The Daily News: Stolen designs, site conversion, and usability

Let’s start today with an article from Freelance Switch (FSW) on Intellectual Property Resources. All of us designers get worried about our design work getting stolen. It seems that when this happens it’s hard to do much about it. The list provided by FSW gives you places to find your legal rights.

Second up is an article on redesigning your blog. Most of us, myself included, think of a ground up redesign when they want to change their site or blog. What about just tweaking the look. Read the article for some good ideas on how to make small changes that will impact your users greatly.

All websites are trying to get more traffic and keep it. This article from conversion rate experts details 14 free tools for tracking your website. I am particularly interested in the heat map stuff from crazy egg. I am currently going to redesign my portfolio and blog, and actually the site at my fulltime job, and this will come in handy in testing designs.

Finally today we look at usability. This is an article that challenges you not to think of site usability as an after thought but as the first thought in a site. I truly think that this should be the case. In any major redesign I do I want to make it easier to use, I call it ‘stupid simple.’ Many of the resources from the last article would help greatly in making an existing site more usable.

The Daily News: GIMP, usability, and WordPress

I decided that I would start rounding up interesting links each day and pass them along to my readers. I will still be publishing my own articles, but find that I don’t have as much time to get them out as often as I would like. So expect a semi-daily round up of cool links and once a week an article that I will write.

Today we’ll start with an article from Ar-bent-ing on places to submit your articles. The author correctly states that many of the main stream sites for social traffic really aren’t that great for niche blogs. I have personally seen that stumbleupon drives a few hundred visitors on the days that I get stumbled but there is not an increase of subcriptions to my feed and the bounce rate is high. I test submitted an article yesterday and saw about 15 people hit the site and around 3 new subscriptions. I would go through the list and start submitting your articles to some new sites.

Second up is a post that presents a new plugin for WordPress called the Homepage Excerpts Plugin. It really just gives you more control over how the content is displayed on you your homepage but can also make things easier for people that land on your homepage. I will probably install this over the weekend and start to make use of it to clean up my homepage.

I know for most of us Photoshop is the end all in photo editing but there are some pretty good Open Source tools out there as well. The most popular is the GIMP. Over at Noupe there is a post linking to 30 great GIMP tutorials.

Finally today is a post on usability (funny enough it on the usability post blog). The post details 7 usability mistakes often found on websites. A good read for anyone in web design cause if you’ve fallen into bad usability habits now is the time to break them.

Bit of a Dog’s Breakfast: News Round up

Today the news seemed to range all over the place, a bit of a dog’s breakfast follows.

All of us freelancers (at least I would hope) do some sort of follow up with our clients at the end of a project. For me it is usually just a ‘thanks keep me in mind’ email but if you could improve your customer service by asking some tough questions I bet you’d be willing to do it. Sitepoint has an article today on just that, asking you customers the hard quesitons. They suggest offering an online survey that asks what customers liked and didn’t like (among other things) so that you stop making the same mistakes with more clients.

Next up (and there seems to be a lot of this lately) is an article on XHTML vs. HTML over at CSS-Tricks. I’ll admit that I currently site where Chris did a year ago. I code XHTML transitional pages and honestly don’t truly know the difference between that and HTML 4.01. Ultimately in my mind if the page works in all of the major browsers I think the code is good. Read this to get a better grasp on the differences and uses of each. I know that now I am going to evaluate my reasons for XHTML.

Now lets flip into some quick marketing. Jacob Cass at Just Creative Design just posted and asked us designers for our twitter names. If you are a design professional (or hoping to be one) add your name to the list and follow someone new to make some more contacts.

Well finish today off with some inspiration. Niki has some connections that let her see cool installation art. Check out this post to see everyday objects used in cool new ways and get some ideas for future design projects.

Onsite or Offsite: Which type of freelancer works for you?

Lots of small business need continuing maintenance on their websites. For some it makes sense to have your employees or yourself do the edits and updates that need to be done. Sometimes though it takes someone that has more technical knowledge in web design to do the edits for you.

When you are at the place where you need some outside help with your website on a regular basis many business owners ask themselves if the person should be onsite or offsite. Ultimately both have their benefits to both parties so lets take a look at what they are.

Working Onsite

In my experience business often wants their freelancers to work onsite. They often feel that there will be a greater degree of control over what the freelancer does if they are onsite and they are right. If you have a freelancer working onsite you will be able to make sure that they are doing what they say they are doing. You will have a bit more artistic control over new items as they are made, since you can walk over to where they are working and have changes made as they are working.

If you have a freelancer onsite they are a real person. Sounds weird but some employees will have a hard time working with someone that they only have talked to over the phone. They value the face to face interaction that can be provided by having someone onsite. You may also find that employees are jealous of the ‘freedom’ that freelancers have (trust me 10 hours at a desk is not freedom no matter what the view is). That jealousy can cost you in un-productive employees that with-hold information from the freelancer just for some sort of control over the ‘free-spirit.’ I know that we are adults but that doesn’t change the fact that those things happen. Having a real person on site can really bring someone into the office culture which may be great for a creative individual.

When considering having a freelancer work onsite you must also include the cost that it may incur. Firstly while many freelancers have laptops to work on not all do which means you may have to provide a work station for them. A work station for a graphic designer is no trivial undertaking. It require nice hardware (easily over $1500) and expensive software (again easily over $1500). If your hiring someone for print design you also need a monitor that can be properly colour corrected ($500+) and the tools to colour correct ($500+). That makes the initial set up of a freelancer for print work over $4000. Don’t forget that you will be replacing that work station every 2 years or so, along with the software.

Other costs that will be incurred are interruptions from other people in the office, including yourself. How many hours a day are used when people stop by other cubicles or offices just to talk for a bit. Yes this is a healthy part of a good office culture but when you paying big bucks for a skilled freelancer each minute wasted with interruptions is pretty expensive.

Finally that creative control you have may actually produce poor results. I can’t count the number of times that I was just a few minutes into a good design session and someone peaked at my screen and loved what I had already and wanted it frozen there. No matter how much I tried that was what they wanted. Sure they saved a bit of cash but their site paid for it by looking generic and not fully developed. The creative process takes a while sometimes, especially if you don’t have an environment set up that fosters creative people. You hire people with different specialized talents for those talents so let them use the talents where ever they are.

Working Offsite

Most freelancers want to work offsite, at least from evidence I have seen. Many have worked for business before at a design firm or as an in house designer and decided to make the switch to freelance because they felt that the regular daily job just wasn’t for them. Whatever the reason many are reluctant to commit to coming into a business to work on a regular basis which can be difficult for business owners who need some regular site maintenance.

By working offsite freelance designers gain freedom in their creative atmosphere. I know that sometimes I work well at home but not always. If I’m really stuck on a site design I will often go hit the local used book store find a good cheap book and then hit the coffee shop for some mental relaxation. After about 20 minutes I pull out my sketch pad and start drawing site elements. Yeah I’m not working in Photoshop but many creative ideas for site designs have come from sitting and sketching. Once the idea catches I’ll dash home and get them into Photoshop as a site mockup.

Having an offsite freelancer can also make the work cycle seem very quick. If you are in different time zones you can send a project out to the freelancer and overnight they can have some ideas back to you. You make some comments during the day and in the morning you have a new version. This can be very effective if both parties buy into turning projects around quickly.

Offsite work can also allow people to work when it suits them best. I know that 5am is a very productive time for me. I fade often around 2pm and have some more work in me around 8pm so if I can, I work around this schedule. Why force someone to come into an office during set times if they aren’t at their peak? The reality is that you get a better return on investment when people work during their most productive times, which may not be when it’s most convenient for you.

Solitude can also be a benefit for people working offsite. I know that when I am working specifically for a client I turn off my email, twitter, and generally ignore my phone. I get to focus on what I am doing with very few distractions. I turn up my stereo and really drill into what I am doing. Many times a few hours later I realize that I have worked over lunch or dinner, or forgot to pick up the wife (really a bad idea) but man did I get a lot done.

Conclusion

Ultimately you need to do what works for your business. Some places need onsite, some offsite. I suggest trying out both and seeing what works for you.

Market and they will come: News Round Up

Starting off today is a great article listing lots of helpful hints on writing an XHTML Strict web page. Whether you like XHTML Strict or not it’s here so here are some hints on how to write it if you choose to write your next website in the Strict Doctype.

Are you a student or full time designer looking to get out an freelance or build your portfolio? If so this article is for you. Written more specifically to student’s it covers how to fill out your portfolio and gain some reputable work experience. There are definitely some great suggestions for those of us that are looking to break into the freelance market as well.

On the same theme want to bring in more local business then check out this post on how to get free local advertising on Google. An amazing post that requires very little work and can yield some amazing results. Read through the post and get some free advertising.

Finishing off our marketing theme is a post from Small Fuel on learning marketing from McDonald’s. Have you thought about selling packaged services? I bet you will after reading this brief post.

Forms are on the Schedule: News Round UP

It seems that many sites were posting information on how to build forms that are easy for users. Jeff over at Blankenthoughts has a great post on 6 Tips for Making Website Registration User-Friendly. Many of the suggestions are great (especially regarding weird password requirements), but I have to say that I really don’t agree that CAPTCHAS are a good thing. I realize that they may be needed to compact the prolific amount of spam that is out there but they are a usability nightmare. I often have to refresh CAPTCHAS till I can read what I’m supposed to type (I have 20/20 vision). Other than that there are lots of good suggestions for making your site registration easy.

As I said up front there was a lot on the web about forms today. Our second article specifically addresses Best Practice for Form Validation. All you have to do is read the headings and you’ll be nodding your head in agreement. Don’t stop with the titles though, give the whole thing a good read and brush up on your form validation best practices.

The final link today is kind of off topic for web design but many designer also take pictures as a hobby. I was listening to This Week in Photography and they mentioned what looks to be a very cool podcast called the History of Photography Podcast (the link goes to iTunes the site is here). This is a podcast from a teacher at DuPage College on the history of photography. Just started listening but some very good information for those of us that didn’t get to work much on film.

That’s it for today.

Get Jobs just by Responding

Many of you know that I work fulltime as well as freelance somewhere near fulltime. Currently at my fulltime job we are looking for a company to partner with us specifically for Information Architecture work.

As the in house guy it is my job to find evaluate and solicit quotes from web companies that provide the services we need. So I have sent out 25 emails and followed up with about 15 calls to various local and not local web companies to help us and do you know how many return emails or call I got? 2. Yes that is it only 2. Some companies I called 2 or 3 times and they all promised that they would return my call or email me but none of them did.

We are also looking for freelance PHP guys for some ongoing work and the results were almost exactly the same. Out of all the emails I sent I only heard back from 3 people and only one really followed up as we discussed my needs.

24 Hour Turn Around

I make it a habit to get back to clients within 24 hours max (even on weekends). Often I get back to clients in under 8 hours (I do have to sleep). This level of service (unfortunately) seems to be rare in the web industry in my area. I wonder if it is also rare in many other parts of the world? If it is simply responding to clients in a timely fashion can bring in tonnes of work.

Personal Contact

How about not just emailing back to ask some further questions of a client but actually making a personal call. Email is not always the most efficeint way to get a question answered so don’t always rely on it. Many times a 5 minute conversation can get all of the questions answered. This personal call also lets your client know that they are important enough to deal with directly.

If you can take the time to provide a great customer service experience you can gain many long term clients who will return even when rates go up just because your service is so great. They want to use you because they feel like to treat them as important no matter what the situation.

The News — XTHML, the economy and your social blog

First up today is a reasonably technical article on XHTML myths and realities. Written by a member of the W3C this article goes over the start of HTML and the morph to XHTML. It comments on browser support and ultimately recommends that you write HTML 4.0 instead of XHTML. A real interesting article that get you thinking about your markup and the future of XHTML.

We all know that the economy is bad. Various countries are having a harder time but ultimately it has the potential to affect us all. The second article today runs through how to overcome the bad economy as a designer. The author recommends being different from your competition and providing a good ROI. This also made me think of a post over at Freelance Switch. Read through it and pay particular attention to the comment by FreelanceMan.

Finally today I recommend a post on increasing the interactivity of your blog. Lots of good ideas, some of which you will see here in the coming months, but I really think community forums are often not a great idea. It takes thousands upon thousands of people on a forum to make it look like there is anyone there. I know one forum that I frequent that has 4000 registered users and it often doesn’t see posts for a few weeks at a time. I suppose I am cautioning you in starting a forum not saying it’s a bad idea.

News Round up

Starting today is an article from Ars Technica about the future of Internet Explorer Mobile. Internet Explorer Mobile comes on Windows Mobile phones as the default web browser (of which I own one the HTC Touch). Anyone who has coded web standards based websites is well aware of the beast that is IE 6, which can render standards compliant code in what seems like a random way. Internet Explorer Mobile is another horrid beast entirely. Based of the code for IE 4, Internet Explorer Mobile often entirely breaks web pages making them un-useable as a mobile page. With the rise of Safari and the iPhone (also Skyfire, Opera Mini among a few others) people have seen that mobile browsing doesn’t have to be as painful as an in-laws thanksgiving. Unfortunately it appears that the new version of IE Mobile will be based of the IE 6 code, which while a vast improvement over IE 4, is still not even close to the user experience that we see from the iPhone. If you’re thinking about building for the mobile web give the article a read to catch up on the state of affairs in the mobile browsing world, though you may be disappointed.

Secondly, Freelance Switch has an article on missing the point of being a freelancer. Most people got into freelancing for an increase in freedom in choosing clients and their work habits. Often though we end up working with the same clients on the same type of projects, which removes much of the freedom we can see in the day. The article walks you through a number of ways to break the monotony of the same clients and projects so you don’t burn out.

We talked about brand designing yesterday and today there is an article from Veerle on her design process for Scroll Magazine. She starts by walking us through the design brief (if you’re not doing one you should be) and shows us some of the logo concepts. I love getting inside the mind of other good designers so I really enjoyed this article and Scroll looks beautiful and sounds like it will have interesting content so I would also suggest you get a copy as I did.

Next up if David Walsh who lists his worst  CSS mistakes. It is a humorous read, especially when you realize you did many of the same things, and it’s interesting to see how far you’ve come as a CSS wizard.

We’ll finish off today with an inspiring post from Smashing Magazine that shows off some awesome retro web design. It lists a bunch of secrets to vintage design and shows off a number of amazing designs.