Category Archives: Blog

One platform to rule them all. (Not really)

We (designers and developers alike), are constantly looking for the perfect platform, the perfect framework, the perfect workflow. Although we know that’s a myth. It simply doesn’t exist. We know that, we even admit it to ourselves, we simply won’t say it out loud, we might whisper it, but that’s as far as we dare to go.

The ideal case study

A new client comes to you, knows what she wants, has a good understanding of technology and knows what a web developer does. She also recognises the importance of design, user experience, but best of all: trusts your knowledge.
Then you both agree on a timeline with deadlines and roles. You both equally commit to it.
The project starts. Everything goes as planned. Marvellous. Then you wake up. It was just a dream.

Dream’s over, Frodo.*

* But you can still travel from Middle Earth to everywhere, meet awesome people and learn new things.

I’ve been dreaming of setting up my own (re-usable) templates, both for quoting and for designing, but despite trying for years and with the exception of some small modules, I haven’t found a solution: every new project has its own life, with repeatable patterns. I’m now focusing on these.

  1. 1. Writing up a contract
  2. 2. Presenting conceptual ideas
  3. 3. Developing design
  4. 4. Front-end development (I hardly do any proper back-end stuff)
  5. 5. Iterations
  6. 6. Soft launch (then go to no. 5)
  7. 7. Final launch
  8. 8. Feedback
  9. 9. …and repeat.

1, 2 and 8 require a lot of writing. I have templates to start from, mostly headlines to highlight sections I need to remember to look (at, up, after), but then it’s a lot of blank space to fill in with thoughts, ideas and questions. It requires time, it’s needed, it’s a good exercise and doesn’t get too messy, so that’s okay.

3 and 4 are generally where most of my time goes. When that is true for no. 5 I know something went wrong in no. 2.
Now, designing and developing are also my favourite parts of any project, so that shouldn’t be too difficult to go through. Wrong.
I’ve now identified few issues with my workflow that directly affect these otherwise very enjoyable aspects of my job:
First of all I tend to distance myself from the client while designing. This is okay when the process starts, as I need to actually materialise the concepts the client and I agreed on. An easy mistake is to underestimate how much difference early feedback can make. This is not to say that you should show your client that piece of paper with coffee stains, where you scribbled on during lunch break because of the inspirational moment that happened between your slice of pizza and a sip of elderflower tea. The client won’t get it, you won’t be able to explain it, it’s all in your head. Allow it to settle, then do a proper job: prototype.
Finding the right balance of design and tech functionalities is, at this stage, fundamental: you don’t want to spend too much time developing something you might end up not using at all, but you want the client to get the idea. Don’t leave too much to their imagination. Don’t give them a fully functional website either!
Identify the key objects, make sure you understand your client’s identity, find the exceptions, stress your design on them. If you take care of the tricky parts first, you’re more likely to have less issues afterwards.
These are worth spending time on.

Get feedback. Defend your design and its strengths, but learn to accept criticism in a productive way. Explain why you picked a specific colour or font type, listen to why they don’t like it.

Iterations are important. If you get it right your design will benefit from your client’s feedback rather than suffer from it!

Communication between you, the developer, and your client is the key. Don’t forget that you are the project manager in their eyes. I’ve learnt the hard way (who hasn’t?). Still worth it.

Upgrading from Foundation 4 to 5

I thought I’d share this in case another half designer half front-end developer runs into the same issues I had.
Unfortunately I wasn’t so smart to record my process step by step, so some info might be missing. But here is a recollection of what I remember doing when updating from Foundation 4 to Foundation 5.

I’m currently working on few different projects using Foundation 4.
One is fairly recent and I thought it was worth upgrading it to Foundation 5.
Not least because this is the version I’m going to use when the next project comes along. A good chance to start familiarising with it.

When I thought about upgrading I was well aware that I needed to run projects in F4 as well as projects in F5… at the same time.

Let me say that don’t know Ruby, I’m new to Foundation and I only recently started using the shell/terminal consistently because of SASS. So, I’m no expert and most of the times I am not sure what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’. Stackoverflow is a lifesaver when I get stuck. This is the post that pointed me in the right direction from the start.

So RVM let’s you run different versions of Ruby simultaneously.

\curl -L https://get.rvm.io | bash -s stable --ruby=1.9.3

To be specific I installed 1.8.7 for my older project and 2.0.0 for the one I needed to upgrade.

rvm install 1.8.7
rvm install 2.0.0

You can also set which one you want to run by default.

rvm --default use 2.0.0

Then I upgraded from Foundation 4 to 5 following the official docs.

I remember installing rubygems for v 1.8.7 (when I tried to recompile a .scss file in F4 the first time after the upgrade I run into an error pointing out I was missing rubygems).

rvm rubygems 1.8.7

Issues

Once reinstalled zurb-foundation for projects running in F4 and foundation for project running F5, new projects worked fine.
Not so much for existing ones (whether upgraded or not): I had to manually change the link to the js components in my base.html template to point to the bower_components folder.

Not a big deal to be honest and it might well be that I have forgotten some steps in the procedure that would have fixed this from the start (maybe I didn’t recompile, can’t remember!).

Although messy and patchy, I hope you can find some useful information if you’re in the process of upgrading to Foundation 5 and/or run Foundation 4 and 5 simultaneously.

Also, if you have found a cleaner way to manage projects in this sort of scenario, please let me know by commenting below! Thanks. 🙂

Reporting from MEX 2013

I recently struggled to get back into writing, whether for lack of time or for the ability to focus on one single subject. And that’s why it took me so long to report back about my experience at MEX, last September.

But I finally did it and you can read the article on the King’s College DDH Blog: http://wip.cch.kcl.ac.uk/2013/11/25/reporting-from-mex-2013/

P.S. and Thank yous

Thanks to my friends Giulio, Leonard and Saverio (alphabetical order!) for their precious advice and resources (see below) that got me out of the puddle of mud-words I was stuck in.

A piece of advice… (from my friends)

(And this came up to my mind, sorry: With a little help for my friends)

  • If your sentences are too long and complicated, break them up. You’re probably trying to express more than one concept.
  • One sentence per bullet points and you’ll get your post! (I was stuck with bullet points)

Useful resources

The importance of networking

Let’s be clear: networking is not my strongest skill. Partly because I’ve underestimated the importance of it, at least until now, and partly because I’m relatively shy.

I like people, but I’ve always seen myself more as a listener than a talker, which my friends might disagree with.

I thought networking was mostly about selling yourself and your ideas, a sort of endless pitch market.

Although I’m convinced that it is so to a certain extent, I also think that the best part of networking is the chance to exchange, compare and discover.

Are you competitive? I am. I also believe that in competition as pretty much always in life respect is the key.

In the last couple of months I had the opportunity to talk to many brilliant professionals, from designers, to developers, to product and project managers, asking questions and listening was inspiring. Most of time you look for a confirmation that where you’re going with your job is the right direction, but there are moments when someone say or show something from a different angle, one you’ve never considered before and that’s when I feel I learn the most. It feels like your mind opens up a bit more and it actually adds something to your knowledge.

Networking to me is the mean to increase the chance for those moments. Drastically.

So far, it has worked.

I recently became part of the London Web Standards group, a bunch of pretty amazing people who organises events focusing on mostly web-related topics. I’m enjoying very much my role as co-organiser and I look forwards to see how it evolves and what I learn from this experience.

Hi-Res for 2013

 

As the 2012 hits the archive and gets tagged as very weird, I come to think of what I want for this 2013 that has just started.

I reached some of the goals I set for 2012, but I hope for a better year, this year.

My challenge will be to challenge myself (more).

  • To set higher goals
  • To not be scared to fail
  • And if I do fail, to learn from it
  • To get up and do better
  • To learn more

Let the 2013 be the year I worked for for a long time.

Aren’t these the thoughts of every morning?

Well, yes, they are. But at the beginning of the year you’re allowed to post them on your website.

Why working with family and friends can be… difficult

 

More difficult than working with other clients.

  1. It’s not that they don’t respect you as a person, it’s that they forget you are a professional other than a friend/relative.
  2. They will always ask for a better price, when not for free.
  3. ‘It’s not urgent’. Therefore the payment won’t be urgent (read quick).

OR

  1. ‘It’s very urgent’ and ‘We’ll pay you as soon as we start making money out of it’.
  2. They don’t like contracts or written agreements. ‘What? You don’t trust me?’.
  3. They keep it loose. ‘I like that thing to be a bit like that other thing, but with a twist and maybe later more like this thing too…’ Etc.
  4. There won’t be any layout to stick too, no matter how often you email it to them, it will disappear (AND/OR change every couple of days).
  5. You should know what they want without them telling you.
  6. They don’t have much money to spend on this…
  7. …But they will recommend you to anyone they know. (Whether that anyone they know needs a website or not is less than important).

Oh, wait… This is exactly what happens with many regular clients. So what’s the difference?

You are going to see them again.
(And you love them.)

PS. Anyone can argue that if any of the above happens to you it’s your fault, as a professional, for not stating the obvious beforehand and set the rules as they should be.
I agree. But I also know that when I wake up in the morning the perfect relationship between a freelance web designer and a client was a dream.

PPS. No, seriously I agree that professionals should make every possible effort to prepare the ground for a healthy and productive relationship between them and their clients.
And things can go either right or wrong no matter what. So have a laugh, do your best and keep enjoying what you do.

My working hours explained

How much time do I spend on my actual web developer job?

Pie chart of my work hours

I’ve spent the last three months picking random normal working days and noting the amount of time I would spend on different tasks.

Why did I do this?

I wasn’t always getting as much as I wanted out of my working days and I wanted to find out if I was doing something especially wrong.
As it turns out I need to optimise my time spent on communicating with clients.

What did I get out of this?

Although these numbers are not accurate since I timed myself and scribbled the results here and there on any piece of paper I could find on my desk, it still gave me a vague idea on the time consuming tasks. Those areas are the ones where I need more efficiency.

Results of the study *

Over three months I picked 10 days and took note of the time spent on recurrent tasks.

  • 59% Web development
    This includes coding, creating graphics, layouts, wireframes, etc.
  • 24% Emails and phone calls with clients
  • 9% Reading web stuff and tech news
  • 5% Training
  • 3% Accounting

I realise all these tasks are essential to what I do and I can already think of cutting down to 2% the accounting since the more familiar I will get with those procedures, the faster I will be. But that won’t make a huge impact on my daily workload.

I definitely need to find a more efficient way to communicate with my clients.
Delivering quotes and explaining projects in detail is where I am wasting most of my time. It’s also where I get the chance to give clients the attention they need though.

Not replying emails is not an option, I can picture the phone call a week later:
Client: “Are you dead?”
Me: “Yes, but I’ll be back next Monday.”

An assistant is not an option, can’t afford it. Plus I’m not sure I would go there before I feel I have optimise my way of working, don’t really want to pass on my bad habits and then blame them for the mess! I want to be the good boss when it comes to it.

Write and speak faster… Joking.

I can reserve only certain times of the day to the communication bit and reduce disruptions to the web development work to a minimum.
Yes, that’s probably what I will be doing.

Suggestions? Please leave a comment!

* This is not a scientific nor serious statistic study, it was only made by myself for myself and I doubt it has any scientific value at all, so draw your own conclusions.

Working from home

Makes me read less paper books.

When I used to commute to work, roughly 3 hours a day on trains and tube, I used to read a lot. There wasn’t much else I could do while sitting on the train.

I read novels, but I also read papers and… books about web.

For the last 7 months I’ve been working from home and I’ve noticed that my pile of books is not growing as fast as it used too.

Truth is I am spending more time in front of my computer working, I don’t have the journey to work, so I start early and finish a little later, not by much, I give myself a limit.

I tried to read before bed time, but I find myself tired and it’s hard to focus for long enough, therefore I hardly get the chance to read books about the techy stuff I am curious about.

In the morning I look for news, and Twitter is my favourite way of reading a bit of everything: from what’s happening around the world to the latest in the new technology world, to sports and, why not, gossip, just for that blank moment when you drink your coffee (black, one sugar, thanks). I find myself reading a lot of articles lately, but hardly any tech book.

I tried to substitute the morning news with books, but my head is spinning twice as fast organising my day: clients’ emails, to-do-list and deadlines! I can’t sit back and enjoy the read, even if it’s for the sake of my learning skills, which becomes somehow work related.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working from home, it has a lot of benefits, I just miss my reading time, but I guess I only need to readjust my rhythm.

Lunch break? Weekends only?

When do you read? What support do you read on? Proper books, e-books, online magazines?

The unmissable* events of 2012

My wishlist of this year web related events.

Following up from the 21st of February post, Event, workshop or training course? I had a chance to look for some of the events that could be of interest for any web designer.

It’s unlikely that I will manage to attend one or two of those listed, that’s why I called it wishlist and it’s ordered by wish importance, desire to attend and not ordered by date.

Dreaming doesn’t cost much, but most of these conferences do.

Feel free to suggest any other event you think it’s unmissable for a web designer.

  1. Future Insights Live

    When: 30 Apr / 4 May
    Where: Las Vegas, NV, USA
    How much: Tickets start from $795.00

  2. An Event Apart

    When: Various dates from 2 April to 29 August
    Where: Various cities in the US.
    How much: Tickets start from $449.00

  3. Future of Web Design London

    When: 14 / 16 May
    Where: London, UK
    How much: Tickets start from £358.80

  4. SXSW Interactive

    When: 9 / 13 March
    Where: Austin, TX, USA
    How much: Tickets start from $950.00

  5. The Next Web Conference

    When: 25 / 27 April
    Where: Amsterdam, NL
    How much: Tickets start from €650.00

  6. UX London

    When: 18 / 20 April
    Where: London, UK
    How much: Tickets start from £745.00

  7. UX Lx: User Experience Lisbon

    When: 16 / 18 May
    Where: Lisbon, Portugal
    How much: Tickets start from €295.00

  8. Future Innovation Technology Creativity

    When: 27 / 28 February
    Where: Amsterdam, NL
    How much: Tickets start from €239.00

  9. Internet World 1992-2012

    When: 24 / 26 April
    Where: London, UK
    How much: Free if you register in advance.

  10. I wouldn’t mind attending a WordCamp, but every website I visited for each location it didn’t really make me want to go.

* Err… Some are missable, but I couldn’t be bothered to change the title, sorry.

Accessibility. Do you care?

I do, as long as we are talking about the same thing.

Let me define what I mean for accessibility first.

Since I first started my adventure in the web design field I looked for points of reference, guidelines, rules, suggestions, something I could go back to compare and evaluate my work with.

The W3C has always been a good place to find the resources I needed and I find this draft on usability and accessibility pretty helpful in order to understand what accessibility is, where it overlaps with usability and where it doesn’t.

When designing it’s important to keep in mind your end users, you want to meet their expectations and you want to surprise them, but not disorient them. You want your visitors to find what they need, which supposingly is your product/service.

Graphic design, content, functions, they all need to meet a set target.

It’s an easy mistake trying to please everybody. The reality is that every product or service has its own target, no matter how broad it is, it won’t be everybody.

That said, I believe accessibility should be for everybody.

Accessibility is about ensuring an equivalent user experience for people with disabilities. For the Web, it means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with websites and tools, and that they can contribute equally without barriers. Accessibility is not an option, it is a human right, as recognized in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Source: http://www.w3.org/WAI/EO/Drafts/access-use/accessibility-n-usability-2010-10Oct-31.html#accessibility

Other than the indisputable ethic and moral value that accessibility has, let’s not forget that there are obbligations and commercial benefits to it too.

I am going back to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) again, because they put it better than I could, obviously:

Social, technical, financial and legal factors are different aspects you want to consider when developing a business case for accessibility.
Read more here: http://www.w3.org/WAI/bcase/Overview#factors

Web designers are not different from architects: you have the opportunity to build something that will be enjoyable by all who decide to visit your creation or build something that will inevitabily leave someone out. What would you do?

Useful links