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.