130. Air

Paul Boag

On this week’s show; Paul talks about better understanding disabled users. We have a tip from Jeremy about problem solving and Jonathan Snook introduces us to Adobe Air.

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A few pieces of housekeeping I wanted to quickly mention at the start of this week’s show.

  • FOWA – The guys over at Carsonified have been kind enough to offer boagworld listeners a 15% discount off of the upcoming Future of Web Apps conference in London. The conference takes place between the 8-10 October and is an absolutely superb event. To claim your discount use the code FOWA-bw at checkout. There are only 50 discounted places, so be quick.
  • SXSW – Talking of conferences can I ask a favour of you all. Marcus is desperate to go to next years SXSW conference in Texas. However he is only allowed to go if he is speaking. As you may know speakers for SXSW are chosen using a voting system. So, in order for Marcus to attend SXSW he needs your votes. Give an old popstar a second chance. Go vote for him now!
  • Think Vitamin – Finally I just thought I would quickly mention an article I have recently written for the Think Vitamin website. It is entitled "the 5 hidden costs of running a CMS" and I thought you might be interested in check it out. It is an extract from chapter 8 of my book the Website Owners Manual, which as I have said many times before, you can download right now ;)

News and events

Designing for emotion and flow

Not long ago I wrote an article for boagworld on the importance of context. In that article I highlighted elements such as time, mood and environment as key factors that contribute to a users context when accessing your site. This context directly impacts how the user interacts with your site. What I didn’t tackle in my article is exactly how context should affect the way you design.

An article called "Design for Emotion and Flow" on the boxes and arrows website, takes my post a step further by going into a lot more detail about what affects users behaviour and how we should design in a way that accommodates their state of mind.

Its quite an in-depth article but worth the read. It touches on user physiology as well as issues of environment and although it can be slightly theoretical at times, it focuses in on what you can practically do towards the end.

Articles like this always leave me with mixed feelings. They can easily feel overly analytical to the point where you wonder if they are applicable in the real world. However, in my experience if you take the time to read and digest them, they start to influence the way you design on an almost subconscious level.

7 essential guidelines to functional design

By contrast our next article is much more down to earth. The "7 Essential guidelines to functional design" is another post by smashing magazine and focuses on some fundamentals of good design.

However, don’t get the impression that this is just an article for designers. The principles it talks about also apply to developers and website owners. Basics such as the goal and audience for your site are things everybody should be considering.

According to Smashing Magazine the 7 essential guidelines to functional design are:

  • Consider our product’s goal
  • Consider who will be using it
  • Consider what your audience intends to do with it
  • Is it clear how to use it?
  • How does your user know it’s working?
  • Is it engaging to your users?
  • How does it handle mistakes?

Whether this is the definitive list, I am not so sure. However, it is a worthwhile read especially if you are just starting out.

15 companies that really get corporate blogging

While we are on the subject of lists our next post is "15 companies that really get corporate blogging". What can I say, I am a sucker for a list!

This one is really for those of you who run a website and in particular run a corporate blog. As the name suggests it lists companies that do a good job at blogging. However, it is not the list that attracted me to this article, it is the reason why the companies got on the list.

There is a lot of good advice to be gleaned from this post. Just a few snippets I picked up include:

  • Don’t just pimp your products, talk about other stuff too
  • Post regularly
  • Encourage conversation
  • Be candid and open
  • Offer advice and lessons you have learnt

The list could go on. Corporate blogging is by and large a disaster with many companies just failing to ‘get it’. According to a recent report, 56% of corporate blogs just republish press releases and two thirds hardly ever receive comments. However, as is highlighted in this post there are a growing number of organisations that are doing things right and we should follow their example.

Learning from signage

If you have listened to this show for any length of time you will know I am a great fan of looking beyond the web for inspiration. I also believe there a lot to be learnt from other forms of design including signage.

It would appear that Mark Boulton would agree with this sentiment judging by his recent post on airport signage. Mark, compares the signage in two airports and looks at how the lessons learnt apply to web design.

Some of the gems he discovered include:

  • Signage should work without colour coding
  • Only designers care about fonts
  • Don’t rely too heavily on pictograms
  • Always put your ideas to the test

This is a great article which should (if nothing else) encourage you to look at the world around you for inspiration.

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Interview: Johnathan Snook on Adobe Air

Paul: Joining me today is Johnathan Snook who I recently saw at the @Media conference. It was great to see you there again Johnathon.

Johnathan: A pleasure to see you there as well.

Paul: You really got me with your presentation. It was an excellent presentation. Very, very enjoyable, and you touched on the subject of Adobe Air. It wasn’t the main thrust of the presentation, but it was the bit that really grabbed my attention so I thought "let’s get you on the show and have a bit of a chat about it" if that’s O.K. with you.

Johnathan: Absolutely.

Paul: Good. So, let’s start from the absolute basics so that we’re all on the same page. Could you just explain very briefly what Adobe Air is so that people that haven’t come across it before kind of know what it does.

Johnathan: Certainly. Adobe Air is a development platform for making desktop applications to make desktop applications cross-platform. So, something that you build once and that would work on Windows, Mac OSX as well as Linux.

Paul: O.K. And this is built using web technologies…

Johnathan: Yeah, It’s really great that they’ve managed to leverage what they know things like Flash, Flex, and really the kicker is being able to develop desktop applications using HTML, CSS and JavaScript that, obviously, a lot of us web developers are going to be familiar with.

Paul: Sure. So, I mean that’s I guess why we’ve included it on the show even though it’s a web design podcast, that kind of line between the web and desktop applications seems to be blurring and Air is a big part of that. What drove you to kind of investigate it and kind of look into Air as a product?

Johnathan: For me, it was just a curiosity. The platform, what it could do, knowing that I could create a cross-platform desktop application was kind of enticing. When we build for the web we’re trying to do things as cross-platform as possible make sure that we target as many browsers as we can, and really be able to reach out to the people and do really cool things. So, for me it was like, O.K., well what can I do with this what are the possibilities. One of the first things that went off in my brain was building a Twitter application. At the time, when Twitter was up for more than 24 hours straight, it was kind of cool to be able to build a desktop application to kind of separate out from the web, because the web site was frustrating me to know end, and to be able to put in stuff that made the site more usable for me and in the end was a tool that I got to use every day and that I enjoyed to use.

Paul: Cool. I’ve kind of got a basic understanding of it. I understand what it does and I understand the kind of technologies that exist under it, but can you kind of give me an idea of, you know, how it works as such. I know how to create an HTML page, CSS and Javascript and stuff like that. How do I get from there into turning it into a Air application?

Johnathan: It’s surprisingly quite easy. What happens is, if you look at the Air runtime, is it essentially runs your Air application, so you don’t create a .exe file or a .dwg file you don’t create an executable in the traditional sense. What you end up doing is creating a .air file that you use to distribute. The Air runtime actually handles that. Building that .air file, there is an SDK available from Adobe that allows you to compile this Air file. So, those Air files are pretty straight forward, they’re really just like a ZIP file with some extra information in it. So, to create an actual Air application, you can do it just using a normal text editor, you can do with specific IDEs like Eclipse. If you’re into Flex development, they have Flex builder. If you’re into just doing HTML and CSS kind of thing, you might want to look into Aptana they have Air support built right in. If you’re a fan of Dreamweaver, there’s a Dreamweaver extension for automatically compiling your application, and being able to set properties on your application. So, things like how big should the window be when it opens up, can I resize it, what kind of stuff can I do with it. That obviously, in this GUI sense, to a certain degree can make things a lot easier. So, I think there are a lot of benefits to using an IDE with built in support, but you don’t have to. There is the capability of just using a normal text editor and then running the SDK command line sequences to actually generate the Air file. It is really straight forward.

Paul: So, the one selling feature or one thing about Air that’s been promoted quite heavily is the fact that you can take online applications offline in a sense. The application is still usable even if you’re not connected to the Internet at a particular point in time. I think they showed off, right from the beginning, an eBay example of that where you could do all kinds of things offline, and then when you connected it was all uploaded. How does that kind of process work? There must be some kind of local database that’s running, one presumes.

Johnathan: That’s correct. I think some people may be familiar with Google Gears in having the local storage using the SQLite database. Adobe Air actually does something very similar. They do have a local SQLite database that you’ve seen create local databases and store any information there. There’s actually different ways. You have access to the local file system, so you can certainly write new files. Say, if you wanted to create new text files, xml files, new binary formats. So, if you wanted to create an image editing software that stores files in a binary format, you could do that. So, there’s a lot of flexibility there because you do have some access to the local system. You have network connectivity, so you can do either regular AJAX calls or you can do socket connections. You can connect to web servers. You can connect to remote database servers. You’ve got a lot of flexibility and a lot of control because of that.

Paul: You seem quite enthusiastic about the development environment. What has been your impression of it. Was it something that was a steep learning curve, but when you get there it’s really cool, or is it easy straight out of the box? What were your impressions?

Johnathan: I think it’s going to depend on what it is you’re trying to do. I think that there are going to be some frustrations. There are going to be some things that you have to understand about the environment. To give you an example; the HTML/CSS stuff is pretty cool it basically runs on a WebKit engine, which is the same engine that powers Safari. That gives you a lot of control and stuff, but ultimately that WebKit engine is still running within a Flash runtime. So, there are some limitations to that because of the fact that Adobe just simply hasn’t built in certain support. Things like support for double byte character encoding, so Chinese and Japanese character sets can be more difficult. However, they are working on that. Version 1.1 is supposed to be coming out soon it will have support for that, but right now you’re limited because of that.

Paul: What kind of people should be delving into this. Is this the kind of thing that only a hardcore developer like yourself should be touching or is it something that somebody like myself that would be a front-end interface designer should I even bother picking it up or am I better keeping away?

Johnathan: It’s really easy to develop in. I think you can make really quick solutions really straight forward. To give you a comparison; there is a Mac software called Fluid for creating site applications, but that is separated from the browser. You can kind of plot the same kind of things with Adobe Air because you do have that WebKit engine. You can basically use it as a browser. So, to give you a quick example; Muxtape, which is an online mix-taping thing you upload MP3s, and then people can go to your page and listen to your mix tape… The problem is that if you accidentally close the browser, you lose that information. I think there are a lot of websites that have this stickiness factor where you want to decouple the application from the browser. So, I put together a really basic example in which you type in a URL and it loads up a mix tape. That’s a very straight forward interface, but to be able to do that in a desktop application that I can minimize to the dock or the system tray is something that is, I think, a lot more appealing than running this kind of stuff through the web browser. And, it was really easy to put together. I spent about an hour one evening to put that kind of thing … I mean it is a very basic prototype, but the fact is that it is very straight forward to put that together. So, I think if web developers have ideas, they can really take advantage of that and build pretty cool stuff.

Paul: So, it’s not something we need to be intimidated of, then.

Johnathan: No, absolutely not.

Paul: The other thing that maybe is a bit of a concern to us very standards-based designers in comparison to the Flash community is that Adobe says we support CSS and HTML, as well as Flash, but obviously Flash is their product. You kind of get this feeling that they’re going to always support Flash more and that CSS and HTMl are a bit of an afterthought. Is that the case, or is that unfounded?

Johnathan: To a certain degree, it is the case. It’s, I think, unfortunate. I think they are more familiar with Flash. They’re more familiar with that environment. So, as you try to build the equivalent of a browser within this Flash runtime it’s going to be extremely difficult and I think things are going to get missed. And, I saw that sort of along the Beta process. Things like no support for "undo." I mean, that’s a pretty basic thing, but the fact that that’s not built in there does hamper people trying to build HTML-based applications. It works great in Flash-based applications and then what you end up running into is, to give you another example with Snitter, my little desktop Twitter application because it’s built using HTML and CSS, it had certain limitations, but there’s other Twitter clients built with Adobe Air that were built using Flash that actually have different limitations. So, people would say, "Well this application can do it just fine. Why can’t yours?" You have to kind of explain to them that it’s because of the limitations of how the environment was developed. Despite the fact that they are both still Adobe Air applications, technically they’re done differently and there are maybe more limitations as a result of that.

Paul: Is there an opportunity to mix Flash and XHTML and CSS and whatever else together, or do you have to make this decision up front?

Johnathan: No, absolutely not. Certainly, within the Adobe Air environment, you have that flexibility to create these little hybrid applications. I think Snitter, for example, is a good example of it. There’s a lot of Flash components out there that can do certain things. For example, a bunch of folks made an iMap component, so you can actually connect to an iMap server. However, that component is Flash-based. Another component out there that I saw was a Jabber client. So, let’s say you wanted to do a GMail chat client or some other Jabber-connected application, you can import those Flash runtimes into your application and use them from Javascript. So, you do have that flexibility to use both technologies and take advantage of that. I’ve certainly done that with Snitter, and I’ve done that with other applications as well because we have that flexibility of the environment. I think there is that sort of understanding that you can do that, and actually look out for the solutions that not only are HTML and Javascript, but that are Flash-based as well and come up with new ways of thinking because I think, traditionally, as web developers, we tend to separate those two as much as we can.

Paul: That’s quite interesting. You talked about this kind of hybrid approach of combining Flash and HTML at @Media combining them together and about how we had some fears as standards-based designers of even touching Flash in any kind of context. Is that a kind of approach that you would apply beyond Air to the web generally?

Johnathan: Absolutely. I think MuxTape is a great example of that. To be able to play MP3s isn’t something that’s easily done using Javascript. However, you can take advantage of Flash and use its capabilities to play MP3s to create new interfaces that aren’t specifically 100% Flash-based; that we have something that’s still HTML and Javascript that interacts in ways that I think a lot of us are comfortable with, but still have access to a lot of features that Flash offers to us you know, the fact that we can create the bridge between the two; we can do that on the web just as well as we can do that within Adobe Air.

Paul: O.K. That all sounds very interesting and it certainly has made me want to kind of pick up Air and have a play with it and kind of get my hands dirty. I guess, perhaps as the last question then, is what tips would you give to people like me that haven’t yet touched Air and are considering having a play. What are the big traps to avoid? What are the good things to start with. Where should I begin the journey, so to speak?

Johnathan: I think probably one of the first things you should do is head over to the Adobe web site. They have a number of really good resources to start off with. Obviously, you’re going to need the SDK so you can actually build your applications, but they also have the dev center where they have a number of introductory articles to learn how to build applications and it doesn’t mean those applications have to be built using Adobe applications like Dreamweaver, you can certainly do them without. So, there’s a lot of really good tutorials on there. From there, they lead off to a number of resources outside of Adobe that would certainly help you get started.

Paul: What about mistakes? What were the big mistakes you made up front that, with hindsight, you would avoid? Or, did you get it right the first time?

Johnathan: I don’t make mistakes! Well, I think one of the cool things about the environment is certainly the flexibility to take advantage of a lot of advanced CSS. Because you are using the WebKit engine which, when it comes to CSS 3 support, is one of the most advanced, you know that you have support for things like rounded corners, border radius, that you have support for multiple backgrounds, image-based borders you can do some really cool stuff with that that is really fun to play around with. You can create transparent applications, so if you wanted something that was completely and uniquely shaped, you can do these really cool things. The downfall for that is that you can quickly start running into performance issues. If you start creating all of these alpha PNGs that are layered over the top of each other, they give you a lot of flexibility, but unfortunately are a performance drain on how much your system can actually handle. I think that was one of my initial mistakes going in and saying "Wow, I’ve got all of this stuff that I can use let me throw everything at it" and then realizing that, you know, maybe that wasn’t the best solution. I think we still have to be wise in considering how we structure our CSS, how do we structure the design in such a way that, while it’s still flexible, it still does things from a performance-minded aspect so we’re not doing things that are going to unnecessarily slow down or application. Those are things that we’ve got to think about.

Paul: That’s some really good advice Johnathan. Thank you so much for coming on the show. That was a great introduction to Air. Hopefully it’s encouraged a lot of people listening to the show to go out there and give it a go. Thanks for coming on and talk to you again soon.

Johnathan: Awesome. Thank you very much.

Thanks to Aaron Cooper for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

Getting a feel for accessibility

Our first contribution is from Kenneth and is about accessibility:

I listen to your podcast all the time and am working hard to become a very good web designer. My question for you is about accessibility, I hear a lot of people talking about it but not a lot of web designers are working hard on it to create sites that disabled people can use. I want to be a person who builds accessible sites that really work. How would someone know if their site is really accessible? How can you feel what disabled people are feeling when they visit your site? Could you talk about the different tools that disabled people use to go online so that we can use those tools and try to understand how they feel.

Okay. Let’s start by clearing up a minor point. Validation is not directly related to accessibility. Having a site that validates does not make it accessible. Equally, a site that does not validate is not necessarily inaccessible. Admittedly a site that validates is more likely to be accessible, but that is all. It is great you validate your code and you should continue to do so. However, it is okay if your site does not always validate. There are good reasons why Boagworld does not and I am sure the same is true for Clear:Left.

Let’s turn our attention to the heart of the question; how can you better understand the experiences of disabled users? It is an admirable aim but one that ultimately is impossible to achieve. There are so many different types of disability that you cannot associate with them all. That said, I can make a few suggestions which might help.

A good place to start is by trying out a screen reader. Increasingly screen readers are bundled with operating systems. Recent versions of Microsoft Windows come with a basic Narrator, while the Mac OS includes a more feature-rich screen reader called VoiceOver. However, the most widely used screen readers are the separate commercial products like JAWS for windows. This is probably a good place to start as JAWS offers a free trial version for you to experiment with.

However, be warned. When you first use a screen reader it is an intimidating experience. They take a lot of getting used to and can leave you with the impression that a blind person will never be able to use the internet. An alternative would be to watch a demonstration of a screen reader in action. Ian Lloyd did an excellent demonstration for Boagworld a while ago.

Of course not all visually impaired users are blind. Some use screen magnifiers which enlarge screen content. Again, most operating systems have this functionality built in so you can easily try this for yourself. However, there are also a number of commercial products you can try out too.

The other form of visual impairment worth investigating is colour blindness. Although not as serious, it is far more common and affects a large number of users. There are a couple of tools which will give you an idea of what a colour blind person is seeing. The first is Colorblind Web Page Filter which allows you to enter a url and see what that page would look like to a colour blind user. The second is Sim Daltonism, a colour blindness simulator for the Mac OS. Both will help you better understand what the web is like for colour blind users.

The final little tip I want to share with you is kind of stupid but does sort of work. I do a lot of design for the elderly and they often suffer from a mixture of visual problems and motor issues (like arthritis). In order to better understand their experience I have bought a pair to ski gloves and some reading glasses (I don’t need reading glasses). Every now and again, I surf the site I am designing wearing both the glasses and gloves. The glasses make the screen hard to read while the gloves hamper my use of the mouse and the keyboard. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to select something from a drop down menu wearing ski gloves!

Turning problems upside down

Our second listener contribution for today is not a question but a tip. It comes from Jeremy and he writes:

I can’t remember the name of the book off the top of my head (Getting Things Done?) that you’ve been recommending, but you mentioning it reminded me of a problem solving method that I learned a few years back that I thought you might enjoy. It’s called turning the problem upside down. It sounds stupid, but honestly it works pretty well.

The principle behind it is if you can’t figure out a solution to a problem or are having trouble coming up with different ideas, you turn the problem upside down, or invert it, and then come up with solutions for the backwards problem. For some reason it’s much easier to think of the backwards solutions. Then you flip them back to normal and there are your solutions. Sounds confusing, so here’s an example:

Problem: You want to increase traffic to your website

Turn the problem upside down: You want to decrease traffic to your website

Some ‘off the top of my head’ Solutions:

  • Make the site unfriendly
  • Randomly shut it off
  • Never update anything
  • Be rude
  • Keep key content hidden or difficult to find

Now let’s flip the solutions back again and see if they solve the original problem:

  • Make the site more warm/friendly
  • Make sure it stays up reliably
  • Be good about frequently updating content
  • Be aware how of my copy and if I’m talking down to my visitors
  • Make sure the good content is easy to find and prominent

What a great little tip! Excellent when you are suffering from creative block. I love it when you guys send in suggestions rather than questions. I know from the forum that the boagworld audience is hugely experienced and its great when you share that experience. Keep them coming!