Friday, 14 December 2012

All I want for Christmas is ...

If you have a problem, there is probably a technological way of solving it. Sometimes you can do this even if you didn't know you had a problem ...or if someone else thinks you did have a problem ... even if there isn't really a problem ... if you get my drift. As our last post for 2012 dear old Santa Fe has a few items for your delectation

All I want for Christmas is an Internet of my own

If you have your own country to play with then what follows more naturally than your own computer operating system and even your very own internet. Fresh from being voted Sexiest Man Alive the top man in North Korea is revealed to also have that bit of JavaScript you always wanted that automatically makes your name bigger on every web page. Find out about Red Star, the balloon network and Kwangmyong in this story from the BBC.

All I want for Christmas is a buggy for my parrot

Sometimes you know academia has a sense of humour ... and I really hope Andrew Gray gets a masters or better for this amazing piece of work. Wired reports on the remote controlled buggy he designed and built for his parrot. Note the protective newspaper cover folks. Pity about the music: Mr Slater's Parrot would have been much better.

All I want for Christmas is a hum or a whistle

You know that annoying hum you sometimes hear? Well often it comes from mains electricity in some way, vibrating wires or parts of transformers. Would you believe that the hum is useful for forensics ... allowing you to determine just when a sound recording was made? Well, this story on the BBC web site (and the associated programme) tells you how.

I'm a bit suspicious as to how reliable the speed of the recording might be ... but then these days they're all digital aren't they ... and crystal locked. A few years ago I came across a guy in the USA who had developed a system for improving the quality of analogue audio tape recordings. Since all tape recordings included a very high frequency tone (called the ultrasonic bias) it is possible to detect the tone on the tape and adjust the recording, moment by moment, to make the speed absolutely constant ... and this improves the sound quality. His company is called Plangent Processes. Worth a look if you're an audio nut.

All I want for Christmas is a sing-song

And finally. Just watch this video (of a school nativity play) on YouTube and try not to laugh. No kittens, I promise. I'll say no more ... except 'Condiments of the Season to One and All'.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Accessibility and the evolving digital arena

The whole concept of accessibility is being questioned and we need to understand what is happening so that we're not caught unaware. We were a bit late applying retro standards to our web sites after legislation about website accessibility in the updated Disability Discrimination Act 1995 called, The Equality Act, 2010. We have kept an eye on the issues in this blog. See some previous posts.

But, there is a sea-change coming: perhaps helped through the positive legacy of the Para-Olympics where overcoming disability was celebrated. Within the last month a report by Kevin Carey commissioned by AbilityNet, Universal Citizen Access, Universal Consumer Access: A New Approach, has upped the anti. The Key Concepts Summaries from Page 29 should give the gist and 7.5 Key Concepts relating to Technology, (Page 31), are as follows:
  • Digital information systems should be defaulted to the maximum access state and the simplest information array
  • Publishers should adopt uniformity in their displays, taxonomy, terminology, navigation and controls
  • Conformity between major publishers is unlikely in the short term, so investment should be in inter-operability applications.
The key change is to redefine disability of access as anything that stops any citizen obtaining the same access to information as a peer group norm. This expands the concern for access radically. It includes age as well as physical impairments. So if extra information is only made accessible by QR (Quick Response) code on the assumption that people will have suitable mobile devices to hand to decode these, or, if—as is happening—large businesses, like banks, are now insisting that statements/information will only be made available electronically, they are mandating some minimal requirements for the customer that can exclude access. Note that restricted access here is not physical and not even age related, but device dependant which is linked to life-style and income. Oh, and just in case, those QR codes are the square matrix designs on ads, packaging, magazines, and in some museums etc. that can give you labels, layers of information and links to other digital environments. They are effectively matrix bar-codes.

In response to Kevin’s report, AbilityNet has launched Mind the Digital Gap, a proposal for a strategic initiative launched at a parliamentary reception at the House of Commons on 21st November. Once the concept of access is expanded to any citizen outside a peer norm, the numbers should ring alarm bells. There are millions of defined registered disabled people just in the UK so yes, we should be taking notice. Imagine asking your clients if they’d mind excluding X million potential customers worldwide from their information.

If you have higher education institutions among your clients then you might be interested in the Mobile Technologies and the Law Overview, by JISC, 19th November, that covers accessibility, as well as copyright issues.

Times, they are a-changing!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Are your iMedia Projects out of control?

Project management is all about control: control of risks, control of stakeholders, control of time, cost and quality, control of the cross-functional team of developers, control of the clients and so on. It’s no wonder that keeping a tight rein on all these factors is not easy. Herding cats comes to mind as an appropriate expression! You shouldn’t despair if your own projects are displaying some control issues but unless you have put in place some control benchmarks that all know and agree, then jigging or tugging the reins will have no effect.

After checking up on ‘control’ factors I found a few interesting items that I want to share.

In its survey of web developers, heart internet has come up with 88% believing that clients underestimate the cost of web design. Do you agree? If true, this is a danger point for control for a project manager and unless the client is made aware of the likely costs in a project before they embark on it, you’re in for a difficult time.

Lynda Bourne in Controlling or Influencing? The real use of project controls (Project Accelerator News, 18.11.12) has a take on control in projects worth a look. She insists that control is the wrong emphasis and that it is communication across all the players that changes future behaviour: i.e. gives control. Mind you, she doesn’t believe you can control the future through processes but seems to indicate that future behaviour of people can be changed by communication. A bit confusing, I feel. However, I agree that now there is more emphasis on controlling/influencing the people within the project through communication and we’ve emphasised this in our dealings with stakeholders and cross-functional team considerations (See our previous blogs on these.) Surely it’s a combination of communication and processes that help shape the project environment?

It is hard to define the number and range of projects that have problems, but I reckon that a company offering to step in to help floundering projects is a good indicator that there are enough out there. (See Micromicon Media’s profile You need to remember that it isn’t just you that can suffer financially if your projects are wobbling. Your clients count the cost as well and this affects their future behaviour to iMedia.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A white spectrum to you!

I've been thinking about spectrum this week. Not rainbow colours, and (for once) not even that particular part of light that lies just beyond what we can see and that is called infrared.

My thoughts started with 2.4 gigahertz (or as engineers and regulators sometimes refer to it 2400 megahertz). Apparently, if eight or more people using Wi-Fi on their laptops, phones or other devices should happen to come together on a train on the Shenzen Metro ... the train will stop. This is because this particular frequency band is used by the signalling system.

Unfortunately it's also used by a lot of other things as this band is unregulated ... everywhere. Microwave ovens use it (because water absorbs energy at this frequency and so will heat up), wi-fi uses it and in some parts of the world wireless phones in the home (as opposed to cellular phones) use it ... amongst other things. This freedom of use around the world makes for economies of scale and brings down the prices of kit.

I am surprised that an unregulated band is used for railway signalling. Apparently it's to save time, with the Caijing web site saying line development is faster in China than elsewhere but that the price is insufficient testing. There is also a difficult regulatory environment.

It reminds me of a BBC training course I was on a long time ago where we were told not to use portable tape recorders on the London Underground Victoria Line as they interfered with the trains!

Such stories as this should be borne in mind as engineers and regulators in the UK move towards using so-called white space, which in this case means frequencies that are currently reserved for television but actually have substantial geographical gaps where they are not used. This 'extra' spectrum can be used to extend existing services, such as broadband in rural areas, and provide new ones. The first stage of a consultation, on white space devices, has been published by Ofcom and The Register has a good summary. White space frequencies are different to those used by Wi-Fi and the Shenzen Metro, so they behave slightly differently, especially in how they pass through walls. They are also not the TV frequencies that are being cleared for next-generation mobile phones.

White space devices will need to be careful about which frequencies they try to use, since what is free in one part of the country is carrying BBC One in another. So there will be several databases set up that the devices will have to consult before they start transmitting. Despite there being only one spectrum, Ofcom want several databases; a conundrum devised in the name of competition.

If you would really like to know more about spectrum, and how it is allocated, I suggest you take a deep breath and look at Ofcom's allocation chart. There you will find that '500 kHz is an international distress and calling frequency for Morse radiotelegraphy', as it was when the Titanic went down a century ago, that 2400 megahertz is for 'Spread Spectrum devices, including Radio LANs', and that between 100 and 105 gigahertz lies spectrum reserved for 'Passive research carried out in some countries for intentional emissions of extraterrestrial origin'.

Now there must be some service opportunities in that.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

What exactly are interactive media projects?

The range of iMedia projects just seems to expand constantly and it makes it hard to define exactly what a project type is. No one has to face this dilemma as much as those running iMedia awards. Every year they scratch their heads to come up with categories that match what companies are producing. Similarly iMedia companies scratch their heads to understand which category to put which project in as they usually just define the project by client name.

November is historically the month when many iMedia awards take place in our industry so it’s a good time to review this question. It is fascinating to see how diverse the projects are no matter what the award categories are called. There still seems to be a dilemma about denoting projects according to
  1. the business sector of the client
  2. the technical/media use of the application, or
  3. the creativity of the media use.
That’s the old commerce versus techie versus creative bias that's been there from the beginning. Which set of skills dominates? Luckily there is a better blending and recognition of each other’s expertise now than previously. There is more of a team spirit than conflict of mindsets.

If we analyse the award categories across four of the main players we get a good grasp of the diversity of iMedia project types. Of course, we do need to concede that the organisers have to also pay attention to how to attract the most entries by the choice of category. Here goes then!

BIMA (British Interactive Media Association) is a generalist organisation representing the iMedia industry in the UK. It has 24 awards and splits the categories into Sectors, Disciplines and Premium. The Sectors are clearly business-focused – Branding, Business-to-business (b2b), Corporate, Entertainment, Leisure and Culture, Public Life. The disciplines are less focused and cover business thrust (commerce), platforms (techie), and creative use of the platforms. It’s here in the ‘disciplines’ that the traditional multi-disciplined factions of iMedia appear. Their Disciplines are: Advertising, Community Building, Direct and Targeted Marketing, Educational and Outreach, Engagement, Games, Integrated Campaign, Mash-ups and Data Visualisation, Mobile, Multi-platform, Self Promotion, Social Media/PR, Student and Viral. Their Premium Awards are strongly iMedia creative but also nominate a creative business for recognition of its contribution. For the awards see:

IMRG (Interactive Media and Retail Group) awards naturally have to focus on its membership of retailers, and the categories reflect this. But retailing is a strong, general iMedia sector so they are also represented in other awards groups without being so identifiable. These 15 awards are split across size of retailer probably in recognition that the size affects the budget, use of media and type of solution that the iMedia project can offer, types of platform used and creative use of media positively affecting the bottom business line. See their web site for specifics:

The Chief Marketer offered 27 PRO awards and their bias is marketing iMedia. They have a predominance of ‘promotion’ projects for awards since that business marketing need is being met across various uses of iMedia. They also specify some awards by platform (cross-platform, web, social, mobile, games, video etc.) and yet others by successful ‘event’ staged, and creative or innovative ideas. Check their awards out at

Then we have the Europrix awards that keep an eye on youth and innovation. Their finalists need to be from the 40 countries of Europe and aged under 30. This year the judging will be in Austria later this month and there are six categories divided by ethical subject matter.
  1. Fight Poverty, Hunger and Disease
  2. Education for all!
  3. Power 2 women!
  4. Create your Culture
  5. Go Green!
  6. Pursue Truth!
This clearly suits educational institutions and student projects but it’s good that someone looks strongly to the next generation of iMediaites.

Perhaps then there isn’t one answer to the question posed in the title and may never be. It’s an evolving industry so we can only take snap-shots at particular times for now.

Friday, 2 November 2012

So, there are plenty of bad leaders out there: are you one of them?

It’s a sad fact that most of us have suffered from poor management in our careers at one time or another. You can recognise it when you’re on the receiving end. But once you become a leader of people, as in being an iMedia team leader or project manager, do you consider your own leadership style? Apparently 1 in 4 leaders have a destructive approach to management!
“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”
Northouse 2007
The important word here is influence. But the behaviour you exhibit to influence is pivotal because it drives the reaction in the people around you. This is why the terms leadership style and leadership traits tend to be prominent in the field.

It has not been very acceptable to dwell on anything negative like bad traits and we have been pushed to emphasise the positive in management terms, but I have always learnt from the negative, so I have welcomed the latest neuroscience research conducted by Orion into management with 2000 employees.

You need to work a bit to understand what their terms brain-fried and brain-friendly managers mean, but they makes sense. Brain-fried managers are over-stressed, poor communicators and lack empathy. These behaviours cause negative reactions in employees. Brain-friendly managers exhibit the opposite and therefore produce positive reactions in their employees. The behaviours you exhibit cause reactions first in the brain of others and then in the actions they perform. That’s the cold analysis bit prompted by The Online Recruitment article 11.10.12.

I’d recommend the expanded humourous interpretation on this research done in a Halloween spoof by Leading with Trust, Ten Signs You Might Be A Frankenboss, 28.10.12, as it’s probably more memorably brain-friendly!

Is it worth improving your leadership style? Well, maybe you and the rest of your management need to consider if your work-force are firing on all cylinders or not. That might be the price your company is paying, according to Jan Hills, quoted in Personnel Today, A quarter of bosses have destructive leadership style, 12.10.12

Then as a final brain-teaser ... have you got a mixture of extrovert and introvert mangers? It seems it is a common misconception that introverted people are not management potential according to People Development Team, Are introvert leaders better at identifying unconscious bias?, 11.10.12. The traits of introverts – reflection and criticism – can be beneficial.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Objectives: are you using them to your advantage?

If you’ve had anything to do with objectives, the mere mention of the word makes you groan. They are hard to define if done properly, but despite them being around for ages, (started in the 1940s and given more credence by Robert Mager, educationalist, in the 1960s) they are still being misused.

It doesn’t help that so many terms have been used with the same precept such as:
  • Learning objectives
  • Outcomes
  • Enabling objectives
  • Terminal objectives
  • Educational objectives
  • Performance objectives
  • Instructional objectives
  • Competencies
An objective is a precise definition of a result that is wanted, in terms that will allow the result to be measured. (Glossary, Managing Interactive Media, 4th edition). The key thing is that they are defined with a measurable outcome. The test is built into the definition - a bit like Agile scrums. So, if the measure is missing, it isn’t an objective. It might be a goal or a general aim which are more nebulous or woolly, but it isn’t an objective.

How can you use them to your advantage? Well, if your clients - especially at the beginning of a project - are having difficulty in defining what they want to achieve with their interactive sites, and if any of them understands or has had to use objectives it might be the spur you need to get them to be more precise. If they can give you measurable objectives in business terms of what they are trying to achieve, it makes your job so much easier. Remember, we have tried to influence you to work in measurable ways so that you can prove that you have achieved what the client wanted. We have placed the burden of defining objectives or the equivalent on you. But if your client can define the measures - for example "increase traffic to our site by 30%" or "increase sales on our online site by x%" or "decrease the complaints about poor usability of our site by x%" - you can see how these concentrate your focus and efforts.

Note the construction of the objective-style sentence. We will do this (use a tangible verb in the first part of the sentence) by doing this (stating a provable/measurable outcome in the second part of the sentence).

There you are: sorted. It’s not as problematic as many make out. You can do it and so can your clients. Once you understand the tricks, objectives can work for you. You don’t have to call them objectives; which may be why there are a lot of alternative terms around as in the list. This blog just covers the basics. If you are motivated to learn more about objectives there’s a good summary from an educational stance at The University of Ohio.

Then you just have to consider how to apply them to your situation. Good luck.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Thoughts on the RACI Matrix project management technique

The RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix is accepted as a best practice tool for management especially in projects. Establishing the matrix is a process at the beginning of a project for the Project Manager. It identifies the people involved with project over different stages, their level of involvement and decision-making.

By using a RACI matrix, as we’ve seen in past blogs, the project manager identifies who, how and how often he/she needs to communicate with the key people who have the power to influence the project. But through its creation, the project manager locks down the people who control the various development stages of the project by defining them and getting them to agree to their responsibility/accountability. This makes the PM’s role clearer. We all recognise terror striking when the person you’ve been dealing with says, ‘I just have to show this to X’. This is what RACI tries to avoid. You deal with the key person at the right times to help smooth decisions in the project.

Sounds convincing, and it has been. That’s why it’s a best practice tool. However, as with all tools, it depends how it is used. Some have found it hard to establish roles and responsibilities when they have not been clearly defined in an organisation prior to the PM asking. The ‘golden’ rule is that there must only be one person accountable for each stage otherwise you can’t get sign-off efficiently. (See Management Study Guide for a list of rules for use, and, David Morris’ blog (6th April 2009) for several more rules and his use of the tool under Agile development processes).

To help when there seems to be too many people without clear responsibilities, some have included ‘S’ for ‘support’ as a role and turned RACI into RASCI. This is explained in IT Toolbox.

We all need to try and streamline our processes to be more efficient and Simplicity recently posted an article from The European Business Review on improving a company’s performance by simplifying organisational structures.

This advocates ‘getting radical’ with RACI matricies so that they are only used at key points, not for everything. We certainly understand the over-complex organisation, the over-involvement of some people in decision-making, the problems a large organisation has making fast decisions and this call here for radicalism in this context. But we’d argue that iMedia projects are serving to move these organisations forward and should be considered key projects since any indecision over any stage of development increases time and cost factors for the organisation. We should point out that RACI in this article is interpreted as Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Involved – yet another variation. It isn’t explained here though.

Do you treat large, medium and small clients differently? If so, in what ways?

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Scoping interactive projects – any progress?

It occurred to us that a lot of progress should have been made in scoping practices for interactive projects because, as we all now accept, the initial stages of defining a project make or break it. We have always given away detailed questionnaires for the scoping stage in our courses and books, and advocated that people tailor them to suit their needs/company practices. But our implication was that you had to have one!

We have been disappointed in our present search for on-the-ball scoping questionnaire templates for interactive media projects. We assume that you are all using something to define the projects that you take on, so where are these? It may well be that they are considered so valuable and business sensitive that they remain shrouded in mystery. Actually ‘econsultancy’ has a template for assessing social media needs (among other templates with a marketing perspective) but you’ll have to pay £250 for it. See

It seems that despite being a few years old now, our scoping questionnaire remains a good basis for defining projects. But, we have found some extra recent advice for you. Derryn Cotezee outlines 10 key questions for web projects. He covers essentials like users, time, turnaround, competitors, likes, features and so on. See

Elizabeth Sosnow finds 11½ questions needed for defining the scope of a social media project. This covers things like: what’s driving the client to do this, who will they wish to reach, timing, integration with other marketing strategies, content, and audience behaviour among others.

Louie Conceicao uses a delightful set of images to show the course of a project and how it doesn’t meet what the client wanted because of all the mis-interpretations over the scope. His title says it all. Project Scope Documents Help Manage Client Expectations.

Well, anyone out there prepared to share their scoping templates? We all need them.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Staff or non-staff: that is the question

The balance between staff and freelancers keeps bubbling to the surface. Many moons ago we discussed freelance culture and the IR35 rules that related to people working as if they were employees of an organisation but through their own service company. MPs on the UK public accounts committee have recently complained about how many people in public service are paid through service companies but this good analysis on the BBC web site points out that it's usually the contracting company who benefit rather than the contractor. And it doesn't even go into the extra accounting costs of running a company!

The question of whether using freelancers is inherently good for business is an interesting one and brings us to another use of our term iProfessional ... as follows ...
The IPro Index is a landmark research study conducted by Monash University and sponsored by Entity Solutions about the contract workforce in Australia.
In this case the I stands for Independent rather than Interactive and the basic message is For instant productivity, engage a white collar contractor, as Entity explain on their blog. The study is wider than information technology but is definitely worth a read. You'll have to register for an email link.

Just what constitutes a 'freelancer' can be unusual as well. The most unusual I've come across is to break a software task into components that are run as competitions: code crowd-sourcing. This is the basis of Topcoder and there are currently over 430 thousand members of the community working on projects for people like DARPA, NASA and Intel.

So now not only can your processing and storage be in the cloud ... your workers can be as well!

Friday, 28 September 2012

The irresistible rise of JQuery

Last month a survey on W3Techs determined that the JavaScript library jQuery is being used by over half of all websites. This is a rise of 40% over a year and, according to the survey, means that a top website was adding JQuery every four minutes. Those fades, slides, calendars, form checks you see (and probably use on your sites) come from this amazing set of code. It stems from a software engineer named John Resig, who wrote about using Selectors in JavaScript almost exactly seven years ago. (See last month's item in the Register.)

I was very sceptical about JavaScript when it first emerged. It seemed to be an attempt to mix functionality with markup that harked back to earlier multimedia days: and many people turned it off in their browsers. Now that web-wizards are routinely separating form from content in web pages, and using CSS to deal with the form, JavaScript makes its stunning comeback. As it's an interpreted, if often arcane, scripting language it's easy to learn from others and freely distribute code.

What are the advantages of using Javascript-only versus using JQuery-only? That's a question asked on the Programmer Blog only a couple of days ago. The answers are interesting and make points that apply to libraries in general - such as the load overhead (you'll probably not be using all the library so you're loading unnecessary code but if you load from Google then it'll probably already be in the user's browser) - and some advantages of JQuery, notably the gentle learning curve. I'd add the open/free nature of it, particularly when compared with Flash.

Web designer depot looks at the the Good the Bad and the Ugly of JQuery (with some useful comments too). The author, Richard Lawson, makes the point that "John Resig and the other developers behind the jQuery project genuinely understand the time/money equation that faces web developers on a daily basis".

I should also remind you of the venerable CSS Zen Garden, if we're talking about form vs function. It's been around for a long time (and is expecting CSS1) but basically has a set piece of marked-up content and you're invited to add your own CSS to change the look. It's a neat demonstration of a key principle.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Educate your clients: Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and design tips

I really did start off trying to find gripes by clients about their web design/iMedia companies. But I just kept finding moans (legitimate ones) about clients from iMedia colleagues.

It seems the tide has turned because, although recognised by all in the industry for many years, this was a pretty taboo subject - something about biting the hand that feeds you, maybe? It is a bit of a trap when your clients are driving you mad though they do grudgingly pay up, perhaps not regularly, or on time, or enough.

The more that these problems are shared openly, the better for the industry. Why not keep a file of moans and extract from it a summary of behaviour that is not acceptable and the reasons why. Then you can hand it to your clients as part of the pre-amble prior to a contract about the way you work. Yes, it might put them off. But that’s your decision. Do you want/need time and money wasters? We certainly know of companies that have got so fed up with their clients that they have deliberately given them a hard time and are delighted when they say they are leaving for another company. Sympathies to the ‘other’ company!

What do you think of, An Open Letter to All Clients On Behalf of Designers Everywhere, 12th September in the Tiger Monkey Creative blog? It rings so true. Then this is followed up by, 5 Rotten Things No One Else Has Told You About The Clients You’ll Work For, 18th September.

It seems that they are really getting it in the neck from some clients. I wonder what the other side of the story would be from the clients themselves.

Closer to my original intention is Andy Kilworth’s rant about annoying web design features, 24 Moans about Web Design and Usability from a Grumpy SEO, 17th September. This arose because he was trying to buy things online for himself and came across annoying features too often for his intention, his temper and his limited time. Perhaps you can use them positively with your clients to help you argue against these design elements if your clients want them. It always helps to have a professional third party say things that you would like to say yourself. That’s why there are ‘consultants’, you know!

Andy Kilworth goes through things like: intrusive Captchas, the efficiency of the transaction, clear/current pricing, no human intervention like sales calls/videos, ability to really buy online, constant registrations [one of our gripes too], asking for too much personal data, accessibility, intrusive multimedia, grammar and content issues, naff 404 error pages, interfering with recognised web-use conventions, unclear navigation, intrusive and inappropriate adverts, and so on. As an observation, I did find his post annoying myself because of its strange response to click-through! It may be just my machine/versioning/browser etc!

Overall it has always been hard to influence your clients in the way that they work with you and the way they relate to design issues. They do need to be educated and it is a shame that we have had to bear the burden of doing this. It should be part and parcel of their training now. Web and social media presence is the norm for business so let’s issue a wake-up call to the general training industry for business professionals – please.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Content Marketing and iMedia - what's your strategy?

We're all familiar with the content is king maxim, but how many of us have taken it seriously? As a segment of a marketing strategy, your clients might be very clued up and tell you what they want and when they want it. Their strategy might well be hidden behind their decisions. We might just be picking up their demands and grumbling about 'clients making changes again', or, 'clients adding in things again'. You know, they say things like 'put this up on the web site ASAP', then a week later 'why isn't it linked to the blog?', and the next day, 'we need to produce a short video segment based on it to go on Facebook in the next couple of days', and so on.

But it all might be part of their content marketing strategy. That should make us stop grumbling and change our attitude to some respect. Yes, they should have indicated that they had phased roll-outs of content for different purposes, but to them it might just be self evident. Understanding your clients and their business has got harder, that's true, but we can't serve their needs until we understand what they are trying to achieve.

Our clients' marketing people have traditionally driven many of the processes that have caused grief for the iMedia lot. It was interesting for us to dip a toe in their water this week for a change and look at some of the content pressures they are facing.

Apparently content marketing has been a strong topic over 2012. They are tasked with embracing all the interactive media channels at the salient time for their messages and addressing the right audiences with the right messages to maximise awareness/sales/brand-building and so on. Now, we appreciate that the different channels from website, microsite, blog, mobile, Twitter, Facebook, electronic billboards and connected tv appeal to different audience profiles, and that content needs to be tailored to suit the profile and the display, but perhaps what we haven't bought into is that the marketers are on top of the reactions to the messages and want to respond accordingly. So if your client needs fast response, how can you provide it and at what cost?

This is the crux of the matter for us. We need to know the type of demands on our resources and plan accordingly. This means that the questions should be asked about demands and response times across channels from the beginning of your relationship. Is that happening? Then you also need to consider reviewing your longer term projects where your client's offerings have grown organically as the channels have matured. Are they now asking for more content across more channels than anticipated? Should you reassess what you are doing, the stretch on your resources and the costs involved?

To give an example of what marketers have been facing this year on the question of content marketing, take a look at a summary of key speakers, Marketing Basics: 7 B2B Content Marketing Tactics, by David Kirkpatrick at Marketing Sherpa, September 12th.

Tactic 1 Understand that content comes in more than one format.
Tactic 2 Find content topics and provide value
Tactic 3 Map content to B2B buying stages
Tactic 4 Remember that content marketing is part of an inbound strategy
Tactic 5 Use social media to distribute content
Tactic 6 Think like a publisher – create a content calendar
Tactic 7 Think beyond free with content marketing

Their pressures become our pressures, so it's as well to be ready.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Assessing risks in iMedia projects and lessons learnt

We've met some thorny problems recently over the maintenance of a long standing project that has been ticking over happily for six years. The design had been done by one company, the server hosting by another and the database processing back-end was done by us. The client managed the three companies in their separate roles. All has not gone smoothly just recently and it provides a salient trigger for a few points to bear in mind if you have long-running projects that just ... work.

Lesson 1 Don't get complacent. Re-assess the risks even on stable projects. There were several signs of risks in hindsight. Key players left two companies and the tacit intelligence they had built up about the nuances of the project left with them. The new staff struggled to catch up. On our side we will be providing detailed briefing documents to help new hosting staff understand how the database fits together, as it isn't obvious. We are also improving our 'disaster recovery' at our client's insistence (quite right too).

Lesson 2 Check the level of experience of the newcomers and point out to the companies that it is their responsibility to manage the changeover of staff successfully with enough back-up of the right level of experience to be mentors.

It is hard to meddle in other companies, of course, but in the end you can voice your concerns about the risks to the client and it is up to them to manage the companies. They pay them. But you should also be aware that you can help cover this risk by briefing people fully about how things work.

Lesson 3 The unforeseen consequences of a tiny bit extra.

When you get that niggling feeling, it probably means there's a risk that needs to be covered! We had that niggling feeling when the design company needed to insert a tiny extra database to log accesses to the public end of the system to make sure that people were limited on the amount of data they could download from the web site. This appears a sound bit of security for the whole database system, we'd all agree. So, what happened?

The system as a whole gets around a million hits a week and the new tiny database was actually being continuously updated. So the server logging increased dramatically and when this was coupled with the logging done as the database was rebuilt the server just ran out of disc space; very suddenly. Knowing what could be deleted without affecting the ongoing rebuild was not straightforward.

Lesson 4 Even back-up systems fail.

Yes, although everyone thought there was the emergency backup system if the database failed, the back-up failed too! There was the strangest set of circumstances, naturally. The server company physically moved the servers which lead to cascading set of failures. (See Andy's blog of two weeks ago Escape to the country, 27th August.) The emergency fallover backup wasn't quite isolated enough as its database was automatically following changes from the server it was mirroring and it mirrored the failure too.

Lesson 5 If one thing goes wrong, other things are more likely to as well! It's that tip of Murphy's (Law) iceberg. These things in isolation wouldn’t have been so bad, but they all happened in quick succession. Maybe too, this was because all had run so smoothly for years.

A long- and smooth-running project should be praised constantly for its stability and the people concerned need praise too. We are all guilty of only noticing the errors and moaning about them. Give credit to the old, forgotten but smooth-running projects. But keep an eye on them.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Critical of your own professionals? Know how to do things better?

It's all very well if your clients criticise as you always feel that they don't know what they are talking about in tech/design/interactive terms, bless them. But when your own colleagues start criticising, it's a bit like a road-rage flashpoint! Let's try and learn how to deal with some of this criticism to make life easier. Plus remember, this sort of undermining of a team or team members and its consequences is the project managers' responsibility too. You'll turn a blind eye at your cost.

If you don't think this can be a problem for you, see how many are happy to point the critical finger. Many are fellow developers. See for a plethora of criticisms. Clear, short content is king at, and problems with social media icons are explored in

There are, of course, good design tenets that we all try to follow and often the criticisms are well founded but what happens when you are aware of the tenets but circumstances stop you applying these? Then the criticisms cut deep.
Phil Sturgeon's recent blog, Understanding Circumstances, is a refreshing, albeit straight talking (meaning here, full of expletives), response to such tech criticisms that will make you grin. Do look at it. Understandably he provokes quite a few honest replies too. He wants critics to think about the circumstances the iMedia product is created in because those affect the performance and design whatever the developer might want to use as an alternative. He appeals for sympathetic understanding of the constraints people might be working under that can lead to such poor end results.

So, we have those that need educating about good and bad design tenets who can benefit from all the advice available as per the first set of links we suggest above, and then we have those that know but are not allowed to apply the tenets because of the circumstances arising from the business field they are in, the stakeholders' or clients' power over them etc. We think this is valid info for anyone in the iMedia field. Yes, let’s understand more before we point fingers.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Escape to the country

Hello from deepest darkest Rutland: England's smallest county; beautifully rural, nicely quiet and with only a whiff of silage.

Yes, ATSF and its domestic staff (Elaine and I) have moved. Time for a change.

So, you are no-doubt asking, how's the connectivity? For haven't we heard that Rutland (and rural UK in general) is basically end of the queue when it comes to handing out bandwidth?

It's been an interesting couple of weeks and we spent one of them with only a slow GSM data connection on my iPhone as a means of getting online. BT (bless them) had my new phone line waiting when we arrived but, for some unknown reason, Demon (my ISP) weren't able to order my broadband until the phone was active and then it was going to be another week. I have a suspicion that if I had ordered BT broadband then they could have been synchronised but I need a static IP address and I've been a Demon customer almost since they started. There is a local contender, the very interesting Rutland Telecom, but they can't help me at the moment. In the end I had a hurried conversation with Demon ordering the broadband while I was literally in mid-move part-way up the A1.

As an aside I should add the Rutland is being connected in the next 12 months, by enthusiastic payers like Rutland Telecom and, presumably even BT, so I may yet see fibre to the bathtub around here. At least, Demon tell me that my local exchange (Cottesmore) will be unbundled in March.

The email about the broadband arrived bright and early after exactly a week. I had some trouble setting up the wi-fi (stone walls do not a good RF path make) but finally got it all sorted. The ADSL connected up once I sorted out the new login credentials and I was back online. I have to tell you that coincidentally the past week has been just about the worst for spam that I've ever had. I call it being spam-bombed. When I got to my mail on the computer I downloaded over 1500 emails of which only about a dozen were real ones. Talk about wheat and chaff!

At this point I decided to check my bandwidth. I'd checked earlier with both BT and Demon online and found that the speed should be about 7.5 megabits so when I did a real speed check I was surprised to see it hitting 2 megabits. I'm only 100 metres from the exchange (and 50 from the pub). Reading the small print on an email Demon sent me (dug out from beneath a pile of that spam) I found that I had been put on a package with the ominous letters '2000' in the title. A capped package? Nobody told me. After a somewhat assertive call from me they are looking into it.

Meantime, the hosting company for one of my main clients decided to move machines between data centres. (Experienced readers will see what's coming.) On restart both of the computers holding the main databases failed and when one was replaced and rebuilt my database didn't seem to be working. Without an online connection, I spent a frustrating time on the phone to the weekend support desk but between us we could find nothing wrong. Nothing in the error logs. It turned out that there was nothing wrong: the database was fine; the problem lay elsewhere. It was what we used to call finger trouble back in the BBC.

You'd think that moving in August would be uneventful? How's your week been?

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Content and flow – isn’t that what it's all about?

It's been a while since we took a hard look at the initial stages of interactive design. Like other things this has changed radically. Defining content used to be the forgotten area unless you were working on interactive training where the outline and detailed design phases used to dominate. But defining the content for all types of interactivity has become a major phase of design. Now we have information architects (IA) who organise content and flow of a website, based on some principles that can be articulated, that have been derived through evidence gathering. (Martin Belam, Inside the Guardian Blog, Feb 2010.)

As well as information architects, jobs have asked for data architects, business architects, solution architects, technical architects and so on. Yes, I hear you, what about user experience (UX), where does this fit in? This has had an explosion of people flocking round the candle flame of UX as supply has out-stripped demand for the skills. Cennydd Bowles decries the watering down of his chosen profession and warns of the demise of UX in his 2011 Summit presentation at Colorado, The rise and fall of User Experience. It's a well thought through and heart-felt article that's worth a look. He comes down on the side of "obliquity", creating personal value, and long-term goals and quality rather than being enslaved to the measurable, quantitative, short-term goals of business and usability that dominate the profession now.

Let's move on to the tools employed by IA/UX people to define and refine the content and flow of interactive applications. How many of these do you recognise and when might they prove useful? Card Sorting, site maps, wire frames, user journeys, funnel diagrams, content audits, task models, prototyping, and so on. If you haven't recognised many of these tools perhaps you can get your company to buy a few IA/UX books or Kindle formats. There are many available that get supposedly good reviews. You can check these out at Amazon such as: So IA and UX seem to be in a state of flux despite being skillsets that are in demand. But from my point of view, anything that has put the spotlight on the initial design of content and flow has given tremendous value to iMedia. We need to heed Cennydd's perspective though and learn from the master so that these invaluable disciplines continue to add lasting value.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Business versus Creativity – is that the issue?

The new acclaim that Alfred Hitchcock's film, Vertigo, has got by being voted by the critics as the Best Film Ever, has made me wonder. See Will Gompertz's article on the BBC web site. It's over 50 years old and in fact there is only one film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, that is post 1965 in the top 10.

Well, it's the critical acclaim part that we need to consider. Traditionally, business people have had a clash with interactive media people because the business lot say the creatives don't understand business and just push the envelope of technology for their own reasons not for business reasons. There is a potential clash and we have to admit to it. The iMedia creatives want to display how well they are being innovative and using the latest tech/gizmo/software enhancement and so on. This is what they are judged on by their peers, so all should understand their drive. However, they are meant to be utilising their knowledge for the clients who have their business drivers.

There's the conundrum. Do you try to play to the critics/peers, or do you follow what is often seen as the humdrum day-to-day churn. This isn't straightforward since the clients change their opinions on what will work best for their business by seeing how innovative twists can make the difference for their competitors. Then we get to another conundrum: do the clients take a risk or do they play safe.

In the end, it seems that like attracts like. So clients that are happy to take risks in the sector are attracted to the iMedia companies that demonstrate their innovation and creativity. This will be shown by their client list, their products and by awards. Clients that want (or need) a more stable offering and are less risk-averse will seek solid companies with a reputation for delivering sound products.

Now if you as an individual are not happy with what role you are fulfilling, is it that you are not in the right company for your own drivers? Where do you fit in this conundrum?

Pity the developers of the software that (either through a programming error or a configuration error when it was set up ... just what isn't known at the moment) went spectacularly wrong for a very risk-adverse financial services client and cost them $440 million in forty minutes trading last week. See this item in The Register. Bet the fall out there is going to be awesome! This may well be considered one of the humdrum parts of our sector but the consequences show the enormous responsibilities that can weigh in. Imagine the fall-out across other financial service clients and their demands on their developers after that! Is this your company's sector? Good Luck with that.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Stakeholders: power, influence and interest?

Very often when people talk about the politics in an organisation and how it has an impact on decisions, what they really mean is how stakeholders exert their power, influence and interests over decisions. Now, decisions often mean decisions relating to specific projects; and that can mean iMedia projects too. This influence is described in many ways: movers and shakers is one we've come across that made us smile, for example. We have to remember that these stakeholders can be internal as well as external.

If you need some refreshing on the general principles of stakeholder analysis and management it's covered in our book, Managing Interactive Media, Chapter 4. Rachel Thompson covers the basics too in Mind Tools, Stakeholder Management.

But as with so many strategies, it isn't knowing about them that makes the difference, it's applying them correctly in a project. That's the hard part.

We've come across a couple of applications of the stakeholder concept recently that give food for thought. Jesse Speak uses it strongly in web projects right from the brief writing. Take a look at his How to write a great project brief (27.6.2012), where he uses it to home in on exactly what business problems need tackling, and refining the web solutions to these as the basis for web developments. (Loud applause, Jesse!)

Then, Sam Barnes' Web Project Manager, Questions to Ask Web Project Managers (July 2012) uses it to recognise barriers to change exhibited by clients to assess if Agile or Waterfall techniques might provoke difficult reactions in projects, and might go with Waterfall as the most risk adverse. Now there's experience for you! Sam, quite rightly, gets great feedback on his common sense advice: meaning nascent intelligence. DO WATCH THE VIDEO – SOoooo FUNNY.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Website and iMedia Localization Research Update

iMedia Designers are much more aware now of the importance of localization of their interactive products to suit the global electronic market. Localization is the adaptation of an application to suit a culture other than that of the native source. This doesn’t just mean translating the language because a culture can affect the site’s intent, colour, layout, interaction, and graphics ... among other factors.

Let’s focus on this intent of the site.

This relates to the business purpose for the site and will affect how localization is carried out, because different cultures have different ways of realising the business intent. This becomes crucial, of course, for any interactive site that is retail-based, but also has implications for any business intent such as informing, branding, positioning, launching for consumers; but then there is intent for business-to-business sites as well. Here intent relates to how a culture has expectations about the way things are done. Because of the better understanding of localization issues now, it is more common for local designers, programmers and information architects to be involved in localising sites. This might mean that because some countries lag behind in the electronic experience, the local solution might appear at odds with the parent application which might be more mature in electronic experience terms. Definitely food for thought here as it is a bit counter-intuitive but understandable.

Why localize?

London Translation has a short set of bullet points that make interesting reading – needs updating though. But their stats - like customers are four times more likely to purchase something from a site in their own language and customers stay twice as long on sites using their language – make strong points.

Global multinational companies appear to suffer with localization at a different level according to Forrester research, The Right Way to Globalise your Interactive Marketing Programs, Nate Elliott (Dec 2011)

Here, the research suggests that there is conflict between the global marketing team and local marketing teams over the one-size-fits-all approach that the global team touts for financial reasons. Elliott et al say there is another way to localize without it costing too much. Peter O’Neill’s research, also from Forrester, backs this up: Use Field Marketing to Align Marketing Content with International Customer Needs, (March 2012).

In their research paper, A Framework for Designing Usable Localised Business Websites (Vol.2010 IBIMA publishing), Ali Al-Badi and Pam Mayhew recommend that designers apply the following guidelines:
  • Know the target audience – use the framework they recommend otherwise you risk intimidating and offending your potential customers/clients
  • Usability/Accessibility Tools and Guidelines need to be used
  • Culturally Usable Websites are very different from usable cross-cultural websites. The overt and covert cultural factors need to be controlled
  • Target Users Involvement – in all design phases helps create a website that suits them
  • Design Consistency – still vital for culturally adapted sites
  • Website Periodic Maintenance – to keep site current and culturally up-to-date
Do you need to localize your products for your clients? Have you outsourced to specialists for this? We hope this short analysis of some of the current factors will prompt some rethinking if necessary.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Division of skill-sets – good or bad?

As iMedia has matured, there has been a splintering of skill-sets into specialisms. We've touched on this before and have, overall, been positive about it. So we've seen the rise of SEO and then companies specialising in this; similarly with testing, usability, information architecture, back-end and front-end, let alone across sectors like retail, business-to-business, information dissemination, social media, mobile communication.

The approach that one person can span several roles has changed because each piece of the interactive jigsaw now demands more skills at a deeper level than they used to. But someone has to have the solid overview of how these interconnect because a change in one part has a ripple effect on the others. For example, recently we've been stuck in the middle of the clients (users), the front-end needs and the back-end realities of the system configuration. Bet this sounds familiar to you.

It is increasingly problematic since the intelligence used to be shared within one company, or even one person, but now the front-end and back-end can often be different companies. In this case, getting the intelligence about how to resolve the needs into a working solution, that doesn’t crash the system, takes a lot longer. Each company fights its corner using different language. Often this arises on the updates side of applications as people move on from companies and the nascent intelligence is lost.

The project manager generally fulfils the role of mediator during the course of the application development but who does afterwards? Something to think about.

If you want a definition of front-end and back-end and the differences, Ian Peters-Campbell's blog gives a nice workable breakdown. And if you aren't convinced yet that this can be a problem area worth thinking about, these links might help change your mind.

Skillset defines it as an area of concern in its appraisal of skills in the iMedia industry. The ‘hybrid’ and ‘cross-disciplinary’ skills and a balance of creative and logical thinking are the backbone for the industry, as they say, but they are well aware that: "An absence of cross-disciplinary awareness and understanding of role context is particularly significant." See: What are the main skills issues and concerns?.

A more fun way of describing the potential conflict is found at: What is the difference between web design and front-end development? from Pete Markiewicz. This relates to internal dissension rather than across specialist companies. "Splitting web design and front-end development in a team often leads to nasty conflicts between snobby designers and angry codebeasts, resulting in lost project time. It's best that each is able to understand the other's work."

So if web and front-end cause grief, what about the back-end? And what about the back end and any databases? I think we'll find this splitting further as time goes on.

Friday, 6 July 2012

When turning it off and on again doesn't work

It has always been one of my nightmare scenarios: a software update that goes wrong. The average web site now has so many dependencies ... the OS, Apache, PHP, MySQL, JQuery, Drupal ... to name but a few of the pieces of software, many open source, that need occasional updating on your site ... that it is difficult to keep up. Therefore I have every sympathy with the banks whose systems failed to recover from a maintenance update the other week. It could happen to anyone.

I realise that the bank problem was real heavy-lifting IT, and the interactive media world rarely strays into that kind of territory. But occasionally it will.

So what do you do when it happens to you, and especially when you're the code-monkey who pushed the metaphorical or even literal button to kick-start the mayhem?

According to the brief biog at the foot of his pages, Register writer Dominic Connor 'used to boss around gangs of quants, developers and sysadmins before moving to a life of headhunting in the City spiced up with consultancy' and 'Before becoming a City headhunter, ... was a mildly competent head of IT as well as developer for various banks. RBS still run some decade old code of his, he wishes them good luck with it.'

His two pieces on the subject published on the Register last week make for interesting reading, especially if you manage an IT team or are part of it. I recommend them:

Do you work in IT at RBS? Or at the next place to get hit ...? (June 29) How to survive a crisis.

So, that vast IT disaster you may have caused? Come in, sit down (July 3rd) Welcome to the world of forensic interviewing.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Things change

The French do things differently ... in technology as in many things.

In the 1950s they had an 819-line TV system that was, even by (some) current standards, high definition. Their colour television was so different to those used almost everywhere else that it was nicknamed 'System Essentially Contrary to the American Method'. And they made a roaring success of a telephone-based text system ... called Minitel.

This weekend Minitel will finally be turned off. It was the place the French went to check the weather and news; book tickets and shop; and find porn. It was, as the BBC story puts it, the France-Wide Web: 26 thousand services used by 26 million people from the early 1980s until this Saturday. To those people in the UK (mostly travel agents) who remember Prestel ... BT's equivalent service ... this will seem amazing. But the key factor was probably that every telephone subscriber in France was given a terminal, even though that did apparently strain the telco's finances.

The news about Minitel prompted me to consider the lifetime of systems, and especially how computing and the internet are constantly evolving; even at a structural level with the change to IP addressing that has just started. Do you have any routers, or computers, that may need modifying to work with IP version 6? Will your machines work with new versions of the OS ... especially if you have an older Mac Pro that won't work with the new version of OS X. In my case, with a small amount of equipment used for work, it's easy to keep track of such things. For a large company it must be a nightmare, and means that you need a reliable system to track the state of all your hardware.

At least when my elderly audio amplifiers went 'bang' the other day I know I can still get them fixed and get them working again ... computers don't work that way, sadly.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Usability – at what cost?

This aspect of interactivity has been one that has changed radically from the early days of IT usability. We used to have to have dedicated usability labs, large numbers of testers, cameras, lights and sound, bells and whistles, belts and braces and so on.

Even Jacob Neilsen, acknowledged veteran guru of the field, has had a very different take on the numbers needed for interactive usability application testing. His latest posting on this makes compelling reading as he advocates five people for the great majority of tests except for certain applications and depending on reasons for testing. The time,effort and numbers involved, let alone dedicated resources like usability labs, mean cost of course, so it is good news that Neilsen’s maximum cost-benefit ratio lines up pretty well with just five test subjects.

Underlying this movement from large expensive tests to small focused ones is a shift away from the onus being put on quantitative research in favour of qualitative research. Yes, I hear your groans! This quantitative versus qualitative debate has dogged art versus science since the academic year dot. However, Neilsen puts a refreshingly simple spin on it.
“... the vast majority of your research should be qualitative – that is aimed at collecting insights to drive design, not numbers to impress people in PowerPoint.”
Jacob Neilsen, June 4th

He goes on to cover some weak reasons why developers are pushed into larger studies and agrees that he himself probably uses more like eight people but gives his reasons. He mentions card sorting. We haven't looked at this specific technique before so what is it?

Card sorting? It is a knowledge elicitation technique for assessing navigation category preferences in interactive applications. This is important when you find that your users are not fulfilling their needs in visiting your site – especially when they can't find the item they wanted to buy, for example. You see the issues. It involves giving testers category headings and asking them to sort them into hierarchies so that navigation preferences can be mapped from use. Remember, insights to drive design. See User Focus for short, uncomplicated answers to your card sorting queries; and Knowhow (non profit), How to use card-sorting to structure your web site, 19th June 2012.

Books have been written about this technique so don't be fooled by the over-simplistic approach to it. If you want more detailed info try Donna Spencer, Card Sorting : Designing Usable Categories, pub. Rosenfeld Media, 2009.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Can ... can't ... shouldn't

There have been a few newsy stories that caught my eye today.

There's the schoolgirl whose popular blog about her school dinners has been stopped by the local council. The BBC's Rory C-J reckons it's just a publicity stunt and the council explain that they have now stopped photographs being taken in the school canteen. [Later: they've changed their collective mind now!]

What I find interesting about this story, apart from the delightful blog itself, is that it looks as if 'the management' (fans of Hale and Pace should do the accent here of course) only got worried when the mainstream media picked up on the story.

The Register reports on a statement by Sarah Lamb of the group Girl Geek Dinners saying that sexism in TV shows such as The IT Crowd is preventing women from thinking about a career in IT. Reg reporter Anna Leach refers to Ms Lamb as a Girl Geek Dinner lady (you can see why this comes second in the list can't you?) but funny as that is I applaud any attempt to get girls interested in any kind of science or technology. (I once had a bit of a row during a BBC appointment board with the Editor of Blue Peter about this.)

Mind you: turning it off and on again does fix most problems with digital technology. Buffers get clogged, memory overflows, civilisations rise and fall. You know the sort of thing. And you did watch The IT Crowd didn't you?

Which brings us untidily to the subject of browsers. Once upon a time you had to buy them ... my first even came in a box! For the first edition of our book we needed to put a browser on the accompanying CD-ROM (which was built like a web site) and only Microsoft were willing to waive any licence fee. So I do have a bit of a soft spot for Internet Explorer ... up to it's final majestic Mac implementation of IE 5.5.

Since then we all know that it's been a bit of a pain, especially when it ruled the browsing roost. It was famously quirky (including a quirks mode) and had an unsympathetic approach to standards in the any colour as long as it's black style pioneered by Henry Ford.

I've tended to do web builds that worked about the same across the main browsers, but then I don't do nothin' fancy. The acres of conditional CSS that's needed to cope with browsers these days seems crazy. I could almost believe it's a kind of reverse taxation, where the cost burden is shifted from the browser writers to the web designers.

'Enough!' I hear you cry. Or at least I hear the cry from Australia. The online retailer has now implemented an IE7 tax of 0.1% for every month since IE7 was launched (now standing at 6.8%). Since they sell things like televisions this could be no small thing. Their web site even calls it an Internet Explorer Tax and points out that "you or your system administrator has been in a coma for over 5 years". The tax, says the site, is to recoup some of the cost of coping with IE7's quirks: apparently this was as much time as Chrome, Safari and Firefox combined but for only 3% of the customers.

Do you think you could sell that one to your clients?

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Digital Project Managers: who wants what? (Part B)

A continuation of last week's look at what's wanted from a Digital Project Manager's Role.

Here's an amalgamation of several wish lists from job descriptions for a Senior post. The promising thing is that there is no question of what a Project Manager is now, whereas there used to be - and the role wasn't described in this way or by job title. Now there's career progression from Junior, Digital Project Manager to Senior Project Manager. Overall we're positive about this trend. But the recruiters seem to ask for the earth in some cases!

Senior Digital Project Manager

Experience: 5 years minimum of web and social media sites. Prince 2 or equivalent, and/or Agile certification

Salary: £30-60k (non London, but UK based) up to £80k London

Role: managing projects from initiation to launch, managing cross-functional teams, clients, and non-technical personnel, get projects out on time, to brief and to budget. Manage new and potential clients, advising on usability/user planning, accessibility, making business cases, online marketing and branding, delivering successful and profitable projects across technologies, extracting and clarifying requirements from clients, assess risks, manage stakeholders.

Knowledge needed: User-focused website design, user experience and user psychology, Digital project planning, Project management tools and techniques, Team/studio management, Relationship building and account management, Managing suppliers, Open-source frameworks, Technical limitations and constraints, Search engine marketing, Social media marketing

Competence in: Taking briefs and listening to what the client is looking to achieve, Writing proposals with recommendations, have an eye for detail but also be creative, producing an outline of the site/app's proposed functionality with costs, Information architecture planning and mapping, Producing wireframes, Facilitating and contributing to discussion around a project's creative treatment, Writing project specifications, Producing realistic project timelines and then managing the project in accordance with that timescale, Setting and controlling project budgets, Managing change requests effectively, presenting outcomes of campaigns with recommendations, quality assurance, managing conflict, have strong presentation and negotiating skills.

Technical abilities: (Some jobs state several front-end and back end skill sets, internet security, and content management systems among others.)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Digital Project Managers: who wants what? (Part A)

Despite the economic vagaries, the job market for Digital Project Managers appears strong. So what skill-sets are companies looking for? Do you measure up? Below we’ve amalgamated what's been asked for under a Digital Project Manager role and next week we look at the Senior role. Quite an eye-opener!

The most whacky but apposite description about a skill was "to be able to talk the technical" or "talk coding and creative". We interpret those as managing cross-functionally. Then we found "produce a clear paper-trail across the project development", we interpret that as use project management tools. And to "get" creative processes (dude?), we interpret as to understand the mind-set of your creatives – the diversity of the cross-functional team? What about the "can-do" approach which also asks for strong control of clients? What about "some kind of coding background" but to manage creatives?

Recruiters expect understanding and experience across all the digital platforms and media types (site builds, micro sites, social media, game builds, ecommerce, web tv, imedia, apps, campaigns, etc.). The job types were sometimes specific to industry sector (publishing, finance, luxury products, retail, medical, fashion, telecoms, broadcasting, etc.), but the expectations of the role were pretty similar.

This is only scratching the surface of the variety and type of role available. The good news is that the wider needs of Project Management for digital are being identified better now than a few years ago. There is more emphasis on managing the stakeholders/clients, as well as the developers; there is recognition of making a business case that suits the clients' business needs; there is more recognition of how complex it is to manage cross-functional teams. Digital sector specific experience becomes crucial. The mix of platforms is growing and the knowledge associated with their development through experience is key. Happy job hunting.

Next week we’ll be looking at the Senior Digital Project Manager’s Role.

Digital Project Manager

Experience: 2-5 years

Salary: £25-35k (non London, but UK based) up to £80k London

Role: managing projects and programmes from concept to delivery, confidently managing internal development teams to deliver briefs, managing internal and external clients/stakeholders, planning digital campaigns, managing various delivery platform development, producing time, cost and scope documentation, managing and allocating resources, manage schedule, budgets, assets, monitor and anticipate risks like scope creep with timely solutions to mitigate them, link objectives of the client to present and future needs, exceed expectations for delivery and performance,

Knowledge needed: understanding of the technical landscape, strategic marketing ideas translated into digital solutions, enthusiasm for technologies and digital communication, brief designers, developers, Art Directors, Information Architects,

Competence in: experience of using appropriate project management tools including Prince 2, Agile, Scrum Master, Basecamp, Merlin, Sifter, MS Project etc., SEO techniques and metrics, content production/copywriting for web, high-volume, quick-turnaround projects, working alongside Account Teams, managing up to 20 projects a day, excellent project management skills, excellent administrative skills, managing change control in projects, meeting budgets.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Those elusive perfect project management tools

Yes, where are they?

The range and number of project management (PM) tools has increased significantly and some work across mobile too. But there still seems to be the basic problem of the tool not exactly suiting how you work. People complain that they have to tailor the way they work to suit the tool. For example, Microsoft Project came out of the large, very long, and detailed software development projects prior to the Internet. It has myriad features; so many that it is hard to get started because you have to understand its logic and relate it to what you are doing.

Then the communication flow tools, like Basecamp, proved popular because they allowed people to stay in contact and pass information around efficiently whilst keeping a record of the communication. Some say it grew out of the Lotus 123 type of corporate communication tracking but was web based and therefore more versatile.

Now we have tools that concentrate on the costing and automated billing processes. These are time trackers that allocate a rate according to the person or role, and as you enter the time they have spent on a task, the program calculates exactly how much the effort has cost. These are popular with ad agencies because they tend to suit the way they have worked with clients in the past for traditional media, and now interactive media is added into the equation, they want it to operate in the same way.

Project management tools have an inherent logic in the way they are structured. They mirror a human approach, a philosophy, despite trying to offer a systematic process to make projects flow efficiently for all involved, and to fairly cost the work done as the project unfolds. In the end, the biggest clash is still between the visual creatives (web designers, graphics) and the way they work, and the programmers who are creative but within their own systematic logic inherent in the symbolic, abstract computer languages they have to work with. The wordsmiths (content creators, marketers) also embody their own approaches in the words used.

We get back to that thorny problem of coordinating across cross-functional teams to produce any interactive application on any platform. The mix of people reflects the mix of philosophies that drive their expertise and so that's why one PM tool never seems to fit all. Does that leave us any closer to a solution? Well, people can adapt. They can appreciate or learn to appreciate how a system can help them despite causing them some teething problems. Tools are getting more versatile. People are getting more used to having to use some form of PM tool.

After trawling the web trying to find people in our industry raving about "the perfect pm tool", I only found the one: but that's refreshing. See Phil Matthews and Trello, my Perfect Project Management App.

Anyone else have a PM tool to rave about?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Databases: relational instances or NoSQL

Rather like that man who would occasionally emerge from a shed on the Fast Show, these days I am mostly working on databases.

So far they have been relational databases, based on a plan devised in 1970 by a man named Edgar Codd who worked for IBM in California. In this model data is split into tables and they are interlinked by using keys (usually numbers). A table is basically a flat file, like a spreadsheet and has a number of records (eg people) with fields (such as their name). If you want to record the companies they work for you could have a field in the people table with the company name but, more likely, you will have another table of companies which contains the information about each company. The relational bit is that there would be a reference number (an ID) for each company and it is this ID that would be included, in a 'companies' field, in the people table in order to link the person to the company. In this way several people can work for the same company. Incidentally, the process of separating out data so that repeated stuff (like the company data) is in another table and is cross-referenced is known as normalisation.

This model starts to fall down, by becoming more complex, if the relationships become multi-connected. Let me give you an example.

You have a database of CDs. A CD has, as what we call its attributes, such things as a title, an artist, a release data and a list of songs. Two things are problematic here: artist names can vary subtly between albums and each album has a different number of songs on it. Because of this you can't have a simple relationship between the record for an artist (in the artist table) and the CD or between a song (in the song table) and the CD. This is because the artist has more than one name and a song may be on more than one CD.

To deal with this you can use instances of the links between the tables and all these instances go into a separate table. For the artist there is one instance for one name by which the act is known (eg Prince) and one for another (the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) and the album links to whichever instance is appropriate (and gets the artist's name from it) and the instance then links to the main artist information. Similarly with songs, although usually ... but not always ... the song's name remains the same for each instance.

Doing this adds versatility to the database but it increases the number of tables and can also reduce performance.

Such complexity is one of the reasons that the 21st Century approach to databases is widening beyond the relational model (scalability is an even more crucial one) and although many of the big players on the web, such as Facebook and Twitter, use such a database there are others. Google's Big Table being perhaps the best known. These collectively seem to be known as NoSQL (because they don't use the SQL query language), although if you read the discussion page associated with the previous Wikipedia link, it does seem to be a controversial topic. I should add that Wikipedia's Talk pages are always worth checking.

I don't think relational databases are quite dead yet, and not all of us have Google's voracious appetite for data ... but it's clearly something to keep an eye on. What do you think?

Friday, 27 April 2012

To program or not to program ...

... that is a question that is getting an increasing airing these days, especially when it comes to schools. Following hot on the subroutines of the BBC Micro anniversary the Sinclair Spectrum celebrated its 30th birthday this week. More on this via the Register. Now the Raspberry Pi is finally reaching its market and the low price and included easy and not-so-easy programming languages [including Scratch, Python, Java and C/C++] would make it an ideal schools machine. ICT is not synonymous with spreadsheets and data-prep after all.

I read about the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones's description of attending a coding course recently. The story is on the BBC web site. This appeared to be mostly to do with HTML and CSS with some JavaScript for good measure and certainly exercised some Register readers (and their ever-readable ringmaster Andrew Orlowski) as to what the value of this was, and even whether using HTML and CSS was even coding. Probably not ... but I continue to be frustrated on a regular basis by the lack of logic that seems to permeate CSS which might even make it anti-code! But enough of my problems.

I've long held the view that to manage a process you should know something of how it works. Up until the latest version of Managing Interactive Media we included a number of technical backgrounders on the component parts of multi/interactive media – such as audio, graphics and programming – to help this process. The final versions of these, from the third edition, are available free on the web as PDFs. If you read the testimonials from the course RCJ attended you will see that many of the executives who attend such things (run by a company called Decoded ... of whom I must say I have no direct experience) are of the same view.
When we have a better-than-skin-deep understanding of technology, two things happen: we have better ideas and we also treat our internal and external partners in a considerably more effective manner.
Says Mel Exon of BBH Labs. I couldn't agree more.

I would add that in my experience the technical people you work with will appreciate you more if you have a little experience of their expertise. At the very least you'll have more vocabulary in common.

[Bootnote: Should have invited RCJ on our course!]

Friday, 20 April 2012

Clients and commissioning iMedia

Just as we moan about clients, they moan about us too. It's best we listen so that we can address their concerns because satisfied clients mean return business. Also, someone else's dissatisfied clients may mean business for us.

Many problems that are thrown up in iMedia development can be avoided if some steps are followed at the beginning of the project. It goes back to the questions you ask your clients prior to beginning work. Maybe they will be experienced enough to already formulate a good brief for you, but it is just as well to have your sets of questions and mentally tick off the answers from the clients brief. Then you’ll just need to raise the outstanding issues you have left.

Digital Mosaic, What clients need to consider when commissioning a web site, have their own version of a project scoping questionnaire that covers General, Branding, Technical, and Design issues they feel are needed to set a project on track. Does it ring true for you? Have you a similar set of queries? The MRG Blog from 23rd March, How to approach Commissioning a Website or Web project, addresses client's concerns in a broader brush way and rather than questions, they highlight a client's attitude and general approaches to defining what is needed from the web site.

But there is a more common set of problems that arise because of interdependencies between agencies and web developers. The agencies have clients they are already working with for other media requirements and need developers to help out with the iMedia requirements; those that haven't their own in-house teams, that is. It seems that this relationship teases out quite a few gremlins as stated in Caroline's Blog for White Label Development on Outsourcing Web Development. This makes interesting reading and points to the classic tensions of creativity versus technology versus user-friendliness and so on. Usually these are hidden facets in in-house teams where front and back end developers clash. Ah! The pivotal role of the project manager becomes crucial in this set of circumstances.

And let's not forget those building apps. Because they are small and neat, usually tight in functionality by nature of their application, their development can be almost bundled in with other iMedia requirements. But, their development shares a lot with web development issues when you look at the pleas from Rob Borley's 15th March blog for In-traction, The two most common questions asked of apps developers. These are by the way, How much does it cost? and how long does it take? Seems apps developers need their own set of scoping questions before starting any work. What do you do?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Get your cookies while they're red hot

The European Union told us last year that we needed to get explicit permission to set a cookie in a visitor's bowser. The old technique of having a 'we use cookies and this is how you disable them' message on a privacy page was no longer enough and after a year's grace, May 26th 2012 is the date. After this time the UK Information Commissioner's Office could be on your case if you, (make that we), don't conform.

There's a nice developer feature in Chrome that makes it easy to see what cookies are set when you go to a site. Using this on the ATSF site shows that our hosting company sets a cookie and Google Analytics sets some cookies. I don't program any cookies into the site directly.

Despite the year's grace period, the situation is still potentially complex. A couple of useful places to go for more information are a PDF on the web site of the UK International Chamber of Commerce called the UK ICC Cookie Guide, and a piece on the ever useful Register site: A month to go on Cookie Law: Will Google Analytics get a free pass? which looks in more detail at the question of analytics cookies (with a lower-case A as well as an upper-case one).

One category of cookie needs no consent. As the guide says:
These cookies are essential in order to enable you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these, cookies services you have asked for, like shopping baskets or e-billing, cannot be provided.
This is a Category 1 Strictly Necessary Cookie.These quotes, by the way, are suggested text with which you can inform your users about what is going on with cookies on your site.

The next category is the Performance Cookie.
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information that identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works.
The final two categories are Functionality Cookies, which track preferences, and Targeting/Advertising Cookies, which tailor advertising to your habits and often pass information between web sites.

The Register reporter managed to get a quote from the Information Commissioners Office which suggests that they won't be loosing too much sleep chasing uninformed performance cookies and will be providing more guidance on this sometime soon.

The ICO web site helps us see one tactic for dealing with all this (and has done for some time). When you first visit it, on any page, there will be a message,as below, across the top of the page:
The ICO would like to place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better. To find out more about the cookies, see our privacy notice.
With a check-box and a button. When you check the box and click the button the page reloads, the message is no longer there, and a cookie called 'ICOCookiesAccepted', with a year's lifetime, is set along with the four Google Analytics cookies. If you don't check the box and agree then every page you visit will have the message at the top.

The logic is as follows:
Check whether an AcceptCookies cookie is set. If it is not set then add the cookie form at the top of the page. If the cookie is set then don't add the form.

Accepting cookies using the form activates an 'invisible' page which records the referring page, sets the cookie and returns the visitor to the referring page.

For any web site with a cookie-tracked 'private' area, using cookie category 1, then you don't need explicit permission. However, consider the case where there is a login form on every page ... just a small one at the top probably. A common approach for such a site is to open a session for each page and then check the session cookies and if the user is already logged in you show slightly different content; even if that is just a 'Log Out' button. It is doubtful whether setting a cookie designed to manage a secure area is essential on non-secure pages or for non-secure visitors, so in future such pages will need to check for a 'private area' cookie before opening a session on such a page.

The Google Analytics cookie question is a bit more complex (and similarly for any cookie-based analytics system). If your visitors have to explicitly ask for such cookies to be set then they will be under-reported and the value of the analytics data is greatly reduced. (The ICO have admitted that only 10% of their visitors click this box.) Old fashioned web server logs will not be affected of course, and it would be interesting to see just how many, or how few, visitors do agree to cookies.

Your clients, particularly smaller ones, may not be aware of what is supposed to happen at the end of May. Now is the time to discuss this, even if the analytics cookie question is still a little open.