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!

General Web Design & Development

Hello World

For some weeks now, I’ve been testing Google Wave. I was lucky enough to get a very early beta invite, and I have been playing with it (with varying levels of success) ever since. I thought that it was now time to give some first impressions, and to maybe try to answer the question that everyone keeps asking me – what exactly is Google Wave, anyway?

So, first and foremost, if you have the time and the inclination, I recommend you watch Google’s video, which explains all of the features they hope to implement, as well as some example uses of the technology. It’s a long video (1hr and 20 mins) but I found it interesting enough to want to apply for a beta invite. You can view the video and read some intro material on the Google Wave site.

With the marketing spin out of the way, I can get into my own experience with Google Wave. The technology itself is in very early beta. Many of the bots that were developed in the initial sandbox phase (and that you’ll see in the video above) didn’t work when I initially started testing wave. Truth be told, when I started using Wave, the first thing I realised was that I couldn’t really test it properly, because almost no one I knew was also part of the beta phase! As the days and weeks have gone on, new bots have been brought on stream, and Google are implementing more of the features demonstrated in the video. Also, they’ve provided invite nominations to users, meaning that you can bring your circle of friends into Wave too. This has solved a lot of the initial problems (i.e. being in a Wave all by yourself, without even bots to play with!).

I know that many people don’t see what all of the fuss is about, or how the tool is an improvement on email, but I can see massive potential. I’m involved in several groups (training, gaming, etc.) and this usually means that I’m involved in the event organisation to a certain degree. For organising club and group events, I think that Wave offers several advantages over email, and I’ll try to explain below.

  • Default “Reply All” – A common problem when sending out a group email to my committee members is the “bittiness” of the responses that you get back. Some people remember to reply all, and some don’t. What that means is that information gets lost, and then doesn’t make sense when it arrives, out of context, because someone else has “replied all” to an email that contained some non-reply all content. All in all, it’s a bit messy.
  • Like grouped with like – Occasionally, you don’t want to reply all in a mail, because you really do just want this one person to know what you have to say. With email, once you break off into a personal conversation, there’s no guarantee that that email will be grouped with the others, or grouped coherently into the time line. It’s likely that you’ll end up with another conversation grouping, or that your individual conversation will be broken up by group emails. With Wave, I can break off and make my individual comments within the context of the wave. The comments are stored in the same grouping, and kept in context with everything else.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition – As a function of the reply and reply all options in email, you end up with a lot of messy, duplicated data. Scrolling down through an email conversation with a group of people can be pretty tiresome, as in between each relevant bit of new information, there is the inevitable glut of previously emailed info, signatures, auto-inserted legal disclaimers, etc. In Wave, you reply, and your reply is there, without having everything else tagging along.
  • Consistency is king – While it would be nice if all of my group members used gmail, I’m sorry to say that they don’t. This means that, while I have all of the group mails (mostly) bunched together in my inbox in an expandable conversation, they don’t. And as a result, emails get missed, get lost, get ignored, etc. Using Wave for the group interaction brings a consistency to it. Everyone will see each blip in the wave the same way, and everyone will have all the information grouped together in context. No more lost emails, missing info, etc.
  • There’s a plugin for that! – Organising group events can be tricky, and there are usually a few hurdles that you’ll have to clear regardless of the event type. The main issues are usually 1) getting the information out to people consistently, 2) getting and managing rsvp information, and 3) giving directions. Thankfully, Wave addresses the above. There’s a simple Yes, No, Maybe plugin that will allow people to click on a button to rsvp. You can embed google maps with location information so no one gets lost, and as already addressed above, you know that everyone will receive the information consistently.
  • Early bird gets the worm – But luckily, in Wave, the late bird can catch up. Rather than needing a separate email chain to catch a latecomer up, or having to forward several email conversations, you just add them to the Wave. All the information is there, in context, and complete. If they want a more comprehensive run through, they can use the playback feature, which gives them a blip-by-blip playback of the wave from the first message.
  • Too many cooks – getting feedback on event information is hard enough – getting feedback on event paraphernalia is almost impossible. Rather than emailing an attachment (a poster in a Word document, for example) I can add it to the wave. From there people can view it, and make changes as necessary. The group is more involved in the creation process, and the work can be shared more evenly among the group.

I have only been using Wave a short time, and I can already see huge potential for organising various club and group events, sharing plans and documents, and generally helping things to run smoothly. I’m glad to be part of the beta, and I can’t wait until it’s ready to roll out fully.

I think the reason I’m so excited is because I’ve realised what it’s about. If you’re just going to use it to chat to a friend, then you’re right. It’s not much different than using email or chat, and you could be forgiven for thinking that all the fuss is about nothing. If you look at the larger scope, and see it as a project collaboration tool, I think it’ll make you smile.

So there you have it, my first impressions of Google Wave. Feel free to add your own (or dispute mine!) below.

Web Design & Development

On being a web developer

While tweeting earlier, I began thinking about my job and my skillset. I have been a web developer professionally for a number of years now, and for many more years as an unpaid amateur. While in college, I did my best to keep up with trends in web design and ensure that I didn’t get left too far behind.

When I left college, I first worked for a web design company, who did websites for a number of different clients. Because the requirements were so varied, I had to keep up with changes. I used several languages and technologies on a day to day basis, because some were better suited to the tasks than others.

Now I’m in a different position. I am a web developer working for a pharmaceutical company. The scope of what I do is huge, and the development list is ever growing. But due to existing frameworks, existing platforms, etc., I find that I’m always developing in the same languages (namely Caché, and Java [J2EE], some jsp). While I continue to boost my skill level in Caché, I have noticed myself that I have less time to experiment with other languages.

In particular, I read about web conferences, and different tweets and blogs about friends and colleagues who are in web development companies (or are freelancing) and I wonder if I’ve made the right decision, or if I’m being left behind.

I’m sure that I could pick up these new languages and frameworks quickly, as I have had no trouble doing so in the past. I had no Caché experience when I started this job and was able to reach a level of proficiency quite quickly. But I do wonder if there will come a point where there is simply too much to catch up on.

And then, of course, we come to a decision I have debated myself a hundred times over – is it better to be a generalist, or a specialist? I could be a Caché specialist, but then, I don’t think there’s a very big market for that. I could be a generalist, but surely there is a point where one is stretched too thin in trying to have a hand in everything?

What do you think? Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? And is it better to do in-house web design, or to work for a web design company?

Answers on a postcard…