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DotNetNuke Skinning, The Untold Story

By Rich Campbell

I joined Engage back in early 2006 working with DotNetNuke skinning for both internal and clientèle projects. By working on numerous projects, I found that many people have different conceptions about skinning with DotNetNuke.  And I could not satisfy myself with a clear definition of skinning in most of the books that I looked at.  Today, let’s talk about skinning and its true meaning, and learn what we can do to fully accomplish a powerful DotNetNuke skinning engine.

Skinning is not a skill; it’s a profession that requires knowledge and experience in understanding the DotNetNuke platform (especially with the skinning engine), web standards, as well as aesthetic design.

While the aforementioned knowledge and experiences apply to broad projects, one does not have to possess those skills to have skinning done in a proper way. However, they are what is required in creating an outstanding piece of art:  a DotNetNuke design.

Why is it not just a skin, but also a design?  The followings will further explain.

1.    Skinning as a Brand

Commercially built skins in the current market are fairly designed towards a personal website or individual consulting business.  Almost all of them lack a unique value in providing meaning to businesses or individuals.  They rarely present direction or usability values towards specific target audiences.

Having a look around the Internet, there are mass produced DotNetNuke skins from powerhouses all over the world.  They’re all trying to compete in a segmented market such as the DotNetNuke community, which is mostly owned by individual consultants or personal websites.  Those individuals are certainly tied in with projects and pay little or no attention to the values of their very own brands.  I’m lucky enough to have been exposed in various business cultures to believe that the way one represents himself constitutes his business mantra.

When clients visit your office, they can tell how professional, well organized or detail-oriented you are towards managing projects.  If a client does not object in selecting a design that may appear “similar” to others of a similar product, then selecting a commercial DotNetNuke skin will be a simpler task and the most bang for the client’s buck.  However, if one understands the value of what a design can be, the article “The Brand Called You” might sound familiar.

So who are your target markets?  Just think outside the box for a bit.  When developing a web site for clients that are not familiar with concepts of DotNetNuke skinning, it gets a bit complicated.  They may travel around the Internet and run into other consultants or small businesses that may have similar site designs (obviously because you’re using a commercial skin).  What questions would they have in regards to the uniqueness of your business?  Does this sound like picking up Chinese food at a Hunan Express or Hunan Wok?  It is because they all look and taste the same unless you go to P.F. Chang where you can savor the flavors of China.

What will you do to stand out from the crowd?  Writing it alone on your website is not enough.  You must prove it.

Your spending for development and testing might be a staggering number, then price the module or skin at a premium number, but in the end your brand looks just like mine.  We are not that different after all.  Think with a competitive advantage in mind.

Skinning is not only a brand; it’s also a marketing tool that set you apart from others. So take advantage of it. Personalize yourself!

2.    Skinning as a Design

There are two business layers involve in building a new system using DotNetNuke:  Architecture and Design (of course there are a few others but I won't mention for this article purpose).

At Engage, I’m proud that we have a flawless workflow in module development.  I work regularly with the development team to assist with UI/UX design and development during the initial process.  The team often manages all features and functionality (referred to as Architecture); I am mainly responsible for the UI and UX layers (also referred to as the Design phase).

When starting a project, I tend to stay away from the word “skinning” because of its ambiguity.  Why is it ambiguous?  Unless a client requests to create a DotNetNuke skin based on an existing design, I can surely implement the design as instructed. But if the client seeks to create a complete project from scratch, then the word “skinning” shall not be defined explicitly.

I design DotNetNuke websites, not skins.

The word design encompasses a broader view than skinning.  I define design (in building DotNetNuke websites) as a mix of all aspects that enhances the user experience, look and feel, and brand recognitions… it’s just not skinning.

Skinning is an act of generating specific markups that comply with the DotNetNuke skinning engine.  Therefore, it allows us to package and deploy on a DotNetNuke environment site.

Design should inherit from the brand perspectives; knowing that a brand is a tangible asset.  However, design is a great tool to represent your brand in a more visual approach.

So in your next projects, don't create panes.  Design the best user experience for your visitors.

3.     Skinning as an Architecture

To me, skinning is akin to speaking English. There are various ways to deliver a meaningful sentence using different approaches.  When working in DotNetNuke skinning, there are various approaches to a design. But choosing the right approach at the initial process to fully take advantage of the true powerful skinning engine is a smart move.

Here are two suggestions:

  1. Flexibility

    Why flexibility?
    As we know that skinning engine provides such a wonderful way of managing a website's design. Before you start, make sure to analyze the design in a most dynamic way prior to implementation.  Take about half an hour to learn the designer's intention when he creates the composition.  When you deliver the final piece, users (administrators) will shorten their time to manage the site visual and content.

    For example, think of the iPod user interface.  It only requires having less than three clicks to play your favorite songs.  Allow users to have less steps involve in managing their website will truly unveil the potential of DotNetNuke skinning engine.

  2. Scalability

    Why scalability?
    Always leave room for growth in your new project.  Whether it is a personal or business site; you'll never know if it’s going to grow.  During the brainstorming meeting, talk out loud to discuss future growth to make sure changes can be achievable.  Creating more panes in your design and leaving them empty does not constitute to best practices in DotNetNuke skinning.  Make it scalable!

Instead of skinning, design creatively in your next projects to provide the best user experience for your visitors. Take full advantage of the powerful skinning engine to enhance the brands and set yourself apart from others. Remember, you are your own brand. Start creating things differently!

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