On show 108: The differences between work for an agency or being an in-house designer. Hosting bandwidth intensive content and what happens when Paul designs a web design conference.
Unfortunately Marcus is not on this week’s show. His Father died a few days ago and obviously he has lots of stuff to deal with. Hopefully he will be back next week. However, if you are desperate for your Marcus fix then check him out on Nevermind the Buzzcocks.
News and events
Future of Web Design
Imagine for a moment if you will that an email lands in your inbox asking you to create your perfect web design conference. Who would you invite to speak? Daniel Burka from Digg, Andy Clarke maybe? What about Jon Hicks or Jina Bolton?
Well that is exactly what happened to me when the guys over at Carsonified asked me to chair this years Future of Web Design conference. They asked me who I thought my dream line up would be and together we worked on assembling them. Sure, there were some restrictions, apparently raising the dead caused a problem and hosting the conference on the moon was out of the question. However, overall we did pretty damn well.
So on the 17th and 18th of April in London I get to attend (and contribute to) my dream conference. The line up includes all the people I have already mentioned and more. The only thing missing is you guys. It would be really cool to have a bit of a boagworld meet-up while we are there so get on over and sign up today. It will cost you £145 including VAT or £480 if you want to attend my workshop as well.
However I know some of you are poor students or have tight ass bosses so we are also giving away two free tickets. If you want to win the two tickets email me with FOWD in the subject line with your name and contact details. We will pick a winner in a couple of weeks.
Advancing advanced search
My second story of the day is an excellent post on the Boxes and Arrows website. It tackles the subject of advanced search. Search generally is possibly one of the most neglected aspects of website navigation. This is amazing as it is the primary means of navigation for 50% of those who use websites.
I have seen some stuff written about search results but next to nothing on advanced search. What is more advanced search is not only ignored by writers but also by users. Few choose to use the functionality it provides, only turning to it as a last resort if all else fails.
In this article Stephen Turbek suggests that we need to re-design advanced search from the ground up. Instead of advanced search being a tiny link often overlooked, it should be an integral part of the search results page where complex filtering can be carried out through a graphical interface. Its hard to explain exactly what he is talking about without seeing the examples he gives so definitely check out the post.
If you ever have to work with search then this is a must read.
Starting from a blank canvas
Next up is a blog post from Cameron Moll on how to start a new design. We have spoken before on this show about how hard it is to come up with a design from scratch. Nothing can sap your creativity more than a blank sheet of paper (or empty Photoshop file!).
Cameron gives some good solid advice including sketching rather than diving into Photoshop and also drawing from previous work. However, he also suggests some less well known approaches such as starting with a grid and (most interestingly) working on the core content first. On the latter point he is referring to the fact that we often tackle things like headers and navigation first only coming back to the content at the end. Moll suggests this should be the other way around. This is good advice as it focuses the designer on what the site is really about rather than the interface used to navigate it.
You suck at Photoshop
My last find of the week is a really superb set of tutorials I found on youtube. I am not entirely sure how useful they are but they are definitely entertaining.
Most screencasts maybe informative but are often deadly boring. Not so with “You suck at Photoshop”. These basic Photoshop tutorials have a twist as the person recording the screencasts vents his rage at a cheating wife. Check out the video below and you will see what I mean.
Expert interview: Daniel Burka and Leslie Chicoine
Paul: OK so joining me today is Daniel Burka from digg.com, hello Daniel.
Daniel: Hello Paul.
Paul: Nice to have you on the show again, it’s been a while.
Daniel: Well thanks for having me again.
Paul: We’ve also got Leslie Chicoine joining us as well from satisfaction what’s the url again, remind me.
Leslie: Sure it’s getsatisfaction.com.
Paul: getsatisfaction, that’s the bit I was missing, I should have been prepared and had that on my screen, but there you go I’m badly organised. And of course how can we do an interview without having Marcus here as well, hello Marcus.
Marcus: Hi Paul.
Marcus: getsatisfaction.com, you must be able to sell that for millions to a porn agency.
Marcus: laughs Sorry, I’m off on one already.
Leslie: I’ve heard those jokes so many times.
Marcus: Yeah, ok, I’m so predictable.
Marcus: I always have to ask people from America were are you and what’s the weather like? I know it’s a really boring English thing to say but it really is horrible over here at the moment.
Leslie: Well we’re in sunny San Francisco, I think the weather about 55 Fahrenheit right now.
Paul: Yeah, that’s so unfair isn’t it? Why do we live here, I just don’t know why we continue to live in Britain in winter.
Daniel: I was just in Canada last week and it was like 20 below freezing so it’s really nice to be back.
Paul: I bet laughs
Marcus: Not that cold here that’s for sure, it’s just wet, it rains all the time in the winter.
Paul: So Daniel, I’m dragging it back to the subject now Marcus if you hadn’t actually noticed while you go off on weird tangents that’s fine. Daniel we’ve had you on the show before and so hopefully our listens will be familiar with your background and if they haven’t heard of digg.com they should be ashamed of themselves. Leslie your new to the boagworld podcast so maybe should kick off with you, and if you could just tell us a little bit about getsatisfaction and a little bit about yourself and your own background if you would.
Leslie: Sure, well let’s start with getsatisfaction, basically I’m trying to re-do what customer service is there’s a lot of depressions happening on line about companies and how companies aren’t getting involved so we’re trying to get companies and customers together in the same space. Talking about products and issues and ideas for the future and yet we’re also trying to make sure it’s a level playing field so that neither side has control of the conversation so we’re acting as an intermediary allowing true conversations that are open to the public and that everyone can see and anybody can get involved in, but we’ve actually got people talking about customer service for companies, the companies aren’t there yet but getsatifcation.com/apple is a very popular section and there’s nobody from apple on the site yet. But there are also sections like the one for google and the one for twitter and we have google employees and twitter employees involved. It’s a very different take on customer service because it’s not just customer service rep it’s people who are programming, people who are designing, people who are in the HR department, all getting involved and having much more direct contact with customers
Paul: So do the companies all have to pay in order to participate in this or is this a free service? How does this work, what’s your business model?
Leslie: Well, all the features we have right now are free; our business model is still being developed, not to say that we don’t have one, we just have a lot of different directions and we want to make sure that whatever direction we take fits them in our philosophies, but we’re hoping that in the future for us, we see the potential in the analytics and the data that we collect. Your on the site are your telling us a lot about the different products and the services that your using and can tell companies to make connections between what products you use and like, and what other products and service you might also be interested in.
Paul: Yeah, of course.
Leslie: We start collecting more information about who you are and why your there in the first place.
Paul: Well I guess the other great thing, if you thinking of building a web app of any description then this is a great mechanism that already exists to handle the customer services enquiries you get without having to build all the functionality that is needed to do that as well so I imagine your attracting a lot of smaller companies as well?
Leslie: Yeah, it’s actually been a really interesting display, we’ve got small web apps, we have larger web apps such as google, digg.
Daniel: Even pounce is on there, I mean when we set up pounce originally and we wanted a way to communicate with our users and we immediately just set up a satisfaction page, signed up and it’s been great for use.
Leslie: Yeah, that’s all pretty easy, another thing actually too I forgot to mention, what’s truly great about the service is often times there customer service issues that span multiple companies so a great example was a guy who was having trouble getting a refund on an airplane ticket and he wasn’t sure if it was American Airlines or expedia.com so through the site he was able to post the issue to both sides and have them both look at it and communicate together there.
Paul: Personally Leslie what is it you do at satisfaction?
Leslie: Sure, I’m a designer, kind of an open title primarily I do a lot of UI design, I do a fair amount of contact development, I actually design a little bit of the business strategy as well we have developers who actually do the coding but most of what I do is wire framing.
Leslie: My background though is actually game design.
Leslie: Really. laughs
Paul: So, that seems an interesting leap to go from game design into kind of a web app like this. Is it a big difference?
Leslie: It’s not really, because so much of what I learned in games design was how you design mechanics that let you create particular types of dynamics so you want people to act a certain way or, well in our case we want people to have a really positive attitude and there’s actually things in the design that makes people happier and make the conversation more open and positive, everything from the wording that we use to how we break down the steps, try and keep it all simple, if you go to the site you’ll notice it’s all very white and clean and light and that again add to that kind of feel and it helps people be more communicative.
Paul: Hmm… Interesting stuff, so the reason we thought we would setup this call today is really so we could talk a bit, well it was a conversation I had pervious with you wasn’t it Daniel about the fact that you come from an agency background and you used to work for a company, what’s the name of the company again?
Daniel: Silver Orange
Paul: Yes, that was it and they were what you would call a normal web design agency and while you were doing that digg was one of your clients is that correct?
Daniel: Yeah, so I helped found Silver Orange there were six of us what started the company back in 99 I think, but yeah we were a pretty typical boutique web job.
Paul: And what interested me about the conversation we were having previously, was the way you kind of when from working at Silver Orange across then to working for digg so you’ve kind of gone from working at an external agency were you had lots of clients and that kind of stuff, to working as an in house designer on a single project and I thought that was quite an interesting discuss and quite an interesting area to cover and you mentioned Leslie to me, and that you’d been having a similar conversation in a coffee shop somewhere with her and we though lets setup a few minutes and have a chat about some of the kind of ramifications of that and I guess the good place to start is, perhaps Daniel that you kick us off, what you see the difference being between working as an in-house designer somewhere and working for an external agency, is there a big difference?
Daniel: Absolutely, I mean it was actually quite interesting, I was back in Canada last week for some awards, kind of a yearly state of the union meeting and I’m still involved with the company a bit, I went back there for that, again this exact same discussion with one of our designers, and he was really jealous that I’m currently re-designing the digg comment system and he thinks it’s really interested that I’ve designed it twice now and I’m coming back again and doing it a third time and that kind of iterative development is something you frequently don’t get to do in the agency environment. That’s one of the real pro’s of working, I think as an in house designer is that you don’t build something and just hand it off you get the chance to build it, received feed back, watch how people use it gage some metrics over time and come back an re-design it and continue to improve something.
Paul: I mean, would you agree with that Leslie? Is that one of the things that attracts you working at satisfaction?
Leslie: Definitely, there’s something about being able to see a project through and then check back on it again and again, but I think that’s one of the things that makes it difficult, you no longer have and perspective, so we’re were talking about, particularly at the coffee shop, when you working at the agency, you come in and what makes you special is your new perspective and when your working at a company, you no longer have that so you need to make sure you can somehow come back fresh to the same project and when you iterating, bringing in new eyes, trying to see what needs to be changed becomes a challenge.
Paul: At one point in the sentence there you said again, and again…
Paul: And I heard Marcus snigger at that, he obviously picked up on that as well. I mean that’s the thing, as somebody who works for an agency I have to confess, I think I would go absolutely crazy working on one website over a long period of time, probably because I’ve got the attention span of a newt, ya know do you ever long for that variety of work to work on?
Daniel: Yeah, absolutely, it’s usually really fun when you’re working for an agency especially clients who give you a lot of leeway and a lot of respect, that you walk through the door and you immediately see 80% of the problems on there site and you say, listen this is what you need to do, this is what you should fix and you get immediate reaction, it’s really fun right?
Daniel: You can bring so much change so quickly and somewhere like digg for instance, I mean I only have one or two sections of the site now that I’m looking at were I’m like, ok there’s still huge room for improvement here I know want to kind of tear it down and think of it from scratch and in all the other places there’s kind of refinement, refinement, refinement and it’s way more challenging and that’s what makes it fun but it’s also a bit more tedious, it’s not something fresh.
Marcus: I was gonna ask what the different skills you need, but I think you’ve kind of answered that, maybe being more dog-eared and determined, are there any major different skills between working on multiple projects and working on the same site all the time?
Leslie: Definitely, I think especially when your working at a company verses an agency the projects your working you have to have a better understanding of there application though out the rest of the business so when we’re iterating and we’re working on small details, the changes we make are for business needs or metric things that we’ve gotten so that kind of judgement is not something that I personally had as much experience with when I was working at an agency, and actually the team that works on getsatisfaction was initially a consultancy but it was weird have the whole team have to switch over.
Paul: Oh right.
Leslie: So initially when we were a consultancy the actually people who weren’t really involved with what projects we chose or really even finding out that much about the company, the founders were the one who really had to do that research and now we all have to do that kind of research.
Daniel: I was interesting because I was in a different position at Silver Orange as one of the founders, ya know I did have quite a say on which projects we take especially the UI projects were I was working more solo with a client, ya know, if I didn’t want to take a project we wouldn’t take it, working with clients I kind of got to know there business a lot before I started to get into it, you learn as much as you can, kind of a week or two to get into a project but at somewere like digg or like pownce, it’s a lot more about thinking strategically and thinking much more in the long term because if you pin yourself into a corner it’s literally yourself and you’re the one who’s gonna have to be able to dig yourself out of it later on.
Paul: Do you guys every, digg and getsatisfaction, ever bring in external specialists from time to time?
Leslie: Definitely, we were talking about needing fresh perspective and bringing new people in is always a great way to do that. We occasionally, what we do is we have design sessions and we have guests whom we get their opinions and show them what we’re doing and see if they have new ideas.
Paul: I mean it’s quite interesting that isn’t it because I mean we do a lot of work for a whole variety of different clients and you go to these different companies and they have internal design and development teams and you think why are we actually being brought in here were they’ve got the skills in house but they’re not really utilising what they’ve got and there’s a perception that if you bring in someone from the outside they’ve somehow got more skill than perhaps an in house team, do you feel more or less valued as an in-house employee than you did perhaps externally?
Leslie: laughs You don’t get that same sort of shiny, new feeling as an in-house designer I definitely feel more valued at this point than I did in the consultancy because one of the burdens of getting things right is on my shoulders now. So you really just can’t throw my ideas out the window. But it is actually interesting when people coming into a company, you can see in people’s eyes; they get a little nervous right? That the person coming in is gonna be more valuable than them right?
Daniel: I’m so excited, I’ve just hired another designer at digg, so there’s three of us now, and he’s awesome and I’m so excited to get someone in here who, a, can code better than me and b, he’s bring an entirely new perspective to the site, so ya know, it’s really nice to have fresh eyes so this is the best of both worlds because a, he’s now an in house designer and b, he’s just joined so he’s like completely fresh too it and I’m gonna capitalise on that as much as I can in the next couple of months before ya know he gets too deep in it a get’s into the aquarium.
Paul: I suppose you haven’t really been doing it that long, being an in-house designer but do you think there’s a point were you have to move no, when you think perhaps you’ve been there too long and been institutionalised into a certain way of thinking?
Daniel: I don’t think so, I mean I know this older guy who used to be the creative designer at apple, and the creative director a Polaroid ya know a bunch of really big companies and he’d been in the same job for a decade I think, but he was able to think incredibly creatively and leverage the people under him too bring the best into projects. I think as long as your able to adapt, I mean you can’t just keep coming through the door and doing the same kind of work all the time, I think your able to adapt to that in-house philosophy, I think you can definitely keep at it.
Leslie: Yeah I don’t have that much experience with that, but I think that’s the way too do it. Even with just the year that I’ve had at satisfaction you find yourself having to play a lot of games or do things to freshen the project or freshen the work.
Daniel: Right. I find too, like at somewhere like digg there’s so many different projects within the whole. It’s not like I’m working on the homepage every single day this year, that’s one very minor part of the site, you break down projects into components, like re-designing the comments is very different to re-designing the user profiles, I see them as very independent projects obviously tied stylistically and ya know from a user interface strand point they’re tied together, but they’re very different challenges which mixes up your job a lot.
Paul: What’s quite interesting with both your experience is that you’ve worked for agencies that worked on these applications your currently full time involved with and you saw that point with digg and satisfaction were you thought, ok, it’s not the right business move to have an external agency now, we need to bring that in house and I’m just kind of quite interested as to what happened in that process and whether you’ve got much of an idea of what that tipping point is, were you go from thinking yeah we can use an external agency for this to a point were we really need to do this in-house?
Leslie: I’ll let Daniel answer that one.
Daniel: So for digg it really happened that, originally it was a project Kevin had and was just throwing it around and wanted to see if it would get traction, and when it started to get traction he hired Silver Orange to come in and re-design the interface so it was a lot more usable and the site was gaining momentum gaining momentum and it kind of got to a point were they started thinking ok, this is a serious business, it’s got viability and they decided to start a company around it, in a much more serious and methodical way and that was kind of the point were they decided, ok, one of those positions is gonna be a designer, I’d been coming down, probably once a month down to San Francisco from Toronto and I one point Kevin was like, you should really move here, so he convinced me to move down and even for the first bit it was kind of interesting, I hope a lot of companies can do this kind of thing, it was quite flexible, I was working one week a month on Silver Orange project, so it was good for digg because they didn’t have to pay me as much and at the time there wasn’t enough work for a full time person and that way for me it was a nice period of time because I had the best of both worlds, I’d work on a bunch of client projects one week a month and then long term in house designer three weeks out of the month.
Leslie: It was a totally different situation for getsatisfaction because we had the whole company as a team look for a project to start, so for us it was really letting go of our client work.
Marcus: I bet that’s hard.
Leslie: At satisfaction we let go of most of our development work first and let go of our design work and then turned this completely into satisfaction. But I did have that period like Daniel were I was saying were your working on lots of projects and along side your long term project.
Marcus: I can’t imagine slowly giving up project work; I guess it’s the sales man in me. I find it hard to turn any business away.
Leslie: Yeah, it’s actually very difficult to let people go when they want you and they still need you to do work for them.
Daniel: Silver Orange have actually got an idea for a project and they’re thinking of totally scaling back, and I don’t think, well we’re definitely not gonna drop all client projects but we’re talking about cutting down and a few people on the team, ya know kind of pumping other projects and drawing in other people as they’re required, and I think that’s also an interesting strategy as long as you can be disciplined enough to commit enough time to it.
Leslie: Yeah, I think our team decided up front that there was a stopping point that we would not be disciplined enough and that we would have problem with time being spent on things that were interesting or new instead of the core project.
Paul: I mean we’re looking, ya know we obviously knock around different ideas and web applications, we perceive, are a way of expanding the business rather than necessarily replacing one with the other so well I guess there are lots of different ways of slicing the cake I guess.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s the same philosophy Silver Orange is likely to follow.
Paul: It’s interesting.
Daniel: I mean it’s frustrating when you’re building other peoples projects all the time, you know you’ve got the skills in house to build something awesome, but smart people come up with ideas why should we be building for them when we can do it ourselves. laughs
Paul: Yeah, completely.
Marcus: This is so familiar, we’ve been having, well since day one I guess the simplest example is your own website in an agency, that always gets put to the bottom of the pile and we’ve been thinking about developing different applications for quite a while now but just trying to get people off paid projects and onto that, is, well it’s impossible.
Marcus: Well were we’ve got to now is, proper contracts have been written up between two different departs within Headscape if you like so that it is an official project, these set applications we’re working on at the moment.
Paul: When you say it out loud like that Marcus is sounds so pathetic.
Marcus: But it’s true.
Paul: laughs But that’s how we’re getting around the problem. But I’ve got to admire this all or nothing approach or right we’re gonna go for it, but anyway.
Daniel: I think there’s actually something really curious about the bay area, I think it’s really different in attitudes here like ya know, figure out what’s the worst that can happen, ya know and if the worst that can happen means things don’t go so well in 6 months and you can barely pay your rent, if that’s the worst that happens then what ever just go it. And I think that’s why so many projects here get off the ground. I think that’s great. There’s a real sense of optimism here.
Leslie: And a lot of support too, if you’ve got an idea. There’s very few people here who are secretive with there ideas. They’re always talking about all their ideas and sharing and talking about building something rather than trying to hide it.
Daniel: But it’s competitive too. The people here, ya know there’s such a big audience for a lot of these products it’s like why should we quibble over the similarities of our projects lets just find a way that we can do stuff together and throw around ideas and it’s really fun.
Paul: Yeah it’s good. So for a lot of the people that are listening to this show, some of them are students that are coming out of university and are looking for their first movement into the web design world. We’ve got other people that are, what I would call enthusiastic amateurs who are looking to move full time into web design, you’ve got lots of different ways you could go these days if you’ve got web design skills I guess choice number one if you go say go for it I’m gonna build my own web application, choice number two is you could go a join a web agency and work on a variety of third party work and choice number three I guess is to become an in-house designer for a company, whether that be a trendy web 2.0 company or whether it be an in-house designer for I dunno on-line banking or whatever, how do you go about making that decision and what advice would you give people about were to begin? Are you going to damage your career if you start off by working in one place? Should you be doing lots of different types of work, ya know, what’s your advice?
Leslie: I think we both sort of agree that the real thing your looking for is good people, so whichever of those situation gets your around other great designers, other great teams with projects that your excited about, it probably doesn’t matter as much as you might think that it would.
Marcus: It’s a bad question Paul.
Daniel: If I was getting into the industry right now, I wouldn’t want to get into a huge agency were I don’t know what sub-section of that agency I’m going to be in, what team I’m gonna work on, I mean joining a group of less than 15 you can get a good idea of who your actually gonna be working with and that kind of apprenticeship with really brilliant people is easily the best way to advance.
Paul: Yeah, I like that, I like that a lot. I must admit I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective and yes Marcus it was a rubbish question.
Leslie: Well that’s the one that everyone’s asking.
Paul: Well yeah, we get asked that question all the time. My mistake is I should have asked what advice do you have for people starting out in there career, I shouldn’t have constrained you by giving you these different options.
Leslie: I don’t think this is just starting out. This is something your constantly asking yourself, am I in the right spot and I doing the right thing to advance my career, but as for actually starting, once again come back to this all the time, if there are good people around me then I’m in the right spot.
Leslie: If I’m inspired by the people around me I’m in the right spot.
Paul: I’m gonna have to move Marcus I’m sorry. I work with you…
Paul: laughs He’s used to it, he likes my abuse. laughs
Marcus: I’m also not a designer so.
Paul: No, your not, that’s very true. Although I don’t think I consider myself a designer anymore either.
Marcus: You took the words right out of my mouth Paul. laughs
Paul: I just thought I’d beat you to the punch.
Marcus: You did.
Paul: Okay, thank you guys for coming on the show, that was really, really interesting, you came up with some really good stuff and yeah I’m sure we’ll get some really good stuff back after listening to you. Thank you for coming and we’ll get you on the show again soon.
Marcus: Thank you.
Leslie: Thank you.
Daniel: Thanks a lot Paul.
The cost of bandwidth
Eric: How do you deal with high bandwidth sites without bankrupting your clients? Is the quality of downloads compromised with these “unlimited bandwidth” sites?
Well Eric I have to confess that I have largely avoided the escalating costs of hosting this podcast thanks to the kind sponsorship of switchpod. However, for those of you who haven’t managed to gain sponsorship or who are looking for solutions for clients then there are numerous options available.
As Eric said in his audio question there is Libsyn which is a well known multimedia hosting provider that has amazingly competitive rates. I am not quite sure why Eric has an issue with them as I have heard very good things about them.
Another option is to host your video or audio with the Internet Archive. This service is free although I hear reports that performance can be an issue.
Of course if you are dealing with video then there are a whole host of possibilities from youtube to viddler. Some services are better than offers so be careful. For example some resize your video or limit the file size and length.
If you are hosting for clients be sure to check the terms and conditions of these sites as some of them preclude their use for this purpose. Also check ownership as you can be signing over the rights to reuse your video to the site owner.
Lastly in response to Eric’s concerns about the download quality of unlimited bandwidth sites, I have to say I have yet to experience any. I can see how this could be a problem when you get to really big numbers but that is not something that has effected me. Sounds to me that Eric might have been talking to companies trying to justify their own inflated prices and limited offers.
Working with audio
Harry: Given that you like to receive questions in audio format, can you, or any other boagers recommend any software that does the job?
We certainly do like receiving audio questions Harry (I notice that yours was an email!) Also now we are doing a listeners email section it is even more important. That is why we have made it even easier. I have signed up for a skypein account which means you can send me a message either by skyping boagworldshow or by calling 020 8133 5122.
However, lets just presume for a moment that you want to record and edit audio for another reason beyond commenting on boagworld. As a web designer or website owner you probably don’t have to do much audio work. As a result you won’t want to shell out a lot of money. I would therefore recommend you check out Audacity. Its a free audio editor for both the mac and PC which is as good as many of the professional packages. It provides all of the basics you need and exports to a number of different formats. Definitely worth trying out.
So now you have no excuse not to send an audio question, comment, or suggestion into the show.