167. Beyond Technology

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul shares his inspiration on blog writing and we talk to Mike Kus about our obsession with technology.

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Good vs Great Design

Cameron Moll is one of the most intelligent and inspirational designers I know. Where some design on an instinctive level finding it hard to describe what makes their designs work, Cameron has carefully deconstructed his work and seems to have a firm grasp of what makes it tick. He understands design. He understands the processes behind design and the rules that make it as much a science as an art.

This deep understanding of design shines through in a free PDF download (Good vs. Great Design) available from his website. The PDF has been produced to accompany his talk at the HOW design conference in Austin Texas and is packed with little insights into good design practice.

The document is only 10 pages long and yet touches on subjects as diverse and grandiose as…

  • The nature of great design
  • The differences between influence and inspiration
  • The need to understand a problem before searching for a solution
  • The power of typography
  • Definitions of visual hierarchy
  • The need for a ‘creative pause’
Obviously, there is only so much Cameron can cover in 10 pages. However, the document is a great starting point for further reading on the subject. Cameron recommends 4 books in particular…
  • How Designers Think (Bryan Lawson) – A book devoted to the idea that design thinking is a skill, and as such it is something that can be improved.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style (Robert Bringhurst) – A complete study in typography, from the broadest concepts to the smallest details.
  • Universal Principles of Design (William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler) – A reference of vocabulary and examples from the disciplines of graphic design and user interface design.
  • The Design of Everyday Things (Donald A. Norman) – An extensive investigation of the interplay between design and living.

If you are looking to deepen your understanding of design, then this is a great place to start.

Eye tracking findings

I have mixed feelings about eye tracking exercises. This is probably partly because I am not particularly knowledgeable on the subject. Although, I am happy to acknowledge that they offer a valuable insight into users behavior and are a useful tool in our usability arsenal, I do have two concerns…

  • Running an eye tracking session is expensive. If this leads to a reduction in the number of rounds of traditional user testing or the number of users tested, then I would have serious concerns.
  • Although eye tracking provides an insight into where a user is looking, it does not reveal anything about intent or comprehension. For example, if a user only briefly glances at a key screen element this doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignoring it. It could mean that it is well designed and the user quickly processed the information it was attempting to convey.

Ultimately, I would be concerned to see too much weight put on their results. That said, it is interesting to see the results of eye tracking and Eyetrack have released some results from one such exercise that focused on the homepages of news site. Useful nuggets included…

  • Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page.
  • Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior.
  • Navigation placed at the top of a homepage performed best.
  • Shorter paragraphs performed better.
  • We also learned that the bigger the image, the more time people took to look at it.
  • Our research also shows that clean, clear faces in images attract more eye fixations on homepages.

It’s a good read and although most of the points are common sense, it is nice to have evidence to backup those opinions.

Online reputation management

“Online reputation management” – Sounds ghastly doesn’t it? Sounds like the horrible love child of social media and marketing BS. That said, for better or worse, it is becoming increasingly important to manage how we are perceived online.

As I recently said in an interview at FOWD, our websites are no longer the only place where our brand is discussed. As a result we need to engage with users wherever they are talking about us. The question is, how do we do that successfully?

Whether we are responsible for our organizations brand or just want to know what is being said about us personally, there are various techniques and tools that can help.

This week Sitepoint have brought those tools and techniques together in 3 useful and informative posts…

Past disasters like Dell Hell are perfect examples of just how important this area is. It is time we all started to think carefully about how we are perceived.

7 Quick CSS Enhancements for Better User Experience

I haven’t seen much written about CSS over the last year or so. It has been as if everything that can be said about CSS, has been said. However, just recently we are beginning to see a few CSS focused blog posts appearing. One example is 7 Quick CSS Enhancements for Better User Experience by David Walsh.

What I love about this post is the ideas suggested can be applied on top of an existing site design. They are just little ‘touches’ that make the site visually more appealing and easier to use. The 7 suggestions are…

  • Change the text colour of selected links
  • Prevent Firefox scroll bars from jumping
  • Give form fields rounded corner
  • Control where page break occurs when printing
  • Show icons that identify the file type of link destinations
  • Change the cursor when it hovers over a submit button or label so it actually looks clickable
  • Increase the clickable area of a link  using display:block

Each suggestion comes with an explanation of its benefits and the code required to implement.

Admittedly not all browsers will understand these enhancements. However, because they are not crucial to the functionality that really does not matter. Its a nice example of graded browser support.

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Interview: Mike Kus on our obsession with technology

Paul: Okay, so joining me today is Mike Kus from Carsonified – good to have you on the show.

Mike: Good to be here.

Paul: It’s really nice. So, as the listeners will have gathered by now, we’re doing a whole series of little interviews off the back of ‘The Future of Web Design’ conference, where we can do all our interviews in one go, rather than spreading them out over time.

Marcus: Yay, we like this.

Paul: So Mike has just finished his presentation and there’s some excellent stuff in there, but you were quite kind of, what’s the word… You were quite harsh to the poor web design community and their obsession with details of technological stuff.

Mike: Yeah, maybe yeah.

Paul: You know, all of this “does it really matter whether your code validates”, not that you used that as an example, but I can’t remember what examples you did use, you did have a few didn’t you.

Mike: No, well I mean things like [a lot of debate to un-debate] which I come across and you see lots of times. You know, it’s a question that’s probably never going to get answered. I just come across it all the time still, and it’s like make up your own mind and move on.

Paul: I got the impression that you feel that perhaps as a community we’re a little bit petit, and overly concerned with minutia.

Mike: No, I mean, I love the web community *laughter*, no I do I love it and I love being part of it; it’s great. The funny thing is I started off two years ago doing web stuff, and I really do feel now two years on, that web design… I don’t see many differences to me between web and print now. It’s all the same thing to me, you’re just designing, you know. And I guess because I feel design is so important, I sort of maybe feel a bit left out *laughter* in conversations, because people don’t seem to talk about the design as much. And the reason that talk was called “Forgotten Web Standards”, I mean I know some guy heckled at the end saying about it not really…

Paul: “It’s not really a web standard.”

Mike: No, and I know that. It’s just a cool title I thought – it gets people thinking, and really the part that related to web standards was just because I feel like for a site, good layout and thinking about things from a graphic design point of view contributes to accessibility on a web site.

Paul: Yeah. And also to be honest, I mean what is web standards other than a set of guidelines and criteria. Equally there’s sets of guidelines and criteria about good design; use of colour, you know.

Mike: Well that’s it, yeah. To be honest it was really more just a good title, and I didn’t expect people to start analysing.

Paul: But they will!

Mike: Yeah I know, yeah; I should have known.

Paul: But I think you raised an interesting point, or a good point which is that we can get so hung up in the logistics of how web sites are built that we’re not always giving the attention to the design aspects of it. And even more specific than that, it’s the whole discussion about, you know, we spend a lot of time talking about usability and accessibility, but aesthetics do matter. We almost have this attitude in some ways that aesthetics are just skinning it afterwards.

Mike: Yeah, yeah I know, I agree. I think aesthetics do, well to me they matter. You know my opinion is just my opinion and other people have different opinions, and on a day like today you’re going to get people talking about the code side of things, and I just feel that I know what I know best, and it’s what I can bring to it, it’s what I can bring to the table, and people can take away from it what they like. Someone’s got to do it haven’t they.

Paul: It’s quite interesting, in your mind you don’t make a differentiation between the print stuff you do and the online stuff you do. Surely there are differences Mike.

Mike: Of course there are differences, yeah. But the processes I go through as a designer are the same.

Paul: Right.

Mike: I’ve noticed that much more; I guess of course there are differences. I mean for a start you’ve got to think about things differently in web design because you’ve got to make sure that people understand where you’ve got to go to click things; how you’re going to navigate your way through the site. But once you sort of know that, it’s sort of… Once you’ve built a load of sites and you know that, that’s just something that comes naturally to think about.That’s a different part, that part where you just get used to doing it, then ,he essence of the process is the same. Designing something for a web site, I find there are the same pitfalls and hurdles designing for print as for web. And the funny thing is, and I really feel now as well, that the coding side… I’m not the best coder in the world, and probably not the worst, but I’ve learnt loads in this past year, and I’m writing much cleaner code now than I was a year ago. I enjoy that too, and I know it’s important.

Paul: Yeah. But like you say there are lots of people discussing that, and not as many discussing the design side of things.

Mike: Yeah, and I totally read up on stuff about code; I know it’s important. I guess for me, sometimes I’d want to go in line and get involved in discussions about design, and I know you get Photoshop tips and tutorials don’t you, but that’s not really design.

Paul: Yeah. But a lot of that’s about using the tools of design rather than the principles of design.

Mike: Exactly, it’s all tools yeah. I’m interested in the principles and the ideas and imagination part, you know.

Paul: You talked in your presentation about design aiding the experience, you know; experience based design. I was just interested to hear you talk a little more around that, about how you feel that design can… In what ways can design affect the experience that a user has and what do you mean by the ‘the experience of a user’?

Mike: Well I guess I mean when I go to a web site, and for a start, at least if we’re just talking from an aesthetic point of view, if I return to, and again this is something that appeals to me, if I go to a web site and it gob smacks because it looks so beautiful, that in one foul swoop is my experience of it, you know? But I think there are other things more technical, and when I say technical I don’t mean in a code way, but in a technical graphic design way, you can enhance people’s experience just by… I like the idea of merging more, like you said, things I learnt at college about graphic design and where to make people look in a page, and how to highlight. Combining the technical bits of graphic design, what to highlight and what to push back, how to take people’s eyes in to the bits you want them to read, and then the slightly less important stuff, pushed back a bit, and combining that with an aesthetic. So if you’ve got a great aesthetic and you’ve really thought about where people are looking on your page, and how they’re going to follow through you’re site, to me those things combined is what I mean by designing for experience; a good experience. Because you could obviously design for a bad experience!

Paul: Well obviously, yeah, that’s easier! Another thing that interests me about your work in particular, and really people need to go and look at examples of stuff that you’ve done to grasp this, but you have a very distinct and obvious style; I think you do anyway. So I can look at the stuff you’ve done for Carsonified, and then even the stuff you’ve done here for Microsoft and there’s obviously a consistent theme to that. Do you think that having a very strong style creates problems sometimes when you’re trying to reach different audiences, and you’ve got to battle with your own style, do you find that a problem?

Mike: Well, this is something I find really interesting because growing up as a graphic designer and stuff, I was always someone who basically… For a start if you’re working for clients and you’re an agency, and you’re getting different jobs, you’ve obviously got to be able to create something completely different one day to the next, potentially. And the funny thing is I actually carried that through into my personal work, and I was like “I can’t do something like this because I’ve done something that looks a bit like that before.” But then you know how you can get famous illustrators who basically churn out the same stuff all the time and they get seriously famous, and one company gets them to do something, and another company…

Paul: They come to that person because of that style.

Mike: Exactly, and I think the only reason my stuff you’re seeing… if you looked at the Orchestrate site, that’s me turning my hand to something through a brief.

Paul: Yeah that’s true actually, yeah, because that has got a very different style.

Mike: I’m just answering the brief there, you know, so it is something I can do.

Paul: Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t, it’s a constant discussion isn’t it.

Mike: I don’t think you implied that *laughter* But it’s interesting, and the only reason I do bring my style into the projects you see that overlap each other is because I’ve had the freedom to do so.

Paul: Yeah, and I guess to some degree, the style that I’m exposed to is the style that’s aimed at people like me.

Mike: Yeah.

Paul: So the fact that you did the Microsoft stand here at ‘The Future of Web Design’, well actually it’s good that it’s got the same style as the other stuff that’s going on because it’s a style aimed at web designers and people like me.

Mike: Yeah, and another thing about doing stuff that’s similar, is you do get to get known for a certain thing, which in some ways I think “is that good or bad?” I don’t know, but I think I’m keen to make sure people know I can do different stuff. But at the same time I’m happy to be known for a certain style, because I think it’s sort of like an identity you get. And so I’d like to keep a balance there, but I definitely don’t mind being known for something that’s got a feel about it.

Paul: Yeah. I mean equally after saying that, which kind of brings me on to the next topic I want to talk about, is that the style that I typically associate you with is quite illustrative, you know, you’ve got this certain way of doing things. And then your set of slides for this week weren’t at all like that, they were very typographic, and you did talk a little bit about typography. We interviewed Mark Bolton on the subject of typography as well. I’m interested in your take on typography because you seem to use letter forms almost as design tools rather than necessarily as standard typography if that makes sense.

Mike: Yeah, well that’s interesting because when I did those slides, the reason they look like that is because I basically took a theme and I got interested with that, what’s his name… I can’t remember, a Swiss graphic designer, very famous I can’t remember his name now, it’s escaped from me, but it’s sort of Swiss modern graphic design, and I was looking at Swiss modern graphic design and some Russian constructivism stuff on Flickr, you know. And because when I was at college, that sort of graphic design, I was brought up on that; it was the first thing I was interested in, and because it was a graphic design themed talk, I used that as the style. And it just so happened that throughout it, the experiment with type and shapes and stuff was something that just happened in making those slides, and I suddenly realised I was getting something out of using type in a graphical way, it’s not just about the words, I mean a slide I like – my own stuff I love! *laughter* – that one that says (and I loved doing that slide and I think it looked great) was the one that said “buck trends and break conventions”, and conventions was all mashed up in different ways. There’s something beautiful about type though isn’t there, like huge letters, and I wish I could have seen those slides, because that screen was so big.

Paul: It looked spectacular, yeah.

Mike: There was a huge, massive letter N, you know. I guess now it excites me, type; I think it can be the basis for great design, not just in a traditional typography way, but actually great graphic design. I guess I think the whole type debate as in “where are we going to get all the fonts from”, or “what’s going to be the standard way of using them” – for some reason I don’t feel restricted by the web font thing.

Paul: No, it’s interesting. Mark was saying exactly the same thing as well.

Mike: It’s not something that bothers me, and I’m quite happy.

Paul: I mean a lot of the ways, certainly the ways you used them in the slides, we’re talking about using type as a graphic element in those cases, rather than necessarily to convey large amounts of copy; it’s a subtlety different thing going on there.

Mike: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: I was also quite interested when you talked in your presentation about a logo design that you did, and about how you were being stopped at every turn by the client effectively because they were saying “no, no, we don’t want to be associated with that etc.” So you then added in a strap line into that which you then built the logo around the strap line rather than the brand itself. Now, that was quite interesting because that gets into the realms of relationship between copy and design, and how the two things work together. And in that case, you came up with the strap line did you?

Mike: Yeah, I’m quite into… I mean, I don’t want to say it myself, but Ryan for example seems to think I’m quite good at copy – which is nice of him to say. It’s a way I work quite a lot, I’ve done loads and loads of logo / branding stuff in the past, and I did something, for example, for the Body Shop once. Basically I could do anything, and it was about raising money for a school in Kosovo to get it built, and they just wanted a poster. I just thought of a strap line anyway, because I could do anything I wanted. It was “building a future”, and that was all it was, and it had all these huge letters. Well it had “building a future” and the letters were all piled up and leaning against each other. I guess often the first thing I think of is copy whenever I’m designing something, especially if I’ve got a new site to design, I’m like well what are the words, what’s going on, what’s it about, is there a strap line, do you need one – you know – what’s written in the first paragraphs in the home page, is there something in there I can use to spark the idea for the design. I think copy in that respect has got a massive relationship to design. It’s rubbish trying to work with Latin text.

Paul: Yeah I know, lipsum, yeah.

Mike: It’s alright for that filling in a paragraph or something, but it’s nice to have that proper copy to hook your design on to it; it can be really helpful.

Paul: The thing that you intrigued me with is that you were going through things like layout, colour, typography, then you hit imagery, and you said there’s a whole presentation there. I want to know what the presentation is, I want to know what is it that you know, obviously there’s a lot of depth there that you couldn’t cover, and I’m just interested in that.

Mike: I think what it was, you’ve talked about my illustrative stuff already, so say you use that for the sake of argument right now because you could apply this to photography as well, I guess to me a site doesn’t have to be like you put it together; I don’t know, I’m going to put a picture here or an illustration there… It can evolve round an illustration from the very beginning. I know it’s a pretty one off site, but the Twiggy site for example, which is just a bit of fun, really quick, but that was just literally me, do what the hell I want, just have fun, and it wasn’t the most practical site design maybe, but you know that just literally was an image that built up and changed, and it was the basis for that site design. It wasn’t just in the site it was the site, and it had the huge letters in the background. I only had a short slot, and if I had more time I would have gone into why I felt it can be the basis for your site, not just something you add to it. Your site can grow from your photographs and illustrations rather than putting them into your site.

Paul: That’s a nice way of thinking about it, yeah. Because I do tend to start with the grid structure and the layout, and all that kind of thing, and then slot imagery in which I can see what you’re saying, you can miss a trick there if you’re not careful.

Mike: Yeah it’s funny I’m changing the way I work lately, and I was talking to Keir about this. I’m starting to think about stuff like you remember when Andy Clarke said he works from the inside out, and I’m starting to do that design wise.

Paul: Right, okay. You mean start with the detail or something?

Mike: Well start with something on the middle of the page. I just open a Photoshop document to start, and I know at one point in the page I’ll have like this… For example, I’m working on something at the moment, it’s got the planet Earth, and all I’ve got on the page is the Earth, I’ve got some bits coming off of it, and then I’m going to add this descriptive paragraph, and I haven’t got anything else on the page at this point, I’m just building it out.

Paul: Wow, that’s quite interesting.

Mike: Rather than thinking “ohhh”, and worrying about things like navigation afterwards, because it’s so easy to just go “no, nav-i-gat-ion”, and then I think no wait a minute what have I done, it’s literally just this autopilot.

Paul: Yeah, and to be honest that’s almost why, in the end, I moved on from design in my career, because I felt I was beginning to do exactly that, go on autopilot. So there is this need to find ways to refresh the way you’re working and stuff like that.

Mike: The funny thing is, it’s natural progression as well. It’s not a choice I’ve made, I just found myself doing this.

Paul: That’s good, that’s really good. You talk a lot about “I had a lot of freedom on this project; I could do what I wanted.” You said that several times in this interview. Do you like that, or do you like having constraints? Because a lot of people that are listening to this are going, “well it’s all well and good for him because he’s working on internal projects and he doesn’t have clients”, and that kind of thing, although you are doing client work now. So there we go, there’s a nice comparison between the client work you’re doing and the internal stuff. Where does your heart lie?

Mike: Yeah, I don’t know actually. Sometimes I hate having no restrictions. Sometimes, no restrictions is the worst thing in the whole world, I hate it. Sometimes it can be terrible, sometimes it’s great. Because if you’ve got no restrictions at all sometimes it’s so hard; that Microsoft thing, I was like “what the hell am I going to do, I haven’t got a clue”. For a start, I’ve never designed a stand before, let alone just an idea. I spent three days getting to that, just getting to the beginning of that idea. I literally produced nothing for three days. The fourth day I was like, “I think I’ve got something”, and that was hard because it had no restrictions because the whole point they came to us was because they wanted to do something different. So the pressure was on to think of something really different, and it’s hard when you can start anywhere. Sometimes it’s really nice to have restrictions, like that Orchestrate site was nice; I got back after Christmas, and John Hicks has put together roughly what had to look like.

Paul: Right. You had to carry on with his style.

Mike: Yeah sort of. I mean it did progress from that, but it had a logo and a colour scheme and a nice, tidy, neat… you know I just had to follow it through and it was nice, I enjoyed doing it. It was a nice break from “you can do anything”, which is actually harder I think.

Paul: Right, that’s interesting.

Mike: Much harder actually. I used to do music quite a lot, and in a way what was always helpful was restricting our instruments completely, and not having much to work with. Because it sort of sets you on a path at least, where as when you’re starting out and you can go any which way you want…

Paul: Yeah, it’s too open.

Marcus: It’s the starting part that’s the hard bit; it’s that initial creative spark. If somebody said “this is my idea, I want you to build me something,” then it’s like great I can do that. But, what’s better about when you’ve got, because I do a quite a lot of music as well (or did), it’s when you get something going and it’s good, that’s more satisfying than working on someone else’s work, but if it’s one of those days when it’s just not coming then, you know…

Paul: Which brings us on to what I wanted to wrap up with, which was you mentioned this slide about bucking trends and breaking trends and that kind of thing, and you advised against CSS galleries, you advised against Smashing Magazine’s trends for the last year, which people turn to for inspiration because they struggle to know where to begin. So if you’re advising against those things, which by the way I think is an excellent piece of advice, we asked Jim Coodle this as well, where does your inspiration come from? Where do you turn to if you don’t turn to that kind of thing?

Mike: I guess I do advise that, but I don’t like to sound like I’m telling people what to do *laughter*

Paul: Well if you stand on a stage…

Mike: I guess, yeah. But the funny thing is, I’ll be in a book shop… A year ago, for example, I was in a book shop and I picked up Jamie Oliver’s book, it was made of a nice sacky cover, don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s got white and blue in it, it was beautiful. The graphic design and the layout was lovely, and I was like “oh I’ll buy that”, not for cooking, just because it looked nice, and I was like “I’m going to design a web site like that”. And someone on Twitter just said something about how they’d just discussed Mike Kus’s talk over lunch and how much of an idiot I am, and something about imagine your web site in print, which is what I said at the end.

Paul: Which I thought was brilliant, but he had problems with that did he?

Mike: Yeah, well he said it’s absolutely useless, different mediums, why would you do that.

Paul: It’s to take it out of context, and give yourself a chance to look at it from a completely different angle. It would be the same as projecting it huge on a wall or sketching it out in chalk, or whatever.

Mike: Well that’s it, exactly. It’s like what you said a minute ago about it’s so easy to go into autopilot with these things, and I think sometimes you need something to jolt your brain into looking at it a little bit differently. Because to me there are a lot of things on the web… Just imagine if you get a web site like your average one – it’s got the gradients all over it and everything, you put it on a magazine page; it would look weird. You have to ask yourself, why are you doing that. I know it’s a different medium, and I think we can all be clever enough to realise that, and there’s obviously bits I’m not going to say it’s got to be like a magazine, but I think it’s worth asking yourself those questions.

Paul: In the same way as in the talk, which I thought was really nice, was you had these amazing set of slides that had a very distinct look, and that was being projected massive on a wall, and yet you transposed that into a poster you gave away to people. So you were crossing those mediums and using inspiration from both which I thought was excellent; it was good. It went well didn’t it?

Mike: It was good, yeah I was pleased.

Paul: Excellent. Well thank you so much for your time Mike, that was really useful, and I think it will be very helpful for people. Especially freelancers that are stuck by themselves, and stuck in their own routine of working. It’s nice to hear how other people work, so thanks.

Mike: Cool. Cheers, thanks a lot.

Thanks goes to Gareth James for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

APIs, source control and Ryan Carson

On show 164 Ryan Carson shared some more advice on running and building web applications as part of his ongoing series for Boagworld. Although Ryan’s advice is excellent, Boagworld listener Glen Bennett wanted to offer an alternative perspective over a couple of Ryan’s suggestions.

Hi Paul and Marcus, this is Glen Bennett from small business hosting. I was excited when you had Ryan Carson on the show talking about web application building, finally someone on the show who knew what they were talking about, however he cave out some information that was a bit misleading and I wanted to clear it up for your listeners, first of all he talked about spreedly.com and indicated that their fee is an alternative to the standard processing fees, in actuality it’s a fee that’s in addition to all the standard processing fees, there service sits in front of the processing gateway and therefore it’s an additional fee and there fee is not insignificant, in addition to that you would have to build an interface to their product. So there is some building cost at your end. I agree that building a processing engine is pretty substantial and something that you want to get help with if you possibly can there are packages out there anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars that are actually pre-written source code that you put into you payment package, you have to do that pretty early in the process so that you can make sure that your user registration matches up with the processing system.

The second thing he talked about which is a source code repository, which is GIT hub, fantastic product and I recommend it highly, I think all developers should go and look at it, however the free service is primarily for a public repository so I don’t think he would have wanted to put DropSend source code into a public repository so their free service is not something that you’d probably want to use for your web application unless it’s an open source web application and there is a small fee for GIT hub but a lot of hosting packages come with SVN included for free so you might want to look into that, you can use GIT locally on your local system and then SVN them up to your free repository on the internet so you have a remote repository that’s free during development time. So there’s a couple of tips, a couple of corrections for web developers, I hope that helps and I want to thank Ryan Carson for the additional information that he had in his tips, I found it all very useful. Thank you very much.

Blog writing inspiration

Recently we received an email from Jon. He wrote:

I was wondering how do you find inspiration for your articles? How do you expand upon your initial idea and is there a process you go through when writing an article? How long do you spend writing an article? And lastly what do you think is the hallmark of a good article?

These are all good questions. The majority of blogs  have long since been abandoned by their authors. The owner either struggle to think of new content or finds running a blog more time consuming than anticipated.

I don’t claim to have all the answer when it comes to successful blogging. However I can share with you a few principles I work by…

  • Limit your time – I work best when I have a deadline. If I have too much time I over think things and pick at the details. This makes blogging  high maintenance and hard to keep up. Unless the content of a blog post is going to be used elsewhere (see Recycle below) I will never spend more than a couple of hours writing something. To me a blog is about sharing ideas, not writing a perfect piece of copy. I know I am not the best writer in the world and so make up for this by sharing ideas on a regular basis. In order to do that, I limit the time available for each post.
  • Keep an ideas list – Ideas for blog posts occur to me all the time and I have trained myself to constantly ask ‘would what I am doing make a good blog post?’ However, you can guarantee my mind will go blank the moment I sit down to write one. That is why it is important for me to keep a list of ideas. Whether you add them to a notebook or keep a list in WordPress, you need to make it as quick and easy to add ideas as possible. Also, when I add an idea, I try to flesh it out a little. Instead of just adding a title I also include a rough synopsis of what I want to cover.
  • Create an outline – Before I begin writing, I always create an outline of what I want to cover. I usually do this using Omni Outliner where I jot down random thoughts on the subject. I then sort those ideas into a logical structure. Once the structure is in place, writing the final post is much easier. This is because I know where I am going. It also ensures I lead the reader through a story, rather than throwing random thoughts at them.
  • Write first, edit later – Its easy to get caught up in spelling, grammar and structure to the detriment of flow. I tend to write posts in one go. I don’t re-read what I have written until the whole thing is finished. Stopping to check what I have written breaks my focus and leads to disjointed articles that take longer to write. Better to write the whole thing and then re-read the post afterward editing it then.
  • Write for your audience – Before I begin a blog post I always ask myself whether this will be of interest to my audience. Sometimes I indulge myself with personal posts, but most of the time I work hard to stay on topic and only write content that is focused on meeting my readers needs. This applies not just to the subjects chosen. It also to the style of writing and terminology used. For example, I try to avoid too much technical jargon because it may not be accessible to website owners. However, I don’t always succeed!
  • Write for scanability – There is a vocal minority in the blogging community who frown upon image heavy, list based, blog posts. However, I think there is a lot to be learnt from them. People who subscribe to my blog read a lot of other blogs too. With so much information to keep abreast of they rarely have time to read everything I write. I therefore write in a way that lets them get the ‘gist’ of a post without reading every word. Lists are one way to do this, as is the use of imagery. However, I also use headings and front loading too. Wherever possible make content easy to skim read. If you do not, users are likely to skip it entirely.
  • Ask for suggestions – I have found the best way to come up with ideas for my blog is to ask my readers. I actively encourage people to email me with questions, reviews or comments and these inspire ideas for posts. In fact the very question I am answering here would make a great blog post. Hmmm… perhaps I should stop before I waste the opportunity :-)
  • Ask your readers opinion – As well as asking for suggestions also ask for feedback. A good blog post does not have to be you sharing your words of wisdom with the world. It can also be asking a question and encouraging feedback. Some of the best content on blogs  can be found in the comments, rather than the actual posts. Try to write posts that encourage a dialogue rather than a monologue. Also if you do manage to spark a passionate discussion, followup with a second post that summarizes the views expressed.
  • Recycle – Finally, I am a great believer in recycling ideas. For example the answer to this question will appear on my blog, on the podcast and also will make a great Audioboo tip. Many of my best blog posts have either come out of a presentation I gave or a chapter from my book.

This is not a definitive set of guidelines and every blogger will work differently. However, this approach has helped me to continue blogging for over 4 years. I will leave it to you to judge whether the quality has remained high ;-)

Finally, if you are a regular blogger I would love to hear your thoughts on keeping your blog fresh. How do you come up with ideas and ensure the quality of your posts? Let us know by adding a comment below.

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