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The Unheard Word

One woman's slightly skewed views

Set your own standards

When I say “Set your own standards” here, I’m not talking about creating our own web standards but about the quality of our work.

Marketing guru Seth Godin writes, in his article Better than they deserve:

Letting your customers set your standards is a dangerous game, because the race to the bottom is pretty easy to win. Setting your own standards — and living up to them — is a better way to profit. Not to mention a better way to make your day worth all the effort you put into it.

Did that ever strike a chord with me!

There have been times over the last couple of years, since I stopped working full time for the Western Australian State Government, things have been tough, financially. A regular income has its advantages! At one point, someone close to me was putting me under a lot of pressure to lower my standards and churn out cheap, nasty web sites at a high rate to bring in some much-needed cash. Then, a client asked me to create a web site that would also have been cheap and nasty — but which would have given my business a lot of publicity.

I refused. It’s hard enough to know that there are old sites of mine floating around that are not up to my current standards, and I knew if I lowered my standards now, the reputation I planned to build as a web standards and web accessibility specialist would be unattainable. Yes, I could have earned some (and maybe a lot) extra cash, but at what cost?

I chose this path I’m on — these areas of specialisation — because they are important to me and because working in these areas gives me great satisfaction. In a way, to do anything less would be compromising my principles in a big way. What shall it profit a man…?

If that sounds sanctimonious, it’s not meant to be. Let’s face it: We spend much of our lives working. It is no bad thing to prefer to gain full satisfaction from a job well done according to personal principles (whatever they may be for each of us), instead of going against those principles and never feeling quite right about our work.

How can we have passion about something second-rate? It’s the passion that carries us forward to success.

Setting standards, and sticking to them, does pay off. For myself, I’m now extremely busy with clients who chose my business precisely because it offers that extra something. And just a couple of months ago, I spoke at a conference in the U.S.A. on topics relating to my areas of specialisation. There are also other exciting (to me!) things about to happen that are simmering just below the surface. I’m achieving my goals.

Where would I be if I’d taken the quick-and-easy path to cash? Not where I am now, that is for sure! And I like it where I am. 🙂

It doesn’t matter whether you are in design, I.T. or any other business. Set your own standards (and aim high when you do it!) and the pay-off, though it may not be immediate, will be worth it.

Designing for wide screens and high resolutions

My 17-inch MacBook Pro laptop shares the same screen resolution as my 20-inch iMac. Obviously, to fit the same number of pixels on the screen, those pixels are going to be a lot smaller on the MBP than on the iMac.

I have good eyesight, but there are many sites I view on the MBP where I find I have to bump up the font size because the text is uncomfortably small. Fortunately, on the Mac this is easy and is something I am comfortable to do. Those on newer Windows laptops might not find it so simple, even if they know they can do it (and how to do it).

Designers who favour small font sizes should consider just how tiny the fonts will appear on many modern machines. But of course, it’s not just text. Everything is smaller, including images. With this kind of scenario becoming more and more common, it’s definitely an important design consideration.

So, what can we do?

Without getting too technical, there are a few things we can do to make life easier for those using high-resolution displays.

  1. Err on the side of “bigger” when setting font sizes

    Self-explanatory. Ensure font sizes are set in ems or percentages, and make them a notch or two bigger than you normally might. You might prefer a smaller font and think it looks better — but it’s not about you. It’s about the user.

  2. Use style switchers

    But please make sure these are intuitive to use. I particularly like this implementation.

  3. Scalable graphics

    Perhaps the easiest method involves creating your graphics at the maximum physical dimensions you are comfortable with (be careful of file size!) and setting the dimensions of the image displayed via CSS. The box containing the image should have a liquid width (for example, if the image is inside a column on the page, that column may be set to a width of, say, 30% as opposed to a fixed amount in pixels) and the width of the image itself should be set to 100% with a max-width specified. (See Russ Weakley’s example.)

Roger Johansson of 456 Berea St has also discussed this issue and the thoughts and links in his article are worth looking into for further information. It’s also worth reading the comments for the various posts.

Any other thoughts?

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Safari Tidy

A version of one of my favourite Firefox extensions has now come to Safari. None of Safari’s offerings quite match Firefox’s Web Developer Toolbar, but with Safari Tidy it’s now possible to see at a glance if a web page validates, just like the HTML Validator extension for Firefox.

I love this plug-in because it keeps me on my toes… I don’t have to go through tedious validation processes while I build sites — I can see if it validates whenever I preview a page in a browser.

And I can assess the code on other sites, too. For example, when evaluating a Content Management System (CMS) or other web product, I can get an initial idea of the quality of the code without even viewing source. (Valid code does not necessarily equal good code, but if a site trying to sell me anything to do with code throws up a lot of errors I won’t hang around too long.)

All I need now to make Firefox totally redundant to my workflow (except as a testing tool) is a real-time CSS editor such as in the aforementioned Web Developer Toolbar.

Related link: Extending Safari

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Creating Challenges

For me, one of the great beauties of working for myself is that, to a large degree, I can create my own challenges. Work doesn’t have to get stale, which has the added benefit of positively impacting my whole life. (Hmmm hang on. My work is my whole life. Hmmm.)

How exactly does being my own boss mean I can create more challenges and have a more satisfying work life? Well, I don’t mean that I make things harder than they need to be.

What I mean is that I get to make judgement calls without the constraints of office politics and time-keeping. How many of us have felt under-appreciated at work, or frustrated because we know we can do better but our boss told us, “Just get it done quickly” or — when we know technology or techniques to be used are outdated or just plain wrong for the job, we are told “There’s no time, there’s no money. Just do it”.

But I am free to seek my own solutions in my own time if that’s what I want to do. I don’t feel obliged to do a task in an old way simply because it’s familiar, and that’s the way it’s always been done and it works, so why waste time (which is money), etc. etc.?

From a business viewpoint, that don’t-waste-time mindset certainly has merit, depending on the circumstances, but often only in the short-term. (And sure, sometimes we have to make those hard business decisions ourselves when there literally is no time or money to pursue something better.) But I believe my business will ultimately benefit (indeed, it has benefited a great deal) from my desire to learn, to improve upon old ways, to find better and more efficient solutions. Yes, I’ve worked for many non-billable hours along the way, but it’s never wasted. In any case, any web developer worth his or her salt, whether self-employed or an employee, must continue to develop professionally in such a fast-changing industry.

The thing is, that when you’re answerable directly to the client and to no one else, there is more freedom to focus that professional development on providing exactly what is needed at a given moment: the best solution, not just the fastest to implement that will do the job. And of course that knowledge is reused again and again in future projects, so — once attained — it actually saves a great deal of time rather than wasting it.

It’s an investment that pays big dividends. The end result is that the client is happy (though usually none the wiser about the extra effort I’ve put in to give them a superior product) and I have immense satisfaction in a job well done. In addition, I’ve gained knowledge and skills, and the big bonus is increased income.

Heady stuff. 🙂

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ANZAC Day, 2006

Lest We Forget

On ANZAC Day, April 25, 2006, it seems evident to me that we have all but forgotten.

The words of Rudyard Kipling, in a song I learned as a youngster at primary school, are poignant in today’s pro-war world. Notwithstanding the religious aspect of these words, with which many may or may not agree, the fundamental meaning is clear and has stuck with me since those childhood days:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

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Google Calendar — but not for Safari

Well, if Doug Bowman had a hand in the design of Google’s new public beta of Google Calendar and said it’s a really good application to use, even compared to iCal — that was good enough for me and I went to try it.

A big thumbs-down to Google because it doesn’t work (well, I stopped trying when I couldn’t add a date to an event) with Safari.

The only OSX browser supported is Firefox. I don’t like Firefox and am certainly not going to change my browser for the sake of an online calendar that I don’t even know I will find useful (and now probably will never find out). The Mac users who aren’t geeks (that is, most Mac users) won’t download Firefox just to use it for Google Calendar either. I guess there is a big, loud and clear message here from Google to Mac users. One of a long string of messages, actually.

It’s a good thing I really like iCal. And one thing I love about it is the way it integrates with many OSX applications. And, in the end, I want my information on my own computer, not on Google’s servers. I’m more comfortable with that, and (because of the OSX integration) it seems likely it works better for me in a practical sense.

(Windows users don’t have much of a choice either: Google Calendar only works on Windows in Internet Explorer 6 and above, and in Firefox. But most Windows users use IE6 — the default browser on Windows — and most Mac users use Safari — the default browser on OSX.)

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It’s been a while since I posted, so this seems a good time to mention that I’ve been invited to speak at TODCon 8 in Orlando, Florida, in May 2006.

I’ll be giving two presentations — one on Web Accessibility and the other on XHTML — preceded by a presentation at the May Perth Web Standards Group meeting (tentative date 11th May).

TODCon boasts some amazing talent, including Stephanie Sullivan, Derek Featherstone and Jesse Rodgers, amongst some brilliant minds from the webdev world in general. It is fantastic to be part of that.

Following TODCon, I’ll be spending nearly a week in Paris with a long-time (5 years!) net friend I’ve never actually met in person. It’s about time! 🙂

And it will be a lovely break, it being something like twelve years since the last time I went outside of Australia!

So now I am dieting madly (well, it sounds good, anyway!) and am preparing for the delicacies life has in store in the near future.

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My top ten must-have Mac OSX applications

A fellow Webweaver is “switching” from PC to Mac, and asked the Mac users on our email list which Mac software we consider to be must-haves — aside from what is already pre-installed. So as a follow-up to the Apple Mail post, I decided to compile a list of (some of) my favourites.

  1. Quicksilver (application launcher and much more. Saves me oodles of time and is always the first thing I install on a new system)
  2. SpamSieve (it’s super-accurate, and, when used in conjunction with Dockless, I never even know it’s there)
  3. Studiometry (I totally depend on this for my project management and billing — I love it!)
  4. Transmit (powerful FTP client — the DockSend function is a huge time-saver)
  5. Adium (multi-protocol IM client… I’ve tried ’em all but Adium is by far the most mature)
  6. Hogwasher (newsgroup reader — a few quirks but offers convenient features no other OSX newsgroup reader currently offers)
  7. NetNewsWire (a newsfeed reader I really love. I just about live in this proggy)
  8. Growl (notification utility)
  9. CiphSafe (password manager)
  10. MailUnreadStatusBar (a menubar icon displays the number of unread emails in Apple Mail — in any folder/s, not just the Inbox)

As previously mentioned, I’m a software junkie and it is really hard to narrow the list down to just ten items. (So I cheated a bit and snuck Dockless in there with SpamSieve. 😉 But I couldn’t work out how to sneak any more in!) I also left out such software as Dreamweaver, Fireworks and StyleMaster, as they are not exclusive to Mac OSX.

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Apple Mail plug-ins and other helper apps

I didn’t mean to do it. I swear I didn’t. I just can’t help myself. I just really, you know, needed a fix.

I’m a software junkie.

A couple of days ago I discovered a fantastic page of Apple Mail plug-ins compiled by Tim Gaden. I have managed to waste spend quite some time looking into them and installing a few. The page also lists some other OSX plug-ins, utilities and applications that partner with Mail. I had no idea many of these existed and thought it would be nice to share with my fellow software junkies.

Tim even put together a Top ten things every Mail.app user should have page to assist us in our selections.

What better way for a software junkie to spend the weekend than installing and testing our new toys? 😉

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Is there room for another web editor from Adobe?

There has been much discussion by web professionals everywhere about the future of their favourite applications, ever since the Adobe-Macromedia merger was announced last year.

Webweavers is an email list for anyone in web development, but the majority use Dreamweaver somewhere in their workflow. Recently, on the list, it had been suggested that GoLive’s best features be moved to Dreamweaver, leaving GoLive in a dumbed-down state for beginners or those without the need for sophisticated features.

Lynn Grillo posed a question (unofficially, I might add, and purely out of her own personal interest — nothing to do with Adobe at all although she is an employee of that company) that sparked quite a discussion.

Lynn asked, “So do you folks think there is room for two web editors from Adobe? You know, aimed at different markets?”

Obviously, everyone had different ideas depending on their individual experience with GoLive and Dreamweaver, and the level of their web development expertise. Some said that was a terrible idea and Macromedia had tried it with Dreamweaver and UltraDev, eventually combining the two — and Adobe tried it with PageMill and GoLive, eventually dropping PageMill — so why would they want to do that with GoLive and Dreamweaver? Others said Dreamweaver is daunting to people just starting out, and there is definitely room for an “easier” web editor. Still others said, “Yes, but at what point do you draw the line between the features of each?”

But I think that Stephanie Sullivan and Al Sparber hit the nail on the head. Stef said that even a tool that outputs standards-compliant and accessible code in the hands of an experienced and knowledgeable professional will in all likelihood churn out horrible code when used by someone who doesn’t understand HTML. Al pointed out that “easy” editors (ones that don’t require the user to know or understand HTML) actually prohibit or at least deter a user from learning.

It seems to me, however, that there are ample editors on the market that already churn out “easy” and horrible code, so I can’t see any need for another.

However… I’m wondering if the idea of a “Dreamweaver Elements” does, in fact, have merit. It need not necessarily (in fact, should not) be a tool that does everything for the user. Consider the way in which Photoshop Elements works much the same as Photoshop, but minus a lot of the features many users don’t (and won’t ever) need. Photoshop Elements is very a popular and well-regarded application, from all I’ve heard, and furthermore it also incorporates the ability to use Photoshop plug-ins and therefore is extensible.

Might there be room for a high quality editor for learners (especially if there is an upgrade path) and those that are never likely to require the full functionality of Dreamweaver and GoLive? One that is also extensible through Dreamweaver (and/or GoLive) extensions?

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