191. Ecommerce Lies

On this week’s show: Marcus explains how podcasting and blogging can support your business and Paul exposes the top ecommerce lies.

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Housekeeping

If you are considering going to Future of Web Design New York on the 17th November then you will be pleased to hear that we have managed to get you a 15% discount.

I went last year and can honestly say it was the best conference I have ever intended (although the hype around the election might have helped!).

To claim your discount just enter the code ‘boag15′ at checkout.

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News

Does aesthetics need to be compromised for the sake of usability?

As you will know if you have followed me for any length of time, I have great respect for usability expert Gerry McGovern. We work on similar projects and share a similar view of the web.

However, this week I parted company with Mr McGovern over his most recent post “Why web links are calls to action.”

In it he wrote:

It’s hard to read what Dustin writes on this black background; gave me a bit of a headache actually. But that’s okay. I had a great overall experience of the page because its black background communicated an important emotional, aesthetic thing to me.

Seriously, it’s a bit of a pity Dustin makes it so hard to read his stuff because what he has to say is quite interesting.

Later he went on to attack designers for their dislike of underlines.

Isn’t it amazing how many designers hate underline? They think it’s ugly, that it takes away from the look of the page.

Finally he reached the crux of his argument:

Have you read any grey books recently? I mean, have you read any books that use grey text or that have black backgrounds? Or, for that matter, have you read any print newspapers or magazines that use grey text? It’s well documented that it’s harder to read on a screen than in print. So why do designers deliberately create webpages that make reading even harder? Simple, really. Many web designers are more concerned with how the page looks than how it reads and functions.

In essence Gerry seems to be arguing that aesthetics should always take second place to usability. I disagree with this. It depends on the type of site. On some sites it is important to communicate more than information. Some websites are about conveying emotion and feeling too.

As for particularly targeting black backgrounds and underlined links, this is entirely unjustified.

Black backgrounds can (if done right) actually aid usability. Contrast is the issue here, not the colour of the background. As long as there is sufficient contrast a black background can actually reduce eye strain caused by white light, aiding on screen reading.

An example of a black background website with high contrast text

As for underlined links, I again disagree. Although I think it is important to underline links I tend to use border-bottom rather than text-decoration:underline. The problem with the latter is that the line intersects descenders making words hard to read, especially for those with cognitive disabilities. Not using underlines in their traditional sense actually aids readability.

An example of descenders intersecting underlines

The idea that most designers do not care about usability is incorrect. We care passionately. However, we do not always solve these problems in the way that usability consultants would prefer. Instead we try to balance aesthetic considerations with usability. We care both for how the page looks and how it functions.

So what do you think? Do you believe that designers care more about aesthetics than usability? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Explaining user experience design

Let’s face it, we all dress our jobs up in fancy terminology to justify our existence. That is fine until those paying us no longer understand what we are talking about.

Okay, so I am exaggerating to make a point. Sometimes we use our own terminology because we need short hand to explain complex ideas. However whatever the reason, it can get in the way when communicating with clients.

That is where the latest A List Apart post comes in. Entitled ‘Can you say that in english: Explaining UX research to clients‘ it does exactly what it says on the tin.

I want to recommend you read this article for three reasons:

  • If you are a somebody who needs to deal with UX people, this post proves an excellent introduction into what services they provide and the terminology they use.
  • If you are a UX person the post provides valuable advice on how to better communicate with clients.
  • If you have just started doing UX work this article may introduce you to more techniques. For example: have you previously heard of Contextual Inquires or Diary studies?

If you are looking for a great introduction to user experience design written in plain english, this is not a bad place to start.

The importance of typography

Typography is playing an increasingly important role on the web. Browser manufacturers now almost universally support font-face and there are a number of organisations such as Typekit and Fontdeck who have overcome the legal challenges surrounding the use of type online.

Unfortunately few fully understand the power of typography. Even web designers have become so used to working with a limited number of fonts that they have forgotten how evocative a great font can be.

There are loads of great resources about type on the web. Howeve, if you are looking for a post to get you started and demonstrate the power of type, I would recommend Jennifer Farley’s post on Sitepoint.

This isn’t a post that teaches you how font-face works. It isn’t even a post that explains how to create great typography. Instead it aims to excite you about the potential and power of great typography.

If you are a designer who rarely considers typography in any depth, then I highly recommend this post. If you are a website owner or developer who doesn’t ‘get’ all the fuss surrounding web typography, then I would also recommend you check this post out.

Website maintenance tips

Our final news story for today is an eclectic post from Smashing Magazine looking at website maintenance tips and tools.

It is a useful post because most of us are better at building websites than we are at maintaining them. After all, it is much more exciting to build a new feature than it is to carry out maintenance.

The article includes:

  • Advice on keeping content clean
  • Tools and advice on repairing your site
  • Information on browser compatibility testing
  • Help creating clean HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Guidance on ensuring accessibility
  • A look at HTML5 and CSS3
  • How to optimise your site for speed
  • Advice on commenting code
  • An introduction to SEO enhancements
  • Information on stats and analytics
  • How to incorporate user feedback

As I said – a somewhat eclectic mix. However, it is certainly worth a read if you are responsible for maintaining a large website over time.

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Feature: The Biggest Ecommerce Lies and How to Avoid Theme

I am amazed at some of the advice I read about building successful ecommerce sites. I seriously wonder who writes this stuff! In this week’s feature I debunk 5 common myths.

Read the biggest ecommerce lies and how to avoid them

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Listeners feedback: Does blogging/podcasting win you any work?

Got the following question from Dave Smith:

Basically I’m interested in whether your Podcast and Blog generate any enquiries that result in paid work/projects for Headscape?

Recently we created FindMeByIP.com and it generated what is – for us anyway – a considerable amount of traffic for the Blog on our website. However, despite the tens-of-thousands of hits generated, we’ve only received 1 enquiry regarding new work. ONE!

What I want to know is whether you’ve devised any strategies for converting Blog/Podcast traffic into paid work projects for Headscape.

If not then how can you justify the obviously considerable amount of time and effort you put into your Podcast and Blog? What provides return on investment?

I’d look forward to any ideas/thoughts/suggestions that you might have.

The simple answer as to whether the podcast and blog generate any enquiries that result in paid work is yes. Blogging and podcasting have become the principle method that we use to market Headscape. We wouldn’t do it to the level that we do if it wasn’t a successful method of winning work.

Patience

I happened to notice recently that the first ever podcast went out in 2005 with Paul creating written articles prior to that. It took at least a couple of years before we started to notice that the majority of new prospects were discovering us through the blog and podcast.

There’s a couple of important points to note here:

  • The majority of Headscape’s work comes from existing clients and referrals. It did then and still does now. I don’t think the blogging/podcast model alone would have been able to support us in the early days when our client list was a lot shorter.
  • We’re not ‘scientific’ about ROI. In other words, we don’t get hung up about effort spent on marketing versus the amount of revenue coming in from it. It’s either working (or improving) or it’s not. If it’s not then we’ll try something else. Personally, I don’t think it’s a numbers game. For example, what if that one enquiry that Dave mentioned was from a huge client?

Perception

Even though we have always been completely ‘up front’ about the benefits that the podcast brings to Headscape, Paul didn’t start it with commerciality in mind.
Paul is a born blogger. He is a person that needs no encouragement to experiment with stuff and then share his thoughts with all and sundry. The fact that it has benefited our business is great and led the rest of us to encourage him to do more and more.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that Dave (and his colleagues’) blog is in any way forced but, and here’s the clincher, it sits on the company website. There is an instant connection between the blog and the company that may – probably sub-consciously – deter readers because they feel they are being sold at.

We used to write articles for the Headscape site and we’d send out regular email newsletters alerting subscribers to new articles. This was not successful, I believe, for the reasons highlighted above.
Boagworld started as Paul’s personal blog. And, I’m guessing, for the vast majority of readers and listeners it still is very much Paul’s site. They put up with the odd reference to Headscape but basically they’re not interested and never will be.

Influence

Though we have had a few website owners follow the show and hire us directly, the majority of the work that we win via the podcast is through listeners influencing their bosses. It took us a while to realise this.

When Boagworld started we felt it was important to focus the show (and blog) on website owners and not designers and developers. And though this focus remains important and provides a differentiator to other ‘tech’ blogs and podcasts, we now understand that both audiences are important to us.

Entertainment?

Mentioning differentiators, I think the fact that we do a podcast (not just a blog) is significant as well. It gives our audience a chance to get to know us far more than through articles alone. I have mentioned before that I think one of the biggest questions a potential client has before hiring an agency is ‘can I work with these people?’ I think the same applies for an in-house designer or developer who wants to make a recommendation to a boss. They need to feel that they can completely trust the team they are recommending and I think that’s more likely if their connection with you is via a (long running) podcast.

Our ‘style’, though it has its detractors (!), has kept people listening for nearly 200 shows. I guess what I am saying is that though of course high quality, relevant and up to date content is paramount to a successful podcast or blog, making it entertaining is also imperative. There are those that would completely disagree with my previous sentence – they don’t listen to Boagworld…

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think that the most important element to a successful blog or podcast is that it’s not being done simply as a vehicle to try and win work (or sell products etc). It has to be something you would do anyway. Of course, seeing positive results from a blog (as we have) will encourage more time being dedicated to it, but it shouldn’t be the reason to start in the first place.

Paul has talked in the past about one of the keys to blogging being consistency and regular posting. If you see blogging as a chore then chances are you won’t produce consistent or regular work.
In Dave’s case, along with considering moving the blog away from the company site, I think patience is the key as it appears they haven’t been doing it long.

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Image Credit: MarS

  • http://davemcdermid.co.uk Dave McDermid

    Bonus show-note for people who don’t like typing Google into Google..

    http://code.google.com/closure/compiler/

  • Keith

    The remarks by Gerry McGovern about the hard to read web page, the answer is Firefox. When I get to a site I have trouble reading I just disable the page styles and read the black text on white background like I like it.

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