So, in the process of redesigning the UNT International website, I’ve been thinking a lot about what web developers and technologists in general call “future-proofing.” Technology changes over time, and so do the people using it, so when you’re making something technological it’s generally a good idea to think about whether or not it’s still going to be worth using more than a couple of years from now. This is more difficult than it seems.
For instance, in analyzing the error logs I’m keeping for that site, I’ve noticed recently that there are still quite a few people trying to access pages on our site using URIs that only existed on the old site. The content still exists, but it now lives somewhere else; instead of “/Acalendar.htm”, a user would now have to visit “/offices/welcome/acadcal” if they wanted information about the UNT academic calendar(s). Undoubtedly these users have been frustrated, since the academic calendar is in fact a very important piece of content; they might even have it bookmarked.
To alleviate this problem in the short-term, I’ve set up some simple URI aliases that turn the most common invalid addresses in the error log into the valid addresses on the new site so that our friend looking for the academic calendar will not be disappointed. But although the problem is solvable in the short run, it raises some long-term future-proofing issues.
You see, there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the old URI system and my new one, except that mine seems to me to be a bit more logically organized based on how I understand the content. Everything is structured hierarchically, first by the sub-unit that owns the content, and then by the topical categories most useful to that sub-unit. Makes sense for now, but will it make sense in a couple of years? Can I really guarantee that we will always consider the Welcome Center’s subsection to be the most logical location for academic calendars? The further into the future you go, the more difficult this question becomes. Such an organizationally- and topically-driven hierarchy is ultimately just so much noise; content will invariably move, and no one can possibly predict where it will move to.
Of course, Tim Berners-Lee said all this nine years ago in “Cool URIs Don’t Change“; I’m just not sure that I really got the point until (a) I saw my error logs this week, and (b) I stumbled across Berners-Lee’s article shortly afterwards. Sometimes it takes a real-life problem to make you see that an old habit really does need to die.