Reality check: Why Adobe Muse doesn’t matter.

Recently a number of people in the web community, specifically developers have been complaining about Adobe Muse, a website creation tools for people without coding knowledge. And while I agree that Adobe doesn't know what the community wants, I think the reactions to this tool have been a little too big. Here are my musings (I couldn't resist that badboy).

First up Muse isn't a new concept. In fact there are a billion and one tools to allow people without knowledge of coding to build websites, SquareSpace is just one example. They are not aimed at people who know HTML and CSS, and so people like me don't use them. But the reason these applications are popular isn't because making websites is easy, or because everyone has a web-designer within them, it's because people usually start off with a great template. People who don't have a design background and who then use a service like Muse to build a site without a template, generally end up with a crap website. Does that bother me? Nope, it doesn't impact my trade in a bad way, in fact it's good if anything because I can say to potential clients "look at what this guy did, it doesn't look very good does it? And that' why you should work with me.".

Using a tool like Muse is like buying a microwave meal, it looks the part, it tastes mediocre, and it's full of crap. Although you can create websites with Muse, as developers know, the code it spits out isn't great. This impacts things like SEO, thus making the website harder to find.

Anyone that follows me on Twitter knows that I do sometimes complain about Photoshop. Sure there are some bugs, it's way over-priced, and the company that makes it has lost touch with the creative industry, but to be honest it does the job. I don't expect great things from Adobe, and neither should you. While they are off spending time and effort creating nasty applications like Muse (written in AIR), I'm confident others are looking for an alternative.

So stop complaining about Muse, it wasn't built for you, it doesn't affect you, and although Adobe has changed (despite it once being about the music), it doesn't matter.

Trimming the Fat

In light of the recent redesign of Tom's Big Box I thought I write a post about some of the design choices I made with regard to 'trimming the fat'. I want to look at the attitudes towards certain aspects of websites, and more specifically blogs. In re-designing the site I was constantly asking myself "is this element entirely necessary". Tom's Big Box isn't about showing off my skills as a web designer; it's about sharing (hopefully valuable) content with the community, therefore my re-design was primarily concerned with the creation of a design that best promotes the content of the site.

To use a cliché "content is king" - we all know this and all abide by it - it doesn't matter how good your site looks, without content it's worth nothing. I'm certainly not going to dispute that, but what I will say is that I believe a certain culture has grown up around blogging, which has let to accepted standards. I rarely visit a blog without a sidebar listing monthly archives these days. Most of the time blogs have a great number of features that I believe are entirely superfluous. Why do we need monthly archives, seriously? Think about it. Never have I thought, "I know, I could do with seeing all the posts from March 2010". The only circumstance that would lead to that for me would be the searching of content related to an event occurring in that month. But despite the fact that few people ever use them (if statistics show I'm wrong please prove me wrong), blogs often whack them in the sidebar. I think this type of design by convention is bad. Bloggers feels that they should include a blogroll, and archives because everyone else is doing it, when really it's just more visual noise.

And it's this visual noise that I hate so much. The guys over at 37Signals, alongside many others often quote Antoine de Saint-Exuper in saying:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away ~ Antoine de Saint-Exuper

This is something I think holds true in every medium of design. If we evaluate the elements on a blog page, what is the most important thing? The post itself obviously. We can then go about assessing the importance of other elements and delete as appropriate. This approach forces us to justify the use of an element on the page - "why do I need a link to the category in which this was posted?" might be answered with "because people may want to see related posts" - the link stays. "Why do I have a share button for Twitter at the bottom of the article?" might garner a response of "to allow people to easily share with friends" - is that a good enough reason? In my opinion, no. Why? Because the integration of social buttons like this makes it easy to regurgitate content in robotic forms like '[article name] by [article author], [link]' - how very boring. If a user likes your content enough, if your post justifies a Tweet or share, then let the reader think of a way to share it, and let them decide if the extra 10 seconds is worth spending time on to promote your article.

In conclusion I want you to take away one thing from this article - elements should have to justify themselves. Design for yourself, if you never click blogroll links, don't put them on your site, but at the same time remember this is limited to certain things, just because you don't use an RSS reader, doesn't mean others share your opinion. I for one have become frustrated by all this visual noise around today. I get that many sites need ads to support them and won't ever complain about them, but don't add to the crap by sticking a link to half the internet on your page as well as 'what your are currently listening to on last.fm', because do you know what? I don't care, maybe if the article is good, I'll check out your profile, but not before.

Why Facebook is potentially fatal

So that's a rather brash title isn't it? Well I feel that a subject like this needs to be met with outright forwardness and it is for this reason that I am writing this article. Now this isn't an article bashing Facebook or it's recently changed privacy settings, its about the people that use it. I'll start with a case in point. A friend of mine posted a status update earlier today saying "Who the heck is [insert name here]?!" - because the guy he was on about had been posting comments on his activity. Now the person he was on about also requested that I be his friend and when I looked at our mutual friends we had about 50, but I decided I didn't know him so I didn't accept the request - seems logical right? Well although to you and me it might, it seems that spammers who previously had covered relatively little ground on Facebook have moved onto fake profiles in their masses. And this made me think.

Facebook puts an awful lot of work into ensuring privacy, they make sure that you have "total" control over your account and it's up to you what you share. But all of this hard work to protect users is immediately invalidated when any user accepts a friend request from someone that they don't know and have never heard of. Anther example - another of my friends once confirmed a friend just because they had the same name of them, but upon inspecting their profile found absolutely no links - the guy lived half way around the world.

You could think that I'm over-reacting, but I can assure you, I' not. Although I, personally put very little content on Facebook, think about the millions of vulnerable users that do - a like of a certain band here and a joining of another group there can soon lead to a huge psychological profile of any user. I would go as far as to say that your activity on Facebook could be enough to kill you. Woah! You say, but allow me to elaborate. Imagine some serial killer on Facebook looking to harvest information. Many people make their contact numbers public, while the rest make their movements known to all of their friends. Addresses, dates of birth, and other valuable information is stored on Facebook. Many banking systems use your date of birth and address as security information - think on that. On a serious note anybody out to hurt you could easily collect the required information off of Facebook and easily use it against you.

So what can be done to stop this? Well it's incredibly simple - don't accept friend requests from people you don't know. And while I know I will be appealing to the wrong audience here, I believe it is important for us to educate those on the risks involved with accepting unknown people on Facebook as friends - because who knows, one day such information could save a persons life.

Okay so that last bit was a bit over the top - but I don't think this subject is to be taken lightly, so think about the points I've made and please don't go accepting friend requests from people you don't know!

Flash, and all that Jazz

So it seems that the web is alight with talk of Adobe's ubiquitous Flash platform because of some rather interesting decisions taken, and points proposed by Apple's Steve Jobs, but what are the main points, beyond the simple "it crashes Macs" argument? Well in the article I hope to set out a few of my thoughts on the subject, just so that I don't go forgetting them!

Flash is, for all intents and purposes, okay. And I say that as a user, not a web designer/Mac users/fanboy. Some Flash websites created by the professional are mind-bogglingly awesome and never cease to amaze me, for example 2Advanced - the industry leaders are utterly fantastic at what they do. They've taken Flash to a whole new level, using powerful techniques that make for a stunning result (their website that is). And I admire that, because I think mastery of any platform should be applauded. And at this point in time there are certain things that can only be done with Flash - complex online games, and rich web applications to name just a few. And making a website in Flash obviously has advantages over other methods - for one you can ensure it will look the same across all platforms, and the Flash player plugin is installed on something like 95% of the world's computers, so your in safe hands.

But, and it's a big but; I will respect you more as a designer if you don't use Flash. Why? Well, about two years ago when I was new to the whole jQuery thing, I remember seeing a scrolling animation in a sidebar. It was basically displaying a load of pictures and just going up and down. When I first looked at it I though, yeah that's Flash, but when I right clicked it, I was presented with my normal contextual menu, and I was amazed! Now I realize that that sounds awfully mundane, but back then I was inspired. Since then I have found myself finding that many rich web experiences have nothing to do with Flash, and I love it! So when it comes to me, I wouldn't use Flash in a design, and that's just because I'm not a fan.

Now this is coming from someone that's tried to get into Flash. I learned my fair share of ActionScript, and got to grips with the software, but after a while I just found the allure of jQuery to enticing to resist, and so I dumped Flash. But lets talk about what the big guys are saying.

No Flash on the iPhone

Right, so we've gotten used to this lacking feature now, and being honest, have there been many times when your day has been ruined by this lack of support? Not for me (maybe I'm just lucky), in fact if anything it has improved my web experience - blocking out those pesky Flash banners that flash every colour of the rainbow. Don't get me wrong, it would be nice to have Flash on the iPhone OS, but at the end of the day, when so many things that are done in Flash, can be so easily replicated with some nifty Javascript and HTML5, why bother?

No Flash-generated Apps

Now this was an interesting move by Apple, but you can see where they are coming from. They would open to slowed development if the software didn't stay up to date, but I don't truly believe that this is the reason it has been disallowed. Really? I think old Steve Jobs just wants to see the death of Flash, and this nail in the coffin will serve to simply reduce the list of features on platform. But to be honest I think it was the right move, not because of what Jobs said in his open letter, but because I believe that if a developer really wants to get their app on the iPhone they will just pay an iPhone developer, and the result of this? Better quality apps. Think about it. Do you seriously think that Adobe's planned distribution converted would have lived up to the creation of a dedicated app? Definitely not.

At the end of the day, this has got a lot to do with Apple wanting total control over the applications heading for the app store, and nobody (bar Apple) is denying that. But it's a good thing if Apple wants to keep the apps in the app store high quality? But then is there really any competition to Flash? Do I hear Silverlight? Yeah, about that...

Just to clarify, I'm not someone what hates or bashes Flash. Nor do I love Apple in every respect. But what I think this whole thing has shown, is that many people don't like Flash. Even Microsoft is backing Apple in this, and I for one can't wait to just use HTML5; and with developers creating more and more fantastic apps every day, powered only by HTML5, I think the future is one not without Flash, but with less of a ubiquity.

What do you guys think? Am I just talking rubbish, or does Apple have a point?

Squarespace is great, but…

Disclaimer: I think Squarespace provides an excellent service and I don't hate them!

So there has been a lot of hype recently surrounding the service Squarespace recently. And I read an article in .NET which was an interview with the founder, but when I finished reading I realized that I disagreed with some of the points he raised in the interview. So basically the people behind Squarespace think that the future is them, that is, people won't go to services such as WordPress and Drupal to create their sites, instead relying on their excellent technology. And this is where I disagree.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm told that Squarespace is a fantastic service, but at the end of the day it is lacking in a number of things. Firstly what's with he lack of themes? I mean it's all very well and good either being a noob and just using a default template, but what happens when someone wants to create something totally different? Now I know that their examples page features an array of interesting sites that look professional, but I think the lack of some sort of theme marketplace is a terrible missed opportunity. On top of this, although they boast the up most customization, you are still restricted to a grid system, and despite what many say, when I visit a website I can, in most cases, instantly tell if it is powered by Squarespace.

But the thing which annoys me the most is this. If they are to take over the blogging world and replace WordPress, are they going to stay on their own hosting? Because if they do, then they're just plain stupid. Their best package has a monthly bandwidth limit of 400GB. Now to put this into perspective let me show you some stats from a popular web design blog - Spoon Graphics - which is really fantastic, has a monthly bandwidth of 940GB. So that's the $50/month package out of the window.

One way in which the service does excel is when it comes to comparing it to similar services, i.e. WordPress.com and Blogger. There's no denying that the guys have done a fantastic job on the who visual editor and I think the design is really slick. But to be quite honest I feel that the claim that they will soon be ubiquitous is outrageous.

So just to finish, let's create a simple situation. You want a blog, and in our case there are two solution. Number one, Squarespace, and number two WordPress self-hosted.

Squarespace

$600 for 5GB storage and 400GB bandwidth. Great. You can then edit the theme as you choose.

WordPress

$240 for hosting + $32 for a really cool theme from ThemeForest, and WordPress is a free download. And we'll add $100 to account for the setup time just to be nice. That's $372. And you get to customize every aspect of everything ever anywhere 🙂 Obviously you have to know code, but if you've got a cool enough theme, you should be alright.

I know which one I'm going to pick, every time.

How about you? Have you had a really go experience with Squarespace? I'm genuinely interested to know.

What is Social Media?

So the term "social media" is thrown around a lot these days as a way of making people think that us designers are clever in the way in which we update Twitter feeds. But what does the term actually mean in terms of everyone involved with it? For some people such as clients, social media is simply another tool in their arsenal, which can be used to get their message out. To others it is a major business opportunity. From the perspective of a designer and developer the term can be used as an umbrella for social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and helps add weight to something that might otherwise sound like a con - that is - "oh yeah and we'll update your Twitter/Facebook profiles every day with news, and that will be £200/$300". So it helps to add value to the work that many companies do, and enables clients to understand that there is a strategy and a plan behind such goings on.

But wait! What about from the perspective of the humble blogger?

To someone new to blogging, who wants to create an online presence and boost traffic to their site, having read a few articles on the importance of social media in today's society, they could think that it's a whole load more work to do which is of grave importance, when in reality it really depends on the site. For instance Chris Pirillo, a successful blogger is constantly tweeting links to articles on his site, but most of the time, these articles aren't written by him, and this really annoys me. Why? Well because if I like and value the opinion of someone, I might then follow them on Twitter, but that doesn't mean I want to be bombarded with links to frankly sub-standard material on their site that wasn't even written by them. But what this does, is drive traffic to his site, so it must be working for him on some level.

So instead of this, how about considering and planning what you will tweet. Instead of tweeting 25 times a day, why not tweet only 5? Or how about only tweeting only when you have something interesting to say? The last one is the one that will get you the most followers on Twitter because people only really care about the information that matters to the person that they are following. Also an important part of the use of social media is interacting with those who engage with you; so if someone asks your opinion on something how about and @ reply? Maybe not to everyone, but bear in mind that people like it when it's a real person behind the picture, not just some robot focused solely on increasing traffic to their site.

Okay, I've written quite a lot there, and I've not even reached my main point, so here it is. I think the term social media should be altered. To me it sounds like a big, bloated term that is only used to impress people. Why not just say that sites like Facebook and Twitter can help build an online presence? At the end of the day, neither Twitter nor Facebook were created with the intention of becoming a "tool" for use by companies, they were both created to help better connect people. So don't dress them up to be something that they are not. Sure a "Social Media Strategy" sounds impressive; but when that just means keeping feeds up to date and interacting with people a little, does it really require such a daunting name?

So by all means tell your clients that you are using social media to get their company noticed, but don't bang on about it! Keep it simple. Keep it informal. And most importantly, keep it relevant.

Designing for the Web

When you sit down at your computer, or with a sketch-pad and pen, to design a website, you are essentially designing for the web. But what does this actually mean? From a designer's perspective like mine, it simply means that I take a number of things into consideration (on top of the many fundamentals of design that is). Firstly the sizes of elements on my page. I generally tend to design sites with an overall content width off no more than 900px - this stops my websites falling of the edges of low resolution screens (the maximum width for this is about 1000px by the way). So this constrains me to make sure that I don't create something visible only to those with huge screens. Next I consider things like layout and various other details. But more importantly, something I do almost automatically these days, is cater for just what any given web-browser can do.

Now this doesn't mean that every time I come to design, I think about how it will look in IE7? Instead, I think of things like shadows, glows and other seemingly-complex design techniques. Furthermore I consider the fonts that I use. This is something I tend to do when designing templates for say WordPress for example. I know that all my titles and text has to be interchangeable, so creating the finest looking header in Photoshop may be useless when it comes to converting it into a website. The same goes for things like content boxes. As a designer you have to consider the way in which users will interact with such things and understand that those boxes could be filled with almost anything.

And so from this singular perspective you could say that designing for the web has stunted my creative flair. Or has it?

Personally I don't think so, or at least not for the majority of designers. Those designers who are just starting out, who have yet to find their own style will possible fall into this group of people who constantly design the same style of websites. But as web technologies advance and as more options become available to us, surely we are able to create more stunning designs that may at first, not strike you as a website. So is that the solution? Don't set out to design for the web, but just design something - anything, and then work around it? No. For a plethora of reasons, the thing would fall apart. Things like usability and interaction have to be considered.

I guess what I am trying to say is this. Don't sit down at your computer to design a website, sit down to create an experience. I think that figuring out how we are going to create a website can come later, but if you sit down to create an experience around a design, and keep the fact that it will become a website at the back of your mind, I believe that you will create the most stunning designs.

The problem with Web 2.0 Design

Web 2.0 is the quirky title given to the way in which developers and users have used the web since 2004 to present; and I haven't got a problem with that. I have a problem with the overuse of web 2.0 design. Now there are design trends that come and go, and I am someone who really hopes that this particular one would just go away. It seems that many designers these days create a plethora of similar designs all based on this so called standard - all glossy buttons and sans-serif fonts.

Now that doesn't mean to say I'm totally against this style of design. But what I am against is people who just mimic the style and call it their own original design. I might be wrong here, but I feel that this design trend has caused laziness amongst the design community, causing many designers to just add some gloss and get rid of an element or two. What I don't like are sites that are incredibly upfront about their web 2.0 style, the ones with a huge amount of glossy buttons and no really design originality.

An upcoming trend is that of simplicity and I for one hope that it aids the destruction of web 2.0 style sites. I just feel like saying to all of these people who copy a million and one tutorials on glossy sites to go and get some design sense!

@ElliotJayStocks has talked about this subject quite a lot and he too believes that Web 2.0 must die!

What I am saying is that in a way this style of design is making the design community stupider, think about it, so many clients will ask for a web 2.0 style site without really understanding what it means.

This isn't really much of a post, more of a rant, but I just wanted to make clear that I hate web 2.0 - and you should too! That is all.

Could Facebook groups be a bad thing?

Recently I was looking around on Facebook as you do, and I realized that around 90% of my news feed was full of "John Doe joined the group ... and so did 16 other friends". Now apart from the annoyance this served me it made me think about the purpose behind such groups. One could argue that they are simply the musings and observations of a random person, but I take a more cynical approach. Why? Well I can understand why you might want to protest against racism by joining a group to show your support; but what possible reason could there be for joining a group just to agree with a meaningless statement such as "I want this house" with a photo of a large house? Sure for most people it is just a small thing they do when they are bored. But what worries me is the people behind the groups.

I can understand why, as the founder of a certain group, you might get excited about getting 10,000 members, but I doubt that if your group was for a worthy cause you might make a checklist of what membership number you want to achieve. When creators aim for such high numbers is it just because they want to see that people care? Possible. But as I said I am far more cynical than all of that. Groups that expressly ask you to invite all your friends by copying and pasting some JavaScript code into the URL bar surely have some ulterior motive. What I can see emerging is a sort of voluntary spamming network.

Think about it. If you were to take a handful of groups and add together their memberships to say 1,000,000 people, you would have a good amount of people to spam. If you wanted to spam a certain set of people, you could take student groups and collectively spam them. I can see large shady businesses buying "admin-ships" from the creators of these groups, as to utilize the "Message all members" feature of the groups system. And think about it, this wouldn't just impact your Facebook account, no, because Facebook is automatically configured to email users whenever they are sent a message, and so it would filter down.

Now you might be thinking, yes but all these people could just leave the group. Sure they could. But if the attacks were well coordinated, you could send maybe 10 messages to every account you had access to in a minute? And that's the sort of thing that wouldn't even require a bot network. You could just copy and paste in the spam over and over. You would segment the attacks into a group by group basis and make sure you were targeting the right people.

I would advise you take this idea with a pinch of salt, because I can't see it happening in the near future, but I think it is important for us to be aware that such a network could easily be used to spam people. So what can you do to stop it? Don't join these stupid groups that say "If 250,000 people join I'll run round town naked", only join the ones that mean something to you and that you trust.

Do you do To do?

In today's modern society, with the ever growing amount of information I find many people are turning to "To do" applications to keep track of all the little things they need to get done in their lives. I'm told they are a God-send; that they couldn't live without them, or that they don't know where they'd be without them. However every time I download one of these applications I find myself entering one or two items to the list and then never using them again.

I downloaded one application, namely Things for the Mac, the other day and entered a task, categorized it and looked around a bit and then exited. I must say I think the interface is beautiful and I admire the sleek design. However as I have found with so many of these applications I just couldn't integrate it with my work-flow. I work on two computers, and sometimes a third, however whenever I want to save a piece of information I just send myself an email.

Am I the only person that finds entering tasks into any application time consuming and detrimental to my work-flow? What is the purpose of these precarious, yet lovely looking, applications? Maybe I'm just not the target market. What do you think?