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Paul Boag

On this week’s show: We share the highlights of SXSW, discuss home working, and interview Rob Borley about project management.

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News and events

The best of SXSW

Well, SXSW is over and I am back in the UK. But what happened at the conference? What was the big news this year?

That is actually a hard question to answer. There is so much at SXSW that it is almost impossible to get a sense of everything that is going on. Even if you could attend every panel that isn’t always where the real action takes place.

The real conference often happens at the parties and in the corridors. In fact, more than one spontaneous panel was started via Twitter, thanks to official panels being full.

Panels this year ranged from the downright dull to all out flame wars! One that I unfortunately missed was "Is Spec Work Evil!". However, Marcus attended and tells me it was particularly fiery. Personally, I am very much against speculative work as I have said before. However, not everybody would agree and the panel seemed to reflect this diverse opinion.

One panel I did make was Paul Annett’s amazingly inspirational talk on Easter Eggs and design twists. The talk focused on the little things you can add to your site to make users go ‘oooo that’s clever’.

Too often I neglect such ‘bells and whistles’ in favour of usability and accessibility. Paul demonstrated how these different priorities can sit side by side without compromising each other. He showed some great examples including the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo and the vines on the Silverback website.

fedex logo

The final panel I want to mention is ‘Being a UX Team of One‘ by Leah Burley of Adaptive Path. To be honest the title of this one was a little misleading (at least from my perspective).

What I took away from this session was that design should not be a solitary activity, solely reliant on the creative inspiration of one individual. Leah seemed to be arguing for a more collaborative approach especially at the wireframe stage. She proposed that all of those involved in the project should sit down together and hammer out the wireframe designs.

This addressed two separate problems we have been having at Headscape

  • The developers concerns at not being involved early enough in the process.
  • The question of who should do wireframing – the designer or the IA person.

Best of all Leah’s presentation was very pragmatic. She provided lots of practical approaches that encourage idea generation and collaboration. I highly recommend listening to the podcast of this when it is released.

Browser testing and IE6

In other news, there seems to have been a lot written about browsers this past week. Three stories in particular caught my eye…

  • .net Magazine seems to have hopped on the ‘dump IE6’ bandwagon – My opinion is the same as that of Jeremy Keith as expressed in last weeks show. It is not a matter of dropping IE6. We should instead being deciding whether we wish to offer it the same level of support as modern browsers. I am entirely in favour of providing IE6 with a basic stylesheet that avoids its shortcomings. However, I dislike the idea of dropping it entirely.
  • Microsoft has released SuperPreview this week that allows Windows users to test different versions of IE simultaneously. I have to say this looks like an impressive tool. It allows you to view IE6 and IE7 side by side. It also has many other tools that may also be useful. Support for IE8 and other browsers will follow and although it is currently in beta, I think it will quickly become an indispensable tool for Windows based web designers. Just a shame there is no mac support!
  • Finally, Sitepoint have written a brief outline of how to create the perfect browser testing suite. Ideally for those starting out it lists various online browser simulators, virtual machines and desktop browser emulators.

Browser testing continues to be a pain in the neck and I for one would be willing to pay for a decent way of streamlining this whole process. This is especially true now that IE8 has been officially released and we have another browser to add into the mix.

Screenshot of Superpreview

A simplicity case study

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of simplifying your website. Well, this week Gerry McGovern has written the perfect case study to support the argument I was putting forward.

Removing poor quality content increases customer satisfaction‘ talks about how the Microsoft website consists of a staggering 10 millions pages. Of those pages 3 million have never been viewed!

The post goes on to explain how the Microsoft Office team took a different approach with their site by removing irrelevant pages. According to McGovern…

By weeding the garden, the top task pages became easier to find. But just as importantly it became harder to find a minor task page when you were looking for a top task page.

In short, removing pages reduced noise. Disturbing though it sounds, I think we could all learn something from Microsoft’s example.

An introduction to Microformats

My final post today comes from Richard Rutter’s blog. It is basically an introduction to Microformats aimed at the non-geek. He wrote the post because he recently found himself trying to explain microformats to a client and could not think of a good post that covered the subject from their perspective.

Personally, I am not sure it is necessary to tell a client you are implementing Microformats. The cost of adding them is so small and the benefits so hard to explain, that you maybe better off just doing it.

That said, this is an excellent post and if you are struggling to understand the point of Microformats, this is certainly worth reading.

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Interview: Rob Borley on Project Management

Paul: So, joining me today is Mr. Rob Borley. Hello Rob.

Rob: Hi Paul, how are you doing?

Paul: Very well indeed. Good to have you on the show. It’s been a little while.

Rob: It has, It has. It’s weird hearing the show above you, um rather than being below.

Paul: Oh yes, because you sit upstairs, don’t you?

Rob: Indeed.

Paul: Do you actually hear it?

Rob: I do. It’s like have a little base bin ?

Paul: Awh. So, um, we have kind of been thinking for a little while that we need to get someone on the show to talk about project management. And the idea was we’d get some high profile web design project manager to come in and talk about web design project management. Then I realised, um, that I can’t actually think of any. You know, I really don’t know of any kind of web design project managers out there, other than obviously the people that work at Headscape.

Rob: Well, maybe there’s a gap in the market.

Paul: I think there is a gap in the market.

Rob: (unintelligible) celebrity project manager.

Paul: Well I think that’s somewhat of an oxymoron, but setting that aside, lets shift around a bit, yeah, so, um, so we thought, lets get you on the show. Um, now, you’re quite and interesting case because you started of as a techie.

Rob: Yes.

Paul: And you became a project manager.

Rob: Yes.

Paul: And, so, um, let’s start by talking about the role of project manager. How would you describe your core role? What is it that you do? I should know this I guess.

Rob: Well, you mean other than manage projects.

Paul: Ok, you just have to make a joke out of it. But you know what I’m getting at.

Rob: Yeah yeah. I mean, I guess, um, the main thing that we do is shovel shit, really. We deal with crap. You know, the main thing project manager would do is a filter between clients and the production team for the project. I mean, there are a couple of stages I guess. So you’ve got the planning part of the job, which is essentially working out what it is you need to do, um, making sure you got the results to do it, plotting a nice time line so they can all fit as far as having deadline. And then you’ve got the people said, because really project management is a people job. You need to know how to get the most out of all the people that are in your project team, um including the client. You need to include the client in your thinking, always. Yah, that’s essentially what we do.

Paul: Yah. It’s a people person thing. I always thought you were so charasmatic. Ok, so, I mean, I guess the question is, if you look at the kind of, if you look at Headscape, and the way that we’re organised, we’ve got four developers, four designers, and three project managers. I mean, that’s a lot of project managers. And, you know the question is, why, why have project mangers at all? Why couldn’t the designers and the developers do the job? Why couldn’t it be spread across multiple people? Justify you exsistance, Rob.

Rob: Yeah, this question kind of makes me nervous here. I feel like I’m re-interviewing for my own job. Not that I interviewed in the first place, but, I guess in one sense, if you were in a small project environment, you could almost get away with one person. If, you know, its a one person job, you could get away with them managing themselves for a limited amount of time. Um, but, as soon as you get beyond jobs which are more than one person, um, and go on for an extended period of time, you start needing to provide some glue to stick things together. You need someone whose got an overview of everything that’s going on. You know, the developers have got a very developer mindset about the way things happen. Designers are the same way, they know about the design stuff. Um, but actually translating what the client wants and feeding that into both areas and bring them together is what’s missing, if you don’t have a project manager.

Paul: So, to some degree, project management becomes necessary with scale. The bigger the projects, and the more complex the projects, then the more a need for a dedicated project manager.

Rob: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I guess the real role of a project manager in these situations is the facilitator. You’ve got all of these tools which are basically your resources, your developers, your designers, um, and you need to be able to enable them to work effectively together to produce what the end product is going to be.

Paul: So here’s a question that I didn’t pre-give you, in advance, which is always the best type. Why, why, why become a project manager? What made you – because you were heading up our technical development team, you were, you know, you were doing very well. Why did you feel the need to get involved in what you call shit shoveling?

Rob: Well, I think my main motivation was, Headscape was growing, and we started employing all of these younger, more dynamic, much more talented, better looking developers, that were basically going to show me up. So I figured that before I got shown in true light that I was going to need to move somewhere else. Um, no, well that’s partly true. Really, I think, its the people’s aspect that I’m really interested in. A good project manager is someone who is able to understand how his resources or how her resources work and how your clients work, and joining the two together. Um, while I quite like writing code really, I’m not passionate about it. So that side of it, you know, I reached as far as I wanted to go, and I really enjoy the people thing.

Paul: Ok. So what other, I mean, what other kind of characteristics do you think make a good project manager, obviously the people skills you talked about, what other, I mean if there are other people out there going well actually I’m not that passionate about coding, or I’m not that passionate about design, but I am passionate about the web, I do like the web design process, perhaps project management is the way I ought to be going. You know, what skills, what characteristics do they need, what personality traits do they need?

Rob: I think well, you need to be able to plan. Um, you know, planning is very very important. If you plan well, then your project will usually go well.

Paul: I like the cornification in that.

Rob: You have to be able to predict the future is helpful.

Paul: Yes.

Rob: A major part of what we de in the planning stages is assessing risk. You know, so, we’ve got what we’re starting with, we’ve got what we want to achieve, and we’ve got a time scale, now we need to work out what things might appear that are unforeseen, which are going to affect us reaching the time scale. So being able to foresee the future is helpful. Um, and so planning, being quite analytical and thorough. The logical background I have from being a programmer, a developer, is really helpful because you have to approach project management in a very analytical way, to make sure you don’t miss things. So there’s that side of it. And then there’s communication skills. You not only need to be able to communicate with a client affectively so they show that you understand what they want, um, and they understand where you are with the project, and they’re happy because a happy client makes everyone happy. But you also then need to communicate that with the various personalities in your team. You know, whether thats the developers locked up in a dark room with no social skills, or the crazy charismatic designers who…

Paul: You’ve just gone with stereotypes that so don’t apply. If I look at our team, no offense to our designers, they’re the ones that sit in the darkened room with their nose right pressed against the screen. And the developers are the ones that are crazy and never do any work.

Rob: (unintelligible) something about reading personalities. No, but you see my point. You’ve got these almost extremes, especially in the web, I guess, in the web world, you’ve got these extremes of personailities which somehow you need to be able to communicate with and put it all together and so, yeah, that’s an important skill. I think the third area, is to be quite relaxed about life. Because things will go wrong and do go wrong, it doesn’t matter how well you plan and how good you are at predicting the future. Stuff will appear that is completely unforeseen and will completely throw (unintelligible). And everyone gets really upset and people will shout at you and it goes a bit nuts. Um, and if you go nuts as well, you project team falls apart, because they look at you as the calm rudder in the storms of life. I can feel my other project manager buddies laughing at me, um, but if you’re calm and you can not get stressed at that but actually see, try and find a clear path through a very stressful situation, then really helps.

Paul: I would so be the worst project manager in the world. I’ve got the attention span of a newt, I’ve got no organisational abilities and I get stressed at everything. So overall, I think I’d fail.

Rob: Yeah, stick to web celeb.

Paul: Yes, I’ll come up with some other title that sounds good. Um, ok, so you talked about this really is, I can honestly say, a foreign area to me. Right? You talk about planning a project upfront. I’m not a planning person. Right? And there seems to be so many variables involved in a project and so much as you say, that can potentially go wrong. How do you plan it? I mean, you know, the kind of thing that you always talk about, when you talk about project management is endless gantt charts that seem to be outdated in about 5 minutes, sort of kicking a project off. How to you effectively plan a project?

Rob: Um, well, we do use a gantt. We always start a project with a gantt. And, um because it seems like thats what project managers are supposed to do, so we justify the time with a gantt. Um, but you do need, um, I think assessing risk is something that is vital in successful project management. Its something that we’ve been doing at Headscape, um, increasingly more over the last year or so otherwise this need to actually spend time highlighting what could actually go wrong here. So, you look at, I’m not going to be able to think of any examples now, but a particular, let’s say you building a shop or something. So potential things which could delay that project would be: the client not getting around to telling you what the products are on the shelf and content population is a big risk on meeting a project deadline, because it is out of your control. So, its like, I need the content by this date, and he needs to put the content in by X date. If the client doesn’t do it, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Paul: I’m guessing integration must always be a big risk. Integrating with third party applications.

Rob: Exactly, so if you’ve got some sort of third party database or a web service you’ve got to pull in, something that you’ve done a bit before, but you don’t know anything about, that’s a risk. Because you can guesstimate what’s going to happen, but its unforeseen. And so, the trick is basically, to find all the tasks that have these risks and then multiply (unintelligible) an hour by some random number. And then make the rest up as you go along.

Paul: So what about once the project gets going, how, what techniques and tools maybe do you use for monitoring and controlling the process and trying to keep on top of everything.

Rob: Yeah, I mean, there are lots of tools out there, obviously, lots of funky web-based ones, um, there is no substitute for talking to you team. Um, trying to (unintelligible) email or basecamp or something is impossibly without talking to you team. So, communicate. It’s a big part of what we do. You have to talk to the people doing the work, you have to talk to the clients, um you have to keep the lines of communication open. Um, but as far as actually keeping track of what’s going on, we do use basecamp, um which is great for managing lists, basically, you manage lists. So from our gantt shell, we’ll break it up into a series of tasks if you like, wide areas, um, and then, (unintelligible) ask people to add comments to them and take them off and then we’ve got kind of an overview of where our project is. Um, and hopefully from there, and when we’ve got the gant shell, we’ve got some dates, some milestones and reminders like you should have done this by then, um and so, you use that to kind of keep track of where you are.

Paul: Cool. What about, so that’s kind of dealing with the internal side of things. What about when it comes to the client, I mean, you talked about, you said earlier, a happy client makes everybody happy kind of thing. So what makes a client happy? What are the things that really, or perhaps turn it around the other way, what are the things that really piss of a client and where can it really go wrong?

Rob: This is really where the people side of it really comes in because every client is different. Some clients want you to talk to them for five hours a day, hold their hand, you know, spoon feed them, and some clients just want to know when it’s finished. So initially, when you’re kind of trying to assess your project team, if you like, your resources and what you’ve got, assessing the personality of your client early on, will really put you in a good place. Um, but, I guess, general principles, if you’re honest, it helps. Um, so, be realistic about what you’re telling your client is going to happen. Don’t promise the Earth by yesterday. Because then you won’t deliver and then they’ll get upset. If there’s going to be a problem, if things have slipped for some unknown reason, then tell them as soon as you know. Tell them as quickly as you possibly can. Um, manage their expectations is kind of the phrase that we use a lot. You gotta manage you clients expectations so that they’re not expecting something that you can’t deliver. And um, and then that limits the amount of upsetness that they get.

Paul: Slippage is a big one, isn’t it? This kinda whole area of things like, you know problems you kinda face, things, like slippage, scope creep, non-delivery, I mean, how do you have any kind of broad techniques for dealing with these kinds of things, or is it just kinda communications thing again.

Rob: It’s mainly I think a communication thing again. Um, part of the planning stage is trying to asses these risks and so you try and build in contingency to cope with those, and if you’re building enough contingency, you deliver the project early and that makes everyone really happy, even if its a long project, you deliver it early, you’ve exceeded their expectation also. Um, so I think, if somethings going to slip, I think you should say you’ve got to be honest. Sometimes things are just out of your control, so you’re two weeks before the end of a project, you in the middle of snagging, your lead developer goes down with appendicitis. There’s nothing you can do about that, and so you just need to communicate with the client and hope they take it well.

Paul: So wishing everything works out, I’m loving that approach. Ok, so, um, let’s finish of with a piece of generic advice. Either people starting out in project management or those that have had project management foisted upon them. You know, whats the kind of one piece of advice that you would leave for people?

Rob: Get to know your team. I think that’s the main thing I would say. Um, its kind of like, when you drive you car, you’re environment is a very organic, dynamic thing, you know what it really what’s going to happen and the only thing you’ve got to get you through it is that you understand you car. You know almost instinctively how it works, how to drive it it, if you get to that situation with your team, then whatever the project throws at you, you kind of, you can deal with it. If you understand how you client is going to react to a certain situtation, you can intincfully deal with it. And it keeps the stress levels low. You need to find ways of managing your stress levels.

Paul: There you go, that’s great advice. Thank you vert much for that, it was wonderful. I really appreciate you coming on the show.

Rob: My pleasure.

Thanks goes to Meredith Marsh for transcibing this interview.

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Feature: Home Working

I was recently contacted by a friend of mine Marieke Guy about writing a guest post for her blog on remote working.

I have been working at home for over 7 years now and am a great believer in the benefits. However when I actually sat down to write the post, I realised just how long it has taken me to find the right way of working.

As a large number of people who listen to this podcast work from home, I thought I would share my experiences to date and my hopes of where remote working will take me in the future.

The reality of home working

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