A System Perspective

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The word [tip:system=Systems are combinations of related components organized into a complex whole.], is often thought of as the technology that houses your website. For example, your content management system. When planning, building, maintaining, and sustaining a website, it useful to think of system as more than that. A system includes the technology (the CMS), processes, tasks, policies, data, tools, and users that make up a whole web system. You are probably wondering why this matters. In short, it matters because in systems, each component is affected by another component. If you are not aware of system components that make up your website, you might not make the most informed decisions regarding how you want the site to behave and how you want to maintain the site once it is built. The model below is just one way to illustrate a website system. Below the model is a brief explanantion of the core components and what they mean to you as a planner. insert model image Audience and User The key to this model is the center, the audience and users of the website system. Audience satisfaction is by far the most important success factor for sites today. It is like a new store, the first month you are hoping because people want to know what you have. But if you aren’t making them happy (quality products, friendly service, good prices), they probably won’t come back. Word gets out and your business is dead. The users of a site, the people who are logging on, creating content or buying products, also need to be considered when designing your site. You might be selling the best products in town but if the users can’t get through the check out line, they will likely walk away. If your authors can’t publish their work, they might stop writing or go else where. Some content management systems are designed to have one content author and the rest of the world as readers of that content. Some are designed to manage relationships with users (commonly referred to as clients or customers). And others are focused on enabling a wide variety of interactions for audiences and users. It is important to understand who your audience and users to ensure that the system you are building and the underlying components can support your goals. Tasks Tasks are the activities that your audience and users will be performing when they interact with your website system. The tasks the audience and users perform can be part of a larger process. The way processes and tasks are performed can be influenced but factors such as policies and rules (within and out of the website). Tasks are also influenced by other factors such as the user’s skills, the purpose of the site, and the context in which the audience is visiting your site. Because tasks are often made up of multiple steps, you will need a CMS that supports the steps you need your audience and users to perform. For example, if your audience tasks are to click on links, use the search feature, and read the text on the page, then you aren’t looking for a lot of sophistication in a CMS. If, however, you want to offer your audience a sequenced experience made up of media and text, you will need a CMS designed to link pages and run various types of media (video, images, and animations). The nature of content management systems makes the incorporation of media files into the pages different than the processes you use when developing standard HTML pages. CMS pages are processed on the web server using different technology than that used by HTML-based sites. If you want multimedia on your site, you will need to choose CMS that can present it how you in the way you want or need. Interface The interface, or the place where the website and user come together, is influenced by the interactions that need to be supported on the site as well as the layout of the page. The interface includes all aspects of the page (content, navigation, header, footer, and sidebars). Interactions are influenced by processes and tasks. Layout is influenced by the shape and organization of the information on the site. But of equal importance, the interface is going to be the place where you get to visually express yourself by choosing the right colors, graphics, and homepage layout so that your message can be conveyed not only by the content but by how it looks. In the HTML world, the interface is typically created one page at a time. There are some automation options such as templates and libraries. But for the most part, the interface is defined separately within each page. The advantage HTML pages have over CMS pages is flexibility. At any time you can change the layout of a single page with minimal effort. The process of creating an interface for a CMS varies (). Some CMS’s are known for requiring you to be a programmer and have a full understanding of the CMS before you can design your own interface. Others are more lay user friendly. Most open source systems today have interfaces (also known as themes and skins) already created for you to usethat you can tweak and edit to give your site a personal touch. If you think you will need to create custom themes or skins that are significantly different than what is already out there, be prepared to either hire a themer or skinner or become one yourself. Data Data makes up the content in your website as well as content behind your interface. Data can be a title and the body of text on the page and it can be images and other media or descriptive information such as metadata (data about the data). In simple terms, users come to your site for the data and how you have it organized. When you are working in a CMS, your data can be stored in a few different ways on the server. Some data will be stored in fields within database tables. Other data will be stored as files in directories on the server. When adding or updating data on your site, some systems will give you the sense that your data is actually stored as as part of the page in which it appear. In fact, as you add your data, you can see the page starting to form in a what-you-see-is-what-get (WYSIWYG) manner. With other systems, it may take the form of an on-screen input form with limited insight into what the page will look like when you are done. The power of any CMS can be measured by its ability to allow you to change how it stores, configures, and displays your data. If you are creating a site where you want to write short articles about your day or about a topic that interests you, you are not likely going to need a CMS that can break your article into pieces and reassemble them in different layouts or reuse them on different pages. This paragraph needs to be rewritten without telling folks what they DON’T need. So, in order to know which CMS you need and how it needs to be configured; you need to know what your data is and how all its pieces relate to each other and to the audience or user. Data influences the interface, the system, and the tasks that are performed.
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