Breakpoint SASS

One of my developers turned me on to Breakpoint for managing media queries in SASS.

I don’t personally touch CSS (or any CSS preprocessors) anymore except for the rare times I spend a weekend working on a personal project, but I know enough to know that keeping responsive CSS organized is… a challenge.

It’ll be interesting to see if our devs try out Breakpoint and feel it’s up to the task.

‘likable’ content – 3rd party metadata

I wanted to share this article I had bookmarked last year on using metadata to better control how your content gets shared on social media.

I think it’s very old news by now that optimizing for social media is as important or more important than optimizing for traditional organic search via Google (or if you’re a Microsoft employee – Bing).

Obviously the type of content you write plays a big part, but using the correct metadata can help improve how likely your content is to get shared, reshared, liked, clicked through, etc.

Blog MVP

A friend of mine saw a recent blog post I wrote about Smart Search and said to me, “I liked what you wrote, but aren’t you going to do anything with your site design?”

My friend concluded, quite rightly, that I am using a default out-of-the-box WordPress theme with no customization.

The obvious question is why someone who has been building websites since the 90’s and is writing a blog about web development would not want to do more to customize the site. Can I really be satisfied with a bland generic design for my blog?

The answer comes down to three letters that anyone in the software development world should know: MVP. MVP stands for “minimum viable product”, and it encapsulates a strategy of focusing on the smallest amount that is absolutely required for a product to perform it’s most basic function.

Everyone in this business knows that scope creep is a budget, timeline, and often product killer. The more features you insist are required for a product launch, the more time and money you’re going to have to put into the project. The more features required for launch, the greater chance that even after all of that time and money is spent, someone will be unhappy with the way at least one of those features is implemented and cancel the product launch.

Scope creep is especially a killer for personal project like a blog, or an app you’re coding in your spare time.

By focusing on the minimum-viable-product you can actually launch something that works, and then improve it over time. In addition to the “win” of an actual product launch instead of a perpetual discovery/development cycle, you have the added advantage of getting actual usage data about your product. You can begin to prioritize “fixes” (whether coding bugs or UI challenges) over “new features”. You can concentrate on improving the features customers already use over enhancing the features that your customers largely ignore.

The same MVP approach should apply to a blog.

The most basic requirement of a blog is that it’s a mechanism to allow a writer to easily publish information for a reading audience. Full stop.

Generating content is always much harder than people think it’s going to be. Almost everyone I’ve known who’s taken on the challenge of blogging vastly underestimated how much time they have to spend writing. This is why so many blogs have three entries:

  • The initial entry excitedly announcing the launch of the blog.
  • The second entry, dated one week later. This is usually a well written article that was prepared before the blog launch.
  • The third entry several months later apologizing for not having updated more. This entry often promises to update more frequently in the future.

After that it’s often radio silence.

This is not through any fault of the bloggers, mind you. It’s just that generally an organization will be excited about creating a blog when they hear how it can benefit them with marketing, SEO, etc. But while they pay a designer and a developer to build the structure, they forget to have a solid plan in place for a writer to dedicate the appropriate hours per week for the life of the blog.

Having seen this pattern repeatedly, when I started blogging this year I decided the most important thing I could do is focus on the content and table everything else (design, SEO, whatever) for “phase 2”.

My logic is simple: if I can’t generate enough content to keep a mediocre blog implementation going for a few months, all the fancy design and coding won’t help me.

In other words, a blog is better off having good content and no design, than good design and no content.

Oddly enough, in the old days of blogging when these were mostly “hand-rolled” and written by amateurs, a blog undergoing a redesign was often a sign that the blogger was out of ideas and couldn’t think of anything to write about. Redesigning the blog gave them something to play around with and helped them feel connected to their audience – but more often than not a redesign presaged a long unintentional hiatus from blogging.

With a blog, the minimum viable content you should be concentrating on isn’t even the blog or the design, it’s content.

Once I’ve got content down, then I can start worrying about things like design, themes, plugins, and even basic tagging and categorization strategies.

But to focus on all of those things first in the hope of launching a perfectly branded, big splashy blog is putting the cart before the horse.

Mobile strategy is not optional

One of Luke Wrobleski’s recent “Data Mondays” showed something all of us in the tech business have been predicting for a few years – mobile browsing is now eclipsing desktop browsing for many of the top sites.

The time to think of a mobile strategy as “optional” is over.

As a website owner you have four options:

  • A mobile app
  • A mobile website
  • A responsive website
  • Losing customers/audience

Of the first three options, I prefer a responsive site. But have no illusions, not having a mobile strategy is the same as actively choosing the final option.

Blasphemy about parallax design

Page Laubheimer at Newfangled (another RI tech success story!) has some pretty strong fighting words that may anger the design community: Parallax is the New Flash.

Here’s the thing: it’s very much in vogue right now. It’s also a very visible design trend, one that’s as immediately recognizable as it is noticeable. Which means that the single easiest way to make your site look dated in the next 18 months is to design it around the parallax trend.

Page details a few of the problems with parallax that you may be familiar with. There are SEO implications and often navigation issues. He rightly points out that these sites are so obviously focused on mobile it seems like they were never QAed on a desktop browser have jumpy scrolling or break the users control of the mouse.

Mostly they don’t pass my most basic sniff-test for building a website: are you focused on what your users need or what you (or your marketing department, or your boss) thinks is cool?

Parallax websites are a newer, hipper, more designy version of those flash-based “page flipper” interfaces that allow me to upload a PDF and have you flip through it like a magazine. It’s a novelty that appeals to the website owner far more than the website user.

The viral content backlash

I’ve noticed what seems like a growing harrumphing about viral content promoted by sites like Upworthy, Viralnova, and to a lesser extent, Buzzfeed.

In the past week or two I’ve seen this article on Cracked, this discussion at Metafilter, and a large number of friends on Facebook gleeful that they figured out how to block content from these sources.

I can’t tell if this is the carping of a few curmudgeons or if this is part of a real growing annoyance with this sort of viral content (or “clickbait”).

What do you think? Do you love or hate Upworthy and their ilk? do you feel you are alone in your opinion, or most folks feel the way you do?

Chris Butler on gamification and design

This transcription of a talk called How to See what a User Sees can be a little difficult to get through for all the normal reasons (people don’t talk the way they write, and reading a transcription is always difficult) but has a great quote on gamification. It’s a little broad and a little cynical, but true enough and cleverly expressed enough that it’s worth sharing.

Good design used to mean finding ways to help people do things so that they could do those things and get on with their lives. Now, good design means finding ways to catch people in digital traps where they can waste their lives clicking things!

Smarter and better on-site search

In the web business, when you talk about search most people think of SEO and how to get more traffic from Google. Or Bing if they work for Microsoft. Or Ask Jeeves if they think they’re being funny.

Yes, I think I’m being funny. There’s a reason I’m a project manager and not a comedy writer.

However, most clients and web-builders don’t focus too much on on-site search. In most standard informational-style websites the focus is on creating a navigation structure that allows a user to intuitively find what they are looking for. On-site search is just the little box that goes in the upper right and connects to your platform’s built-in search functionality or an external service like Google’s Site Search.

This is is why I was interested in a recent finding from the Nielsen/Norman Group that improving employee search on your intranet can save your organization half a million dollars.

To be clear, they are talking specifically about employee intranets at companies with 10,000+ employees. So, you know, your mileage may vary.

However, there are some key takeaways that I think can be extrapolated to site search in general. These principals make up what I think of as “smart search” – a much better way for users to find information on your web site.

  1. A unified search field is better than multiple, specialized searches. If a user needs to use one form for a general text search and a separate form for something specialized like a contact lookup or product search you’re decreasing efficiency and increasing the likelihood of human error.
  2. A search box should be simple. The user should not need to know an advanced syntax or use additional form fields in order to get the results they’re looking for.  Smart search tools should be smart enough to match different content types automatically.
  3. Results should display immediately. On most sites, search still functions with the pre-AJAX style form postback methodology. Some sites have an autosuggest feature that provides common search keywords as you type, but a good search shows top matching results as you type, with a “more” option at the bottom. This provides much more information to the user as to whether they are on the right track in the search task.
  4. Results should contain pertinent information. The example used by Nielsen/Norman is that employee search results should include a job title and photo for identification purposes. The results should also include some contact information, as this is what the searcher is likely looking for. Allowing a user to see the contact information directly in the autolookup results saves the step of having to click on a name and get to a separate “employee” page to find a phone number.
  5. A unified results dropdown should show different content types. A site might offer products, have a people lookup, and general pages about the business. Each of those types of content should display different information in the results (price and availability for products, contact information for people, and page title for pages) but still exist in one results dropdown, or on one results page.

Unsurprisingly, the sites that do search well are the sites with too much information to expect a user to use traditional navigation to find what they’re looking for. These sites also tend to have various types of specialized content, rather than just a collection of pages.

The most prominent examples of smart search are on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, or well-funded database sites like IMDB. Surprisingly, I could not find any eCommerce site that was employing a smart search strategy. Most of them offered an autosuggest for search terms, but I would expect an autolookup displaying top product matches (showing price, availability and rating), top video matches (showing year released, maybe director and top stars) and general page results as I type.

Of course, there are huge implications to implementing a smart search box on your website.

  • Planning: A smart search solution really needs to be properly planned. User testing and analysis needs to be used to determine what users are likely to search for and which pieces of information they need. Also you need to plan how search results are prioritized. What makes one result “more relevant” than another?
  • Design: Currently few people think of “designing” a search solution. A smart search needs to be designed so it doesn’t just become a giant haystack to hide all your needles in, making it less usable than the old-fashioned search its replacing.
  • Implementation: Not only does the search and display functionality need to be programmed, but there may be a good amount of work to turn unstructured data (web pages) into structured data (custom content types).
  • Performance: Can you build a solution that will not affect the initial load time of a page or have a slow response time that frustrates users as they type? Keep in mind on the web “slow” can often mean fractions of a second.
  • Customization: At this point even the big players have a way to go on their search UX. You can guarantee that there’s not going to be an out-of-the-box plugin for most content management systems that does this work. This means you’re talking about custom programming and all of the costs and dependencies associated with that.

These implications add up to one big explanation for why smart search is not more prevalent already. Creating a smarter, better on-site search is not a question of simply upgrading a plugin. It’s a project in itself that can be as resource and time intensive as any major application feature.

If your business model is not based around user search, its easy to make this a lower priority feature that keeps getting tables “for the next phase”. However, the great thing about the web is that even though annoying trends come and go, things that are better for users tend to win out in the end. It may not happen overnight and it probably won’t be as disruptive as responsive design, but I think that the principals of smart search will be commonplace on web sites and applications a few years from now.