Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Virtual embarrassment for a Second Life virgin

Today I created my first Second Life account. After five minutes I was floating in the clouds with no idea how to get back down. Hit the fly button - up, up and away.

Well, isn't that what every newbie does (right after stripping all your clothes off, turning yourself into a woman and running around in the nod like a nutter)?

So I logged out and in again (after waiting four minutes before it would let me back in for some reason) and found myself in some strange land full of non-newbies who all seemed to know what they were doing.

Gone was the safety of the learning island where everyone was stumbling around with the same carefree ignorance as me. It wasn't that I was frightened or worried, but I did feel physically uncomfortable in that place surrounded by all those knowledgeable strangers.

On reflection I put this emotional response down to real embarrassment and the need to fit in with the crowd. I didn't want others to see me for what I really was - an inadequate newbie.

Given that, at the time, "I" was Charlie Lupino, an androgenous, vaguely humanoid avatar with a blue mohican, white underpants and the power of flight, that's a pretty powerful emotion.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Movements towards web patterns

This is an interesting set of statistics collected by Google that shows the most commonly used classes in web pages.

Apart from the fact that 'footer', the most common class, and quite a few of the others should probably be ids and not classes as you're not likely to have more than one occurrence in a page, this makes me think that perhaps we're not that far away from the types of web patterns that John Allsopp is talking about (mp3).

If most pages that use classes are already unknowingly using very similar naming conventions, maybe it wouldn't be too difficult to encourage and educate developers to adhere more closely to recognised and reusable patterns in their markup.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

My developer's toolkit

These are the tools that I currently use to develop websites. With the exception of Dreamweaver (which I'll be trying to migrate away from in favour of Nvu as soon as possible), they're all either open source or freely available services

Firefox web developer's extension - loads of tools for inspecting and testing web pages (Firefox extension)
Subversion - Source file versioning system
Tortoise SVN - Client for Subversion (Win)
Dreamweaver - Web authoring (not open source)
Gimp - Image editor
HTML-Kit - Text editor
HTML validator - HTML validation
CSS validator - CSS validation
W3Schools - Reference resource for CSS, XHTML, Javascript, etc)
Firebug - DOM inspector with great tools for debugging AJAX development (Firefox extension)
View Source Chart - Very accessible HTML source viewer

The following aren't really tools but incredibly useful open source applications that make life a whole lot easier:

Apache - Web server
Squid - Caching server
Zope - Application server
Plone - Content Management System (built on Zope)
Python - Object oriented programming language

The following are tools that I don't currently use but that I've heard good things about:

Nvu - Website authoring
Audacity - Audio editor
GMail Drive - Virtual hard drive using GMail (Win)
gDisk - Virtual hard drive using GMail (Mac) -
Rico - AJAX library
Prototype - AJAX library
Inkscape - Vector graphics

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

d.Construct schedule announced

Following on from my geekish excitement about the news that dConstruct conference was staying in Brighton, imagine how happy I am now that the conference schedule's been announced.

I'm exaggerating of course, but I am looking forward to it - just hope I get a ticket.

Most notable for me about the schedule was the lack of a mention of "Web 2.0". It seems it's become pretty uncool to refer to it these days.

Perhaps it's because the "Web 2.0" buzzword has done its job and has become too restrictive for what is now "Web 2.1" (although to call it that would be even less cool than Web 2.0).

Maybe there are other reasons. I'd be interested to hear them.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Free the PAS 78 guide!

Up until now, PAS 78 (Publicly Available Specification), a guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites, should have been called PASTAWCAI 78 (Pubclicly Available Specification To Anyone Who Can Afford It) because you had to pay £35 to download it.

Fair enough - an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.

Anyway, I guess that the authors of the guide have now recouped their costs and maybe a little bit of profit on top and they've now made it free to download (although when I tried the link it was unavailable).

So if you're planning to commission a website and have any interest in web accessibility (which you should) or if you're involved in web development in any way, go and get it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Choosing an open source CMS

Personally, I'd recommend Plone to anybody looking for an open source content management system (CMS). But perhaps I'm a little biased towards it because I've done a lot of work with Plone and I know how good it is. So here's an unbiased article about how to choose an open source CMS.

Some argue that Plone is less suitable for small businesses and organisations but I disagree. Out of the box, Plone may be a little overblown for those who just need to get a small site up and running and want to be able to edit their own content.

But Plone's flexibility means that it can be customized to remove or hide a lot of it's features until they become necessary, making it very easy to use.

And, when the time comes to expand the site and add features and functionality (which it will), Plone can handle it.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Aral Balkan interview

Following yesterday's post about d.Construct 2006, here's an episode of the Boagworld podcast featuring an interview with Aral Balkan where he talks about what's happening with Flash at the moment and his views on it's accessibility.

Aral is founder and director of Ariaware, self-proclaimed internationally renowned expert on Rich Internet Applications and the Flash Platform and one of the speakers lined up for this year's d.Construct conference. (He also spoke at last year's conference but his talk isn't available on the 2005 d.Construct site).

Sunday, June 25, 2006

d.Construct 2006 stays in Brighton

clear:left have announced the speakers for this years d.Construct conference in Brighton. Last year's event was excellent and this year's should be even better but I think it might be hard to get tickets as there's only 350 places.

Even so, I was glad when I found out it was going to be held at the Brighton Corn Exchange as there'd been talk about moving it to London this year (this was just pub banter between clear:left's Andy Budd, me and a few others following a SkillSwap event earlier this year, not official news).

The argument for moving to London was primarily that Brighton didn't have the right sized venue for the expanding conference - last year's venue, Fabrica, was too small and the Brighton Centre was too big.

But to move it to London would have dented Brighton's ever growing reputation as a centre of excellence for the 'new media' industry.

The fact that the first d.Contruct event was held in Brighton reflects the disproportionately high number of web development companies and freelancers in the city that's come to be known as Silicon Beach (tongue in cheek).

I know that the conference needs to attract people from far and wide and that most international (or even national) delegates probably won't know as much about Brighton as they know about London.

What would I prefer? A day on the south coast in the fresh air of one of England's most vibrant and happening little cities or a day in the claustrophobic and confined inner city streets of the Capital?

Mmm. Tough one...not!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Diving gingerly into e-commerce

My local paper said yesterday that traders in Brighton and Hove have been told to start selling online if they want to stay competitive and counteract the slump in consumer spending on the high street.

This advice came from DreamTeam Design who develop the EROL e-commerce software so their motivation is clear but I've got no problem with that - it's good business sense and they're providing local traders with useful advice about something most of them aren't sure of how to get started with.

EROL's a fully featured and highly customizable e-commerce system so I think it's good for traders who are ready to dive into e-commerce in a big way.

My company's currently working on its own e-commerce product which won't rival the features of EROL and, because of this, I think it will attract traders who want to dip their toes into e-commerce rather than taking the plunge with something as feature rich as EROL.

Am I right? Do traders want to go in at the deep end of e-commerce or paddle in the shallows for a bit?

And have I overdone the water-based metaphors in the this post or what?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Google Reader lives to fight another day

I was debating ditching Google Reader over the weekend and trying something like Bloglines instead because I didn't think it gave me enough control over my feeds but then I saw a screencast highlighting most (if not all) of Reader's features and it's been given a stay of execution.

It's a long screencast (about 10 minutes) and not polished (which I quite like) but way quicker than reading the help files or trying to find out by exploration.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Gone in 51 seconds

People spend an average of 51 seconds reading an e-newsletter, according to a study about e-newsletter usability published by the Nielson Norman group.

The study also found that the first two words of a headline are key and that most readers only skim the content because they've got so many other emails competing for their attention.

I always prefer newsletters with articles that have a headline, a single short paragraph about the article and a link to further information rather than the full article in the newsletter itself and I suppose this study shows that I'm a typical user.

So keep e-newsletters short and make the articles catchy and easy to read.

There's no point in spending time composing long and detailed e-newsletters 'cos they won't get read. But if the full content of the newsletter is on your website (and available as a web feed) then it's always available to everyone (which an e-newsletter isn't - especially after it gets binned).

P.S. My interest in this study stems partly from a web application called Mass Mailer whose development I'm involved with.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hell hath no fury like Joe Clarke

I have to admit that I haven't read version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2) yet but after reading 'To Hell with WCAG 2' by Joe Clarke it's going to be difficult to have a very open mind and not to read it from a highly critical point of view.

Mr Clarke goes on quite a rant and it made me think that maybe someone on the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) commmittee, the team who are responsible for WCAG 2, must have said his suit was too shiny or called his cat fat or something.

Don't get me wrong though. I think these official standards are sometimes too easily accepted as gospel and that they can encourage us to stop thinking about what's right for a particular project.

So I'm all for Joe and his fury. It's just a shame that, if he's right about WCAG 2, so much time has been wasted on developing a set of unusable guidelines.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Wake up to accessibility

Public sector organisations are way ahead of commercial businesses with regards to awareness of accessibility issues relating to websites.

Last week I went to a web accessibility event organized by MLA London (Museums, Libraries and Archives) aimed at anyone involved in commisioning websites.

As well as getting some really valuable insights into the services that web devlopment companies must be capable of providing to organisations in this sector, I was impressed by the speakers that were involved, the number of delegates that came along and how well up on accessibility issues the delegates already were.

I doubt that there would be the same level of interest in such an event from companies in the commercial secto even if, like this one, it was free.

I suppose you could argue that public sector organisations are bound to be more 'interested' in web accessibility issues because their funding often depends on meeting stingent accessibility criteria.

But most delegates came away with the understanding that the benefits of having an accessible website go way beyond the funding that was obtained to develop it.

It's not just about adding ALT tags to images. The whole approach to the design and development of a website must come from an accessibility standpoint rather than tacking on accessibility options at the end.

Of course this means the site must be technically accessible (i.e. according to accepted accessibility guidelines), but it's also got to have accessible content (e.g. copy must be written in a way that the audience can easily digest) and be really easy to use (e.g. navigation mechanisms should be clear and consistent).

If website developers adopt this sort of 'accessibility-centric' approach, the results will be more visitors to your site, more satisfied customers and a higher chance of repeat visits.

In the public sector, this might translate into better funding. In the commercial sector, it translates into higher revenue. In both cases, it means a return on investment that justifies the accessible approach to your website.