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!

BoagWorld

Hoorah! I took a bit of time over Christmas to read and review the book Website Owners Manual by Paul Boag, of BoagWorld podcast and Headscape design agency fame.

My review which I recorded in January made it onto the podcast number 198, and as it was the author presenting the review, it became a lot funnier than I had ever planned!

Transcript:

The website owners manual by Paul Boag, published by Manning Publications

The website owners manual by Paul Boag is targeted to help those who own, run or manage web sites make them more successful. A quiet and humble man Paul has attempted to deliver all the lessons learned through more than 10 years of experience, at all stages of a site lifecycle, into a single resource. The result is a book that will help those responsible for websites be as successful as they can.

Covering topics ranging from selecting the right web agency all the way through to planning for the future, not all content might be appropriate for all website owners, but if the desired audience pick up this book, I don’t think there a single reader that will not learn something and become more successful in their role because of this book.

The book contains succinct well considered advice, which will not overwhelm any reader. I thought there might not be quite enough in depth information, or further resources, provided some sections to really make a difference, like reviewing site analytics. The book could have also better proofed, but this is a matter for the publishers. Not to mention one of the images depicting a developer in a tie.

The website owners manual is divided into standalone chapters that each covers a different stage or process involved in running a website. The 12 chapters cover:

  1. The secret to a successful website
  2. Stress free planning
  3. The perfect team
  4. Differences over design
  5. Creating killer content
  6. User centric design
  7. Ensuring access for all
  8. Taking control
  9. Decoding technobable
  10. Engaging visitors
  11. And finally, Planning for the future

Although not all chapters will be relevant to all website owners, and any experienced website owner will probably have a lot of the advice and recommendations in place, there is still an awful lot to either learn, or be reminded of while running your website.

The topics covered in the book do a good job of providing a feel for the requirements of each stage in the web site process. Some really useful content includes stress free planning, the perfect team, decoding technobabble and becoming number 1 on google.

firstly, Stress free planning, where in the “picture your users” section, Paul explains how you can research properly, prioritize your users and use fictional personas to better understand and relate to your target audience.

The Perfect team does an excellent job of explaining why a brief is so vital, even for small changes. Including an annotated example brief for fictional client “The Joke Factory” to explain why each part of a brief is so important.

Selecting the right people to work on your website might be the most important (and expensive) decision you make in the whole life of your website so it was good to see the steps Assessing proposals, interviewing the short list and evaluating agencies (especially with advice on talking to references).

Decoding technobabble is a problem for all us developers, so despite Paul claiming web developers are going to hate this chapter, I know my clients won’t hate me reading it. Not using simple terms to explain how a website works and introducing concepts like hosting is something I know I frustrate people with, but not for much longer.

Whilst reading the becoming number 1 on google section in the chapter driving traffic I was very pleased to read Paul explains about Black hat search marketing methods and why site owners should steer well clear of these underhand techniques.

In Planning for the future, I can take a lot from concepts such as Microformats, APIs and alternative devices concisely explained direct to my clients.

I really think this book is a must for any person responsible for a website, due to the wide range of topics covered. Although as I said, not all chapters will be relevant to all website owners, there will be more than enough for the book to be a real valuable resource. I like to think of it as a fully fledged consultant sitting on my bookshelf.

There were real moments of enlightenment about how I can help clients really grasp the requirements behind an effective site. I hope this will dramatically improve my client communication using Paul’s thorough but clear explanations of the concepts required for a successful website.

So that’s what I thought about the website owners manual, but its only the tip of the iceberg, and each person that reads the book will take learn something different, so I urge you to buy it and see what it can do for you.

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.

What am I?

The reason I ask is because the variety of job titles for my role astounds me. As Stanton, Ryan and Sarah mentioned on the Boagworld podcast episode 176 the number of job titles is never ending. Consider this, I have seen all the below job titles for my role or roles within my day to day responsibilities:

  • Front End Developer
  • Web Author
  • Client Side Developer
  • Web Designer
  • Web Producer
  • Web Programmer
  • User Interface Developer
  • Digital Strategist
  • Web Manager
  • Digital Developer

What do any of these mean? For my part, I believe that Front End Developer covers all the bases. Web developer will cover front and back end work and server side (or back end) developer will work for,  you guessed it, server side developer.

I don’t know if it is because of the young age of the industry, or if people are trying to create the most impressive sounding titles for themselves or their staff, or if it is HR not understanding what somebody does.

Why would this worry me? I worry because I currently have the title Senior Web Author. What I don’t want is people to read that who has a different definition of the role and immediately discount me from anything that I may suit. If I were offered the role today I wouldn’t expect to be heavily involved in HTML/CSS and Javascript development, but I would think that an author would be more involved in content authoring.

The same works the other way, I may be looking for a role and find that I completely miss my perfect job because it was advertised as a “web designer” role. Would I expect designers to build code? Not nowadays.

This specificity us geeks now show may be a direct contributor to the current job title confusion. Back in the early days a web designer will probably have had to build the site they design, but with technologies needing such attention, people really need to specialise as early as possible. The old saying “jack of all trades and master of none” applies a great deal in our industry.

Of course a lot of companies (including my employers GyroHSR*) are still trying to determine the best structure for their digital department, the job title situation may get worse rather than better, but I hope that anywhere I have influence we can set the following roles, all that should be needed in a web site development process, especially the small to medium builds I am involved with:

  • Project Manager
  • User Experience/Information Architect
  • Web Designer
  • Front End Developer
  • Server Side Developer

And User Experience/Information Architect and Front End developer roles are the ones I look out for. How better to start trying to select something new when you know the organisation has similar structure ideas to mine.

Please comment if you have any job titles I missed, or any suggestions for jobs I might look out for I would normally skip in the listings!

* I had NOTHING to do with our terrible web site, by the way