3 Things You Wish Clients Knew About the Web | June 27, 2006

What three things do you wish your clients knew about the web?

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Guerilla Book Marketing | June 24, 2006

Call me naive, but I always thought the books displayed cover out at bookshops were done so because the staff liked the books or they were good sellers. It wasn’t until I dipped my toes in the publishing world that I found out you actually have to pay for your books to be presented this way.

If you have a publisher with good industry connections and deep pockets, your books get featured this way. This is why you see the same few title in every bookshop you go to. It’s not an indication of quality, just that the companies behind them have a bigger marketing budget. This probably helps explain the ubiquity of the dummies series.

So I’m going to suggest a guerilla book marketing campaign to help support your favourite authors. If you’re browsing the bookshelves and see a book you like, simply flip it cover out. It doesn’t have to be one of my books, although that is always appreciated. It doesn’t even have to be a computer book. Any book will do.

And if you have a camera with you, why not grab a pic and post up the evidence. Here are a few to get you started.

domscripting-flip.jpg

cssmastery-flip.jpg

therightway-flip.jpg

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d.Construct 2006 Launches! | June 21, 2006

Further to my hints a couple of weeks ago, I’m pleased to announce the official launch of d.Construct 2006.

d.Construct 2006 promotional button

If you’ve not heard of d.Construct, it’s a low-cost grassroots web development conference we run in Brighton. The conference is all about web applications and web 2.0, and this year’s theme is mash-ups and APIs.

We’ve got a fantastic list of international speakers this year, including the likes of Jeffrey Veen, Derek Featherstone, Thomas Vander Wal and Jeff Barr. We also have a great line-up of local talent including Simon Willison, Paul Hammond, Aral Balkan and our very own Jeremy Keith.

Last year’s event was so successful it actually sold out within half an hour. To make sure people don’t miss out this year, we’ve found a larger venue and have increased ticket numbers to 350. We could have gone higher, but we wanted to keep the event small and personal. I’ve been to a lot of big events recently and it becomes impossible to catch up with all the people you want to see.

We haven’t yet announced when ticket sales go live, but despite the increased numbers, I expect they will still go pretty quickly. As such, you may want to subscribe to our events feed. As well as letting you know when tickets will go on sale, the feed will keep you up to date with all the conference news and gossip.

And lastly, if you’d like to show your support for the event, you can add one of our many buttons to your site. If you don’t see one that fits the bill, feel free to grab the source files and make your own.

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@media 2006 Presentation | June 18, 2006

Coming up with a presentation topic is tough, as it’s difficult to know exactly what level to pitch for. I prefer doing entertaining or thought provoking talks as they are the ones that usually stand out. However I’ve heard quite a few people complain that they never really learn anything from conferences, so I wanted to do something a little more useful this time. As such, this years talk was on bug hunting.

Bugs are something we all have to deal with on a daily basis, so I hoped it would provoke a modicum of interest. Still, it’s not exactly the sexiest subject in the world, which is probably why my session was only three quarters full. The talk itself went OK, and I had a lot of people come up to me afterwards with questions or comments. However I didn’t get the impression it was a raving success. It could have been the subject matter, the delivery or even the speaker, but despite what people say, I wonder if people really want to hear practical presentations? I know out of all the presentations I saw, it was the inspirational ones enjoyed the most.

Either way, if you came to my session I hope you found it somewhat useful. I promised to post the URL for my notes at the end of the talk, but got so carried away with questions that I forgot. So if you’d like a copy of my presentation notes, you can grab them from www.andybudd.com/atmedia2006/.

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The obligatory @media slides preview post | June 14, 2006

I’m going to be speaking at @media this week on the subject of bugs and bug fixing. To whet your appetite, here are a couple of screenshots from my hastily put together slides.

screenshots from my @media slides featuring macro photographs of butterflies and other bugs

If you’re going to be at the conference, I look forward to seeing you there.

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Creative pitches are toxic | June 13, 2006

In a recent survey of design agencies, the BDI calculated that unpaid creative pitches cost UK agencies an average of £38,000 per year. This may sound reasonable for a large agency with plenty of resources, especially if they are going after large projects. However over half of the design agencies in the UK employ less than five people, and £38,000 is a lot of money for a small agency.

I’ve long held the belief that creative pitches are toxic, and unpaid creative pitches doubly so. This view is upheld by a number of professional design associations that actively ban their members from engaging in unpaid creative. Creative pitches are bad for the client, bad for the designer and bad for the industry as a whole, and I’m going to explain why.

The concept of creative pitches came primarily from the print and advertising worlds. To gain a competitive edge, design agencies would offer to show clients sample ideas, hoping to wow them with their creative skills. This initial outlay made lots of sense when dealing with above the line advertising campaigns that could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make, and the initial outlay was small by comparison. This also made sense when commissioning graphic art such as illustration, as it was possible to interpret the client’s wishes from an initial meeting or creative brief.

Sadly, as this process became more and more common, it began to be seen as an accepted part of commissioning creative work. Rather than helping some design agencies distinguish themselves from the competition, pitches began to devolve into beauty competitions. And it wasn’t confined to above the line campaigns either. As the process started to filter down, even the smallest piece of design work was subject to the creative pitch.

I said at the start that creative pitches were bad for the client, and here is why. Design is much more than just creating beautiful works of graphic art; it’s about solving problems in a creative space. However by relegating design to a mere beauty contest, designs will usually be decided on subjective rather than objective terms. People will often choose a design based on their own personal–and sometimes irrational–preferences, rather than the views of the user or the business goals of the organisation. How many times have agencies seen otherwise great designs rejected because the MD doesn’t like that particular shade of green? Or worse still, how many designs have been chosen because they look “wizzy? and “cutting edge? when they are completely inappropriate for the task at hand?

Creative pitches are intended to give clients an understanding of the creative capacity of an agency, yet this is not a fair or balanced comparison. When you hire a creative agency, they will spend time learning about you, your industry and your business. This allows them to understand the problems at hand and come up with creative solutions. In a pitch situation there is never sufficient time for discovery, so any design suggestions will be ill informed at best.

Good design takes time, understanding and plenty of client feedback. Designs will go through numerous iterations before they are complete, often looking nothing like the initial suggestions. By comparison, designs created for a pitch are usually done in a hurry, by whoever is available at the time. There is little room for iteration and the initial submission is usually the one that will be judged.

If clients insist on a creative pitch, the only way to help ensure consistency is to pay the designers for their time and design skills, otherwise the larger agencies with bigger resources will always have more time to spend on a pitch than smaller, busier agencies. Sadly, paid pitches are a relative anomaly, and the reasons are clear. Clients see pitching as a way of saving money and cutting corners. Why pay one agency to come up with a single design when you can get five agencies to create designs for free and choose your favourite? Similarly, why spend time researching agencies and examining their portfolio, when you can get them to do most of the work for you?

This logic seems to make sense on the surface, but is fatally flawed, as any design agency that engages in creative pitches will simply pad their day rate to account for the time lost on unsuccessful pitches. Sadly, in an attempt to save money, clients are costing the industry hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. That is money coming out of your pocket.

Because creative pitches are usually unpaid, clients are able to request pitches with a minimal personal outlay. This means pitches often happen far too early in the process, before a project has been properly scoped out or checked for feasibility. As such, the BDI survey found out that over 25% of projects are not awarded after a creative pitch. This is big news so I’m going to repeat it again. Over a quarter of creative pitches are never awarded! If creative pitches are such a useful tool for deciding a design partner, why do they so frequently fail? Is it because the designs presented aren’t up to scratch, or is it because the whole process of creative pitches are fatally flawed, providing too many, partially complete designs for the inexperienced client to choose from?

Even if the project is awarded, there is no guarantee that the playing field will be level. Quite often companies will put projects to tender when they have already made a decision, and are simply showing due process. I have experienced both sides of this equation, having pitched for projects where we knew we’d get the work, as well as projects where the incumbent was always going to win.

I have always believed that creative pitches provide poor value for the client, and makes choosing a design partner harder rather than easier. I also believe unpaid creative pitches are bad for the designers involved and damaging to the industry as a whole. Apart from the large amount of money lost per year, unpaid pitches relegate design to a commodity, and a free commodity at that. People value things they pay for, while they place little stock in things that are free. This is why so many creative pitches go un-awarded.

To ensure that clients continue to see the value of professional design, as an industry we must stand our ground and charge for our services. If a client comes to you with a creative pitch, explain the pitfalls surrounding the process and why you don’t engage in unpaid creative If they are a reasonable client they will understand your reasoning and respect you all the more. If the client insists, politely decline and spend the time more profitably elsewhere.

I was discussing the issue of creative pitches with some colleagues a few weeks ago, and fully expected them to agree with my position. However to my surprise, these industry experts not only accepted creative pitching as a daily part of their life as a designer, they thought it was a good thing. In all honestly I was quite taken aback by this attitude, so thought it was worth putting my thoughts online.

So I ask you fellow designers, what is your view on creative pitches? Are they an inevitable–and some may say necessary–part of the design process, or a costly, archaic and counter-productive by-product of a bygone era?

Over to you.

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Accessibility Interview | June 11, 2006

I was recently interviewed for an article on accessibility in this month’s .Net magazine. Here is what I had to say:

1: Why are so many sites still inaccessible?

There is still a large amount of ambivalence regarding web accessibility, from both developers and clients. Many clients are either unaware that the disability discrimination act covers them, or simply don’t care. However, it is not really the clients fault. It is the responsibility of the web development profession to educate clients about their legal responsibilities and build accessibility into their projects, whether specified or not. Unfortunately, due to the increased commoditization of web design, budgets continue to fall and accessibility is often one of the first areas to be affected.

If I employed a professional architect, I would expect them to design a house that complied with current legislation and industry best practices. I wouldn’t be expected to learn all this information up front, to make sure they did a good job. That’s why you hire professionals. If my budget wasn’t sufficient, I could go to a local cowboy, but I’d end up with a poorly executed job that didn’t comply with the necessary standards. In this situation, I would reduce the scope of the house or wait until I had a bigger budget. Unfortunately, many web design clients choose to go the route of the cowboy builder, often–I may add–through no fault of their own.

2: How far has web accessibility come and how far has it to go?

I think web accessibility has come a long way in the last few years, largely thanks to the work of activists like Joe Clark, organizations like the RNIB and legislation such as the DDA and section 508. However there is still a long way to go, and web developers need to make sure that accessibility becomes part of their development process rather than an optional extra.

As well as focusing on developers and clients, lets not forget that the manufactures of assistive devices also have a huge role to play here. Traditionally the major screenreader companies have had surprisingly little involvement in the web accessibility community, and this needs to change.

3: How does PAS 78 help create good accessible sites and is it easy/effective to apply?

PAS 78 provides a set of practical guidelines for clients to follow when commissioning accessible web design services. Unfortunately, end clients need to be made aware of these guidelines, and initially this will only happen in organizations where accessibility is already a concern. The vast majority of developers and clients won’t have heard of these guidelines, or be willing to pay for access to them.

4: Do you still need to look at other guidelines seperately?

There is some misunderstanding about the nature of these guidelines. PAS 78 is intended to act as a guide for people commissioning accessible web design and development services. Agencies themselves still need to be aware of WCAG1.0 and the forthcoming WCAG2.0, as well as other international guidelines. It is also important to remember that web accessibility isn’t just about a series of checkpoints; it’s about real people with real accessibility issues. As well as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, authors need to be aware of usability issues and should test their site with a wide variety of users. This is something PAS 78 takes great pains to point out.

5: How do you deal with difficult clients who are adamant that they don’t really care about a really accessible site as long as it looks good?

Web accessibility isn’t an optional extra so shouldn’t be treated as such. Rather than asking if clients want their site to be accessible, professional web developers should simply build more accessible websites. That way you never need to get into these kind of tricky client negotiations.

Going back to the architect analogy, I doubt you’d ever see a professional architect suggesting wheelchair access as an optional extra when it was actually a legal requirement. Moreover, if the client said to drop the wheelchair access because they wanted to save a bit of money, I doubt any professional architect would agree, preferring to lose the project rather than compromise their professional integrity.

6: What is the process of creating/testing a site for accessibility?

We build all of our sites using web standards, which helps greatly when it comes to web accessibility. We also understand the various accessibility guidelines and keep abreast of the latest recommendations and best practices. However, none of this is a substitute for real user testing and this is something we encourage as much as possible.

7: What’s a designer’s biggest accessibility headache (and why)?

I believe that it’s entirely possible to create beautifully rich designs that are also highly accessible with the minimum of extra effort. However, from a purely visual design point of view, motion graphics probably form the hardest challenge. From a broader development point of view, I think the biggest headache is poor documentation and inconsistent support by the various screenreaders. Ajax is extremely big at the moment, yet few people know exactly how the screenreaders interact with the browser and handle updated page content. This problem is going to get increasingly more severe unless certain screenreader manufacturers start to participate in the web accessibility community.

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d.Contruct 2006 Coming Soon! | June 6, 2006

d.Construct 2006 coming soon

Sign up to the Clearleft events feed, and be the first to know about this year's exciting event.

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