Archive: July, 2006

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Sunday, July 30th, 2006

Design View : Andy Rutledge - Amazon.com Redux

Andy Rutledge proposes a new design for Amazon, saying "Many of these issues can be fixed and/or addressed by adopting a fixed layout." What a load of bollocks. Try doing a liquid layout right.

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

Webstock podcast

Over an after-work beer with Andy yesterday evening, he told me about some of the great presentations he had been listening to from the Webstock conference held in New Zealand earlier this year.

I didn’t even realise there was audio (and video!) available, but there is. Strangely though, there are no RSS feeds. That means you have to go in and manually download each presentation you want to listen to. How quaint.

It doesn’t make it very easy to get the audio from the website to your computer to your iPod. This sounds like a job for a podcast.

I’ve put together a feed of the presentations from Webstock. You can subscribe to the feed in iTunes and listen to the presentations at your leisure.

The weird thing is that podcasts were promised but never delivered. I wonder if perhaps there was some confusion between the terms “podcast” and “audio file”.

Anyway, grab the feed here and get an earful of the great speakers:

Webstock 2006 Podcast

Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : Is this thing on?

Jeffrey's only gone and turned on comments. Who's next? Joe? Me? I just hope he remembers the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs.

Transcript of "How To Convince Your Company to Embrace Standards" from SXSW 2006

Steve, Kevin, and the other AOLers do the right thing and provide a transcript of their (excellent) panel from Southby. Come on, other speakers... where are your transcripts?

Monday, July 24th, 2006

YouTube - Vader Sessions

Taking samples from James Earl Jones's back catalogue and dubbing them over Star Wars sure is funny.

Fixtorati

Technorati has been redesigned, or realigned if you prefer. It’s gone a bit gradient happy but overall, it’s quite a pleasing visual aesthetic.

For some reason though, they’ve chosen to lock the pages into a fixed width of 1024 pixels.

Now, I understand the reasoning behind fixed-width layouts. I can see the justification for wide fixed-width layouts on content-heavy sites like A List Apart (even if I disagree with it). But forcing users of what is fundamentally a web app to set their browser to a certain width seems counterproductive to me.

The content on Technorati is user-generated. Usually, that user is me. It has my favourites, my watchlist, and my search terms. I should be able to interact with that content in my way.

This is something that, as with so many things, del.icio.us gets just right. Upcoming is on the right track too. These sites allow me to interact with my data without putting me in a straitjacket.

Flickr is still avowedly fixed but the image-based, rather than text-based, nature of the data I store there makes this somewhat understandable.

Now, don’t misconstrue this as a tirade against 1024 pixel wide layouts. The problem would still exist in an 800 pixel wide design. Choosing an arbitrary number of pixels in which to serve up user-generated content is the issue here. On the one hand, Technorati is a very Web 2.0 sort of site, based on user-generated distributed content and collective wisdom. On the other hand, its visual design is grounded in a very Web 1.0 idea of top-down control and inflexibility.

I like Technorati a lot. It’s come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. I’d like to use it every day. I’m even willing to put up with the oversize ads. But I resent the feeling that I should adjust my browsing environment to the needs of the site, rather than the other way around.

September is the coolest month

There’s going to be a spate of very cool events happening in September. Together, they span three continents.

The fun kicks off in Europe. As you probably already know, d.Construct 2006 will be taking place right here in Brighton on September 8. The conference is already sold out, but if you haven’t got a ticket, you can always put your name down on the standyby list.

If you are coming along, consider sticking around for a weekend of geekery. I’ve put together a list of restaurants, pubs, and hotels, all geo-encoded and mashed up with Google Maps. If you’re planning on staying over, you’ll probably want to book a room soon. It turns out the TUC Congress will be coming to town a few days after d.Construct.

Don’t forget that you can track the build-up to d.Construct 2006 by subscribing to the podcast.

If you’re in North America, then there’s something that might interest you in San Francisco. The Future of Web Apps summit from Carson Workshops will be taking place on the 13th and 14th of September. The last summit, held in London, was excellent. It was inexpensive, the WiFi worked, and the speakers were great. This time, the summit has been stretched to two days, but the price remains tasty and the line-up looks very good indeed.

One week later, the inaugural Webmaster Jam Session will be taking place in Dallas on the 21st and 22nd of September. While the Carson Workshops event will be looking at the big picture of developing web apps, this looks like a more nuts’n’bolts affair, detailing how to go about building and promoting websites.

But the event that has me most excited is taking place on the other side of the world.

Web Directions 2006 will be taking place in Syndey, Australia from the 26th to the 29nd of September. I’ve been asked to speak at the event, for which I am extremely honoured.

As well as giving two presentations at the conference proper, I’ll be giving a workshop on DOM Scripting and Ajax on the Tuesday beforehand. If you’re attending the conference, you get a discount to the workshop.

I’ve never been to Australia before. I’ve never even been south of the equator so this will be my first experience of the Southern hemisphere. I’m looking forward to it immensely. The fact the conference looks like it’s going to be amazing only adds to the thrill. I’m going to have to pull out all the stops to hold my own with speakers like Derek Featherstone, Kelly Goto, and Mollarkey.

If you live anywhere near Sydney (near being a relative term for Australia), Web Directions looks like it’s going to be unmissable. I look forward to seeing you there and, if you can make it along for the workshop too, all the better.

Thingtagging: Pictures of objects

Matt Bidulph is mashing up thinglinks and Flickr tags to create a Flickr/thinglink intimacy.

Saturday, July 22nd, 2006

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

CSS - Cansei de Ser Sexy

You gotta love an album with an opening track called "CSS Suxx"... especially when it sounds this good.

Adobe Labs - Spry Data Set and Dynamic Region Overview

The Spry framework from Adobe looks like it could be worth further investigation. I certainly like the underlying philosophy: lightweight, standards-based, and declarative.

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

Netdiver Interviews -> Close-up with Andy Budd

Andy gets interviewed and starts reminiscing about the good ol' days.

S5 Project

S5 has a posse.

Saturday, July 15th, 2006

Mixed signals

When I attended Reboot 8 earlier this year, it was my first time visiting Denmark. From the moment I left the airport in Copenhagen, I was struck by how smoothly everything seemed to work.

On the train journey into town, Tom and I found all sorts of nice usability features in our carriage. You can tell a lot about a country from its public transport system and, based on my experiences, Denmark was like a country that had been designed by Apple.

One week previously, I had been in Manchester delivering an Ajax workshop. There I saw a shockingly badly designed object.

Red pedestrian signal

I had heard about these new pedestrian signals but nothing could have prepared me for how awful they are.

Most pedestrian signals around the world work much the same way. The signal is positioned across the road from the user above head height. The control for the signal is on the same side of the road as the user. The exact design of the signal and the control can vary enormously from place to place but the basic principle is the same.

When the signal changes (red to green, “don’t walk” to “walk”, etc.), the pedestrian moves towards the signal. Because the signal is placed in the location that the user is trying to reach, it serves a dual purpose. It acts as an indicator of safety and as a goal.

The pedestrian signals I saw in Manchester are placed at waist height. As soon as two or more people are waiting to cross the road, the signal is blocked.

Green pedestrian signal

Worst of all, the signal and the control share the same space. Once the pedestrian begins walking, there is no safety indicator. When you’re halfway across the road, you have no idea whether or not it is safe.

Oh, and there’s no audio signal either. That’s a feature built in to most of the older pedestrian signals in England that has been removed from these newer models. If you’re visually impaired, you are well and truly screwed. Even if you’re not, you’re missing a valuable safety cue. As is so often the case, accessibility features end up benefiting everyone.

I cannot understand how these pedestrian signals made it off the drawing board, much less on to the streets of Manchester and other towns in the UK. It’s not just bad design, it’s dangerous design.

Richard once told me about a risk assessment from his previous incarnation as an engineer. He had to determine whether workers on a pipeline above the arctic circle would be safe from polar bear attacks. The results showed that there was a chance that 1.5 people could be killed every thousand years. That was deemed unsafe. Human life is valuable.

These pedestrian signals have clearly not been assessed for risks or tested for usability.

Let’s be clear about this. These signals are new. They are inferior to the old signals. It costs money to remove the old pedestrian signals and replace them with the newer, more craptactular ones.

It beggars belief.

Kathy Sierra wrote recently about differences between US and European design. This is something I’ve written about before. I don’t necessarily belief that design is better or worse on either continent, just that cultural differences underpin what is considered good design. It’s clear to me now that the design differences within Europe itself might be wider than the Atlantic ocean.

The attitude towards design in the UK seems to reflect the attitude towards life; a grumbling acceptance that putting up with inconvenience is all part of the human condition. Perhaps secretly it’s the grumbling that we enjoy. The weather may be beyond human control, but the queuing, the public transport and the quality of beer aren’t.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman would be a much shorter book had he never lived in England. Almost all of the examples of bad design are drawn from everyday life in this country, including the infamous slam-door trains.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a wonderful dystopian vision extrapolated from the England of today. As well as the usual repressive regime of all Orwellian futures, it depicts a life filled with beaureacracy, inconvenience and unusable design.

Ray Bradbury once said of science-fiction:

We do this not to predict the future but to prevent it.

I want to find out who is responsible for designing the new pedestrian signals, who is responsible for — forgive the pun — giving them the green light, and who is responsible for deciding where they are implemented. I don’t want to see these things on the streets of Brighton.

Friday, July 14th, 2006

I’d like to buy the world an iPod

Specifically, I think these people should all discover the joys of listening to music on headphones:

  1. The guys (and it’s always guys) who drive around with their car windows down, blaring out music that is invariably of the worst quality (this includes the estate agent I’ve seen in Winter time, bundled up in a large coat but still driving around with the windows rolled down blasting out Jamiroquai). I know that an iPod can never make up for the obviously miniscule size of their penises, so consider it a sympathy gift.

  2. The guys (yup, guys again) who walk around town or along the seafront with honest-to-goodness old-fashioned ghetto-blasters. Do The Right Thing is showing its age. These people need to be brought up to date. An iPod would be just the thing to do that.

  3. My upstairs neighbour. While I can’t understand why anyone would want to listen to the whiny vocal stylings of The Kooks, I try not to be judgemental. But I think it’s an activity that, like masturbation or defecation, is best practised alone. An iPod would really help.

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

Podcasting d.Construct 2006

In case you haven’t heard, the d.Construct conference, which so rocked Brighton last year, is returning in 2006. It will take place in the Corn Exchange (right next to the dome) on the 8th of September.

It will be bigger. There were just 100 people at last year’s event. There will be 3.5 times as many this year. But it’s still going to a grassroots affair. By grassroots, I mean cheap and cheerful. The price of admission is just £75. Registration opens on the 18th of July. That’s next Tuesday. The clock is ticking.

If you’re in any doubt about attending, just check out the line-up for this year: Jeffrey Veen, Thomas Vander Wal, Derek Featherstone, Jeff Barr, and many more. Registration also qualifies you for entry to the after-party at the Terraces.

In the run-up to the conference, I’m going to be trying a little experiment. Most conferences these days offer a podcast of proceedings after the event — which we are also planning to do — but the decision was made at the Clearleft HQ to start podcasting beforehand.

Armed with headphones and a USB microphone, I’ve been getting to know the ins and outs of Garageband. The first tentative results are available for your listening pleasure. You can subscribe to the RSS feed from the podcast page of the conference website.

I listen to quite a lot of podcasts but I have to admit that there aren’t many that really stand out. Apart from time-shifted radio programmes like In Our Time or Mark Kermode’s film reviews, most podcasts tend to be rambling affairs with too much dead air and not enough editing (The Word Nerds being a notable exception).

Now, I’m not claiming that my podcast will be qualitatively better; it’s decidedly amateurish (it is a podcast, after all). But the episodes will be mercifully brief. Short, sharp shows are the order of the day.

At the very least, I hope it won’t be annoying to listen to. I’ve done my best to get consistent volume levels and audio quality but I’m very much a newbie at all this. Like I said, this is all an experiment and, depending on the feedback, the format may change completely.

On the subject of podcasts, point your pod at the @media feed. There’ll be a new presentation released every week. The audio for my talk, Using DOM Scripting to Plug the Holes in CSS is now available. I’ve posted a transcript of the presentation over in the articles section of this site, which you can also subscribe to as a podcast.

Oddica

Sith abandon ship. I want one.

Using DOM Scripting to Plug the Holes in CSS

A talk I gave at @media 2006 in London.

Tuesday, July 11th, 2006

Phunny

I think it was Lenny Bruce who said that comedy is tragedy plus time.

Infovore : <%= javascript_include_tag :defaults %> considered harmful?

A cautionary note to Rails coders from Tom. The default JavaScript includes can really add to your page weight. Only include them if you really need all of them.

Saturday in the Park with Friends Painting Seurat on the Rock River - a photoset on Flickr

I think Seurat would have liked the fact that all these pictures are made up of pixels. Digital pointillism.

First example of Seurat Painting Photo

Bad Language / How to concentrate on writing

Some good tips here. Mind you... I should really be writing instead of posting links to tips on how to concentrate on writing.

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

suda.co.uk/projects/microformats [Cheat Sheet]

Just in case you haven't seen Brian's microformats cheat sheet, here it is. Print and keep by your desk.

Saturday, July 8th, 2006

Behavioural Separation

This article first appeared in issue 218 of A List Apart magazine. Breaking up is hard to do. But in web design, separation can be a good thing. Content, style and behaviour all deserve their own space.

Vitamin Features » Go forth and API

Cameron has written a great article on using APIs with Ajax. I love the idea of using .htaccess to fake a proxy and get around the same-site restriction.

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

Accessibility Statement @ SoundsDirty.com

Bruce pointed out this porn site that doesn't turn away blind users. That gives it the moral high ground over Target, in my opinion. NSFW if your Wplace is prudish.

----43 BEDS----

This local artist does great things with mackerel. I think I might have to get a piece to hang in the new flat.

The unpushed envelope

Roger points to a survey by Sean Fraser that tests entries from the CSS Reboot for validation errors. The results (including exclamation marks) are:

71.8% of the websites failed validation for HTML Markup! for CSS! or, for both!

That is somewhat disheartening but at least it provides some grist for the mill for Joe’s failed redesigns.

Personally, I’m not as concerned about validation errors in CSS-based redesigns as I am by the prevalent mindset. Most reboots and redesigns invariably involve ripping all the markup out and rebuilding everything from scratch. So much for separating structure and presentation.

The CSS Zen Garden has been around for years now. It has succeeded in showing that CSS-based designs don’t need to be ugly. It’s also a testament to the fact that you can style the same markup document in completely different ways. But very few people seem to be making the most of this freedom.

In fact, the trend that I see in the myriad CSS galleries out there is a move towards more print-like designs that are very fixed and constrained. Even as, on the server side, the general shift seems to be towards a more open, user-defined flow of data, the front end attitude seems to be going in the opposite direction. Designers seem less willing to hand over more control to the user. How very Web 1.0.

Yes, I am talking about liquid layouts to a certain extent and yes, they are harder to implement well. Still, shouldn’t redesigns of personal sites (the bulk of CSS Reboot) be just the kind of place where we can embrace design challenges?

But this is about more than the hoary old fixed vs. liquid chestnut. It’s about recognising the potential of the tools we have at our disposal. CSS is perhaps the most remarkable tool of all. The ability to alter the presentation of a website without altering its structure should have opened up the floodgates of design creativity.

I’m not talking about subtle realignments either. I want to see sites that look different depending on the time of day, the location of the designer, or even the weather. Never mind device-independence, CSS provides everything-independence.

CSS hasn’t revolutionised web design. The reason lies not with the technology (which is revolutionary), but with the designers using it. Most designers have simply swapped the old technology (tables and font tags) for the new technology, without fully exploring what’s so completely new.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Having a web site that offers a choice of a handful of (mostly liquid) designs skins was a nice start when I first implemented it. Four years on, I was hoping for it be a passé idea. I don’t think that’s the case, sadly. But that’s no reason for me not to be exploring other avenues opened up by the power of CSS.

It’s almost as if CSS provides too much power. Maybe it makes designers uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why the focus is on rounded corners, drop-shadows, wet-floor reflections and other graphical trends (bevel and emboss, anyone?) instead of seeing the bigger picture.

It’s a tired old cliché, but it’s true: design is about communication. It seems to me that a lot of web designers have conflated communication with control (in much the same way that marketeers confuse branding with perception).

I hope that things will change. I hope that some young guns will take up the challenge, stop following the crowd, and really push CSS to its fullest potential. I hope that the publication of a book like Transcending CSS will help inspire a new spirit of exploration. Don’t let me down, Malarkey.

Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

Overcaffeinated : Photography

That Sergio is one lucky stiff(y).