103. Bargain basement

On this week’s show: Paul looks at doing usability testing on a budget. Marcus explores the perfect working environment and we review writemaps an excellent online tool for creating site hierarchies.

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News and events | Marcus: The perfect working environment | Paul Bargain basement usability testing | Review: Writemaps | Question of the week

News and events

Improve your javascript

There seems to be a lot being written about Javascript at the moment, much of which should really help those of you like myself that have a basic grasp but really need to move on to the next level. First, there is a post by Christian Heilmann entitled Javascript Shortcuts that is aimed at teaching dummies like me how to code better. Its actually a very good post and helped me to grasp some shorter ways of working with Arrays and if statements.

There is also a post by Roger Johansson that lays out the basic rules of unobtrusive Javascript. Great for those of you who are old school Javascript coders and need to come a bit more up to date. Most of the points are obvious if you have worked with unobtrusive javascript before but there are also some nice extras like…

Work for the next developer: Make maintenance easier by writing logical code with clear variable and function names and commenting where necessary.

Finally, PPK has updated his DOM compatibility table that catalogues browser support for various DOM modules. I have to confess that some of this went over my head but it is still useful for understanding why a piece of Javascript is not working in a certain browser.

The guys over at Blue Flavor are having a go at answering the million dollar question this week; what makes great design? To be honest I am not sure if this is a question that can really be answered, but I have to say they have a hell of a good go!

Nevertheless it is a good article to point clients at if you need to explain why they should pay more to make their design stand out from the crowd.

Better web forms

On the subject of great design being in the detail I thought it was worth mentioning a great article by Garrett Dimon on Digital Web. Garrett is an information architect and has the most amazing eye for detail. By making small changes he has a significant effect on the sites he works with.

In his article he takes the registration form from ebay and makes a series of small alternations that improve its usability and readability. By tweaking things like the position of labels, the division of fields and the weight of headings he turns a very average form into something that is so much more accessible.

Forms are tricky things to work with and most designers hate doing so. However, reading this article should inspire you when next to tackle a form.

Building an inspiration base

Talking of inspiration, my final news story for today is another one from Blue Flavor. This time they are talking about how to build a reserve of inspiration that you can draw upon. Inspiration is a subject I seem to come back to often and with good reason. It is very easy for designs to become formulaic and it is important to be constantly looking for new sources of inspiration.

This article is in itself very inspiring suggesting a number of ways to find inspiration that I had not previously considered. Although it covers the obvious such as keeping a sketch book or photographing things that give you pause, it also suggests looking through cookbooks and even standing on your head (and other changes in perspective).

I am not convinced all of these ideas will work for everyone but if your going through a dry patch it is definitely worth a read to see if you cannot spark some inspiration.

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Marcus’ bit: The perfect working environment

Recently we received a question asking about our working environments and specifically what your working environment should be like when you code.

I’m going to swing this a little wider and look at working environments in general rather just concentrating on one’s own desk. This is something that both Paul and I have a great deal of experience of so I expect he will have as much to say on the subject as I do.

Mess vs tidy

Marcus' desk (hell hole)

Ok, I have been brave and posted a picture of my office, in its current disgusting state, onto the site. It is appalling – no question. I hate it like this. I keep talking about tidying it up but I reckon it will take at least a week to do it!

Does it make me any less productive to be honest, I’m not sure. The instant answer is to say “no, of course not”, but I am sure I would rather be in here if it was tidy, so it’s certainly possible that I would get more done.

I don’t believe that there is any real benefit to working in this type of squalor. It’s really easy when you first set up an office not to bother spending the tiny amount of time required to organise yourself. This is a mistake. File stuff away regularly (in a sensible way). If you don’t well, just look at the picture.

Music vs silence

For me (the musician), it has to be silence. I am not absolutely sure why, but I think this is because I mostly write as opposed to design or code stuff. I also think it’s because I listen to the music rather than it just being background. This is either shows a weak mind or an outstanding empathy for the musical arts you choose ;-)

Other people

One thing that the questioner didn’t get into was whether or not it is good to work with other people around you. I think that the healthiest option here is to mix it up. Working on your own all the time as we have done for years, is great with regard to getting things done. You can really hone in on a task and give it your all. Headscape’s office is open plan with anywhere between 4 and 10 people in it at any one time. I struggle to write in this environment as I’m too tempted to talk to other people.

But, working on your own all the time can be counterproductive. You are far less likely to bounce ideas around and learn new stuff. Teams tend to be more focused and productive if they work together regularly.

Working on your own for years can lead to stagnation and a lot of staring out of the window if you don’t really fancy a particular task. I tend to measure my desire for a job based on the amount of tea I make during it!

How to organise your day

I tend to check email as it comes in and I respond to IM and phone calls immediately. I can’t help it. I often think that it would be a good idea to check email, say, every 2 or 3 hours and not let it interrupt what I’m working on. I guess this is the salesman in me thinking that every contact is a good lead.

Paul tends to block out chunks of time for tasks and won’t let himself get interrupted during this time. This has got to be more productive than the flitting around method that I adopt.

We’re all different

The main thing to recognise with working environments is that we’re all different and react differently to various situations. Some people like to lock themselves away, others feel lonely working on their own. I think employers need to recognise this and, within reason, try to provide the best environments for their staff on an individual basis.

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Paul’s corner: Bargain basement usability testing

Okay so lets pretend that your boss refuses to pay for usability testing, you have no budget of your own and yet you are determined that the site will be as easy to use as possible. What do you do?

Today I want to look at how you can carry out usability testing without spending a penny. Of course if you can afford $19 per test subject then you can afford this an interesting little service discovered by Tom a boagworld listener.

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Review: Writemaps

I have never managed to find a tool I like for creating site hierarchies and getting them signed off. However, recently I found something that is definitely getting there and I wanted to share it with you.

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Question of the week

What is the best online application you cannot live without?

  • Do I get geek points for spotting Marcus’ Akai S1100 samplers in amongst that ‘OH MY GOD WE’VE BEEN BURGLED’ sized mess? :)

  • My post on the rules of unobtrusive JavaScript was just referring to one of Chris Heilmann’s excellent posts. He should be credited, not me :-).

  • Marcus, that looks like a tidy version of my office ;) Where are the guitars though?

  • Tim

    Hi Marcus,
    I too am musically inclined and have had to think carefully about whether or not to have music while I work.
    Like you, my work is mostly writing.
    I find music can be occasionally be great but only if there are no words. Otherwise the words in the music interfere with the words in my head, if you get my drift – it’s like having multiple people talking to you at once.
    So high energy music such as trance (without vocals) through a good set of speakers or headphones – but not too loud – is a great option for me.
    My only other tip would be to stay away from my music collection and avoid the temptation to change songs. An internet radio stream is a good option in this case.

  • I have an on going discussion with my wife that comes up every weekend and it involves sorting my office out. Maybe this weekend. My only rule is make sure there is enough room for the coffee mug and the keyboard and mouse.

  • Marcus

    @Steve – the top one is an S1000PB (a sampler that doesn’t sampler – great eh!) and the bottom one is an S1000. So maybe half a point for the make :)
    @Owen – my 80’s Schecter Strat is on the wall behind me (the best guitar ever made), and my Yamaha SG3000S and APX5 are just out of shot above the printer and binder. Others act as dust catchers throughout the rest of the house!

  • What is the best online application you cannot live without?
    Remember the Milk (http://www.rememberthemilk.com/)

  • What is the best online application you cannot live without?
    Remember the Milk (http://www.rememberthemilk.com/)

  • Dave Lindberg

    A man I feel for! Marcus my home office is a bit bigger than yours and so is my mess.
    You and Paul keep up the good work!
    P.S. I will see if I can rummage through my office for some jokes for you.

  • I always listen to Pandora.com at work – it’s the only way I ever hear any new music, since my in-the-car listening is 95% podcasts. I do prefer instrumental stuff for working though – usually downtempo electronica.
    Speaking of which, Paul, you need to be louder! Particularly in this episode it sounded like Marcus was right in the car with me and you were mumbling something from the trunk. Whatever mic setup Marcus is using is great – do that :D

  • Is it just me or is Paul getting quieter and quieter (as in volume-wise on the podcast)?? Marcus is fine but can barely hear Paul. Please can you sort it out?!!

  • that’s a good point… I sometimes find myself thinking a bit of (audio volume) compression on the podcast would even things out a bit…
    I listen on speakers while in bed, so every time Paul gets too enthusiastically loud I find myself twitching for the volume in case the gf wakes up…
    (thinks… two alternative solutions… either ask Paul to be far less enthusiastic or drug the gf)

  • KB

    Here’s a test. Listen, as many people will do, to the show on a laptop with the crappy inbuilt speakers. You will hear, as I mentioned previously, that Paul is quiet and squeaky, whereas Marcus is booming and dominant. Think Spitting Image’s portrayal of David Owen and David Steele. How anyone can ever complain Paul is too loud is beyond comprehension. Maybe they don’t know who is who.
    Anyway, the shows are great aside from this annoying aspect, which really should be nailed by #103 as it’s fundamental of podcasting. A simple compressor/limiter would sort this.
    Oh ok while I am being a picky twat the intro music gets on my nerves – I am betting 50p Marcus did it with his home gear, but it smacks of 1980’s Brookside them outtakes with sub-MARRS sample experimentation. Sorry. I’m only trying to help.

  • thank you all for your comments about the audio. You are certainly right that there is a problem and we are all too aware of it. Unfortunately it is not simply fixed with a compressor as has been suggested it is more complex than that. Fundamentally it is concerning a combination of mac audio recording software, limiations of the mac version of skype and the fact that myself and marcus don’t record the show in the same room. In the last show I tried a new technique in the hope of overcoming the problem but as you point out it made it worse. That said I have finally found a hack in an XML file associated with skype which should do the trick. Next weeks show will be better. Honest!

  • I enjoy music but not when I’m writing. The music I listen to at work tends to be classical or soundtrack compositions (Amelie is on high rotation at the mo). Opera also gets a look in, mostly cause my Italian is very limited so I can’t understand what they’re saying.
    I very much like gmail’s documents ability. And it’s been said before but I say it again – Flickr. The new online tools are very impressive.

  • What is the best online application you cannot live without?

  • Thanks

  • thanks.

  • Rob

    Do you still acually play Lemmings Marcus? ;-)

  • Stina K

    Oh, the picture’s gone missing. But in any case, creative mess is the right way for me. I need everything so close I don’t have to get my eyes off the screen that I won’t lose the tracks I’m thinking along. Too clean I just end up staring a wall or desk or something thinking about things completely unrelated to what I’m doing. Especially if there’s a window!
    I also have to say that I find it easier to work with music because a familiar sound (I almost never listen to songs I don’t know really well) helps keep my thoughts moving along the song. No matter what I’m working on (could be anything from blog postings to poetry/prose, graphics to painting or coding). In a way the music gives my thinking a rhythm. If a thought gets interrupted, the song will help to pick it up again. It’s a bit hard to explain how it works exactly but I get distracted very easily if I don’t have familiar music. Having said that, I really do notice the songs that are playing as well as listen the music and the lyrics, it’s not just for background noise. But that’s me, I even read books whilst watching TV. Though usually so that the thing that I’m reading/writing is in different language than the thing I’m listening/watching (f.ex. if I’m writing a post in English, I tend to listen to French or Italian songs; if a TV show is in Italian, I read an English novel).
    Very interesting segment! (Not a bad show over-all either.)

  • The image is back. Sorry about that :)

  • My post on the rules of unobtrusive JavaScript was just referring to one of Chris Heilmann’s excellent posts. He should be credited, not me :-).

  • s it just me or is Paul getting quieter and quieter (as in volume-wise on the podcast)?? Marcus is fine but can barely hear Paul. Please can you sort it out?!!