Show 89: 404

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Paul talks about creating the perfect 404 page, Marcus covers some of the basics of rich media and Aral Balkan makes working with databases and APIs a whole lot easier in flash.

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Before we dive into today’s show I have a small request from you our loyal fans *cough*. As you may have noticed the show notes we produce for this podcast are a lot more comprehensive than once they were. They are almost a complete transcript, which is important to us because we want the show to be as accessible as possible. I have been contacted by a number of deaf users who are frustrated because they cannot access the show and to be honest I sympathize. We have done our best to produce a complete script but we are getting hung up on the expert section. I just do not have the time to go through and reproduce everything say. An alternative would be to use a service like Casting Words but to be frank I am not confident on the quality we would get back. I was therefore wondering if any of you would like to volunteer? I know a number of people have offered to transcribe in the past but quickly became overwhelmed with the amount of work involved. However, transcribing just this section of the show (typically about 10 minutes) shouldn’t be too bad. Hopefully if we can put a rota together it should be too big a job and best of all you would get to listen to the expert sections in advance :)

So, if you can spare the time drop me a line.

News and events

Writing for the web

First up this week is the fact that the latest issue of A List Apart is entirely dedicated to the subject of writing for the web. There are two great articles both of which are definitely worth reading. The first post takes the idea of personas and suggests that your website too should have a persona. What tone of voice should your website have? What character should it project? The second article (and my personal favorite of the two) is a passionate defense of good writing on the web. It fights hard against the attitude that web copy should be kept to a minimum arguing instead that if the content is web written it draws the user in and engages with them in the same way good design can.

Both articles are excellent and has made me reconsider the importance of good copy. It is an area I am constantly frustrated by and just wish I could get my clients to pay for a copywriter to really bring their sites alive.

Microformats in Google Maps

Next up is a really exciting announcement by Google. It would appear that Google Maps now supports Microformats. I can hear your cries of disappointment… thats not that exciting! Well, I think it is. This is a huge boost for the Microformats community and puts literally millions more hcards out there. Not only will this raise the awareness of Microformats but I also think it will lead to some interesting mashups using the massive database of businesses that are displayed on Google Maps.

If you are yet to play with Microformats or haven’t gotten around to adding them to your website then now is the time. They are quick and easy to implement and oh so very cool ;)

There has been a lot written about Microformats but it is nice to see big players picking it up and running with it. Good stuff.

Corporate Web Standards

What you don’t see a lot written about anymore is web standards. Its almost as if all of the arguments have been made. However, I did come across an article this week that convinced me there was more to cover. It was a discussion about implementing web standards in a large corporate environment where you are weighed down under legacy pages and internal politics.

It was a refreshing article because it was so pragmatic. Much of what you read about standards is bordering on fanatical. This article was much more down to earth accepting that you cannot implement the perfect solution especially within a large corporate environment. It talked about little steps and something being better than nothing.

If you work in a large organisation then this is definitely worth reading. You will find it very encouraging.

Web Design advice

Last up is a couple of websites I have stumbled across this last week. Both of them are provide general web design advice and I have to say both look very impressive. The first was sent to me by Charles Russell who recommended it as an alternative to “The Principles of Beautiful Web Design“. I am not sure it is an alternative personally but it is certainly an interesting website. It is called Web Design from Scratch and does exactly what it says on the tin. It literally covers every aspect of web design providing basic advice and then referring you on elsewhere. Ideal for the beginners.

The other site I wanted to mention is the Web Designers Wall which I believe has only just launched. It seems to be filled with all kinds of nice goodies including tutorials, code snippets, commentary, inspiration and more. What is more the site design is beautiful. I have a feeling that this site is only going to improve with age.

Marcus’ bit: Rich media

Multimedia doesn’t really mean that much anymore I think. It used to refer to CD-Rom type content but now I think it refers to any web content that isn’t just plain old text and images.

I have been pricing up some new/interesting/dynamic content for one of our clients and it struck me that I haven’t discussed this sort of thing here before. I guess there isn’t a great deal of point to this other than ‘have you thought of doing…’, so here goes…

Animated shortcut banners

These seem to be all the rage at the moment. Usually quite a large portion of the homepage is dedicated to a rolling carousel of messages or adverts for content deeper in a site. There will usually be 3 or 4 different ads that flow from one to another. Manual controls are also available to go straight to a particular shortcut or pause on an ad.

There’s a good example at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Video

I don’t really mean just plain video; I’m referring to a piece we did for the Surrey Hills AONB that incorporated:

  • Still shots
  • Video footage
  • Voiceover

All of which were pulled together to create a tourism video that can be downloaded at Surrey Hills.

The voiceover, incidentally, was done by Surrey Hills patron and famous british actress, Penelope Keith. Going to her rather grand house to record the session was a great experience.

Voiceover

Which brings me nicely on the subject of voiceover. I have two rules relating to voiceover recording:

ALWAYS use a professional actor. The girl in the office with the ‘nice’ voice will sound rubbish, so will the ‘posh’ guy in accounts (we know, we’ve done it!). Voiceover actors aren’t that expensive and, because they’re professional they’re quick. I have used Voicebookers in the past and they have been superb.

Less important but… use a proper voiceover recording studio. I have used studios in London that are really very reasonable and the quality is superb. Though of course this isn’t always possible as with Penelope Keith (recorded my laptop).

Panoramic imagery

We have done a few external 360 degree images, again for Surrey Hills and some for National Trails. We haven’t used dedicated equipment that take full spherical shots basically because you end up with an unnecessary amount of sky. I have simply used a decent camera and tripod and done two full sweeps of portrait images (roughly one just below the horizon, the other just above), moving the camera about 10 degrees each time.

The ‘fun’ part with these images is that they are usually taken from high vantage points so expect to have to do a lot of climbing to out of the way places!

There is a compromise to be made with panoramics. The best time to take a good landscape photo is early in the morning or just before sunset. However, for a panoramic that doesn’t work because you will have the sun in view for a large chunk of the image. This is one of the reasons why panoramic images can often look a little ‘flat’.

Dynamic screensaver

This is quite a cool idea where the standard screensaver idea (pretty pictures rolling from one to the next) is enhanced to allow the client to update information to it. Basically, when the screensaver fires up (as long as it connected to the internet) it checks with the client’s site to see if any changes have been made and automatically updates if there has. This is really handy for news stories but could be used for anything.

Mapping

I think I have discussed mapping previously because it is something Headscape has done a lot of in the past. Up until recently we tended to develop maps using Flash where points of interest are dynamically generated using grid references. We also added features such as layering of different categories.

However, recently we have developed a site for River Thames that utilises Google Maps. The site’s main purpose is to promote the River and encourage people to visit. Again, we have used Google Maps to show points of interest such as places to eat, places to stay etc that are controllable in layers. Using GM is very cool though because the points shown alter when the maps are dragged and/or zoomed (apparently lots of brain power went into making this work!).

Finally, we also created a trip planner or itinerary builder that gives site users the opportunity to list all the places they want to visit (inc. contact details, address, directions etc) and print this off in a print friendly design or email to a friend.

Paul’s corner: Handling missing pages

I noticed this last week that I have been getting a lot of traffic from the Smashing Magazine and so I went to check out where it was coming from. Turns out it was an article on 404 error pages and they had used my error page as an example. The article also referenced another site called the 404 Research Lab that provides lots of good information on setting up custom error pages. All of this reminded me I wrote a blog post ages ago about handling missing pages and yet for some reason i have never spoken about it on the show before. Seems strange because it is a subject we all need to deal with. So, I thought it was time I covered the subject properly using my old blog post as the basis.

Review: Aral Balkan on SWX

Paul Boag: OK, so joining me today is Aral Balkan. Hello! How are you?

Aral Balkan: I’m fine, Paul. How are you doing?

Paul: Not too bad. I feel like I’m speaking to you quite a lot recently, one way or the other.

Aral: [laughs] I know, but it’s fun, huh?

Paul: So I was explaining to everybody earlier in the show how we got you into Headscape to give us a little bit of training and kind of bring us up to speed with what was going on with Flash.

Aral: Yeah, that was a lot of fun, too.

Paul: You had a good day, did you? It wasn’t too painful then.

Aral: Yeah. Me and my bunny had a good day. [laughs]

Paul: Yeah, that was deeply disturbing, on so many levels.

Aral: [laughs]

Paul: But I think we’ll just leave it at that. We won’t tell people any more details on that. We’ll just leave them worrying about it. [laughs]

Aral: OK, let’s do that. [laughs]

Paul: So, as part of that day, you mentioned SWX, which is something that you’ve been involved in developing. And it sounded so cool and kind of dragged my attention back when there were points where I was thinking that this is beginning to get a bit out of depth to me.

Aral: [laughs]

Paul: There were techie people in the room that understood what was going on.

Aral: Yeah.

Paul: But then you started talking about SWX, and I started to think, “Ooh, that sounds cool” so I thought I’d get you on the show and ask you a little bit about it.

Aral: That’s great. That’s great, because SWX is what I’m most excited about these days.

Paul: Good stuff. So, do you want to kick us off by telling us a little bit about what SWX is?

Aral: Well, SWX is a couple of things. SWX itself is a new data format for Flash. It’s actually the native data format for Flash, which is kind of weird, because Flash has been around for a while, so why hasn’t it had a native data format until this point? I don’t know. Nobody else did it, so at the end; I was like, “OK. Well, I guess I have to bite the bullet here.”

And when I say native data format, if you’re not very fluent with Flash, think about JSON, or what JSON is for JavaScript. But it’s actually a step beyond that, because, with JSON, you still either have to parse it, or in JavaScript you have to evaluate it, before you can use it. So there’s another step before you can use it, after the data’s loaded.

In SWX, there isn’t. It uses SWF files, which are native Flash files, to store data, so it makes it very easy to work with.

Paul: What’s the kind of target audience for this? Who do you see as using it?

Aral: There are a couple. So, anyone right now who’s working with Flash basically can use this to build mash-ups, to build data-driven Flash applications. And also, mobile developers who are developing with Flash Lite can use SWX to develop mobile Flash applications.

And in fact, that’s where it’s currently, I think, most useful, because with SWX RPC–which is the remote procedure call, the gateway for it–you can make remote procedure calls, so call back-end services and methods, through SWX. And it’s the only RPC solution, really, because Flash Remoting doesn’t work on Flash mobile, on Flash Lite, so it’s the only RPC solution for mobile right now.

Paul: I think what kind of struck me about it was the fact that there are a lot of people out there that maybe have been doing some superficial stuff with Flash…

Aral: Yeah.

Paul: And have been doing some ActionScript and things like that.

Aral: Right.

Paul: But when it gets to things like making data calls, it all seems to get horribly complicated, all of a sudden.

Aral: It does. It gets very hairy, and I don’t know why. I think part of it is because the back-end, the server side, of applications has traditionally been the realm of traditional programmers: the brainiacs, the people who are very comfortable talking in code, thinking in code.

And they’re not always the best people, I find, to simplify concepts, because they’re so intelligent, they can understand all of this, or they have such a focus on this that they don’t mind spending hours trying to set something up. Sometimes, they’re not always the best people to create simpler systems for mere mortals like the rest of us.

Paul: [laughs]

Aral: So that was my main motivation behind it, because I think Flash is great for building mash-ups and data-driven applications. But we don’t get as much experimentation in Flash with that, and I think it’s because it’s too hard. The barrier of entry is too high. You have to jump through so many hoops to get even something basic working, whereas it should just be, off the bat, you should be able to get started with things. And that’s been my focus with SWX.

So, for example, on the Mac, there’s a bundle that you can download that gives you everything you need to start using SWX, with a one-click installer, a disk image.

Paul: Cool.

Aral: My focus, really, with SWX is on simplicity. And when I say simplicity, I mean for the whole process, from the moment you go on the website and download SWX, to the moment you can get up and running. I’m trying to make that whole process as easy as possible, basically.

Paul: From what you showed me when you came into Headscape…

Aral: Yeah.

Paul: Basically, within a few minutes, you can kind of download this bundle onto my Mac. I can run an install file, which sets everything up for me.

Aral: Yeah.

Paul: And you’ve even set up…

Aral: Well, you basically get a development server for free.

Paul: Yeah.

Aral: It uses the MAMP Bundle, which is a great bundle that has Apache, PHP, MySQL. So if you’ve ever been afraid to work with these things, that’s also a way to get started, because there they are on your machine, running, without any configuration or anything on your part.

Paul: And you have also included some kind of interfaces to common APIs, things like Flickr and Twitter and stuff.

Aral: Yes, and in fact, if you remember the installation process and everything that you were talking about, you don’t even have to download and install SWX to start working with the pre-existing APIs that come with it, because I host an instance of the SWX gateway on swxformat.org. It’s the public SWX gateway that you can just hit directly from your Flash applications.

Paul: Ah!

Aral: So if you don’t want to mess with the back-end, but say you want to build a mash-up that uses Flickr or Twitter, currently two of the main APIs that I have on there, you don’t even have to download SWX. You can just open up Flash, write four or five lines of code, and get, for example, the list of your latest photos from Flickr.

Paul: Cool.

Aral: Or your friends’ photos. With nothing else. So you don’t even have to download anything to start working with SWX, because it is native. What you’re getting from the back-end, from that SWX gateway, is a SWF, and Flash knows how to deal with that, and the data in there is a native Flash object and ready for you to use the moment it loads.

Paul: So, how does somebody get started on this? Where do they go? What do they have to do? Especially, you made it sound very simple for the Mac. Is it horribly complicated if you’re a Windows user?

Aral: Oh, not at all, not at all. Like I said, regardless or what platform you’re on, unless you want to build your own server-side services, if you want to use the APIs that it comes with, you don’t even have to download it, actually.

Paul: Oh, OK.

Aral: In fact, just last week, I got moo cards printed. And these little moo cards have all the code you need on the back of them, because there’s only about four lines of text you can put on the back.

Paul: [laughs]

Aral: But they have all the code you need to get the latest public timeline updates from Twitter. So it’s actually, seriously, four lines of code, and it fits on a moo card.

Paul: Wow!

Aral: So, to get started, you don’t have to do anything, really, apart from open up Flash, write four lines of code, and see it run and get the feeling that, “Wow, maybe I can build data-driven applications in Flash, too, because this is simple.”

The next step would be to download SWX onto your own machine. If you have a development server already, if you have a web server with PHP, then you just download the ZIP file, unzip it into your web root, and hit that location in the browser, and the start page comes up and guides you through the rest of it.

Paul: Cool.

Aral: If you’re on a Mac, get the MAMP Bundle, and that’ll get you started even faster. But, like I said, you don’t even need to download anything to start playing with it.

Paul: So these four lines of code to get you going…

Aral: Yeah.

Paul: If they don’t have one of your precious mood cards, where can they go to learn those kind of basics?

Aral: Well, on swxformat.org, there is a screencast right now. It runs you through the MAMP Bundle, but the concepts are exactly the same for all of the rest.

Paul: OK.

Aral: Although, I am going to record a few more screencasts. I’ve started putting them up on Viddler, which is actually really cool. I don’t know if you’re used it.

Paul: Yeah, I have.

Aral: But it’s really great for screencasts, because it keeps the original resolution of your movie. So I’m going to record quite a few more and put them up there, including one that will just get you started, like the moo card does.

Paul: Cool.

Aral: So, look on swxformat.org. And also, look on my blog, because I blog about SWX quite often there: it is aralbalkan.com.

Paul: So as I understand it, at the moment, this is all built on PHP and MySQL. Is that going to change? Are we going to see other platforms supporting this, too?

Aral: Well, basically, the SWX format itself is a data format, so it’s platform-agnostic, in terms of the back-end, etcetera. So if you have a SWX SWF, you’ll be able to load that. Even if it’s offline, if you have if on your hard drive, you’ll be able to load it into Flash and get the data off of it.

Paul: Excellent.

Aral: And then there’s SWX RPC, which is an implementation of a gateway, basically, or an endpoint, that serves SWX SWFs. And the current implementation of that is only in PHP.

Paul: Right.

Aral: So, it will be ported later on. It’s currently in beta. And once we get closer to the release date and certain things are standardized, I’m going to be concentrating on orchestrating the ports. There’s a lot of interest from quite a few people to port it to Ruby, to J2EE, to.NET.

Paul: Excellent.

Aral: And my focus right now is on getting SWX to a level where it’s somewhat of a standard–not like an Internet standard, but at least, within itself, we know what we’re talking about when we say a SWX SWF so that, if it’s being generated from Ruby, it’s the same thing…

Paul: Yeah.

Aral: So there’s no fragmentation. That’s my focus right now. In fact, I’m writing my first RFC…

Paul: [laughs]

Aral: For the SWX formats, just so things are a bit more standardized, before we go porting it to every possible technology.

Paul: Excellent! That just sounds really exciting…

Aral: I’m really excited about it!

Paul: Yeah, I bet you are.

Aral: This has gotten me excited and working with technology again, at a level that I hadn’t been in the past. It’s fun. Because this stuff, the data exchange between tiers, it’s really not rocket science, and it shouldn’t be rocket science. We’re just moving stuff from one place to another. And my philosophy is: make that as simple as possible for people so they can concentrate on the really fun bits…

Paul: Yeah.

Aral: Building the user interface, building a great user experience. Because those are the hardest bits, really, conceptually, and they’re also the most fun.

Paul: Yeah. That’s great stuff, and I wish you all the best with it in the future. And thanks for coming on the show and telling us a little bit about it.

Aral: Thanks so much, Paul, for having me. It was a lot of fun.

Paul: Yeah. OK. Good to talk to you, and we’ll speak to you again soon.

Aral: OK, take care of yourself.

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