142. Community

In this week’s show Ryan and Stanton cover the news in Paul’s absence, we’re joined by Mark Boulton to discuss design by community and Marcus reminds us to keep positive.

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News and events

Typeface.js

There are many solutions to insert custom fonts into your designs, whether it’s the good old CSS image replacement techniques, SiFR or FLiR, we’re really just biding our time until font-embedding through the @font-face rule becomes widely supported in the browsers (we’ve covered font-embedding before in show 129) But for now, there’s another technique on the block called typeface.js which uses browsers’ vector drawing capabilities to draw text in HTML documents.

Browsers have, for a while, supported vector drawing – Firefox, Safari and Opera support the canvas element was well as SVG, and IE supports VML. The Typeface.js project uses this vector capability to ‘draw’ the fonts within your webpage.

There are a couple of caveats, while the ‘drawn’ text is selectable, it’s not highlighted (though this should be remedied in future versions) and the fonts have to be converted first through a tool available on their website. But this might be a nice little fallback if the users browser doesn’t support @font-face.

Sell Your Web App

In our next news item Ryan Carson, owner of Carsonified, has this week published a blog entitled “Sell Your Web App: Lessons I Learned From Selling Dropsend” and as you would expect from that title he shares his tips and mistakes when selling his app and it’s a very interesting read.

He talks about considerations like choosing the right merchant account, anticipating high lawyer and accountancy fees and off course being discreet, don’t blog about your sale!

He’s also prompted for people to leave their own tips in the comments so if you’ve sold a web app yourself head over to thinkvitamin.com and share your experiences as well.

Lessons learned while building an iPhone site.

Theres a nice article on the Flickr Blog which details some of the lessons they learned while building the popular iPhone version of the Flickr site. They go into detail of subjects such as “don’t use a javaScript library or CSS framework”, “Load page fragments instead of full pages”, “optimize everything” and making sure to tell the user what’s happening through visual indicators.

If you’re developing iPhone apps, or are even just thinking about it I’d recommend giving this article a read before you start work, it may save you a lot of time down the line.

Free Site Validator

Our final news item brings our attention to a service blogged about by Roger Johansson at 456bereastreet.com. Roger was looking for a way to validate his site without having to do every page individually and what he found was freesitevalidator.com.

The service automatically craws each page of your site and checks it for validation, as well as giving you a report of any broken/dead links. Also known as Link Rot!

The service looks really useful so be sure to check it out.

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Interview: Mark Boulton on Design by Community

Paul: So as I said at the start of the show, joining me today is Mark Boulton. Good to have you on the show Mark.

Mark: Good to be here.

Paul: It’s nice to finally talk to you, we met up for the first time just a few days ago now.

Mark: Yeah, it was it was about a week ago.

Paul: It was great to do so. I talked about you a few weeks ago on the show as well when we were talking about a recent blog post that you wrote. But we will come on to that in just a minute. What we are going to talk about today with Mark is that he has done the unthinkable from a design point of view. Haven’t you really?

Mark: I have really yes.

Paul: You’re totally insane and so I wanted to pick you brain about why you have chosen to do the unthinkable. Before we get onto that, all of this resolves around some work your doing for Drupal. Tell us a little bit A) about what Drupal is and B) what you are doing.

Mark: Drupal is a Content Management Framework I guess, that allows people to build websites and its an open source project, it’s been going for quite a while now. I think seven years or so. The software is on version six now and it has a very large user base. Probably three hundred or so registered users.

Paul: Three hundred users?

Mark: Three hundred thousand!

Paul: Ah ok.

Mark: So it’s a pretty enormous project really, and with it being Open Source these are all very passionate developers. It’s quite a developer centric platform.

Paul: Ok.

Mark: The community, with it being open source the community contribute quite a lot to it, with modules and themes and that kind of thing, plugins. Our involvement in the project is redesigning drupal.org, which is kind of the home on the web of the framework, so you can go there and download and read documentation. But it’s also the home of the community, which is a pretty huge one. So it’s very exciting.

Paul: So tell us a little bit about the design process that you’re using, and this is what you blogged on and what kind of caught my attention and struck me as a ridiculous idea and what on earth were you thinking about?

Mark: Yeah, well I’ve been working with Lisa Raquelt who is a user experience researcher and kind of strategist. She started very early on in the process. She started blogging about it with the Drupal Association, who represent the Drupal community, who engaged us on the project. They are very happy with this being an open source project. They’re very happy with us to talk about it. Which is completely opposite to the way you normally work with a client.

Paul: Yeah, totally.

Mark: Normally you sign NDAs and it’s very closed doors. You don’t want to tell the competition, its the complete opposite, which is terrifying. Lisa started blogging about it and got really really great feedback from the community, really valuable feedback. Then I then started blogging about some of the design work we were doing. We are redesigning the wordmark and the branding currently. And I thought I may as well just jump in feet first here and see how this goes, which is totally contrary to the way I’ve been working in the past and the way your mind tells you you should work. You just shouldn’t openly talk about design because you’d think that it’s very subjective and everyone is going to have their own opinions, which is true. But we blogged about it a couple of weeks ago and it’s where my blog post on my own site, markboulton.co.uk, came about was I had a lot of people including yourself Paul. Who were saying I was insane, why are you doing this? And it’s this notion of design by community that’s very different to design by committee. Which is what a lot of people was telling me, "You can’t design by committee, it never works." Which is true, it never does.

Paul: So why do you think we are so hesitant as designers to talk openly? Is it fear of the subjective, is it that we don’t like people looking at our designs before they are finished? Why are we so hesitant do you think?

Mark: It’s a really interesting question that. I had an interesting conversation with an architect a couple of weeks ago about the exact same thing. A lot of architects don’t open up. A lot of designers, maybe product designers. An insight into the way somebody works and as designers we all work very differently and sometimes it’s a very private process. To expose that it’s almost like going out shopping with no clothes on. Suddenly you’re exposing the way that you work to everybody, to judge you, and people will judge you. It is a terrifying thought. I think part of it is also schooling. If you’ve done art at school, which most designers have done, most visual designers. You slave away on a piece of art and it’s not finished yet and it’s not finished and you don’t want anyone to look at it until it is finished, so I think there is an element of that as well. When I released two versions of the Drupal wordmark, for feedback they were very much just sketches. They were right in their first iteration. I would normally never do that but I thought let’s see what the community thinks.

Paul: So what happened when you released those two sketches?

Mark: It was carnage. Initially it was quite painful sometimes to listen to some of the comments to be honest. I think anybody takes their own work personally. If someone then attacks some of your own work with necessarily seeing any of the context and that kind of thing, then it can smart a little bit. But I’ve written my own blog for a while now and I’ve got reasonably thick skin, so it wasn’t that bad. What did come out through all of the comments were trends. Trends started to emerge. So from people’s subjective opinion, if enough people were having the same kind of subjective opinion, then that becomes less of an opinion and more of trend. And it was really those trends were looking to identify, that we could feed back into the development of the design.

Paul: It’s interesting there you talked about the fact the people who were seeing this stuff didn’t have the context. Did you not prepare the ground in any way? Did you not tell them why you took the approach you did? Or did you literally just put out the branding there and go, "What do you think?"

Mark: Yeah, there is a reasonably sticky situation with Drupal, particularly with the wordmark. They have a kind of logo at the moment, which is a kind of drop with a face on it. And that logo at the moment is under GPL so it can’t be trademarked which means the Drupal Association can not protect their own property, as it were, because this logo is under GPL. Which means that anybody can take it, change it, completely mess around with it. Which is fine, the community have been doing that for a long time now. So when I took on and blogged about this redesign of the wordmark, there was not the context, the business context, was perhaps lacking because I felt that I could not provide that business context. Because I was the designer and that should really come from someone else, and that was a little late in coming. Which is why the first blog post really didn’t go down too well, because I assumed the audience knew that this project was happening. As it turned out, it actually wasn’t. They didn’t know and it was all a bit of a mess, but it’s kind of smoothed over now, with later iterations and there’s been more blogging done by the Drupal Association. Which has provided the rationale for redesigning the branding.

Paul: Right, so there is a lesson to be learned there I guess of the importance of providing context and why stuff is happening and why you are taking the approach you are I guess.

Mark: Absolutely yeah, I think context is really important, especially for branding and logo design and that kind of thing. Just providing, and I was very aware of this when I blogged it. We all saw what happened with the London 2012 logo, when that is released very early without any context, it’s either misunderstood, or just hated or really liked. I’d rather have that kind of opinion anyway, than somebody kind of going, "Yeah, its alright."

Paul: You prefer to create a strong reaction.

Mark: Yeah, either positive or negative, because those are the reactions you can act upon. Anything in the middle is kind of gray, middle ground. That’s actually very very difficult to take on board and move forward with. So any kind of negative or positive reaction, you can take that on board, which we did. But the context for the Drupal logo is going to be the other stuff around it, which is the branding, the tone of voice, what is said on the page, the design, the other design elements around it, how it interacts with the existing kind of drop because they are still keeping that as a mascot. So it’s how all of that works together was perhaps lacking at this early stage. Which is why perhaps, going back to your initial question, designers don’t actually release very early on because the context isn’t there yet.

Paul: Yeah, which makes a lot of sense. When it came to the feedback, so you were obviously asking for feedback here, were you setting any kind of constraints on that feedback? From time to time I’ve talked on the subject about how to get design signoff and that kind of thing and one of the things that I always say is, "Don’t just say, ‘What do you think?’" but actually kind of try and guide the type of feedback you want and give a context to it, is that something you did?

Mark: Yeah. Not initially, which was why we had to.. The initial blog post didn’t really go down so well from an actionable sort of feedback point of view. Because I felt that a lot of the design questions I wanted answered. I think it was too early and I hold my hands up for that. I think it was too early in the process for me to blog about that. The second post that I put up I asked for specifics on whether or not the word mark needed a capital D or a lower case d and whether or not it needed, we were developing the idea of a secondary icon with it which is a splash and whether or not it needed the splash or not. We got some really great feedback because that focused people’s attention. That provided a really great selection of trends which have fed back into the next iteration. The first post was a bit of a free for all to be honest. Nothing really useful came out of it, which was a shame.

Paul: I mean you kind of, you talked about trends. Do you think that that is kind of, those trends that you see emerging, have the way that you have taken those on board has it been a kind of anecdotal trends or are you talking statistics here? Were you kind of marking down how many people you know said, "Yes, there should be an uppercase D." or whatever or are you just kind of taking on a feeling? Does that make sense?

Mark: Yeah. It was kind of taking on the feeling. More qualitative than quantitative at this point. However, for the cap D or lowercase d we could have just run a poll which in hindsight we should have done, is just had a tick box for each question as it were. However I’m always a little, I actually quite like a lot of the qualitative feedback because people were saying, "Yes cap D and splash," but then they go on to say something else. If we just reigned it into a simple poll then we would have lost all that really great, valuable feedback, because it’s that that provides context for their answer.

Paul: Yeah, I mean you won’t necessarily know why they’re saying a capital D.

Mark: Exactly, and there was enough of people saying the same kind of thing in those comments for it to be a pretty good trend for us to act upon. And it also throws out more heads about them on as it were. There was a lot of valuable comment from the Drupal community especially. And that we would have spent six months trying to research the ins and outs of that community, the history and the culture because there is an awful lot, you know. It’s been going seven years and there’s a lot of people in there. I would have been around ‘til next year trying to fully understand that community if I hadn’t adopted this open way of working.

Paul: It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? I mean when they were coming back and you were seeing a trend emerging very definitely one way or the other over something, were you always going with that decision or were sometimes you saying "Well actually, although everybody’s saying we should go with a capital D or whatever, I’m not going to because of X, Y and Z."

Mark: Yes. I think there does have to be somebody who is willing to make a decision on something that needs to be decided upon. If fifty percent of people said, "I like a black website," and fifty percent of people say, "I like a white website," the compromise is that you end up with a gray website and nobody wants gray. So, what we’ve done especially with the cap D and lowercase d for example there was pretty much an overwhelming response to, "Yes it should be lowercase d," because it’s kind of more attractive aesthetically and all the rest of it. However we’ve chosen to go with uppercase D and that is because of business requirements and also because of the ties in with the documentation. We’ve revised the word mark now where the uppercase D is actually a lot better than the previous version. Perhaps when I posted initially the lowercase d and the uppercase D were not really on an equal footing design-wise. The uppercase D needed a lot of refinement and again perhaps that skewed the results, skewed the comments and so we’ve actually reversed the general trend there and said, "Actually no. We think we should go with the uppercase D for this reason and this reason," and that will continue throughout the whole process. We’ve got to remember, and it’s very important, that the Drupal Association hired us for our expertise and if we feel strongly about something then hopefully we’ll go ahead with that and we’ll push back on any feedback.

Paul: I mean it’s quite interesting. You talk about, "as we go through this process." So it sounds like you’re gonna keep going down this line, that you’re gonna, you know, as you create say, the website interface that you’ll expose that.

Mark: Yeah we are. If you have a look on groups.google.org and do a search for the redesign group in there we have set in a bunch of dates in the calendar for gathering community feedback. So we will be posting up a link on Thursday to the prototype we’re developing and we’ll be doing that for the next six to eight weeks. Every other week we’ll be posting a link up there to gather feedback throughout the weekend. So we’ll be posting it up on Thursday/Friday morning and then we’ll be kind of locking off comments on Monday and then all of those comments will hopefully try and establish some trends and feedback. That’ll then feed back into the next iteration. So we’ve pretty much set a precedent here and we’re gonna be designing in the open ‘til the final curtain call, as it were.

Paul: Excellent! So how do you feel this differs from design by committee? Because from chatting to you when we met up whenever it was I got the distinct impression from you, you saw this as a very different kind of experience, but why, what makes it different?

Mark: Yeah, well I’ve been involved in design by committee quite a few times. I’m sure a lot of designers have and generally in those instances you’re in a boardroom or a meeting and there are several people, maybe twelve tops, and they all have very strong opinions. Generally, as I said in my blog post, there might be an alpha male in there or two sometimes. People can rally around the loudest voice, so all of a sudden that becomes the opinion. It can be a very, very difficult environment to work in because there are so few people, all with a very loud voice. Design by community is a different kettle of fish really because we’re designing for essentially 300,000 clients and the wider web community as well, we’re not just asking the Drupal community for feedback here, we’re also asking the wider web community for feedback. Anybody can get involved in this, it’s not just for the Drupal community. So anybody can. So if you feel like, talking to the listeners here, if anyone feels like weighting in with their comments, please do. Because it’s very important to us that the wider audience is reflected in this redesign and not just designing for the Drupal community. So it’s a very different process I think, because we’re kind of staffing back a little bit. We’re not in a meeting room with twelve people trying to come up with a solution. We’re putting stuff out there. We’re asking for comments from a lot of people who are thankfully providing comments, which is great. Really thoughtful feedback, then we can try and establish trends and then it’s those trends that we act upon. It becomes a little less subjective. That’s the idea anyway.

Paul: It’s the scale that turns it into trends rather than just an opinionated person I guess.

Mark: Yeah, that’s right. And you do have to, like I said initially, sometimes it’s difficult to read a bit of a flaming going on on your blog posts, you know, because there are quite a few people out there who will be very passionate about this project. They’re very passionate about Drupal because they’ve got a lot of time and money, a lot of people their livelihood is dependent upon this platform. So we have to really take that into account that this is serious for a lot of people. We’re not just redesigning a website here, we’re actually providing a platform for a community to do their work. So it’s pretty important stuff.

Paul: So, I mean do you think that this is a kind of a peculiar situation? You know, is the Drupal project unusual or would this be a kind of approach you would encourage for other designers working on other types of projects?

Mark: It’s a really interesting question. I mean I’ve worked waterfall methodologies in the past so you get your, you do your research, you do your initial designs, they get signed off and then you build your website, it’s very linear. And after working at the BBC for so long I realized that, because we worked very iteratively at the BBC that actually a more iterative approach was actually more valuable so to take that client-side approach, and the agile software development approach, to take that commercially with design is actually very difficult. But with the clients we are currently working with, that’s the way that we work. So we don’t work in a waterfall methodology, we work very iteratively upon fixed time scales. So we have a week per iteration for example. Now the feedback thing, the only difference really between Drupal and any other big project is the fact it’s open source and has a very, very big active community who are used to working in this way. I think that’s the critical thing is that they’re used to people putting software updates out early, feedback and they get changed and honed down until the final version is released but it’s just the way that they’re working so we have to kind of slot into that culture and it’s not a culture that design thrives in actually.

Paul: No, I can imagine.

Mark: No it’s a very difficult environment for design because, and it goes back again to one of your initial questions about wanting to sit there and craft a solution until it’s finished. Well that goes counter to the way that this open source culture works. They want to see stuff early. They want to feed back. They want their say. So as long as you kind of understand that and they’re not being grouchy or attacking you in any way they just want the very best for the project. So yeah, it’s worthwhile considering it as a working approach. Certainly the iterative approach is worthwhile considering for any project but the getting feedback early, if your audience is big enough then give it a go and see how it works. You know if you speak to me in six weeks time I may have a completely different conversation. This is really very much a work in progress and we’re just seeing how it’s going. It’s not been done as openly in the public before. I can’t really remember any projects from a design perspective that have been like this. It’s fairly unique. Which is really great, it’s exciting. So we’ll just see. We’ll see what happens.

Paul: Yeah, very interesting stuff Mark. Thank you very much for coming on the show.

Mark: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Paul: And we will wait with baited breath to see future blog posts as to how the experience goes to the bitter end.

Mark: Please do because I’ll be blogging about it pretty much constantly throughout the life of the project.

Paul: We’ll keep an eye on that. Thank you very much for your time and we’ll get you back on soon enough.

Mark: Great! Thanks Paul!

Paul: Bye bye.

Mark: Cheers. Bye.

Thanks goes to Todd Dietrich and Andy Kinsey for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

Keeping Positive

Got this question from Bill (remember him?!)….

I have just found out that the potential new project I have put loads of work in to winning is not coming my way. I wrote an extensive proposal, did some unpaid mock-up work, attended a presentation and jumped through every hoop thrown my way.

I was told by the client that it was ‘very close’ but on this occasion I had not been successful. Gutted.

How do you guys at Headscape cope with these types of rejections?

To be honest, and this is from a lot of bitter experience, it’s hard and some are harder to take than others.

I do, however, have a few thoughts and pointers that may help. Firstly, you can help yourself by weeding out the enquiries that you will never win.

Are these people worth your time?

Check out the email address of the enquirer. If it’s gmail, hotmail, yahoo or similar then chances are your potential client is just looking for free consultancy from you. I.e. they have an idea and have no idea what’s entailed in making that idea happen. And they certainly will not pay you to research it.

Secondly, and I am only aware of this possibility in the UK, but you can check up on a company through the Companies House website. This tells you all sorts of useful information about how long they’ve been around, their liquidity etc. You may change your mind about responding to a tender sent from a dissolved company.

Talk money

There is nothing more frustrating than being told that you are ‘way out of the ballpark’ after putting hours, even days, of effort into a proposal.

Ask people, up front, what their budget is. Explain that you need to know it to respond with the most appropriate solution for them. An example I often use is usability testing. Everyone knows that testing, preferably many times throughout a project can only be a good thing. But that said, not doing any testing doesn’t automatically mean that your client will get an unusable turkey for a site.

If you don’t get anywhere by asking then create a 2 or 3 paragraph solution with associated tasks (a mini proposal I guess) and email that to the potential client with an associated ballpark price. If they still want you to deliver a ‘full’ proposal then, chances are, your ballpark is within their range.

Ask/listen

Ok, so assuming you think that responding to the proposal is a good use of your time, you now need to read their brief in detail noting questions you have along the way. You will make a number of assumptions about what is the correct solution for this client while you are reading.

You need to talk to the client to confirm their answers to your questions but you also need to listen to their responses to ensure that your assumptions are correct. It’s very easy to arrogantly assume that ‘you know best’ because you’ve been doing it for years.

This also applies to your written proposal. Don’t describe and price up what you think the client needs – go through every point in their brief and respond to it accordingly. If it is plain obvious that something they’re asking for makes no sense at all, then tackle it head on and explain why they shouldn’t be doing it.

Stick to your guns

We decided, quite a while back, and for very good reason, that we would not do any unpaid mock-up design work. In some cases this has been seen as a positive thing (once it has been explained) but with other potential projects I’m sure it has adversely affected our chances of winning the work. However, we should stick to what we believe is right. Chopping and changing presents a negative image to both potential clients and our staff.

If you do decide to present initial mock-up ideas don’t be tempted into iterating them further. Any client who asks for is again asking for free work and is most definitely to be avoided.

Be gracious

Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not the right fit with certain companies – even if the initial phone call or meeting went really well. It may well be that someone else delivers just the thing that really swings it for the client – sometime you just don’t know what that is.

If you do lose then you need to accept that you win some, you lose some. It often happens that these things happen in streaks which can be very frustrating. We found ourselves turning away superb opportunities earlier this year simply because we were too busy.

But always try to bring a positive attitude to any rejection because it is possible that these people will contact you again for further work (though beware that you are simply making up numbers!) or they may recommend you to others. They won’t do either if you react badly to the rejection!

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