170. Versus

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul talks about the conflicts surrounding design decisions, and Teifion challenges a BBC article that asks “Are the days of the web amateur numbered?”

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Not long ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which includes many stories about how well known individuals got their big break. There is something fascinating about people’s backgrounds – the opportunities and experiences that help shape a career. I am often surprised that people’s success has more to do with circumstances than talent.

Our very own Ryan Taylor shares this fascination and so has started a new video series where he asks industry figures about their background. He started the series by interviewing me. Apparently he wanted to practice before interviewing important people :-) He has since moved on to talk to Drew McLellan and has Mel Kirk and Sarah Parmenter waiting to be released.

I think there is a lot of potential in this series. The web is still such a young medium and few trained to be a ‘web designer’. It is therefore fascinating to see how people came to the industry. There is also a lot to be learnt for those starting out in their careers. Be sure to pop along to Ryan’s site and subscribe to his RSS feed. I look forward to future interviews.

Running a card sorting exercise

Establishing your site’s information architecture can be one of the most challenging jobs for a website owner. You face two major obstacles. The first is your organizational bias. You can become so institutionalized by the way your organization works, that it can prove  hard to view things from an outside perspective. What seems logical to you can make no sense to an end user. Second is internal politics. Information architecture can often become an area of contention with different parts of the organization vying for top level billing. This can lead to IA by committee, which never leads to a user centric approach.

Card sorting is one way to overcome these challenges. It is an objective way of organizing the information on your site, around user’s needs rather than company structure. It works by putting users in control of creating that structure by asking them to sort cards containing content in a meaningful way.

At first glance, running a card sorting exercise can appear intimating. However, as a post on Sitepoint demonstrates, it is actually straightforward. “Run Your First Card Sort” is a step by step walk through of everything involved in running a card sorting session. Although the method laid out is not the only approach, it does tackle the key steps including…

  1. Preparation
  2. Recruitment
  3. Running the session
  4. Interpretation and reporting

If you haven’t run a card sorting session before and would like to make your IA more user centric, then I would highly recommend this post.

The complete Google Analytics power guide

I have watched with fascination as Google Analytics slowly decimated the website statistics sector. When Google Analytics was launched it was a relatively simple product, more aimed at smaller websites and blogs. However, over time it has become increasingly more powerful and useful to even the most stats hungry power user. Enterprise products have struggled to compete with a product that offers so much functionality for free.

However, with this increased power came more complexity. What was once a simple product has become increasingly harder to master. Although Jeff Veen did some amazing work at simplifying the interface, it is still hard to harness its full power. The result is that many fail to use it to its full potential while others are too intimidated to try.

This is unfortunate as Google Analytics offers so much information to an experienced user. It paints a picture of how users are truly interacting with your site, while informing your sites structure and content.

Fortunately “The Complete Google Analytics Power User Guide” equips website owners with all they need to know to squeeze the full potential from this incredible powerful tool. This series of posts include detailed information on every aspect of the program from setup to tracking goals and funnels. Best of all the various posts have also be brought together in a single 45 page PDF, making it a lot more accessible for offline reading.

If you ever use Google Analytics or are interested in what it can do for your site, this is definitely worth downloading.

Estimating time for design projects

One of the toughest parts of being a web designer is estimating the price of projects. There are so many variables. So many ways you could approach a project, and so many things that could go wrong. Nobody likes estimating a job and rarely do any of us get it spot on. It is a minefield of pain. On one hand you need to add contingency  for the unseen, but on the other, if you add too much you become uncompetitive.

Effective Strategy To Estimate Time For Your Design Projects is a new Smashing Magazine post that endeavors to address these issues. It begins by looking at what causes a project to be misquoted. Reasons include…

  • Unknown technologies
  • Grey areas in the specification provided
  • Bespoke development in unfamiliar areas
  • The cost of sale being too high
  • Lack of time to quote properly
  • Too high a desire to win the work
  • No previous time tracking to refer back to
  • Estimating time for a project is not fun

It then goes on to address each of these issues with a particular emphasis on granular planning and the need to track time.

I have mixed feelings about this post. It provides an excellent structure for creating quotes and even has a list of common tasks to quote against. However, it feels a little labor intensive at points, going into more detail than most can justify. I guess to some extent it depends on the size of projects you undertake.

That said, it certainly makes you think about your quotation process and encourages you to be more efficient in the way you price projects. This can never be a bad thing.

Before I move on from news – if you live in UK mark the 22nd June down in your calendar. That is the date tickets for dconstruct go on sale, and judging by previous years they will sell out shortly thereafter. Myself and Marcus will be there recording interviews for the show. However, we are also going to arrange a meetup over lunch so hopefully that will be an extra incentive to come.

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Feature: Clients vs. Designers

Establishing the look and feel of a site can be a point of contention. Web designers can become frustrated because their expertise is not respected. Client are annoyed because their designer does not listen to them. How then do we ensure the design process runs smoothly?

Read The Battlefield of Design – Clients vs. Designers

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Listeners feedback: Amateur vs Professional

Teifion Jordan sent us a very insightful review of a BBC article that I wanted to share with you…

The article is titled “Is the web’s amateur hour over?“, a provocative title for those that blog, contribute to open source, have a flickr account with photos licensed under CC and so on and so forth. The article opens describing somebody that revels in the name “Antichrist of silicon valley”, anybody that revels in a name such as that is either crazy or doing it for the attention and page views it brings them. It sums up the rest of the description pretty accurately.

The article then explains how he dislikes things such as Wikipedia because they’re maintained by people working for free, how seasoned professionals are being put out of work by amateurs on youtube. At this point the article moves onto showing that all the big tech bloggers, these so called “amateurs”, are actually seasoned journalists.

The crux of the article is of course Amateur vs Professional, does the fact that anybody can start a blog mean that anybody is a journalist? Does having a flickr account make you a photographer? Yes and no, technically yes but in reality most people will never gain enough of an audience to become influential or make money from it. Professionals are paid and generally for a good reason, a professional blogger probably has experience and good writing ability, an amateur probably won’t.

But we’ve still not come to the actual issue, I’ll say it again. Amateur vs Professional, yes that’s it, it’s the 2nd word in, verses. The sensationalist man described at the start of the article seems to feel that there is a competition on between those that work for free and those that work for money. More importantly, he feels that those that work for free are making it harder for those that work for money to find work!

But that’s really not true is it? If it were true then wouldn’t we all be using Linux because it’s free? Wouldn’t Open office be the de-facto standard of office software? Why would Apple even bother making the iPhone if Google is just going to make Android? Why does Paul bother to make websites when anybody could just do it for themselves?

There are I think three main reasons. Quality, Trust and Support. Open Office is a nice piece of software but it’s not got the features of MS Office, it’s not as high a quality product. Linux is really really well supported if you know where to look, for most people however they’d much rather get a normal computer which they already know how to use and can phone tech support for. And trust, if you pay Paul huge sums of money to make a website for you then you trust he will do a good job, that he knows what he is doing.

So no, I don’t think it is Amateurs vs Professionals, I think it is Amateurs and Professionals. One does not exclude the other, instead one will spur on the other and generate often healthy competition. Think about how much IE6 stagnated because nobody was competing with it any more. Now that people are competing with them on browsers MS are starting to get their act together somewhat.

Next, the work of an amateur can be used to help a professional. PHP is a free product but countless people make money writing websites in PHP. Throughout this “review” I have maintained the position that on average a paid for product or service will be of a higher quality. This is true, on average it will be better but not always. There’s a reason that if I had a 2nd computer it’d be booting Linux and not Vista, there’s a reason I develop websites in PHP rather than C#. It’s because the free option is better or the paid option not good enough to warrant the cost in my opinion.

Lastly I want to come to why. We’ve all seen them, the blogs that must have about 3 readers one of whom is the Mum of the author, I know they exist because I write one such blog. Why do people post up bad photos to Flickr? Why do I spend a lot of time running an online game from which I make no money? It’s because everybody has a hobby or two and this is the way that they peruse it. There is nothing wrong with this and should in fact be encouraged. What may now be a bad set of photos on a flickr account could in a few months with encouragement and tips a very good set of high quality photos. What may for now be just a programming hobby could in a few years turn into a very very good language.

Paul started up this podcast because he thought it’d be fun and may or may not have been high from using the computer for too long. It’s come a long way since then with thousands of listeners and an entire community built around it. Thus I end with the idea that while something may be amateur now, it can become professional in time and that this is good.

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