Daniel Kitson | January 30, 2004
I’m looking forward to seeing Daniel Kitson’s new stand-up show in Brighton tonight. He was one of the comics I most wanted to see at last summers Paramount Comedy Festival in Brighton. However I managed to miss him as I was on holiday at the time.
Fast becoming a regular Edinburgh fixture, Daniel won the Perrier prize a few years back, and is seen as something of a comic’s comic. I saw him perform live very early on in his career, and have to say he’s one of the funniest stand-ups I’ve seen. Can’t wait.
A Weakly Source Of Inspiration | January 29, 2004
Russ runs Max Design, a web design firm in Australia specialising in web standards. Many people will have come across Russ though his excellent Listomatic and Listutorial presentations. Since then, Russ has been building an archive of quality articles at a rate of knots. They are coming so thick and fast, Russ has just posted a new article while I'm still getting round to posting about his last one.
Russ also chairs an organisation called the Web Standards Group. This groups runs regular meeting around Australia, allowing web standards enthusiasts to meet up and discuss issues that interest them. The turnout for these meetings looks pretty good, so It would seem that Oz has one of the most web standards savvy workforces around. By comparison, a quick look at the London web standards group at meeetup.com reveals 3 active members!
The Web Standards Group has a good, active mailing-list and one that I've been tempted to join on a number of occasions, even though I'm not based in Australia (which is a shame in and of it's self!). The list discusses some really interesting topics including a recent one from Russ entitled, Real world use of standards.
If that's not enough, Russ is a regular poster on the webgraphics site. And I thought I was busy!
A Selection Of Nice CSS Sites | January 27, 2004
- Stuff and Nonsense
- Timeshare Pal
- Excessive Style
- WWF Australia
- design PRINCIPLES
- Brian Sweeting's IT Weblog
- Community Works
A Couple of Questions About Web Standards Advocacy and W3C Validation Buttons | January 26, 2004
Over the weekend a few people picked up on the fact that my homepage no longer validated. I felt it was OK to keep the validation buttons as they are a means of helping me keep the site valid and also act as a show of intent and transparency. However not everybody agreed.
There was also a feeling that as my site didn't validate It was hypocritical of me to discuss web standards.
Q1. Does having validation buttons require a site author to validate their pages every time a change is made or is it sufficient that the site validated when first published and checked periodically? Knowing that a page may not validate 100% of the time, is it better to have no validation buttons?
Q2. Is it hypocritical to discuss web standards if your page doesn't validate.
Web Designer, Heal Thy Self | January 24, 2004
I'm really glad so many of you enjoyed my article on web accessibility. A few interesting points were raised in the comments that I think are worth expanding on.
Isofarro is correct that this site has a few accessibility issues of it's own. The text in the header is definitely a problem (as there is no text equivalent) and one I'll add to my growing todo list. I also agree that the main nav poses accessibility issues. The font I've chosen is a very small pixel font which a few people have mentioned is difficult to read. Also, because the nav items are rendered as images, you cannot change their size. However, unlike the first problem which was an oversight, this was actually a conscious decision.
This site was always intended to be a personal site. I never imagined it would get popular and the site was built with a limited audience in mind. Also, as it was a personal site, I wanted to have a bit of fun with the design and do things I wouldn't normally do on a commercial project. I'd previously use pixel fonts on my photo gallery (definitely not an accessible site) and wanted to carry the branding through to this site. At the time I did consider the accessibility issue, but decided in this instance, the aesthetic issue was more important. This is something many accessibility advocates would find hard to justify.
I believe you need a solid understanding of accessibility issues to build great websites. However I also believe that you need to balance them against other aspects such as usability, standards compliance, aesthetics etc. I'm not suggesting that you should ignore one for the other. The importance thing is to understand the issues and make conscious decisions based on all the contributing factors. At it's core, this is the essence of design. Understanding the problem at hand, all the contributing factors, and crafting something that's an elegant balance.
Accessibility, like usability and web standards, isn't a stick you use to beat people with, and it's also not an absolute. A site isn't either accessible or not (although some sites are pretty bad), it's a question of degree. When building commercial sites, I tend to aim for somewhere between AA and AAA compliance. In the case of this site, the lack of a textural equivalent for the header text means technically it wouldn't even get an A rating. However, apart from that minor oversight, this site stands up pretty well.
Building to a site to a set of accessibility guidelines is an indication of intent. It says that you have an understanding about the issues and you're doing something positive about them. These days, for most commercial sites I build, I suggest people have an accessibility statement outlining their policy and the guidelines they are aiming for (something that's also on the todo list for this site). The important thing to note is the word "intent". Very few sites get built that reach the guidelines 100% on each page, and fewer stay that way once they are live. An accessibility statement (and bobby rating) says "this is the level we're aiming for, but if you encounter any problems, let us know and we'll endeavour to fix them".
This brings me neatly on to my next topic, as the same holds true when building a site to web standards. I'm sure some people put up the little xhtml/css web standards buttons to say "ha ha, look at me, I'm totally compliant". However for most people it's simply an indication of intent. It says that you are aware of the issues and will aim to have your site validate to a set of standards. This is something I do on this site.
On the left hand side of my index page, under my blog roll and RSS feed, you'll see a couple of little validation buttons. Clicking on these links will take you to the W3C validation page which will attempt to validate this site. If you try it now, you'll see that the site doesn't currently validate. The site did validate when it was first built, and for a good few months after that. However over time a few errors have crept in. I added a couple of geo meta tags which I copied and pasted. In doing so I forgot that I needed to close the tags and this has caused a few errors. The rest of the errors are caused by character encoding, often from copying and pasting url's or writing posts in a word processor.
So does having these validation images/links make me a fraud. Am I trying to pull the wool over peoples eyes to make them think this site validates when it doesn't? Well, apart from the fact that there would be no benefit in me doing this, I'd be pretty dumb to add a validation link and not expect people to click it. The links are there as a demonstration of intent, to show transparency and hopefully, if errors creep in, people will be kind enough to let me know.
If you've read some of the article on this site, you'll realise that I have a strong interest in things such as usability, accessibility, design, process and web standards. Not being a single issue kind of a guy, I feel that all these competing pressures are of equal importance. Web design doesn't take place in a vacuum and requires a holistic approach to get right. There are a number of people who feel it's all or nothing. Either your site is 100% compliant or you're part of the problem. However I believe the right approach is to offer incentives to encourage people to build better websites, not beat them up if they don't as far as you'd like.
The Business Case for Web Accessibility | January 19, 2004
This article was originally written for Message
Until recently, few people had heard of web site accessibility. However due in a large part to the work of the RNIB, the subject of web accessibility has hit mainstream. From industry magazines to the BBC, the topic of website accessibility is starting to enter the collective consciousness.
However there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the issue of web accessibility. In this article I hope to give a brief outline about exactly what web accessibility is, and then explain how building an accessible website can have a positive impact on your business, both in terms of PR and ROI.
What exactly is Web Accessibility?
Simply put, web site accessibility is about making a site accessible to the largest range of people possible. For the majority of website owners, this is simply good business sense. After all, the more people you have using your site the better.
At It's core, making a website accessible involves removing potential barriers to access. Luckily the people in charge of setting standards on the web have provided designers with the basic tools to remove these barriers. However old habits are hard to break, and many designers are still building sites that can cause problems for a variety of individuals.
So who does this affect?
When most people talk about web accessibility, they usually start talking about people with physical disabilities. However web accessibility is a much wider issue and at a fundamental level affects all of us.
I've covered the issue of web standards and browser compatibility in more depth elsewhere. However to quickly recap, different web browsers were developed to understand different sets of rules. This meant a site would work on one browser and not another, causing huge accessibility issues. These days, browser manufactures have started settling on a standard set of rules (called web standards). One of the most basic steps of making a site accessible is to create a site using these rules. By using these web standards you can help ensure your site is accessible by the widest range of browsers available.
Here are some more groups of people that have problems accessing content on the web.
- People surfing the web using mobile phones and PDA's. These people are possibly the most affluent and technically advanced group of people suffering from web accessibility issues.
- People using old browsers or old computers. Many companies and organisations have standardised on older browser versions and don't use the latest computer equipment.
- People using slow internet connections.
- The "Silver Surfer" is one of the biggest growing markets on the web and has a large amount of disposable income. This sector has accessibility issues such as reduced mobility, reduced hand-eye co-ordination and poor vision.
- Young Internet users can also have poor hand-eye co-ordination, coupled with a low reading age.
- People who don't speak or understand English fluently.
- Blind, partially sighted and the colour blind are probably the most obvious group of individuals affected by accessibility issues. This group also makes up a very large percentage of web surfers
- People with physical disabilities, such as those with impaired mobility
So you can see, web accessibility is a wide-ranging issue that can affect a large proportion of web users. Each individual group may only account for a small percentage of your traffic, however all these percentages start to add up to meaningful numbers. On even a moderately busy site you could literally be turning busloads of people away every day.
So how does this affect me?
When trying to convince people of the importance of accessibility, most people (in the UK) focus on the Disability Discrimination Act . Under UK law it's illegal for a business to discriminate against people with disabilities. This relates to online and well as offline businesses. So if your site is inaccessible, you are potentially breaking the law.
However most people prefer carrots to sticks, so selling web accessibility on legal grounds tends to antagonise people. It makes much more sense to focus on the positive benefits web accessibility can bring.
The fact of the matter is, making your website accessible to as many people as possible is just sound business sense. Building in accessibility on a new site costs around 2% of the overall budget, but the rewards both in terms of PR and ROI can be great.
The positive aspects of having an accessible website are:
- Ability to tap into affluent niche markets like the "Silver Surfer" or people using PDA's and phones to access the web.
- The positive PR that comes from adopting a socially responsible attitude and complying with web best practices.
- Accessible websites are inherently more search engine friendly. After all, Google is the largest "blind user" on the web.
- Increased turnover due to more people using your site.
The negative aspects of an inaccessible website are:
- You could be turning away large numbers of potential customers each day without even knowing it.
- When people have a positive experience of a website they generally don't tell people. However if people have a negative experience they are likely to tell friends, relatives and colleagues about their experience. Excluding even a few people from your website can generate very negative PR
- Websites are legally required to be accessible to people with disabilities.
So you can see, web accessibility is a wide ranging issue and one that effects a large number of people, both web users and website owners. Many people misunderstand web accessibility and see it as another resource drain. However making your website accessible should be a matter of common sense. Combined with the benefits of having an accessible website, there is a very strong case for web accessibility.
The Importance of Process in Web Design | January 17, 2004
Web design is still a relatively new industry, run by a highly creative and technical workforce. However, because we focus so much on the creative and technological challenges of our work, we often neglect the business side of things.
New media also tends to be very incestuous. Most of the people involved with new media come from within the industry, leaving a general lack of experience from outside the sector to draw upon. As such, a lot of the day-to-day challenges we face in web design are not necessarily new, but they are often new to us.
One of the ways of dealing with these challenges is to have a good process in place. The idea of a formal process can scare some people. However most of us have our own processes whether we're aware of them or not.
One of the benefits of formalizing your process is you don't have to permanently carry it around in your head. Often if you have an ad hoc process you'll miss steps or will have to do the same thing over and over again for each project. By setting up and following a formal process it can cut down on a good deal of wasted time and really help boost your productivity.
For most web designers, their process consists of a plan outlining the various stages of a project, and the forms and templates used at each stage. The process you use really depends on the size of you your business and the needs of your clients. However a good process is one that's easily scalable to accommodate your changing circumstances.
Most new media jobs usually follow a fairly similar pattern.
- Discovery - Where you find out about the job, the client, their customers and the marketplace
- Clarification - Where you make sure everybody understands what they're doing and what's expected of them
- Planning - Where you allocate resources and lay out how the project will develop
- Implementation - The bit where you actually create the thing.
- QA/Testing - Where you make sure everything works to a sufficiently high standard
- Delivery - Where we give the client the finished work
And will require at least some of the following documents:
Proposal, Brief, Project Plan, Technical and Creative Spec, Wireframes, Personas, Contract, Invoices, Sign-off Forms, Change Management Forms etc
While this is a very simplified example of a web design process, it's enough for you to get the picture.
Often designers worry that a formal process will stifle their creativity. This may be one reason why very few print designers I know can even stomach using contracts, let alone follow a systematic approach to a project. However having a good process can actually help you be more creative. In the discovery phase the use of techniques like brainstorming, mood boards and personas can all help spark your creativity, while creating specifications can help put boundaries around the project allowing you to focus your creative direction.
Clients appreciate working with web designers who have a set process in place. For clients who've never commissioned a website before, your process explains to them exactly what you'll be doing and what's expected of them. For more experienced clients your process is a form of security blanket. It's say's that you know what you're doing and that you'll produce what you say you'll produce, on time and on budget. If things start to go wrong, both parties can fall back on a good process.
Large clients like public bodies will often require their suppliers to have a ISO ratified process in place. These clients are used to working with professional companies that follow set processes and usually have set processes themselves. In fact many companies will hire you on the basis of your process alone.
However one of the main benefits of having a good process is its ability to help guide, educate and sometimes protect you from your clients. The relationship between Client and Designers is no different from any other relationship. Communication is key, and a good process is the cornerstone to good communication. A good process aims to make sure there is understanding and consensus amongst all parties. It lays out the ground rules, allowing for objective rather than subjective decision making, and can help prevent costly last minute changes to spec.
Finally if a project ever does go bad, a good process will provide proof that you did what you set out to do and that you had the consciences of the client (through milestones and sign-offs) along the way.
Having a good, flexible process is one of the most important things a web design firm can have. However I'm constantly amazed by how many designers are taking on work without even the most rudimentary of processes in place. So what do you think about the importance of process? Do you have processes in place? If you do, what processes do you use? If you don't, why don't you?
For more info on the subject of the process of web design, have a look at some of the following books
- Web Redesign Workflow That Works
- Web Site Project Management
- The Elements of User Experience
- Return on Design
New, Improved RSS Feed | January 15, 2004
After looking at my stats, it became apparent that the majority of people read this site using a news aggregator. As such I've finally got round to changing my MT RSS template. Now you should be able to read full posts, with paragraphs, images and even links. I'm just too kind.
Lies, Damn Lise and Server Statistics | January 14, 2004
Every now and again I have a cursory look at my server stats. I quite like seeing who's been linking to me, a pastime often referred to as log surfing. It's interesting to know that www.mezzoblue.com sent me the most requests in Dec (2,995). What's more interesting is that a service I've never heard of, called Stumbled Upon, was my second biggest referrer that month (1,599).
It's also quite fun to see what search terms have been bringing people to my site. For instance the most popular search engine query seemed to be 145 requests for "os x p2p". I got quite a few request for "Andy Budd" (58), "Macro Photography" (48) and "css sites" (35). More strangely were the 49 search queries for "fighting techniques". Hmm maybe I do know Kung Fu?
I also find OS stats quite interesting. For instance one in four visitors to my site are using a Mac. Now I do occasionally post articles about OS X, but I wouldn't say this site had a heavy Mac focus, so it's surprising that it gets such a high percentage of Mac users. As my blog is quite web standards focused, I wonder if there is a correlation between standards and Mac use? I have to admit that most of the web standards people I know are Mac users.
The thing that most people are interested in when they talk site stats are visitor figures. However ironically these are some of the hardest stats to accurately check. I've never seen any blogs talking about visitor stat's, so I hope I'm not treading on any unwritten rules here.
In Dec my bandwidth usage was 3.68GB. This seems quite a lot for a small site, but I imagine a large proportion of this comes from my photo gallery, which is obviously quite KB heavy. This is backed up by the fact that calls to my photo gallery image directory accounted for around 45.96% of my bandwidth last month.
As far as pages go, it seems that quite a few people are subscribed to my rss feed. My rdf page got 61,971 requests last month accounting for 9.56% of my total bandwidth. My blog index page had 17,933 requests whereas my photo gallery page came in at 2,314.
In total, my server dealt with 680,200 successful requests in Dec, serving up 35,117 pages to 16,664 distinct hosts. However in all truth I have no idea what all of this means. Without some kind of yard stick, it's really difficult to put server stats in perspective.
Domain Name Registry of America Scam | January 14, 2004
In the last couple of weeks an official sounding company called the Domain Name Registry of America has been sending letters to the owners of non UK domain names (.com, .org, .net etc) telling them their domains are about to expire and that they need to renew.
If you're not used to dealing with domain name issues or if you read the letter quickly it would be easy for you to assume (which is the intention) that the domain is registered with this company and they are just being helpful in letting you know it's time to renew. However this is actually a scam. This company is based in Canada and is sending out these letters in order to dupe domain name owners into transferring their domain names to this company. They have nothing to do with the domain names in question and the domains usually aren't about to expire.
As I own a few domain names I've had a couple of these letters so far (as have a number of friends, colleagues and neighbours). On first glance they look quite convincing, and if you don't know the terminology it would be very easy to fall for the scam.
I also happen to be the tech/admin contact for a few domain names at work. In this capacity I've also received emails from this company saying that somebody has requested the domain name be transferred and asking me, as the admin contact, to confirm the transfer. Again, these email look convincing, and my first impression was that somebody at the company in question had fallen for one of the scam letters. However after doing a quick google, it appears that this is just another one of their scam methods.
So if you receive one of these letters or emails, don't get taken in by this scam.
A Mysterious Invitation | January 13, 2004
I received a curious invitation this morning via electronic mail. A mysterious host has invited myself along with several UK bloggers to an old Dorset Farmhouse for a chilly winters weekend. The purpose of this visit has not been made clear, but the host assures me that the reasons will become apparent.
Should a number of UK bloggers disappear this February, sent word to Scotland Yard. A clue to the identity of the mystery host can be found within this message.
Mostly Harmless | January 13, 2004
Not being Harry Knowles my humble little blog isn't known for it's insider movie news. However my boss, Jamie Freeman just happens to have a famous brother (Tim from BBC's "The Office") who just happens to have (allegedly) been offered the part of Arthur Dent in the up coming movie adaptation of Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Now along with The Lord of the Rings, Hitchhikers was one of my favourite books as a kid. The BBC TV series was entertaining, but I've long held out hope that they would make a movie version. Looks like they may finally be getting round to it.
However this still leaves the parts of Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox yet to be announced. As the funding for this movie is coming from the US, it's my guess that they'll want a big American name in the movie so as to promote it state side. Jeremy suggested Jonny Depp could play Zaphod, and after seeing his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean I'd agree it would be good casting. However I personally can't see that happening.
If you know the books, who do you think would make a good Zaphod or Ford?
A Mini Disappointment | January 6, 2004
I was quite excited about today's Apple keynote speech. There have been lots of rumours flying around about new Apple hardware. Amongst them have been speculation about a new iMac design, the possibility of a G5 powerbook and a tivoesque digital hub called an iBox. There has also been talk of an iPod like device that can playback video and the ever present speculation about tablets and PDA's.
Sadly none of the above appeared at this Macworld, although we were promised that 2004 would herald some great new products. What was announced was the iPod mini. On the face of it, this is a really good idea. iPods were *the* cool present this Christmas and have dominated the top end mp3 player market. However they are pretty expensive so it makes sense for apple to create an affordable version to increase their market share even more. This they are trying to do with the iPod mini.
However from what I can see the pricing just doesn't stand up. While the iPod mini looks pretty cool (although personally I think the candy colours look tacky) it's only $50 less than the 15GB iPod, yet has about a 10th of the capacity. If the difference was $100 I could see people being tempted, but for $50 difference I'd guess most people would go for the 15GB iPod instead. As such I'm guessing that apple will probably have to drop the price of their iPod mini's pretty soon after they come out in order to make them competitive. So if you want one, it would probably be worth while waiting around for a few months to see what Apple do.
Photoshop Stuff | January 5, 2004
I've had a few people email me recently to ask questions about Photoshop. I'm no Photoshop expert but I have been sitting on some Photoshop Tutorial links which may be of interest to some people. To be honest I haven't actually had chance to look at them, so don't know if they are any good. However I really do need to improve my Photoshop Skills, so if I get a spare 5 mins I may give them a go.
- Steel Dolphin Creative - Photoshop Tutorials
- Polykarbon: Tutorials!
- Digital Illusions Explained
- B i C e r e b r a l
- DTG Magazine
- kirupa.com - Photoshop
- Computer Arts Magazine
- Team Photoshop
I keep meaning to buy a good Photoshop book. However all the ones I've found either seem to be of the "101 Cheap Looking Photoshop Effects" or the "How to Retouch 100 Year Old Photos" variety. If anybody has any recommendations about a good intermediate/advanced Photoshop book, please let me know.
First CSS Links of 2004 | January 5, 2004
My first selection of good looking CS sites for the New Year. If this is an indication of things to come, the quality of work out there is going from strength to strength.
- skinnyj - A nice looking CSS blog from Justin Goodlett
- Ready Made - Highly polished CSS based magasine site
- Adam Polselli - Lovely slick blog with some really nice photography too boot
- Playground Blues - Another nice looking CSS blog
- xlab - Simple yet effective design and good content
- PV Comics - Cool online comic site bought to you by the magic of CSS
- Just Watch the Sky - nice design. Shame none of the links seem to work
Driving Myself Mad | January 5, 2004
Hi folks. Hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year. Sorry that postings have been a little sparse of late (read non-existant), but I stayed away from the computer over Christmas and made an impromptu road trip to Edinburgh to celebrate the New Year.
As I live on the South Coast, the journy to Scotland was pretty arduous. The trip up was around 500 miles (800km). Probably not a lot if you're from the states or Australia, but it's a huge amount in the UK.
First off we're not really used to driving large distances in the UK. This is partly because the UK is pretty small and partly because it's so densely populated, most things are close together. I've driven around places like Australia and literally you have to drive for 3hrs+ just to get from one town to another. In the UK, the next main town is likely only to be a few miles down the road.
I once drove up the coast of California, from San Diego to San Francisco in a matter of a few days. I've done similar distances in NZ and both times found driving long distances quite easy. However after being on a UK motorway for a few hours, my concentration is shot and I'm feeling decidedly stressed. I guess it's due in a large part to the busyness of the roads. In California, traffic outside the main cities was pretty quiet and in NZ you could go for 20min easily without seeing another car. Here it's wall to wall traffic the whole way.
Also the driving conditions here suck. On this trip we had think fog, ice, frost, pelting rain and snow. Because it's winter it got dark at around 3:30 which meant for most of the time we were driving in the dark. You'd think that in these conditions people would drive a little more sensibly but even in 30m visibility people were driving like maniacs. As such you really have to concentrate on your driving over here which can really take it out of you.
The thing that really got me though was the shear amount of bad driving I witnessed. People seem to have become so aggressive with their driving here. This was most notably demonstrated by the amount of tailgating and undertaking going on. People would zoom up to the car in front ridiculously close in order to force the driver infront to get out of the way. Now I've seen this happen occasionally when somebody is driving really fast in the outside lane and they find themselves behind a car much slower than themselves. However on this trip people were doing this when there literally 5mph difference in speed and where the car behind would have had nowhere to go anyway because that's how fast the lane of traffic was moving. People were even doing it when there was plenty of space for them to overtake, I'm guessing just for the fun of intimidating other drivers and as a means of keeping themselves entertained. Lot's of fun until the person in-front breaks and you've just caused a 3 lane, 15 car pile up.
Now I'm sure if you were to meet these people in person they would be thoroughly nice people. They'll be sensible and polite, kind to small animals and children, so god knows why they turn into raving psychopaths when they get behind the wheels of their Ford Mondeos, BMW's or 4x4's?
There were also a large number of completely clueless drivers out there. People pulled over on the motorway for a kip, make a call or go for a pee. People stopped on the slip-road to read a map, driving down the fast lane eating their sarnies, swerving all over the place or driving at 30mph in the slow lane with their hazard lights on for no apparent reason. It was like all the worst and most aggressive drivers in the country were on day release and determined to cause an RTA.
Luckily I made up back all in one piece but will definitely think twice before driving up to Scotland for New Year again. Especially as they cancelled the New Year celebrations at the last minute.