103. Bargain basement

Paul Boag

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?