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Don’t be scared, it’s easy


Some of the most frustrating emails for developers to receive are the ones which start “I’d like to do x, but I’m too scared of breaking anything…”. We’ve put hours or days of work into building a site with a content management so you can run things yourself, and now you won’t even try?

Of course, we developers love getting frustrated with “stupid” users who don’t want to risk all the time and money they just invested into building a new site by doing something they don’t really understand. But that’s just who we are: when the world ends, it’ll be a developer standing next to the big red button marked “do not press”, gleeful that their curiosity has been satisfied.

That said, you can hopefully see why we might get frustrated. While users might be able to “break” things, most content management systems are built in such a way that the amount of damage which can be done is minimal; you might have some funny layout for a little while, but that’s probably as bad as it gets (the caveat to this being messing about with code: using the theme editor under the appearance menu in WordPress, for example, is a cardinal sin if you’re not 100% sure you know what’s going on, and even then it’s discouraged). Most systems are also built so the instructions are reasonably clear and buttons and inputs are marked clearly. In some cases, the thing you’re asking us to do because you’re scared of it is something we’ve never done either – the difference being we’ll leap in with both feet, curious to see how we can break things, rather than fearful that we might.

There are some ways to mitigate that fear of breaking things. The following are the steps that developers will take when they try new things:

  1. Do backups first. If you don’t have the capability to do this with your particular site, contact your developer first: tell them that you want to try something and that you’d like some backups before you start. A good developer will encourage you to do more and more maintenance yourself!
  2. Do it somewhere safe. If your developer built you a test version of a site, try it there first. If not, create a new post or page, keep it out of your site’s navigation, and try it there.
  3. Use the preview button. This might not always work, depending on your theme, but it’s worth a go!
  4. Look at how it’s been done before. If you want a table on a page, for example, and you don’t know where to start, look at any pages your developer may have created which have tables on them. You can even copy and paste then adapt!
  5. If you’re changing settings, take a screenshot first, or write down all the values in the settings. That way you can easily change things back to how they were.
  6. Change one thing at a time. Change it, test it, change it back. If the first thing doesn’t work – even if it has no effect at all – don’t leave it, then change something else. You’ll end up in a state where you have no idea what you changed!
  7. Read the instructions – carefully. Read them twice. Then check them as you work!
  8. Make notes. Note what works and what doesn’t. Note starting values. Note the effects the wrong values have.
  9. Look for documentation. If you’re using a plugin there’s bound to be a help link, or do a Google search for help should give you some pointers. There may even be video tutorials out there!
  10. Think of the cost. The whole purpose of a content management system is that you should be able to manage most (if not all) of your site on your own without asking your developer to do everything. If you do ask a developer to do it all, you’ll end up paying – usually an hourly rate – for things you should be able to do yourself. It might even have worked out cheaper to not have a CMS in the first place like this! If you learn to do it yourself – even if you break something and have to pay for an hour’s fix the first time – you’ll save huge amounts in the long term.
  11. Do it when no-one’s looking. When is your site at its quietest? That’s the time to try things!
  12. Don’t be scared. If it’s that quick and easy to break something, then in most cases it’s going to be just as quick and easy to fix it. As long as you’ve followed the steps above, you should be able to roll back your changes fairly easily… and in the vast majority of cases, if you’re following the instructions, you won’t break things anyway. Remember that at every step of development of your site – from the theme, through the plugins, to the development of WordPress – every developer has put in hundreds of hours of hard work to make sure that things don’t break. You’ll have to work pretty hard to make a site crack beyond repair!

Follow the steps above and you should be set to run your site happily with minimal help from your developer… and much as we love our clients, that’s ultimately what we all want.

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