Blogging for Business (and Pleasure) | October 26, 2006

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Blogging for Business seminar yesterday, organised by e-consultancy. My talk was on the History and Culture of Blogging and the slides are now online if you’re interested. I’m going for more minimal slides these days, so they probably won’t mean much unless you were there. However I essentially talked about how blogging has taken off over the last 5 years, what the current ecosystem looks like and how businesses could benefit from joining the conversation.

I’ve given a modified version of this talk a few times, and each time I go and check out the number of blogs indexed by Technorati to give an indication of the size of the blogosphere. The first time I gave the talk in September 2005, Technorati was tracking 16.5 million blogs. Now they are up to 57.4 million! That’s a huge increase in the space of a year. I’m not sure if this is an indication of how fast the blogosphere is growing or just how far Techorati’s reach is extending (a bit of both I imagine), but it’s a pretty amazing figure.

Talking of figures, the highlight of the day for me was a presentation by Heather Hopkins on blogging statistics. Heather made the interesting point that while most people reach blogs through search engines and social media sites, where they go afterwards is much more evenly distributed. So the search engines act as a funnel to blogs, but from there people go to news sites, shopping sites, photo sites and other blogs. Heather pointed out that blogs account for only about 1% of Amazons traffic. However she also pointed out that Yahoo! only accounts for about 2%, making blogs a pretty significant source of traffic.

Heather also posted a list of the top 10 UK bloggers as measured by direct traffic to their site (i.e. not including RSS). This was interesting as there was another UK bloggers list released yesterday, this time the top 100 UK bloggers. This second list was created using data from Technorati who use links to measure popularity rather than traffic. The interesting thing is that while there is some correlation between both lists, there is also significant deviation. This brings into question the best metrics to use when judging the authority of a site.

Traffic seems like an obvious choice to me, although with more and more people reading sites through RSS feeds, this will start to get skewed. Sites with a technical focus are likely to have more people subscribed using RSS and hence fare less well on the traffic test. On the other hand, sites that appeal to an audience of bloggers are likely to generate more links just because their audience have the ability to link to them.

When using traffic as a metric you need to be wary of sudden spikes that could seriously skew the overall results. To get round this you probably need to track traffic over several months and then calculate the interquartile mean to get a fair representation. When using links as a metric, you are likely to get even more skewed results as links are a product of time. Simple put, the longer you’ve been around, the more links you’ll have. As such, if you’re using links as a measurement of popularity, you really need to average them out over the last 6-12 months. That way you know that the sites in question are authoritative now and not five years ago.

The best option would be to create an algorithm that measured both links and traffic over time. Mix this with some clever textural analysis, site theaming and result clustering and you’d have yourself a pretty cool search engine to rival Technorati or even Google. Any takers?

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7 Habits of a Highly Successful Freelance Web Designer | October 22, 2006

I’ve had a few people contact me recently, asking how to make it as a freelance web designer. Rather than answer everybody individually, I thought I’d post my thoughts online. So in my best impression of a self help book, here are my 7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer.

Love what you do

If you work for a large company, it’s easy to clock in, do your job and then leave it behind at the end of the day. I’ve seen companies where the staff just don’t seem to care about what they do: either the projects they are working on or the profession in general. For them it’s just a day job and they wouldn’t dream of reading a web design book or going to a conference outside office hours.

To be a successful freelancer, you need to have a passion for what you do. Passion (with the aid of caffeine) will keep you working late into the night when the rest of your friends are down the pub or fast asleep. Equally passion will keep you focused, motivated and away from the TV when times are slow. It’s the driving factor that got you into the industry in the first place, and in all likelihood the reason why you chose to go freelance.

Passion is particularly important when dealing with potential employers, be they design agencies or end clients. As somebody who uses freelancers myself, being able to demonstrate your love for the industry is much more important than your experience or technical ability. After all you can teach somebody a new skill, but you can’t teach them to enjoy their work. Ultimately this passion will be contagious and will rub off onto your clients, prospects and the work you do.

Never stop learning

Web design is a multi-disciplinary skill that’s as broad as it is deep. Every day new ideas or techniques are discovered and sometimes it’s hard to keep pace. However the best web designers are endlessly inquisitive and always want to keep abreast of the latest trends and technologies. They will scour the web reading every blog post or article they can find, their RSS reader literally building under the weight of new content. Their Amazon wishlist will be full of the latest titles and they will always have a couple of unread books lying around just waiting to be digested. Simply put, the successful freelance web designer loves what they do and is constantly learning how they can do it better.

Specialise

Having a broad range of skills is vital as a freelancer as you never know what you may be expected to do. However gone are the days when you can get by being a Jack-of-all-trades. Now you need to specialise. Some skills are more in demand than others, but if you’re the top of your field in a particular language or skill, you’ll always be in demand.

Information Architecture is a hot field at the moment, as more and more companies focus on improving the user experience. Good graphic designers are also extremely thin on the ground, especially those who have an understanding of Interface design and the vagaries of CSS. And while on the subject of web standards, it seems that companies can’t find good standards based developers fast enough. Traditional programming languages will always be popular, particularly if you understand higher level concepts such as OOP and UML. However Ruby on Rails is the language du jour (OK, I know Rails isn’t a language), so if you happen to be a Rails expert, you won’t be short of a contract or ten.

It’s important not to specialise at the expense of your other skills. Clients and agencies like well rounded people with a wide set of interests. Your skills should resemble an inverted T. Generally very broad but with one (or preferably more) areas of deep knowledge.

Get a killer portfolio

As a freelancer, your resume isn’t worth the disk space it’s saved onto. Instead what you need is a killer portfolio. If you are new to freelancing, building up a portfolio can be quite tricky. The best way to do this is to contact friends and family and offer to build them a website. I’m not suggesting you do this for FREE as this is potentially damaging to the industry and can also leave you in the difficult situation where your work isn’t valued. If you must do something for FREE, consider offering your services to a charity or community group who just wouldn’t be able to afford the services of a professional designer. Alternatively, create your own personal project or sandbox where you can demonstrate your ideas. I’ve hired freelancers in the past based solely on the basis of their personal work.

If you’ve been working on the web for a while, don’t post up every project you’ve ever done. You’re only as good as your last couple of projects so put your best foot forward and showcase your most recent work. After all, Nobody wants to see a website you created back in 2002, no matter how good it was. People are very visual, so portfolios are a much easier prospect for designers. If you are a developer or Information Architect, case studies may be the better way to go. A good case study will allow you to explain your involvement with the project, justify the decisions you made and demonstrate how you contributed to the success of the project. Above all, be honest. If you didn’t do the design, or worked in partnership with another agency, let people know.

Network like crazy

As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This couldn’t be more true as a freelance web designer. The best way to get work is to use your contacts and network like crazy. When starting out, let all of your friends and family know what you are doing. Ask if they know anybody who needs a website and whether they would mind introducing you. If you are going directly after end clients, local business networking events are a great source of contacts. Events like the local chamber of commerce are a great way to meet potential customers or gain those all important referrals.

Targeting end clients can be very time consuming and costly. Instead, consider letting others do the work by contracting direct with a design agency. Agencies are always on the lookout for reliable freelancers, often at a moments notice. These agencies do the hard work of finding and managing clients, leaving you to get on and do what you’re best at. If you can hook up with half a dozen agencies in your local area, you should find enough work to keep you busy. One way to find potential agencies is to email everybody in your local area and let them know that you are available for freelance work. An even better way is to go where other web developers hang out. Geek events.

Going to pub meets, user groups and conferences is one of the best ways to make useful connections. On a basic level, people much prefer doing businesses with somebody they have met and feel comfortable with. Next time they need help on a particular project, they are much more likely to remember you and get in touch. If they know you are actively looking for projects, they are also more likely to recommend you to other people.

Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but in reality it’s usually just a case of hanging out with people in your industry, sharing war stories and occasionally getting some work out of it.

Manage your time

As a freelancer, you need to make sure you manage your time well, and keep on top of all the administrate tasks you need to do. Many people expect to do less work as a freelancer then when they were in full time employment. However this couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as doing the work you get paid for, you also need to market yourself, manage your projects, do your accounts and everything else that’s involved in running a small business.

When you’re busy, it is very tempting to work all the hours under the sun. Even when you’re not rushed off your feet, the work you have always expands to fill the time available. To combat this you need to put some boundaries on your time and manage your work-life balance. This is particularly true if you work from home. Make sure people know the difference between your work time and your home time. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you have time to do the dishes, clean the house and take out the trash. Conversely don’t participate in avoidance techniques like doing the chores, making snacks or watching TV. As well as putting on the pounds, you’ll end up spending twice as much time working as you really need to.

One of the benefits of being a freelancer is being your own boss, so make sure you’re both strict and fair. Feel free to be flexible with your hours, but if you email a client at 10pm, don’t be surprised if they phone or email you outside regular office hours as well. If you find your attention fading, rather than sitting in front of the computer take a walk or go down the gym for an hour. When you come back you’ll be refreshed and much more productive.

Build your reputation

One of the best ways of becoming a successful freelancer is to become the person people want to do business with. That way, rather than searching for new clients, they will come to you. To do this you need to build a solid reputation. You can do this by doing great work and turning past clients into new sources for referrals. You can also build your reputation by sharing your experiences and knowledge through writing articles, blogging and speaking at local events. By building your reputation as an expert, people will be happy using your services and recommending you to others. Blogging is a particularly good way of doing this and is something I highly recommend. When looking for a new freelancer I’ll get a much better sense of their interests and abilities though their blog than I’d ever get from reading a resume. It’s a great marketing tool, so if you don’t have a blog, you should set one up straight away.

So those were my “7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer”. Feel free to chip in with your own suggestions. Next week: “What Hex Value is your Parachute” and “Developers are From Mars, Clients are From Uranus” :-)

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The Trainline: Redux | October 20, 2006

So some of you may remember me berating the usability of the trainline webiste. Well it turns out that their off-line customer experience is no better than their online service.

With a couple of days to go until the journey, the tickets hadn’t arrived. I contacted their support line as instructed by the booking email, only to be told that they wouldn’t re-issue the tickets or provide a refund. As far as they were concerned the tickets had been sent, and if they were lost in the post, it wasn’t their problem.

It would seem that the address the tickets were sent to wasn’t complete. The address on the confirmation had the name of the company and the postcode, but no street address. The telephone operator asserted that this was my fault and the reason behind the problem. However when logging into the online system, the profile page contained the correct and full address.

Of course it is possible that this information was somehow lost or incorrectly entered. After all, the usability of the site was atrocious and this was my 6th attempt at completing the booking. Maybe I missed a crucial step or accidentally deleted some important information. However if the address line was vital to the booking, you would have thought that it would have been a mandatory field and the lack of this crucial information would have prevented the booking from being completed. But alas no. Despite having the correct address information on my account, the tickets were mailed out with a partial address and they never arrived.

Whether it was the fault of the booking system, the mail service or user error, the trainline had the opportunity to turn the problem round by issuing a new ticket. Had they done so, my impression of the company would have gone up significantly. However they chose to put all the blame and responsibility on the customer, and force me to buy a new ticket. Because of this, they have lost me as a customer forever.

The motto for the trainline is “The easy way to buy train tickets”, and if my experience is anything to go by, this is far from the truth. The irony is, it turns out that you can buy the tickets straight from the station at no extra cost. Rather than wasting 2 hours of my time and the cost of a ticket, I could have walked 10 minutes to the station and bought the tickets myself.

You live and learn

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Office 2.0 | October 14, 2006

It feels like we moved in yesterday, but the six month lease on our office is now up and it’s time to move on. Brighton is a great place to live, but there is a distinct lack of good office space available. I put a shout out on our local mailing list for a “designery” office and was surprised by the reaction I got. It seems that “designer” office space has become associated with the worst excesses of the dotcom bubble and is something many people look down on.

I can understand this to an extent as agencies did go slightly mad at the turn of the millennium and start installing roof top sushi bars and astroturf putting greens in their offices. However I do feel that a creative working environment is crucial to the happiness of your team and ultimately the success of your company.

Clearleft may be a fledgling agency, but we have plans to grow. We are currently turning down more work than we can handle and are in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose our projects. We are about to appoint our first full time employee and have two more roles to fill in the coming months. As such we’re looking for a creative space that we can grow into.

Like most agencies we spend a lot of time at work–probably too much if we’re honest. Because of this we want to find a place we look forward to going every morning and somewhere we enjoy hanging out. Being a social bunch we also want somewhere that our friends and colleagues can enjoy, be that popping round for a coffee during the day or meeting up for drinks after work.

A nice environment is really important for the productivity, creativity and happiness of your team. As well as wanting to spend time there yourself, you want the people around you to enjoy their time at work. A creative office is also important for attracting the right kind of people to work for your company. Somewhere people can imagine working and having fun.

We looked at a lot of offices in Brighton but were generally disappointed. They were either overpriced battery farms–cramming as many people into as small a space as possible–or rundown ex-council buildings. We found a couple of possibilities including a lovely sea front property overlooking the pier. However in the end we managed to stumble on the perfect place almost by chance.

Located in “Brighton’s trendy North Laine” area, the Argus Lofts are one of the coolest re-developments in Brighton. A converted Grade II listed building, the lofts were once the printworks for the local newspaper. Redesigned by Conran & Partners in 2003, the lofts are now a collection of designer apartments and workspaces.

We are hoping to move into a space managed by the creative charity Lighthouse. Lighthouse are completely re-fitting the area so it’s currently a bit of a building site. However assuming all the legal stuff goes ahead, we should be able to move in sometime next month.

Here are a few pics we took the other day to give you a feel for the space.

Being a creative charity, Lighthouse have gone to great pains to make the offices a pleasant place to be. This includes designer touches such as a reception that doubles as a showcase gallery, and a glass bridge over the downstairs atrium. It also includes things like a secure indoor bike storage area and regular recycling collections. Being a training charity, it also means that we’ll have access to a state of the art training facilities, so expect lots more public courses from Clearleft in the future.

Once everything is official, we’ll have to think about fitting the office out. The temptation would be to put all the desks around the outside of the walls, but this won’t maximise the space in the centre of the room. I’d prefer to have one or two “blocks” of desks so everybody can sit together in a more community oriented space. We also plan to have a small meeting area as well as a chill out area where we can get away from our desks and relax for a bit if we want to.

I’ve been looking around for office design inspiration and came up with post entitled 10 seeeeeriously cool workplaces. Joel Spolsky also has a nice article on the bionic office. However I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on the subject. Do you know of any great articles or resources on setting up the perfect office? Maybe you’ve worked somewhere really nice and have some thoughts or recommendations of your own.

Over to you.

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20x2 London | October 5, 2006

The 20×2 sessions during SXSW in Austin are always a blast, so I was really pleased to hear they are finally coming to the UK. 20×2 will hold their first UK event on the 19th November at 6:30pm in Madam Jojo’s on Brewer Street, Soho.

If you’ve not come across 20×2 before the concept is pretty simple. 20 people stand up for two minutes each and give a presentation or performance around a specific phrase. During SXSW 2005 the phrase was “What’s the Word” and it saw a wide variety of poets, singer-songwriters and performance artists give a wide and diverse series of performances. Some were funny, some were sad and some were downright weird. One of my highlights was Shaun Inman’s song which you can download from his site.

The phase for the London event is “Where Am I” and I can’t begin to imagine what people will do. As usual there is an eclectic mix of performers, artists and web geeks including Jon Roobottom, Ann McMeekin and the infamous Brothercake.

I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make it as I’ll be flying back from Orlando that day. However if you fancy an entertaining night out, I’d recommend putting it in your diary.

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thetrainline.com Usability Problems | October 2, 2006

About 6 months ago I was doing some CSS training in the north of England and wanted to buy a return train ticket. I tried to book tickets using thetrainline.com but it was such a nightmare I swore never to use them again. Sadly I didn’t learn from my mistakes and 6 months later I’m back at their site desperate to part with my money and being thwarted at every turn.

Finding train times is the easy bit. You put in your dates, location and ideal times and get back a table of results. The time dropdown allows you to specify departure and arrival times in blocks of 15 minutes. Rather annoyingly if you only specify the hour and not the minutes you get an error message. It would be much easier if the “00” minutes option was preselected to avoid this unnecessary error, but it’s a minor annoyance.

However this is where things start to go wrong. At the bottom of the page is a button marked “Check Availability and Prices”. You would naturally think that pressing this button would take you to a page showing availability and prices. After all this is the promise the website is making, and this is exactly the information I’m after at this stage in the buying cycle.

Sadly clicking on this link takes you to a page with a log-in or register prompt. Now this is really frustrating on two levels. First off the website has lied to me and not honoured their promise to show me availability and prices. Secondly they are forcing me to register for a site that I may never use, before they have given me enough information for me to make an informed decision about whether I want to register or not. This is the web equivalent of forcing me to sign up for a store card before knowing how much the store costs or if they have any stock.

Still I really wanted to buy these tickets so I struggled on. I filled in a couple of pages of information about myself, my company etc. One rather odd thing here was the “can we spam you with marketing rubbish and offer” section. The marketing rubbish option was check box you had to uncheck, whereas the offers were un-selected yes/no radio buttons. Not sure why the two different types of element for pretty much the same question, but again I let that go.

I then got to a page with a section that asked me to fill in my office address if it wasn’t the same as my business address I filled in on the previous page. I filled in the rest of the form on this page and then clicked submit. The page bought back a required field error message on the phone number of the office address that was supposed to be optional. I filled it in with the same info as before, hit submit but got back to the same error. I tried removing the spaces and trying a different phone number but whatever I did I couldn’t progress through the process. The page would just hang for 30 seconds and then deposit me back at the same point. I tried clicking the back button, but it didn’t take me anywhere so tried to start the registration process again.

This time my log-in details were pre-filled so I though perhaps my registration may have succeeded without me knowing. Sadly this was just the browser being helpful so I hit register. Strangely, rather than being presented with 3 pages of stuff to fill in I was presented with a single page asking for a name, email address and password. I imagine the data from my previous registration attempt was stored as a cookie which was nice, but it through me off a little bit. Still after 30 minutes and my second attempt at registering I was finally able to see the train availability and costs.

Was this worth the effort. In all honestly the answer is no. By forcing me to register and then the registration not working, it left me feeling very negative about the trainline.com and mistrustful of their services.

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