Posts Tagged #development

My friend Matthew Smith organized a small gathering (conference? alt-conference? nonference?) in my proverbial backyard this past weekend. The first Greenville Grok was a blast for a handful of locals and out-of-towners.

So, what’s a grok anyway?

[grok] — verb

1. to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity
2. the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed

[Origin: 1961, coined by author Robert A. Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land]

The weekend was equal parts 10 or 20-minute presentations/questions/thoughts (here’s a spreadsheet of topics), relaxed conversation, shared ideas, food and drink from local eateries, and good old fashioned camaraderie.

I’m an introvert by nature and I admit to not being much of a “conference guy,” so this format was very appealing to me. No fluff, no filler, no lines for the bathroom—just an onslaught of ideas and feedback with a stellar group of people. Here are a few highlights and orphaned thoughts from my notebook…

On Project Managers:

Project Managers without any subject matter expertise are glorified secretaries.
Rob Wright

On free [journalism] content:

If it’s free, it’s dead. Either no one’s going to do it or everyone is going to do it and it will suck.
Yaron Schoen

On side projects:

Getting stuff done isn’t the only thing.
Matthew Smith

On articulating the mission first:

Unless pixels help you hone it, iterate goals and your message before you begin development.
Cameron Koczon

There was much more to chew on regarding business, clients, teams, side projects, language, trust, paywalls, journalism, apps, beer (oh, the way these gents love their beer…) and I was only there for one day of the three. I can get down with that kind of return.

Many thanks to Matthew for organizing and everyone else who attended—you filled Grok chock full of amazing content. Let’s do this again sometime soon.

Update: Cameron posted a great write-up and curated a Twitter list of all in attendance.

I love the first paragraph of this answer to the question Should user interface designers be able to build what they design? on Quora:

UI literally ‘interfaces’ between two things: software code and the human eye/brain. The whole purpose of UI is to connect code on one side and human senses on the other. So I don’t think it makes sense to call oneself an interface designer unless there is at least an understanding of how programs work, how databases work, and so on. Otherwise what is the design interfacing to?
Ryan Singer

I feel this acutely in my 9–5 as we design and build all manner of pages, applications, systems and physical objects for thousands of people to interact with. It all comes down to people. And I’m not talking about people interfacing with things as a design problem to be solved—thanks to situational experience and the leadership1 I’m under, I’m beginning to see it more as a gift to be stewarded.

My team* and I are designing and building solutions to bridge the gap between people and software, or people and information. We’re removing barriers, adding increasing clarity and appropriate context to these interactions. How can we possibly do that well if we don’t understand both sides of the interaction? How can I possibly design clear, appropriate user interfaces if I don’t have at least a cursory competent2 understanding of what I’m building this bridge between?

*We have big plans and empty seats

1. Shane Duffey and Perry Noble in particular.

2. If we use the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition as a gauge, I don’t think code competency (some perception of actions in relation to goals, deliberate planning, formulates routines, etc.) is too much to ask for from a UI designer.

I’m rearranging/removing/restyling a few things around these parts, so if something seems off, just refresh a few times or empty your cache. I’ll try to get everything sorted out in a timely manner. Also, welcome Helvetica back to the blog.

I threw this out to Instagram on Twitter last week:

@instagramapp popularity only breeds popularity. I want more discovery. Show me diamonds in the rough, not in the store.

They responded:

@blankenship Can you add your ideas for how we can make photos/users more discoverable here thanks!

I appreciate how engaged Instagram has been with users and their willingness to listen to ideas from the community. But something feels off to me about a small company funded with half a million dollars in VC money crowdsourcing improvements to their product.

I’ll be the first to admit I have little understanding of the obligations Instagram (or any funded company) has to their investors, or how they’re having to spend that cash to scale the app. But where I’m from $500k is a lot of money, no matter how you slice it. Money changes things, at least subconsciously. If Instagram was a team of two bootstrapping a great app and pushing out changes in their spare time, I’d think differently about giving them ideas on how their product could be better. But they’re not, and so I perceive them differently (whether I’m wrong in that line of thinking or not).

I’m trying to figure out if this is some kind of bias against VC-funded companies (too much reading 37signals anti-VC rants maybe?), a perception of crowdsourcing being similar to spec work, or if I’m just in a snarky mood that ends with, “you have $500k of someone else’s money, why should I do your work for you?” The first is likely my ignorance showing, the second is wholly understandable, but the third is just plain nasty.

One of the things I love about the web and the people creating good things for it is the desire to share ideas and knowledge in an open-handed fashion. I hate scarcity mentality, I don’t want to operate from it or let it creep into my subconscious and affect the way I interact with others. I know building great things typically takes money—and the more people along for the ride, the more money it takes to scale it. But Silicon Valley designer shortages aside, I wonder if tapping the user community for ideas is the best way to move forward?

My assumption is that hungry intelligent people who talk wealthy intelligent people into giving them half a million dollars will have razor-sharp focus and vision for their product. I assume they are busy in the depths of the proverbial laboratory making that vision happen. I assume they’re balancing user feedback with their own goals and gut to write the roadmap for their product. I assume they have clarity and are fearless in ignoring the voices that compromise it, even if those voices are from their own user base.

So am I assuming too much? Or generalizing too much and looking for patterns where they don’t exist? Am I just reading too much into a tweet from a classy company who wants to improve a product they’re proud of? Does money change things? Or does money just change things for me? I obviously have more questions now than I did when I started writing this post. I’m getting used to that.

It occurs to me that in the grand scheme of 2002–present some of you might be new to this site. I think it will be helpful to save you from the hassle of rummaging through too much older content—I’ll just give you the highlights of the last year or so. That should set some expectations for what you might see in the future, should you decide to lend me your internet attention from time to time.

Sometimes I write about web design and development like How I Develop Websites Without an Internet Connection or how IE6 isn’t dead yet.

Sometimes I write about the web in more general terms and topics, like print vs web or the entitlement baggage of social media or how easy it is to complain instead of create or telling people they’re doing it wrong or the stupidity of social media without strategy.

Sometimes I share photos I take, like this one or this one or this one. Sometimes I share photos other people take, like this one or this one.

Sometimes I share music that I find particularly amazing, like pianist Eric Lewis or songwriter duo The Civil Wars or breath of fresh air Janelle Monáe.

Sometimes, rarely (and with good reason), I write about politics and a relentless fury of comments often follows.

Sometimes I write about life stuff like trying to get out of debt or how much salary is enough or how my wife’s grandfather dying made me think about John Steinbeck.

Sometimes I write about Christianity, like our crazy Pseudo-Christian/Hyper-Political American subculture (the comments on that one are stellar) or more personal thoughts about leadership and legacy.

I occasionally write about artistic copying/plagiarism, how it hurts you, how it confuses your audience, and how we totally mangle that Picasso quote about great artists stealing.

But lately, mostly, it seems like I write about work—the office, the team, the tools it takes to make extraordinary things with other people. Getting out of your own way so that you can build something worth spending the 9–5 (and beyond) on. Here’s a few favorites:

So, if you’ve made it this far, perused even half of those links, and you think “I like this place, I think we could get along,” stick around, subscribe to the RSS feed, join the ragtag bunch of brilliant commenters who frequent the site, and know that I’m humbled you’d trade me your time for something I have to say. Onward and upward, new internet friends.

On a November day in 2006, I took my then-girlfriend, now-wife to see as much of the 175,000 sq ft of the The Biltmore House as we could in a day. I distinctly recall it being obscenely cold. We looked ridiculous in all the photos we took, teeth chattering, bundled to our ears in enormous, ineffective scarves.

And then, during a slightly-warmer indoor tour, “You’ll of course notice that these thresholds are marble. Throughout the residence, any room that has running water, any wet room—bathrooms, showers, kitchens, even the indoor pool—is denoted by a marble threshold instead of the standard wooden ones elsewhere in the house.”

Actually, I didn’t notice it. Who would? It’s a threshold. No one is thinking that hard1. They just want to walk through doorways and get things done. Like normal people.

Which makes me think about the way we build websites.

Listening to normals trying to figure out websites informs me that we still have work to do in making websites easier to understand for all.
Naz Hamid, via the Twitters

There aren’t many professional web designers I respect as much as Naz. And he’s dead-on with this critique. Read Write Web wrote an article on Facebook logins that was the #1 Google result for “facebook login” for awhile. “WTF is this bullshttttttttttt all about. can i get n plzzzzzzzzz,” is typical of the 2000+ comments on that article from people who, obviously, had a ritual of searching for “facebook login” instead of typing in a URL (what’s a URL, anyway? they might say), or saving a bookmark. Google interviewed 50 Times Square passersby and asked the question, “what is a browser?” The answers were somewhat less-than-encouraging, especially for those of us who get obsessed with pushing the boundaries of design and interaction on the web2.

Everything we take for granted, every stride we make in learning more about the web, our computers, how technology works, etc. is not normal. You are not your audience, at least not all of the seats. When we design websites for us, we confuse more people than we help. For every “you’re an idiot for using IE6” footer message I see on some young designer’s totally awesome CSS3+HTML5+JQuery whizbang website, there are at least 50 people walking around IN NYC who don’t even have a framework to respond for why you think they’re an idiot—not that they’d ever come to your website. (Which begs the question, who exactly are you writing that cleverly scathing footer copy for anyway? But that’s a post for another day…)

Take this site for example; it was a fairly basic, three-column grid with a minimum of images. It had been this way for three years. But would my grandma know what the “open navigation” link meant up there in the righthand corner? Would she have clicked on it? Would she have even seen it? How would she know there was more content hidden away under a Javascript slider? Because I did? I vote unlikely, so I changed it.

Make great work, but keep in mind who you’re supposed to be making it for.

*Unless you want to build websites for you.

1. Except maybe architects.

2. I’m super-excited that there are people pushing the boundaries of web design and technology. It’s amazing to watch. I geek out. Just don’t forget we’re all freaks; we’re not normal people.

If you’re an RSS reader, come over and take a peek.

The best design is the one that launches, so while there’s much left to do (sorry about the comments section right now—so undone!), fix, tweak (a new grid means some off-grid elements in my content need to be righted), make better, add to, etc. I’m happy you can see something other than the default WordPress theme that was standing in for my broken theme (or even the almost three-year old former design). I haven’t done any cross-browser testing yet, but if you’re in a modern browser, all should be as well as it can be with two days of quick development from the non-developer.

I’m making hopefully good use of the Google Font Directory (PT Sans and Droid Sans). It’s a decent, albeit limited in variety, alternative to perfectly awesome services like Typekit. I’d love to explore more options down the road. I’ve also ditched (for the time being) the daily-changing colors until I can rewrite that code in better fashion. Of course, I’ll likely never give up my quest to do as much as possible with CSS borders, so I’m still the Mayor of Bordertown. Oh, and I have a logo now. More on that later.

As always, thank you for reading!

My team currently has two openings, a Web Developer and Junior Designer, and we just hired a Project Manager. I’ve been spending ~15% of my workdays lately sorting through portfolios, reading and sending emails, and following up with potential applicants. I think most people in Director/Principle/HR-type roles are too busy to explain why an applicant gets rejected, but I want to throw some ideas out there that I think might help you if you’re a design/developer on the job hunt.

1. Show Lots of Work…
Actual, Honest-To-God, well-thought-out, proof-that-you-can-problem-solve WORK. There are 12 year olds with a copy of Photoshop who can set some cool type on an image. Your grandma could learn basic HTML/CSS (hyperbole, maybe—but also probably true). Where’s the proof that you can turn complex thinking into seemingly simple solutions? Proof that you can take a client’s needs and translate them into real work?

If you’re a designer, show a variety of design solutions (include sketches and failed attempts, too—process is important). If you’re a developer, show live code examples (not just “I worked on this website” statements). If you don’t have real clients yet, try your hand at unsolicited redesigns. Just get out there, find problems and solve them. Do it on your own time and show a potential employer/client that A) you can hustle and B) you’re capable of solving problems for them.

2. …in an Easy-To-Browse Portfolio*…
I had a wonderful client/friend (amazing combo if you can make it happen) who once told me he typically browsed through dozens of portfolios looking for the right talent for new projects. “Don’t make me click a lot,” he’d say, “just show me big pictures of great work.” Word to the wise from a guy who hires talent for huge clients.

*Bonus points if I can look at your portfolio on my phone. I’m not a super-busy guy, but I’m also not always at my desk in front of a 30″ monitor. Mobile is the future of how we interact with the internet—if you aren’t thinking about it now, you’ve got catching up to do.

3. …with A Stellar Cover Letter
Make me look twice. Being a vital part of a team is about more than a skillset, so your résumé is only the price of entry. Who you are determines whether you get to stick around for coffee. Is there a person behind the portfolio? How is that person different from rest of the stack of emails I’m getting? Standouts get hired, not résumés—have a voice. Articulate why you’re different.

4. Sweat the Details
Proofread your damn résumé. Make sure your website works. Spell the company’s name right. The care you put into the details of presenting yourself to a potential employer/client is a good measure of the care you will put into the work you do for that employer/client.

I once got a cover letter that led with, “My objective is to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency’s name].” Since I received this letter and résumé for a job opening on my team, I replied, “I wish you luck in your objective to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency’s name].” Details matter, always.

5. Follow the Instructions
Be as creative as you want to be, but make sure you follow the instructions in the job posting while you’re doing it. See #4.

6. Be Passionate
Please love what you do. If you’re not energized and excited about the job you’re pursuing, stop, reassess and pursue something else. In a typical week, you’re going to spend 35–45 hours a week with your coworkers—no one wants to work with passionless people. Find something you love to do and run after it.

Read Kevin Fanning’s Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs. It’s full of great, practical advice.

Posting ’round these parts has been sparse of late, as my day job has kept me busy. Our “web team” is a team of two, and in addition to other duties, myself and Mr. Spooner have been todo-list-ing our way through a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of the NewSpring Church website for the better part of the last 10 months. The previous version of the site was launched two years ago, and served us well for that season, but I’m turbo-excited about the new site’s potential.

With Spooner’s skillful bending of ExpressionEngine to our will, we added a Stories section to the site to take advantage of the exceptional content a rather large church makes possible. Taking visual cues from some talented people exploring editorial design on the web (mainly The Bold Italic, Laura Miner‘s Pictory, and Jason Santa Maria) we developed templating system that enables fairly quick turn-around (2–3 hours for design, typically less than an hour for coding/publishing) on new stories without sacrificing unique visuals and layouts. For example: Zac’s story, Kacie’s story, and Neicy’s story are all from the same “visual family,” but unique members nonetheless.

Some of the changes were big. We retooled the sermon series pages to give more flexibility on bringing the series branding to life in a bigger way—page designs like Practical Atheist and Identity Theft weren’t possible on the previous iteration of the site. I look forward to exploring and designing for that canvas in the future. We also made sections like Watch & Listen much more about search and discovery, and improved general site search as well.

Some of the redesign process was more about small improvements to existing pages and userflows. Previous pages on the old site had way too much visual prominence, when they only served as a sort of pass-through or filtering page. For example, Ministries doesn’t need a huge visual of people “doing stuff”—I likely just want information about a certain Ministry and I want to get to it quickly. We don’t make a big deal out of singling out individual campuses, as we tend to stick with church-wide events, so we combined all the location and service time information onto one page. Anywhere we could simplify, we tried to. And the places where we felt like visuals could make a more appropriate, succinct impact, we made flexible.

There is still much to do. A website, at least a good one, is never finished, only launched.

But man it feels good to launch it.

I am happy to report that my good friend and colleague Adam Spooner has a lovely new website. He likes to read, think, work and write, which essentially means he’s one of my favorite types of people. I trust your mind will be expanded by reading along. (Also, you should look at his web development work and hire him. I approve of his craftsmanship 2,763%.)

According to this article, an IT firm was just awarded the six-month contract to rebuild the government stimulus spending transparency site for $9.5 million. The irony is so thick, it’s almost easy to forget that HOLY CRAP GUYS DID YOU READ THAT? WE’RE TALKING ABOUT A $10 MILLION DOLLAR WEBSITE. (via 37signals)

As I grow increasingly fascinated by design on larger scale websites, things like the recently launched public profile page for Facebook’s Design Team are internet gold to me. Rob Goodlatte has some background on the why and what, and Ben Barry illustrated that lovely seal.

Quote, “It’s the sizes of items [on a webpage] relative to each other that really counts—that’s what gives us proportion and visual hierarchy.” Drew McLellan takes web designers to task for using pixel sizes for text with The Fallacy of Page Zooming. Proportion and visual hierarchy aren’t paid nearly enough attention. It’s the details. (via @beep)

Quote, “No one wants to work with someone who makes them feel beat down all the time, or someone who they simply can’t understand, or someone whose reaction to every issue is to start wailing about the end of the world.” Great advice from Catherine Powell, aimed at programmers but good for anyone who works with people, on the lost art of being nice.

Nathan Rice has 5 Useful WordPress Functions You Didn’t Know Existed. He also has a new blog layout that I was delighted to design for him.

[de-vign-er] — noun

1. a person who holds the dual role of designer and developer
2. an alternative to desigloper, which is an even more ridiculous amalgam word

[Origin: 2007, ostensibly coined by Flash guy Ryan Stewart]

Today’s the last day of Panic’s 50% sale on great Mac software like Transmit, CandyBar and Coda. I use Transmit everyday, and have for years. It’s so good I actually wish the OS X Finder worked more like Transmit.

Noah Stokes has started a great 3-parter on Troubleshooting Your CSS. Practical, logical coding advice is always welcomed. Update: Part 2

Back in October I wrote a post about building a team that’s better than you and said, “For [my team at NewSpring Church] to accomplish great things, I have to make an intentional, concerted effort to not be the smartest guy in the room.”

I’m happy to share with you a major step in that direction. Detail-oriented, good-taste-having, wicked smart Web Developer Adam Spooner will be leaving the grand isle of Manhattan to join our team at NewSpring this summer. You can get to know Adam via his blog Lead Neophyte or by following him on Twitter. I trust you will benefit from doing so.

NewSpring launched a rebrand and a new site 10 months ago to coincide with the opening of our second campus. Since then, we’ve opened two more campuses (one completely web-based) and seen our overall web traffic double, downloadable media bandwidth triple, and video streaming bandwidth almost quadruple. And let me assure you, internet, we have been over my head and talent capacity in regards to web development and all that it entails for every bit of that time.

But that season is coming to a swift end. We’re about to do some damage.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Taking Your Talent to the Web is now a free downloadable PDF. It’s an 8-year-old book on making the transition from print design to web design, but it still holds up (and is likely needed now more than ever.)

1. Preparing for Mrs. Blankenship‘s return (in other words, house projects)
2. Preparing for this weekend’s final interview with a potential web dev for NewSpring
3. Finishing this drawing
4. Finishing some HUGE Prom Night Fist Fight style vinyl wall graphics
5. Trying, and failing, to keep up with email