Show 85: Bulletproof

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul provides some design advice for developers, Marcus provides so post launch pointers and we review Jeremy Keith’s Bulletproof AJAX book.

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News and events

Unfolding the fold

The first news story today is actually not news at all. Well, its news to me (because I wasn’t previously aware of it) but the actual post was made back in December of last year.

The post relates to that most irritating of subjects; “the fold”. I have spoken about the fold many times before. The mythical point at which people have to start to scroll. I say mythical because this point changes depending on your screen resolution, browser type and toolbars.

The reason it is so annoying is because clients are obsessed with it. They are convinced that users don’t scroll (a perception rooted in the early 90s) and no amount of persuasion seems to change their minds.

However, hopefully the post I found this week will help. “Unfolding the Fold” is a post on the ClickTale blog that provides some hard stats about the fold and scrolling in general. It demonstrates that the vast majority of people scroll, with almost all of them scrolling right to the bottom of the page. Their conclusion is that there really is no reason to squeeze all of your content above the fold.

d.construct tickets on sale 10th July

If you are in the UK on the 7th September you should be sure to come to d.construct. d.construct is in my opinion one of the best web design conferences around. The reason I like it so much is that it works hard to maintain a grass root feel that is accessible to anybody.

For a start the price ticket is very accessible at £85 + VAT. Secondly, the whole thing happens on a single day so there is no need for expensive hotel bills if that is a problem. Finally, they have a great mix of speakers with many of the big names you would expect but also a lot of less well known people in order to “shake up the scene”.

The reason I mention it now is because the tickets are going on sale next tuesday (the 10th). Historically they sell out incredibly fast. Although this year they do have a larger venue and so that should help somewhat.

I really want to encourage you to attend this event if at all possible. I will definitely be there and it would be great for us all to meet up.

Fonts licensed for web apps

Talking of d.construct, Richard Rutter (one of the organizers of the event) has posted an interesting blog entry on “font licensing“. Admittedly font licensing, doesn’t sound very exciting but potentially it could be. Richard has spotted a press release from a prominent font provider. This press release talks about a new type of license…

Ascender Corporation announced a new licensing program for font software implementations with server-based applications.

Richard goes on to suggest this might be another move towards browsers supporting downloadable fonts. This would allow us to use whatever font we wished on a website rather than being limited to what the user has on his or her desktop.

Richard does warn that this might just be in reference to Silverlight, because Ascender does work very closely with Microsoft. However, personally within the context of Opera’s move towards downloadable fonts, I am hopefully this might be something more.

A new way to visualize your desktop

Finally today, I wanted to mention a technology called Bumptop. I recently watched a demonstration of the system and was blown away. Basically, Bumptop is a new way to work with files that mirrors much more closing the experience of interacting with your desk in the physical universe. You can stack files, throw them around and even crumple them up in a 3D environment.

When I first watched this demo it felt like a novelty, but the more I thought about it the more potential I saw to organize content in a more dynamic and flexible way.

What I like most about this interface is that it is not trying to teach us a new method of interaction. Instead it is trying to replicate something we are already familiar with. The idea of using metaphors we already understand is a staple of interface design and is what makes things like tabs, desktops and folders so successful.

I think as web designers we could learn from technologies like this. We should be looking to build on established conventions people understand rather than always seeking to do the next big thing or be innovative in someway. Bumptop is innovative but it does so in a way that is instantly accessible to everybody.

Paul’s corner: Design advice for developers

I received this great question from Simon that I thought worth addressing on the show…

I hear lots of questions about the technical and business side of Web design, but what I don’t hear is how do the already technical amongst us become better designers – maybe being a visual thing this just won’t work on an audio podcast, but at least you could give us your top 5 ways to grow artistically.

As has become tradition, I decided to blog on the subject a few days ago but unsurprisingly failed to stick to “5 ways to grow artistically”. Instead I managed to produce a long and rambling essay on “when designers design” which I bore you all with on the show.

Marcus’ bit: Post launch Protocol

Everyone, client and agency, seems to understand the principle of not letting a site stagnate. Content should be regularly updated and, ….and what?

We see a lot of client demands for content management systems that are then often not used for lengthy periods of time. Therefore I thought it could be useful to look at what options there are to a site manager after that big day when the site goes live.

Of course, not everything here will apply to everyone but hopefully some of it will.

News and events

Stories, articles, seminars, fun days, whatever. These are your opportunity to create new content very regularly.

Clients are invariably perfectly happy with their site when it goes live. This is understandable, they have more often than not spent months working on it, tinkering with this, fretting with that and a) they need to spend some time on other aspects of their job (that have been neglected) and b) the site really has never been more up to date!

But what often happens is that a couple of months down the line they realise that new content needs creating but they can’t remember any of the CMS training. The 50 page accompanying manual is too scary so things get left. This happens until we are asked to add the new content because we’re too busy and it’s urgent and often, later on, further CMS training is booked.

News and events provide a steady stream of new content that helps keep the site fresh but also the CMS skills of those looking after the site.

Shortcuts

Updating shortcuts to key content is again a simple way of refreshing a site’s content without putting that much effort in.

Homepage shortcuts tend to link to:

  • Latest news
  • Latest events
  • Repeated main navigation
  • Products
  • Special offers
  • Facilities e.g. login, subscribe etc
  • Important ‘deep’ content
  • Popular topics

I guess the point I’m making here is a lot of these shortcuts can simply be rotated giving a feeling of change on the site. For example, changing a link to a main section on a weekly basis is a simple task and one that does not require the writing of any new content.

Utilising usage stats may be a good way of seeing which areas of the site need further promotion. In fact, use everything at your disposal, stats packages, CMS, content suppliers, agency support contract, internal marketing team etc so that you are as informed as possible.

Imagery

Don’t just update copy. Adding new banner imagery can really rejuvenate a tired looking design. Always look to include appropriate imagery with news articles, events etc.

Communicate

Keep your eyes open to what’s happening within your company/organisation. There may be a new project/department/member of staff etc that might be outside your sphere, that would really add value to the website.

Make yourself (and your role) known to everyone. Send out questionnaires or surveys asking people what they want to see on the site or if they have any pertinent content.

Think big

Finally, don’t lose sight of the main purpose of the site while dealing with the smaller things. It may be that the main purpose of your site is to promote your brand so updating the look and feel of the site regularly may be a lot more important than updated content. In fact, continually evolving the design of a site over time is probably far more cost effective (not to mention the effect it has on keeping the site fresh) than ‘big bang’ redesigns every 3 years or so.

Alternatively, sales leads may be the site’s primary function. In which case, keep in touch with sales and experiment with ways to boost leads.

The other really big area that site owners need to look at is site promotion. This warrants a post of its own so I’ll look at that another time.

Review: Jeremy Keith’s Bulletproof AJAX

I have decided not to do “ask the expert” this week, so we can have a review instead. Unfortunately we don’t have the time to do both segments every week so I have to mix and match from time to time.

The book I want to review is “Bulletproof Ajax” by Jeremy Keith. I read it almost 6 months ago, but haven’t had an opportunity to talk about it on the show until now.

The book is designed to be the sequel to Jeremy’s previous book “DOM Scripting: Web Design with JavaScript and the Document Object Model” which was written as an introduction to Javascript for designers. Bulletproof AJAX is therefore written in a similar tone with the focus on making AJAX accessible to designers rather than providing the technical detail you would expect from a developers book.

I have to confess I found the book a little frustrating at first. As somebody that had bought and learnt Javascript through Jeremy’s first book, I felt a little annoyed that the first 2 chapters seemed to be dedicated to laying the foundations we had already covered in the first book. I am guessing the idea was that people could buy this book in isolation without first owning DOM Scripting, but in my opinion the amount of detail provided in Chapter 1 and 2 wouldn’t make that possible. For me those first 2 chapters felt like padding to make a short book feel slightly more substantial.

However, that criticism aside the rest of the book was definitely worth the very reasonable price tag. Jeremy has an excellent writing style that is clear and engaging. He seems to explain complex topics in such a manner that you wonder what all the fuss is about. You come away from the book thinking this “AJAX stuff” is easy and wondering what all of the fuss is about. Admittedly he only covers the basics, but it is enough to get you producing the kind of AJAX applications most designers would like to build.

But, Jeremy doesn’t shy away from the more complex underlying issues surrounding AJAX. In particular he talks about accessibility and ensuring your applications work with Javascript disabled. He does this through a technique called HIJAX. I will not endeavor to explain to you the details of it here, except to say it relies on the server doing most of the heavy lifting.

From applying the principles taught in this book I have to say the HIJAX approach works very well. All of the complex stuff is handled by the developers on the server side and I get to focus on how the information is returned to the user. AJAX is a funny area that sits between client side and server side and leaves designers and developers wondering who is responsible for what. Using the HIJAX approach taught in this book, the division is much clearer.

So would I recommend this book? As with DOM Scripting it depends on who you are. If you are a designer who has read Jeremy’s first book and would like to start producing AJAX applications then absolutely. However, if you haven’t read his first book then I suggest you do that first, unless you are already confident in producing unobtrusive javascript.

If you are a developer on the other hand then my recommendation is to steer clear. This book is not meant for you and you will find it frustratingly lightweight.

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