Show 84: Maybe

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul explains why Headscape does Design Testing, Marcus talks about growing your web design and Mark Buckingham provides an introduction to Search engine optimization.

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Pagination 101

I came across a great post this week that provides a solid introduction to producing pagination. If you haven’t come across the term pagination before it refers to the navigational elements that allow you to move through multiple pages of results. They often include links marked previous and next or numbers to allow you quickly to jump to a specific page of results.

We use pagination all of the time and most websites seem to have them. However, they are an overlooked function that doesn’t get the attention they deserve. The post I found this week, entitled pagination 101, explains to the reader through examples what make pagination work. Although I am not convinced I agree with everything written here it generally provides some very sound advice.

Personally I love posts like this that cover very basic stuff. It helps remind us not to get so caught up in the cool stuff that we neglect the fundamentals.

Free CSS based design course

John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin have released a free online course that introduces people to CSS based design. If you are still to make the switch from table based design or are finding the change challenging then I would highly recommend this course.

We are not talking about a short introduction here. Rather, this is an in-depth course that builds up over a series of weeks into a comprehensive guide to building with standards. Not only does the course tell you how to build with standards it also explains why which in my opinion is just as important.

Zeldman says no to Maybe

I wanted to quickly mention a post I saw from Jeffrey Zeldman this week. Its not exactly earth shattering stuff but it caught my eye nevertheless. Zeldman, suggests that it is probably a mistake to use 5 star ratings on websites or indeed any other option which allows a neutral answer. The problem is that if you allow people to rate something between 1 and 5 they will often rate it as a 3 because 3 is the most neutral response.

As Zeldman points out this problem is a lot broader than just 5 star ratings. It also applies to any response that allows for people to be uncommitted. Given a choice people will normally take a neutral stance.

As I said, this wasn’t an earth shattering post. But, what it did drive home is that web design is as much about understanding your users psychology as it is about good design or clean code.

IE Net render

I came across a site this week called IE Net Render that takes free instant screengrabs of your site displayed on IE 7, 6 or 5.5. This is a great way to see how your site is rendering on IE 6 or 5.5 once you have upgraded to 7. Its also damn useful if you are a mac or Linux user.

Of course, there are similar services out there but most of them charge and those that don’t are incredibly slow. What impressed me about IE Net Render was the speed with which it returned results. The only draw back is that it does not return content below its artificial fold.

Paul’s corner: Design testing

Headscape has always used design testing as part of its development process and yet we seem to be in the minority. We are often met with a lot of skepticism about the benefits of putting a design concept in front of real users as well as questions about how the process works. As I have received two emails on the subject over the last week I thought it was about time I explained the idea properly.

I have blogged about design testing. How we do it and why we think it works?

Marcus’ bit: Growing a web design buisness

Got this question from Andrew:

Last year I started my web design business from a back bedroom with very little experience and an old copy of Dreamweaver! I’m pleased to say I’m still here and the business is growing steadily. Your forum and podcasts have been invaluable and offered loads of great advice and support and no doubt helped many others in my position so thank you!
My question for you both is have you any advice on managing the growth and development of a web design business? As a one man band, when is a good time to take someone on, or could I realistically work with freelancers all the time? It seems that to take someone on is very costly (not just in terms of skills) but if I want to expand the business and our services for clients I can’t do it alone. Should I hire someone who can do everything, or someone who can sell leaving me to do design and development work? What are the pitfalls that I should look out for?

Any thoughts or insight into your experiences would be really helpful.

Interesting question, and one we have a lot of experience of but… one I feel I need to add a caveat to. What I am about to say is my personal opinion and does not constitute legal advice!

Ok, the easy bit first:

Sales people

Bless ’em… we had enough bad experiences of sales people during our tenure at our previous company to know that the only people who reliably sell the services of a web design company are the people that own it.

I’m not saying there aren’t any good sales people out there, just that selling quite highly priced solution based work does not fit well with the standard sales ethos. Sales people like products. They like products with set prices (that they can cut). They like having demonstrable ROI.

Design, in particular, is very hard to put figures to. I can’t tell a company that redesigning their site will boost sales by X or Y percentage. I can talk about brand values and the importance of conveying quality online but I can’t put hard figures to it.

Most web design sales involve responding to a tender with a lengthy proposal and subsequent pitch that is tailored for that particular prospective client. It usually draws from all aspects of the business – design, technical, consultancy – and therefore needs someone with a good understanding of the business to put it together. I.e. the company owner/director.

Who to employ

Headscape currently includes the following general production roles:

  • Designer
  • Developer
  • Project manager
  • Information architect
  • Testing facilitator

Again, the directors tend to share IA and testing with the project managers. Project managers are invaluable members of any team but if you are looking to employ your first member of staff you need to get a designer or developer on board first.

Look at your own skills and see where you’re lacking. Maybe filling the gaps is the right way forward. However, that may only be appropriate if you’re looking to take on more complex work and simply doubling up on what you already have may be the most prudent move. Often, a new project win will point towards who the right person is.

When we started we had Paul doing design and some technical work, Chris doing project management and me doing sales. At the time, we had a great client that kept firing Flash work at us. We outsourced a couple of times but eventually ended offering a permanent position to one of these guys (he is still with us, as is the other guy who we outsourced to then!).
You mentioned hiring someone who can do everything – Chris, who was the first guy to join us, is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades so was perfect for us at the time. As we have grown though, we have looked for more and more specialist people.

Permanent or freelancer

Taking on freelancers can often mean the difference between being able to deliver a job or not. However, they are expensive and will badly erode your bottom line if you do it all the time. So, ask yourself – if I had an employee instead of a freelancer over the past X months, how much would I have saved?

Employees are a responsibility though and need looking after . One thing we have learned over the years is that happy staff make for more productive and more effective staff. As we have mentioned recently, Headscape has started encouraging everyone to spend a few hours each Friday afternoon working on anything they like. We get together monthly to present our ideas to each other – best idea wins something cool.

But sometimes you have to have to be prepared to make some very tough decisions. The bottom line is that the company always comes first. One final point though – and in the words of the late, great Douglas Adams – don’t panic! It is very easy to see things as much worse than they actually are.

Ask the expert: Mark Buckingham on SEO

This week we have Mark Buckingham on the show from to introduce us to the world of search engine optimization.

Mark helps dispels some myths surround SEO. He discusses best practice and talks about specific techniques such as keyword density and link popularity.

To be honest I felt like we only just scratched the surface of the subject of search engine optimization and would be keen to speak with Mark again. Its such a massive area that it is hard to know where to begin. So, if you have any specific questions you would like answered on SEO then drop me a line at and I will get Mark back on soon.

Book recommendations

Finally, I just wanted to let you know that I have finally sorted my act out in regards to my reading list. One of the most common emails I receive asks me if I can recommend a book or what I am currently reading.

Now, I posted a list of recommended books ages ago but I never got around to updating it. Well I have finally done so and also gone a step further by creating an RSS feed of any books I read (be warned these will not all be web design related).

I promise to keep both the post and RSS feed up to date from now on!