An open letter to Middlesbrough Football Club Official Direct Store

After visiting the Middlesbrough Football Club site and MFC Official Direct shop (http://www.mfcofficialdirect.co.uk) today, I was left embarrassed as a Boro fan at the state of both web sites. Below are open letters which I hope representatives of both will see and respond to.

Dear MFC Official Direct

When seeing an advert for the 30% off sale and Boro replica kits for only £15 I was very happy and ran straight over to the store to get myself a replica home kit.

However the experience I had left me shocked, disappointed and embarrassed. Now let me say that I am a Boro fan and a front end developer (so I can understand when things aren’t perfect), but still feel the need to expose the pitfalls of this site in public.

My first issue was when I tried to update my delivery address, having moved jobs and so I couldn’t have the parcel delivered to my old place of work. However it appears I am not allowed to move companies, the company name could not be edited. ANYWHERE. Not on that form, not on my account page, not on mange addresses through my account page, nowhere. The company isn’t even called Gyro International anymore!

Following that annoyance, I thought “Fine, I’ll just add a new address. But then I couldn’t add a company name to go with that, and being in a shared building with many other companies and nowhere to add a company name and few form fields for address I thought I would have it delivered home.

Delivery details on MFC Official Direct Store

I thought that would be fine, but alas no. Following selection of delivery type in step 2 I was thrown to the confirm order page. Step 4. Hold on. That’s missed step 3, and I haven’t entered my payment details yet? But I’m on the last step? Oh well. I guess this really is a good shop! That was confirmed by a nice page telling my my order has been successfully placed! Excellent, I don’t have to pay it seems. Maybe now Mido is back he is funding a shirt giveaway to try and make someone love him!

Alas no, after a second or two I was delivered and Sage Pay (formerly Protx) payment page. Now this possibly isn’t MFC Official Direct’s fault, however it is still part of a flawed process. And anyone that spends £12.7m on Alfonso Alves must have some cash somewhere to invest in a seamless checkout process. Or at least one that allows the checkout page to be on brand, not hideous and at least not be included as step 5 of 4.

The hideous Sage Pay checkout screen.

So after all that and finally getting my payment details in, I notice that Sage Pay have thankfully printed my delivery address so I know its right:

Flat E
London

(They printed my postcode too, but that’s private!)

Now I know the postcode will probably mean that as a delivery address might just make it, and maybe the full address has been stored, but why print only part of the address. Thinking about it, there are quite a few flats in my area so Flat E, Putney might not make it. My address is a required 2 lines before the town and postcode so why not just show me the details so I don’t think you’ve lost half my address along the way. Same goes for invoice address. Just show it all or people (including myself) might not be confident you have managed to pass the correct delivery information and that we may never see our goods, many of which are quite expensive on the MFC Official Direct store.

Anyway, after this traumatic experience it’ll be a while before I use the MFC Official Direct store again, however I also have some gripes with the Middlesbrough Football Club website itself, so this probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me. Thankfully however, at least the agency that built the site are linked to in the footer, so it can act as a reminder to never, ever recommend Black Magic Digital of Glasgow as a digital agency. They apparently missed out on the user experience chapter of every book they ever picked up.

Yours,

Matt Bee

Boro Fan and Front End Developer

Should designers be able code

This has cropped up lately following Elliot Jay Stocks post (and tweet). So here’s my tuppence.

Should designers be able to code their designs?

No.

But then again it isn’t that cut and dry. I think that there are a very small number of designers that might just be able to get away with it, but they are a minority in the geek world. There’s a reason people like Andy Clarke and Elliot himself are respected so well, because they are skilled and motivated enough to keep on top of design and code. For the majority of us we should specialise in design, front end development (HTML and CSS) or back end development. I also still think there’s a place for pure JavaScript developers (reducing the reliance on jQuery and other frameworks to optimise code).

So should designers know how to code?

Yes.

Learn how designs are laid out, learn how positioning works, learn about floats, browser bugs and the deficiencies of Internet Explorer (and Safari, Chrome, Opera and Firefox for that matter). There should be no excuse for providing designs that are an absolute nightmare to build, but it doesn’t mean you have to be able to build them yourself. If you know the limitations of the technology you can both design to their limitations and think about ways to get round that and make your awesome designs work.

Which brings about an interesting point, the best way to learn HTML and CSS is just to do it, so if you ask the question again, the answer might be different.

Should designers be able to code their designs?

Yes. But don’t let them build the production site.

Why not then, if they can? The intricacies and time spent on testing and debugging is a start, but I also spend a lot of time keeping up to speed on how Google looks at my code, mobile development, I’m still getting to grips with HTML5 and CSS3, I’m work hard on optimising code, and if I had to do all of that and design sites I build I would let myself down in one area. Not to mention I am not a designer, I do code, that is my passion and so I’m sticking to it and not learning design or keeping on top of design to be able to do both.

You could well apply the same principle to the difference between a front end developer and a back end developer, but I’ve got work to do!

Wireframes

Here at GyroHSR (I had nothing to do with that site, thankfully) we are all a little bit confused over wireframes. Essentially, I think that the main issue lies in what exactly is a wireframe supposed to deliver.

In my opinion I believe a wireframe should simple layout exactly what information should be displayed on a page and define the importance of that information, in relation to the rest of the content.

With this idea in mind, a wireframe does not necessarily have to provide any sort of guide to the actual layout of a page. There isn’t really anything wrong with this for a simple contact page wireframe:

Header elements

Logo – prominent positioning.
Search box – enable users to search whole site.
Navigation – full site navigation.

Main content

Contact form – main content on page, encourage users to use this method of contact.

Secondary content

Postal address – specify preferred correspondence address.
Email address – link to create email for users that prefer this method of contact.
vCard – Download contact details to an address book for future use.

Other content

Company details – registerd company address and registration number.

That will provide the main information required by a wireframe, and producing this format for every page to be developed should meet the designers needs.

However one point above is always missed, producing a wireframe for every page. Without doing this you are not creating an information architecture for a designer to follow, resulting in questioning why wirframes for any pages were created at all.

The same problem applies to wireframes that incorporate some form of layout:

Example wireframe - courtesy of http://totheweb.com
Example wireframe - courtesy of http://totheweb.com

Creating a wireframe for every page becomes even more important with this wireframe style, in my opinion. Creating this type of wireframe for only a small number of pages during the information architecture stage of a web site process results in designers feeling restricted to make all pages following the same layout. Often the content will lend itself to a completely different layout, which means it needs its own wireframe and if not it should be easy to create another wireframe based on what has already been created.

One other thing I often find missing from wireframes are annotations. Visual representation is fine, but if you really want to let a client or designer know what you plan for the page, it needs to be annotated well. The annotations let the wireframe make sense and are vital to communicating the user experience. A poorly annoted wireframe wil result in poorly communicated ideas and will very probably hinder the final user experience.

So that’s what I think about wireframes, feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong, or to add to this because wireframes are such an important part of the web development process that I think anyone involved in the industry should input into how wireframes can help ease the pressure on project management, information architecture, design and development.

Email marketing – a bit of a rant

As developers we hate it. But I have to admit it is an unnecessary evil in my (current) world as an agency web developer. Lets face it – it works.

So here it is, the blog on the dreaded subject of email marketing from a my point of view, why we hate it, how we can make it work, what people can do to make our lives easier and campaigns more efficient and effective.

Why don’t I like building emails?

This is simple. We love accessible, semantic, standards based code. We do not like going back to techniques used over 10 years ago. We have to use out of date layout techniques and the code is long winded, complicated and boring to produce. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could use the same HTML and CSS standards we use for web sites, but unfortunately it isn’t an option. Not if you want your campaigns to include the creative idea that you are so sure will work, at least. And this doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.

If you haven’t seen the problems with Microsoft Outlook 2007 using Microsft Word to render emails, then the internet is full of disgruntled people. Actually, I’ll help you with that. Don’t get me started on Lotus Notes.

It isn’t our fault animated gifs don’t always work. Flash can’t be used. Hell, even background images don’t work. These points ARE NOT OUR FAULT. But it still provides a hot topic of discussion between designers/concept teams and us developers. Trust my judgement, look at how long I’ve been doing this, we do actually know what we are doing, although maybe you and your great idea are more important than everyone seeing it as intended. Or doesn’t that defy the point altogether.

There are hundreds of different software, webmail and operating system combinations for us to work to. If you want your campaign to work in even 80% of them. Please listen to my advice, not just try to replicate your print campaign in an email. They are completely different mediums.

What works?

Again, simple things.

Keep your text to standard web fonts. Don’t rely on background images. Don’t ask for Flash or an animation. Keep the layout simple. The fewer images the better. Yes we can code so things will degrade gracefully, but if the client views the email in their inbox (compared to the signed off HTML file they viewed in a browser) with missing design elements they liked, it won’t be your fault, it will be mine. So please just make the designs possible in all clients.

Unless of course you have stats showing 100% of your recipients use an email client that supports animated gifs or background images – but first of all that is unlikely to be available, let alone likely to ever happen!

Even so what people don’t seem to understand is that everything doesn’t have to happen in an email. We have awesome tools in jQuery, Flash, and even simple HTML/CSS that can impress and prompt customer action better than an email. So a well thought out simple email to get people to somewhere showcasing the creative concept and getting customers interacting will work better than trying to contain everything in someone’s inbox. I find that a simple concept to understand. Why can’t others!

In the words of Columbo…

Just one more thing, if I can get on with building sites because I don’t have complicated email discussions going back and forwards, I will be happier. Of course sites are what I love, so if emails could disappear completely I’d appreciate it.

Resources

Finally, here are some good email resources, not that you’ll probably read them anyway. All are from Campaign Monitor, because they are good.

Outlook 2010 – still not helping anyone

So here’s the great news that Outlook 2010 is in beta development. Here’s the not so great news. They are still planning on using the Word rendering engine to display HTML emails, just as in Outlook 2007.

Goodbye styles and background images, hello tables (my old friend) and broken emails.

There may be all sorts of reasons behind the move, be it a reaction to Microsoft not being allowed to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows 7 or the official Microsoft view that using Word offers the most powerful email composition tools for Outlook users. This is flawed by tha fact that recipients will require Outlook to view the emails properly, and with only 7% of the market this punishes Outlook users in my opinion. I see no reason why a corporation such as Microsoft can’t allocate the resources to create an email client that provides powerful authoring and rendering of emails, using email standards.

The Email Standards Project, Campaign Monitor (I love you guys!) and Newism have initiated a campaign, http://fixoutlook.org/, to try and highlight the problems to Microsoft, so lets all hope they listen.

Outlook is broken - let's fix it!

Alternatively the sooner I get away from having to worry about building HTML emails, the better.

Addition: the Microsoft response

Microsoft have provided a response to the campaign on their MSDN blog which expands on a number of points I raised. In the comments I pointed out that HTML is not an email standard, and Microsoft correctly state “There is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability“. This is my view too but of course it doesn’t make my day job any easier.

I agree that many using Word to compose rich emails will find that the easiest and most powerful method – but it still relies on the recipient using a client expecting Word formatted HTML.

Finally, if Microsoft would please prove to me that “Word has always done a great job of displaying the HTML which is commonly found in e-mails around the world” I’d appreciate it, because I think that is absolute bollocks and my professional experience backs that up.