Collaborate, upgrade, suck less

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett July 5, 2013
Summary:
Running a business web property? Considering a major upgrade? Collaboration with users will reap tremendous dividends. It helps if you have good relationships with providers but then some are better than others. Here's what we learned following a major upgrade.

upgrade keyboard
The last 24 hours, I've been in code heaven, and occasional hell, as we pushed a major upgrade to the site. Along the way we learned some great lessons which are worth sharing.

We've been pushing updates and making changes almost from the get go a couple of months ago. Most of them would not be obvious to visitors, other than the early swapping out of the commenting system. Disqus wasn't cutting it so we swapped it out and implemented Livefyre. Recently we replaced the search engine because the old one was - as one colleague eloquently put it - crap. The new one is much better. Check it out.

A big upgrade

This time, we were keen to move on with the framework which required a full point update. We also wanted to change the events calendar used in the sidebar which had also been given a total makeover. There were other things we needed to change like including a bounding box around the social share bar and which appears at the bottom of each post. This was a direct result of reader feedback. What did we learn along the way?

Lessons for now and the future

If you are running a web property that's subject to regular change at the back end, have made significant core functional customizations and are using a framework that is frequently updated then you MUST use a child theme. The reason you need to do this is because core PHP customizations are lost each time there is a framework change. A child theme solves this problem. If, like us, you use Wordpress, then this is insanely easy. In our case, framework changes meant we were able to simplify our back end landscape because features we were looking for were introduced into the latest release and so we didn't have to recode some parts of the back end.

These days, a lot can be achieved by making changes to CSS, a coding system which sets the style rules of each element that readers see. I contend that CSS skills are something that anyone who is involved in digital business should acquire. For those who are familiar with programming spreadsheets, CSS should be easy to pick up. Using a child theme makes those changes so much easier to implement in a situation where you have a LOT of interleaving CSS files. Yes - I know that's inefficient but then we have ways to overcome those problems as well.

We hear a lot about listening as a skill needed in the modern workplace. I say that's only part of the story. Understanding what your readers are saying is crucial. Let me explain. In the lead up to this upgrade, I had a back and forth on Twitter with a number of regular readers who told me about the sharing problem. Special thanks to Tammy Powlas. It quickly became apparent that the problem arises because the icons we use fit the theme but are unfamiliar. Once we realized the real problem, a simple answer emerged. Bound the box and provide a heading. Job done but that story isn't over. We're testing another approach which we may yet implement and which will make sharing more attractive.

From our side, working closely with the framework support people has saved many hours of head scratching. Kudos to Eric Schmidt (not the Google guy...another guy) at Themewich who has responded in timely fashion and with clear instruction.

I wish I could say the same for the Modern Tribe crew. They provide the calendar functionality. It is a top notch addition which we've found useful for partners. Anyhoo...for reasons that make no sense to me, they pushed a major upgrade over the 4th July period and then announced that they might be slower in responding to queries - for obvious reasons. The upgrade breaks all sorts of things that worked perfectly well in previous versions. They claim to have warned users. I didn't get that memo. It also contains a shedload of changes that require a good amount understanding before implementation. It also includes stuff that one person described as: "a real estate waster for us. Can I get rid of these?" Hell yes- I agree! The answer is to make changes to core functions inside the main WP system. Duh? That's not nice. <sigh>More child theme changes.</sigh>

You can do it too

Despite some problems, I'm pleased about the way this upgrade went. As I reflect upon the whole process I am minded that it is only seven years ago that making any change in a digital property was something reserved for geeks. Today, I'd argue that anyone who is prepared to put a little work into understanding the structure of modern websites can accomplish with excellent results.

Oh yes - before closing out...I wonder if regular readers will spot the biggest change we made? Anyhoo...thanks to everyone who helped. We appreciate the opportunity to suck less.

Image credit: © vege - Fotolia.com