The business use of blogs…

Great article from particletree, I particularly like this quote:

You’re one of a million search results approached by users with goldfish-like attention spans. How do you show them you have a quality publication on the web? Search result placement and the design of your web site are two ways to do this, but I would argue that it’s one thing to look like quality, and quite another to sound like quality. You want your customers to listen, not just stare. Blogs can give your company that voice.

Why do I get up…

Yesterday I was thinking about what all this is about. Life, I mean. And I realised that at the moment there are few things that really make me want to get up every morning. But no, I’m not going to start using this Geek Times blog as a place to pour out my innermost feelings. Instead, I’ll stick to the nerdy side of my thoughts.

I love developing websites. It’s a joy and a delight to see people using something that I’ve created. And while it might not be quite the same as making something physically, the fact that these projects take on a life of their own is something special.

I hate developing websites. They keep me awake at night, lines of code running away into the distance, functions and elements battle in my head, layouts and colours tormenting my eyeballs. They force me to spend hours of time one a computer, when I could be out playing cricket, or watching Coronation Street, or reading. They always demand more attention, there’s always one more feature that needs to be added, one part of the system that just doesn’t do what it should. And then, when I think I’ve got them beaten, the emails from users containing bugs start pouring in.

I love developing websites. I love the fact that when people ask me my job I can say a make websites. It fills me with happiness to know I’m a part of the biggest and newest technological advancement of modern times, that “the internet” is becoming part of everyones daily existance, and I’m there as one of the few who actually Makes Websites. I have a members-only pass into the hallowed inner sanctum of the web. I get emails that are addressed to “The Webmaster”.

I hate developing websites. I hate people thinking it’s easy, or that I only do this because I can’t do anything else. I hate the fact that it’s like taking a hard test all day, every day. I hate it that I won’t ever possibly be able to keep up with all the latest technological achievements on the web, that I’m only going to grasp little bits as they fly past me. I hate the fact that the only way up is to become some kind of manager.

I love developing websites. I love making things work, writing bits of code that Do Things. Bits of code that Make Things Happen. Bits of code that Are Useful. I love being a creator, it’s like having children and knowing that you made them exactly what they are. I feel protective about my code – even the (vast swathes of) bad bits. My code tells a story, the new functions and techniques I’ve learned, the ways I’ve managed to strip kilobytes off a file size, the designs that just look great.

I hate developing websites. I hate the fact I’m not a very good designer, that I’m hit and miss with my skills. Some days The Zone is further away than Venus, and just as inhospitable. I find it incredibly frustrating at times, this constant battle with the forces of evil scripts, and that I easily get bamboozled by technical issues outside my limited experience. I still don’t get this OOP business.

Sigh.

TechCrunch…

The title may seem a bit wierd, but they are “…a weblog dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing every newly launched web 2.0 business, product and service”. And that’s alright with me. So may I introduce TechCrunch.

Get behind the wheel…

As many people have said before, there is a great correlation between the car industry and web design. While at first glance there may be little to compare a great big piece of machinery with a tiny set of tags, look under the bonnet (pun intended) and you can make some interesting comparisons. Please bear with me while I demonstrate my utter lack of understanding about the automobile industry … and the web industry.

1) Aesthetics

When you buy a car you (at least partly) buy it for visual reasons; how cool does it look. Will it make people jealous when they see it? Will it make me, when I’m sitting inside it, look good? It’s the same with websites; how cool does it look? Will it make competitors jealous? Will it make me or my company look good? Looks matter, as first impressions count for so much.

Some websites show loads of information but still manage to look great, some websites, well … don’t. Just as there are a million different ways to design a car, there are a million ways to design a website. What?s important is that the design supports the content – in other words, look at what you’re trying to say and then work out the best wrapper for it to go in.

2) Under the bonnet

However, as all good developers know, the important bits are the bits you don’t see. After all, it’s no good buying the best looking car in the world if it doesn’t have a good engine. Likewise, a great looking website that doesn’t work is as much use as a chocolate teapot. The “engine” of a website includes the navigation, forms, searching facilities, feedback facilities (comments, forums etc) and other interactive elements. Basically anything that “does” something, rather than just “is” something.

With web applications the engine is just as important as in a car, as it includes all the dynamic scripting, functions, administrative elements and databases. Get the engine wrong in a car or a website and you may as well give up and go home.

3) A smooth ride

So once you’ve got your car or website looking good, and the engine is running smoothly, the next thing to do is add all the additional features that make for a smooth ride. You know the things: in-car CD player, electric windows, air conditioning, seat warmers. All that stuff that you can pay extra for at the car dealership.

For websites, a smooth ride is just as important. If the people you carry – your visitors – aren’t made to feel comfortable then they won’t come back for another ride. So make sure you add features that will make their lives easier. Remember their login details so they don’t have to type it all every time they visit (but remember, keep it secure). Don’t make them type in their address details multiple times. Make searches easy and intuitive (and give good results!). Make navigation simple and obvious. Add JavaScript interaction for smooth effects where it adds to the usability of the site (but degradable, unobtrusive JavaScript only, please). And, most importantly: show relevent information! Don’t make people have to hunt for ways to contact you, don’t hide prices where people can’t see them, be open and honest about your policies.

You get the idea. Giving a smooth ride is one of the major ways you can get people to visit your website – and keep them coming back for more.

4) Safety features

Howwever, sometimes things don’t go all that smoothly. Thankfully cars are reasonably protected from problems. Firstly you’re wrapped in a big piece of metal, held in by a seatbelt, and if anything hits you then a big balloon pops out to protect your face.

On the web, if something goes wrong, you have to protect your users as well. If an error happens make sure that you tell the user that an error has occurred. Apologise for it, and make a suggestion about what they can do to continue. Those “Error 800041251 at line 17” messages are no good to your users, and can provide valuable information to nasty individuals wanting to infitrate or break your site.

And, of course, part of making a site safe is to validate any input from the user, whether that’s text entered in a form, or a querystring link. So, just as modern cars will flash big red signs to tell you that you’re driving without a seatbelt on, so a website should nicely remind users that if you’re asking for their email address, then there really should be an @ sign in it somewhere.

Actually, thinking about it, why don’t cars stop you from opening the doors when you’re going fast? Or stop you from putting it into first gear when going 70mph? Not that I’ve made those mistakes, of course…

5) Meeting the standard

As you can imagine, the car industry is one of the most regulated of all industries. And rightly so, because Standards Are A Good Thing. I’m sure pretty much every car has to meet standards of one kind or another, otherwise I certainly wouldn’t feel safe driving round. So, as I imagine it, the windscreen has to be able to withstand a high-velocity impact from a stone without shattering. Axels have to be able to take a certain load without snapping. Seatbelts have to be able to withstand large pressures.

Websites, too, have standards that they should adhere to. Notice I say “should” rather than “must” because, as we all know, the number of websites that adhere to the standards, although growing, is still very small. And even the fact that there are legal guidelines forcing companies to produce standardised and accessible website hasn’t stopped many people from putting any old rubbish on the internet.

So, for website, Standards Are A Good Thing. They make sure that your site will function in as wide a range of browsers as possible. That your website can withstand a high-velocity impact from the W3C validator. That the code is lean, mean and very green. That you’re future-proof, as much as possible. I’ll say it again: Standards Are A Good Thing.

6) Depreciation

And here is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Depreciation means the lowering of an items value over time. I learned that all too well when I sold my car last month. Way back in 1996 when it was new it would have been sold for about £14,000. I got marginally more than 1% of that, less than 10 years on. Yet some websites are still using techniques invented back in 1996 – and this is using one of the the fastest-growing technological advances ever!

Times change, and just as I had to get rid of that car because it was costing me more to keep on the road each month than it was worth, sometimes websites need putting out to pasture. Got an old table-based design, full of spacer GIFs and tags? Put it out of it’s misery, and get yourself a new, sleek, fast and funky modern website. It’ll be worth is, as it will make you look good, make people jealous, and might just bag you some hot chicks.