Category Archives: Adventures on the web

How to be creative — Tip #2: Surround yourself with good design

‘I believe in intuition and inspiration; at times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.’

— Albert Einstein

I have been so busy with my latest project that I’ve neglected writing about my experience along the way.

It’s been amazing.  I love every minute of it.  But I’m still in the early stages and knee-deep in planning, so sometimes it’s hard to stay creative.  Some days I find myself writing extensive reports, planning testing and creating power point presentations — so how do you find a spark of inspiration?

Here’s my second tip on how to stay creative: surround yourself with good design.

I’m fortunate to have ample opportunities to step away from my desk and do just that.  Lately it’s been in the form of video shoots (we’re developing new content for the website).  But this coming week, I’m going to take my lunch break to head over to the Austin Museum of Art to find inspiration.  There’s an exhibit called Good Design: Stories by Herman Miller,” and I want to surround myself with beautiful design as I gather materials for my moodboards.

I’ve also been fascinated with architecture around town lately.  Austin has some beautiful examples of modern design, which really appeals to me.  But I also love the art deco and Spanish influence I’ve seen in other building design.  I’ve been carrying a camera and notebook with me everywhere, in case I want to record what I see and where I see it.

What do you do to surround yourself with beautiful design?  Where do you go?

Identity crisis: Me and my blog

“Blogging is hard.”

I went to a presentation at the Statesman for work this past week.  It was all about multimedia and mobile and online — geared for businesses in health care.  Since I now work for a health clinic, I was invited and decided to check it out.

A sales guy for the Statesman threw a lot of numbers at us about how people use the internet and what they’re searching for.  It was interesting.

There was also a discussion about social media.  The social media editor for the Statesman got up to talk about how the newspaper takes advantage of Twitter and Facebook to cultivate readers and develop a community.  Someone asked about blogging and whether businesses should have blogs.  The response: Blogging is hard.

It’s true.  Blogging IS hard.  Especially when you don’t have a clear focus.  Just look at this blog.  It’s been 2 months since I’ve written in it.  I just don’t know what to say, what to share.

Do people really want to know about the nitty gritty details of my life?  Do they really care about my business?  Will I come off as a naive idiot?  Will they laugh at my ignorance?

I really do worry about these things.  I worry about my online persona.  How real do I want to be?

Tirades used to be a lot more personal.  Then it kind of became a pseudo work blog.  And I spent more time on my other blogs.  Tirades has been withering.

We’re in the middle of an identity crisis, me and my blog.

I guess it was inevitable, since I’m going through such a crazy transition right now.  Motherhood.  Career changes.

And I worry about how much I can talk about my life without turning off potential clients or current employers.

Here’s what I need to remember, though.  This blog can be whatever I need it to be.  You know what?.. I could give a flying crap whether anyone reads my blog.  I started it 7 or 8 years ago as my first online voice.  We’re still marching along.  I’m changing.  No… evolving.

And so dear reader, if you even exist, I’m going to stop worrying about trying to present myself in the most positive light.  This blog is no fun as a strictly business blog.  My career is a huge part of my life, no doubt, but Tirades is not going to give you advice on how to design web pages.  Tirades is not going to try to sell you on my skills.

No, Tirades is going to be about stories.  I’m going back to my roots.  I used to write stories.  I spent hours writing stories when I was a kid.  I love to write.  Sometimes my stories will be about my work.  But I bet most of the time they’ll be about those funny instances that stand out.  Like the time I was driving when Andy told a joke and I nearly ran off the road.  Or when I wandered around the Statesman parking lot searching for my car while talking loudly on my phone about the fact that I couldn’t find my car.

I will blog every other day.  I will share my stories, whether through words or pictures.

Yeah.  Life.  I just want to be real.

Your marketing and spelling

Spelling Errors poster: The stand out more when you're trying to be clever.If you need a good laugh and have some time to kill, you should google the words “photo spelling error.”  What you find is HILARIOUS.

I worked for years as a journalist in television and online, and I have a pretty quick eye for spelling and grammatical mistakes.  I’ve been know to mentally correct bathroom wall graffiti.  I’ve also been known to make my own very public spelling typos.  There are few things more embarrassing than posting a big story on the front page of a website that garners thousands of hits every day and then having a viewer call or email the newsroom to point out your mistake.

Yeah — it happens to the best of us.

But there are honest mistakes that are few and far between and then there is sloppiness.  Sloppiness is when it’s obvious you didn’t read what you wrote or that you have no idea the correct usage of “you’re” and “your” and “their,” “there” and “they’re.”

I’ve been on both sides of a business’ online presence.  I’ve been the producer and I’ve been the consumer, so I understand mistakes.  But many people don’t, and when businesses make mistakes in their online marketing materials, it just looks bad.

Your website and your emails to your customers are often the first impression you give a customer.  When I notice spelling errors, my feelings about the business instantly fall.  It just looks unprofessional and small-time.  Plus, if you don’t take the time to read and correct what you wrote, why would I think you would take the time to care about me, your customer?

Think about it — step away from your business — what would you think of a business that misspelled an email headline that’s meant to attract your attention?  What about poor grammar?  In this era of spellcheck — it just shouldn’t happen.

“Yeah, but, Cindy, I’m a terrible speller!”  Guess what — your customers or potential clients won’t give you a pass.  They want professional, and they’ll find a business that is.

Need more convincing or tips on how to overcome your spelling problems?  Check out the links below:

What I’m reading: Beefing up my skills

I’m very excited that I’m going to be starting a new project soon!

I can’t divulge details quite yet, but it will take the bulk of my time and I won’t be able to work from home — at least initially or all of the time.

It’s going to be an amazing challenge — unlike anything I’ve done before.  And while it’s taking me away from House on Payne during the day, business will go on!  I still plan to take on clients.  I’ll just be burning some midnight oil for a while.

As I gear up for the new project, the blogs I follow have been turning out some really interesting posts that have inspired and educated me.  I thought I’d share some of my favorites:

What recent blog posts have inspired you?

SXSWi Panel: Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ve been posting a new one each day.


Today’s topic: Drawing back the Curtains on CSS Implementation, presented by Molly Holzschlag, from Opera, Elika Etemad (Fantasai) from the W3C working group, Sylvain Galineau, from Microsoft, Tab Atkins, from Google Chrome and David Baron, from Mozilla.

Some of the audio can be heard at the link above.

I’ve been working with CSS for the past 3 years, and I’m kind of a CSS junkie.  I have to admit, I’m slow to learning CSS3, but I have a new book and direction (more on that below).

I’m going to share some of my notes from the talk, and then tell you about the CSS Meetup I went to where I actually had a chance to talk to David Baron, Elika Etemad (Fantasai), and others about CSS.

Question to the Panel:
WC3 — How do you  prioritize?

Right now, they are looking at what the browsers are doing and taking off with that.  But there are challenges for implementation.

  • Tab — First, what would be most interesting and fun.  Also, anything that makes it easier to do layout and design
  • Sylvain — Anything that’s really stable tends to have priority.  Microsoft doesn’t like to prototype in the browser.  But nothing can replace what designers are asking for as a feature.

How does it compare to working group priorities?

  • Fantasai — Is there an editor actively working on the spec?  And is there active feedback?  You need both.  Some specs are moving faster because there’s more interest and feedback.

Do you have feedback?  Make sure the working group knows.  Don’t just write it in your blog and assume the working group will see it.

What are the most damaging mistakes in working group and development of CSS?  Where did we screw up?

  • Fantasai — Current box model
  • Tab — It’s more short-sightedness than a screw up, but floats (a text-feature) because there was nothing there for web developers to work with.  CSS started when web was just beginning, and it wasn’t set up to do that stuff (even before table-based layouts)
  • David Baron — The most damaging mistakes were where the group made things more complicated than they needed to be.  In some cases by hiding something complex — like margin collapsing.  By not defining things precisely, it leads to the spec being misinterpreted.
  • Fantasai — specs are more precise now than in the 90s — and not by example.
  • Tab — It will become less and less of a problem as they go

The specs can lead to problems for ordinary web designers because they ARE so precise.

  • Sylvain — Floats.  Why not position it like anything else?  Seems imbalanced.  Z-index is also weird and complex.  (Sylvain) thinks it’s odd for not having a substitution values.  Reusing elements would be more useful.  More process information.
  • Molly — We think of CSS as the design — presentation.  But set up properly it becomes efficient for processing information.  Part of our challenge is to figure out where it’s going to take us.

How come in 20 years there is not a reasonable way to do layout?

  • Tab — Layout languages really suck.  It’s hard to do it in a way that simple and intuitive.
  • Fantasai — It’s also really hard to implement layout.  It’s also harder to add to incrementally.  Print is using fixed everything — but on the web everything is fluid.  The CSS working group is trying to solve the problem of fluid design layouts so they are fundamentally flexible.

Let’s design a system where it’s less likely to break on another system.

In next few years — all sorts of tools available for print design layout will soon be available for the web.


The next day I went to the CSS Meetup, and David Baron and Elika were there.  There was a big group around them, but after a while I walked up and introduced myself.At my mention of my need to really delve into CSS3 and learn what the browsers have already implemented.

Elika acknowledged that CSS3 is a challenge when the specs haven’t been completed, but she suggested looking through the working group’s snapshots, which have a breakdown of what is already stable, that way I won’t be left behind, but I also won’t be spending a lot of time on stuff that could change in the future.

A quick search of the W3C site found Snapshot 2007 (revised in July 2010) and Snapshot 2010 (revised in December 2010).

I also won a book at the meetup — “CSS3: Visual QuickStart Guide” and the author, Jason Cranford Teague, actually wanted to sign my book (he was there).  So now I’m REALLY ready to delve into CSS3.

Are you?  Have you been using CSS3?  What really excites you about it?

SXSWi Panel: Ordering Disorder with Grids

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.


Today’s topic: Ordering Disorder: Grid Design for the New World, presented by Khoi Vinh, Design Director for The New York Times.

I didn’t take notes during this presentation because I walked in late and it was crazy crowded — plus, I had trouble mentally focusing on the topic until it was halfway through, but I wanted to make mention of this presentation because I have been using grids in my designs since first learning about them several years ago.

Vihn, who wrote a book titled “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design”, really interested me when he began showing examples of how he used a grid to solve problems with a design.

I had read numerous sources about grid principles, but actually seeing someone walk through the steps kind of made it click for me.  It’s not about trying to make things adhere to the grid.  It’s about playing with columns and units to create a cohesive unit that works.

But using grids takes practice.  It doesn’t come overnight (unless you’re a web design genius, I suppose).  And we’re all working to improve our skills.  I think I’ll invest in Vihn’s book since I really enjoyed his presentation, but there is information about grid-based design all over the web from sources I trust:

I highly recommend checking out the possibilities of grids when designing.  They can really help you create some beautiful and elegant designs.  Good luck!

SXSWi Panel: Steve Krug Explains It All For You

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.


Today’s topic: Steve Krug Explains It All For You, presented by Steve Krug.  The audio of the presentation is available at the above link, and I highly recommend listening, because Krug is another really funny presenter.  I mean, he managed to keep me there all the way to the end of the last panel of the last day.  That’s sayin’ something!

Krug wrote a book that I found incredibly useful: “Don’t Make Me Think” which is all about usability.  He also wrote “Rocket Surgery Made Useful.”

The crux of Krug’s talk was that all sites have serious usability problems, and that, while they are easy to find, you don’t have the resources to fix them.  But thanks to do-it-yourself usability testing done throughout the development process, you can save money, time and identify major problems early.

Krug went through the steps of how to do an effective usability test — ideally performed monthly — by testing the SXSW site (hilarious).

A demo of such a test can be found on his website at www.sensible.com.

Take aways:

  • Keep yourself out of the test
  • Identify the top 3 usability problems and work on those
  • Perform small sample testing routinely (and don’t get stuck trying to find people that are part of your target market)

Summary:

  • Test competitors
  • Focus routinely on a small number of the most important problems and when fixing, always do the least you can do.

 

SXSWi Panel: Designing Ideas, Not Objects

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.


Today’s topic: Designing Ideas, Not Objects, presented by Robert Brunner, Industrial Designer for Ammunition.  Audio from the talk is available through the link above.  He had some awesome visuals to go along with the presentation, and hopefully the video will be available in the coming months.

I didn’t take as many notes through this talk, because it was all about the visuals and the examples Brunner (love his name) gave.

Basically, all that matters is your passion — that you care.

What matters:

  • Think ideas, not objects
  • No one believes your stories anymore (i.e., it doesn’t work to wrap a story around a bad idea)
  • Branding is dead
    It’s not a log or ads or the product.  It’s a gut feeling about a product or company.  And you can’t control it.

Brunner also talked about the path of taking a product from usable to useful to desirable, and why innovation stems directly from risk.

Brunner wrote a book called “Do You Matter?  How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Your Company” which goes into more detail about the theories in this talk, but again, the visuals and examples were key to this talk, so check back on SXSWi’s site for those.

SXSWi Panel: Sustaining Passionate Users

It’s been a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.


Today’s topic: Sustaining Passionate Users, presented by Stephen P. Anderson.

There was a lot of talk this year about gameification.  There are a number of people who believe that turning applications into games will motivate users to buy products or make lifestyle choices.  In this talk, Anderson posed the question — how do we get people to stay in love with our products/services?

Basically, the answer is by sustaining users through delightful challenges that foster intrinsic motivation before extrinsic.  That means — games are fine, but they end.  There has to be something else inside.

Anderson explained that play and challenges have to be at the core of whatever you develop, because learning challenges lead to mastery.  He used teacher attitudes as an example — that if a teacher presents material with the belief that it’s interesting (rather than sugar-coating it), students are more likely to want to learn it.  (This is the kind of stuff that’s innate at my son’s school — we’re so lucky!)

Once you have the challenge, you present another intrinsic motivation — choices and conflicts, such as limited duration and competition.  Then you build in feedback loops, which are the secret to changing human behavior.  Plus, attaching a measure to anything turns it into a game.

And finally, you introduce goals and rewards — the extrinsic motivation — like badges and points.  The sugar coating!

But it can’t just be a game.  You have to do more than delight.  It must:

  • Be reliable
  • Be easy to use
  • Be affordable

You have to provide a service that is trustworthy and of value.

Summary:

  • Look for the game that’s already there
  • Focus on intrinsic motivators

SXSWi Panel: Anatomy of a Design Decision

It’s been a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.


Today’s topic: Anatomy of a Design Decision, presented by Jared M. Spool.  The audio of the presentation is available and I HIGHLY recommend listening, because the guy is freakin’ HILARIOUS.  Seriously.  My friend Richard, who has about zero interest in design, tagged along and thought Spool was an awesome speaker.

My notes can not possibly translate how entertaining this was, but I’ll attempt to boil it down to the nitty-gritty.

Basically, there are 5 different design decision styles. They all have their place, but some are more desirable than others.

  1. Unintentional design
    This is what you get when the design happens on its own.
    It works when users put up with whatever you give them and developers don’t care about support costs or the pain from frustration.
  2. Self design
    This is when you design for yourself.
    It works when your users are just like you and you regularly use the design like your users.
  3. Genius design
    Designing when you’ve previously learned what the users need (you know what works)
    It works when you already understand their knowledge, experiences and problems.
  4. Activity-focused design
    Designing something you’ve never designed before that researches the users and their activities
  5. Experience-focused design
    This goes beyond just looking at the user’s activities and seeks to fill the gaps in between the activities for the entire user experience.  It’s the highest level of design.

Design decision also come in one of two flavors.

Rule-based vs. Informed

Rule-based (style guides, etc.) prevents thinking, so it fails on exception cases and NEVER WORKS!

Informed decisions require thinking and works with both normal and exception cases.  It uses techniques and tricks to build a better design, rather than methodology or dogma.

Summary:

  • Every style has its its purpose
  • Great designers know which style they’re using
  • Great designers use the same style for the entire project
  • Great teams ensure everyone uses the same style (No “swoop and poop!” from the CEO)

He asked the audience what kind of design we wanted to create?  Of course I want to be an experience-focused designer, but it will take practice and lots of research.  No time like the present to get started!