163. One year on

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Ryan and Stanton return due to popular demand! We are joined by Elliot Jay Stocks to discuss his experience of being a freelancer for the last year, and we also ask him some of your questions from the forum.

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News and events

Estimating time for web projects more accurately

A new blog came my way recently which makes a nice change, usually the news section is dominated by Sitepoint or Smashing Magazine articles so I was quite glad to come across Sam Barnes’ blog which has produced some fantastic posts already and the subject matter is centered around Web Project Management so should be of use to anyone who works on web projects, even if it’s not in an official ‘Project Manager’ capacity.

By far the most popular article on the site is his series on ‘Estimating time for web projects more accurately’ in which he explains the realities and complexities of quoting for website and web app builds.

What’s great about this article is that it goes into more detail than a lot of other posts on this subject and there’s been some really great feedback in the comments. So I’d recommend checking out the post, and subscribing to the blog RSS also.

Fluid images

This is a nifty technique that I thought I’d mention, simply for the fact that it might have solved a specific problem I’ve been thinking of how to solve. It provides a way to allow images to scale based on their container within a certain restraint, which is often required when dealing with fluid layouts, or, in my case, resizeable widgets.

Image scaling is all well and good until you look at the images in Windows and they look shocking when resized. This is a platform rather than a browser issue as native image scaling on Windows sucks. I won’t go into too much technical detail, because you’ll all switch off if you haven’t got bored of our accents, but the technique uses an IE specific snippet which taps into the IE specific AlphaImageLoader which kicks IE’s rendering engine into ‘high gear’ and the images are a lot clearer when resized.

So do check it out, I’ll be playing with this tomorrow myself.

Design considerations for Touch UI

I came across this on Cameron Moll’s blog, and it’s a short video to prompt thought into designing for touch-based user interfaces. Gestural or Touch UI’s are really gaining momentum as a common user interface and for any of you out there designing for the devices that can use it, like tablet, surface, iPhone, Android, Pre, etc then this is a well put-together video that highlights some of the considerations that you should be working with.

There’s an accompanying article which goes into more detail, and I suspect that this is all tip-of-the-iceberg stuff, but interesting nonetheless.

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Interview: Elliot Jay Stocks on a year of being freelance

Ryan: OK, so we’re moving on to the interview section and of course as I introduced earlier in the show we’ve got Elliot Jay Stocks. Hello Elliot.

Elliot: Hello.

Ryan: Hello, and it’s been exactly one year since we last interviewed you on the show.

Elliot: I can’t believe it’s been a year already.

Ryan: It’s absolutely flown. And last time we interviewed you it was about going freelance, cause you’d just taken the plunge.

Elliot: Yeah, I can’t believe it’s already been a year. I was in Norway I think when Paul interviewed me.

Ryan: Yeah, you had just moved and you had no Internet connection. I know this because I listened to the interview only yesterday when researching material to ask you for this interview. So, how do you feel about your decision a year on?

Elliot: Yeah, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m really happy with it. Everything’s going really really well, and it’s pretty much been everything I hoped it would be, and more really. I’m very happy and although I do have the occasional nightmarish project for a client, by and large the way I get to do things being freelance is great and yeah I couldn’t see myself going back to full-time employment any time soon to be honest.

Ryan: OK. Have you come across any pitfalls that you could share with the audience? Anybody who’s considering going freelance now, is there anything that you’d tell them to watch out for?

Elliot: Yeah, I mean there’s not been anything like massive in terms of life-shattering or making me think that maybe I should go back to full-time employment but there have certainly been a few things like just the amount of time, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to do things like project reshuffling. You know, if you’ve got something booked in and something bigger comes along and you need to shift a few things ‘round, stuff like that, bits of paperwork. I mean, I don’t have to do too much paperwork which is quite good, but I think as well I underestimated how much time, just the planning stage would take. You know, emails to clients, phone calls, trying to sort out, juggling between different projects and in the end it turned out that I wasn’t getting quite as much work done in a day as I would have liked, but that’s fine. I still have come to deal with that and have got into a few routines to help me manage that a bit better, but it’s definitely something to consider. If you think you’re gonna go freelance and you’re gonna work eight hours a day solidly on a site or something, every single day, it’s not gonna work out like that. I mean, you can work eight hours a day perhaps one day, but you can’t necessarily do that for five days days a week because there’s gonna be other things going on and whatnot so that’s definitely something to be prepared for.

Ryan: I think you’ve touched on probably one of the next questions that I was going to ask you. You are quite a busy bloke, you seem to be all over the world speaking at conferences, you’ve written your own book this year. How do you fit all the time in to do client projects and all your other things? You’ve released an album as well, haven’t you?

Elliot: Yeah, with great difficulty. No, it’s not been too bad actually. Actually, really that was one of the, probably the main advantage of going freelance, it’s allowed me to lots of other things outside the regular circle of work, like my design work. I’ve been able to do the right thing and do some music and stuff like that, and before I wouldn’t have had time to do those kinds of things. Not necessarily to do speaking because definitely my last job at Carsonified it was very much encouraged, but certainly if I wanted to do something like record an album I’d obviously take that as holiday time, so it’s nice to be able to decide myself when I get to do that. I mean effectively I still am taking holiday time because it’s unpaid, but because I can sometimes do a little bit like, fill in if I’ve got a quiet weekend, do a bit of work there or in the evening here or there so it gives me more free time to take a week off and do some music or something. Yeah, it’s been a huge advantage, but writing the book was difficult because that had to be, that was really a case of juggling client work. I had some time, I sort of stood out the schedule that I was writing the book for about two or three days a week, every week, and I’d do client work the other time and I took some time off around the end of last year but the book actually had to be moved forward and I had to finish it a month earlier than I thought so I ended up writing all through Christmas, which was lovely and yeah, that was a bit hectic but it got done and it’s just funny ‘cause all the different projects like music or writing whatever they’ve kind of, instead of being separate to design, which is the bread and butter work, they’ve almost become part of the same thing. So some pay, some don’t pay, but it’s OK because if you’re freelancing you can sort of decide when you want to do things.

Stanton: So given that a year ago the economy would have been a little bit stronger than it is now, if you were to have to make the same decision today, whether to go freelancing, do you think you would still make the same decision?

Elliot: Yeah, I would. Some of the things that people are saying to me usually worried relatives, “Oh you must be so worried because you’re freelance and everything.” To be honest, I feel probably safer being freelance than if I was in a full-time job because, there’s two reasons: First of all I’ve sort of got control of my own destiny. If something’s, if it’s all going horribly wrong I can do something about it rather than just being at the whim of your employer who may need to fire you. And the second thing is the same kind of point, but basically you can sort of see into the future a bit more so whereas a business owner who has seven employees will be able to see out for the next few months how much work is coming in, if it’s starting to dry up that might not filter down to the employees for quite a while, so you could end up coming into work one day, and they’re saying actually “Sorry, I’ve got to let you go.” With being freelance and being in charge of doing all that kind of booking myself and I tend to book projects two to three months in advance it means that if it’s starting to dry up I can see it from a long way off, and if it does start going all horribly wrong I can do something like lower my daily rate or pitch for some more projects or something like that so in that sense I actually feel fairly safe and I probably wouldn’t have known that’s how I’d feel this time last year but knowing that, yeah I would still take the plunge this year even in the so-called recession.

Ryan: OK. Um, one of the things you actually mentioned in the interview last year was that you were going to redesign your website. A whole year ago. And you have blogged recently that you’re going to put some time aside and redesign your site. What changes do you plan to make? How do you feel your site should represent you as a freelancer now?

Elliot: Well it’s, yeah the time is, I’ve been wanting to redesign for a while as I must have said last year but the time has come now where I really need to redesign so I’ve actually taken some time off from client work and I’ve dedicated some time to it because I’ve been meaning to do it and unless you actually schedule in some time it’s mostly impossible really to make yourself do it. So I just wanted to change the focus of the site. Really at the moment it’s just a blog and there’s a kind of tacked on portfolio, a little about page and stuff. Really I wanted it to better represent what I do because what I was doing a year or so ago or when I designed the site really which was when I was pretty much exactly two years ago I was working for Century Records at the time and just as an in house designer. I wasn’t doing any speaking or writing, stuff like that so it was fine for what it needed to be then but now that I’m freelance it probably needs to better promote my services a bit more and it needs to just kind of cover the other things I do like speaking, writing and music and stuff like that rather than it just being focused on web design specifically. I want it to be a broader thing and I want to get all of the article’s I’ve written for Computer Arts and .Net Magazine and stuff, they’re each going to have a section so it’s not just going to be a blog post with me saying “Oh, I’ve written this for .Net,” there’s going to be a tutorial archive so that people can go through and they can get all the different tutorials. I’ve gotta make sure that’s all up to date and everything. Essentially it’s going to have a lot of content, but it’s going to be broken down into different areas. At the moment the blog’s feeling the strain because everything is on there and I’ve added a few bits, like tacked bits on and I’ve never really been happy with the way it’s been done. I’ve never had the time really to rectify that so yeah. It’s gonna be a big site, and at the moment I’m just organizing the content. I haven’t done any design work at all yet. I did do a few designs a year ago and shortly after that and then I just wasn’t happy every time I looked back. I’d be really happy with something and then I’d come back to it in a week and absolutely hate it so I’ve given up on design for the moment and just focusing on preparing the content for it.

Ryan: Is that how you approach most of your projects? Do you work on getting the content and lay it out first before you apply your design to it?

Elliot: I wish. Yeah, I mean so many of the projects I deal with, the clients don’t really have the content ready. That’s the story of everyone’s life, right? I’m trying to play a bit more hardball with it and kind of say to the clients “Look, you’ve got to get this sorted before hand” because so many things recently people are asking me to do things like design the page and just put in some lorem ipsum but there’s so many things wrong with that and perhaps if it’s just a page that just contains pure text, continuous prose that’s fine, but for the standard page you don’t know where the call to action are, you don’t know where the focus should be so you don’t know how to weight the content differently and it’s just crazy to ask for that really. You can’t design around a complete lack of content. So I’m trying to push that point home a bit more when I speak to clients and yeah, just trying to get them to be a bit more proactive in giving me content because otherwise it’s just a nightmare and you design stuff which you think is great or you think they’re gonna like and it turns out that they hate it as soon as they need to put their content in so yeah, that’s no good.

Ryan: How do you go about tackling it? Do you do it just a conversation or do you try and educate them into why it’s needed first? Do you have a method yet for getting them to bring you the content?

Elliot: Not yet, it’s more of a conversation and explaining why it should be, but it’s funny you should say about methods because I’m actually, this is actually part of the redesign work I’m going to be doing on the site. I’m actually going to create some PDFs to send the client, sort of like a worksheet which explains a few things because I’m always saying the same thing and I have a bunch of emails in my drafts where the kind of default answers where I paste into new emails. I shouldn’t say that, should I?

Ryan: Just like a mail merge.

Elliot: Yeah, so but yeah I have that kind of thing going on so I’m actually going to create a few nice looking PDFs that I can send the client once we agree we’re going to do some work together. With one that’s a load of questions about the project, probably the most important one that will help them create a brief, because most clients don’t seem to have a brief. Not a proper one. So I’m gonna do that and also a little worksheet of things like this is how the payment schedule works and you know, stuff like that. And again they’re going to talk about the importance of getting the content in there first. So that’s the plan.

Ryan: I like that. I like that. I do, a lot. We’re considering similar where I’m working now. Just getting all that information up front and not running out. I think just to wrap up on the interview I’ll echo Paul’s question from a year ago I think it’s only appropriate. What are the main pros and cons of going freelance for you?

Elliot: I think they’re probably pretty much the same as what I said last year, although I can’t remember what I said last year so the pros are definitely control of your own lifestyle and destiny. I don’t mean that in any kind of far flung in the galaxy kind of way but just in a being able to take on projects you want to take on, saying no to the ones that you don’t want to and just sort of living your life the way you want to. I have quite a few friends who are freelancers as well and that balance is hard. They live the life they want to but they can also be extremely overworked because its hard to create that separation between work and pleasure. I’m trying to do that, I mean I still do work. Last week was a bit mad because I had a project overrunning and I ended up having to pull an all-nighter. It does happen but I’ve tried to separate them a bit more. It’s not very fair to your girlfriend otherwise. And that’s actually one of the main cons, is that when projects overrun, which can be your fault if you don’t plan things very well, or it can just happen. It has a snowball effect and last week I had about, the last two weeks I’ve had about three projects and they’ve all overrun so it’s been horrible snowball effect and yeah it’s been stressful and I wrote recently, I posted about how you shouldn’t check your work emails just before going to bed and yeah. I did that a few weeks ago and ended up really stressed out about a project and these are the things that are definitely cons. They’re hard, it’s harder to separate your work life and your normal life than if you had a regular job I suppose but and also a con for most people is gonna be the worry about the money. You’re worrying about is money gonna come in. If you’re planning projects properly I think you can pretty much avoid that. So, like I said before you can change your tactics and maybe be a bit more competitive if you do fall on harder times. So it’s all working out really great so far so I’m really pleased with the decision. I need to get better at some things and learning a hell of a lot along the way but yeah it’s great. I’ve definitely got no plans to go back.

Stanton: You wrote a post I think it’s a while ago now about writing off the first hour of every day now. I know you’ve had projects overrunning and stuff but is that something you force upon yourself or?

Elliot: It’s a funny one. It’s not necessarily something I force upon myself, but it’s something that inevitably happens. So even when I’ve had a really busy day with projects overrunning I still usually write off the first hour not because that’s kind of a rule I have to live by or anything but for instance this morning I had a load of stuff to do and it was kind of going on and I thought “Ah, God I haven’t done anything yet.” And then the writing off the first hour thing came into the back of my mind and it’s almost more of an excuse now than anything. So rather than planning for it, it’s like “Oh, it’s OK because I accepted that I would write off the first hour.”

Ryan: Do you add an hour on at the end of the day to make up for it?

Elliot: There’s been a few days recently where I’ve had to add quite a few hours at the end of the day so that sucked but not too often thankfully.

Ryan: OK, well thank you very much and we’ll move on to the listeners.

Elliot: Ah, yes.

Thanks goes to Todd Dietrich for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

As Paul announced on last weeks podcast Elliot has kindly agreed to answer listeners questions in the forum, so seen as we’ve got him on the show today I thought it an ideal opportunity to ask him a selection of these questions, so here goes…

Question 1

Lucian Tucker (mercurywipeout) asks:

How does one go about intelligently not following the crowd and can you give some examples of this?

Elliot answers:

This one is a really hard one to answer because it is something that is talked about a hell of a lot, but when people ask for examples… [laughs] it is really hard to pick out a site. I do collect quite a few sites on Flickr, I’ve got a little inspiration pool via LittleSnapper which I collect. Those sites are ones that I tend to think are quite interesting. If you go to my Flickr page and have a look through the sets, there is one called “design inspiration via LittleSnapper” and that is a fairly big set of sites which I think look beautiful and tend to be quite interesting. It’s hard to do because in client work there is only so much room for experimentation and depending on the client and the project, that varies massively, maybe a little bit of experimentation, maybe loads, maybe absolutely nothing.

I think it’s not absolutely about doing something crazy and wacky and out there… It’s more about doing small things. Nothing mad, crazy experimental design, but putting in small elements that are just a little bit different from the average thing. I spoke a year or so ago about the whole “destroying the Web 2.0 look,” because I was getting sick of seeing glossy buttons and gradients and everything everywhere. It wasn’t so much that there was anything wrong with the style, it was more that I had a problem with people using the style without even thinking why they were using it. A lot of people aimlessly creating sites with a so-called “Web 2.0” look, because apparently that was good design — there’s something so wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with following trends because you need to keep yourself current, and there are some lovely sites that do employ those kind of aesthetics. The trouble is, I think a lot of people get confused that good design equals the latest trendy thing.

Question 2

Paul (firesketch) asks:

I’m interested to know the sources you read/listen to on a regular basis to keep up with the ever changing web and design industries. Websites? Pod casts? Magazines? Etc.

There are many voices out there. How do you evaluate the integrity of these sources?

Elliot answers:

Well, there is a fantastic podcast out there called Boagworld… To be honest, I don’t listen to loads of podcasts. I do listen to Boagworld, occasionally. In general, I don’t… Maybe because I’ve never been a fan of radio, but I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. I think I just can’t sit there and listen to it. Magazines… again, there is nothing necessarily solid I read, but I’ll often pick up .net and Computer Arts… stuff like that. I suppose most of my stuff is online. I’ve got a lot of feeds that I have subscribed to, quite a lot of inspiration, and not necessarily web stuff. I mean, there is a great website called “The Dieline.com” that is about packaging design, and they update so much, and that is pretty inspiring if you are looking at another medium from which to get inspired. In terms of news, not a great deal of sites… Sam Brown runs a really great site, Posh CSS, which is very handy and collects a lot of news about CSS techniques and experiments going around on the web. So do things like A List Apart, Think Vitamin, stuff like that… I’m a bit of a sucker for general gadgetery news, so Engadget is a big one for that. In terms of the web design industry… I don’t read anything like TechCruch… I don’t read a lot of blogs, basically… other designers, other developers, people who write about interesting things and try and stay on top of things that way. Obviously, there are certain people in the industry that everyone reads who are either offering some good tips and advice, or words of wisdom. In general, anyone who is doing some good work, I’ll often subscribe to their fed and see what is going on. Sorry, that is a really vague answer, isn’t it?

How do you keep up with all your feeds? Sometimes, I have times when I don’t have any time whatsoever to read any of my feeds. Do you allot yourself a certain amount of time each day, or do you do it every few days?

No, I try and do it every day, a couple of times… I don’t leave feed reader open at all, so I’ll open it once in the morning, probably during the first hour, and then maybe after lunch, just to catch up on a few things. Sometimes I go a few days without checking the feed reader, which is actually kind of nice in a way. You feel liberate and then you open it and think, “Oh god,” but I don’t subscribe to too many. I do have a lot of feeds, but probably not a lot by most people’s standards. I subscribe to 30, 40 sites max? I try to narrow it down… It’s like Twitter, I don’t follow too many people on Twitter because there’s too much out there, too much out there. Even though there is a lot of good content out there, I think that you’ve got to… purely for the sake of the time it takes to check these things, you’ve just got to narrow it down as much as possible.

I took a lot of inspiration from the writing my first hour off [???], and that is when I check my feeds, first thing in the morning when I’ve got my coffee… churn through the feeds, and then I figure I am done for the rest of the day. Any other links that I come across is from Twitter or things that are emailed to me.

Actually, that’s a really good point that I forgot to mention. I get so much current info through Twitter, probably more so than RSS, I would say, because the people I am following are the people who are finding out about these things, or trying new experiments, or writing really interesting articles, so Twitter I think is so good for that information. Obviously, it’s instant… Actually, it’s really good for filtering content, which actually answers the second part of the question, about evaluating the integrity of the sources. Because you are getting the information from people who you are already following, it’s filtering it to an extent, so that it’s already going to be fairly quality stuff. For instance, most links that people post that I follow, I will probably click on them, versus RSS reader, where I am just going to skim through a lot of stuff.

Question 3

topstair asks:

You see to have a lot of interests external to web design; music, writing, speaking. Can you talk about how these interests mesh into your web design practice. Are they fun ways to forget about code, or are they sources of inspiration to your design.

Elliot answers:

I’m not sure that they are necessarily inspiration for the design. Not for the most part… maybe they are. I suppose if I am writing something and it is a tutorial and an experiment, and I haven’t done something before, it’s a good excuse to maybe try something new, and then maybe work that into the project. In that sense, I suppose some writing stuff is inspirational to the design I do. Music allows me to do some different kind of design for myself, like websites and CD packages and stuff like that. I guess, in a way, that sort of influences it. The speaking is more getting the chance to talk about the design and the processes we go through and things like that, so it’s probably not an influence, but more an excuse to have a good old moan. Yeah, they are definitely fun ways to forget about code. I have a very short attention span, and I tend to get bored quite quickly if I’m stuck doing one thing for too long, so it’s really lovely to have a few side projects, burn yourself out a little bit, and then concentrate on writing an article or preparing for a presentation or doing music or something completely different. Anything can become monotonous if you do enough of it, even if it is something you love doing, and I love my job, but it is good to have something that breaks up your weeks and your months a bit better.

Question 4

terrisj writes:

I just finished my first design after reading Elliot’s book, Sexy Web Design, and I’ve never been happier with my own work. (Thanks, Elliot!)

So here’s my problem:

When I showed the design to the client, this person immediately asked for changes that will basically reverse all the sexy* details I spent so much time on (spacing, grid, etc.).

For example, the client wanted all the line-heights shoved closer together because the pages were too long and he didn’t want to have to scroll, among other things.

I try my best to avoid blaming the client. I know that’s not good practice, so I’d like to know how you deal with situations like this.

Elliot answers:

This is my favorite question, and also the hardest to answer, I think, but I am trying to gather my thoughts on this since it is something that has been bothering me a lot recently, and it is something I am going to work into a presentation or an essay or something at some point because I think it is a really really big issue. All of us face it, and all of us get frustrated by it. I’m not sure there really is an answer, and I think I need to gather my thoughts a bit more before I come up with some kind of answer.

I’ve had this problem recently where I was doing something, again, a very similar situation to Terrace Jay [???], designing something that was doing a few more interesting things, but not experimental necessarily, but more interesting than the other sites within that spectrum that the client was looking at. They liked that, but it really didn’t do what they wanted to do, which was essentially wanting something much more in line with what was out there. They wanted to keep it fairly safe. Yeah, it is hard to avoid blaming the client when they are taking your sexy design and turning it into something fairly plain. The answer, if there is one, is that we really need to educate our clients. Not in a condescending way, but to take this example that Terrance has got on there, where they want the line heights reduced so they get more above the fold or they don’t have to scroll as much, I really feel for him and this is an awful situation. This is really then about us saying, “OK, I see why you are trying to do that, and here is why I think you shouldn’t do that. It isn’t about me being a fancy designer who wants things that are pretty, it’s about things looking good, and they look good because the user is going to enjoy it more, they are going to stay on the site for longer, it’s going to be more legible, and it is going to tie in to the overall aesthetic that you are working towards.” Essentially, it’s about saying “Look, I’m a designer, and you’ve come to me to ask me to solve a design problem, and this is my professional design opinion that we should keep these line heights wider. Because of that, I think you should go with it.” Because of that, if all of this is explained to them, the client may then appreciate it and stick with it and go with a taller line height.

They may not. They may say, “Whatever, I don’t want it to scroll, end of story. I want to change it.” Again, it’s about educating your clients. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t work. I try and do this as much as possible. Again, I’ve had some projects recently where I have had reduced the design to something that I would have originally never wanted to design, but it has fulfilled the brief. At the end of the day, we are getting paid money to fulfill the brief, so there is only so much you can argue there. But I definitely say in this case, with the line heights and stuff, that you could possibly use legibility arguments, general usability arguments, and obviously a thing that a lot of people overlook is that if something looks nicer, one of the things I talk about in the book, people will want to stay on the site for longer. We shouldn’t devalue the importance of making things look pretty. We’re not just doing it because we are designers and we like doing that, we are doing that because it actually serves a purpose. It’s trying to convince the client as much as you can and unfortunately that is not always possible, but I think that we really need to stress that we are the designers and that we know best.

I can’t remember which conference I was at, I think it was @media last year, I sat in on one of the presentations, and somebody posed a similar question: what do you do if your client keeps wanting to change the design and bits and pieces. They said, if you are a popular enough designer, you turn round and say “OK, I’ll make those changes for you, but I won’t be putting it in my portfolio.” They turn around and go, “Oh, why not?” and you can say “Well, I wouldn’t be happy with that design as a professional designer, but I’ll make that change since you asked me to.” Then they start thinking, “Uh oh, if they aren’t going to put it in their portfolio, then obviously it’s a really bad idea to do that.”

I think that is some brilliant advice, actually. There have been some projects in the last year where I haven’t wanted to put them in my portfolio. You can’t let that happen, on a big scale, because you won’t have anything in your portfolio, and if you don’t have a constantly updated, fairly forward portfolio, you won’t be getting any new work. I think that is great advice, definitely, and I would probably end up employing that at some point. But, all the same, you can’t let that be a get out point for the whole time, otherwise you’ll never fill up your portfolio.

Thanks goes to Ben Hardcastle for transcribing Elliot’s answers.

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