Show 80: Home sweet home

Paul Boag

On the show this week: Paul talks about preserving the design of your home page, Marcus takes a look at project management software. and John Oxton shares his experiences of working as a freelancer for web 2.0. companies.

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News and events

d.construct

Without a doubt my favorite conference is d.construct. Admittedly, SXSW has the wow factor and I loved every minute there but I’m a patriotic kind of guy and so d.construct wins because it is home grown. I guess I could have gone for @media which is also UK based but I prefer the more friendly atmosphere of d.construct.

d.construct this year looks particularly exciting to me. They have just launched their new site and I am pleased to see the theme revolves around user interface design. This obviously appeals to me more than last year, which had a technical feel, and so I cannot wait to sign up.

Registration is not open yet but they have already announced the price as being £85 + VAT. This is great value for a day packed with speakers such as Jared Spool, Cameron Moll and many more.

The date is the 7th of September in Brighton, so be sure to keep your eye on the site as tickets will sell out fast.

IA one sheeters

Convincing clients that information architecture work is of value can be tricky sometimes. They simply don’t understand the value of things like wireframes, usability testing and heuristic evaluation. Thankfully, Leah Buley has been kind enough to put together some “mini brochures” on different areas of IA, outlining how they work and what benefits they provide.

Each brochure is a single sheet of A4 which has been well written and nicely laid out. You can download them as PDFs and customize them to your own requirements.

Jakob Nielsen on web 2.0

According to the BBC, Jakob Nielsen is claiming that many web 2.0 companies are neglecting the basics of good design. Apparently, he has warned that the rush to make webpages more dynamic often means users were badly served.

The main focus of Nielsen’s criticism seems to be on personalization tools and social participation software. He argues that 90% of users almost never contribute to sites and so never make use of these features. He suggests that too much time is spent on these secondary tools at the expense of more basic fundamentals.

Although at first glance this looks like more hard line usability dogma from Nielsen, however in reality I don’t believe it is. I am guessing at his intentions, but I don’t believe he is suggesting that sites like digg.com or wikipedia (which are based entirely on social participation) are flawed. I think his criticism is being leveled at existing content based sites which are retrofitting web 2.0 features simply because they are “cool”. If indeed this is what he is saying then I entirely agree. Too many sites are jumping on the bandwagon and adding unnecessary complexity when all users really want to do is get the information they require as quickly and simply as possible.

Left navigation vs. Right navigation

I was sent a link this week to a fascinating study carried out by the University of Southampton. The goal of the study was to compare left hand navigation to navigation on the right in order to establish which approach enabled users to complex tasks the quickest.

The usability of two Web page layouts was directly compared: one with the main site navigation menu on the left of the page, and one with the main site navigation menu on the right. Sixty-four participants were divided equally into two groups and assigned to either the left- or the right-hand navigation test condition. Using a stopwatch, the time to complete each of five tasks was measured.

The general assumption is that left hand navigation is more user friendly but this study seems to prove what I have always suspected, there is little difference. In fact if anything there is a slight leaning towards right hand navigation which could be to do with the majority of the population being right handed.

Client corner: Project Management Software

This week’s client corner is based on a question from William…

What do you use for project management software and how do you implement it within your Distributed Company?

I am asking this question because up until now our company has not been busy enough to need a specific project manager, but as we are growing, we have several projects on the go and we are in need of some organization in this area.

Although we are not a distributed company, we do work from several different locations at times.

I have looked into some different programs, but there are so many it’s hard to know what is good. I could download the trials and try each one out, but I would rather get some expert advice and save myself the reviewing time.

Project management applies to all parties i.e. client and agency so I guess this is not just a ‘Client Corner’.
Our project managers use a number of different software tools, as follows:

Groove

  • One place for all pm issues.
  • Suiting Distributed pm
  • Works offline
  • File Repository to store Requirements, specifications, PSD’s, client delivered content etc
  • Loads of differing tools – calendars, document review, links, Tasks Tool for task allocation
  • Customisation – Create & deploy custom forms & views quickly with out any programming skills.
  • Manage tasks
  • Example : Production Management Issues
  • Forms captures input & feedback on production management Issues
  • Views used to create different cuts of the same data, can apply filters to the data, e.g instead of show me all, show me just those that are marked Action “Next”.
  • Differing views
  • by assignment
  • By client
  • By status
  • By importance
  • New requests
  • Unactioned requests etc
  • Form to capture any kind of work request that needs resource allocation : Purpose is to move all flagged emails, scribblings on notepads, phone call requests from staff into one place.
  • Summary of current jobs – all chargeable work broken down by Job, Client, Stage and Target Month
  • Invoice request form – to notify when invoicing milestones are reached.

Harvest Timetracker

  • Online time management and recording tool.
  • Excellent for reporting time and materials work

MS Project

We use Project to create Gantt Charts in contracts but rarely use them to track tasks. The main reason being that keeping Project up to date can be fiddly and often more time is spent updating Gantt charts than actually doing work!

Outlook

  • Don’t underestimate the value of email correspondence
  • We use email for all sign-off as written forms are a pain
  • Search in Outlook 07 is superb
  • All email can be exported to Groove

Content templates

  • Our project managers also create various templates to aid content delivery from clients.
  • Software tends to be either Word or Excel, whichever is most appropriate, for example:
  • For field based content e.g. Events including title, date, description etc we will agree field types with the client (followed by sign-off) then create an Excel template for the client to populate with content.
  • For general text page content we will create a Word based form including headings such as Page title, body text, body image, main images, related links etc

Ask the expert: John Oxton on web 2.0 product development

After last weeks .net magazine podcast I managed to grab a few minutes with John Oxton to discuss his experiences of developing web 2.0 products. It was a fascinating chat in which he compares two very different approaches. He talked about an American company that planned their product in immense detail and a UK company who are basically “just winging it”. His conclusion; planning is great if you have a lot of cash to burn but “winging it” seems to work better if you want to get something out the door!

John also talks a bit about his experience as a freelancer working for these third party companies. He talks about how it is easy to get sucked into areas which you aren’t really being paid for and how important it is to stay focused on your role.

It was a great little chat and I am definitely keen to talk to him some more in the future.

Agony uncle: Defending the home page

This weeks agony uncle section is based on a question from Andy in the Cotswolds. He writes:

My question is about a home page I am currently working on. The client keeps asking me to add more and more elements and it is slowly destroying the look and feel of the page. He wants so much ‘stuff’ above the fold that I am having to use every available space and drop down font sizes until they are barely readable. What can I do to explain to the client that this is a bad thing?

The question got me thinking about how I deal with this kind of situation. Although I have some techniques I use, I don’t think I am as effective as I could be. I therefore started to formulate some tactics that I have blogged about them over at “Keeping your home page clean“.

Review: Ecto

Like almost everybody else these days, I blog a lot. However despite a plethora of blogging tools out there none of them seem to have a good interface for actually writing the copy. Sure, they have great tools for tagging, categorizing and managing blog posts, but not for actually writing them.

In my experience the windows are too small, they don’t have good support for marking up your HTML, they don’t have very friendly spell checkers (if they have them at all) and you can’t write blog posts offline.

Being the fussy git that I am, I ended up with an incredibly complex process for creating a blog post. I would write it in Word (which has a good spell checker) copy and paste it into Dreamweaver (where I would mark it up as I wanted) and then into movable type (the system behind my blog). It was a stupid system but it kind of worked for me.

However, when I switched to the mac I decided to have a look around to see if I could find anything better. That was when I came across Ecto (which incidentally is available for windows too).

Ecto is a superb desktop blog publishing tool that provides me with all of the features I want:

  • Its spell checker highlights misspellings as I write
  • It allows me complete control over the markup
  • Lets me create my own markup macros so I can add markup with keyboard shortcuts
  • Posts directly to my blog while still being able to edit offline

However more than that, Ecto gives me a bunch of tools that I never realized I needed until they were there:

  • The ability to add images directly from my hard drive to the site
  • The ability to take images straight out of iPhoto and post them on the site
  • Add my current iTunes song to the blog post
  • Include links to Amazon (with your affiliate ID)
  • Add or create your own Ecto scripts

In short this is an extremely powerful, but easy to use desktop blogging tool, that I would highly recommend.

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