On this week’s show: Marcus abandons Paul to go on holiday. Paul talks about competitive analysis and does an in-depth interview with Daniel Burka, the creative director at digg.com.
Hello? Is anybody there? I am so lonely, nobody to talk to, nobody to rant at, nobody to take the piss of! Your listening to boagworld.com, the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul Boag and this week, I am sad and alone as Marcus is away on Holiday (or should I say vacation?).
I have to say it is not the same without him. Of course on the upside in many ways its a lot better. Less waffle, no interruptions, no skype problems and you get to hear my undiluted genius. So thats okay then :)
Because we don’t have Marcus around this week, todays show will be a little different. For a start Marcus wont be saying much, which should make the show shorter. However, in his place we have an extended interview with Daniel Burka the creative director at the social news website Digg. We cover loads of stuff from the difference in designing for social networking sites to working with AJAX and designing for the iPhone.
I will also be doing my segment as normal. This week I will be providing a quick and dirty introduction to competitive analysis. We will be looking at what you can learn from your competitions websites and how you go about extracting the maximum amount of information.
But before we can get into all that good stuff we first need to look at what has been happening in the world of web design over the last week.
News and events
Eric Meyer tries to prevent history repeating itself
First up in the news segment of the show today is a passionate call to action by Eric Meyer. Like myself, Eric has been working in the web for a very long time and is all too familiar with the problems of the past. He is a veteran of the browser wars (how dramatic does that sound!) and remembers the many problems that period caused.
During that time many web designers simply gave up trying to support multiple browsers and instead displayed the now famous message…
“Your browser is not compatible and must be upgraded”
It is therefore particularly disturbing when we thought those days are over to see the return of a similar message. As Eric points out in his post, those types of messages are returning in the form of…
“This site is for iPhone users only.”
As Eric says:
Stop it! Stop it right now. He is absolutely right. There is no reason whatsoever for shutting out users from viewing iPhone optimized pages. Sure they might not look as good on a non iphone browser but other than that they should work fine on a compliant browser. To be honest, even if they don’t, that is still no reason to block non iphone users. If I choose to look at an iphone site on my Windows mobile device or even on my desktop browser, I am not going to expect it to look perfect. However, I could have all kinds of reasons for wanting to do it from wanting to check out the functionality to using an alternative mobile browser that is just as capable of displaying the content.
In Short, Eric argues (and I whole heartedly agree) that the “best viewed in…” approach to web design is a fools errand. Whether it is the iphone or something else, make sure you avoid that road at all costs.
6 Keys to Understanding Modern CSS-based Layouts
Talking about best practice, Jonathan Snook has posted a helpful article for those of you still struggling to move across to modern CSS-based layout.
As Jonathan says in his post…
Much of CSS is pretty straightforward and, I suspect, quite easy for most people to grasp. There’s font styles, margin, padding, color and what not. But there’s a wall that people will run into… that point where a number of key elements need to come together to create a solid CSS-based layout that is consistent cross-browser.
Jonathan addresses this challenge by talking about 6 key principles that will help you get over this hump. He talks about; the box model, floating columns, sizing with ems, image replacement, floated navigation and sprites.
Its an interesting list although I am not entirely sure I would include the same items. For example there is no mention of HasLayout or IE conditional comments. However, Jonathan does say it is just his take on things and encourages people to add suggestions in the comments so they are definitely worth reading too.
How to mix fonts
So you might be listening to this feeling smug about your CSS skills but how are you with typography? Working with type is a challenging area and one that is very easy to get wrong. That is especially true when trying to combine multiple fonts together in an effective way.
Fortunately, David who listens to the show, has sent me a link to a cheat sheet on mixing typefaces. Not only does it provide specific examples of typefaces that work well together, it also gives you some basic information on typography.
I am a great fan of cheat sheets and have a number pinned to my wall including my much loved microformats cheat sheet. So, if you are looking for some advice on typography add this to your collection.
Making money through forums
My final news story for this week’s show comes off of the back of a story knocking around here in the UK. A number of large companies have pulled their advertising off of Facebook following the discovery that those ads were appearing on the profile of the BNP (a pseudo- fascist political party in the UK). These companies were unhappy that their brands being associated with the organisation.
This Facebook story is indicative of a wider problem that advertisers seem to be having with social networking sites and forums in particular. So the question then arises, can you make money from a social networking site?
For most of us this is not a question we have to deal with. Most of us don’t run social networking websites. However, many of us do run forums and we are looking to make a bit of extra cash from them.
If that is you then you might want to check out “Can forums still make money?” on sitepoint. This post suggests a load of ways you can improve your return on your forum and make some cash to cover hosting costs. The post is very realistic suggesting that the vast majority of us are not going to get rich from our forums. However, it might help pay for your cleaner (which is what I spend my Adsense revenue on!) and so it is worthy of your attention.
As a slight aside before I wrap up the news segment of today’s show, the article also links to some useful tips from Google about maximizing your return from Google Adsense, so you might want to check that out too.
Talking of social networking websites, that brings me on nicely to my interview with Daniel Burka from Digg…
Daniel Burka talks about Digg
Paul: Okay. So joining me today is Daniel Burka the lead designer/creative director/God of all things user interface at Digg.com. Is that a fair way to describe you Daniel?
Daniel: That was a very polite introduction. Thank you very much.
Paul: Well, it is always good to butter up the guests at the beginning…
Paul: I find it goes down better that way. [laughs] So Daniel, I thought that it would be great to get you on the show, simply because you seemed to have worked so extensively with web projects centered very much on social participation and web applications, you know, and various other Web 2.0 buzzwords. Obviously Digg.com is a good example of that. And a lot of listeners of this show are still working on content heavy brochure-ware type sites. But, they seem to be really interested in more interactive elements to their site. And so we thought, let’s get an expert on the show that seems to specialize in this area. So, here is my first question Daniel. What do you see as being the main differences between designing and social networking sites, compared to more traditional content heavy sites that I am sure you have worked on in previous lives, so to speak?
Daniel: Oh yeah, I mean absolutely. I worked on those kinds of sites in the past. The big difference with something like Digg is that all of the content on the site, pretty much, is provided by users and so we're building conduits as frequently as we can where people can provide their input, provide content you know foster discussion, these kinds of things so I guess wherever possible we're not only designing the technically areas that they can do it but focusing the design on encouraging them to participate.
Paul: So how to you do that? How do you encourage someone to participate in using kind of design tools and design approaches?
Daniel: Right. I guess the big thing is to make it obvious that other users have provided content to the site. So, making it clear that the Digg count went up because other people you know dug the story. You know, showing which users submitted certain things or which user made a comment. You know that indicates, Oh okay. Other people, like me, have participated and that might be something I might be able to do too.
Paul: So how did you deal with the kind of early days before Digg had really taken off? Where perhaps you had less content than you do now and you kind of want to give the impression that there is loads going on, when perhaps here isn't?
Daniel: Right. I guess by the time I got involved in Digg which is about 4-5 months after it had started. So Kevin and Owen originally developed the site.
Paul: Oh okay
Daniel: And then they hired the company that I work with in Canada. They hired us to come in and basically do a design review and redesign of the site and that was the primary focus of the redesign was to look and say, Okay, what is this site about? And what the site is about providing input and so the original design which was more definitely designed from an engineer's perspective. It had all of that content, it had all of the facts and the bits and the place to Digg something, but it wasn't very clear at all what you should do or why you should do it.
Daniel: And so, you-know probably the most interesting thing I have ever done on Digg was to take the Digg count, to make it really big and stick it on the left and stick a really explicit Digg It button under it. So, I mean that's clearing indicating X number of people already participated.
Daniel: And if you want to participate hit the big button.
Paul: Yeah. The kind of putting right in front of peoples face where they can't possibly miss it, so to speak.
Daniel: Right. I mean that is the entire purpose of the website is to, you know, say you like something.
Paul: So what other kind of things did you implement in those early days when you came in and started redesigning the site?
Daniel: The original focus, I actually thought this was a kind of interesting approach to take. Steven and I were looking at the site and trying to determine that. It already, in some ways, had a fairly large scope to the website. So we were trying to determine where do we get started. Often that is redesign the look of the site or redesign the home page. We looked at it and what is the most important thing here and the story format, I think, was probably the most important thing about Digg. And so we looked at each individual story in the list. There is a whole row of them on the homepage. We got about 15 on there now. And kind of a singled one of those and dissected it and said, What is important about a story? Why did the user submit it? Why is another person going to be interested in it? How do I encourage them to participate into that story? And so, that story format counts for a few different iterations since we started.
Daniel: I think that being the primary focus of ours.
Paul: I mean what about the kind of more rich elements that you started to introduce? Where there is a lot less page refreshes that perhaps there once was and you kind of changed the way the people interacted with the site by introducing AJAX and things like that. I mean was that a big shift? What kind of thinking went into that process?
Daniel: So we are using that all over the place. The Digg It button is the one real obvious place. And then you know especially in the comment system. There are various other areas where we're basically allowing you to have a really low-threshold of participation. No long page loads. Immediate reaction that what I did I got a reaction back from that, so I get that positive feeling.
Paul: So how does that kind of process work within Digg? I mean are you actually involved in coding the AJAX elements or do you just do the user interface? How do those kinds of accountabilities split up?
Paul: I think a lot of the impression I get is a lot of organizations is still struggling to work out whose responsibility is the AJAX elements. It's kind of client side stuff that is very user-interface oriented. So should it be a designer job or is it kind of so intrinsic in the kind of connecting to the database and pulling out the content and that kind of thing which is actually a developer's job? It's quite interesting to hear how different people do it.
Daniel: Right. We probably fall into the developer's side of things. You know, it is submitting content to the database which is not horribly different than a normal form submitting to the database.
Daniel: So that is probably how we line it up.
Paul: Yeah. You guys seem to be doing some interesting things at the moment. One of the things that I imagine is particularly challenging is that you got a tech-savvy audience which is where Digg started. But you're constantly at the moment in this process of broadening that audience out to be more of a mainstream audience. And I'm just interested from a kind of design point of view, and user-interface point of view, what challenges that has presented you as far as shifting that audience. You know kind of in-mid process if you want. Most websites have a fairly good idea of who their target audience is upfront. But you are having to adapt that as the site evolves and I imagine that must be tricky at times.
Daniel: Oh, absolutely. I mean we started off as you said as very a tech-heavy site at about this time last year. I guess just over a year ago we broadened out very explicitly by introducing other content areas to the website. As we grow, and as a less tech-savvy audience comes in, there definitely is a real dichotomy between the perceived power-user who understands the very complex form type systems versus people who barely used a comment system on a weblog. On different areas of the site that level of experience I guess really comes to the fore. Although, I think I really take inspiration from the FireFox Project in that regard – particularly in Van Gudgers response. He is one of lead engineers on the FireFox Project. One of his best qualities being saying No! during the FireFox development and a lot of power-users perceive that they want all of these options at their finger tips. They want a hundred different options, if there are a hundred possibilities. Where as, in reality, having a simple system actually works better for both the power-user and the relative novice. I think the correlation between what happened with the Mozilla Suite, which was the previous iteration before FireFox which had a lot of different features and a lot of different buttons and customizability, versus FireFox which is really the torn-down simple browser. Which really ended up serving both audiences better.
Paul: So have you had the kind of guts to take functionality away or are you more kind of hiding it away so that it is still accessible to the power-user wants to go and get it?
Daniel: Well that is definitely the balance that we try and make. I think hiding the functionality is actually I was just reading a book a friend lent me. John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity and he covers this subject. I think that it is really interesting that you can hide functionality as long as it doesn't feel intimidating and as long as you are not obscuring the functionality. I think you can actually, quite successfully, create a simple site by tucking functionally under the right areas, I guess.
Paul: That struck me. This whole idea of dealing with different types of audiences is a very challenging area. You have been at Digg for a while now, what has been the most challenging aspect from your point of view?
Daniel: Well, I think managing user feedback is definitely one of the big points of working at Digg. It is very intimidating working on a site where, every time you want something new, you have about 2 million people seeing it the next day and giving you their feedback on it. It is fantastic! It is really inspiring and exciting – and at the same time horribly intimidating. It is hard not to get frozen-up when you are about to launch something in two days and you kind of have to brace for the criticism because you know that people are going to be critical. And I mean that in the positive sense. They are going to critique what you have done. And so, being able to basically listen to a wide range of opinions and make sure that you are listening to everyone. But, you don't necessarily do what everyone says because there are obviously people with conflicting opinions and there are people who have very specific interests that may or may not be reflected by other people. I think managing those expectations that people want to know that you are listening to them and they want to see their suggestions reflected in what you are doing. Balancing those types of expectations is a really challenging part of the job.
Paul: So how do you go about that? How do go about deciding which suggestions you are going to implement and which you are not? Do you have some kind of process for that?
Daniel: I'm not sure if it is horribly formalized. I think the first and really important thing that we've learned at Digg, and I have learned on other projects being worked on, is taking a really deep breath. People will immediately ask for feedback on something, the minute you launch it
Daniel: They will ask for change. So don't make a change for the first week, unless they point out obviously drastic problems that you didn't anticipate. Take a deep breath. Let people give their feedback. Let them get some experience with the change because people are adverse to change generally. Their first reaction is going to be, Well I was familiar with it the other way, now it is different and I don't feel comfortable with that. And so, you will get a lot of feedback in that regard. And then carefully go through and filter and look for themes of feedback from different people. Try to determine why they were giving that feedback. And then iterate from there. I think that iterative process is so important.
Paul: One of the things that I think everyone has noticed recently about Digg, is that you released this iPhone interface. Everybody is going on about the iPhone endlessly and I am hugely jealous that we don't have it over here in the UK. And so, I am obviously bitter and twisted about it.
Paul: But, putting that aside there is this plethora of iPhone applications coming out and Digg is one of the people who have done it. Were you involved in that putting it together?
Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. Joe, who is one of our developers, kind of came over and he was talking about it and was thinking it would be a great idea. And we both kind of got excited and pumped the whole thing out over our weekends.
Daniel: Big props to Joe Hewett, who is not the Joe who works here, but Joe Hewett has made this great framework basically to start developing for iPhone applications in Safari.
Daniel: He actually released a prototype of it on Friday afternoon. I think? And we started off from there and started developing. That is what does the sliding effects in our interface.
Daniel: And we kind of took what he had done and I think we launched on a Tuesday the next week and on Wednesday Joe had already refined it and made into a kind of framework more people could use. So it was very useful to us.
Paul: So how do you feel about that, because that is a very different interface to be developing? It is much more controlled. You know the browser you are aimed at. You know the screen size. Was it a pleasant experience?
Daniel: Oh, absolutely. It was really really fun. I mean, there were a few things that were really fun about it. One, you are absolutely in that controlled environment. I mean people aren't resizing there fonts. You have a controlled number of fonts. You know the resolution. You can accommodate for when you flip the screen and it goes to wide-mode. And plus you are working with a rendering engine that doesn't suck.
Daniel: So it is really fun. [laughs] I mean you can even use advanced Webkit only type rounded corners and all kinds of fun stuff like that so, that part of it is really liberating. I can just imagine if all web design was like that. You know if all browsers were actually as standards compliant as they think they are. So that was fun. But, I think the most interesting thing is that you're working with an input device that is this big-fat-honking finger. And so, everything you do you have to be thinking about that. I think it will be interesting to see who succeeds at developing applications like that. But, you really have to think about pairing things down.
Daniel: When you are clicking with a finger there is no way you can have four or five buttons in a row and expect the person to be able to pick one out when they are sitting on a bouncing bus, with this phone in their hand. And so, buttons have to be really big. The Digg button on the source pages for instance is about two and a half times bigger than one on the normal site. And the links, we considered two different links. One to go to the source and one to go to what we call the Permalink page, the story page, of that particular item. But you know, even having just two buttons per story was much too difficult on the iPhone so we just have one you just can't miss which is a big finger button and it slides over and you get the story.
Paul: Yeah. Do you think you will be doing kind of more with Digg where you are kind of delivering the content, through other various mechanisms; such as the iPhone? I mean, could you imagine doing stuff with desktop applications like using AIR or anything else? Is that an area that you think you would get into?
Daniel: I think the really exciting thing is that we are finally getting a proper API out there. And so, I guess we launched the API maybe two or three months ago. Maybe longer than that, I forget, but I think it will be really interesting to see you know if a desktop experience of dig is really valuable somebody is going to pick up that project and go with it.
Daniel: And they'll develop it on the API. So, I'm not sure if explicitly if a desktop application will be great, but I could see it having certain benefits and maybe toying around with the idea ñ for sure.
Paul: Is there something personally you are interested in as a web designer doing, you know, it's a different medium again isn't it? You're going from a browser based environment to a desktop environment. Is that something that interests you personally?
Daniel: Oh, absolutely. I think it is interesting that those lines are really blurring. I mean, AIRs is that first salvo, in that regard, you really are to a large degree developing a web application. You can develop it in HTML and CSS with basically the same skills it takes to make an iPhone application, or a basic website, you can build an AIR app. That is pretty exciting. I think that once that platform matures, it could open up a whole range of things.
Paul: From a personal perspective, what is the area of your job that you most enjoy?
Daniel: I really enjoy trying to make things easy for people. Sometimes is really irks me if Kevin describes my job as making things pretty.
Daniel: I think it is such a minor part of design. You know it is an interesting one. But I think sitting down trying to determine, when you are looking at a fairly complex system you are trying to build, and trying to figure out how to not be complex. What to takeaway, how to design something so that it feels simple by putting the really important things upfront. And throwing it by some users and watching them how they do it. I think it is really exciting to see somebody participate in something that is under the hood really complex, but which they have fun and they feel that they are participating. And they do not put a lot of thought into what they are doing, they are trying to achieve what they came to do.
Paul: What about the fact that you kind of have been working on Digg for a prolonged period of time and it is that one site you have been working on continually? I guess because I work for a web design agency where I have a series of clients back-to-back and I am doing different things the whole time. Sometimes it strikes me that we're working on a project for a prolonged time is both a blessing and a curse. I just kind of wondered, what you think? Do you really enjoy being able to spend time digging into that one area?
Daniel: That is a very interesting point, because I also come from the web design company background where I basically would do a different project every month. And until December I was still fairly heavily involved in the day-to-day affairs of my previous company, so it has been a reasonably new experience for me
Paul: Oh I didn't know that.
Daniel: To be working solely on one site, with Pounce on the side. [laughs]
Paul: Yeah. [laughs]
Daniel: Another site I have been working on. So this is really very interesting. Absolutely, there are so many things fantastic about it. It is really fun to be able to go into great detail and have the time to go back into something you designed previously, and to alter it. It is not necessarily that you made a mistake, but a month later you suddenly realize that a big improvement to that would be if I did X. And so you actually have the opportunity to go back and do those kinds of things. Where as I am sure, if you were working with a client, it has happened before that you know six months later you see something you say it is obvious to me now but it is kind of out of your control. The contract is over. You know
Daniel: They're working with a different firm. There are all kinds of things like that. And so, working on something as big as Digg it is really fun too. Within Digg there are lots of different projects. There are different pages. There are new things we are working on. And so you kind of I guess segment them into kind of different projects you can go around in a circle and come back to later on.
Paul: Do you ever envision a day where you throw out the existing user interface and apply a new one? Or do you think it will always be a kind of evolving iterative process?
Daniel: Oh, I think an iterative process for sure.
Daniel: I don't want to second guess what is possible in the future. We may have some brilliant idea or new technology that blows our minds. But, I think there is no reason to throw out something that is working pretty well. I think there is a kind a rush sometimes to you know, to start from scratch that real desire to start from scratch sometimes. But something like Digg, I mean it has changed fairly significantly over the last two years, but I don't know if too many people notice
Daniel: Other than a few big pushes we made, that things had changed much. I think that is really healthy that people become familiar with systems. They learn how to interact with them. And to really shake them up, you really better have a damn good reason to do it.
Paul: Yeah. Okay so last question then before we finish up. Is there any stuff that you are working on with Digg that you are allowed to talk about [laughs] because obviously there are things you are not allowed to talk about.
Paul: But the stuff that you are allowed to talk about, what is really exciting you and what are you really enjoying getting into at the moment?
Daniel: Oh, there is a bunch of things. I think I am allowed to talk about that Kevin mentioned the other day that we are working on the images section.
Daniel: So we are going to do right now you can do news and videos. And we are pretty confident we are going to get into images as well. And so we are working on a couple of projects to kind of lay the framework for doing that. So, some people think it is as easy as adding a section
Daniel: And putting a title on it. But if we want to do that, we want to do it the right way. And lay the ground work first. I am working a couple of things I cannot go into great detail unfortunately there so much secrecy here that we can't
Daniel: Layout too much of what we are up to. But, I am really excited that we are headed in this direction.
Paul: Yeah. The trouble is that you guys get ripped off so quickly, don't you, that you need to keep things quite.
Daniel: Well. I think it is a combination of problems. One is that we are obviously concerned with people duplicating our features and the other one is that we want to be careful setting expectations. Because if we say we are going to do something, we really want to do it.
Daniel: And I think people will get disappointed if we say, In two months we are going to launch such-and-such. and you know lot's of stuff happens in two months. And unfortunately if that had to get pushed back, and that two months was a totally random date that I pulled out of my head
Paul: See know, we all believe that it is all going to happen in two months.
Daniel: Shoot! [laughs]
Daniel: [laughs] People will be disappointed or they will feel like we haven't lived up to their expectations I suppose.
Paul: Yeah. Okay. Well that was really great. Thank you very much for coming on the show Daniel. No doubt we will try and crowbar you again in the future to come and talk to us about Pounce as well. Because that is an exciting project.
Daniel: That would be fun.
Paul: Okay thank you very much for your time and talk to you again soon.
Daniel: Thanks so much for having me.
Paul’s corner: Quick and dirty competitive analysis
Great stuff from Daniel! It was really fun to speak to him even though I managed to offend him after we stopped recording by calling him an American (he is Canadian). Hopefully he will forgive me for the ultimate crime!
Okay, so before I wrap up today’s show lets take a quick look at the subject of competitive analysis. Its actually a segment I have just written for the book I am working on and so I thought I would share what I have covered. The idea is not to make you an expert in the field but simply to allow you to extract as much information as possible from your competitions websites in a quick and easy manner.
As always I have written this up as a blog post entitled “Quick and dirty competitive analysis” so check that out in the show notes if you want to see exactly what I covered.
No show next week
So that is about it for this week’s show. Remember that there will be no show next week as I am going away on holiday too! Yippee! However, if you need your boagworld fix don’t forget you can check out the forum and chat with other people about the poor quality of Marcus’ jokes.