Another Lone Gunman's Blog

February 14, 2010

My first crack at building a map with a CMS

I had my bare land rover(Joomla’s CMS) ready for testing, I just had to decide what tools and modifications I needed first. As the intention of my map(website) was to show the world my animals(products) so they could purchase one for themselves. I needed a tool to catch the animals, show them off and allow people to pick and choose what they want.

After some research, the best system for Joomla to catch animals was Virtuemart’s shopping cart. I also found out that someone had pre prepped Joomla’s land rover with Virtuemart’s animal catching devices, so I chucked away the bare landy and set up the pre prepped version. I then caught a few animals and tested how they were all displayed, it seemed to function well.

Next was to break down my map into its three elements, as I explained in the previous post. I had looked at some of the functionality and done some modifying of the land rover, I had tested the map and how my animals and info worked, but before I shoved all the info in I wanted to make sure it would look right.

The visual elements:

After looking for themes for my map and trying a few, I eventually decided on using the theme that cam with my pre prepped land rover, it had all the functions pre built-in and everything was roughly where it needed to be. I just needed to give it my own identity, to make it my map.

This initially looked almost impossible, there was no way to use a visual editor, it was all code, and not just one type of code, three types of code. I had played about with some basic html in the past but knew almost nothing, now I had to deal with CSS and PHP as well!

All was not lost though, All I wanted to do was change some colours and pictures. I started with the colours, I just use a colour code picker to find out what the code was for each element I wanted to change, searched for it in the script and replaced it with my new colour. I then discovered that not all the colours in the theme were code, some of them were images. I found out where they were stored, got a can of spray paint (Photoshop) and repainted them a new colour, easy as pie! I then worked out what other images I wanted to change like the logo and shopping basket icons replaced them with some fresh parts.

I now had a map that looked they way I wanted it too, bar some things being in the wrong places but they were not in the theme, they were my land rover was set up to put them. To finish off the visual aspects I now had to pop the hood of my landy and recalibrate a few bits.

The second element: Setting up and modifying your land rover

The first bit I tackled was getting all the menus, links and blocks or widgets in their relevant places. Just a case of scratching around under the hood and working out what all the little bits are and how to use them. I then started planing out and adding menu trees, not everyone wants to look at my whole map, most are just after something specific so the clearer the menus are the easier it is to meet their needs. Finally I had to add all the smaller functions I wanted like some binoculars(google analytics) and configure my landy to suit the animals I needed to display.

The Third element: Catching animals and showing off different areas

The last step was to get all the info I wanted to show the world up there, I had to catch and display my animals so people could buy and I had to show people more about my area so they understood more about the animals they wanted.

I now had a functioning map that looked good and did the job:

here it is :

If only this was the end. Something I have learnt is that a website is never finished, it needs to live, grow and adapt! (and the odd bit of repairs)


January 18, 2010

The theory of a CMS and how they help build your map!

The whole Idea behind a CMS is that you separate your map (website) into three aspects. The first aspect is the software, this is like getting yourself a big old land rover to tear through the jungle then you add tools to your land rover as you need them. Every time you need more functionality you add a tool or modification to cover it.

The next aspect is the appearance of your map, you can get tons “themes” for these systems and modify them to your hearts content, although you do need to learn the language required. You don’t need to become a CSS pro overnight neither, all you need to do is look around the files for the bit you want to change. If your current map is blue and you want it to be red, look for all the bits that point to colour and change them to Red. Find where all the pictures are stored and edit them to whatever colour you want.

The third aspect is filling in all the details about your map. You have your land rover with its tools and you have the pictures of what your map is going to look like so all you need to do is fill in the info you want to share with your visitors.

These three aspects make life much easier because you don’t need to redo your entire map if you want something changed. If you need more functions, you add them or remove functions you don’t like. If you decide to change how your map looks, you change just that aspect and everything else still functions as it did, the info is all still where it was. If you decide to change the info, you change it as it suits you, adding and removing it with ease!

December 20, 2009

Some planning and reaserch was needed!

All my previous attempts had failed miserably. My slice of the jungle was lost in the massive jungle with no easy way to find it and if my map was found, it was like trying to use directions drawn in crayon by a toddler.

I obviously needed to do it myself and I needed to find tools to help me do it. I scoured the jungle for help and eventually stumbled into the realm of the CMS. I didn’t know exactly what they did or how they worked but as far as I could tell, they were the perfect tool for building large maps and they made it easy to keep track of all the different little parts of the map.

I decided that the only way to really understand what the CMS did was to try one out and see what happened!

After a bit more jungle scouring I discovered the main three Open Source CMS tools. I went open source because I was sick of paying for things that didn’t work, on the event that I found something that helps me build the maps I need and the people looking at my slice of the jungle need, I will contribute and keep doing so as my map expands.

I needed to know which map managing system was going to suit me best:

WordPress was a good platform to write about your jungle and show pictures so it would build a fairly decent map, but I needed a platform where people could look at the animals (products) on my land and purchase one for themselves. I know people do build maps with their animals displayed but I needed to keep track of how many animals were available etc..

The other two were Drupal and Joomla I went for joomla because the information I had said it was easier to install.

I then had to figure out how I was going to test my map management system, they aren’t programs you can just run on a computer, you have to set them up on a system that decodes the jungle for humans to look at (a server) it also needed to deal with all the Greek (PHP, CSS, Java, it’s all Greek to me).

I wanted to be able to run it on my computer rather than having a live setup for the world to see. This would allow me to test and break my map at my leisure; So back to the jungle for some more research. suddenly your in a world of acronyms that mean nothing, wampp, xampp etc. the letters had to do with languages and some other bits and bobs. I eventually settled on xampp.

Once I had xampp up and running, I followed joomla’s installation instructions. I now had my platform ready for experimentation!

Use the comments below to tell everyone what route you took to map out your jungle!

December 1, 2009

Attempt three: paying for a prebuilt map (hosted ecommerce system)

After some time and playing with some farmers markets (auction sites), I decided to try out my map again.

I thought I had found the answer, a preconfigured mapping system specifically designed for catching animals (ordering products). It had the layout of the land built-in and all I theoretically had to do was fill in the gaps.

There were some templates for their map system, but nothing tweakable so it was a case of picking one that suited. Unfortunately the scope was very limited and it looked like a child had got some wax crayons out and drawn my map but it was something.

I then spent ages filling in details about my jungle and my animals using the slowest mapping system in the world, it would take about a minute to load a page in the backend and I needed to fill about 5 pages in to display one animal. It was archaic and painful, the system was about as efficient as using a hammer and chisel to carve a map out of stone.

I also discovered that people looking at my map had the same problems and would get distracted by prettier maps of other peoples jungle spaces. I don’t blame them, when I look at other peoples maps, I want to see as much as I can as quickly as possible and when I find what I want, I want to get out of there and get home with my new toy.

I now wanted to show my map to the world, hoping people would blindly stumble into my area was not going to work. I had to tell the map finding tools (search engines) that my map existed. I also had to prove to these tools that I owned my map, ahh problem. It may have been my map on the outside but all the interior parts of the map were someone else’s and that someone gave me restrictions, lots of them.

The map finding tools wanted me to put up a little note in my jungle for them to find, it turned out I was only renting my bit of jungle and my lovely landlord (hosting company) wouldn’t let me put up the note.

I also wanted some way of keeping track of all the people looking at my map to see what they liked and what they didn’t. My landlord had given me a tool to do this but after a few months took it away and tried to charge me to use it again. The tool was fairly useless anyway and I was already paying loads of rent for a map that was heavily flawed as well as restricted to hell and back.

The theoretical solution, use the tracking tools provided by one of the map fingers (google analytics). The Landlord disagreed again.

My rented jungle only allowed me to add standard text and pictures, I still had no control I couldn’t change anything behind the scenes or change where features appeared or even the size of these features.

Some real strategy and planning was needed I needed something that was mine to do what I liked with. The control freak emerges!

When paying for prebuilt mapping systems make sure you don’t have limits and restrictions enforced and that you or someone with knowledge of the jungle is able to edit behind the scenes. Also make sure it can grow with you and your piece of the jungle because otherwise you are going to have to start from scratch.
Has anyone else had fun with strange e-commerce set ups, tell me and other readers bellow!


November 23, 2009

Attempt two, getting an “experienced” tour guide to do the mapping for you.

My map on the wall didn’t get much notice, no one really knew where my website was. The only way I got people to look at it was to physically tell them where to look. So I was telling people, who already knew where we were in the real word, how to find us in the jungle of the web. Very counter productive!

One person did happen to trip over my map, that person happened to be someone who built maps for other people (he was a website builder). He approached me with a new version of my map, it was pretty much the same as my old map except it had some preconfigured outlines.

Excellent, I now had something set up by a pro! All I had to do was start adding bits to my map, hmm. The problems begin: It was HIS map of MY area, I couldn’t edit anything. So if I decided to add anything or amend anything I had to attach a notes to a carrier pidgin and fly it over to him, wait for the pidgin to come back and pay a nice bill at the end. This also meant my map was far behind the things actually happening in my little area of the jungle. Another problem was visitors could look at the animals in my area (by animals I mean products) but they couldn’t catch (order) any of the little buggers unless they phoned me and asked me to grab one. This was probably a good thing due to the map constantly being behind, by the time they phoned me half the animals they saw on the map were long gone and new herds had since arrived!

The tour guide failed to mention this before destroying my map and putting his up. So now I had a map that looked slightly better and had some bells and whistles – my new map would change colour depending on weather it was night or day, a visitor might notice it if they visited the site night and day – that the tour guide loved but was useless for visitors and for me.

His map was stuck on the same wall the old one was and fingers were crossed.

I eventually burnt his map and put a flyer in it’s place giving a brief description of my patch of jungle and ways to contact me for more info. Once again not ideal but at least I could give them up to date info.

If someone is going to build a map for you, make sure you will at least be able to edit basic parts of the map and add extra bits whether its new animals (products) or just some more info about your area. You can leave the advanced map building to them if you want.

November 21, 2009

The first foolish attempts at clambering through the jungle

I am using the analogy of a web site being a small map of the world wide web Jungle.   What I’m trying to say is that when we first ever go on the internet, we see websites made by other people, like our first experience of the jungle is usually through photographs and documentaries, someone has had to go into the jungle to shoot the film or take the photo just like someone had to dive in to the web and write up code and edit it into something meaningful for you to see there website. Some of us then decide that we are going to brave the jungle and build a website of our own.

Most of us only ever see the jungle through these documentaries or pictures made by others who adventure into the jungle itself (We visit websites made by these adventurers), and a few of us decide we want our own little piece of the jungle with our own little map and our own pictures to show others that we exist.

My first attempt at mapping my little segment of the jungle of the web was poorly planned, in essence, I wondered into the jungle with nothing but a pair of binoculars, I didn’t even have shoes on! My binoculars were in the form of a What You See Is What You Get editor (Frontpage at the time), this was all I had to start building my map. All I could do was see a little deeper into the jungle but I still had no idea where I was.

It took me a while to map out my little square foot of the jungle, I set up a look for the website with the menus and all the links then just used it as a template for all the pages. This made adding to the map fairly easy and you would only need minor amendments, but I had to manually check that everything flowed.

The major problem was when you realised your map needed to be more detailed for other people to follow it. Each square foot that had been copied and amended would need the extra detail manually added (If I wanted a new menu I had to manually add it to each and every page of the website, very time consuming when you have product categories, product description and product image pages).

This was a long time ago, before we had things like wordpress and easily available Content management systems, it even predated myspace.

It definitely was not ideal but at the time it was all I had. If you want to effectively hack your way through the jungle, don’t use basic HTML templates whether they are self-made or set-up by someone else (A map of a square foot of the jungle is not of much use even if you can figure out where the hell you are) , they are very limited, require a lot of technical knowledge (If you hand the binoculars to an Amazonian, he will fly through the jungle) and the web has long since moved on, at least the consumers have.

I left the jungle, stuck my map on a wall and hoped for the best.

Please feel free to add your thoughts below, other strange analogies and sarcasm is encouraged!

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