Smarter web design article in .net magazine

Smarter and faster web design

The current edition of .net magazine (October 2008, issue 181) has an interesting feature article entitled “Smarter and faster web design”.

Magazine writer Craig Grannell promises “you don’t need to work harder, or for longer hours, to get better results. You just need to work smarter!” A sucker for productivity tips here’s my take on what he has to say:

1. Get away from the computer

This is one my favourites, and one that I use all the time. Well, not all the time, otherwise you’d never find me at my desk!

Lateral‘s Simon Crab offers this thought:

“… today’s web designers have a subconscious belief that the computer will provide an answer as long as they sit in front of it for long enough”

Instead of sitting staring at your design software of choice (Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro Photo, Publisher, Illustrator, Visio, etc.) he suggests going out and get a different perspective on the world. Go to exhibitions, browse magazines at the newsagent, walk around and look around you.

I can’t remember where I first learned this, but it’s been really helpful advice. Get inspiration from other non-Web environments. I’m forever ripping out pages from magazines, scanning them or simply gluing them into a scrapbook. I’ve found inspiration in books, magazines, TV, architecture, fashion, nature … step away from the computer!

2. Explain the idea to a non-techie

I don’t know how many times Jane has patiently sat and listened to me wittering on about some design idea, and then pondered carefully as I finish with the killer question “Does that make sense?”

Crab notes:

“A foolproof test is verbally explaining an idea to a non-designer. If you can’t succinctly explain a concept and get across how it will look and feel, it’s probably not a great idea.”

3. Paper and a pen

This was a tip that struck a chord with me: use simpler tools. Don’t rely on massive, expensive software applications. Get back to basics.

I have a home-made pad of A5 paper next to me on my desks, both at work and at home. Any scrap A4 paper that would otherwise go into the recycling box gets ripped in two and bound together with a foldback clip.

The next bit of advice is from usability guru Jakob Nielsen:

The most important tools for a smart designer are a pen and plenty of paper. This is all you need to do user testing — no fancy lab required. Just sit next to a customer as they attempt to use your website.

Mock things up on paper first. Show it around. Get the big things right first, before you waste time writing code that might never be used.

And for those who say “I can’t draw” advice from GapingVoid:

They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?

4. Simpler software

37signals founder Jason Fried:

[Our software products] do a few things really well and get out of people’s way. And when products do a few things really well, they’re more pleasant to work with, and easier to learn and understand.

Find software that does this for you. A few of my favourites:

I use these applications again and again for specific tasks because they’re quick, simple to use and reliable. I’ve got other, bigger applications that will do these tasks but these do it for me quickly.

5. Getting Things Done

Interesting advice from Khoi Vinh from NYTimes.com about GTD:

Unless you really feel GTD is perfect for you, don’t bother. It’s over-rated and just about the (admittedly satisfying) pleasure of organising a system for getting things done, rather than actually getting things done.

I can see that, but I would also say: don’t reject it simply because it doesn’t work for other people. Give it a go, and adopt the things that do work for you, such as a zero-inbox policy.

I was impressed with Andy Budd’s approach to email. He answers emails that take under five minutes, deletes the junk and then files the rest in folders with titles such as:

  • Action
  • Hold
  • Respond
  • Waiting

I’ve been inspired to try something similar.

6. Reuse code

Re-use tried and tested modules of code, for example:

  • Frameworks for CSS, PHP, JavaScript
  • Base it on the default WordPress code (clean, valid and well-structured code)
  • Create your own library of code (many code editors allow you to store these as snippets)

I loved Edward Barrow’s reason for using prebuilt libraries:

He likens using a prebuilt library to “getting an expert programmer to work on your project for free”.

Whenever I do something new I now ask myself whether this is something that I’m likely to need again. If it is I’ll store it as a snippet in WeBuilder 2008, my main code editor.

I categorize everything and have folders and subfolders in my code library arranged like this (I’ve expanded the HTML folder):

  • Apache
  • CSS
  • htaccess
  • HTML
    • !DOCTYPE
    • Basic Tags
    • Elements
    • Forms
    • IE Conditionals
    • Meta
  • JavaScript
  • jQuery
  • Lorum Ipsum
  • Microformats
  • PHP

I’ve got all sorts of goodies in here, that I don’t have to go searching for because I know they are there at my fingertips.

7. Source control

Before I discovered Subversion I used to create my own version control system. But I ended up with umpteen files and folders along the lines of:

[backup-070620]
[backup-070621]
index2.html
index3-test.html

It got ugly, and if I made a mistake or needed to roll back to a previous version I couldn’t very easily do it. I then discovered FileHamster but I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. I found it a little too intrusive.

I was then introduced to Subversion, and discovering that you don’t need to incorporate it into Apache server I installed the Subversion server onto my PC at home and it’s been great! I use the TortoiseSVN client.

Quoting once again from the article in .net:

“In fact, the simplest and smartest investment you can make for any project is to use some sort of version control system,” says Aral Balkan, web developer and conference organiser.

What are your tips?

What are the tools, tips that you find most useful, that make you most productive?

Terrorizer gives Death Magnetic 8/10

The latest edition of Terrorizer magazine dropped through my letterbox this morning.

I flicked through to the album reviews (Selected and Dissected) in search of their words of wisdom on the recent Metallica release Death Magnetic.  I wasn’t hopeful.

I found the review on page 77, and was pleasantly surprised.  It didn’t get the slating that I suspected that it might from a magazine that brims over month in, month out with fine examples of extreme music.  A few snippets from Stavros Pamballis’s review, in which he gave it a mighty 8/10:

… when it comes to Metallica, everyone has an opinion. You come to their work loaded with subjective expectations and a hack’s judgement can’t, and shouldn’t, change them.

Well said!

One of the great misconceptions about ‘Death Magnetic’ is that it constitutes a regression to the ‘Old Sound’, a capitulation to the wishes of the band’s hardcore fans. In fact, the album is a work of consolidation; a fusion of Metallica’s many faces; the speed brats, the thrash monsters, the radio megastars, even the groovy rockers of the ‘Load’ era. And that’s a good thing. To go back and remake ‘Kill ‘Em All’ at 45 would have been disingenuous.

I quite agree.  Enough of folks saying that this is the album that sits naturally between 1988’s ‘… And Justice For All’ and 1991’s ‘Metallica’ (aka ‘The Black Album’), this is definitely — to my ears, at least — an album that is post-Justice, post-Metallica, post-(Re)Load, post-St Anger.

Stavros ends his review with:

… bottom line, to anyone who refused to stop believing, ‘Death Magnetic’ will feel like having a beloved brother awaken from a twenty year coma — he’ll never be quite the same, but just hearing the sound of his voice fills your heart with pure joy.

JavaScript doesn’t suck!

Interesting interview with Douglas Crockford (Senior JavaScript Architect at Yahoo!) on the SitePoint website entitled JavaScript doesn’t suck.

Having been reading up on Agile practices recently, I found this final piece of advice interesting:

… If you had fifteen minutes of attention from everyone who’s writing JavaScript in the world today, what one thing would you teach them to do better—or not do—with the language, to improve JavaScript on the Web?

The number one thing is, be aware that you can and must write good programs. One of the principal measures of the quality of a program is its legibility. We should be writing programs for other people to read. And I recommend code reading as a standard process of all development activities, so a team would do weekly code readings at the least, whether you take time out to read each other’s code … I think the benefits that come from that are tremendous.