My Anywhere Working Tips

Since going freelance I have had the opportunity to work in all manner of places, from in small coffee shops to multi million pound agency premises.

During this time I have learn a lot about working from anywhere, so here are my top 5 tips. Hope they help you as much as they help me.

  1. Plan location times in advance. If you know that you have a long day ahead of you – find somewhere that won’t kick you out in the middle of a complex tax. Nothing worse than being 30 minutes from finishing a project and Starbucks closes in ten minutes. Use a natural break to move early and find an alternative.
  2. Keep a spare. Of EVERYTHING business critical. I have 2 Macs, my old one I could have sold, but I have kept it and it serves as a back up machine. If my day to day machine dies at 9pm, with a deadline to hit, it isn’t the end of the world.
  3. Use CVS/Back up everything. I use Git. In tandem with the last post, make sure that all your code is backed up, versioned and always safe. And commit every change. Even if it only serves to remind you how you did something in a month or three.
  4. Talk to people. There is far too much value in talking to people, learning from them and just generally relaxing from your focussed task fro a few minutes. You may find advice, opinion and driection from the most unlikely sources.
  5. Don’t work. Just because you can work remotely, doesn’t mean you always have to be on the clock. Set your own hours by all means, but if you spend all your time being available and ready to work, you’re not living your life. Remember, my favourite saying: “Work to live, don’t live to work.”

Now – I better get back to work! Or pop into my kitchen for a snack and a coffee. Life is good.

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.

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

F3 Events triathlon and look ahead to MK 2009

I appear to have finally exorcised the running demons for this season, only more than half way through the season, but at least I have managed to get ready for my main Olympic distance race in Milton Keynes on Sunday 26th July and the dreaded Vitruvian race in September.

Completing a warm up sprint distance triathlon on Wednesday gone in the F3 Traithletes World series, at Dorney Lake, was a bit of a milestone in the end. Posting not only my fastest swim yet, I also managed a pretty good 21:32 5km run off the bike.  A total time of 1:14.58 met my final goal of last year and hitting under 1:15 for a sprint triathlon really felt like an achievement. Now lets see if 1:10 is possible next year!

Milton Keynes have slightly annoyed me by changing the bike route to a 2 lap 20km route rather than one 40km loop, however I hope to use this to my advantage and blitz the second lap by know where I can punch it and when I need to save some leg strength for the undulations. Travelling up there by car Saturday means I’ll also have chance to recce the course, better preparing myself even more.

I’ve also just started my own running club! Work have introduced a scheme to try and get people more active and I’ll be taking on the running side of it with regular runs for all abilities at various times throughout the week. Will have to plan the best way for beginner and mixed ability running sessions, but I also look forward to the faster lot providing a bit of a challenge and motivation during some really tough interval and fartlek sessions.

The GyroHSR Chicago office have also laid down challenge in regards to a Nike+ inter-office challange, so I’ll have to get myself an iPod and Nike+ sports kit to participate in that – but to be honest its a good excuse for more training tracking toys.