146. Obsessive

Paul Boag

On this week’s show, Paul interviews Nicholas Felton about designing with data, we celebrate the return of 24Ways, and explain how community can keep users coming back for more.

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Housekeeping

Two pieces of housekeeping before we begin:

  • First, Jaysone wrote in asking about the chat room we mention on the show. He wanted to know what it was and whether anybody could join. The chat room is associated with the shows we occasionally stream live. You can watch these shows at https://boagworld.com/live and interact with us as we record via the chat room. Anyone is welcome although you will probably need to follow me on Twitter to see when the shows are being recorded.
  • Talking of streaming shows, the next live show will be our 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

24 Ways is back

This week sees the return of 24 Ways. 24 ways is the advent calendar for web geeks. Each day throughout December they publish a daily dose of web design and development goodness to bring a little Christmas cheer.

I am not sure whether it is the quality of the posts or that 24 Ways appears just before Christmas, but I always get excited when they return.

This year it returns with a somewhat controversial new look (personally I think it is great they are experimenting) and a whole new set of posts. They still offer a complete archive of previous posts so be sure to look through that, as well as subscribe to their RSS feed.

There is something very special about 24 Ways. I think part of the reason I like it so much is because the writers are given a free hand. They can write on whatever they want and so inevitably write about their passions. This leads to a better quality of post.

As if that glowing recommendation is not enough, I should also point out that our very own Marcus Lillington has a post coming soon. Surely that will be enough to encourage you to subscribe!

iPhone designers kit

In the past I have been slightly rude to the guys over at Smashing Magazine about their endless lists of other people’s creativity (we love them really). However, this week they have released something that is genuinely useful.

The iPhone Starter Kit, is a set of button elements and various iPhone interface options, bundled in a Photoshop PSD. The pack is ideal for mobile developers and front-end designers who need a professional way to show mock-ups or try out ideas.

You can use the set for free and without restriction. This includes both private and commercial projects. The only thing they ask is that you do not resell it.

Admittedly you may not be doing work on the iPhone right now. However, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before we will all be working on a mobile application of some description.

The mobile sector is incredibly exciting at the moment and this is another useful little weapon in our arsenal.

5 Ways to Get Usability Testing on the Cheap

Our next post is from the sitepoint blog and is entitled ‘5 Ways to Get Usability Testing on the Cheap‘.

Usability testing is a good idea for any new web site. Increasing the usability of your web site is good because it will increase visitor satisfaction, which in turn increases sales and user loyalty. On the business savings side, usability testing can also save you money in development, maintenance, and support costs.

The problem is website owners often perceive it as expensive, failing to grasp the high return on investment. However, it doesn’t need to be and any project can incorporate some user testing, no matter what the budget.

The sitepoint post makes 5 suggestions of how you can keep the cost down…

  • Use a service like usertesting.com, which provides a video of users interacting with your site.
  • Get a written user response to your site from Feedback Army for as little as $7.
  • Use a DIY user testing tool like Silverback for the mac or Morae for Windows.
  • Ask friends and family to take a look at the site. Alternatively ask for some feedback on the boagworld forum.
  • Use services like Crazy Egg or Click Density to get heatmaps showing how users interact with your site.

Whatever approach you choose, always make sure you have at least some user testing in every project.

Site search options

One of the things I hate most about the Boagworld website is its search facility. The built in search mechanism that comes with my blogging software sucks! This is particularly embarrassing as I am always banging on to clients about how important search is. After all half your users will turn to the search box before even considering browsing the site. Search has to be right.

I have half heartedly looked around for something that would do the job. I remember looking at Atomz a while back and also there is the obvious Google integration route, but nothing inspired me.

This week however another post from Sitepoint caught my eye. It was talking about the new site search from Yahoo! Recently adopted by Techcrunch it has some fairly impressive features…

  • Real-time indexing of content – When new blog posts or comments are added to the site, the search index updates almost immediately.
  • Customised ranking – You can fine tune the algorithm to fit your audience and user experience.
  • Structured search – You can build your own refinement mechanisms. For example I could allow users to filter posts by category, number of comments, tag or any other criteria I set.
  • Blending Web with site results – Users can search both site and web content and see the results blended together in a single display.

If your site search sucks as much as mine, you might want to check this out.

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Interview: Nicholas Felton on ‘Designing Data’

Paul: So joining me to day is Nicholas Felton. Good to have you on the show Nicholas!

Nicholas: Thanks so much Paul, it’s a pleasure being here.

Paul: It’s the first time that I’ve really spoken to you. I only first saw you or heard about your work at Future of Web Design and I have to say you completely blew me away with a presentation that was very different from the majority of stuff that was being talked about because it wasn’t really fundamentally about Web design, I guess in a way.

Nicholas: No, I think in a way it’s about a weird hobby that’s kind of developed into a tiny Web phenomenon.

Paul: Well, from what I can gather it’s a fairly big Web phenomenon according to Keir from Carsonified who was raving about you afterwards. For those people that haven’t come across you before, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you? What is it that you do? Where is it you work? A bit of background basically.

Nicholas: Sure, sure. Well again, my name is Nicholas Felton. I’m a graphic designer, predominantly print but I definitely dabble in the web and am there more and more frequently. I went to art school, I studied graphic design about ten years ago here in America at the Rhode Island School of Design and I’ve worked in graphic design firms and advertising doing identity and on the side I’ve started my personal website called Feltron where I’ve grown these annual reports that have become something that I’m sort of getting well known for.

Paul: So let’s talk about these annual reports, because this is what you were talking about at Future of Web Design. There’s a lot of people that might be listening to this thinking “Well, hang on a minute he’s just said that he’s primarily a print designer, this is a web design podcast. Why have we got him on the show?” Well just to kind of deal with that to start with, I mean obviously web design should be a lot broader, we should be looking outside of the web for inspiration and I’ve found these Felton Annual Reports incredibly inspiring. For those that don’t know, tell us a little bit about what they are.

Nicholas: Alright. Well, I really latched onto this name for them because I think it communicates pretty quickly what it’s about. Everyone understands what an annual report is. It’s the summation of a year. I’ve just attached my name, more precisely my sort of Web name, which is Feltron. My last name is Felton. But these started in 2004. I was just trying to get a grip on the year and wrap it up and I looked around at the websites I was looking at and the books I enjoyed and I put that all on my site but I snuck in a couple of little details, like the number of postcards that I sent and worked out the number of air miles that I traveled and those sort of, they hooked me. And so the next year I went back through my records and I put together a multi-page feature for my website where I looked at my travel in more detail, making pie charts of the countries that I went to. I split up my photography into all these different metrics that I could examine and between that I came up with about six pages I think of exploration of my eating and drinking habits and the culture that I enjoyed for the year and this is something I thought would only be appealing to people who knew me well, it would be a little bonus for them at the end of the year and it turned out to be a little viral and people started sending it to their friends and I started hearing from strangers that they thought it was fantastic and people saying, “I want to do this,” so I’ve tried to spend more and more time on it each year to stay in the forefront of this desire that I see building for people to encapsulate their year in this kind of report.

Paul: For me personally, when I heard you speak I immediately came away with a desire to do the same thing, just as you described.

Nicholas: That’s fantastic.

Paul: But the question that’s burning in me is, “Why?” Why do I feel the desire to do that? Why did you do it? Where did the idea come from? How did this all start?

Nicholas: I think it wasn’t that hard for me to do. The first one that I described, which was a multi-page document I actually didn’t do anything different than I’d been doing for previous years. I just had this natural habit that in my calendar I would write down where I went socially as well as what I did for work and I was able to look at that and between the names of the restaurants I knew this was a Thai restaurant so I could sort of make pie charts of what types of meals I was eating and I knew how many bars I had been to and I guess after that year I decided I was really going to formally examine this and decided to strictly track more things over the course of the year. I guess for me it’s driven by curiosity, I think I’m a pretty naturally curious person, maybe you are as well and it’s not about changing my behavior. I really don’t want the reports or this recording of my year to affect what I do over the year. I think I find a lot of solace in the numbers that come out of it. Just knowing how many beers I had or how many coffees I had or how many air miles I traveled is really comforting to me. It’s a way of tackling some of the unknown in our life.

Paul: It’s interesting because when you describe it, if someone hasn’t seen these reports you kind of think of an annual general report that’s published by a company, which are tediously dull documents but the things that you produce are graphically stunning as well. So I’m interested, is it primarily a kind of data collection exercise for you, or is it more a graphic design exercise? Is it about, I mean you kind of indicated that it’s about the data that you’re gathering rather than maybe the graphics, but the graphics are obviously what sells it to other people I guess. I don’t know.

Nicholas: Yeah, it’s hard for me to split it, but I have to say it’s absolutely about the finished product which is a piece of graphic design and the better the data is the better the story I have to tell so it’s a narrative of my year. It’s all encapsulated. It’s primarily a visual piece and I do put a lot of time and effort into making sure that it’s very visual and very easy to read quickly but that there are little details in it you can pull out if you want to spend more time with it.

Paul: Yeah. I mean that’s the immediate thing that you said there, it’s very time consuming.

Nicholas: Yes.

Paul: Not only from a design point of view, and I’m sure it must take you just an unbelievable number of hours to produce something that is so exquisitely designed but I mean tracking all this stuff, you must spend, I mean I’m surprised there isn’t a big part of one of your pie charts that’s just entitled “Tracking” you know where you spend hours just tracking all this information. What keeps you going? Why do you continue to do this?

Nicholas: Well first of all, it just doesn’t take that much time actually. I tend to sit down in the morning in front of my calendar and write down the meaningful things from the previous day but at most five to ten minutes a day. It’s definitely a background process that’s running in me all the time as, “Do I need to take note of this for my reporting?” And when I do leave my routine, when I travel, it’s a bit more complicated because then I’m doing new things and I want to make sure I get them right but it’s something I think you get into the habit of doing. For anyone who writes a diary or does these sort of recordings of the day I think after a while it’s not a burden at all. Last year I did find out, I decided out of this curiosity that I wanted to record every street that I’d walked down in New York City and that did become a little burdensome, but it was well worth it.

Paul: It’s interesting that you picked that one out because that was the one that I really looked at and went “Wow, that must have taken a long time.”

Nicholas: Yes. But it was well worth it. A year is a long time but it’s actually not that long of a time and I had a lot of hunches going into it about where I would go and where I didn’t go and it’s phenomenal to see how little of the city my routine is actually settled into.

Paul: Yeah, it’s a fascinating exercise. Just kind of give us a little bit of an idea, you know tell us you just mentioned walking down certain streets. Tell the listeners some of the other things that you collect, the other bits of information.

Nicholas: Well last year I was keeping track of every single alcoholic beverage that I had. For some reason I think drinking is really easy to keep track of because it is sort of a binary act, it’s like “one drink” versus a meal which can be more complicated but so alcoholic beverages I had 968 in 2007. I had 83,565 milligrams of caffeine through all my coffee beverages which by examining my weight and the caffeine content of each type I was able to deduce was approximately 6.8 lethal doses. I knew there’d be a couple lethal doses in there I just wasn’t sure how many and I worked it out.

Paul: That’s just horrifying. How do you decide what it is you’re going to track?

Nicholas: It usually just leads naturally out of the previous year. So like in June I will decide, “I wish I’d been tracking that this year,” and so next year I’ll make a point of doing that. So last year I started delving into the distances I’ve traveled, I worked out that I traveled about 1075 miles on the New York City subways. So this year I’ve taken a much closer look at the distances I’ve traveled. I’ve worn a pedometer all year so I could figure out how far I’ve walked and yeah.

Paul: What kind of other stuff are you tracking at the moment? You’re tracking how far you’ve walked, what other things?

Nicholas: Mostly the same things from previous years, but I’d like to look at it all through the lens of distance so it’ll be a different measure of the year rather than relating things to days or hours how does that relate to how far in terms of length I was through the year.

Paul: I mean you mentioned a pedometer there. What other kind of tools do you use for collecting data when you’re out there? When you’re out and about I feel like you need a really handy little iPhone app or something here that kind of records all this stuff for you but what tools are you using?

Nicholas: Well yes the iPhone is great I’ve tried to have some sort of smart phone where I can take notes at all times through this project but often times it’s just as simple as sending an email to myself so I have this little note that gets collected and goes into a folder and I make sure that I enter that into my calendar. It mostly all goes into iCal. I also use Backpack by the 37signals guys to keep running lists of the clothes that I purchase through the year or the movies that I saw and then when it all comes together it’s Excel. Everything needs to get into a spreadsheet so that all the math can get done and that’s probably half of the time it takes to design is just collating all the numbers.

Paul: Yeah, I’ll bet. Wow. This is absolutely fascinating. It’s something very addictive about the whole idea. I mean OK, for somebody like me, let’s say I wanted to go for this and I wanted to try it. What kind of advice would you give me starting out?

Nicholas: Well probably the best advice is to pick something that you’re going to be able to track, that you’re not just picking “What websites do I visit?” because it’s going to be overwhelming and you’re just going to pass on it after a week or two so pick something that’s easy that you do, not too infrequently that it’s not interesting but frequently enough that you’re going to get a good data set out of it. And so like if you see a lot of concerts I think concerts attended is great and then what aspects of that that are interesting? Who did you see and where was it or how long was it? So I think definitely in this website I’ve been developing to help other people create their own annual reports or just personal reporting in a way you can just have one really rich data set and by slicing it in different ways I think you can get a lot of interesting presentations out of it.

Paul: You mentioned a site there that you’re developing. Tell us a bit about that.

Nicholas: OK, it’s called daytum.com. It’s D-A-Y-T-U-M and it’s just a place where I’ve tried to remove a lot of the boundaries for creating a document like this. So there are two parts of it, there’s the recording element that can get complicated so we want to make a way that’s really easy for you to count things and then the display part of it which is practically inaccessible to a lot of people so there are a lot of built-in pie charts and stack line graphs and counting methods that are all built in, in a sort of clean design and you can just make this page that fills up with graphs and numeric intricacies of your life.

Paul: I must admit I’ve had a quick look at it and I haven’t signed up for it yet and you know it has that same clean look that your reports have and you know it’s obviously beautifully designed as well I mean we’ve spent a long time haven’t we talking about the collecting of the data I think that’s probably the most fascinating bit but as this is a web design podcast I feel like we should be talking about the design a little bit as well.

Nicholas: Absolutely.

Paul: You know I think the kind of key thing that really struck me is that you’re presenting, you know, fairly dry data and don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that your life is boring but at the end of the day it’s data that you’re presenting and you’re doing that in a kind of visually stunning way. Tell us a bit about how the design comes together, you know. What’s your design process?

Nicholas: Well I have the benefit of being in control of all the data so if something isn’t looking right one way I can explore it a different way or I can rewrite a headline which is one of the greatest advantages that any designer can have rather than working for someone else. And then I sort of have an infographics approach where I really eschew using keys or trying to make your eye go in too many places to understand something so whenever possible I try and keep everything really focused so you can look in one spot and hopefully understand what’s going on there immediately rather than having to look at color codes or translate symbols unnaturally.

Paul: I mean is it, a lot of graphic designers out there that kind of find working with data and, you know, things like that incredibly dull. How do you keep inspired? How do you get something out of it? Because you’re not working with gorgeous imagery or anything like that, you know it’s quite dry, what inspires you about doing this kind of stuff?

Nicholas: Well I guess they’re kind of like puzzles for me. Um, I will see the establishing of infographics sort of like the data’s there and it wants to look interesting so how can I make a system that’s going to present it in the most instructional way? So I’ll play with that system so that it will line up in a dramatic way rather than just sitting in a static predictable line graph or bar chart or something like that.

Paul: I mean also you seem to use typography very heavily so I’m guessing that’s something you’re particularly passionate about.

Nicholas: Yeah I guess it’s my two natural loves in one place: the numbers and type.

Paul: Oh dear. So what advice would you give for us Web designers that are kind of, you know we do work with data a fair amount, you know from surveys through to content management systems that provide reporting and things like that. What do you think the key is to presenting data in an understandable and approachable format?

Nicholas: I think that one of the key things is just getting away from the default options that you’re given like I’ve found it’s really impossible to get a nice looking graph out of Excel or out of Apple’s Numbers and the same is kind of true for the Google Chart API which is what we use for daytum.com which is basically a way to send a URL to Google and they return a pie chart or a line graph but they can get really overly complicated and ugly very quickly so it’s a matter of stripping it down and making sure that this is something that’s going to be dramatic and simple to understand.

Paul: It’s that simplicity thing again that, you know, have taken something complex and as you say stripping it down and keeping it simple.

Nicholas: Absolutely, and even if you have the benefit being able to edit your material so that I’m looking at a pie chart that has four or five slices rather than seventeen I think it’s going to benefit your readers enormously.

Paul: So Daytum, that you are in the process, is that actually live now or is that still in the process of being developed? I can’t remember whether it was generally accessible or whether it was in a closed beta.

Nicholas: It’s in a beta but the wait list is down to less than a week now so it’s just a queue basically to protect out severs. But yeah, we’re adding new features all the time. We’re about to add averages there so you can examine your average cup of coffee or your average commute time and we just plan on trying to preserve the user experience by making sure we don’t get too swamped and growing it over time.

Paul: So how did this come about? You keep saying “we” so who’s the team that’s behind that?

Nicholas: Yes it’s my partner Ryan Case who is more on the development side but is also a fantastic user interface designer and he came to me in January or February of this year and like many people had said we should figure out a way to do this year reports on the web so that other people can do it but he had the technical chops and motivation to really get the ball rolling and he’s become actually a great data tracker himself and has been keeping track of all his beers religiously and all the trains he’s been taking, which I didn’t know he had in him. So I think it goes to show anybody with the proper motivation could get started.

Paul: So is this your full-time job now or is it a part-time project?

Nicholas: It’s about half-time at this point. I still have my editorial clients and web clients and identity clients that I work for but this definitely occupies as much free time as I can give to it.

Paul: Well I found the whole thing incredibly inspiring.

Nicholas: Thank you so much.

Paul: It made me look from a completely different perspective at graphic design and also at life in general I guess and we have so many people who come on the show that are talking about the stock and trade of web design and thought it’d be really good to get you on just to give a different perspective and make us look outside of our little boxes. Thank you so much for coming on and I wish you all the best in your various projects.

Nicholas: Thank you Paul. Thank you.

Paul: Good to talk to you.

Nicholas: OK, take care. Bye bye.

Thanks goes to Todd Dietrich for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

This week’s listener contribution is a question from Dave. He writes:

I am having real problem maintaining users. They visit the site once and then I never seen them again. I have good content, the site is usable and so I am at a loss as to what I should do.

Should I be worried? Are repeat users really important? What can I do to keep them coming back which doesn’t cost a fortunate?

It is such a good question that it spawned an entire post on using community as a retention tool.

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