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:

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?

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

4 thoughts on “Smarter web design article in .net magazine”

  1. Great tips.

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    http://www.Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version and iCal are available too.

  2. Pingback: The Buzz » Blog Archive » Smarter Web Design Article in .Net Magazine
  3. On #5 I definitely agree with you. Don’t take another’s opinion for what will work for you. I used and taught Covey and Daytimer for many years before reading David Allen’s GTD book and switching to GTD. Its made a huge difference in my productivity and ability to multitask projects.

    And I found an application that allows me to view my entire GTD at work on my Win machine, at home on my Macs and even on my cell phone. And another app lets me call in tasks to my GTD without any writing or typing, great for those thoughts that hit me while driving. I’ve written about my experiences with GTD in a blog post at http://johnkendrick.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/more-getting-things-done/ John

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