November 22, 2006

Behind the scenes at GNOME's Web site revision

Author: Tom Chance

Like any large organisation, the GNOME Project faces a formidable challenge in maintaining an effective Web site. Trying the balance the demands of promotion, documentation, and community coordination is made all the more difficult when you only have volunteers to do the work. But over the past year the GNOME community has developed and begun to execute a well-defined process to refocus and rejuvenate its much-neglected Web presence.

The GNOME Project was started in August 1997, and for a few years it remained an obscure hobby for free software enthusiasts, as you can see reflected in this snapshot from December 1998. Since then it has evolved, but not fast enough to keep up with the GNOME software, the status of free software, and the trends in Web publishing. Changes are made by patching files through CVS, and the Web site's lack of coherence and presentational style reflects years of unfocused marketing strategies.

Today, (or "wgo" for short) serves many masters. It's an introduction to the GNOME desktop for users, to the GNOME and GTK+ programming frameworks for developers, and to the community for potential contributors and interested users. It is also a gateway to the dozens of Web sites that contributors, third-party developers, and users may want to find, such as The GNOME Foundation and Planet GNOME.

The board of the GNOME Foundation recognised the need for a complete revamp of wgo, and assigned Quim Gil as coordinator. Gil had experience revamping the GUADEC Web site using Drupal, a background in journalism, and a good reputation in the community. He soon established a clear, open development process, modeled on those used by professional Web teams but adapted to the character of the GNOME community.

One such adaptation was tying the milestones of the process to the GNOME release cycle, which peaks every six months with a new major release of the desktop environment. According to Gil, this served several purposes. In the first place, he says that "GNOME is a big heart with a regular rhythm"; everyone understands the importance of a release schedule deadline. Second, it tells the Web team that their work is as important as any other area of the project. Third, it reminds the team that proper planning and processes are required to make a good Web site, just as with code, documentation, or artwork.

With a release schedule already in place, the Web team has developed a range of planning documents, including a set of goals for the current release cycle. Whilst the mailing lists carry frenzied discussions, the wiki pages are slowly being revised and approved, building up a structured set of strategies and long-term policies.

That's not to say that everything has run smoothly. Gil jokingly told NewsForge that "the day we have no chaos I will probably leave the project." Whilst many discussions seem tangential, even pointless, good ideas tend to surface and slowly the process has progressed. He makes order out of chaos -- that's the hope, anyway.

One blessing is the volume of content in wgo, which is surprisingly small given the size of the community. Comparing GNOME's "about" section with that of KDE, it's easy to see why Gil wants "to keep wgo as small as possible." The most difficult job is in deciding what to explain, who to explain it to, and how. The target audiences debate is notorious for the bikeshedding and circuitous arguments, with everyone offering their hasty opinion on their grandparents, their college roommate or anyone else that comes to mind. The debate still occasionally surfaces, but the Web team decided to simply follow the latest work done by the marketing team, which suggests that the primary target should be hobbyists with a software/freedom interest, independent software developers, and the public sector, plus journalists.

Working with volunteers presents another challenge. Software development can afford to be a little chaotic at times, but a promotional tool needs to be completely focused and coherent to have the desired effect. Gil is confident that the team can achieve as much as a professional company, if not more, because of the gradual evolution of ideas that emerge from the chaos of mailing lists. The tone of the writing, which needs to balance community passion and corporate professionalism, isn't defined in a style guide, but according to Gil it "flows mostly naturally, unconsciously."

To date, one major decision has been made: the choice of platform on which to build the Web site. The team are using Plone, a popular professional content management system used by governments, companies, charities, and communities around the world. The deal-breaker, which saw off the likes of Drupal, Joomla, and Midgard, was the translation workflow offered by Plone, which can support multiple languages using standardised PO files.

The next big deadline for the team and the public is March 14, when GNOME 2.18 will be released alongside the revamped Web site.

If you're keen to revamp your own project's Web site, Gil has a few words of advice. "Have a look at our planning process, and most importantly take your time; it is much better to progress slowly than rush to nowhere. If things go slower, don't delay deadlines. Delay goals instead and you will see how the team focuses better next time."


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