Show 102: Worktime blues

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul looks at why you should have a training budget and how to spend it. Marcus looks at capturing requirements and Roo Reynolds introduces us to the possibilities of virtual worlds and their impact on web design.

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News and events | Marcus Requirements capture | Paul: Spending the training budget | Roo Reynolds on virtual worlds | Question of the week

News and events

10 Absolute “Nos!” for Freelancers

I know that many of the people that listen to the boagworld podcast are freelancers so I keep an eye out for stories that appeal to this group. I was therefore drawn to an article in my news reader entitled 10 Absolute “Nos!” for freelancers. It’s a great article that lists 10 questions asked by clients to which the answer should always be no.

The questions include classics such as “Can you show me a mock-up to help us choose a designer/developer?”, “Can I pay for my e-commerce site from my website sales?” and “Can I just pay the whole amount when it’s done?”. Almost without exception I agreed with every item on this list. The only exception is “Will you register and host my site?” because I think a lot of clients expect this even if it is a pain in the arse. Of course, the fact that I work for an agency rather than as a freelancer could be colouring my view on this one. However, whether you are a freelancer, an agency employee or just an enthusiastic amateur this is all good advice.

Making the most of working with designers

Adaptive Path are an agency I really admire. Not only do they produce some cutting edge work they are also some of the foremost thinkers in the world of web design. I was therefore understandably interested when one of their clients recently asked them how to make the most of working with a design agency.

The resulting blog post called “Making the Most of a Design Engagement” is a fascinating collection of tips that is definitely worth a read.

The subject of how an agency and client engage is something that I have posted on a number of times [1], [2], [3]. However, reading the perspective of another agency (especially one so well respected) is very enlightening. What I found most encouraging of all is that they obviously struggle with the same kind of client issues we all do.

Whether you are somebody who commissions web designers or whether you are a designer yourself take the time to read this short post.

How Open ID will change your site

Just before I went away on holiday (did I mention I had been away?) there was a new post on the Think Vitamin website about OpenID. I am a big fan of OpenID and have spoken about it before on the show. However, its a tricky concept to explain. At its heart it allows you to login to all the many services you use on the web from one single site so having to deal with only a single username and password.

I sincerely believe that if you are building a new website that has any form of login then you should consider including an OpenID login. The problem at the moment is that you will have to do this in addition to the normal login process. You might wonder if it is worth the effort.

The article on the Think Vitamin site does an excellent job at explaining just how significant OpenID is going to be (even though it exaggerates it in places). It explains the background, the problem and the possibilities. If you haven’t looked at OpenID yet or are sceptical about its worth then the Think Vitamin is a great place to start.

Good practice when working with Tag Clouds

Tagging is everywhere these days. From Flickr to Delicious every site seems to have tags. Even blogs like this one has tags. Tags are a useful alternative form of navigation that allows users to quickly find related content no matter where it is in the sites hierarchy. There is no doubt they are powerful and incredibly useful especially on larger sites with a lot of content.

The problem is that they are relatively new. We are still working out how to successfully integrate them into our websites and what role they play. Fortunately a recent article entitled “Tag Clouds Gallery: Examples And Good Practices” attempts to establish some best practice for tagging and makes some suggestions about their design and integration.

If you are doing some design work with tags or if you are looking to add tags to your own site then you may want to take a look at this post. My only word of caution is that it only tells half the story. It addresses tag clouds but says little about how tags on individual pages should be displayed.

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Marcus’ bit: Requirements capture

While Paul has been buddying up with Mickey, Donald and Pluto, I have been working with a UK higher education institution at the very early stages of their website redesign project.

One of the things that we have been discussing in detail is the process we will go through to capture requirements and set objectives for the site. I thought I should share them here.

Existing site review

I have looked in the past at carrying out an expert review relating solely on a site’s information architecture. A site review takes on board some aspects of the existing site’s IA but is more general than that.

I tend to look at the following site features very much from a usability point of view:

  • Navigability – can I find things?
  • Consistency of navigation
  • Visual hierarchy – consistency of the design
  • Writing style
  • Processes – search, making a comment, ordering etc
  • Terminology
  • Content – grouping, repetition, wide/narrow mix, internal/external mix etc

The main purposes of the review are:

  • To highlight to all stakeholders what the site issues are
  • To highlight to all stakeholders positive aspects of the existing site
  • To suggest possible solutions to issues
  • To explain the processes involved in achieving goals

Stakeholder interviews

We have found that interviewing key internal staff (i.e. content owners) and sometimes key users, is the most valuable exercise in creating a requirements and objectives document.

Each interview is done on a one-to-one basis to ensure that people say what they really mean! The interviews are semi-structured which means that we will create a script of questions but will happily allow people move off-track.

The interviews aim to gather opinion on the site’s user base, weighting of content, issues and opportunities.

Work together

Though we are usually brought in as experts to consult on this type of process it is imperative that the client is involved at every step of the way. This is because one of the purposes of the exercise is information gathering. For example, creating user personas based just on stakeholders interview input may miss something that discussing/reviewing with the web team would not.

Create the document

What we are trying to do is record all findings in a manner that can be used as a basis for all the work to follow – IA, design, copywriting, build etc. In other words – create a list of requirements for the new site and give them an order of priority.

It needs to get into detail to be useful. A recent review we carried out contained over twenty specific opportunities for the site, which target audience groups each issue related to and how the site could deliver each opportunity.

This was coupled with a detailed list of requirements per audience group – 25 audience groups with over a hundred requirements. The requirements we also graded for importance into ‘must haves’, ‘should haves’ and ‘nice to haves’.

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Paul’s corner: Spending your training budget

I recently received a question from Harry asking “what approach do you take to training?”. He has some budget set aside and is wondering how he should spend it. As I am always keen to spend other people’s money this seemed the perfect subject for me to talk about… read keeping your skills sharp.

Training course give away

While I am on the subject of training, the guys over at Clearleft have two training courses coming up on January the 24th and 25th in Brighton. The first is CSS mastery by Andy Budd and the second is Bulletproof AJAX by Jeremy Keith. If you would like to attend but cannot get your company to produce the £345 + VAT for the early bird fee then I might be able to help. I have one free place to give away to either course (your choice) for a lucky random winner. We will announce the winner on our Christmas special so entries need to be in by Friday 14th of December. Just send me an email with your name and contact details with “clearleft competition” in the subject line.

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Ask the expert: Roo Reynolds on virtual worlds

Paul: Okay, so joining me today is Roo Reynolds who is a meta verse evangelist for IBM, Its nice to have you on the show Roo

Roo: Hi Paul,

Paul: What on earth is a meta verse evangelist?

Roo: That’s a good question, I guess a meta verse evangelist is someone who helps people understand the very exciting and confusing area of virtual worlds.

Paul: Ah, virtual worlds. Now the people listening to this show might be thinking what has that got to do with web design, why have we got someone one on here talking about virtual worlds and I am quite happy to admit that that’s not our normal fair. Its not what we normally cover on the show but I wanted to get Roo on partly because um, well to be frank we grew up together didn’t we pretty much

Roo: we did we were family friends for many, many years

Paul: yeah, which was very bizarre to then discover the he is a kind of world authority on virtual worlds. so that sounds very dramatic doesn’t it

Roo: A thought leader?

Paul: A thought Leader

Roo: I remember inheriting your old star wars toys Paul

Paul: There we go, So I set you of on a good direction in your career by getting you into Sci-fi early. I am now taking all of the credit for all that you have achieved since then.

Roo: Its all thanks to you (giggle)

Paul: yeah (hahahaha) Well um, but I though it was quite interesting. I was doing a presentation where one of the things I wanted to talk about in this discussion was upcoming and emerging technologies and how they would affect things and I wanted to talk about virtual worlds and realised that I knew absolutely nothing about them so I gave Roo a call and we had a chat on the phone. Then I got educated so I figured I ought to pass on that education to everybody that listens to this show so that’s um, a bit of the background. So lets kick of the with the first questions. So what exactly are virtual worlds and why do you think there is so much hype surrounding them at the moment there has been lots of talk about, you know, things like second life and that kind of thing. Perhaps if you could explain them a bit, and explain why there is so much enthusiasm about it at the moment

Roo: yeah I can try. So I guess I can ask you to think about it. as it a good an example anyway, probably the most popular example of a virtual world. At the moment. So these are things which are kind of digital online environments or as some people would describe the as multi-user virtual environments its that kind of online social space. So to the untrained eye they might look a lot like game but there are no game elements inside virtual worlds or rather there are but they exist within the broader world. So something like second life doesn’t really have any point there is no final point no enemies to kill there is no “x” level to achieve its just a world and if you want to inhabit that world and build a shop or you want to habit that and be an explorer and wonder around finding interesting things and talking to people then that cool as well.

Paul: Hmm, I mean the immediate thing which comes out of that is well, you know, what is the point. Why do people take part in virtual worlds and what kind of ways are people using them

Roo: Yeah, there are a lot of different answers to that, almost as many answers as there are different people really so as in the real world there is not point. people make up their own point they decide that the are going to make a lot of money or they are going to be an artist and be well known or open a sex shop or whatever it might be and people will have different personal goals which they set themselves. So really any goal is a tangible thing that people will almost determine for themselves

Paul: So I guess in many ways its like the web itself it’s a tool and how chose to use that tool is largely up to you

Roo: Yeah exactly. And within that you will get lots of different things, I mentioned some, you will also get games within that so people play chess inside virtual worlds and people do all kinds of crazy things. Yeah I guess the answer to your question is really why is there so much hype about them, its because over the last 12 months or 16 months or so the press has been covering this is quite a bit way. That turned it into a kind of hype feeding frenzy. Garner had a very famous prediction about how 80% of active internet users by 2011 I think it was will be using virtual worlds and will have an avatar. Not necessarily in second life but in a virtual world. And all of this make people realise that this might just be the next “big thing” its gone from being the kind of space where people will, I don’t mean this in any derogatory way, everyday people will would hang out in to becoming a space that a lot of big companies and small companies and advertising and marketing firms are really getting interested in. You know we have all seen “the web” in that ,very early in my career, was the web being picked up by corporation and some people almost missed the boat and had to catch up later on

Paul: So Why do you think this is going to be the next big thing? Why do you think a virtual worlds are going to be you know, you talked about how some companies had to play catch up on the internet you almost imply that this I going to be as big as the internet is. Did I miss interpret that or do you really think its going to be incredibly significant and if so why?

Roo: Well, I think it is always going to be a subset of the internet, you know, this is just another communications media and its probably will remain a subset of the web. There will always be a place for flat 2D content, But once you start getting into 3D social stuff and giving people a real time opportunity to relate to each other and see each other and this sense of presence where you can see what the other is paying attention to. For me joining a circle for the first time, a circle of people talking and I walked up to it, and you know people took a step back to invite me into that circle. That was a really compelling moment to me. It was also a real eye opener that the “real world etiquette” that we see in society all the time actually was playing out for real in this virtual space as well. In terms of why it might be the next big thing a lot of different elements are coming together at the same time here, we finally have, almost complete availability of broadband, certainly in this country and in the west. We have got fairly powerful machines now that have 3D graphics accelerators and sound cards, this is something which is now also happening in corporate environments as well as at home. There is kind of a point in time where the… someone might describe it as a tipping point where there is this lot of interest and we have seen this massive press interest, but also big companies getting involved, you know when you see Sony with their playstation home project which is going to be like a lobbying environment for the playstation 3 its been delayed a little bit, but that is really the kind of mass Market application for virtual worlds and it is things like that which really opened my eyes to where this might take is. This is not going to be a niche thing with a few geeks hanging around and some would argue that it has never been that. Really virtual worlds have been attractive to creative people and to the people who feel like they want to kind of express themselves and share things, Its not full of 16 year old boy with glasses sitting in their bedrooms and really there is a difference between games, traditional online games and Massively multiplayer online role-playing games And a space like virtual worlds that allows them to be attractive to the mass market . So yeah I wouldn’t say it is going to replace the web or even be the largest portion of the internet. But there is certainly a growing space for these virtual worlds

Paul: so what, I mean, I can understand how some people are maybe making money out of being involved in virtual worlds where, I don’t know, where they are creating things which they are selling inside that virtual world, but what about other companies, how are larger organisations using it. For example, how do IBM use it?

Roo: well, we are maybe quite weird in because we do an awful lot in virtual worlds. We do everything from recruitment too employee discussions and meetings. although of course we cannot use a virtual world for confidential discussion, we certainly have the types of meetings we would have in public spaces, like conferences, we also have virtual facets to real world conferences like forties a really big conference we run, and we had that for the first time happening in second life running in parallel to the real world event so people who could not make it to the real world event could at least attend. They could see and hear some of the presentations and they could mingle and network. So like I said we are a bit weird in that in that we do so much, that’s partly because we are such a big company. Now a lot of other people would look at it and say they have a very particular need or desire, something they want to get out of it and for some people historically it has been marketing, or advertising, it has been to reach a wider audience or to reach them in a different way. Which is more playful and allows them to be really participants rather than just eye balls

Paul: yeah, I mean one thing you said was earlier was that you referred to virtual worlds as a subset of the internet and the web. Its another that that going on online. One of the things which strikes me is that if you do something, in something like second life, say if you run a conference that conference is kind of just fenced into the second life world so its not going to get picked up by search engines, its not going to be very accessible and things like that do you think that there are going to be changes in that, do you think there will be more crossover between virtual and maybe the more traditional web

Roo: yeah absolutely this is one of the areas that really excites me at the moment, this whole area of interoperability and that needs to be not just between different virtual worlds but also between the web and virtual worlds so this idea of the virtual universe sort of thing as a virtual world or virtual worlds is something that IBM even throws this term 3D internet around quite a lot. In a kind of evolutionary next step when you look at virtual worlds today they tend to be proprietary walled gardens and actually a lot of people would compare them to AOL in the mid nineties but actully when you start thinking about how they may interconnect, and that inset just moving your avatar from world of war craft to second or habbo or whatever its actually much more interesting than that. Its things like bringing you wallet with you your friends list with you being able to blur the lines between virtual worlds and bring content in from the web and share content back out to the web, these things are beginning to be possible and in some ways one of the reason I think second life is so successful because it does have the ability to make request to web content and bring that in so you have dynamic stuff going on. But that is still very early days and I think that we will probably see a massive focus and in fact the big conference in san hosa very recently where this came out in a very big way but a lot of companies will be wanting to get together and its very, you know the will is definitely there to have a real focus in the next few month on interactivity

Paul: I mean so, I am kind of very aware this for many of the people listening to this show that are kind of a mixture of designers, developers, you know, people that are running websites that a lot of this is very theoretical and it is not something they would be directly involved in at the moment. I mean do you think there is anything that they should be doing, that they should be aware of when it comes to virtual worlds. Is this an area you think they should be keeping an eye on or doing anything actively.

Roo: Yeah, I guess most people I talk to even if they are not going to rush out tomorrow and buy some space in some virtual world and um, you know its not for everyone. But most people who I talk to at least want to stay informed once they have got that hook in their head that this is, you know, I obviously find it very interesting but people tend to come away with the a sensation that this might go somewhere and there is enough evidence already today that its fairly compelling, if you look at it on the “garnet height curve” this idea that things go though a life cycle of interest it haven’t yet peaked the top of that and it is now falling back down into this trough of disillusionment in the long run what might happen it might reach the stable plateau where it will actually become a really useful space that interesting work will happen and kind of follow the same progression as so many technologies before it. Most people come away with the feeling that they want to keep an eye on it. Now I guess if I am going to step back a little bit and look more broadly at what is going on, on the web then for web designers and for almost all of them, this is very big on their radar the whole area of social online collaboration and this whole “web 2.0” umbrella which you started talking about a year ago if not longer and has been you know really quite large for me, that fits very neatly into this same space. What you are talking about are people sharing content and whether that is a a chat or something they have built themselves you know, you look at a world like second life and most of it is not built but the company that runs it. As with youtube and and as with flickr and so many other popular services and site these days, it is built by its users. So maybe it is something people need to be aware of maybe its something which will gradually fit into a growing mentally of this is how the web works. Yes it happens to be 3D at the moment on the popular ones and yes they are not all currently delivered through websites, mind there are plenty that are, and there probably will be an increasing number that are delivered though the browser. So yeah, if people find this stuff interesting then they should keep an eye on it, maybe read a bit more about it.

Paul: Where is a good place for them to go then to wrap up, as far as if they want to find out more information or want to read up about the potential of it, where would you recommend they start by looking?

Roo: well there are a lot o very good blogs out there, if they have a very academic mind then they and want to read some really good writing on the subject then the best one I can think of is , its one that I have guest authored for, but not the one I regularly write for, the one I regularly write for is, which has got a growing profile in the space of virtual worlds, That is written by a bunch of IBMers writing about what they find interesting. I have a personal blog a personal blog at if anyone wants to follow that although, please don’t all come at once

Paul: (Laughs) its really not that popular out podcast that it would…

Roo: no you are paul, you wouldn’t know how popular you are, but you are.

Paul: That’s okay, Thank you very much for you time , I think it is interesting we spend so much time on it with the immediate here and now problems, but every now and again it is nice to poke out heads above the parapet and see what is going on a bit further afield; so thank you very much for time coming and being on the show

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Question of the week

Do you think virtual worlds are going to be a mainstream method of online communication or are they a novelty doomed to failure? Answers in the comments.