189. How to keep up with web innovations

On this week’s show: Paul looks at keeping up with web innovations, Marcus shares how we make the podcast and Nora Brown reviews building findable websites.

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Web design match making

Finding a web designer can be tough. Equally, if you are a web designer (especially if you are just starting out) finding clients can be hard. Much like in love, finding the perfect partnership is difficult.

37 Signals feel they have the answer. To accompany their already successful jobs board, they have now launched Haystack.

Haystack, allows web designers to upload a brief description of their agency for free or a more detailed portfolio for $99 per month.

Clients can then browse this directory in attempt to find the perfect agency.

And there in lies the problem. Although Haystack is beautifully designed it is actually incredibly limited from a clients perspective. They are only given three choices.

  • Search through hundreds of listings manually
  • Filter by city
  • Filter by budget

These filters are both extremely limited and are not enough for narrowing down such a large number of designers.

Haystack.com

Filter by city allows you to select from a handful of US cities, while dumping all other locations into a catch all of ‘other cities.’ This might possibly be acceptable if there was an option to search by country, region or city. Unfortunately there is not.

Filter by budget is equally flawed. As a web designer you have to select a price range that you normally work within. This effectively excludes you from smaller or larger projects. In reality things are rarely that black and white.

Finally I would argue that there are many other characteristics clients look for in an agency. There are no options to filter by technology, skill set or sector experience. The tools available are simply too blunt for making an effective decision.

My guess is that 37 Signals have been caught off guard by the instant popularity of the app. The current application has been built with a small number of agencies in mind. In such circumstances it would be perfectly adequate.

I am sure that they are already working on upgrades to the app which will handle the large number of agencies much more elegantly. These guys do good work and there is no doubt that an app like this is much needed.

Client relations

There seems to be a lot of posts around this week looking at the working relationship between clients and web designers.

There is a sitepoint post that focuses on fine tuning your persuasive techniques, a smashing magazine post on dealing with difficult characters and A List Apart post on when to walk away. There is even an article teaching us how to deal with things like scope creep and unhelpful design feedback.

Although it is good to see posts tackling client management, I do fear they all have a negative tone.

Last friday I ran a workshop on client relationships and although we discussed dealing with problematic relationships, I tried to make the overall theme a positive one.

Too many web designers go into new projects seeing the client as either the enemy or as a hinderance to the projects success. Articles like those I have mentioned are in danger of reinforcing this viewpoint.

It is important to remember that our clients are extremely knowledgeable in their own fields and that both designer and client wants the same thing – a successful website.

I also worry that too many web designers are perceived as negative. Instead we need to be positive and stop saying no to our clients.

Myths of usability testing

Two posts have been published recently that challenge some of our preconceptions about usability testing.

The first is a post by A List Apart entitled “The Myth of Usability Testing” and is a response to some fairly shocking research.

The research monitored a number of usability tests run by different agencies on the same site. The result was that although all of the agencies found many problems, only 30% of those problems were common to more than one agency. In other words the agencies could not agree on where the problems lay.

The article goes on to examine the discrepancy focusing in particular on the questions asked and the people tested. It also explains that context is vital to the interpretation of results.

The second post is one that challenges the role of eye tracking. The post looks at the pros and cons of the approach and in my opinion is a balanced assessment.

The post ends with the following conclusions:

Some have concluded that the benefits of eyetracking are not worth the high cost, effort, and complexity it adds to usability testing. On the other hand, some eyetracking vendors and consultants have promoted the idea that you cannot conduct usability testing effectively without eyetracking.

The truth lies somewhere between these extremes. If you know how to use eyetracking effectively, it can provide additional insights to usability testing that can help you find problems and answer questions about user behavior. Eyetracking is not essential to usability testing, but if you can afford it and have the time to learn how to use it effectively, it is definitely worth it.

Personally, we have never recommended eye tracking to our clients and this post has done nothing to persuade me to start. For the type of clients we work for the expenditure is hard to justify.

jQuery for designers

I am a huge fan of jQuery. I have said this more than once in the past. The thing I love most about jQuery is that it is aimed squarely at designers. If you can understand HTML and CSS, then you can wrap your head around jQuery. What is more, it lets you do some really cool things very easily.

Imagine my delight when this week I discovered jQuery For Designers. Apparently the site has been around for a while but I seem to have missed it entirely. In case you have missed it too I thought I would give it a quick mention.

The site contains dozens of screencasts and examples of various cool functionality that can be built with jQuery. Just some of the tutorials include:

  • Tabs
  • Slider galleries
  • Carousels
  • iPhone sliding headings
  • Fixing floating elements

Best of all, you can subscribe to these screencasts on itunes enabling you to view them as a podcast.


This is just one of the many excellent tutorials on jQuery for Designers.

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Feature: 10 secrets to staying informed about web design

Keeping up in the world of web design is tough. Things move fast and its hard to stay informed. In this post I share 10 ways that RSS can come to the rescue.

Read 10 secrets to staying informed about web design

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Ad: Win a Macbook Pro or iPod Touch

Webvanta are running a superb contest that I wanted to quickly mention.

There is an opportunity to win a Macbook Pro or one of three iPod Touch.

To be in with a chance of winning, you need to build a great looking, effective website on the Webvanta CMS.

Don’t worry if you are not an existing Webvanta user. They are going to give you a Webvanta premium account for the duration of the contest.

The panel of judges (that includes our own Ryan Taylor) will pick a winner on the 1st February so get designing.

For more details on how to enter visit Webvanta.com/Contest.

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Listeners feedback:

Recording the podcast

I had the following tweet from @david_o_connell:

@marcus67 could you guys do a spot on the tech setup for recording the podcast please (didn’t ask Paul as he muffs the audio :) )

Thinking about this I realised that I have never covered this riveting subject so after nearly 200 shows it was probably about time!

It’s worth noting that we are set up to record and edit things as quickly as possible. We have recorded a weekly show for years so we have to get it down and get it out the door. I’m sure there are other ways of doing things and I expect my history of working in expensive recording studios potentially means that I overcomplicate things… but, this is how I do it.

Hardware

Ok, this is a list of all the stuff we use:

  • AKG C 2000B microphone (x3) – these are ‘mid’ quality mics that need phantom powering. ‘Decent’ quality mics are a must otherwise you will end up with a thin and probably noisy result. Built-in laptop mics are a total no-no!
  • Angled mic stand (x2) – these are recent addition that mean we can comfortably use our laptops while recording the show.
  • Straight mic stand – we use this for any guests we have on the show.
    Pop shield (x3) – again, a recent addition to the setup. Vital in avoiding pops and bangs on words that begin with ‘p’ or ‘b’.
  • XLR to XLR (balanced) mic leads (x3)
  • Behringer mixing desk – our mixing desk has 4 ‘proper’ mic channels and 4 stereo channels, 2 sub groups and phantom powering to power the mics. On a standard show, I take a feed from sub the group outputs to the input on the Mac. When we’re recording a live show things are little more complex as we need to get the audio to two places at the same time (my Mac recording the show and Paul’s that is broadcasting live). I also need to hear the audio from the intro videos so we’re taking an out from Paul’s Mac for the videos and a feed from the desk master outs to his line input… you need to see it really!
  • Technics closed-ear headphones – these are my ‘old faithfuls’ that I have used for years. It is imperative that one person monitors voice levels throughout the recording. I plug them into the headphone input on my Mac. Closed ear are best because they do not ‘spill’ into the mic.

I don’t use any external compressors or limiters. That gets taken care of in the software.

Software

In my current setup I use Logic Pro to record all of the audio. This is a bit over the top for podcast recording but I also use it to record music and it does both jobs beautifully.
For the voice tracks I use the setting Voice > Speech > Male Radio that adds a compressor, de-esser (to stop sibilance) and EQ.

However, if you’ve got a Mac then Garageband will do the job admirably. It even has ‘podcast’ settings that you can assign prior to recording.

Back in my PC days I used to use Sony Soundforge to record the audio tracks which I would then edit together using Propaganda. I still use Soundforge to bounce down to MP3 (Logic is unreliable at this).

Recording tips

Here’s a bunch of tips to :

  • As I’ve already mentioned, use headphones while recording the show to avoid anyone going ‘off mic’. Usually, pointing at them, then their mic gets the message home!
  • When recording 2 people pan the input channels hard left and hard right. This means that if you have to boost any part of a recording it’s easy to locate the specific part. The absolute ideal here would be to have some sort of multi-input box into the computer thereby allowing multitrack recording i.e. I am recorded onto one track while Paul is recorded on to another simultaneously. Thinking about it, I could probably do this right now (for max 2 channels) by separating the inputs and recording 2 mono channels instead of one stereo. But, to be honest, it’s really not worth doing as, mentioned earlier, time is of the essence.
  • Record a quick levels test prior to any recording (because you really don’t want to have to go back in and fiddle with the levels afterwards unless you absolutely have to).
  • Record each section of the podcast on a separate track. Don’t do one long recording as this is much harder to edit later and add in music and audio dividers. If you record each section separately then you should only have to top and tail it which takes no time at all.
  • Once all the voice recording is done, I will add in the intro and outro music, the section dividers and any interviews or questions that are part of the show.
  • Once I’m happy with result, I bounce to Wav format which I then open in Soundforge and save out as 64Kbps 44.1 kHz mono MP3 format which is tagged and FTP’d to our hosts.

Here’s a screenshot of a final ‘mix’ in Logic before the bounce down (v zoomed out).

Screenshot of a final ‘mix’ in Logic before the bounce down

Building Findable Websites

My name is Nora Brown; I’m a freelance web designer in Boston.

I’d like to give you and Boagworld listeners a recommendation for a book I recently read, called “Building Findable Websites”, by Aarron Walter. Though I finished reading it a month or so ago, I find I’ve been referring back to it constantly ever since.

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond

In this book, Aarron Walter views SEO as just one aspect of, and in some ways almost a side effect of, improving a website’s “findability” — which is defined on page 2 as:

“The quality of being located or navigated, the degree to which an object or piece of data can be located, and the degree to which a system supports navigation and retrieval.”

The goals of findability are listed as:

  1. Help people find your website.
  2. Help people find what they are looking for once they arrive at your site.
  3. Bring your audience back to your website.

Notice there is no mention of Google or any other search engine, because obviously the ultimate goal is to help *people* find and use your website, not search bots.

To that end, Walter provides straightforward advice for improving findability at all levels of site development:

  • Front-end markup strategies
  • Server-side strategies
  • Content generation

Though not every technique will be right for every site, as someone who builds small business and portfolio websites, I found the majority of the recommendations to be practical and implementable. Furthermore, nothing in the book represents SEO for SEO’s sake — all the techniques have other benefits, primarily improving the user experience.

Aarron Walter manages to fit an amazing amount of useful, actionable information into this slim volume, but if it’s not enough, there are even five bonus chapters which you can download for free at buildingfindablewebsites.com.

I hope you and your listeners take a look at this excellent book.

I also think the author Aarron Wlater would make a great candidate for a Boagworld interview.

Thanks and keep up the wonderful podcast.

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  • http://www.kamikazemusic.com Dave Sparks

    Totally agree about Haystack. It could be a great service but with it’s set of filters you simply go from one haystack of designers to a slight smaller haystack of designers.

  • http://www.internetcommunicators.com janko Bosch

    @Marcus. Thanks for the setup info. Just forget about Paul…

  • mike

    Great show best yet. Love the Recording the podcast section. I love this type of content.

    Some show ideas.

    1. Web advertising what works dose not work. (for ad publishers)
      Size of ads placement type of ads etc

    2. Post idea why Google sucks. Encouraged to not delete content. Paid to spam each other with Google ads. You could also compare Google to Microsoft. If Microsoft did what Google dose how it would be viewed

  • http://www.jaron.nl jaronbarends

    Really liked the part on staying informed. Nice to hear that there are more geeks like me who like to listen to podcasts in the car.

    I would like to point you to an alternative for calling yourself when you want to remember something while driving. I allways Dial2do (http://www.dial2do.com/) for that. It let’s you record a message, transcribes it, and you can have it send as an email (to yourself or someone else), a text message or a tweet. Just my two cents…

  • http://www.rappsodystudios.co.cc Joshua Rapp

    Great show guys, I enjoyed your segment on Jquery for Designers. Keep the jokes coming Marcus.

  • Don

    Love the recording setup chat. I originally started to listen to the podcast when I was setting up a page for a band I`m in – the page is still v basic and a bit stagnant now as the band is on hiatus – but I still love to listen to the show. I can recommend several recording/studio podcasts should Paul want to dig deeper!!?? Glad to see the irony of Paul and Craig complaining of foreign language terminology was not lost.

  • http://www.amberweinberg.com Amber Weinberg

    Great show, I was thinking the same thing about Haystack, but I admit I signed up anyways :P

  • mike

    Here is a link to a Screencasting Setup.

    http://css-tricks.com/screencasting-setup/

    Might give some ideas for a podcast setup. Hope it helps

  • http://gelform.com Corey

    Re: the vast jQuery support online. When John Resig spoke at Dev Days last month in Boston, he said that 20% of all sites on the web use jQuery now. No idea where he got that stat, and I’m sure it’s not quite accurate, but it’s extremely popular, which only means there’s going to be a lot of people talking about it.

  • Thomas Hergenroether

    Thank you for all the work you put into these shows. The information, advice and insight are greatly appreciated!

  • http://minute44.com Dan

    My god, Craig sounds like Michael Macintyre!

  • Josh

    Great episode sirs, hope to hear more of Craig – it’s always fun to hear coders go off on designers. I’ve got to say though, Paul’s rant after Marcus went through the podcasting process drove me crazy – there was some really solid info in there, just because it wasn’t interesting to Paul, doesn’t mean someone listening won’t find value in it.

  • http://www.norabrowndesign.com Nora Brown

    Thanks for including my review, Paul! Even if it was at the end of the longest Boagworld ever…

  • http://www.scribbleit.co.uk Kev

    Re Haystack: this is how 37Signals works (have you read their book?). Push out a version by stripping features out so you can hit a deadline and then get it right over time. Given the level of interest, you can be sure they’ll be adding the appropriate filters and features over time.

    • http://headscape.co.uk/people/boag.html Paul Boag

      I guessed as much (and said so on the show). However, I do have some problems with this approach. Often users will only give a service one chance and if it is so stripped down it is useless then they may not return.

  • http://bit.ly/tgbdad tgbdad

    Great show, gentlemen. Enjoyed it immensely.

    I don’t really have much exposure to eye tracking, but I do know of at least one case where it provided vital information. There were some usability studies done on Drupal last year, and the Drupal community was pretty shocked to watch the eye tracking footage of experienced website builders attempting to use Drupal for the first time. These results are probably the biggest trigger to all of the user experience changes that has gone into Drupal 7.

    I have to disagree just a little with Marcus about phantom power being the key to a good podcasting mic. The Shure SM7B ($350US) is a pretty nice dynamic broadcast mic that doesn’t require phantom. Of course, as mentioned, anything is better than a built-in or cheap headset mic.

    It would definitely be nice if people creating video and/or screencast content for the web would pay at least a little attention to their audio quality. I don’t know how many tutorial videos I’ve watched whose creator spent little or no time checking levels, eliminating background noise, and at least applying a little compression and eq to their finished product. I’ve turned off great podcasts and screencasts alike because the sound was just awful.

    Boagworld has consistently good audio. This is a big deal for me, as I listen using a crap FM transmitter while driving a noisy car. The time you guys spend in post-production, even if it’s quick, definitely pays off. Thanks!

    I love the podcast. It’s a great balance of waffle and useful info that makes my Wednesday evening commutes enjoyable.

    Micah Webner

  • http://www.napnam.nl Patrick Andriessen

    Hi guys,

    Really enjoyed this week podcast. I’ve got a little tip for all you GeoCities fans out there. Just before Yahoo pulled the plug another Dutchman (Jacques Mattheij) made a backup of the complete archive.

    You can view the archive on: http://www.reocities.com

    Thank you guys for this great podcast! Rock on!

    Cheers,

    Patrick Andriessen

  • http://www.webkarnage.net WebKarnage

    Surely the point about Yahoo’s attitude here was to prevent the people who wanted to take GeoCities on from doing so. That was a bad way to go about it. They did not need to do that.

    People love to do too much Paul bashing for my liking! They try to get him flustered enough to stop him getting his point across as well as he could. The GeoCities issue is definitely a point in question here…

    If 37signals are going to put up a half finished project and improve it as they go along, then how about pricing it accordingly? It doesn’t seem like the functionality matches the price to me. Give a friendly price to those who adopt an incomplete service early?

    Audio really is my domain on a day to day basis, and you can get a very good sounding phantom powered condenser mic at less than £80. The Shure mic mentioned further above would pay for a whole setup! Blue make a simple USB phantom power supplying mic preamp. Plugin and go! They even do nice mics (like the Snowball I believe) that is USB direct. Beyond that level, your room acoustic will have a huge part to play.

    We have the crazy option of 24bit recording if wanted (Apple computers come with a program ready to do this called Garageband) where you can record with much headroom (avoids any brief shouts clipping) and then pushing the level up later and still having a result better than really needed. Leave some headroom people, it’s not compact cassette. Even recording at 16bit, we don’t need to get every dB of headroom! Just avoid distortion if you can.

    It can be more tricky when several people record themselves in different locations, and each must get it right. Only needs one issue.

    The improvement in the sound quality of the Boagworld podcast over the time has been really worth it. Keep up the good work!

    I don’t read RSS feeds. Times is a great app on the Mac that I have, and I still don’t read them. Podcasts (this one and Sitepoint) are always listened to, as I can still be working on other things. I don’t get the time to read much.

    I do use Twitter, and read a few of the links I get from the people I follow.

    with best regards,
    Karn.

    • http://bit.ly/tgbdad tgbdad

      @WebKarnage: Yes, of course, the mic I mentioned above is overpriced for most situations. Sorry, I was just having a bit of fun needling Marcus. While high quality dynamic mics are as appropriate as (phantom-powered) condensers for voice recording, the new USB condensers are quite nice. I’d definitely consider purchasing one if I were setting up a podcast. One caveat: I have heard that users have had trouble using multiple USB condenser mics to record multiple tracks on the same computer. I’m not sure which brands or setups are affected, but that’s worth checking out before making a purchase.

      Micah

  • Robert Meineke

    Thanks for mentioning jQuery for Designers. I have been a fan of the site for quite a long time — one of the best around, on any subject. Remy Sharp is unbelievably talented. Between his gigs running conferences and speaking at conferences he is working on a jQuery book for Manning:

    http://manning.com/sharp/

    If you have a look-see at his personal website (http://remysharp.com/) he would appear to be one of those poor souls with and endless supply of energy. It makes me tired just looking at all the stuff he has going on.

    Paul and Marcus: you /really/ should try to have him on the podcast some time. He is incredibly knowledgeable and engaging.

    Regards,
    Robert M.

  • http://www.cabstudios.co.uk Kevin Price-Ward

    Good show gentlemen. In relation to the comments about eye tracking, we’re starting to use ClickTail (www.clicktail.com) which actually records movies of people interacting with your site. We think these have so much more value for goal driven websites and enable us as designers/developers to optimise the page for better conversion and ultimately benefit the customer and the visitor. Would be interested to find out if anyone else is using this or what alternatives there are though! Cheers

  • http://hype-free.blogspot.com Cd-MaN

    One remark about the final encoding step: you might want to consider encoding 64kbps joint-stereo instead of mono. The filesize will be the same (joint stereo = encode the differences between the two channels, and if there aren’t any there is practically no overhead) and some weird players don’t like mono MP3s.

  • Bobby

    Loved this show! And for the record, I am an avid guitar player and I love recording projects, so whenever Marcus goes on about changing his strings or what have you, I know exactly what he’s talking about and it often reminds me of something I am forgetting to do! Keep it up! PS – Loved the joke.

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