This is the celebrated journal of Mr. Simon Collison A.K.A Colly

EE user? Then I need your help

30th January 2005

I’m looking for a little feedback for a forthcoming Expression Engine project. Do you use EE? Have you just started using it? Been using it for some time? If so, I’d appreciate your help.

I’ve been asked to put a chapter together for a forthcoming publication, with my contribution exclusively centred around EE. Whilst EE is very comprehensive, yet straightforward, I can imagine a few new users have been scratching their heads over certain aspects of the system.

So, if you have used EE in any way, regardless of your experience, I’d be grateful if you could leave a comment highlighting the areas you think might need greater explanation for a new user. What needs covering in more detail? Does any aspect need a bit more guidance? If you had a major problem, what was it? Are there certain elements of EE you still don’t understand?

Alternatively, if you are thinking about going with EE, what would you like to know? What might tip the balance in EE’s favour?

All feedback will be welcome here, and will help me approach the chapter not just from my point of view, but with a nod towards any common problems. I may even use some of your questions and/or examples in the book, so don’t be shy.

Responses

# John Oxton responded on 30th January 2005 with...

Implementing multiple blogs is something I would like to know more about and, if I am honest, how to create content specfically for members (not unlike the libertines thing).

# James responded on 30th January 2005 with...

Can you explain how the templates work. For someone used to FTPing, the fact that the EE templates don’t exist as files, and also how the paths work. I had huge trouble with this. Still am.

# Sue Crocker responded on 30th January 2005 with...

I’ve been using EE since the first days of the beta. 90% of my work is with client sites, using EE as a CMS.

There is a learning curve to using EE as a CMS, but once you get past it, I can create sites fairly quickly. It’s a matter of using embeds, and in some cases global variables (which aren’t variables, but static text.)

Many of my sites also use PHP to some extent or another, so I make changes to the structure of the EE tables to have new templates parse on input using PHP. :)

I specialize in importing third party data into EE. For instance, importing membership data from a third party, or catalog data into a data container. (Weblog)

What I find to be missing at this point is the lack of multiple mailing lists. But I have a service I can use to do that.

I personally don’t care about the lack of a forum. Some of my clients want forums, but most don’t. They just want their text out there quickly, and to have visitors on the site.

I write quite a few “HowTo” articles about using EE. Mostly so I can document how I did something for a client, and so that others don’t have to go through the steps that I did to figure it out.

What would help the sales of EE: An e-commerce module. That to me is a higher priority.

# Simon Collison responded on 30th January 2005 with...

I should point out that the emphasis of the book as a whole will be on blogging, rather than larger CMS-style sites. However, I intend to allude to this power where poss, and am also collating CMS-related usage for a later project.

Sue: I should be allowed to mention existing resources such as yours in the text. There won’t be much room for tables-fiddling in the chapter (I’ll save that for the larger project), but I will be covering custom queries and use of PHP. Thanks for the feedback.

# John Oxton responded on 30th January 2005 with...

P.S. I have only spent about half an hour with EE so far, I really don’t understand it yet. So if my first post already has answers I’d be grateful of a link or two! ;-)

# Sue Crocker responded on 30th January 2005 with...

HowTo: Display Unique Content Based on Logged in User

I’ll go looking for the one on how to use EE with addon domains.

# Mark Boulton responded on 31st January 2005 with...

A lot of EE’s concepts are pretty easy to get to grips with if you’ve a) been using PHP for a while and/or b) Been using blogging CMS’s for while.

I had a little difficuly with a few tags, things like segments, and using them in conjunction with if’s to create dynamic content. That whole logic to url segment thing is a little difficult to get your head round.

Other than that EE’s pretty intuitive.

# Tim responded on 31st January 2005 with...

Mark, URL segments are, IMO one of the most powerful features. Basically, officially you can have up to 6 segments (in the backend, there appears to be allowance for more) each of which can be used as a global variable in a number of ways. For example, you can pass the variables into your code to serve up specific content. After the initial EE generated segments you can add anything you like onto you URL. A members name, something to designate private content, a weblog name.

I have used Movable Type & before that Greymatter and have used pMachine since the very first beta. I found the different approach of EE confusing at first but once you get your head around things like the URL’s and the template setups, it all comes together. There was a lightbulb moment for me when suddenly I understood it. The one thing I would like is a more flexible category system, for example, the ability to show/hide categories and ordering entries by categories (to enable book-like publishing) but I have generally found that the developers are very responsive to feature requests. Early on in pMachine days I emailed Rick Ellis about a problem I was having and he emailed me back a custom coded solution that worked perfectly. At the risk of sounding like a zealot, in terms of overall ease of use, power and flexibility plus bang-for-your-buck, I don’t think there is a better product out there at the moment.

# Sue Crocker responded on 31st January 2005 with...

I use URL segments with PHP code to display unique “pages” such as aboutus, termsofuse, contactus

So that I only have to code one template, but that template looks at segment 3 for which entry_id to use.

PHP has the ability to use a case statement, which is a bit more robust that multiple if statements. :)

More info about using multiple domains: Best Practices for Multiple Domains

# Simon Collison responded on 31st January 2005 with...

Sue: Agreed about the lack of ‘case’ when it comes to EE’s {if} tags. I also use a combo of the two to do most of the work, and recently used this to assign image galleries to weblog categories, which works really well.

Still keen to hear which elements you had the most difficulty with when you began, folks. Regardless of your current experience, what troubled you when first getting to grips with EE?

# Chris Jennings responded on 31st January 2005 with...

I converted my site (pagetoscreen.net) to EE last year but I still use the older pMachine at my family/personal site (www.chrisjennings.net). The excercise was fairly painless and I was very impressed with the ‘import from pmachine’ utility.

One thing to be aware of though is that you can throw away your wywsywig authoring tools, because Dreamweaver or GoLive won’t make too much sense of the templates. I am a GoLive user in part and I found that GoLive is very happy laying out pmachine code becuse it can show the lttle bits and pieces of PHP as little graphic representations in the layout window. When it comes to EE this idea doesn’t work and this ‘worried’ me for a while until I abandoned GoLive altogether and I now use BBedit and FTP the templates right into the site. If I find myself on another computer, with Internet access then I can still make some changes to the templates and the templates are saved both in the database and on the server as text files. Brilliant!

Magic for me is the ability to get more than one size of image created on the server (using ImageMagick), for any entries. This saves a lot of hassle. All very positive!

I have all of my students blogging with EE (emedia.brookes.ac.uk) and, in fact, one of the students has created a template design which now ships with EE.

# Sue Crocker responded on 31st January 2005 with...

What troubled me the most was the lack of how to documentation. The current docs are basically a description of what the program can do. There wasn’t a lot of how do I to this task sort of docs.

Much like when Microsoft Word for Windows 1.0 - release - it was an alphabetical index.

There needed to be more of instructions on how to do common blogging tasks for people who moved over from another system. Now that PMachinePro is no longer in active production, I expect more people to move over to EE.

The Knowlege Blog has helped with some of the how to issues, and the new EEWiki.

Articles like how to create a weblog to act as a calendar, how to create a weblog to replace blogrolling.

Everytime new functionality comes out, I try to write at least one article on how to use the new features.

But I have to be careful I don’t give away the store—I do EE custom coding for a living.

# Mark Boulton responded on 1st February 2005 with...

I think i’d agree with most people here - the documentation, especially for a commercial product, is a little flaky. it’s written with a technical audience in mind, rather than a simple blogging audience. It would be nice to see clear, well written documentation in plain english.

I think the lack of documentation (especially well written tutorials), rather than the application itself, was the steepest learning curve. I had to familiarise myself with so many disparate pieces of information to cobble together, in my mind, how EE worked. That and several emails to you Simon!

# Chris Jennings responded on 1st February 2005 with...

In pMachine (now discontinued development) there are little ‘i’s’ next to items in the control panel. Click on them and you get a popup help box. I would like to see this in the EE control panel.

Having said that, I have found that the forum run by the ExpressionEngine developers to be more than just useful. Whenever I have got stuck, I have posted a question there and got a response either from one of the development team or from another user very quickly.

# Simon Collison responded on 1st February 2005 with...

Agreed about the need for more basic info. The book chapter will be covering a lot of the basics, and will be a step-by-step guide to setting up a blog using stylish CSS, something that is missing unless the user opts for a basic template and sticks with the tags it contains.

# Veerle Pieters responded on 1st February 2005 with...

First of all, I’ve only used EE once for a project and find it a really great tool. next on the list is my own blog. To give you a bit of background info : I am not a programmer but a designer, so design (including coding in XHTML and CSS) is my territory not PHP.

One of the things I struggled with was to make the right choice : create the site using 1 weblog or use 1 weblog for each section. This is something you need to decide right away but at the very beginning it is all very new and there are a lot of things unclear. Secondly are the subsections : are they categories or is there another way of dealing with these? And last but not least the path structure… I have still trouble understanding how this really works. The site I made with EE works perfectly but I’m not 100% sure if I did everything as should. Like for instance, I hear people talking about variables, well, I haven’t used these simply because I don’t fully understand it. The user guide gives info on most things but still… For a designer who understands just XHTML and CSS it is sometimes too difficult to understand it all by just reading the user guide. What I really would like is some simple tutorial explaining the basics of EE, not the design part (meaning the CSS/XHTML) but all the technical part on how start once EE is ‘installed’ on the server.

# Sue Crocker responded on 1st February 2005 with...

Part of the confusion with EE is who is the target audience? Bloggers or CMSers?

Veerle, if you are using EE for a site instead of just a weblog, the answer is you create at least two weblogs. (Data containers) One for your “news” items and one to control the content in other parts of the site.

For instance, you could create a data container called site, where your entries would be for things like About Us, Terms of Use, that sort of thing.

Then in your tag, you refer to a particular entry_id.

# Veerle Pieters responded on 1st February 2005 with...

Sue, thanks for the info. I think I made the right decision by giving each section its weblog. Each section is different in content and structure and I thought this would be the right solution. I also have a lot of templates too (1 for each main section) so hopefully this isn’t ‘overkill’... The site I’m talking about is Patents4innovation.

I can’t follow you on this however: ‘Then in your tag, you refer to a particular entry_id.’ Not sure what you mean by this :-S

The difficult part in my opinion is analyzing your site and then decide which templates you will need and how many weblogs etc. This might be a bit easier for actual weblogs then for business websites like mine.

# John P. hoke responded on 3rd February 2005 with...

I switched to EE from MT in November, and before that I was a Geeklog user, before that PHPNuke and its forks.. (and wrote a number of plugins for Geeklog, ‘Nuke and others in PHP ...)

The only part of EE that is confusing is its semantics ... the EE terminology seems to fly in the face of current and emerging trends at times (Weblog vs. EE “weblog” ... tags vs. keywords, etc) ... so I think getting into the semanitcs of the project would be a good place to start.

Once I got around the differences things started falling into place…

If I can be of any help, just holler.. I owe you huge for the logical blocks theme :)

# Erwin Heiser responded on 5th February 2005 with...

I’ve just started using EE after doing one site with pMachine pro so I’ve only scratched the surface.
The good:
-massive potential for customisation
-outputs valid XHTML (altough this can be improved on still for example, use the smileys and your pages won’t validate; comment pages prone to not validate )
-fairly easy install
-lots of out-of-the-box functionality without resorting to masses of plug-ins (something that always bothered me about Textpattern, for example)
-good looking templates for non-designers who just want to blog
-image gallery = great add-on
-feels like a solid piece of software
-excellent support forum
The not-so-great
-lack of tutorials and real-world examples (for instance converting an existing site to EE, how to combine static content with EE content or manage static content in EE)
-overly technical manual, I’m a designer/coder not a programmer (altough I’ve started to learn PHP)
-overwhelming interface, especially the admin section
-some confusing-at-first concepts like “weblog” which means something completely different in the EE context than the usual meaning. Maybe “content-blocks” or something would be better…Template is fairly straightforward but template group is another confusing one.
-as with any piece of software, documentation is a key issue. I’d rather consult a well-written manual/guide than to sift throug forum posts, helpful as they may be ;-)

To end on a positive note I think the people at pMachine/EE are well aware of all these criticisms and are taking steps to address them.

# khalil responded on 7th February 2005 with...

I have been playing with EE for just a little while now and so far love it. Initially, I got it to help me create a blog, then multiple blog, website. First I was using a friends account on her site, then I decided to buy a licence and put it on my own site.

Things I love about EE is that it is only as difficult as I want to make it - as a novice of sorts, I can easily manipulate things (or not) and can dive in to complicated stuff or stay with the easy stuff. I’ve chosen a mix of the two, but it has already pushed me to enhance my tech skills.

The deal breaker was the helpful staff. I got great help before buying my licence, answers to many of my questions, and was directed to resources before I needed them. Additionally, since buying my own licence, I’ve made use of the forums and have recieved a lot of help from the EE community as well as the EE staff.

The control panel for EE is excellent and easy to navigate, and kinda fun. What I hope to eventually see from EE is more resources for those of us who know enough to be dangerous but get lost in the technical jargon. Again, the forums, knowledge blog, and other such resources are very helpful, but can be daunting at times.

I’m also hopefully waiting for a desktop program that will allow me to make EE entries without logging on the website. But that’s probably already made, I just don’t know about it yet.

I’ll try to think of other things as I go along and have bookmarked this post.

I’m still learning, but really like the community behind EE.

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