Heading It Up

March 8th, 2005

Using heading tags (H1 - H6) correctly is important as it imparts information about the content of the page. The word of the day that I do hate is ‘semantics‘ but its the word that fits best. By chunking your information with the correct headings you give a general outline of the structure of your page that goes beyond how the heading itself is displayed.

I’ve noticed a few sites that don’t seem to follow the correct use of the heading tags and although their pages validate they don’t quite get across the bar for this simple reason - they don’t actually make a lot of sense. Simple as that really. So as a general rule you should probably look at making your site name the H1 heading and work down your page to H6, although I’ve seen it argued whether or not to go 1 - 6 or make all next level headings h2 then h3 and so forth providing levels of information chunks as I tend towards.

If you only do it for the simple sake of being better understood by Google its very little effort. Headings are headings, paragraphs are paragraphs and lists are in fact and unsurprisingly lists. So by making a class called ‘.mytitle‘ and having it display just like the H1 heading, you create a situation where although they look the same they actually aren’t. One imparts meaning and the other is really just content. So be nice to boring old headings and stop that silly nonsense…

Taming Scope on Freebies

March 7th, 2005

Where is a big job declared to be too big? Or a small job said to be large for that matter? Scope is the creeping enemy that can and will sink the smallest software projects right up to the multi-million dollar ones. So its important before ever a line of code, or agreement to sell your soul, that you and the client come to a signed agreement of what you are willing to do for the money that they’re willing to pay. Its as simple as that in its most basic form. Anything bigger than the original plan means scope creep and you’ll have it written into the contract this is work to be billed on top of your original quote.

I mention scope because I’m reading some documents sent to me by a client who I’m about to do some free work for. The usual situation would be to use the contract and monetary means to try to keep the project in scope, but what do you do for free? And a high end programmer I’m definately not so there are also limits to my ability to bring things in at all let alone on time.

Well perhaps ‘keep it simple stupid’ (KISS) is the philosophy that comes to mind here. I can see that every extra bell and whistle could possibly become the solution. But does it have to? Wouldn’t a more usable and simple solution be more viable than making a complex one simply because you can? The right solution is the one that fits the problem like a glove not a giant Ugg boot (don’t sue me for using the Ugg word either).

So it makes me wonder what in the living life of Mulder (off the X-Files) can a guy do to pull this one into some kind of manageable scope?

In the meantime I’m having fun playing with Virtual Stan.

Dynamic Text Replacement With PHP

March 6th, 2005

This is a question borne out of frustration as much as anything so take it as a question / rant / frustrated sob into my dirty wet cloth handkerchief.

The A List Apart article on dynamic text replacement by Stewart Rosenberger has driven me crazy for its obvious usefulness, for its apparent simplicity and for its inability to work on my server for no offered sensible reason. Having trawled back and forth the 28 pages of comments and discussion of this article on A List Apart (and with comments seemingly not available anymore) I can only say that I do have the GD Library installed and FreeType is enabled (the rude assertions from some quarters can thus hold their breath). And I’m not the only person to have this problem, the exact same problem, so if Stewart, A List Apart or anyone in the entire planet can tell me what is out of sync here then my left testicle belongs in a specimen jar on your office filing cabinet. Maybe that’s a bit overboard, joke, no coming here with knives because I’m a screamer, too.

The symptoms… well in IE I just get the alt tags appearing with red X’s for each PNG not appearing. And in FF I get the words in the current text but pushed together so there isn’t any word-spacing. Otherwise it works perfectly, of course.

Although its a brilliant bit of work and it looks great on the test page it doesn’t work on quite a few installations and nobody has developed a definitive why that I’ve been able to find. So if you know then could you please save my sanity and help me out?

When to Walk Away

March 5th, 2005

There’s always going to be a tension or conflict between client and designer. The business might want specific things while the designer has other ideas. Is the client always right? Oh if it was only that easy I could sleep like a baby and drink whiskey every other night in front of the television.

Lets put it this way. Standing in the middle of a problem (as does the client) its not always that easy to see what the problem really amounts to. Its not to say they don’t know what their business is because they’re the most valuable resource of information about it that we’ll have at hand, but they don’t necessrily know how to identify the problem. I mean in the context of the creation of a web solution to solve their www problem. If they don’t have a problem they don’t need a designer to find a solution.

Its tiring wrestling with an organisation that just boldly insists they want what they want, too. Imagine they like animated gifs or have an extreme love of the brightest boldest cack fireman’s pencil red with green Times Roman because it’s on their company newsletter. What do you do? Well I guess my advice is as valid as anyone’s and its a judgement call, especially as a freelancer. Income vs grief and pain. Ideally the client should respect you know a bit of science about internet technologies and what works as well as the designer understanding the client has to go home with a product they’re happy to call their own. Unfortunately not all business relationships will be as amenable as the ideal and its necessary to cut them away and move on. Don’t let your job wreck your head, in other words, as its just not worth the bucks.

Good Java - The Value of Coffee

March 2nd, 2005

This is a hardcore article because it covers fetish, addiction and coding all under the same heading - probably a h2 or h3 because I’m too lazy to look under the hood and find out what I’ve got going on under there today. Yes a sense of humour in web design is an essential or the world will fall down. But that’s not the topic.

Coffee is the topic. The hot warm wet love I have for my breakfast as I start up the aging beast in the office, still in a dressing gown or pulling my pants up. It stays by my side like a good dog for most of the day only being replaced by another good dog or a cup of coffee or the hand of my lovely mrs blister as she takes and leaves vessels of coffee for me to drink. There wouldn’t be much to the day without coffee and especially a good quality plunger coffee. Then the last thing before I go to bed at night or even in the morning sometimes is to have one last coffee so the sleep will envelop me. My woman first naturally, doggies second, my computer third - then my coffee. Given the choice between food and coffee I usually take coffee.

As an XHTML / CSS coding tool I think coffee is essential. OK sure it cuts down my life by a great number of years, causes heart disease and strokes and would never get to market if it was discovered today. But I honestly wouldn’t have any teeth left if I drank this much Coca Cola.

Mockups and Prototypes

March 1st, 2005

Recently there was a conversation of sorts between two developers and something tweaked my ears. One developer suggested jumping directly to XHTML / CSS prototypes and skipping the mockup stages for the simple reason at the end of prototyping they would have the shell to build, it would all be sitting there. They asked the advantages of doing mockups in FireWorks or PhotoShop rather than in code. So I guess my comment would go something like this.

Firstly to each their own and I really don’t ever want to be a soapbox guy who thinks he’s got the only answer to every single issue. But I’d suggest that its in fact quicker to get signed off on graphic mockups simply from a logistical point of view - they are much easier and quicker to come up with, they can go in the bin and start again with very little time involved (personal heartbreak aside of course) and graphic mockups can just be emailed back and forth or printed out and handed around the table. Everything I’ve been taught has actually said this is the best process to get the best software out to market, too.

Wheras with an XHTML / CSS prototype to develop the actual design takes a lot of grunt if the client is on the other end of the phone working out the look and feel as you go. What if they decide the right navigation should be top navigation or that every second paragraph in a specific section needs some special case. By this I mean that you have to hunt through the CSS trying to work out sometimes complex inheritance issues or browser bugs on the fly. I’ve chewed a lot of days doing this very same thing just because I’m the kind of guy who gets a video game and reads the instructions like next week or later when I’m stuck. But process should be about discipline and the process should make for a better product one would expect.

So personally I won’t be throwing mockups away to jump straight to prototyping as it just seems bad sense. Of course, you just might find me breaking my own rules tomorrow but hey I’m also a human lol. I make my fair share of bad moves like everyone.

PC4Peace.org

February 27th, 2005

My call for an NPO which needed free services badly a few days ago resulted in a prompt email from a deserving group called PC4Peace.org in Japan. It always amazes me how the world is so big and small at the same time.

PC4Peace refurbish computers and send them to Cambodia as well as sending books to Laos. Small as they are they have global ideals and recycling useful stuff isn’t just uber-cool in a humanitarian sense but also kind of geeky-cool in the fact someone who’d never get access to some books or technologies can be checking out Pacman (or doing Math) on your old Pentium III in whole other country. So if anyone else has services they can help these guys out with (ie. experience helping us deliver a multilingual site) then drop an email or a comment to Norty Pig. Its important to us, at least, to be a responsible part of the global society which our Web encompasses.

While only a few years ago most users of the web were U.S. in origin this is steadily decreasing as more countries get online in a big way. As a small firm we definately want to go down the multilingual route with these guys because in the long term we’ll be a stronger competitor in the marketplace. So its win / win really. PC4Peace gets a facelift and boob job and we get to evolve toward an International capability.

CMS - Pushing Squares into Circles

February 26th, 2005

I’m no particular fan of CMS solutions or making one size fits all sales pitches to a diverse range of businesses, in fact my few experiences of CMS have generally been that they take a bit of learning, are not very intuitive, don’t provide what I the user expect, blah blah. OK I ‘really’ don’t like CMS but its mostly founded on two peeves. The first is that a CMS should and really can if it wanted be a pleasant experience that doesn’t require me to read 80 pages of counter-intuitive mumbo jargon when I just want to know how to do something basic like add some content. The second is that CMS are very often offered as a one solution fits all bag of tricks. All businesses are different with their own culture, information architecture, and client base. And its a case of having 100 sites up (well way more) that all look like yours. Jeffrey Veen wrote in his aticle Making a Better CMS his similar experiences investigating the CMS path in that they aren’t made to be easy to use at all. Software made by geeks for geeks. Now as I read his words I just thought ‘oh yeh, yeh, oh’. That was an article at Adaptive Path by the way.

Non Profit? Need a Redesign?

February 25th, 2005

After some consideration of the spare slice of time that sits on my desk between the other jobs, waiting for content, meetings and the like, I’ve decided to offer my services to another non-profit organisation gratis to either build their site or redesign the current one. I’m sure there must be some NPO either in Hobart or interstate looking for the free services of a savvy firm like us (tongue in cheek). From the one’s I’ve looked at most are badly done template sites so maybe its time one of them found a real designer.

So if you belong to, are associated with, or know of any deserving group or institution that has a doh site and needs a facelift and complete overhaul steer them to our contact page at Norty Pig.

Think Before You Sink

February 25th, 2005

Some general advice to developers, well people everywhere, about being abusive on forums. While I agree in the sanctity of one’s office, bedroom or garden shed it may appear that some high ground or victory has elevated one’s status to demi-god of geeky ‘I know the specs-ness’ those barbs and taunts are being indexed by Google and MSN and kept in other web site archives. Its sound advice to remember this before calling someone an idiot, for instance, or criticising your boss or calling your client any name other than the one they arrived in your office with - because they or the next customer may just Google your name and find out what is out there. For instance, you might apply for a good job oneday or want to create business partnerships.

Good PR and marketing is more than the face you put on for the office.

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