160. Education, Education, Education

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: We speak to Aarron Walter about teaching web standards. Ryan Carson starts a series on web applications and Paul talks about remote user testing.

Download this show.

Launch our podcast player


A couple of quick pieces of housekeeping to kick off with…

  • Huge thanks to Ryan Taylor, Paul Stanton and Sarah Parmenter who did a stellar job standing in for myself and Marcus on last week’s show. They were actually far too good and I have already started receiving requests that they become the permanent hosts! Anyway, if you didn’t hear last week’s show then make a point of downloading it.
  • My second piece of housekeeping is a quick plug for Bamboo Juice, a grass roots conference taking place in Cornwall on the 24th April. Myself and Jeremy Keith are just two of the speakers in what will be a packed day. It’s so good to see smaller conferences like this springing up outside of London and so I would encourage as many of you as possible to attend. Best of all its only £99 (£79 for Boagworld listeners!)


To be honest, what with SXSW and my week’s holiday I am feeling completely out of touch with the web design world. Fortunately, Mr Stanton is continually updating our twitter feed with juicy stories. I have therefore picked 4 that caught my eye.

How to create a great web design CV

Poor old Smashing Magazine. People do like to tease them (myself included), but they write some damn useful articles. A recent example that caught my eye was ‘How To Create A Great Web Design CV and Resume?‘.

This post is essentially two articles in one. It starts by asking 10 designers to design a hypothetical CV for a fictional individual. Each designer writes a short paragraph about their chosen approach and you get to look at some nice examples.

The second part of the post provides 10 useful tips for creating a great CV. Suggestions include…

  • Make it printable
  • Have a summary
  • Link to online projects
  • Show your personality
  • Keep it simple and understandable

For the complete list of tips read the whole post.

Its a good post, but I am not sure whether producing a ‘designed CV’ is entirely necessary for web designers. If I was hiring a print designer then I would expect a CV to look impressive. However, if I am recruiting a web designer I think I would be just as happy receiving a cleanly designed CV that links to a stunning portfolio website.

There are a lot of differences between designing for the web and print. It is possible to be good at one and not the other. Therefore, a printed CV doesn’t tell me much about a persons capability as a web designer. That said, a well designed CV isn’t going to hurt your cause!

Design: Make it Memorable

One tip that could have gone in the Smashing Magazine article, is to make your CV ‘memorable’ and not just ‘flashy’. This picks up on the theme of a post over at 37 Signals entitled Designers: Make it Memorable.

The post talks about the difference between making something visually appealing and actually memorable. Too many sites are impressive but fail to leave a lasting impression. At one point in the post the author writes…

I started to recall those amazing Flash Sites of the Day. You know those sites that get passed around via IM in your office on a slow day? Simply amazing design and programming. Problem is: I can’t for the life of me remember what those URLs were much less the company/product that was being featured! Isn’t that the point with those sites? That the impact should be profound so that you remember Product or Company X?

This is a lesson that all those involved in the web design process need to learn. Whether we are designers or website owners, we have a tendency towards thing that provide the wow factor. However, often it is the thing that makes us go wow we remember rather than the message being communicated.

Statistics and website owners

Our next article of the week is an ‘all too brief’ post on web stats entitled How to Sell Statistics to Clients.

The post focuses on a common problem – most website owners know they should be tracking website statistics, but don’t really know what they are looking for. In fact the author writes…

In my experience, the loudness or frequency of a person’s request for web statistics is inversely proportional to their understanding of them.

That has often been my experience too.

He goes on to identify three ways that we as web designers can help rectify this problem. These are:

  • Providing cheat sheets that help the client understand terms like ‘hits’ ‘page views’ and ‘unique users’.
  • Add web metrics training into the budget of your projects.
  • Provide summaries and reports for the client on key metrics such as conversion rates or sales.

To be honest this is a much bigger problem than can be covered in a short blog post. Too many website owners think that having Google Analytics will solve their statistics needs. However, having the data is not the same as understanding it. If this information is misread it can lead to bad decisions about the future development of a site.

Specialist vs. Generalist: Who Wins?

The final post this week is of interest to pretty much everybody who listens to this show. It asks which is better – the Specialist or the Generalist.

This is an important questions for both web designers and website owners. As web designers we need to know whether we should be specialising in a specific area of web design. It is important for our careers and our businesses.

As website owners we want to know whether the pain of dealing with multiple specialist suppliers is worth the increased expertise you would receive over a generalist.

It has to be said the article is written mainly from the web designers perspective. However, I think there are lessons to be learnt for all sides.

The post outlines the pros and cons of both approaches, but ultimately comes down on the fence when it says…

There are advantages to being in both groups, but I think the only way to be truly successful is by being a little of both. You can be a specialist, but in order to be able to develop a profitable business, you may need to be able to supplement your specialty services with some add-on services that may not be exactly in line with your focus.

Personally, I think it depends on how you define specialist. The type and level of specialisation can vary massively and the way you position yourself will define your success. For example, you may specialise in a certain discipline (e.g. Ruby on Rails development) or in a specific market (Higher Education).

Ultimately, whether you are a website owner seeking an agency or a web designer forging a career, it is all about balance.

As a web designer, if you specialise too much you will not find work. If you generalise you cannot differentiate yourself.

As a website owner you want a web designer who is enough of an expert to deliver an outstanding solution, but you do not want so many specialists that your project turns into a nightmare.

Back to top

Interview: Aarron Walter on Interact

Paul: Hello, and so joining me today is Aarron Walter. Good to have you on the show, Aarron.

Aarron: Thanks for having me.

Paul: And the reason we have Aarron on the show is because he is going to talk about a new initiative.. is ‘initiative’ the right word, Aarron?

Aarron: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: Let’s go with that. A new initiative from the web standards project, called Interact. Now, let’s kick off, Aarron, by maybe you telling our listeners a little bit about what Interact is.

Aarron: So, whilst Interact is an open curriculum framework, basically we’ve been recognising that the Web Standards Project has been around for a long time and we’ve done a lot of things to try to get standards into industry. And to a certain degree we’ve made some big triumphs in that respect, but there are still a lot of websites out there that aren’t following standards and people that are sort of behind. And we saw the Achilles heal as to why that’s not happening, as really, education. So, you know, our medium’s really young and it hasn’t really found it’s bearings with how we’re going to marry industry and education, so whilst Interact is a curriculum that has a series of courses that teach not only web standards, but best practices.

So there’s of course the stuff that you would expect from WaSP which is the front-end development courses that teach progressive enhancement and semantic markup and that sort of thing. But we have six learning tracks that include foundations; there’s a course in there that’s like an intro to internet concepts and how people can use the internet to teach themselves and use RSS, that sort of thing.

So there’s front end development, there’s a design track, there’s server side development, there’s user science and then there’s also professional practice. So what we’re trying to do is create a collection of courses that are very modular, to try to get these into schools. And we recognise that not every school is just going to take the entire curriculum and integrate that into their program. You know, if you’re a Computer Science program maybe you’ll take a course or two, if you’re a design program you’ll take a course or two, or even just grab the assignments or look at our competencies.

Each course is based on competencies, which are the things a student has to master before they can pass a course. And then the evaluation methods: So each course has assignments, it has exam questions, it has readings that come from Operas own web standards curriculum – we’ve been collaborating with them. It has textbooks, it has pretty much everything that an educator could need to teach a particular topic.

Paul: Okay, so is this something that is then aimed entirely at educators, or if somebody wanted to get into web design and they were trying to learn it in their spare time, could they just go to this and use it in isolation by themselves?

Aarron: To some degree, I guess they could, but Operas web standards curriculum is really learner-centric, so if you’re trying to teach yourself, that’s probably the place to go. But ours is very much focused on educators, because we feel like there’s a lot of great resources out there on the web if someone wants to teach themselves, but there’s not a lot of great stuff for educators to get stuff into their courses.

Paul: So, when you say ‘educators’, I mean what kind of level are we looking at here? Earlier you mentioned schools. Are we talking about school age, or are we talking about higher education? What are we covering here?

Aarron: I’d say our primary target is higher education, colleges, universities, even training programs to some degree. But we are also seeing some of our content in high schools as well and we’d like to see that more. Especially foundations courses like the web design one course or the internet fundamentals course. If students could go into college with a solid foundation, then they can start to focus more on "What can I do with these techniques?" than theory and concept.

Paul: So is this design to be fairly international or is it quite U.S centric in the way that it’s written.

Aarron: We want it to be very international and the people that have worked together on this are from lots of different places. We’ve got some folks in Europe, Canada and of course some folks in the U.S, so it is in an international group that’s coming together and we’re actually working with WaSPs ILG group – that’s the International Liaison Group. And we’re working on, this year one of our big goals is to try to get a lot of our content translated to different languages.

Paul: Okay, so there will be multiple language versions of all of this as well at some point?

Aarron: That’s the direction we’re heading, yes.

Paul: So, I mean, how did this come about in the sense of, you know, well, how did you get involved in it for a start and what was the motivation behind it?

Aarron: So, I’ve been teaching for the past ten years in different schools in the U.S and colleges and universities, but I’ve also been working in the industry as well. And I got on WaSPs mailing list, I just joined the mailing list and started to talk to some folks and then they invited me to join – it was a year ago, I guess it was at the very beginning of 2008 – and so I joined the education task force who created the Interact project. And basically there were ideas about the curriculum and I’d heard lots of people say "Yeah, what we really need is, you know, education’s way behind" and they’re happy to point fingers and "We need a curriculum", but it just never was really transpiring from anyone coming from the industry and so we kind of just decided we need to do this. And I’ve helped create curricula before as a faculty member at the Art Institute of Atlanta and so I had some ideas and we had a really great group of folks that are in the education task force – people that are educators and people that are experts from the industries. So, yeah.. actually South by South West was where this all started, which is pretty amazing, of course there are lots of great people there. So Glenda Sims, who’s one of the heads of WaSP these days introduced me to Chris Mills from Opera who was working on his project and we kind of had some drinks at the Geeks Club bowling event and we just kind of went crazy talking about these ideas. And Steph Troeth then Leslie Jensen-Inman and we all had these ideas, and then we just set a goal for ourselves in 2008 at South by South West and we said "In a years time, we’re gonna be back and we’re gonna have a curriculum." and that’s what we did. This year we launched our curriculum at South By.

Paul: That’s quite an impressive turnaround for the amount of information that’s in there. How did you draw everything together? Where did it all come from?

Aarron: Well, we met every week online and we talked and we established a course template, which really helped us. The stuff that we really needed to put in these foundation courses, we all know what needs to go in there. It’s just a matter of getting around the pedagogy or the educational part of it. So we developed a template for assignments, a template for a course and a template for learning modules which are basically like, you know, a teacher could teach a concept like let’s say, HTML forms in a weeks time. So we developed those templates and then from there we just assigned courses to different people and we used a wiki and we just met regularly and.. I gotta say, you don’t have to have a huge group to develop a curriculum.You just have to have a few people who really have their heart in it and.. we have some amazing folks, so..

Paul: So, what kind of response are you getting so far from H.E institutions? Are they interested in adopting it? If they are, how are they going to go about that, because, I mean, my impression is that it always takes forever to get a curriculum approved at a university or whatever. So I’m just interested in how that process is going.

Aarron: Yeah, education is.. one of it’s benefits is that it’s slow to move, so once it gets a solid foundation it keeps that solid, but you know, one of it’s drawbacks is that it’s slow to move. And so we’ve got some schools that are really excited about it and generally the folks that.. you know, it’s only been a couple of weeks that this has been live, we’ve got some folks that are really excited about it and those are folks that were kind of headed in the same direction themselves. So we’ve gotten some responses from schools in Europe and some schools in the United States that are interested in pulling some stuff in. And we have a school that’s looking at using a lot of our content right now. So we’re in the early stages of trying to get this out there. I think the easiest part is building the curriculum, because we know what needs to go in there. The hardest part is getting it into schools. So one of our strategies is to get the endorsements of folks in the industry, so we’ve gotten endorsements from Google, from Yahoo, from Adobe, from W3C, from Opera, from Mozilla – they’re all just super excited about what we’re doing and that sort of brand recognition can help us get our foot in the door with schools. And of course going out to conferences, we’ve got folks at the European Accessibility conference right now, talking about it, so we’re just trying to get out there and let people know.

Paul: Excellent. That sounds brilliant. I mean, I know that a lot of people that listen to the Boagworld podcast – there’s a large number of students that we’ve got listening and I often get complaints about this, that what they’re being taught at university bears no resemblance to what they’re hearing on this podcast. And I’m hoping that that’s because the podcast is right and the university is wrong and not the other way around. So if they’re listening to this and they’re getting really excited about it and, you know, they’ve gone to your website and they’re seeing the curriculum – I’ve got it on front of me now and it does look really exciting – how do they make this happen in their institution? What would you encourage them to do?

Aarron: So, this is the interesting thing – that so many of us have complained about a problem, but there aren’t a lot of people that will take that complaint and turn it into action. So if you’re a student or if you’re an educator what we need you to do is, there’s a page that’s called Advocate Standards (http://interact.webstandards.org/advocate/) – you can get to it from the homepage of http://interact.webstandards.org. It kind of just describes what standards are, why they’re relevant to you and we need people to share that information with their teachers, we need people to share just this website with their colleagues and show them the testimonials of the people who believe in this and want students to come out of schools with these skills. So we need people to act in a bottom-up sort of way, you know, grass roots. Take this to your classroom, take this to your teacher, take this department chair and just let him know. That’s the most powerful thing that people can do right now.

Paul: I mean, what I’m quite excited about from looking at this curriculum is that it contains a lot more than "Here’s how you code in X language" or whatever and even has got more in it than just design and user experience stuff. All this stuff about professional practices is very exciting too. Could you perhaps tell us a little bit about that?

Aarron: Yeah, so professional practice, we want people to not only get the concrete skills of "I can code a standard compliant page" or "I can construct a usable website", but we want people to be able to present their about their work and you know, be able to survive in a real career in the web. And so professional practices is going to have a series of courses to do that. We’ve got some pretty exciting ones that are coming up. There’s ‘writing for the web’ – it’s going to be a really cool one, that Alan Hussain from a List Apart is going to be creating. And we have a presentation course that’s coming down the line. So, we’ve got a number of those coming up.

Paul: That’s quite interesting, you just said something that I hadn’t grasped which is that there’s more to come here. That this isn’t the end of the line. It sounds like you’ve got lots more that you’re still developing. Is that right?

Aarron: Yeah. We call it a living curriculum, because you never write a curriculum and then you’re done. Especially in our industry, things change so fast. is what of course we’re going to be working on this year. Our design track is light right now and we want to try and address that ASAP, so we’ve got Dan Rubin and Ethan Marcott, are working together to create a foundation design course, that is specific to what web designers need to understand. And we also have Dan Mall is going to be helping us with a Flash course and Aral Balkan is also going to help us with some flash stuff too. We have a lot of stuff going on this year for new courses, so we hope next year at South By when we see everybody that we’ll have a brand new stack to add to Interact.

Paul: Excellent, so do you kind of envisage, from an institutional point of view that, like we were saying, it takes a long time for a curriculum to get approved and that part of the problem has always been that, by the time it’s approved it’s out of date, when it comes to the web. So is the idea that you’re going to get institutions to buy into the Interact curriculum in its evolving nature so that they always get the most up to date version of it. Is that the kind of plan? They’re not grasping one moment in time from it, if that makes sense?

Aarron: Yeah, exactly and we want to take some of the hard work out of being a teacher. I speak from experience, there’s so many things you have to keep track of and trying to keep pace with a lot of changing technologies and concepts, that’s hard on top of the umpteen other plates you’re spinning. So that’s exactly what’s going to happen, is that our courses, they’re not chiseled in stone, they’re published on the web, they’re in an expression engine and we’ll change those as they need to be changed. But that said, we need to strike a balance, because we can’t be chasing every new technology all the time, we have to evaluate and there has to be foundational concepts that remain steady. Separation of presentation and content, that’s steady foundation concept. But new technologies or techniques, they might change.

Paul: Okay, I mean, the whole area of education and web design is massively exciting and there’s so much going on at the moment in so many different fields. I mean, from your perspective, what else out there is really exciting you at the moment that you’re seeing.

Aarron: There’s so much, I just feel like last year that I just saw so many companies, organisations, individuals that, it seems that everyone just was pissed and they just walked out their house and they were headed in one direction until it was like everyone sort of meets up in one big mob. And so, what Opera’s doing, what Chris Mills has done with the 55 articles that he’s brought together and edited for Opera Web Standards Curriculum, that’s huge. Those are all rolled into WaSP Interact as our recommended reading, so that was fantastic. Yahoos Juku project, if you’ve heard of this it’s quite amazing. Nick Fogler, who’s the running Juku – Yahoo actually has a training program, where they bring students that are not employees, they’re not hiring them. They bring them in and they train them to be front end engineers over the course of a few months. And they’re doing it because they’re trying to solve this problem on their own. So, we’re talking with them about how they’re solving problems and looking to collaborate and discuss what we can learn from them. John Allsopp who runs Web Directions (the conference series), he brought myself and Chris Mills and Steph Troeth together with a number of other experts and we did Ed Directions, which was a day long workshop that taught teachers how to teach these concepts in their classroom. So there’s just so much stuff that’s happening right now and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Paul: Exciting stuff. It sounds like it’s a really good time and it’s great to have you on the show. How you manage to fit all of this in alongside earning a living too is quite beyond me, but it’s really good that so many people are volunteering and pitching in. That’s great. Okay, let’s get you back on the show, I guess in a years time and sees what’s changed. But thank you very much for coming in now and I will talk to you again soon. Thanks.

Aarron: Thanks for having me.

Thanks goes to Andrew Marquis for transcribing this interview.

Back to top

Listeners feedback:

We have two emails this week dealing with two totally unrelated subjects.

Remote user testing

Our first email is from Steve. He writes…

Catching up on past podcasts, I listened to the episode on User Testing (#150). A method I’ve used that I haven’t heard tossed around much is remote user testing using a screen sharing program like GoToMeeting.

I used this for usability testing of our Intranet and it has several advantages:

  • No need for people to come to central testing facility, or you to go to them.
  • The user is at their own computer, so more comfortable.
  • Ability to record the entire session (screen and audio) so others can look at it later.
  • Tester can conduct testing while in his underwear only (I didn’t do this, but you could.)

What do you think of this method?

Sounds interesting although it would not be my preferred approach.

It’s easy to become a snob when it comes to usability testing and so let me make it entirely clear – any usability testing is better than none.

If you have no budget for user testing, test on friends and family. If time is tight, test on a colleague sitting nearby.

In the same way, if you are having trouble arranging sessions then use Steve’s approach. Something is always better than nothing.

That said, I do have some concerns with remote testing. These include…

  • It sets a minimum bar of technical competency. A user has to be able to connect to the system in order to participate. I know this would have been beyond the capabilities of some test subjects I have worked with.
  • It is less personal. Face to face usability testing puts users much more at their ease and allows you to build a relationship that facilitates honest feedback.
  • It does not allow you to read non-visual signals. Users will often pull a face or shift their positions when they are frustrated. As a facilitator you need to be able to see these signals and ask what they mean.
  • You are not seeing exactly what the user is seeing. You can only see their screen. You cannot see other distractions such as TV in the background. You cannot see the position of their keyboard and mouse. You have a limited field of view.

My preferred approach is to test in people’s homes. Not only are the users more relaxed, you also get a unique glimpse into their world. You see where they access the web, you learn about their home environment and even gain a better understanding of their character.

However, we do not always live in a perfect world and so would definitely use remote testing if better options were not available.

Finding a job

Our second email is a rather despondent one from Andrew…

I have one question, In the past you’ve talked about hiring new for staff, but as far as I can tell you’ve never discussed how to look for a job. I’m currently looking for a career in the industry, but I can’t get a resume to any company or even talk to someone of said company. Almost all the businesses I’ve approached (or at least tried to) either work from home, are no longer at that address, or no longer in business, and actually are just freelancers. And when I find a job posting online its for someone far more experienced then I am. I’m completely demoralized.

You have my sympathy Andrew and I have to say its a tough time to to break into any new sector including web design.

I am also probably not the best person to answer this question. I have been completely unemployable for some time now due to my ill defined skillset and opinionated character :)

So, I am going to try something different with this question. If you have some advice for Andrew, post a comment below. That way we can get the Boagworld community helping each other.

In the meantime here are a few random ideas from me…

  • Give up on the cold calling technique. Randomly contacting agencies is largely a waste of time. You have to get amazingly lucky to contact an agency who happens to be currently recruiting.
  • Try for an internship. Admittedly you will not get paid, but it is a foot in the door. You get a chance to improve your skills and also get to know the people in the industry within your area.
  • Be willing to move. There are jobs out there but they are often further a field.
  • Put yourself in a neat little box. Potential employers need to know what you do. Are you a designer, a coder or a server side developer? Companies don’t know what to do with people who know a bit about everything.
  • Start networking. The best place to find job opportunities is by attending conferences and meetups. Even if you cannot afford the conference itself, turn up at the parties and stand in the halls. Just get yourself out there.
  • Register with recruitment agencies. As an employer I hate recruitment agencies because they cost me money. However, we do still sometimes use them and it doesn’t cost you anything to be listed with them.
  • Ensure your website is perfect. The first thing I do when I look at a potential employee is check out their website. Their site has to be outstanding. It needs to look amazing, be well coded and rich with great content that demonstrates a passion for the web.

Hopefully that helps Andrew and keep an eye on the comments for more advice.

Back to top

Series: Building A Better Web Application by Ryan Carson

Ryan Carson: Hi I am founder of Carsonified a small web company in Bath, England. I am an American as you can probably tell, as for living in England I have been here about nine years. So a little bit of history about us real quick so you know who I am. I have a computer science degree and I have been involved in building four web apps and we are building a fifth truvay.com which will be released later in 2009, and we have sold two of our webapps dropsend.com and heyamigo.net. So the stuff that I am going to share with you today are lessons I have learnt the hard way basically as we have built web apps.

So the first thing I want to talk about is the Admin area that you will build for your web app. What a lot of people don’t know is that the Admin area is really the key to good customer service. If you haven’t enabled really easy customer service then it makes it hard to actually please your customers when they have problems so the first one to make sure you build into your admin for your web app are one click refunds so if someone calls and complains and says hey I am having trouble this month I am really frustrated please help you want to be able to just go into the admin do a search for their email address, their name or their company or anything and bam one click and refund their last invoice and what this does is it gives you, it gives you the ability to just make them happy right away. With a lot of web apps these days on recurring billing you will probably be charging people 5,10,15, $20 a month so losing that amount of revenue in return for really making a customer happy is super important. So make that easy for yourself to refund that money.

The second thing I would make it easy to do is have one click password reset that automatically sends out email with the new password, so with Dropsend it was really hard to reset people’s passwords and that was the number one request people had problems with, they couldn’t remember their password. So if I was to do it again what I would do is I would actually build the admin so I could forward an email from somebody presuming they had sent it from the email address of the account, forward it into Dropsend or the admin and it would automatically know that what it needed to do is reset the password for that email and then it sends out a new one so literally you do not even have to visit the admin area to reset someone’s password you just forward an email that would be amazing, so that’s the way I would do it next time.

The next thing I would do is also doing a one-click resend invoice. So a lot of people they don’t understand they can go into their "My Account" area of a web app to see their past invoices and what they will do is they will just email you and say hey you know I need last month’s invoice. If it is hard for you to find that or send that it is going to make you less likely to help that person so I would do a search on the email address show a list of invoices bam one click and it emails them a pdf version of the invoice. That’s another, that leads me onto another area that I would like to talk about that is invoicing. If you are doing recurring billing sort of every month billing your customers make sure that you are not re-inventing the wheel I would recommend a web app called Spreedly.com and what it is basically it is a web service for recurring billing they have done all the hard work, written all the code, the code for the Dropsend recurring billing was at least I think 1200 lines of PHP and it was good solid code but it was really hard and painful to write. So I would recommend don’t re-invent the wheel use a service like Spreedly because it is making calls to an API if later you decide you don’t want to use a service like Spreedly any more that layer has been abstracted out so you could replace it with your own billing system or another one and it won’t kill you, but I would say hands down don’t rebuild reoccurring billing it is a real pain in the ass.

The last tip I would say about your admin area is make sure that it is easy to give your customers credits. you want to be able to login search for an email address and just give them, hey I want to give them five bucks towards next month, ten bucks just to make them happy and you will have lots of happy customers. So that is my five minutes of tips, thanks Paul for letting me be a part of this. Take care Bye.

Back to top