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?

Using email signatures

Over the last year or so I’ve found myself answering the same questions time and again by email, or pointing people to the same resources. This is my top tip on dealing with this sort of thing.

The two top questions that folks have asked me have been:

  1. Can you send me directions to your house?
  2. Blah blah blah … good resources for Psion PDAs?

I used to have to write these from scratch, or go hunting through my Sent Items folder to see what I wrote the last time.

Signatures

But now … now I just create a new Signature (or edit an existing one) in my email client and add the details there.

The signature feature of email clients is the perfect place for storing information that you use and include in your emails time and time again.  But it doesn’t have to be restricted to contact details. I now have “signatures stored called

  • Directions
  • Psion forums

That’s saved me a huge amount of time over the last few months.  I just wish I’d thought of it sooner!

A really affordable way to pay for the things you want

Bank of Scotland - A really affordable way to pay for the things you want.

Now, firstly I’m not a customer of the Bank of Scotland, so I’m not entirely certain why they sent me this piece of junk mail, and secondly I’m no financial expert but I can’t help think that they’ve got something fundamentally wrong in the message they sent me.

It’s not been that long since the Northern Rock building society hit the news headlines, and its customers hit the high streets to withdraw their life savings, because the money that they were lending was more than its customers was paying back … so WHY in the world are banks still heavily promoting loans?

This letter was inviting me to take out a loan from £7,000 to £25,000 to pay back over two to seven years at a typical APR of 9.9%.

What gets me is the way that they advertise it: “A really affordable way to pay for the things you want”.

NO!!

Here’s a really affordable way to pay for the things you want, that the banks won’t tell you about: SAVE UP FOR IT.

Each month (or week, or even choose a timescale that suits you) put aside a bit of money and sooner or later you’ll have enough for that new PC you have your eye on, or that 160GB iPod, or 42″ plasma TV, or …

That letter is going into the shredder now.

Microsoft Office 2003 updates

Microsoft Office 2003

Microsoft have just announced Service Pack 3 for Microsoft Office 2003, which has prompted me to make sure that all my Microsoft Office applications are up-to-date.

What is a Service Pack?

A service pack (often abbreviated as SP) is a collection of updates, fixes and enhancements to a software application or operating system — such as Microsoft Office or Microsoft Windows — that can be installed at once. This makes the process easier and usually more reliable than installing a series of individual update patches, especially when you have to update more than one PC.

Service packs are usually numbered and will normally have to be installed in order, e.g. install SP1 before SP2; these are called incremental service packs, or sometimes service releases (SR). Often service packs are cumulative meaning that they also contain the contents of its predecessors, e.g. SP2 will include files from both SP1 and SP2.

Microsoft Office 2003 SP archive

Here are the service packs for Office 2003, certainly the applications that I use. The files can be downloaded directly from Microsoft (without requiring a Genuine Microsoft Software validation test).

Where offered, I recommend downloading the full file rather than the client which requires the original CD-ROM to be inserted; I find the full file is quicker to install.

Microsoft Office 2003

OneNote 2003

Project 2003

Visio 2003

Other Office 2003 Service Packs can be found by searching the Microsoft Download Center (sic).

Download and backup

My advice is to download the files (broadband is highly recommended!) and then backup the files to CD-ROM or DVD so that you have then to hand the next time you need to reinstall Office 2003.

Installation

I ran the installation files in sequence by application, starting with the Office 2003 service packs and then moving on to the other individual applications.

The installer informed me which service packs had already been installed; in my case I had SP1 and SP2 already installed for each of these applications.

Office 2003 SP3 required a reboot after installation, the other updates didn’t.

Infinite Solutions

This is one of my favourite series of videos on YouTube: Mark Erickson’s Infinite Solutions.

The videos are packed full of great tips, from how to recharge batteries using other batteries, how to de-fogg goggles to how to find small dinosaur remains. Good useful, everyday stuff.

Also check out his website: Mark’s Infinite Solutions and the videos from Fatal Farm. A work of genius, if ever there was one.

Footnote

Lest there be any further confusion: the Infinite Solutions video tips are all for fun — don’t believe them, and please don’t go buying any electrical tape to stick batteries together, it could be potentially very dangerous.