Mixing the Perfect BarCamp Margarita | November 25, 2007

This weekend saw 100 web geeks descend on the UK offices of Google for the third ever London BarCamp. Google proved to be excellent hosts, allowing us to take over their well stocked staff canteen (those guys eat well) and much of their fourth floor office space. There was a constant supply of food, beer and sugary snacks, as well as access to their games room and rides on their Seagways. They even supplied people with indoor tents and put on a midnight buffet for everybody staying over. To say we were looked after is probably somewhat of an understatement, so thanks to Ian Forester and all the folks at Google for their hospitality.

The event itself was a lot of fun, with my favourite talks coming from Leisa Reichelt and Gavin Bell. Sadly, there were only about 70 sessions, which meant that 30 people chose not to speak. This left a lot of space in the schedule, and quite often there were two of three rooms not being used. As BarCamp is supposed to be a participatory event, I think it’s a shame that so many people decided not to get involved. I’d be tempted to bad those people from the next event, to make sure the space goes to somebody who is willing to put something back.

Talking of putting something back, I decided not to do the usual web related stuff and tried something a little different instead. So I went out and bought a load of tequila and treated everybody to a Margarita mixing workshop. Each session was supposed to be half a hour long. However I cunningly positioned my session at the end of the day, allowing us to spend two hours sampling tequila, mixing margaritas and generally hanging out.

If you’re interested in mixing the perfect margarita, here is the recipe:

For the workshop we used two types of tequila; Jose Cuervo Traditional and Patron Reposado. The proportions used really depend on personal taste. If you like your margaritas with a bit of a kick, I recommend 3 parts of tequila, two parts orange liqueur, and one part lemon and lime. However if you prefer a more citrus note, I’d use 2 parts tequila, one part orange liqueur and one part lemon and lime. Incidentally, most recipes only use lime, but I find the addition of half a lemon makes for a sweeter, less bitter taste. For even more sweetness, you can add a dash or two of homemade simple syrup.

Pour the resulting mixture into a Boston shaker with around 7 ice cubes and shake for a good thirty seconds, until the outside starts to get very cold and ice crystals form. At the same time, rub some lime round half the rim of a tumbler, and dip it in a plate of salt. Fill the tumbler with fresh ice, and strain in the resulting mixture. Top with a slice of lime and a straw, and you should be all set.

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Personas Suck | November 15, 2007

The thing I like about Jason Fried and 37 Signals is their tight focus on what they do. They are at once their own clients, customers and dev team. This gives them a great deal of freedom when it comes to features, functionality and process. However companies like 37 Signals are definitely in the minority, and most of us have to deal with much wider range of issues and stakeholders.

The problem I have with 37 Signals is their style of writing. If you’ve read their book or any of their posts, the stuff they talk about is rarely presented in the context of their specific working environment. More often it’s presented in terms of absolutes. I’m never sure whether this is merely stylistic, a desire to create link bait, or the result of a lack of empathy. In truth it’s probably a mix of all three.

Quite often I find that they misappropriate cause and affect. For instance, they had a developer in Europe and their first project was a success, therefore the geographic location of their developer was partly responsible for that success. In reality the guys at 37 Signals are really smart, and would have been a success whatever process, language or geographic set-up they had. However there is a tendency with genius design not to realise that’s actually what you’re doing, and attribute success to other factors. Sort of like the Olympic medalist who attributes her success to a lucky charm rather than raw talent and years of experience.

A good example of this didactic style can be witnessed in Jason’s recent post about Personas. As the article explains, 37 Signals don’t need to use personas because they are essentially building products for themselves. However because personas present no value to 37 Signals, they suddenly seem to present no value at all.

Jason argues that personas aren’t real people. You can’t ask them questions and they can’t tell you when they get frustrated or when something is wrong. This is all true, but its also misdirection because this doesn’t actually have anything to do with the value of personas.

For a start, personas don’t substitute the need to do your homework, talk to real people and test your assumptions on a live audience. In fact, the best personas are created out of exactly this type of research. As Jared Spool rightly points out, you shouldn’t mistake crappy personas for personas being crap.

I totally agree that you don’t need personas if you’re building something for people like yourself. However in an agency environment you don’t usually end up building sites for other web designer. In the past year we’ve build sites for everybody from scientists and teachers to environmental activists and mobile game buffs.

The problem many companies face is that they think they are building the site for people like themselves, when in fact they aren’t. A 40 year old technical director will have a very different outlook on life than a 16 year old girl. In fact, time and again our field research has shown that client assumptions about their market can differ substantially from the market itself.

So research is definitely important, but how does this feed back into the persona argument? Well, if you’re a small company and all your team have immediate access to your user base, maybe it’s easy to ring a few people up and ask their opinions at every step of the way. However for larger companies, personas are a really useful tool for summarising and circulating the results of your user research. They are also a great way for framing internal discussions about user requirements. So rather than talking about a homogenous “user”, you can talk about “Bob” or “Mary”. Personally, I find personas are most helpful during the discovery phase, when you’re building up domain experience and empathy with the users.

That being said, personas are just one of a number of tools at our disposal. I don’t think any user experience person worth their salt would say that persoans are required on every project. Furthermore, it’s very easy to overstate the importance of personas. In fact, this is something we’ve been guilty of in a few recent projects. The biggest problem with personas is the fact that they often become just another deliverable and end up sitting in a draw unused.

I think the argument about personas is ultimately one of context. It’s ludicrous to argue the merits of a screwdriver without knowing the situation. A screwdriver is great if you’re extracting screws, but useless if you’re trying to undo a bolt! Similarly, if you’re building a site for a group of web designers, you probably don’t need personas, whereas if you’re building a site for a group of doctors, they could come in handy.

But I guess being logical and rational doesn’t create the same stir as being sensational, hence the title of this post.

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CSS Mastery and Bulletproof Ajax Training Courses | November 13, 2007

We know it’s been a while, but we’ve been rushed off our feet the past year organising conferences and helping our clients. However we’ve been getting a lot of emails asking when we were going to re-run the public training courses based on our CSS Mastery and Bulletproof Ajax books. Well I’m pleased to announce that we’ve decided to run new versions of these courses at the end of January.

I’ll be running a completely revised version of my CSS Mastery course on January the 24th at our training facilities in Brighton. This course will cover all the core concepts covered in the book, along with a lot of new material such as which CSS3 properties you can start using today. In fact, a lot of this new material will be included in the second edition of CSS Mastery which we’re scheduled to start work on next year.

Jeremy will also be presenting a revised version of his Bulletproof Ajax course, which draws on elements from both that book, and also his DOM Scripting book.

Each course costs £395+VAT to attend, and included in the price are coffee breaks, lunch and a copy of the relevant book. However if you register before the end of the year, we’ll give you an early bird discount that brings it down to £345+VAT. Places are fairly limited which means you’ll have a lot of opportunity to ask questions and interact with us and your fellow attendees. It also means that spaces are likely to fill up early, so if you’re interested in attending, please register soon to avoid disappointment.

Hope to see some of you in Brighton on the new year.

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Bye-bye Boston | November 11, 2007

I’ve been in Boston the past week, attending User Experience 12. I arrived late on Friday night and was greeted by the tail end of a hurricane. Pouring rain and 60 mile an hour winds weren’t go to stop me from sightseeing, so after purchasing a brolly I hit the Freedom Trail the following day. It turns out that wandering round Boston in the rain isn’t much fun, so I ended up wandering around the Museum of Fine Art instead. If you find yourself in Boston on a blustery day, I can highly recommend the collection at this fine museum. On my travels I came across a discount theatre tickets stands and and bought a ticket for the stage version of Donnie Darko. I wasn’t not quite sure what to make of the play, but it was definitely interesting. At the very least it made me want to watch the movie again.

Thankfully the rains passed quickly, and Sunday was a beautifully crisp Autumn day. Grabbing myself a 7 day travel pass on the “T”, I checked out some of the cooler neighbourhoods like Beacon Hill and Newbury Street, before heading over to Harvard. Sunday is obviously exercise day in Boston as the parks were packed with joggers and lithe young ladies walking oversized dogs. In fact I wasn’t sure if it was the dogs being walked or their owners.

The conference started on Monday with a series of full day workshops. I’m a big fan of Luke Wroblewski’s blog, and have seen him on a couple of panels at SXSW. However I was keen to see how he performed on his own, so went along to his session. Luke ran a very solid workshop on the theory of design. While a lot of the information was familiar to me, it was presented in a very engaging way. By the end of the day, I’d jotted down a lot of ideas about how to better communicate design to end clients. That evening, Jared very graciously invited me to join the speakers dinner, and I had an excellent evening of beer, conversation and tapas.

While the majority of UI12 is comprised of full day workshops, Tuesday was a more typical conference day. Cameron Moll gave a typically strong presentation on mobile web design, while Kevin Cheng showed everybody how to communicate ideas through comics. After lunch, Jarred gave his talk on the magic of design, using a couple of the tricks he tried out at dConstruct. I was very impressed how Jarred managed to weave the two concepts together, and the talk was both entertaining and informative.

However the two presentations I got the most out of came from speakers I’d had little knowledge of prior to the conference. Larry Constantine gave a very articulate and detailed talk on design ethnography while Rolf Molich discussed research on the subject of expert usability reviews. It turns out that expert reviews that take around 20 hours to complete (excluding reporting) and are carried out by a single reviewer, capture very similar results to a full blown usability test. Furthermore, adding more time or reviewers doesn’t significantly improve the results. This matches our experience at Clearleft, so it was nice to have our approach validated.

It turns out that the W3C were having their annual plenary in Boston at the same, and it was just up the street from UI12. So after a few drinks at the official conference mixer, myself, Cameron, Luke, Kevin and Joshua Porter went out for dinner with a few of the W3C people. In the end there were about a dozen of us including Aaron Gustafson, Chris Wilson, Matt May, Cameron Moll and Patrick “one-trick” Haney. The beer and conversation flowed, and it turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining night.

On Wednesday I attended a workshop by Scott Berkun on the subject of Innovation. However while the delivery was very good, I thought the content had little to do with actual innovation. It was much more focused on the internal politics of large companies, which made sense considering the audience he was addressing.

On the last day I was supposed to be in Christine Perfetti’s workshop on paper prototyping, but missed the first hour and half as I wanted to catch Joshua Porter talking about social networks. Josh is also one of my favourite bloggers at the moment, and I really enjoyed his session. By the time I got into Christine’s workshop I’d missed most of the talking. However I did get to participate in a fun wireframing exercise that lasted the rest of the day. I’m not convinced that the low-fi approach that Christine advocated would work for us at Clearleft, as we tend to prefer a much higher fidelity approach. However I did think that the paper prototyping game itself could easily be adapted into a technique for eliciting client requirements and building consensus.

With the conference wrapped up, there was time for one last drink at the bar before everybody went their separate ways. I thoroughly enjoyed UI12 and was impressed by how smoothly the event ran. Jarred was a delightful host and I’d like to extend my thanks to him and the rest of the UIE team for extending their hospitality during the event.

Up early the next morning, I jumped in a rental car and headed off for a quick road trip. My first stop was Salem, where I had a lovely lunch with Dan Cederholm. I then carried on to Newburyport, after a quick side trip to the chocolate box town of Rockport. By the time I got there it was getting dark, so I checked into the Essex Street Hotel and met up with Joshua Porter and his sister for dinner and drinks. The following morning I took the coast road North, for a delightful drive to Portland, Maine. The fall leaves had already peaked, but there was still an explosion of colour to be had. Driving round the winding country lanes, it was obvious why the original settles put down their roots in this area and named it New England. Rather annoyingly the GPS unit I hired from Avis died on me, so I decided to head back while it was still light or risk getting hopelessly lost. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and I’m now ensconced in an airport hotel killing time and waiting for an early flight back to Blightly in the morning.

Right, time to get some food!

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Portfolio Clinic | November 9, 2007

As part of the Brighton Digital Festival, Clearleft will be one of several companies attending the portfolio clinic on Tuesday the 13th of November. So if you’re a local graduate or freelancer interested in furthering your career in the industry, why not pop down and say hi. We’ll be there to critique your work and offer advice on how to improve your portfolio and score that perfect job.

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