Category Archives: Tech

We Should Take Usability for Granted

Jeff Atwood made a post yesterday titled Selling Usability, which contains an anecdote from Jared Spool detailing an experience selling an application to a group of business executives. What he found was (unsurprisingly) that at no point did they ask about design, usability, or navigation.

Jeff then counters with an example of how through user testing and deep thought, another individual was able to get tremendous gains out of a previously languishing application by applying simple usability guidelines to a re-vamp of said application.

This does not surprise me in the least. You see, as far as I’m concerned, usability is a no-brainer. Of course an application should be usable. No-one who isn’t insane would want an un-usable application! It’s not that the business executives in the first example are insane, it’s simply a case of taking usability for granted. As they should be.

I Have the Power(book)

I’ve got good reasons for slacking off on the blogging lately, I swear. First off, I bought a new house in southern Calgary with my fiance, Jackie. We’re just getting settled in, and things are going remarkably smoothly. Luckily neither of us had much in the way of worldly possessions, so the move was slicker-than-snot-on-a-doorknob. As a direct side-effect, I’ve been completely distracted from any programming or computer stuff for the past month, which is my main excuse.

Another major piece of news (where major equals minor to everyone but myself…) is that I’ve switched. Yes, Windows bitches, that’s right. I’m typing this post in TextMate, on a frickin’ 12″ Powerbook. To be honest, I couldn’t be happier. The laptop itself is so utterly beyond anything the PC world could muster it’s almost laughable for me to think that I was this close to buying a Dell.

Anyways, it feels good to be back. I feel like I still have a few good ideas worth posting, so hopefully I can amp it up here a little bit. Just to keep this somewhat on topic, Jeff Atwood is looking for good examples of CSS-based websites rockin’ the .NET framework. It seems he found David Shea’s The Zen of CSS Design, and liked the vibe ol’ Davey was puttin’ down. I can personally vouch for the awesomeness of the Zen Garden, which almost everybody has seen by now. I know it single-handedly inspired me to learn CSS. So if you have any examples, drop a comment on Jeff’s blog. Word

NewsGator Online is a Sexier Bloglines

I’m a dude that definitely prefers function over form, which is why none of the slick new online aggregators have rocked my world like Bloglines does. I like being able to loosely categorize my feeds, and then read each category in a free flowing River of News type style. Up until now, I haven’t found an online aggregator that fits my style like Bloglines.

That all changed yesterday, when I discovered that NewsGator has a free online version of their aggregator that behaves almost exactly as Bloglines does, except it actually looks sexy (ie; no frames). It imported the OPML file generated by Bloglines in a couple of seconds, and to my surprise functions almost exactly the same. I now have both form and function. Yay for me.

Intranets (The Bane of Corporate IT)

As a developer, I’ve had to personally implement at least one Intranet for a large organisation, and have been privy to the details that have gone into the implementation of several others. It seems that there’s a big batch of common functionality that goes into each and every one of them. It also seems like every company of decent size on the planet has one. So why do most of them suck ass? Well, I don’t have the answer to that question, but I know of at least one or two (massive understatement alert) articles on the web that go into this issue in depth. All I can offer is my own insight.

First off, realize that the individuals you are most likely going to be directly dealing with as a developer are decidedly non-technical (think, Communications Department). Their main goal is usually to provide interesting and relevant content to a large number of users. Remember that part about the content. You’ll most likely receive requests for all kinds of little features, but (as I’ve said before) content is what really matters. If the publishers of content can’t do their jobs efficiently, you’re in trouble. One thing you’ll come to learn, is that it’s quite hard to find or develop a solution that makes publishing and managing simple content entry easy. This is often lost in all the features of “Enterprise” CMS packages. (I’m pointing directly at you, Microsoft CMS).

Secondly, don’t forget about stats. At some point, whether it’s in an initial RFP, or several months down the road after implementation, somebody will ask for stats. Luckily, this one is easy. Every web server keeps a detailed log of every request made to it, so all you have to do is hook up a stats program that will make the information all pretty like. Do yourself a favor, and at least make sure that your web server is actually keeping these logs. That way, you can retrofit a stats package on later, when this feature is actually requested.

Next, think about search. There are actually more than a few CMS packages that don’t include this relatively useful (massive understatement alert) functionality by default. If you find yourself in this sorry situation, have no fear. Just think Lucene. It’s a Java technology (also available in a .NET version) that allows you to quite easily create a customized search solution for your particular situation. You can use it to index files, or you can base it off of an existing object model (like with Microsoft’s CMS). It’s quite easy to use, from a development standpoint, and will most likely provide results that are better than a package you might pay for.

Very importantly, you must realize that most users will write or receive content written in Microsoft Word. This means, that they will expect to be able to cut content from Word, and paste it as is into the CMS interface and just be done with it. This opens up a whole bunch of fun issues, (like what happens to images and charts). It’s hard to balance having this functionality with maintaining a good, consistent look and feel. I don’t have an easy answer to this one, unfortunately. Just be aware of it.

And lastly (at least for now), be wary of situations where the technology is actually chosen for you before you start development, without any input from yourself. This likely means that, sadly, the points I’ve mentioned above were not considered very well. It also means that a salesperson likely already sold a solution to somebody before they fully understood what was needed. This happens a fair amount of the time. Good luck with that.

That’s all I can think of right now, although there’s probably more.

It’s Not Just the Design, Stupid

One of the things that drives me nuts about the Web right now is the complete lack of understanding among designers, programmers and users in general as to what the Web could be.

Hint: You cannot control how your site appears, or is used by others. Don’t even try. Be flexible, and learn how you can make your sites work for everybody. Not everybody…

  • Can see colours the way you do (think colour blindness)
  • Has the same screen size you do (think PDAs and widescreen monitors)
  • Can read 10px fonts (think about poor eyesight)
  • Has a broadband connection (think rural)
  • Has the same taste in design (think about getting consensus about a design from your clients)

The standard tips apply here. Using standards based design is a good start, as well as following some basic design guidelines. Sexiness alone might win you the contract, but you won’t be doing your customer any favours, whether they know it or not. Give this question a thought: What are the 5 sites that you visit most often? Now, why do you visit these sites? I’m willing to bet that you visit all 5 of them for the content, rather than the way they look.

So what’s the lesson? The lesson is that Content is King, and in almost any situation I can think of, a website should be constructed in such a way that its content can be delivered to as many visitors as possible. If you can do this well, and still make your site look sexy, you’ve already got the competition whipped. (This advice presumes your site actually has content people will be interested in).

There are fortunes being made on the web right now by people who understand this.