My New Year’s Resolution

As 2009 draws to a close, many people will be asking the usual question – “What is your new year’s resolution?”. As per usual, however, I’ll be telling them that I don’t have one. As it so happens, I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions.

It’s not because I don’t think that there’s a value in resolving to improve yourself or your life, but rather that I believe that you shouldn’t wait for a new year to roll around before you do so. If at some point, you feel like you need a change because you’re unhappy in your job, in your relationship, etc. then the time to act is at that point, not at an arbitrary future date. You don’t need a new year to come in order to spruce up your CV and/or portfolio, to reconnect with long lost friends, or to decide to spend more time with family. Putting these things off until the new year just means you’re more likely to keep putting them off or leaving them “on the long finger” for a very long time.

Deciding to make life changes around the new year, and then telling people that you’re doing so, can help to motivate you, but in practice, I’ve found that all it does is motivate people to tell others about the changes they’re planning, rather than to actually do them. It’s easy to get caught up in the fuss and noise of it all, and make promises to yourself that are impossible to keep. There is nothing wrong with resolving to exercise more, for example, but if you also resolve to eat better and change your career and sort out your relationship and organise your house and…quickly, one resolution spirals into a glut of resolutions, and the simple fact of the matter is that not even Wonder Woman herself could make all of those changes instantly on January 1st and keep to them without a stumble.

Then there’s all that additional pressure to keep your resolution because it’s a “new year’s resolution”, even if it turns out that the decision wasn’t for the best. You’ve made all of those important promises, and each one is equally important, and what’s more, you’ve made your intentions public too. Looking at it in the stark light of day (or the stark light of January 31st), it should be clear that you’re not setting yourself up for success, you’re setting yourself up for a fall, a fall which will probably be made worse because others around you will know that you haven’t kept your promise (or perhaps, luckily, they’ll be too busy drowning in their own resolutions to notice).

The thing is, spread out over a year, all of those things above are perfectly manageable. With a little hard work and time, you can change your career, or your family life, or your house. It’s just that, unless you’re some sort of Ultra Woman (or Man, because this is an equal opportunities blog), it’s going to be really tough to make all of those changes at once. So, why try? Instead, sit down with a calendar and plan a bit. Maybe February is the month to focus on the house, and March or April a good time to work on your career. Or maybe a little bit toward the career each week, along with a little bit toward the house, can get you moving forward with both by April or May.  Rather than make a glut of impossible promises, just think about what you want to change, and the best way to change it. Not just in December and January, but all the time.

Coming into 2010, why not make a resolution to make sensible resolutions, and then never make another “new year’s” resolution again.


Complaining – A Beginner’s Guide

In October of last year, I embarked upon a battle with my bank (Bank of Ireland). I experienced some truly awful customer service from them, and was left so unhappy with them that I had no recourse to complain. I’ll save the nitty-gritty details of that débâcle for another day and another post however, because what I really want to talk about is something that not only relates to my Bank of Ireland experience, but to how we all deal with companies when they provide sub par service.

You may well say that no one needs to be told how to complain, least not the people of Ireland, but I would contend, as I have done for a very long time, that people don’t know how to complain properly. In fact, I would content that we generally don’t complain. Yes, that’s right, we don’t complain. We may vent briefly at friends and family about what has happened, or maybe even put together a brief post on a site like, but for the most part, we stop there. Aside from the occasional grumble whenever the issue comes up in the future, no real affirmative action is ever taken. Worse still, if you actually do complain (really complain), in many cases you are not lauded, but actually derided for daring to complain about the poor service you received (as has happened to me – again, a story for another post).

I think that there are a number of reasons why people don’t really complain, some of which I’ll try to deal with below.

  1. Effort: There’s no denying that it takes some effort to complain properly. You have to investigate the company to figure out who you should be complaining to, and how they accept complaints. If you call them over the phone, you have to have documentation in front of you and likely quote endless reference numbers and dates. If you need to write to them, you’ll first have to put together a letter outlining your difficulties. All in all, it takes time and effort.
  2. Low Return: Sadly, it has been my experience that many companies handle complaints poorly. If you have to keep fighting and fighting to get an apology or some sort of compensation, it may well become more of a fight than you feel it’s worth.
  3. Stigma: This is a bit of an odd one – there is an odd stigma that you’ll occasionally encounter as a “complainer”, where people seem to think you really have no right to expect decent service and to complain when you don’t get it. These are the people who will take it personally that you have complained, and they can derail you very easily.

So, with those points in mind, why bother complaining? Well, for a start, I think it’s one of the most valuable rights that we have as consumers. When you buy something, be it a good or a service, you enter into a contract. That contract assumes that the good or service will do what it purports to do, and it is on this basis that you sign up, purchase, etc. If a good or service falls short of expectations, you have the right to complain, and expect that the situation will be resolved. You should exercise your right to complain, because if you don’t, then the company will continue to produce inferior products, or provide inferior services. When you do complain, you should expect to receive good customer service. The company should respond to your complaint, and try to resolve it in a satisfactory way. And, at the end of the day, you should receive some sort of compensation (an apology, a refund or replaced product, etc.).

Sadly, there is a notable discrepancy between the way things should be, and the way things are. I haven’t always received adequate responses to complaints. I have sometimes had to fight my corner for much longer than I have cared to, and I have sometimes been attacked for doing so. Will that stop me? Heck no, and nor should it stop you.

Here’s how I usually deal with any sort of complaint –

  1. Be Polite: This is so important, I cannot stress this enough. The simple fact of the matter is that if you call an organisation, the first person you’re likely to get through to is either a receptionist, or someone in a call centre. Unless your beef is actually with the receptionist or the call centre  in question, it’s likely that the person on the end of the phone isn’t directly at fault. Shouting at them, being aggressive or abusive, or generally being rude over the phone won’t help your case. The person on the other end of the phone won’t be sympathetic to your problem, and will just make a note of you as being a problem caller. You can expect any dealings with that centre to be more difficult from then on (depending on how badly the call goes). Simply explain to the person what is going on and ask to be redirected to someone who can deal with the complaint directly. If they refuse, or do not know where to send you, request that you be put on to a supervisor or more senior member of staff, and take it from there.
  2. Be Firm: You can be polite without being a pushover. While you shouldn’t get aggressive or angry over the phone or in person, when it is the umpteenth phonecall about the same issue, you should be prepared to be firm. This means not accepting the “we’ll call you back” shortly excuse, but politely insisting that you speak to someone now (perhaps citing previous “call backs” that never happened). This means stating your case calmly and clearly, and refusing to be brushed off until you have a definite answer for your problem.
  3. Be Prepared: In general, get into the habit of keeping receipts for large or expensive purchases up somewhere safe. This doesn’t have to be a huge chore – just assign a specific place (e.g. a “Receipts” folder in a document divider) and pop them in when you get home. File digital receipts in a particular folder in your email so that they can be found quickly. If you’re making a complaint over the phone, have any relevant documentation to hand so that you can’t be put off by requests for dates, prices, reference numbers, etc. If you’re complaining via snail mail or email, be prepared to photocopy or scan your documentation and attach as proof.
  4. Be Knowledgeable: Do a quick online search about the company – do they have a history of being difficult to deal with? Are there horror stories littering the web? Do some research about your rights as a consumer, and make sure you know what you’re entitled to (you wouldn’t believe how many people regularly misquote the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act). All of this information can shape the way you deal with a company, and having a good grasp of this information can really help.
  5. Be Forearmed: Chances are, unless you’re extremely lucky, that you may have to make contact more than once. Particularly when dealing with phone complaints, keep a notepad handy (real or virtual). Make a note of who you spoke to, when you spoke to them, and what they said. Keep this somewhere safe (with your receipts, for example) as you never know how long a complaint can drag on. If emailing or writing, save a copy of your letter along with the date you sent it. Keep any replies received in the same place so that you have  a record of the conversation as a whole.
  6. Be Persistent: In the first instance, your complaint will probably be directly to the company concerned. If you’re not satisfied with their response, take the complaint elsewhere. Complain to the general customer services (rather than individual branch). Complain to the corporate headquarters. Complain to a regulatory body that deals with the industry (e.g. the financial ombudsman). If you are in the right, you deserve to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. If that’s not happening, take the complaint to the next level.
  7. Be Public: If you’re very unhappy with a company, tell people. Tell your friends and family. Tell people who read your blog, your twitter feed, your facebook page, etc. Make sure that people you know don’t end up having the same problems. Equally, if the response you receive after a complaint is excellent, tell people. Companies with good customer service policies deserve credit, because they are few and far between.
  8. Be Mobile: If you really are very unhappy with a company, and complaining doesn’t get you anywhere, then be prepared to leave. As the saying goes, “vote with your feet”. Stop shopping there, close your account, switch your provider. When you do so, make sure that whoever is dealing with your account closure knows exactly why it’s being closed. If you feel that you have been particularly badly treated, make sure to let the company know (not just the branch directly, if possible, but at a corporate level) that you are leaving, and make sure they know why (e.g. When closing a bank account, also write to the general corporate customer services, not just the individual branch customer services).

Next time, I’ll blog a bit about some of my own customer service experiences (best and worst), and how I dealt with them. In the meantime, if you’re not happy with something, do something about it!

General Web Design & Development

A is for apple…

B is for…bapple…

Today I’m going to deal with a particular bugbear of mine, namely, poor spelling and grammar. I’ve been inspired to do so by a blog I read yesterday, entitled “Learn To/Too F*&king Spell“. It’s short, sharp, and to the point – it’s important to spell things correctly, or you look like an amateur. While his blog is mainly dealing with the importance of correct spelling when putting together a website, I’m going to take his lead, and extend it to all areas of life. Rather than repeat the simple (but oft confused) rules, I’ll refer you again to that blog I’ve linked above, as it contains a rather nice graphical presentation near the end of the page explaining the differences between them. Once read, there should be no excuse for confusing your “to/two/too” or your “there/their/they’re”.

You could accuse me of being a pedant, and insist that, these days, the English language is changing so rapidly that to cleave to these old and “antiquated” grammar rules is ridiculous. And it is true to say that the meanings of many words have changed drastically over the years, occasionally even coming to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. However, I’m not proposing that we all speak “olde English” again, but that we simply follow the most common rules of our time, the ones which are still in place, the ones which help with our understanding of the written word and enable us to effectively communicate across so many different text-based platforms.

Personally, I find it incredibly jarring to read a sentence that contains a word that is either spelled, or used, incorrectly. Take, for example, the often misused “there/their/they’re” set of words. Their going to that house over they’re is a sentence that is difficult to read, and when I began to study language (not a particular language, but language as a method of communication, grammar as a construct, etc) I realised that it’s not just me. Everyone should find the above sentence (or any like it) slightly jarring, because it causes us to change the way we read.

Most people skim through sentences and paragraphs when they read (and in the same way, most people skim around webpages, rather than reading every word in the order the designer may have imagined). Most people will be able to understand what you mean if you have a letter or two out of place in a word (e.g. peolpe, understnad). The correction will be an almost unnoticeable bump in the flow of general reading. But combine poor spelling with poor grammar, or too much of either, in one paragraph or piece of text, and you’re asking for trouble.

The speed at which people read a paragraph that is littered with grammatical errors, incorrectly punctuated, or badly spelled is dramatically slower than the speed at which they would normally read. That is because when we read, we store little bits of the sentences that have come before in our short term memory. That is why, for example, we can mention the name Mary in the first paragraph of a story, and for the rest of the page, refer to her as “she” or “her”, and people will still be able to understand what the story is about, and how it relates to Mary.

When you start a sentence with “Their”, for example, we scan this memory to try to figure out what you are referring to, and to remember what group of people and what belonging is being referred to by “their”. When we find something we think matches, we hold that in mind as we read the rest of the sentence. If you’ve used “their” when you meant “there”, this causes an unnecessary stutter in that process. We search for a group or belonging and if there aren’t any, we have to read on and hope that we can come to understand the sentence by the end. If there is a group, and/or a belonging, then we hold that in mind, and are confused when it transpires that the sentence doesn’t concern them at all.

Instead of being able to read through the sentence once, with any relevant additional data at the fore of our minds, we are forced to reread the sentence. We may even be forced to reread the sentence several times, as we struggle to understand what it means in the context of the paragraph and this additional data we’ve stored. All told, it slows down the process of reading, and turns something that is very enjoyable into an absolute chore.

When someone tries to tell you that spelling is important, please give it a second thought before dismissing it. It takes only seconds to review your spelling and grammar with a spellchecker, and it can completely change the experience for the reader.

So, repeat after me – They’re going over there to get their dinner. I brought two pies to the bake sale, but they had too many to sell already. Could you let me know where your house is, and at what time you’re likely to be there? We’re so happy that we were able to be there. It’s a shame that the dog didn’t like its new bowl…

General Web Design & Development

Show me the love

As I write this, there are a large number of people out of work in Ireland, and all over the world. Many people are applying for jobs, and feeling more and more discouraged when they don’t get them. Some people are using their time to learn, so that they can spice up their cv.

Like everyone, I can only hypothesise about what will make someone stand out from the crowd, and help them get a job in what is, ostensibly, a very difficult market. I only know from my own experience of getting, and then changing jobs, what worked for me. I’m going to share it, in the hopes that it will help someone out there to find a new direction.

Being completely honest (as I generally try to be!), I never really thought I would be a professional web designer. I always expected that it would be something I would do “on the side”, as a hobby, while I worked either in a biology lab, or as a programmer for a company like IBM. Having a career in web design seemed hopelessly out of reach, particularly when I looked at the professional companies I saw all around me. I recall that, during my final year of college, I sat with a group of friends as we discussed our prospects after college. Most of them were applying for further education (post graduate programmes, Masters programmes, etc.). I had toyed with the idea of doing so, but had decided that I wanted to work (at least for a while) in order to fund some things. While talking to them, I was suddenly gripped with some pretty big anxiety – they all seemed to know exactly what they were doing and where they were going, and here I was, without a job, or a clue. I decided I’d better get myself in gear, or else I’d be swimming in a see of graduates, without even a notion of where to start.

The first thing I did was sit down and update my cv, to include my work (part time) to date, along with some personal projects I’d worked on (web and graphic design projects for friends, family, and eventually a greater extended network). I included my academic experience to date, made sure that it was concise and comprehensive, and then, just to see what was out there, I put it up on I think that day, my view of my prospects changed completely. Over the next week or two, I received many calls and emails – so many that I made my cv private again on Monster. It didn’t give me a clear cut path after college, nor did it get me an immediate job (as I was unwilling to leave college before completion of my degree, regardless of the interviews offered), but what it did do was show me that I had options, many more than I had imagined.

Fast-forward approximately 12 months. I was working for a small start up web design company. I had finished my degree, with my computer science thesis and project focusing on a website (an externally funded project to catalogue material online). Through my supervisor for this project, I had gotten my first job – he recommended me to a friend, who looked at my cv and, after a meeting, decided I’d be a good fit. Against all my expectations, I was working for a web design company.

I won’t pretend it was all easy – like all “first jobs”, the wage wasn’t great. I sometimes worked long hours to finish up projects, and because it was a really really small company (just two of us, when I started), there was no one else to shoulder my project load if I failed to live up to expectations. It was a baptism of fire into the world of web design, where clients sometimes have crazy expectations, weird ideas, and always much less time than is actually needed for completion of a given task. I had it lucky, in some ways. I walked straight out of college, and into a job. In retrospect, I probably should have looked around more and seen if other jobs were available, but it seemed foolhardy to look this gift-horse in the mouth and not jump at the opportunity to have a job that would give me a steady wage, bonus options, my own laptop, etc.

After 11 months of working for this company, I decided to move on. For many reasons, which I won’t go into here, I was no longer happy working there, and I wondered idly if I could do better. I decided it was time to put myself back on the market, to see if anyone would bite. As before, I spent a long weekend (over Easter) updating my cv, and putting together a portfolio that showed the design and technical aspects of the major projects I’d worked on, as well as how they fit into the overall marketing strategy of the companies we were designing for (Unilever, Vodafone, etc.). Thankfully, I was lucky enough again to get many many hits on my cv, and to have a number of interested recruiters. I interviewed for several jobs, and went right through the interview process for 4 in total. I was in the extremely lucky position then of being offered 4 jobs, and having to make the difficult choice between them. I chose my current position, and I haven’t looked back. I love my work, and I love the company I work for.

I’ve told this story more than once, and I have occasionally thought, “surely it can’t have all been luck that has landed me here”. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, while luck must have played a part, nothing that I have done can’t be replicated by others in the same position. I started to think about my cv, to try to figure out what it was that had made my cv stand out when the recruiters were searching, and employers were reading. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

I’ve always had a very full and active life, kept myself involved in sports and academic pursuits outside of the bare minimum. For me, this meant being involved in musical activities and graduation activities in my secondary school, and various clubs and societies in my college years. My involvement won me a few awards at various level (awards for excelling as a committee member, awards for winning competitions put on by other clubs/societies, etc). I put these things near the end of my cv, under the interests section. As such, rather than simply saying my interests were “reading, eating, watching tv”, I mentioned that I was interested in Biology, for example, and backed it up with independent study and awards in the area. When I said that I was interested in computers and web technology, I backed it up with memberships of IT societies, awards for websites designed in college, etc.

While in college, I didn’t have a full time job, and the part time job that I had had nothing to do with my degree, or my current career. However, as a result of my involvement with clubs and socs, I got involved in web design. What started as a quick project to create a society website spawned into creating several websites, then restoring graphics, and then having a network of people coming to me with projects to keep me on the go.

You may well be wondering if there’s a point to all of the above, or if I’m just bragging. Well, I did promise you a point, and here it is. When I sat back and thought about all of the above, about my fledgling career, my terror on entering final year of college, etc., I realised that my career didn’t start after I left college. I was, unconsciously, building a career right from the start. By developing upon my casual interest in web design as a teenager, I ensured that, by the time I left college, I already had several years of experience of designing websites and graphics. When I went to interviews, I could speak, not only about the websites that I had designed in the work place, but also about the projects I maintained on the side, purely out of interest.

Really, the “take home” message (as I’m fond of saying) is this – show me the love! There are many people out there with the same qualifications, and a stack of varied interests to rival my own. But if your dedication, or your interest in your profession, stops as soon as the clock hits 5pm, it will show. It will show in your cv, and it will show when you interview. Web design is a creative and fast moving profession. There are, at any given time, a multitude of popular “new” languages and technologies, being used alongside the old standards. There are design trends that come and go like flashes in the pan, and following them can mean your website is bang up to date one week, and hilariously retro the next. I firmly believe that it’s not a job that you can just “phone in”.You have to be into it, not just to get paid, but because you’re really into it. When a new technology comes out, you don’t sigh with exasperation, but wonder if it’ll be worth learning and if it’ll fit in somewhere or let you do something cool. And even if you clock out at 5, your interest doesn’t stop there.

I honestly believe that this kind of enthusiasm is what sets people apart in a very populated pool of designers. Many many people can put together a website, but not everyone loves doing it.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, and get yourself noticed, show me the love!