141. Feedback

In this week’s show, Paul Annett joins us to discuss how he pushes the boundaries of CSS and we look at how to improve your website through user feedback.

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News and events

Working from home

I suspect the vast majority of people listening to this podcast spend at least some of their time working from home. In today’s world, doing the type of work we do, there is no reason not to.

However, home working is not the utopia some believe. It has its own challenges and problems. For me it is a constant sense of guilt that I am not pulling my weight in the business. For others it is a lack of motivation or fighting the distraction of housework and family.

With some many of us struggling with the relatively new environment of home working it is great to see people sharing their experiences in a new A List Apart article (Working from home: Readers respond).

This article has some great advice and although it contradicts itself in parts (different people deal with home working in different ways) it is full of ideas that I either already implement or will be soon.

While I am talking about A List Apart I want to quickly mention "Progressive Enhancement with CSS". This is a follow up article to "Understanding Progressive Enhancement" an article we mentioned in an earlier show. It is a great article that explains one possible technique for ensuring your CSS squeezes the best out of as many browsers as possible. If you have a chance, give it a read.

Everything you know about CSS is wrong

Talking about CSS, yet another book on the subject has been released this week. However, this one is different. Written by Rachel Andrews and Kevin Yank, "Everything You Know About CSS Is Wrong" is aimed at web designers who already know CSS well. The emphasis is on emerging techniques and future CSS support.

I haven’t read this book yet (although I do have it on order), but it looks very exciting. It has been a while since I have got to experiment with CSS and so this will hopefully point me in the right direction.

It tackles subjects like Internet Explorer 8, CSS tables and CSS3. These are all topical subjects and so the book appears to have a lot of potential.

I will review the book once I have read it and we intend to get Kevin on the show to talk about some of the techniques.

Reduce your business costs with free stuff

With the economy in tatters and a general sense of impending doom, we are beginning to see posts on how to cut cost and tighten belts. One such article is "Reduce Your Business Costs With Free Stuff" on the Think Vitamin website.

The article is a mixture of ideas on how to save money in your business. Some will save you thousands and apply only to larger companies, while others save only a few pounds a month. However whatever type of business you run, from a humble part time freelancer to a multi-national design agency, there is something in here for you.

Ideas include:

  • Cutting costs on your phone system without reverting to VoIP
  • Subletting office space
  • Open source versions of basecamp, Microsoft office, campfire and much more
  • Moving email and hosting in house

Although I think some of the suggestions are somewhat short term (Managing email internally would quickly become an expensive headache) I generally agree with most of what is suggested.

If you are beginning to feel the squeeze then this one is worth the read.

HTML Email: What mail clients are people using?

Finally this week there has been an interesting evolution in our understanding of HTML email clients. This has been nicely summarised by Alex Walker on the Sitepoint blog. He writes:

There are lots of reasons for hating HTML Email, but perhaps no#1 on most people’s hit list is having to produce HTML Email to deliver to potentially hundreds of different mail clients and configurations.

Now, clearly it’s completely impractical to test your work on hundreds of mail rigs, but the question is, where do you draw the line? Generic browser usage statistics are reasonably common, but mail clients stats?

In the past you could confidently make up whatever numbers you liked on those question without fear of being caught out. But that may be changing.

Litmus, who produce an excellent web-based browser and email testing suite are now publishing email client usage statistics from their new Fingerprint email analysis system. It makes very interesting reading.

Alex goes on to summarise the key findings which include:

  • 60% of people use web based clients
  • Just over 80% of the HTML email market is dominated by Outlook, Hotmail and Yahoo!
  • Business still generally stick with Outlook although they seem reluctant to upgrade to 2007

Interesting stuff.

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Interview: Paul Annett on Pushing the Boundaries of CSS

Paul Boag: Joining me today is Paul Annett from clear:left, good to have you on the show Paul.

Paul Annett: Thank you very much. Nice of you to have me here.

Paul Boag: So Paul is, with a few others from his company, the people who really make clear:left happen, rather than Andy and Jeremy and Rich, which we know, well Richard does work, but Andy and Jeremy certainly don’t do anything do they?

Paul Annett: Well, you know, they fly around the world a bit you know?

Paul Boag: Yeah that counts. I guess..

Paul Annett: No, we all chip in, obviously. Everyone does their fair share, so we say.

Paul Boag: Very diplomatic of you. I feel like I can insult them over this as I do the equivalent of no work in my role as well.

Paul Annett: I was going to say… Well there’s eight of us at clear:left, yeah we all just chip in. We’re all caught making the tea, that sort of stuff.

Paul Boag: Cool. Well tell us about your role. What is it you do at clear:left?

Paul Annett: Well, I’m a user experience designer. So that means, well it’s more than just making a web site look pretty, which were are accused of sometimes in the trade; to make sure that the sites are easy to use, as well as a pleasure to use really. That’s something that’s often overlooked with some web site design companies, obviously none of your audience.

Paul Boag: Obviously not.

Paul Annett: It’s a vital ingredient in the mix really. My job does overlap with some of the other guys in the office. Basically, we all know each other’s jobs fairly well so we chip in and share some responsibilities. My main focus is UX design. We’ve also got the others guys doing information architecture, they tend to start the project off with handing over wire frames or prototypes to me. Then once I’ve finished my bit I then hand over the designs to our front end developers who then code up the HTML and CSS. As I say we do overlap a bit more than that but that’s basically how it works.

Paul Boag: I’m quite interested in how that works. You are saying you don’t do too much HTML and CSS, or how does it work.

Paul Annett: I don’t do a lot right now, I used to when I was freelance before joining clear:left. I used to do pretty much everything on a project. I don’t do a lot now; I don’t really have time to. The occasions when I do get time to are when we are working on our own projects. I especially seem to have had a bunch of project holding pages or client holding pages in the past where Natalie and Jeremy who do the front end are busy doing other projects and we need to just get something up there while the design is being made. So I will code up that kind of thing. I don’t really get to work on a lot of the big life projects, but then I’m no where near as proficient as Natalie and Jeremy are at those kind of things. I think they would have a fit if they considered my code going live.

Paul Boag: See that’s quite interesting, isn’t it? You’ve begun to build a bit of a reputation as somebody that does-I don’t know-CSS embellishments for want of a better word on some of your designs. You know the kind of thing that other web designers go oh. The most kind of well known example would be the Silverback holding page where you have the clever resizing background How did that come about? Where did that idea come from?

Paul Annett: It comes from… it’s fortune, really, that I happened to be building that page because it was one of the holding pages. I always look for something unusual to do, or something that’s going to catch someone’s eye, that kind of thing. That particular technique was quite appropriate because the site has quite a niche audience, in terms of web designers. People who wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the subtleties and things that I like that are in there, they’re like hidden gems, wouldn’t care. Web designers seem to catch on to that, it’s something they haven’t seen before. The particular technique itself was just a happy accident, really, because I virtually designed the site, it’s a very simple little holding page with the gorilla icon, designed by Arch Nemesis podcaster, John Hicks.

Paul Boag: Well he designed our logo as well so he can’t be that arch nemesis

Paul Annett: That was fantastic drawing on it’s own. But then when I put the vines there, I was just thinking finally give it some kind of depth. I was fiddling around with some of the CSS, and because I don’t know, this is a benefit, because I don’t know CSS like the back of my hand. I do sort of dip in and out. I might make mistakes. Those mistakes might accidentally do something that makes me go oh hang on maybe I can actually use that for something, which is what happened in this case. I happened to position the only layer of vines that I had a percentage off the screen. It moved in relation to the grid. That got me thinking, well maybe I can do this with multiple layers of vines. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I happened to mention that I had launched the holding page on twitter and a few people.

Paul Boag: All hell broke loose.

Paul Annett: Yeah the few people that follow me thought oh that’s nice and they twittered it, and other people twittered it. Before we knew it, a day later, we had 25,000 views on the web site and we were thinking wow we’ve hit something here. 50% of those people signed up for more information about our product, which it didn’t even exist yet, and the web site didn’t even say what it’s about. So they were just intrigued to find out more based on the what they had seen.

Paul Boag: So that caught you very much by surprise then?

Paul Annett: Oh yeah We were kind of overwhelmed. If it had been, in an anyway, some kind of planned INAUDIBLE machine, then we would have waited until we had actually started building the app probably. We had over 10,000 people signed up for something we were thinking we’ve really got to pull something out of the bag here. Hopefully we did.

Paul Boag: Well you do have very good feedback on it. That really demonstrates well the power of design, that even something that, let’s be honest, is maybe, gimmicky is not the right word but you know, isn’t fundamental to the functionality of the site, yet had a huge marketing impact. So it was very worthwhile.

Paul Annett: Exactly. These things, they are gimmicky. They’re things that people come back to and play with and just want to fiddle around and look at it again. They don’t mean anything. The idea is that they entertain me and maybe some other web designers. It just happened that it entertained 25,000 web designers.

Paul Boag: Is this something that you do regularly? Do you sneak things like this in a lot?

Paul Annett: It is something that I like to do, as I said, to entertainment myself. But I do now look for places where I can sneak these things in. I think I’ve always done it really. I always strive to do something unusual. Back in the days of my freelance site, which is nice-design.co.uk, which is still there but not updated since IE8 so if you are using IE8 it will break. Even then, that was one of the first sites where the header and the sidebar were fixed and it was only the content that scrolled. It’s an unusual thing to see, other than the framesets, obviously, back in the day. I always try to sneak these things in. And when I’ve been working here at clear:left, last year’s de-construct site where we snuck in an Easter egg. There’s a style switch on it, I don’t know if you saw it, but when the site launched it was like a wire frame and along the top there a time line which said the progress of the site as it was being built. It was played as if it was being built live as the event got nearer. The time line at the top was actually a style sheet switcher and we deliberately hid the mouse cursor and made it not look like a bunch of links so that if people found it by chance then they would be pleasantly delighted at the surprise of these extra designs on the site that they’d found. Actually we had a few people email us and say terrible usability, they don’t look like links and the mouse cursor doesn’t look like a hand when you move over them. They kind of missed the point, it wasn’t supposed to look like a link, it was supposed to be a hidden little gem for people to find. That got good feedback as well.

Paul Boag: It’s that creating a sense of satisfaction from a user that they found something special or you know, it’s that little bit of wow factor.

Paul Annett: Yeah. When people are then able to say their friends oh go on look at this, then they feel like part of an exclusive little club of people that are in the know. Definitely.

Paul Boag: You talked a lot of the Silverback example of how basically that came about because you were fiddling with CSS and then something didn’t behave as you expected it to and you saw some potential in there. So that was very much a technology driven way of coming to it. Is it always like that or are sometimes these things planned in from the start. I guess in others words, do you have the ideas and implement them or how does it happen?

Paul Annett: It really varies. Sometimes it’s design driven, like with the de-construct site last year, that was design driven and we wanted to have something which resembled the process that building a web site out there. The silverback one was kind of technology driven but also slightly design driven because I wanted to give it that depth. To take that one step further, I’ve used the same technique on the UX London site. UX London is another conference were running next year in June, uxlondon.com. The technique that I used on silverback is reimplemented there. There’s no three dimensional movement or anything like that, but as you resize the window, the logo changes color. That’s just done by having a transparent window through the logo in the shape of the U and the X, so as you resize the window, the background color behind the whole page slides sideways and changes the color of the logo. This kind of this could be done with Flash, it could be done with Java Script, but I don’t know Flash, and I don’t know Java Script, so it is me trying to find my own little work around and quirky way of doing things really.

Paul Boag: I guess the thing that you know when you start thinking about these things is browser support. Some of these things you are doing are kind of either very advanced CSS or very hackerish CSS so either way you come up with browser support issues. Do you worry about that or is it just that they’re extras and it doesn’t really matter.

Paul Annett: Well fortunately because the audience for the sites that we’ve done in this sort of extreme way are web designers so you know they are going to be using the latest browsers. They’re going to be using firefox and they’re not going to be using IE6. We wouldn’t go to that sort of an extreme on a client web site and everything that we do, everything that leaves our doors is valid CSS, valid HTML. It wouldn’t be allowed not to be if you know what I mean. We’re very standards aware as a company, but I do like to kind of push the boundaries on things a little bit and see what I can get away with. Not in anyway inaccessible, but just not very conventional and if it doesn’t work in IE6 and doesn’t work in other browsers then as long as we implement something that looks the same but without the effects then that’s fine. The silverback site, if you look at it in IE6 is just a gorilla in front of some vines, no movement, nothing lost. Nobody coming to that site will be like there’s something missing here, but they just won’t get that extra little embellishment.

Paul Boag: It’s that graceful degradation.

Paul Annett: Progressive enhancement really. Most people that do have the technology get the extra stuff. This isn’t a company policy, but personally I’m usually in the favor of, I’ve seen quite a couple of sites recently that had a browser upgrade nag bar where if you’ve got IE6 then it says hey just upgrade your damn browser, you’re missing out on stuff. We’d never do that, we wouldn’t put that on a client site here, but I might put that on my own site. I haven’t, but I might.

Paul Boag: Sounds like a good idea to me. What’s the kind of process you go through in getting these extras added in? Are they kind of planned in from day one. When you, say for example, did the UX London web site, did you have it in your head right from the beginning that you wanted to do this with the logo, or something occurred to you further down the design process? When did it happen, is it in the design stage, the build stage?

Paul Annett: With that particular one, that was something that I tried out on a previous site. It didn’t really work 100% and we thought we’ll do something else with the site. But I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do it from the start on that project. But in general, again it varies really. If, sorry to be so vague and unspecific.

Paul Boag: No no, that’s the nature of design isn’t it?

Paul Annett: One thing I do advocate is that with all our client’s stuff, as well as our own stuff, I always present mock ups in a browser. I never send out a JPEG of mock ups to clients because for start, they are going to view it at the wrong size, they are going to look at it in preview or some kind of windows equivalent, image viewer, and it’s going to be resized to fit their screen, so they’re not going to see it in the context of the web site anyway. Not only that, but it also gives you the opportunity to actually build part of the site so you might have the header as a flat JPEG and the footer as a flat JPEG and the left hand side as a flat JPEG but the right hand side, where you want some kind of interactivity, you could spend a little bit of time building that so that it kind of explains to the client that this is what I want to happen here, roughly. Obviously it wouldn’t be the final thing because you don’t want to invest that much time up front, to give them that little bit of insight. That’s what I do when I am building holding pages or whenever I do get the opportunity to do something like that in house here is that I’ll code up some bits I think is the unique, gimmicky bit of it, and all the rest will just be a flat JPEG. It’s just to sell the idea internally, if you like, and to have everyone gather around my Mac here and ridicule me and laugh at you.

Paul Boag: It makes sense that more and more web design that we are doing these days has got so many interactive elements with use of Java Script and various other things, that a static JPEG doesn’t always cut it anymore does it?

Paul Annett: No, exactly. Another thing we do to combat that here at clear:left is that we often build prototypes of a site, instead of having like a paper wire frame which we often do as well but if there are interactions that need to be explained to the client we’ll build a flat wire frame of it in HTML just using framework and Java Script libraries and simulate the AJAX side of things just with hard coded Java Scripts. It’s also not production quality code, but the prototype wire frame and the flat JPEG combined will give the client a better idea of exactly how the finished site will be.

Paul Boag: Sounds good. We’ve talked a couple of time about is this gimmicky, is this not you know… I’m quite interested as where you feel the line is drawn between good design here and tipping into that naff gimmick area. Do you know what I mean?

Paul Annett: Yeah. There are a couple of things that haven’t seen the lights of day yet, which maybe they will one day. I guess it depends on how much time it’s going to take and how much value it gives us at the end of the day. Using a similar kind of thing with positioning elements we’ve got these great big letters in the clear:left office and we regularly rearrange the letters that spell clear:left to spell different words on the shelf at the office. To simulate this online I’ve built a little page which has got the word clear:left across the page when it’s at full screen at 1024 pixels wide and as you resize the window all the letters swap places because they’re all positioned at different places at different percentages off the screen, blank bits of image and all this complicated CSS positioning going on. When you reach 800 pixels wide it says elf:cartel. So it doesn’t have any fundamental reason or… it doesn’t do anything, it’s pointless, so it’s not going to be anywhere probably. But that is too, possibly gimmicky. There are some ideas which are not necessarily web based which are gimmicky but do work like when we were planning this year’s de-construct and INAUDIBLE wants to get some silverback promotion in there. I talked to him why don’t we just have a gorilla one day running around dishing out silverback branded bananas. Everyone laughed and thought it would be stupid, and then we did it. And then it was really successful and everyone loved it. Yeah, it was a bit of a gimmick but again it kind of fitted with the brand so it worked.

Paul Boag: It’s a fine line isn’t it, you walk in things like that? Because you know you could have been absolutely ridiculed for something like that. How do you know what is going to go down well and what’s not? I guess you don’t.

Paul Annett: Yeah, luck. I was ridiculed for that here in the office but we went with it and it seemed to work. It was great fun.

Paul Boag: I’ve seen pictures. It looked entertaining if nothing else. Going back to the online stuff, even if you develop something like that, it never sees the light of day, you never know that technique may come in use in a future web site that you develop and it might be appropriate.

Paul Annett: Yeah there’s always like a library of that stuff that we’ve kind of half developed and ideas that we’ve got, notes, that kind of thing. It might well see the light of day in the future

Paul Boag: Let finish off with just a kind of general advice that you like to give designers out there that they look at some of the cool little things that you do and they think I’d really like to do that but I don’t want to just go out and copy him because there’s nothing imaginative in that. I want to kind of get into that mentality of looking for opportunities to do this kind of thing. What advice can you give them? How can you start them off?

Paul Annett: There’s loads of stuff that’s come out as a result of the silverback hype, if you like. There was an article that I did on ThinkVitamincom which kind of explains how to achieve that technique. People have taken that and done all sorts of other things with it. I’ve seen someone creating moving 3d images and that style of a zoetrope(?) toy thing, which uses the same kind of principles but applied in a different way. So by all means, the best advice in all cases of web design is to look at the code, see how someone else has done something and see how you can adapt that to your own stuff. One thing that I really rely a lot on is, especially in these hidden Easter eggie things, is alpha transparency and thinking of how you can create a window through the front layer of a web site so you could have, instead of having a white background on the web site, put a white foreground layer with a window through it, shaped in the shape of whatever, and see how you can make that interact with the background layer so as you perhaps scroll down the page something becomes visible through this previously invisible transparent window. There’s a site called webleeddesign which does this brilliantly. That’s my ultimate, I would have loved to have made something like that, it’s really good. Only that one page, but it’s really nice with that alpha transparency in the front there. Think about what you can do with resizing the text on a browser so-we redesigning the clear:left site at the moment, hopefully it will be online soon-now I’m giving up an Easter egg that’s coming up on it.

Paul Boag: No one listens to this podcast so it’s fine.

Paul Annett: There are certain things hidden on certain pages and if you bump the text size up a couple of points then those things would become visible because of course you can control the position of things based on ems. As you resize things, your font size gets bigger, it perhaps moves in relation to the other things and things begin to peak out from behind something that was previously in front of it. I play around with that kind of thing a lot. That’s the advice I’d give you in terms of this particular way of doing things.

Paul Boag: That’s some great advice there, there’s lots of possibility. I like what your saying that it only takes a small number of techniques, you talked about transparency there, you talked about the background stuff, and you talked about the font resizing, but the possibilities of just those three things are endless really. You could do all kinds of things with them.

Paul Annett: Exactly, combine them in different ways. Again someone take this and do something with it, but imagine a line going diagonally across the screen but in font of that you’ve got a completely white page and across that white page is a very narrow slot of transparency, so if your line starts at the top right hand corner all you see is a dot in the top right hand corner but as soon as you start scrolling down the screen, that dot moves to the left because it’s visible through that hole. That’s a very basic example of how you could use windows of alpha transparency interacting with the background to do something which moves horizontally as you scroll vertically. I haven’t done anything with that yet as I haven’t thought of anything good to do with it but maybe someone can.

Paul Boag: That’s absolutely brilliant Paul, there’s some really good advice in there and thank you for taking the time to come on the show. I hope we can get you back on before too long.

Paul Annett: Thanks. Thanks very much for having me.

Thanks goes to Troy Oltmanns for transcribing this interview.

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Feature: Improving your site with user feedback

Users can be invaluable when deciding how to move a website forward. We should always listen to what they say. However, sometimes that is easier said than done. Read more here.

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