Show 87: Trends

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul discusses about emerging design trends, Marcus talks about supporting existing websites and Ben Werdmuller introduces us to the open source community tool Elgg.

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Eric Meyer: Competition

Before we dive into the show, I wanted to mention a two day workshop Eric Meyer is going to be running in London on the 13th and 14th August. For those of you who do not know Eric, he is one of the world’s leading experts on CSS and XHTML. He has written numerous books as well as speaking internationally on the subject. This is no ordinary CSS training course and if you can you should consider attending

Although this workshop is not cheap at £695 it will tell you everything you need to know in order to build top-quality CSS and XHTML websites. Eric is an incredibly knowledgeable guy and it is definitely worth hassling your boss for the registration fee.

Of course, not all of us have a boss we can hassle. So for those of you with less disposable income we have a free ticket to give away. All you have to do is answer the following questions:

“In which episode of the boagworld podcast did I first mention the subject of web standards?”

To enter simply email me your answer, including the word “Meyer” in the subject line.

Good luck and we will announce the winner in next week’s show (so entries need to be in by 30th).

News and events

Conflicting absolute positions

I discovered an interesting thing about absolutely positioned elements this week. I was reading an article called conflicting absolute positions on the List Apart website and it mentioned that all modern browsers now seem to support 4 cornered positioning. In other words you can set the top, bottom, left and right corners of an absolute positioned element and it will dynamically work out the height and width.

This struck me as an amazingly useful tool that allows for all kinds of possibilities. Most useful, as the article points out, is that you can start doing some interesting combinations of fixed and fluid width elements.

The downside is that unsurprisingly this is not supported in IE 5 and 6. However, the article does suggest interesting workarounds for some specific scenarios. If you have a few minutes check out this article as it is well worth the time.

Quikmaps

We have talked before on the show about various websites that make the process of adding google maps to your site less painful. However, this week I came across another one that I particularly like. It is called Quikmaps and it has a wonderfully clean and easy to use interface.

You can quickly add new points of interest and even draw lines showing routes. You can also select from a massive range of icons and add your own marker info just by clicking on a point.

Finally they make it incredibly simple to add the map to your site. You can enable or disable a range of features (including map controls and draggability) and add it to your site by copying and pasting a tiny fragment of code. However, the nicest thing from my perspective is you can do all of this without registering for the site.

The best websites are useful and ugly

I have to say I am a little disappointed with the latest post by Gerry McGovern. Gerry is a usability expert who’s posts I read on a regular basis. The vast majority are superb but his latest post is reminiscent of the kind of thing written by Jakob Nielsen. In this post he argues that the most usable sites are often the ugliest. In my opinion this is an incredibly blinkered view. Although he points out a number of recent design trends which damage usability that does not mean a website has to be ugly. I have said it before and I will say it again, website can be both attractive to look at and easy to use.

What is more, this post smacked of the attitude that usability is all important. I do not believe this to be entirely true. Usability has to be balanced with numerous other considerations including brand identity and design aesthetics.

Its a shame because in other posts Gerry talks a lot of sense. It would appear that I am left with Steve Krug to champion both usability and design working together.

Survive the digg effect with Amazon Web Services

I seem to be hearing a lot about the Amazon web services at the moment. I have just returned from the Institutional Web Managers Workshop where I was speaking. While there I met Jeff Barr from Amazon who was talking about the different web services they offer. On my return I came across a post on the Think Vitamin website covering exactly the same subject and I have to say I have been impressed.

Amazon offer a growing number of web services aimed at developers. However, the two which have impressed me the most are the simple storage system and the Elastic Compute Cloud. Basically the first is a superb way of managing the growing bandwidth and storage demands of your site while the second allows you to dynamically increase the power of your server environment to respond to peaks in demand.

There are literally endless applications of these technologies and I don’t have the time here to cover the subject in depth. However, if you are developing an online application or if you are likely to suffer from spikes in traffic (such as can be caused by sites like digg) then you will want to explore this more.

Marcus’ bit: Providing the right support

A lot of web design agencies have made themselves, and by association, the rest of us, unpopular by enforcing unnecessary and, quite often, unfair support agreements on their clients. The ‘classic’ support model is 15% of the value of the contract over 3 years. This has somehow evolved from enterprise software solution installations where onsite support is required covering daily usage by thousands of employees. Very few websites need this level of support.

At Headscape we have always taken the approach that support, like the job, is unique to that client. That is, we aim to provide the most appropriate support for that client.

However, what does that actually mean? This article covers the various options we offer our clients and the thinking behind them.

Ad hoc support

This is simply work carried out on an existing site on a job-by-job basis. Other than not having to pay for anything until it is needed, there is generally no bonus to the client with this method in that standard rates are charged and work slotted into the schedule when it can be done.

However, I think it is still important to sign a support agreement stating the terms of the agreement and particularly the process involved for booking work. Usually some sort of email booking process is simplest and avoids writing contracts for every little piece of work.

Minimum monthly allocation

On this basis we schedule in a guaranteed minimum level of work (e.g. 0.5 person-day) every month for at least six months.  Because we can plan around that minimum allocation, we can offer a discount on our standard rate. 

The agreement for this type of work needs to cover a variety of points:

  • Again, the ordering process
  • Term for the agreement and when it starts
  • Invoicing – usually this would be monthly in arrears with any work over and above the fixed amount invoiced the following month.
  • Reporting

With this type of agreement, any unused time is usually not carried over into subsequent months or agreements.

High priority work

This is a fairly tricky area to sort out because you have the issue of ‘bumping’ existing scheduled work if high priority work comes in. This is not a problem in slack times but can be if everyone is busy. There is no magic answer other than saying that emergencies do happen and things needing attention quickly is part of any service business’ week to week existence. Bearing that in mind, it is good practice to have an agreement in place that documents how things will be dealt with.

If a client requires the additional assurance of an ongoing support contract with defined levels of response, we offer an annual pre-purchased package of support credits that can be called upon as and when required.  One credit equals one hour’s work in value.

Depending on the urgency of the required response, support credits purchase a different period of Headscape’s time. For example, low priority work is charged at 1 hour = 1 credit, whereas high priority work is charged at 1 hour = 2 credits.

To summarise, the golden rule is to agree on whatever terms suit the client best then put it all in writing.

I received this question from John in Dublin:

I am a designer working on a new clients website. He says he wants the website to feel very contemporary and web 2.0. like. However, my concern is that if I design something that feels like a web 2.0 site, it will be out of date by the time it goes live. It feels like web 2.0. design is on its way out. What do you think the next big design movement will be?

Although this is obviously an impossible question, it hasn’t stopped me from trying to answer it in my latest post on emerging design trends.

Review: Elgg

I have received a number of emails from various people over the last few months mentioning something called Elgg. None of the emails gave a lot of detail but said I should talk to a guy called Ben Werdmuller. After googling Elgg I discovered it is an open source social platform that appeared to be community based in nature. However, my lazy gene kicked in and instead of reading through an entire website I decided to get Ben on the show to tell me more.

If you are considering building a community based website, you should definitely listen to this interview.

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