News and events
The complexity tax
Don’t you hate it when somebody beats you to the punch? I recently finished writing a report for our biggest client (Wiltshire Farm Foods). It talks a lot about the need to simplify and remove complexity. It is a lesson we should all learn and so I am in the process of turning extracts from the report into a blog post which we will cover in next weeks show.
However, it would appear I have been too slow and that Gerry McGovern has beaten me to it with an excellent post on the cost of complexity. However, where I focus on why simplicity is important, he addresses the underlying causes of complexity.
For me his post is summed up in the following quote…
Most organizations are producing far too much content. Too many emails, too many PowerPoints, too many reports, too many webpages. All this content creation activity keeps a lot of people busy.
If you are part of a large organisation or work on a substantial website you need to read this post.
10 Rules for Driving Traffic Using Forums
What do you do if you have no marketing budget but have some free time to promote your site? Well, there are a number of guerilla marketing techniques you could use but contributing to forums is one of the most effective.
Sitepoint has posted an article explaining why forums are a great way of driving traffic to your site. It goes on to suggest 10 rules for doing so effectively. These include…
- Build your profile
- Follow the rules
- Start by responding
- Contribute your expertise
- Don’t be a ‘me too’ poster
- Don’t self promote
- Explain yourself, but be brief
- If you’re wrong, say so
- Write intelligently and correctly
- Negativity is a no-no
This is an excellent article and one that you should definitely read before using forums as a marketing tool. If you do not, you are in danger of damaging your brand, rather than driving traffic.
Accessibility in suit and tie
The life of the corporate web worker who cares about standards and accessibility can be a frustrating one; hampered by office politics and archaic content management systems. In an article on the Think Vitamin site, Bruce Lawson looks at what you can do to make sure your projects are as accessible for your users as possible.
Its a very pragmatic article, which I love. Bruce works from the premise that this is going to be tough and makes suggestions like "some accessibility is better than none". He also talks about the need for ‘buy-in from the top’ but goes on to provide practical tips about how to get that buy in. What is more, his arguments for accessibility were backed up with facts. For example…
- Accessibility is good for Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Accessibility enhances usability for everyone. An April 2004 formal investigation into UK web accessibility (PDF) reported "all users, not just disabled people, would benefit greatly from the measures required to make sites accessible and usable by blind people".
- Accessibility has many quantifiable business benefits (PDF). Legal and General, a British financial services company, redesigned its site with accessibility in mind and found:
- 40% traffic increase
- Doubled conversion rates
- Doubled online revenue
- 100% ROI in 5 months
Finally, he looks at how to get content providers onboard through education and getting them writing HTML rather than relying on the WYSIWYG editor.
UK Government Browser Guidelines
Our final story raises an interesting discussion; should you decide which browsers to support based on popularity or capability?
Apparently, the UK government believes we should test on the basis of popularity. In a draft document advising public sector websites, it suggests that if a browser appears in visitor logs as being below an arbitrary percentage of total “unique visitors”, then it should not be listed as being “fully supported”.
On the surface this appears very sensible. However, as Jon Hicks points out on his site, this can create problems. He writes…
It isn’t clear how the supported browser list would be enforced, but I’m concerned that this approach will encourage browser sniffing, a move that will exclude browsers like Omniweb, Shiira and iCab, simply because their name isn’t ‘Safari’. They share the exact same rendering engine, and therefore require no further testing. You can be more inclusive without spending any extra resources.
In other words we should be defining our list of supported browsers based on capability rather than popularity. This is the approach used by Yahoo! and it is one that I would fully support.
The Yahoo model supports all browsers through progressive enhancement and graceful degradation, without the need to test on every browser. Its a neat solution but one that the UK government guidelines specifically say they do not advocate…
These guidelines do not advocate specific development methodologies, for example graceful degradation or progressive enhancement. However, it is widely accepted that sites conforming to open web standards such as XHTML and CSS are more likely to work well across a wide range of browsers.
How come if they are widely accepted, do they not advocate them?
Fortunately there is an opportunity to change things before this is set in stone. I recommend reading the WaSP article on the recommendations and then sending some polite feedback to the powers that be.
Paul:Joining me today is John Resig, who is famous for jQuery and the work that he has been doing with jQuery. John, it is great to have you on the show.
John:Well, thanks for having me.
Paul:I have to say this at the beginning. I have to get this out of the way. I absolutely love working with jQuery, and it’s an absolute pleasure. I remember twittering just a few days ago that every time I start doing anything in jQuery it makes me smile, so that’s got to be a good sign.
John:Well that’s good. I’m glad to hear it.
Paul:I guess that’s always been a little bit of my concern with relying heavily on a library is that if you come across something that’s a problem or a bug or something like that, you can’t fix it yourself because you don’t necessarily know your way around the library. What’s your response to people that say stuff like that?
John:Well by the same token if you encounter a problem with a browser you are far less capable of fixing that issue. There’s really no way about it other than that ultimately it would be good to have that knowledge, absolutely. I fully support people who want to do that and I’m writing a second book now encouraging people to do that, to dig into libraries, to learn more, to build their own. What’s important here is that you just don’t, you can’t force people to do it if they, one if they don’t want to or if they’re just not capable. There’s no reason I feel to force a designer, someone who’s a designer by trade to learn the fundamentals of object oriented programming, or functional programming. Theoretically that can help them some way in the future but what’s more important to them is doing good design and I think by helping people keep their focus where it should be. Obviously if a library is able to help programmers program better, that’s good as well. It’s all about helping people keeping their focus and making sure they aren’t down a rabbit hole getting sidetracked.
Paul:I think that’s the thing that really attracted me to jQuery is as a front-end interface designer was the fact that I could pick it up and run with it very easily. The conclusion I came to is, “OK. Well if I do by some chance find a major problem with it, there’s a massive community of very clever people out there that I can ask and I can get help from.” So, that kind of reassured me, I think. If then, we’ve kind of come to terms with the fact: “OK we want to use a library.” There are so many different ones out there. Run us through some of the different options available and the pros and cons and how do you go about picking which library is right for you?
Paul:It strikes me from my experience with jQuery that it’s very much a tool that’s primarily focused at helping front-end interface people implement the kind of functionality that they require from a usability point of view rather than necessarily doing, I mean would you build massive applications in something like jQuery?
John:It’s absolutely possible and people do it all the time. For example, T-Mobile‘s T-Online in Germany, they built their entire user area so like their mail, their calendar, and everything using jQuery. So it’s absolutely used for very large projects. What I think is very interesting for jQuery at least is that while we don’t explicitly provide the object-oriented styles that most hardcore developers are used to we provide some very interesting alternatives especially they way it, like functional programming that I think actually end up suiting development very well. It’s very different, I will completely grant that, but it’s still very capable of scaling quite large.
John:At the very core there should be a set of features. Of the libraries that I listed previously they all have methods for doing DOM traversal, so traversing through an HTML document, modifying an HTML document, events, so handling user interaction, animations and AJAX. All of them have some support for that to one degree or another. You can be fairly safe in knowing that if you pick a library you will have that base level. In my opinion those sets of features are probably the most important features and the ones that you end up using the most with your applications. Some people might say in their particular case that maybe animations aren’t as important, or maybe that they aren’t using AJAX, it really depends but for most of the time that set of features is fairly comprehensive. On top of that you really have to start to, once you’ve tried to use it, and once you’ve played around, there’s a whole set of secondary features that you kind of have to dig into, ones that aren’t immediately code-related. Things like the community around a library, the documentation for a library and even the health of the projects themselves.
Paul:What do you mean by that last one, the health of a project?
John:There’s a lot of things. In health, do they have an active development team? Are there developers? Are there multiple developers? It’s the famous hit by a bus; if a developer is hit by a bus will the project still continue? Is there a team will continue? Can you view the source code? Is there a repository where you can go? Is there a bug tracker where you can submit bugs? And finally is there a test suite, is what you’re going to be using going to be tested and analyzed to make sure it stays working. Another point that’s important to bring up is that a lot of browsers now are starting to integrate the test suites of these libraries into their test suite. So for example actually this is a lot of my work at Mozilla, was integrating the test suites of Prototype, Scriptaculous, jQuery, MochiKit, a bunch of libraries into our test suite such that if we ever added a change that caused a regression to happen in a library we would catch it and we would fix it on our end. Obviously we would do this in a very smart way, we wouldn’t just blindly be like, “Oh something broke!” We would communicate to the library what the issue was or whatever and this has been very big because now you can, there’s an extra level of safety and security here, in that you’ll know that if you’re using a library like this that it’s going to continue to work going forward in these browsers. That’s an extra level of safety that your personal code can’t provide. I think that’s very interesting. I want to jump back here really quick to the other issues I mentioned.
Paul:Sorry, I distracted you there and we took you off topic.
John:It’s OK, it’s OK, of community and documentation. So community, it can be usually be pretty easy to determine the health of the community. All these libraries will have some sort of a mailing list or a forum that you can go to. Just hopping on there, seeing how many messages are posted, seeing what the typical response is like, how they treat new users, just stuff like that it can be really useful because if you’re just starting out, you know you’re going to have some pretty basic questions. Do they understand your problems? Do they help you out? Doing some searches on Google for example to see how many people are talking about it, or using a service like Technorati or something. Are people blogging about it? Is it positive? Are they having problems? The other thing is documentation. This is also pretty easy to tell. If you are starting out with a library, you’re probably going to start out by doing a quick test, running a simple application just to get a feel for it. When you’re doing that you’re immediately going to be in the documentation trying to figure out how things work. I think you’ll be able to determine pretty quickly if the documentation quality meets a standard that you, because if you aren’t, if the documentation just isn’t that good, you’ll immediately have problems and I guess you will have to resort to the mailing list or the forums or whatever. Secondary is, do they have good examples? Do they have books if you want to learn from a book? Do they have books that you can buy to learn from? So again there’s a whole lot of issues here but what a lot of it boils down to is looking at the libraries, looking at their style of code, does it seem alright with you? Then just doing a quick test with each of the libraries that you’ve picked out, building like a menu or just a basic form of interaction. How easy is it? How hard is it? Does it in fact mesh with you well? This is something you can do over the course of a single day and it definitely shouldn’t take you any longer th
an that. If it’s taking longer than that then you probably want to try a different library. Ultimately you should be trying to use these libraries to make your development simpler and easier. If it doesn’t improve your productivity, if it doesn’t improve the quality of your code then you probably shouldn’t be using it to begin with.
John:It depends. What jQuery has is a little bit unique in that we provide a number of plug-in points that plug-ins can snap into and extend how jQuery works. So they can add in new CSS selector behavior, or they can add in new events or all sorts of intricate additions. Other libraries have things that aren’t quite of the same vane, in that they’ll have modules or packages that you can use. Also another thing that varies is how do the various projects treat these plug-ins? At least with jQuery there’s a dedicated plug-in repository that’s used that plug-ins are listed in that you can browse through, you can see ratings, comments, discussions and things like that. Currently no other framework has something similar to that to the best of my knowledge. It’s much looser, just people uploading, putting things to their websites or Google code or some such. So again, at least to me, what makes plug-ins, jQuery-style plug-ins important is that they are, that there’s extension points and that they are supported by jQuery fully.
Paul: The only thing that I think that I kind of struggle with a little bit about plug-ins, you know I love the idea that there are other people out there that can do the hard work for me in that they can develop something I was looking for, and I love the fact that I can go to jQuery, I can type in whatever I’m looking for and it will pull back stuff. I’m always a bit unsure mind about how reliable those plug-ins are, you know as you’ve been saying with the kind of, the core jQuery library that you’ve created I know there’s a big team of developers working on it, I know that it’s thoroughly tested, I know what browsers it’s tested against, all of that kind of stuff. Plug-ins are a bit more of an unknown entity. Is there any kind of advice that you can provide about judging whether a plug-in or module or whatever is reliable or not?
John:I mean you sort of have to use the same standards that you would use in looking at a library. Looking at, what you mentioned, is it tested? Is there good documentation? Are there, how many developers are working on it? Like for example in the jQuery project we started a sort of, sub-project called jQuery Glide in which we’ve taken a whole bunch of plug-ins and actually blessed them and proved them, given them themes, excellent documentation, examples, all this stuff and made them sort of official. We’re doing this more and more, trying to bring in more plug-ins, improve their quality and make sure that they’re up to our standards. There’s still tons and tons of plug-ins that are just excellent, but the issue comes down to that you have to sort of train your eye to look at, and be able to spot when something has good quality. The thing that’s easiest for a plug-in author or a library author to do is to just set up a page that has their code on it and has a basic example. At the very least every single library is going to have that. If you dig in and see that it has documentation, that it has tests, you begin to realize that that plug-in is a much higher quality, at the very least. I think it’s really starting to dig in to these side issues, that you begin to get a better picture of how, of the true nature and of the true health of a particular library.
Paul:Excellent! That’s really useful and I think it’s easy to just look at these libraries and indeed the plug-ins as well and ask, “Well do they have the basic functionality that I require?” But, like you say, looking at things like the community and documentation and things like that are equally important. It’s been very useful John. Thank you for taking the time to come on the show. No doubt we will get you back in the future to talk about some of the specific things going on with jQuery and maybe this book that you’re writing as well, sounds very good. Thanks for your time.
John:Thanks for having me, Thank you.
Thanks to Todd Dietrich for transcribing this interview.
Quality or Quickly?
What is more important, to reach market quickly or to launch with a quality product?
I received this question from Pete in South Africa…
I have been working on a small web application, which I hope to launch soon. My problem is that I am spending ages tweaking and improving it before launch. I fear that if I spend much longer on it somebody will beat me to market. What is more important, getting the product right or launching it quickly?
It is a good question and one with no single answer. It is certainly something we have been struggling with as we prepare to launch GetSignOff.
To read the rest of this blog click here.