145. Baby Jack

Paul Boag

On this week’s show Paul looks at how to communicate better with your users. Marcus examines ways to improve your contracts and Ryan has a baby (not actually on the show).

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Two pieces of housekeeping before we begin:

  • First, congratulations to Ryan Taylor our producer and Michelle on the birth of their first child. We want to send our love to them all and welcome Jack Taylor to the world!
  • Second, just a quick note to say we will be holding our live Christmas special on the 8th December at 2.30PM UK time. The show will be an open question and answer time so either send in your questions in advance or come along and join us in the chatroom. We will also be doing a feature on this years top Christmas gifts for geeks. You can vote for your suggestions over at UserVoice.

News and events

Google goes social

The biggest and most controversial story of the week is the addition of SearchWiki to Google search results.

SearchWiki is a way for you to customize search by re-ranking, deleting, adding, and commenting on search results. You can move the results you like to the top or add a new site. You can also write notes attached to a particular site and remove results that you don’t feel belong. These modifications will be shown to you every time you do the same search in the future.

However, most controversially you can also share some of these changes with other users. This has led to fears of spamming and negative commenting as users attempt to manipulate the results.

Personally, this feels like a storm in a tea cup. It is an interesting new feature but I really do not see it catching on in any significant way. Only the most extreme power users will bother using these features and the majority will never see the change.

For example, even if website owners do attempt to manipulate users by spamming notes or adding negative comments about competitors, the vast majority will never see these notes. Users have to actively choose to view other users notes from a tiny link in the footer.

I say let stupid website owners spam these comments. It will keep them busy doing something which ultimately will make no difference to the popularity of their site.

Where this could be useful is when I can identify friends who I trust. Being able to see their notes or reordering of results would be of interest to me. Until then, this is non-starter.

In browser web development tools

In last week’s show we listed your top web development applications. Interestingly several of those applications were browser addons such as the web developer toolbar and Firebug.

This week Smashing Magazine has reviewed 15 in-browser web development tools that offer a variety of debugging and coding features.

The list ranges from the web known like FireBug to the more obscure like Fangs (for showing how a screen reader might read a page) and ColorZilla (for quickly listing all the colors on a particular web page).

Other tools featured include:

  • YSlow – a Firefox extension that analyzes a Web page for front-end performance.
  • Fiddler – an Internet Explorer extension that analyzes and profiles a Web page’s HTTP traffic.
  • DebugBar – a debugging extension for the Internet Explorer.
  • Web Accessibility Toolbar – an extension for Internet Explorer and Opera that quickly evaluating and analyzing your Web content’s accessibility.

If you are regularly coding this list is a must read.

From tables to CSS and back again

Kevin Yank, the co-author of Everything You Know About CSS is Wrong has written an excellent article on Think Vitamin telling us it is time to build websites using tables.

Before you all start sending Kevin hate email I should point out he is referring to CSS tables.

Let’s face it, the worst thing about CSS is its support for column based layout. Sure, it does a great job at absolute position but floats just make no sense! As Kevin writes…

You couldn’t come up with a more convoluted way of expressing page layout if you tried!

Fortunately with the imminent arrival of IE8 all major browsers will soon support CSS tables. This means any group of elements can be made to display like rows and columns within a table. Suddenly designing layout in CSS is as easy as using HTML tables.

I know what you are thinking… ‘what about IE6 and 7?’ Kevin addresses this in his article. He suggests that because it is so easy to layout using CSS tables we will have the time to design in CSS tables for modern browsers and the fall back on floats for IE6 and 7. He goes on to suggest that perhaps it is worth simplifying your design slightly for these older browsers to further speed up the process. He believes (and I agree) that clients would agree to this if they understood the cost savings.

Overall, I think this is a very exciting transition and one that will help bring across those hold out ‘table based designers’.

Advice for long term success

Our final news story today is some advice from the founder of Amazon. Jeff Bezos has done an interview with the ‘US News and World Report’ on how to run a successful business. The advice he shares is something that applies to all of us whether we are running a website or building a freelance career.

From reading the article I took away three lessons…

  • Have a long term strategy – Whether in business or running a website, you need to look ahead. Too many of us are thinking about the short term. What feature should we implement next? Where is the next salary is going to come from? Jeff encourages us to look further and work towards long term and visionary objectives.
  • Do not be distracted – Jeff also encourages us not to be put off by others who do not ‘get’ your long term vision. Stick to your guns and keep going. It is easy to have your confidence knocked by the criticisms of others or problems you encounter along the way.
  • Take risks – I am a great believer in taking risks from time to time. A part of this is excepting failure. If you want to double the amount you succeed you must also double the number of times you fail. As Churchill once said Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

Sure, the interview is not about web design and is written by a guy who can afford to think long term, ignore others and take risks. However, it is still good advice and something we need to take on board both as web designers and website owners.

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Feature: Successful communication

We put a lot of time and attention into the content on our sites, but what about our other communications? We send out newsletters, post blogs, participate in forums. All of these reflect on our brand and the way we are perceived.

In this week’s feature Paul examines how to improve our communications with users.

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Listeners feedback:

Sign-off and payment

We have this question from an anonymous listener:

I have a designer’s contract in front of me and I am getting a ‘feeling’. The contract doesn’t discuss much in terms of scope; just really limits risk for the designer. Though I can understand the need, I raise an eyebrow to focusing more on ‘not getting burned’ than ‘providing a good design’ … so here is the big question. The designer wants 50% upfront and 50% on an arbitrary completion date or “prior to file relinquishment, or upload and/or assembly of website on clients web server.” My thought is I am not paying $X for a pdf mock-up … I am paying for a site redesign and would like to see it work live prior to getting signoff. (or payment) Inevitably, there is a trust issue; I believe we have both been burned in past client/ designer relationships and are treating each other cautiously. Is there an industry norm which could help the situation? My perspective is how it will look live, especially considering different browsers, am I off base as a client to see the design work live prior to payment?

Ok, so picking this apart from the top:

Firstly, having a contract is a good thing. Full stop. But, you don’t have to blindly agree to whatever is put in front of you. If you don’t like what you’re reading then amend and send it back. This may also mean that you want to get legal advice – I guess that depends on your confidence dealing with the legalese involved in most contract documentation.

Contracts should be made up of two parts:

  1. the terms and conditions (the legal stuff) that should cover obligations, deliverables, rights, liability etc.
  2. the Schedule that should be a detailed description of the project – tasks, timescales, price, payment terms etc. It should also include detail on what the testing process is, what browsers/operating systems etc.

Ideally risk should be limited for both parties. A good contract makes expectations clear for both sides and lays out what should happen if something goes wrong.

Regarding payment terms, it is perfectly normal for a contractor to ask for a percentage of the total cost up front. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be half up front, half on completion. We often spread invoicing over 4 or 5 different points over a project. This is good for our clients as it is an incentive for us to reach certain milestones along the way. One question I have here is – does this particular designer want payment literally on commencement? We provide 30 days for our clients to pay bills, so even though we may invoice on commencement, we will be a month into the project before we receive payment.

Ok, more detail… the contractor wants final payment:

  • On an arbitrary completion date – you should not agree to this. Payment by a particular date is not acceptable as the work may not be completed and the delay may not be down to you.
  • Or “prior to file relinquishment” – this is not unheard of. Basically, they are saying ‘you pay us and you’ll get your stuff’. Which is fair enough as long as you (quite rightly point out) have witnessed the site operating correctly in a ‘live’ environment. I’ll come onto this shortly.
  • Or upload and/or assembly of website on clients web server – this is what you want I believe.

A ‘live’ environment doesn’t necessarily have to mean your web server. We test all our web development work on our own development server prior to making it live and we ask our clients to sign-off on this environment prior to pushing live. We do, however, rarely invoice until the site is live because there are possible issues with the live environment that we may not have envisaged. Particularly, hosting platforms often need to be able to support certain technologies – if they don’t, you have a problem. If the designer is providing the hosting then that is unlikely to be an issue. It also gives them an option of taking your site down if you don’t pay. That way, they can happily make the site live prior to sending you the final invoice. Do they offer hosting?

So, in conclusion, I would push for the final invoice to be on live and tested release of the website. I would also propose that payment is split into 3 points – on commencement, on design look and feel sign-off and finally, on live and tested release.

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