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Archive for the ‘Web Development and Design’ Category

If You’re Not First, You’re Last – The Online Battle to be Number One

Posted on: April 18th, 2011 by Greg

In case you are unfamiliar with Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby, in the movie Talladega Nights, and his ever endearing catch phrase “If you’re not first, you’re last”, it is now quickly becoming the motto for our online marketplace. Where once the prime real estate on the high street resulted in the bulging bank balance, it is now the position on search engines results pages where the battle for dominance has continued.

Due to the massive explosion of the web and in particular online shopping, those top positions on Google can make the difference between a company posting massive profits or being lost in the digital abyss. The importance of search engine optimisation has never been more prevalent. For this we have a certain couple of Stanford graduates to thank. Mr Larry Page and Mr Sergey Brin wrote their college thesis on an idea wherein search engines would ultimately be a global popularity contest with the most relevant, well-connected sites ranked accordingly. This vision gave birth to arguably the most successful company in human history, and as most of you smarty pants out there already know, that company with the funny sounding name was Google.

Google changed how we find our way about the web. It changed our very behaviour because whether we consciously realize it or not, we trust Google to provide us with exactly what it is we are looking for. Between 80-85% of people will click on the top 3 results on Google (or any other search engine out there, just in case Mr Gates over at Bing has stumbled upon my blog), so those positions become goldmines for the companies that occupy them. But therein lies the beauty: these companies cannot stay there on merit alone; they have to work at being the most relevant in their particular field, to prove to Google that they deserve to be there, that Google can happily say they are providing their billions of customers with the right answer to their searching needs.

And that is why, my friends, it is more important than ever to have your website optimised to its full potential or else you run the risk that Google will cast you aside as an irrelevance; and believe me, unless you want your website to be found only by your silver surfer Granny, you should avoid this at all costs.

So, I hear you shouting at the back, “what is this search engine optimisation you speak of?” Basically, SEO is the process of making your website as attractive and relevant as possible to these Google crawlers (sounds very matrix I know) that search the web. This is achieved through a process of proper coding, relevant content and back-linking from other sites. Sounds simple enough right? Wrong! Not only are the man-hours needed to continually update this information unachievable for most business owners, those wily old dogs over at Google consistently change their algorithm (the rules by which the pages are ranked) that only those clever clogs at Google HQ know about. I bet you’re starting to wonder why I’m telling you all this if there is nothing you can do about it, well thankfully there is.

The birth of the Internet has produced a whole new industry of clever marketing types whose very purpose in life (yeah I know I’m a geek, no need to point it out) is to figure out how to grow your business online. If you want your website to capture the massive potential revenue stream available to you then it really is in your best interests to dedicate a part of your marketing budget to a reputable SEO company. The great thing is that even for you sceptics out there, a well-managed search engine optimisation campaign can provide you with tangible facts and figures for your return on investment. You are able to monitor and tweak it every step of the way to carve for your business a slice of the e-commerce fortune. I may be biased, but I don’t think I recall any advertising agencies ever providing that for a customer when charging an arm and a leg to get a billboard up beside your local B&Q.

So you see, it might just turn out to be the best investment you’ve made in the continuing success of your business.

Design is Not About Originality

Posted on: November 11th, 2010 by Alistair

I watched a nice interview on bigthink.com with veteran designer Massimo Vignelli, talking about good and bad design, typography, and his experiences in designing the New York Subway map and other historic designs of his. One thing struck me especially. In describing the explosion of the number of available fonts, he pointed out that designers have become vandals in our society, always seeking to be original instead of properly following the craft of design, which requires a respect for context and history. He is a massively successful designer, yet he retains the principle that use is primary, and unobtrusiveness is necessary for good usability.

These principles apply to web design as to the design of anything else. In fact, such principles are even more important for a young medium like the web, which even now has few rules and standards that are widely followed (though this is improving).

There is an ugly clamour for originality in web design, and it leads to confusion and vulgar style. I, with good old Massimo, would like to put a stop to this.

A Web Site is Designed to Work

Notice I didn’t say “A web site should be designed to work.” If it hasn’t been designed to work, then it hasn’t been designed at all. If it looks nice but nobody knows how to navigate around it or find the contact details, then what you have is a design only in name. Visual appeal is only a small aspect of design, and while it is an important one, it is not fundamental. It is an added bonus if your new corkscrew looks good, but looks were not the primary motivation behind its design. What is more important is the aesthetic appeal of a thing that feels good to use.

Speaking of corkscrews, here’s mine, a two-step “waiter’s friend”.

This is not only my favourite corkscrew design; it is the best corkscrew design. Although we each have our preferences, people have enough in common that universal principles can apply – that’s exactly where design comes in.

There are good sound reasons why you’ll never see a good barman or waiter use anything else (unless they have a barscrew-type cork-pulling machine):

  • Proper worm-type screw, rather than the horrible type that has a solid central core with a ridge around it.
  • 2-step action: the neck rest is articulated so that the cork can be pulled in two movements. Using a single-step waiter’s friend corkscrew risks shearing the cork laterally.
  • Efficiently connected elements: when closed, the tool takes up a very small space. It is not bulky or heavy.
  • Its utility makes it a pleasure to use.

Design is Not About Originality

The discipline of design is constrained by rules and principles that apply universally, and these must be observed and combined to make a design work for its target audience. You will certainly make an impression by doing something wacky, but is that really all you want to do? Don’t your customers or users deserve to be treated like adults? Respecting people’s natural inclinations, habits and expectations is a win-win approach. If a web site or software interface is more usable, your customers will hang around for longer and keep coming back.

Here is a small selection of these universal principles:

The golden ratio or the rule of thirds
The eye is naturally drawn to points about one third distance from the edge of a rectangular space (such as a web page).

Recognition over recall
The users of an interface, like a web site, should be able to choose from a selection, rather than having to recall what they have to do. This makes their experience effortless.

Complex information requires simple presentation
This seems obvious, but it’s a notorious weakness of designers to mirror the complexity of the content in a complex layout. It is vital for communication that designers strive to resist this temptation.

Proximity
Things that are close together are perceived as being related. Links on a web page should be grouped naturally as determined by their inter-relationships.

Propositional Density
Propositional density (PD) is the amount of information that is conveyed in an object or element (such as a logo). It is not simply about the amount of information contained, but the amount that is effectively communicated. In such an element, there are surface propositions (Ps), and deep propositions (Pd), the latter being the underlying meanings. How these are related is expressed by the equation:

PD = Pd/Ps

Consistency
A consistent, solid, stable design with no surprises has been shown to improve usability. This is a measurable result.

This is just a small sample, but they illustrate that design is not primarily about “getting creative” or doing things nobody else has done just to catch attention. Originality, if it is to be effective, should be subtle, and creativity simply backfires if all constraints have been cast aside. As my father always says, you have to “work within the confines”.

Then, Make Your Web Site Beautiful

In fact, if you’ve followed good design principles you may already have a beautiful finished product. Look at that corkscrew. It is purely functional, but this in itself makes it a beautiful object. Now, this doesn’t always work: we’re all aware of functional yet hideous buildings. In web design, too, the extent to which a web site requires extra work to improve the visual appeal depends on the kind of site it is, and what its function is.

But on the whole, following the principles of good layout and typography will immediately reveal your professionalism. Some of the best designs do not call attention to themselves.

Design is a Profession

Even the most artistically talented people can make terrible designers, because they don’t know how to apply the universal principles. And crucially, they want their work to stand out; this is the right and proper thing for an artist. But a designer, on the other hand, should never aim for his or her work to draw attention only to itself.

Design is a profession that thrives and is useful only insofar as it follows established standards or combines them in intelligent careful ways so as to develop the body of standards.

But here’s a parting thought. Even though originality should not be the aim of design, neither should un-originality.

References: Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler.

E-commerce for Small Business in The UK: A Starting Point For Web Developers & Site Managers

Posted on: May 22nd, 2010 by Alistair

This post, from my own site, seemed suitable for this site as well, so here’s an excerpt and link.

“I think I’ve unearthed a conspiracy. In the wonderful world of the world-wide web (that’s WWWWW for short), with so much information available, and so many companies selling online, surely there must be a collection of standard procedures for implementing an online shop, and reliable sources of information covering them? Apparently not. How else to explain this except an evil conspiracy? In particular, an evil conspiracy against web designers and developers.

This post is drawn from an e-mail that I sent to a tech savvy client, a small business owner. The email summarized their options for e-commerce, in the specific context of the UK, and it was the result of some hours of research. Reading it over later I realized it could be useful to web developers, given the aforementioned global conspiracy. It is therefore my duty as a good web citizen to reveal this sacred, jealously guarded information – despite the dangers.”

Read the rest of it on my site »

Getting Real & Reworking it – Every Time! Has Your Business Been 37 Signalled?

Posted on: April 30th, 2010 by Laura

Reading “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson was a revelation I can only compare with my first experience of living away from home. More recently, when I finally fled the nest of the corporate world and joined the ranks of full-time entrepreneurs, I read this book and experienced that same feeling: freedom! Although I had long dreamt of working for myself, I approached the idea of changing careers with a corporate soldier’s mentality. I was obsessed with planning, diagrams, meetings, action logs and SWOT analysis.

Lessons from a Web Developer

I have read many books over the years about running your own business, and it seemed as if each new book contradicted the last. I was mystified at how complicated it seemed to be. Then in 2008, Alistair, (Inventive Management’s Web Developer & Design guru), left the corporate world after 10 years of contracting and started his own freelance business. He wanted to build applications and web sites for small businesses; he was tired of not being able to implement his ideas, having every suggestion sent to committee.

Being his partner in life and love, I was really excited for him. I was also eager to see how he would go about building his enterprise, and I waited to see his business plan – but nothing surfaced. I waited to see his financial projections – again nothing.  Right, I thought, surely he needs at least a logo, stationery, and marketing documents? He didn’t care about all that, yet every month new clients were calling and every month money was coming in.  He would laugh and say to me “go and Google 37 Signals. You have to read their book.”

Wise Words

We have all experienced times in our lives when the right book comes to us at the right time. After a year of listening to Alistair and watching him run his business this way I decided to finally pick up a copy of Rework when we decided to launch Inventive Management together.

Rework is written by CEO Jason Fried and programmer David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 Signals, a web applications company with a self-described focus on usability, simplicity and clarity.  With chapter titles such as “Planning is guessing”, “Meetings are Toxic”, “Why grow?” and “Ignore the details early on” – this corporate girl was a little scared.

True to their philosophy, the book is written in a very simple, direct style, with short chapters, each one focusing on a single idea. I flew through the book in a few hours. The verdict: true wisdom lies in these pages. Everything that had subconsciously made me want to leave the corporate world was pin-pointed for me, and I began to feel more and more justified in my decision (which had not been an easy one.)

In business, we have got into the habit of over-complicating everything: we waste time on all the paraphernalia that surrounds a project, instead of just doing the work. We set up processes, we have endless meetings that serve little purpose except to satisfy the requirements of those processes, and we over-analyse everything. This book takes us back to the basics: it really is a recipe for success, though one that some may find unpalatable.

It’s so refreshing that it’s almost shocking, but the authors are not just being provocative: they believe in working as efficiently as possible and delivering the best services possible. They point out that the paperwork and planning that is so common in business only helps you concentrate on your own abstract ideas about a project, when what you should be doing is concentrating only on what you need to do.

Reworked

I’d been struggling to decide on exactly what to do with with Inventive Management. My instinct was to offer all of my marketing expertise and see what people wanted most, but I was getting bogged down. At the end of this book, I was inspired.

It’s not just their books we love – we’re using their software too. We use the web-based apps Basecamp and Highrise to manage our projects and contacts and communicate with our clients. Never mind Microsoft Project: this is how it should be done.

(Alistair being the geek he is insists that I mention that the software also has web APIs that can be used to enhance the functionality of your applications. We use these for our clients to connect up the Inventive Mail email marketing system with their e-commerce and CRM systems.)

In conclusion: I got Reworked!