A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

"The biggest challenge to better design isn't getting better designers."

I came across a great article today entitled How to Design for Your Worst Client: You. While the article aims to provide designers with tips for designing their own personal websites, there are some some lessons that anyone working on a web design project can learn from.

“Be as specific as you can on what you would like on each page. That means decide on the content first. I know, it’s a design portfolio. You need something to design though. How many times has a client had you design something without saying what content they want on there, or saying they will get it to you soon (meaning the day before it goes live). Don’t do this to you.”

Too often sites are designed without a thought out content plan in place.  This usually leads to last minute redesigns or sites that are squares when they should be circles.  Content should be where you start, not an after thought.

“There is always someone better than you. Always. But remember: That person’s first few websites sucked. Not only did they suck, they might have been the worst website ever created. So why are you trying so hard to have the best website ever in one shot? You won’t get better unless you start making your own sites.

Stop using other websites as a crutch while you aimlessly wander looking for something to spark an idea. Since you have your goals defined and know what content you want, you can quickly move along until you find the elements that match your needs. Then STOP looking.”

In almost all cases, organizations are better off getting something good, but simple up quickly and then improving in an iterative way over time.  Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

One of the biggest obstacles to getting good design implemented is a dysfunctional approval process, as this article on the struggles American Airlines has had attests.

The biggest challenge to better design isn’t getting better designers. The problem is organizational, and the hub-and-spoke decision-making process that was originally created to slash bureaucracy–that is, to create more decentralized decisions and less hierarchy. But the overriding weakness, which design thinking makes manifest, is that good design is necessarily the product of a heavily centralized structure. Great design at places such as Apple isn’t about “empowering decision makers” or whatever that lame B-school buzzword is. It’s about awarding massive power and self-determination to those with the most cohesive vision–that is, the designers. Those are the people with the best idea of what customers want. That’s the essence of design thinking.”

While the quote references problems with the way things are structured at American Airlines, I’ve found that organizations of all sizes and shapes have similar structural problems.  No matter how talented the design team, it is difficult to produce good websites unless the end client has efficient structures in place for responding to and approving your work.  Committees are probably good for a few things, but designing websites isn’t one of them.

“The Government Moving at Internet Speed”

President Obama made his way into office with a tech savvy campaign team and promises to use new technologies to change the way government gets its job done. With the campaign over and the administration under way, shifting rhetoric into action has happened in notable ways but also raised major concerns.

The Center for American Progress held a roundtable discussion Monday with a few of those working inside and outside government to improve Federal impact and navigate some of the hurdles presented by opening government up through technology.

“The Web and the Federal Government grew up in different neighborhoods,” CAP Senior Vice President for Online Communications Andrew Sherry said in his introduction.

Speaking directly on how these two elements from different sides of the track are learning to work together was Alec Ross, Secretary of State Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, who led the roundtable’s central discussion on 21st century statehood, and what he termed “Diplomacy 2.0.” (more…)

Integrating Tweetbacks into your WordPress Blog

Conversations about blog posts are increasingly taking place on Twitter in addition to the comments section of blogs.  Due to this trend, over the last six months we’ve seen lots of blogs integrate tweetbacks into their comment sections.  Building on the trackback concept, a tweetback searches Twitter for links to specific blog pots and displays relevant tweets in the comments section of your blog. 

I’ve had a variety of clients request this feature over the last few months, so we’ve spent some time figuring out how to get tweetbacks working in our core platform, Drupal and WordPress

For Drupal, we did an exhaustive search for tweetback modules back in February and didn’t find any that work, so we developed our own custom module.  We are currently fine tuning the code we wrote and hope to release our Drupal tweetback module to the open source community in the next few months.

For WordPress, there are quite a few tweetback modules to choose from.  We tried a handful of the plugins with mixed results.  I’m posting a quick review of our experience with each in the hopes that it saves time for others hoping to implement tweetbacks on their blog.

Before I dive in, please note that we did not test all of these plugins exhaustively.  In my mind, the point of plugins is to quickly add functionality without involving our development team.  So if I couldn’t get a plugin to work within an hour or so, I chose to cut my losses and move on to the next one instead of spending time debugging.

Tweetbacks and Tweetsuite by Dan Zarrella

As far as I can tell, Dan Zarrella was the first to build a tweetback plugin module for WordPress back in January. 

His first take on it was a simple javascript solution called Tweetbacks.  While this solution probably works, it relies on inserting a javascript hosted on his personal server on your blog/website.  While this might be ok for some, we simply did not want to take the risk of inserting a javascript from an individual on a client website.

Later in January Dan released Tweetsuite, which moves away from javascript and includes a bunch of additional features.  This plugin looks awesome, but unfortunately we couldn’t get it to work on the two blogs we tried to implement it on and gave up.  The plugin also doesn’t have a lot of documentation, and from reading the comments it doesn’t sound like it is being actively supported.  So we grudgingly moved on.

Disqus

Disqus is a third-party commenting system that can actually take the place of your WordPress commenting system.  I’ve written about it before, and use it on my personal blog.  I’m a fan of the product, and when I saw Disqus was adding social media reactions to its feature set I was anxious to try it out. 

We decided to install Disqus on our own ImpactWatch blog as a way of testing out tweetbacks and giving the the system a full test drive before recommending clients start using it.  Unfortunately, the tweetbacks feature in Disqus worked correctly for exactly one day and then mysteriously stopped and never got working again. Disqus has also periodically had performance issues that have caused our blog to load slowly.  Disqus recently acknowledged that they are having some significant problems.  Despite my fondness for Disqus, we will be uninstalling it from ImpactWatch this week and go back to WordPress comments, with Backtype for tweetbacks (see below). 

I’ll probably loop back on Disqus in a few months and see if they’ve gotten their act together.  At this point, I simply can’t recommend the service.

Backtype

Last week, we gave Backtype Connect a try here on The Bivings Report.  The installation of the plugin went smoothly and tweetbacks started showing up pretty much immediately.  While the service definitely misses some tweets (probably due to people using some obscure URL shortening services), it seems to capture around 90% of relevant tweets.  It is definitely the best and most consistent of the tweetback services I have looked at and would be the one I would recommend at this point.

Note that I did not look at Tweetbacks by Yoast or Intense Debate, which is a service similar to Disqus that includes tweetback functionality.  If you have used these plugins, please post about your experience in the comments sections.  Please post if you think there is another service I should look at. 

Wolfram Alpha is intriguing, but will people use it?

The much hyped “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha launched over the weekend to what can only be described as a mixed reaction.  I played with it for a few hours and came away with two primary thoughts:

  1. Wolfram Alpha is something completely new, and that is fascinating.
  2. Everything about Wolfram Alpha is going to be compared to Google, and the engine will suffer due to the comparison.

And now for something totally different.

Wikipedia has been around forever, but I still occasionally go on Wikipedia binges where I’ll search for something and then end up following various links and learning lots of things I didn’t intend to.  Wolfram Alpha inspires similar explorations.  Starting from the examples page, here is a list of some random things I learned about as a way of showing what the engine is like:

Pretty cool, huh? I love Wolfram Alpha’s user interface, with its focus on visual search results.  And I love the way it encourages you to explore.

Will people use it?

While I find Wolfram Alpha fascinating, there are certainly idiosyncrasies.  You will simply not get results for a great many of your searches and you will run into strange results at times.   The site is clearly not yet a finished product, and this will frustrate some.

But I think the biggest challenge is the point of reference many users will bring when using the new engine.  Most of the reviews I read focused on comparing Wolfram Alpha to Google, and found it lacking.  Indeed, it seems that the first thing a lot of people did when playing with Wolfram Alpha was search for their own name, which isn’t really the point of the tool.  Fast Company sums up the problem pretty well in its article titled “Wolfram Alpha Isn’t Google, so Stop Comparing Them.”

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  Google is so dominant in the search space that a service interruption recently caused a 5% drop in overall Internet traffic.  Most of us have used Google so often for so long that if you put a search box in front of us and ask us to type something, we can’t help but compare the results we get to Google.  Google is our defining search experience.

In my mind, Wolfram Alpha isn’t really a Google competitor, any more than Wikipedia is.  I see it as something totally new, that can enrich my search experience when used as a complement to my daily Google use.  This shouldn’t be seen as Wolfram Alpha vs. Google, as I don’t see it as a zero sum game.  Unfortunately, I think most others do see it as an either/or proposition, in which case it is going to be difficult for Wolfram Alpha to truly catch on among general users.

What do you think?

Did CNN really lose against Ashton Kutcher on Twitter?

Last week, Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) beat CNN's Breaking News Feed (@cnnbrk) to the one million follower mark on Twitter.  This was after a challenge that enjoyed some viral attention last week that even gained coverage by mainstream media organizations like the Associated Press.  In response to his victory, Kutcher exclaimed: "We can and will create our media… Victory is ours!"  He feels that Twitter will help people bypass old media news organizations — like CNN — to get information.

However, I'm not sure if CNN really lost in this challenge.  Kutcher is a widely popular actor, and the fact that he could even rival it for attracting Twitter followers is evidence of this.  That is why his challenge was actually a great thing for CNN, even though it lost.  

During Kutcher's challenge many people flocked to the breaking news feed to follow.  I'm sure that some people feel that it would be a disgrace if a celebrity was able to trump an established news organization.  What would that say about our society's priorities?  

Needless to say, this challenge inspired many to follow CNN's feed — if for any reason other than to help it beat a celebrity.  Thus, many more people now will receive CNN's updates and links to its website now via Twitter.  Let's not forget all the "free press" it brought CNN.  CNN didn't lose here, especially since it won't suffer from the door bell prank its founder Ted Turner will suffer is no longer with the organization.