d wait. Until X.1 or .2.

The updates were expensive, disorienting, and if they did cause a problem, the solution could be months away.

So trying to get a personal best time and distance between updates made sense.

But you cannot transpose that logic onto your web application.

Because your web application — be it WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or any number of others out there — is not safe and sound in your office.

It’s on a computer on the internet which is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of leaving it on the counter in an all-night convenience store off a freeway where the counter clerk is asleep.  Only worse. Because unlike the convenience store, your server gets all the traffic in the world coming through it.

And unlike your computer, which accepts input only from a keyboard, your website is on a server, which accepts input from anywhere. By definition.

But I don’t have anything important on my site

Maybe not credit card numbers, bank account information or medical histories, but you have your reputation and/or your brand. And if someone gains unauthorized access to your site and starts abusing it (which it almost goes without saying they will) these will suffer.

You will have to apologize to clients, prospects and anyone who was coming to your site for any reason about the fact that your site was hacked. You will have to insist that your inability to maintain a website has nothing to do with your competence generally.

And you will lose time. Possibly weeks. You will be restoring your site from backup or recreating it if you didn’t have a backup. You’ll be trying to track down the vulnerability and check the whole attack path to determine if the attacker left any other back doors or malware that might allow them back in. You will be visiting all the security websites to ask that your site be removed from whatever spam or phishing blacklist you’ve been put on.

Or you’ll be paying a security consultant or company at overtime rates to do all of the above.

But no one would want to hack my website — I’m not the CIA/Microsoft

You’re assuming that the hackers are actually human. And you’re mistaking media coverage of famous hacks for what happens in everyday life on the internet.

Most website break-ins are perpetrated by robots which scan the internet for sites that might be vulnerable. They find a site that has the vulnerable application, run the exploit against it, and, if they succeed, install the malware and get straight to work. At some point some human put this process into play and will be interested in the results, but they have no idea who you are, what you do or what a nice person you are.

They’re not interested in defacing your site to show how cool they are or to denounce you for being a tool of the capitalist class or whatever. They want your site as a platform to send spam, serve porn, collect passwords or phish other data from unsuspecting visitors. And for that, one site is as good as the next.

What if I don’t have time to do all this?

Self-hosted websites do indeed take time and expertise to run smoothly. The skill required to apply updates, do backups, and tweak performance can be acquired if you have a bit of time and some curiosity. But if you don’t you can get someone, like me for example, to do it for you. For a small site it’s generally about an hour a month. Plus you get my advice on improvements, best practices and life in general. A bargain at twice the price, really.

Or you can move your site to a software-as-service setup like or Wix, or Weebly where the service itself looks after security, updates and backups. The monthly hosting cost ends up a bit higher, and it may limit the sorts of things you can do with the site, but if you can fit within those constraints and aren’t bothered by an extra $10-20 per month, it might be your best bet. That will be cheaper than paying me or someone like me.

Content strategy rethink – I don’t design like I used to either

Content strategy

My first ever content strategy happened in about 2000. I had this crazy idea that if you made a simple cut paste and post system and hosted it on the web server, anyone could be a web content creator. I had just started a new job and in talking to my co-workers and to people in other parts of the organzation, it was clear to me that the time it took to get stuff put on the website was a major problem.

And the source of the problem was the fact that it all had to go through The Webmaster™. Because that person was the only one who knew which buttons to push.

So why not, I reasoned, make everyone web content creators? After all – we were all grown up, professional type people. We were well-compensated and entrusted with the well-being of the organzation. This would remove the bottleneck and whatever bias The Webmaster™ had due to their situation within the organization.

Content strategy goes from Webmaster to Wild West

And I wrote an embarassingly bad set of scripts in ASP. It took input from forms, stored it and organized it in a database, dressed it up in a template and served it to the visitor. I trained people on how to use it and gave everyone an account and a password.

It took a long time for the concept to take hold. In fact it didn’t really until three years later. By that point the server had moved to Linux/Apache/PHP and a different set of scripts. By that point I was calling it a content management system.

And a couple of years after that I was starting to think maybe this wasn’t working. See the site’s content was overwhelmingly lopsided, favouring press releases over… well… pretty much anything. The website was the creature of the communications department. That’s where the web staff were and that’s whose stuff got posted.

Self-publishing regimens don’t always result in more content

The whole “you can post it yourself” argument (said in that earnest, we’re-trying-to-empower-you kind of voice) worked to quell complaints but not to create content.

Then I made another kind of discovery (by reading someone smart on the internet): putting print content on a website sucks. The only stuff we had that was ‘web ready’ was the ‘fit for public consumption’ stuff – pithy press releases. For all the problems they entail. Shortly thereafter I had another eureka moment: maybe web content doesn’t have to be a 150 word chunk of text. Maybe it’s a listing. A table. Maybe even a video.

Maybe people weren’t feeding the site with content because I’d been asking them for 150 word chunks of text when what they needed was a table. Or maybe they needed a form so that they could listen instead.

Ah but the sands of time shifted beneath my feet and I found myself – two years ago now – in another organization. This lot seemed to have adopted the worst of both worlds: The Webmaster™ strategy but with everyone as a content creator and no curative or editorial role given to… anyone.

Should you be rolling your own web content?

So I’m often the bearer of bad news: “That needs a title that explains what the story is about”. “I don’t care if it’s already been translated, it can’t go up like it is”. We’re trying to provide supports of various kinds (templates, workshops, one-on-one tutorials and planning sessions) to help people produce web content. But the pace of change is slow. Possibly fatally so but that’s the subject for another post.

I’ve concluded that I think all the people we expect to roll their own web content really should not be doing that. They should be content sponsors, or executive producers. Their expert staff should be advising the people who do create the content where they’ve over-simplified, lost or changed meaning. But the job of deciding what form the content should take, and how it should be created properly belongs to people who… ah… know a thing or two about creating web content.

They’re not necessarily communications people or even writers either.

But that’s assuming infinite resources and a workforce that can be reshaped in an instant and populated with stars. I expect in many organizations reality is a tad more complicated and possibly disappointing in that regard.

So until some of the same energy and resources that we used to apply to producing paper communication gets applied to producing web content, it’s likely going to be templates and workshops for us to help people be their own web publishers, whether they want it or not, or whether it’s the best approach or not.

This post originally appeared on my blog,

Email in a bilingual land: evidence that language of choice is more effective

Canada is a bilingual country. The federal government (and many national organizations) operate with stringent standards on services and communications being available in english and french.

This is done to protect people’s right to access government services in either english or french, whichever they prefer.

I get that. What I don’t get is why people doing online communication think that means we have to give everyone both languages in the same message.

For bilingually mandated organizations – governmental or non-governmental – it seems that being seen to be bilingual is actually more important than being understood in english and in french.

That’s fine for government. I suspect the current government would make its program information available in Latin if they thought they could get away with it and it would keep costs down.

But for social change organizations, whose health and success involves public engagement, sending email (for example) in bilingue, Canada’s third official language, is bad news.

See, no one speaks bilingual and they’d prefer not to read it in email either.

I’ve always thought this. But now I have proof. Some proof anyway.

Where I work, we have serious religion about producing everything in english and in french at the same time and with the same quality, etc. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But someone interpreted that to mean that bulk emails must always contain french and english in the same message.

This means both languages in the subject header and either english column/french column or english-follows-french email body. Both these are fraught with problems:

  • The second language in the subject is almost never read.
  • Hansard style messages don’t render well in many email clients – Blackberries? Hello!
  • Over-under messages must always put one language first.

And people who read both, or prefer to read in the language-put-second have more work to do and are less likely to open your message and less likely still to click.

As proof I offer the following.

We sent out a notice of an online survey (complete with juicy incentive) to a 35,000 or so member list. For some addresses we had a language preference. We sent them a message in the language of their choice.

For others, we did not, so we sent them a Hansard style ‘bilingual’ message. The results tell the story:

MessageOpen RateClick Rate
French only46.9%23.8%
English only48.6%23.8%

Language-of-choice emails got a 20 or 21 per cent higher open rate and a 16 per cent higher click rate than bilingual messages with the same content. They’re more likely to be forwarded and less likely to be the subject of a spam complaint.

Web design: art versus engineering

Graphic design confronts a new medium

What are we trying to do anyway?

What do these three pages suggest to you?

Your design is a subtext to your text, and its impact on your words are as real as intonation, gesticulation and eye contact are to verbal communication.

This is pretty much the standard schtick for print design. But if you’re a web designer and this describes the goals of your site, then you have no ambition.

If you’re thinking up goals of a web site these days, be prepared to add the following:

  • allow visitors to interact with the organization/company/person. That means:
    • Ask questions and get answers
    • Visitors can converse with each other
  • visitors can order/buy goods and services from the site
  • visitors can retrieve information that meets their needs, which may be close to unique
  • visitors can send donations/gamble/otherwise give away money to the site

This is a fair way from print design wherein if you wanted to interact with the producer of the material, you had to fill out the courtesy card or get on the phone. With the web, the messaging medium is also the action medium. Obviously, you can’t do everything over the web, but the fact that there are more functions attatched to the web than simply communication means that we have to revisit an old debate.

Form vs function: here we go again

There is this ancient and unresolvable conflict between wanting to have beautiful form and wanting to be practical and useful.

Well… can’t you have both?

Not without selling your soul. Actually that’s not entirely true, but more often than not web design is about finding a compromise position between eye candy and eye oatmeal. And you often have to privilege one over the other.

Take, for example, Jacob Nielsen’s Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design, or the Top Ten New Mistakes of Web Design.

Taken together, following Nielsen’s rules will restrict the colours you can use, where you place (or if you place) your identifying logo, limit if not eliminate the use of graphics on your page etc etc. Flash, movies and animations are pretty much verbotten.

You get a useable web site, but it’s boring. By contrast, David Siegel’s site for his book Designing Killer Web Sites talks about some different rules. Like how to make web pages sing.

In fact he talks a lot about how to anti-alias graphics and how to infest your pages with code, placing invisible gifs all over the place to put things in the right place. Here is a really old page of his offering some design tips.

More recently he’s retreated from his “web pages will sing” notions. His current web site says there won’t be any more David Siegel books for developers.

In fact, he did a bit of an about face. Here’s an article from an Australian web design site,, that describes his thinking.

So is there a concensus building about web design? Is it dead? Are all sites eventually going to look like Maybe, but for two things:

  1. People like looking at pretty breaks pretty much every one of Nielsen’s user interface rules, but we were all captivated by it for about half an hour. And the user interface fetish people will never tell you how to make anything look pretty. I mean would you want to live in a house Jacob Nielsen built? I should note that since this class first discovered this site it’s calmed down a lot. There are now menus with text labels, for example.
  2. There’s more to life than shoppingIn fact both the user interface and the singing page people seem pretty much obsessed about selling people stuff via the web. It’s like a new sort of gold mining expedition. Maybe the web is just going to be something people do to connect with other people and find out about things and stuff. Web sites won’t be profit centres, but rather their cost will be lumped in with promotion, running a store and “the cost of doing business.” In this case, maybe designing pretty just for fun isn’t such an anathema.
  3. There’s nothing saying pretty sites have to be unusable or vice versa.In fact one could argue that truly boring sites will never get used just because they’re boring.

Happy mediums

I’m not saying you can resolve this. But you may be able to live with the ambiguity of wanting an attractive, useful web site. That’s certainly the conclusion drawn by this A List Apart Article.

Here’s an approach that might work:

  • Design a pretty site.
  • Figure out how many of the usability rules it violates.
  • Figure out which of these you can live with.Nielsen rates the following rule violationsas having “very severe” impact on usability:
    • bleeding edge technology
    • scrolling text and looping animations
    • outdated information
    • slow download times
  • Any pages that violate these rules you should really consider changing
  • See if you can’t achieve the same design within the rules
  • Change your design or
  • Try and assess the damage:
    • View the site in as many other, older browsers as possible
    • Ask your friends to look at the site; find out what conditions they’re viewing under (browser, connection speed)
    • Use to see how your site looks in every browser that ever walked the earth. It’s free for a single use.
  • Be happy or make changes based on your damage assessment

Six principles of graphic design and how many of them are still useful to web designers?


Also known as symmetry. What goes on one side of the page must weigh as much as what goes on the right. Or top vs bottom. Graphic elements have visual weight. Big items weigh more than little ones. Dark weighs more than light. Colour weighs more than black and white. But a small dark element will weigh less than a concentration of white space because it’s unusual. Note, though, that balance doesn’t necessarily mean equilibrium.

This notion is often at odds with the following notion, because if a page has no balance, then it almost necessarily posesses some form of…


In many languages, including the one I’m using now, people read from left to right, top to bottom pretty much all the time. So much so, in fact, that it’s become a habit.

The top left chunk of a page is known as the “primary optical area” because that’s where a literate person’s eye is trained to go. Mind you, eyes are more like cats than dogs. They’re not easy to train. They’re easily distracted by shiny, noisy or (to bring back some jargon from a couple of prinicples ago) visually heavy objects. So in print we tend to build designs that use the eye’s trained tendency to move top to bottom, left to right. But theoretically, if you use the notion that eyes also move from dark to light, big to little shapes, you can start a page anywhere and get the reader to move through it.

This motion, in design circles, is referred to as dynamism. I admit it’s a tad pretentious.

A good dynamic leads you through the page. A bad one leads you off the page or leaves you standing there with nowhere to go, as overly symetrical pages tend to do.


“The lesser dimension in a plane figure is to the greater as the greater is to the sum of both.” Huh? About 1:1.4. This is some ancient law of aesthetics. You’re not supposed to break it. It applies to the shape of a page, elements within a page, where elements are placed etc. Of course, most people’s monitors aren’t in this proportion. But more on that later.


Also known as “Emphasis.” Something on the page stands out to give the page a focus or entry point.

When two or more elements are given emphasis, they compete for the reader’s attention, cancelling each other out and encouraging people to move on. Elements cannot, however, be so large and contrasting that they squash out everything on the page.

The amount of emphasis an element gets should also correspond the importance the designer assigns to it, rather than the amount of space that needs filling.


Fewer elements, rather than more. One or two type faces. One or two graphics rather than a dozen. (There are web-specific reasons for this too). Enough said.


Mentionned earlier is the notion that this is not art. Good design has a unified look from page to page. Choose a headline style and stick to it. Page headers and footers (called folios in print jargon) should be consistent from page to page. Font changes should be minimal, have a purpose and be consistent.

(The web helps a lot here but in other ways causes many many problems).

Unity also means holding the page together. Nothing sends the elements of a page off in all directions quite like white space forced into the middle of a page. Watch this, especially when you’re sizing different squared off shapes like tables, frames etc.