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January 09 2014

15:57

How to Improve Your Focus and Get More Done

Did you ever wonder why you are more productive on some days than on others? A lot of the time it's focus. Many of us are more focused on some days than on others. When we lack focus, we tend to work more slowly. You may think that you can't do anything about how focused you are. You may think that you just have to live with however focused you happen to be at any given time. focus1

December 17 2013

07:22

Project Hubs: A Home Base for Design Projects

Brad Frost outlines a simple tool that can track a project’s design decisions and assets, and keeps everyone involved up to date and in the browser. It’s like a deep spoon scooping the brandy butter of progress onto the Christmas pudding of web project management.

Brought to you by Shopify, the fully customizable ecommerce platform loved by designers around the world.

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Reposted bySchrammelhammelMrCoffeinmybetterworldkonikonikonikonikoniambassadorofdumbgroeschtlNaitliszpikkumyygittimmoejeschge

December 14 2013

01:52

Home Kanban for Domestic Bliss

Meri Williams brings her kanban work home with her — but to solve problems, not cause them. There’s a trick or two here that Santa could use instead of making a list and checking it twice.

December 04 2013

05:22

Git for Grown-ups

Emma Jane Westby recommits us to version control by pushing a more mature approach to Git that merges relevant application with practical tips. Christmas might be for the children, but learning is for everyone, in[n]it?

August 16 2013

16:05

July 30 2013

10:00

Hojoki: The (no longer) Missing Link Between Your Cloud Apps


  

If you are anything like me, you will find it tedious to keep in sync with the dozen(s) of cloud apps you use on a daily basis. Some of the work is coordinated via Trello, texts and spreadsheets are written using Google Drive, creative work is stored in Dropbox, notes are captured in Evernote, short communication is done using Twitter. And this is only the beginning of my list. Would it not be great, if there were one service to rule them all? One stream to aggregate all the information scattered throughout loads of logins? Well, actually, there is…

December 17 2012

12:00

Cut Copy Paste

Brendan Dawes raids his Christmas stocking early and shares some interesting and useful code snippets for you to grab, remix and combine into new things for 2013.

Tags: productivity

December 02 2012

12:00

Starting Your Project on the Right Foot (and Keeping It There)

Bethany Heck slips warming cloves and spices into the web designer’s mulled wine by sharing some of the methods she uses to encourage and maintain creative success in new projects.

Tags: productivity

February 17 2012

21:00

PageLime: A CMS Specifically Made for Web Designers

Picture this: you are building a website and wish to steer clear of the complexity of present day Content Management Systems (due to lack of time and/or other factors). Or, in other words, your website is a rather small entity (that perhaps does not require the collaborative abilities of Wikipedia or the social networking databases of Facebook). In simplest terms, you’re looking for an easy to use and nimble CMS that, though performs all the functions that you want it to, does not talk the geeky lingo.

Alternatively, picture this (comparatively better) scenario: you are a web designer (if you are reading this blog, chances are that you indeed are a web designer). You need a hosted, no-frills solution that lets you create websites for your clients (who may or may not be tech savvy), and resell them.

What is PageLime


If either of the above mentioned cases hold true, allow me to introduce you to PageLime, a web-based Content Management System.

PageLime

PageLime

PageLime is a hosted CMS service that lets you quickly set up and publish websites. Depending on the plan you opt for, you can add features to your site such as custom domain mapping, unlimited users/administrators, etc. You can also use it to re-brand the websites that you create and resell them to your clients. Sound good so far? Let’s dive in to check out its features!

Plans, Pricing, and Features


PageLime currently offers four plans, namely:

  • Free: As the name suggests, this plan is free to use. You can create up to three websites and have an unlimited number of users (but only one of them can have administrative privileges). However, you cannot map your own domain or use the websites for reselling. Plus, you will have to tolerate the PageLime logo on your site.
  • Professional: This plan lets you create 50 websites and have unlimited users (again, just one administrator). Additionally, you can use your own logo and colors, as well as map your own domain. And just in case you need it, reseller tools are also allowed in this plan. The Professional plan costs $19 per month.
  • Business: The Business plan gives you everything under the Professional Plan, with the added bonus of unlimited websites (and unlimited administrators). It costs $69 per month.
  • Enterprise: This plan targets large enterprises and service providers. The USP of the Enterprise Plan is that you can host it on your own server.

Also, you can try the Professional and Business plans free for 14 days before making up your mind.

Modus Operandi


We shall now take a look at the manner in which we can perform basic tasks in PageLime, and how it fares as compared to traditional CMSs. Please note that here, ‘traditional CMSs’ refers to what we’ve been using, such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla!

Since we are evaluating PageLime as a potential alternative for traditional CMSs, for the sake of simplicity, each category of operation will be looked at individually.

Running Multiple Websites

As mentioned above, PageLime lets you create multiple websites (ranging from 3 to infinite, depending on your plan). Each website has its own admin panel, domain/sub-domain, and user accounts. You can login to your master account, and then select the website that you wish to modify/manage.

Running Multiple Websites

Running Multiple Websites

Speaking of traditional CMSs, support for multiple websites within the same installation, though possible, is cumbersome to say the least. Movable Type lets you create user blogs and websites within one installation, and so does LifeType. WordPress, on the other hand, tries to make the task comparatively easier, but it too caters to “a large network of blogs“. All in all, PageLime comes with excellent support for multiple websites.

Editing the Website(s)

PageLime offers an easy interface for editing websites – pretty much on par with other CMSs – bit more ‘beautiful’, but nothing out of the ordinary. Once you add the Pagelime editable CSS class to the code, you can edit pages, links and other components of your website. However, since PageLime caters more to websites, rather than blogs/journals, it offers features such as Live Preview that lets you view the changes that you make to your website on the fly. Furthermore, another unique feature includes Content Versioning – your previous drafts are saved, and if you ever mess anything up, simply head to Restore!

Editing Your Websites in PageLime

Editing Your Websites in PageLime

Among traditional CMSs, many offer the Versioning and Restore feature, and Concrete5 has been supporting Live Preview for quite some time.

Data/Media Management

PageLime comes with a built-in Image Editor (no, do not expect Photoshop). You can zoom, crop, sharpen and resize images. Beyond that, you can modify colors or use some predefined effects. All in all, you can happily upload images and modify or tweak them for the web within the CMS.

Managing Images

Managing Images

Hardly any other traditional CMSs offer this feature – though some offer file management options, but image editing is something you’re expected to do BEFORE uploading. CMSs especially built for image galleries, such as Piwigo, however, do provide you with such editing abilities.

‘Smart’ CMS

You can save pages as templates in PageLime for future editing, and it also comes packed with a Code Editor. Further more, it offers several pre-defined ‘templates’ that make your task easier.

Saving Pages as Templates

Saving Pages as Templates

This is perhaps an area where traditional CMSs do a better job, with no strings attached. While PageLime delivers what one would expect of it – you will definitely miss the freedom of WP Themes and Drupal Modules.

SEO, White Labels and Other Goodies

PageLime offers SEO options out of the box – you can edit metadata and other related info easily. Plus, the Business and Professional plans offer detailed statistics for each website that you create.

Detailed Stats

Detailed Stats

On the other hand, many CMSs such as Joomla and even Concrete5 offer sitemaps and SEO natively. At the most basic level, WordPress does the same by the use of plugins.

Reseller Tools

Quite unarguably, PageLime’s USP lies in its Reseller Tools. While the Free plan isn’t much, all other plans come with awesome reseller abilities. Apart from hosting multiple websites (each with its own admin panel and domain), you are provided with the option to re-brand and resell the websites (instead of PageLime’s, it shows your logo in the admin panel). Further more, your Reseller Panel shows you client payments, subscriptions and other sale-purchase transactions. And if that isn’t good enough, PageLime can automate recurring payments and invoices to make your life easier.

Reseller Tools

Reseller Tools

Obviously, such re-branding and reseller tools are not offered in any traditional CMS natively. WordPress and, to some extent, Drupal have plugins/extensions that can help you take care of the same, but the CMSs in particular do not come with reseller features.

The Verdict


So, the bottom line. Who should use PageLime?

Well, if you are a designer or a developer, you should consider using it for the ease of use and the reseller tools that let you offer it to your clients.

Also, if you do not possess the geeky expertise of web administration, Pagelime might just fit the bill for you. However, in this case, you should also bear in mind that in order to get the most out of it in terms of customization, you’ll probably need a rudimentary knowledge of HTML/CSS.

On the downside, the product seems a bit over priced if you do not wish to resell and make money using it. If, for instance, all you need is a simple no-frills website and are considering PageLime in order to avoid the other complex CMSs, even the cheapest plan will cost you $19 monthly (we are not considering the Free option as it does not have custom domain mapping, and a yourname.pagelime.com sub-domain is not something you might want for a website).

At the end of the day, PageLime is described as a “simple CMS for your clients”. In other words, it is full aware of the fact that its forte lies in the Reseller Tools.

Thus, PageLime should be in your arsenal if you are managing multiple websites or need an easy to use solution for your clients’ needs. For all other reasons, you’ll be better off using tradition Content Management Softwares.

If you have used or are using PageLime, feel free to share your views in the comments!

February 16 2012

21:00

How to Twitter and Facebook and Still Get Things Done

It almost seems like magic the way that most social media juggernauts tweet, update Facebook, upload YouTube videos and respond to comments, seemingly nonstop, all while still managing to get work done. This is an issue that I have struggled with for quite some time. Recently, however, I have been exploring techniques to help myself better manage my time during the day, get more work done, and still remain engaged in social media.

Scheduling in time for social media


Once I began scrutinizing my daily work flow, one of the first things I discovered was that, while I was keeping a steady stream of engagement, the stream of engagement was chaotic and sporadic. In the social media world this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, if you are trying to get real work done it is actually a huge distraction.

Every time I broke my train of thought to answer a tweet or respond to a Facebook comment, I was breaking down my productivity and inevitably getting less work done. So I hit Google with a few quick searches, looking for some advice. I quickly realized that the main problem was in my lack of planning and scheduling. Maybe if I devoted a fixed amount of time to social media engagement I could keep from breaking my concentration multiple times an hour.

Image by Habatares

I decided to make a list of the most important social media interactions and execute them all within 10-15 minutes. My initial list looked something like this:

  • Browse Dribble, bucket a few great pieces, follow a few great designers, comment on any good shots.
  • Check Google Reader and add any worthwhile articles to Buffer (will talk more about this later)
  • Respond to any @ replies on Twitter
  • Respond to any interesting Tweets in my HootSuite feeds
  • Browse StumbleUpon and find something worth sharing
  • Reply to any comments on my blog

This list is in no way complete, nor is it a one size fits all. Your list might look completely different. Maybe you find the best engagement on Facebook. Maybe you’re more of a Forrst user. Maybe you’re an avid Yelper or Stack Overflow user. Your list should be tailored to your preferred networks and preferred level of engagement.

Use it


You’ve got the list, now use it. And if you can’t accomplish it in 10-20 minutes, keep working on it until you feel it can complete it within a reasonable amount of time. Now go through the list once in the morning, then put it away, focus, and get some work done.

Making the most of your time


Now that you have a simple strategy for social media engagement without wasting time, using different tools can really help you get the most out of these small windows of interaction:

Scheduling tweets


An obvious problem with the 10-20 minute strategy is that you run the risk of flooding your streams with links and content in a really short period of time. Some of your followers/friends might not care for this as it feels spammy and can be kind of annoying.

Using a tool like Buffer can minimize this by scheduling your tweets to be shared at different times of the day. I’ve never been a huge fan of scheduling tweets but I have realized that, like most social media techniques, there’s a right and a wrong way to use it. Putting link shares on a schedule is fine because there’s no time factor. No one cares whether you actually shared an article right at this moment or shared it this morning and it’s just now showing up. However, any tweet which answers the question “What’s Happening?” should not be scheduled as it can be really misleading to your followers. I’m open to other opinions here, this is just how I’ve come to see it.

Social media dashboards


Social media dashboards can help you manage your social feeds and allow you to engage more quickly, efficiently and maintain a higher level of quality within your interactions. I’ve used a few social media dashboards here and there but the one I’ve settled on is HootSuite, mainly because it works well overall and is free. I also recommend Seesmic or TweetDeck, both of which are pretty solid and well vetted. If you know of any others which are worth mentioning, please share in the comments section below.

Practice makes perfect


The first time you employ the 10-20 minute engagement strategy, you may be left feeling like you haven’t done enough. This technique isn’t common and is pretty much the opposite of the way we are used to doing things. Just stick to it and you’ll start seeing the benefit within the first day. The more you work at it the better the engagement will become.

Social media apps and integration tools


In the past, social media apps and integration tools which cause mobile alerts and desktop notifications have led me to dramatic decreases in productivity. This might not be a huge distraction to everyone but, if you’re like me, when you see a growl notification, a red number on top of a dock icon, or hear your phone vibrate on your desk, you can’t help but check it.

If this sounds like you, the main advice I can give you is to examine your social media apps and tools and ask yourself if you really need them on during the day. Are they really worth the distraction and loss in productivity? If the answer is no, uninstall and stick with the 10-20 minute strategy we discussed earlier. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself at the end of the day when work has actually been done :)

Social web browsers


A social media web browser can be a great way to stay connected to your various networks during the day. Be careful though, as they can quickly become a hefty distraction. I don’t personally recommend using a social media browser while you are working but, during down time, they can be really useful and a great way to keep up with your networks.

An obvious contender here is RockMelt. I have a couple pals who use it and rave about it. RockMelt renders like Chrome, but as I mentioned above, I don’t recommend using it for development.

I haven’t come across many other decent social web browsers (aside from the now deadpooled Flock). Do you know of any other contenders? Let me know in the comments section below!

Going Dark


The best thing you can do to minimize social media distractions is to go dark. The goal here is to cut yourself off from the networks which are distracting you and taking attention away from your work. Pretty much anything which produces alerts, notifications or messages is a potential distraction.

This concept was tough to wrap my head around at first. Once I gave it a try, though, I saw immediate results. My time in the “zone” increased and I felt more accomplished at the end of the day. This might seem scary at first, but try it for an hour, then two hours, then three and you will see a notable increase in productivity.

If you want to get extreme, I recommend shutting off your phone and logging out of your email as well. It might not be wise to ride a blackout like this for too long, but a little time in the dark side will help you appreciate the light side even more!

Conclusion


Engaging in social media is one of the best things you can do for your digital self. Creating relationships and engaging others is extremely important. It only becomes a problem when social media engagement interferes with your other projects and tasks. Hopefully I have helped you come to realize that the solution comes down to scheduling, proper time management, and of course the occasional blackout :)

Do you have any other tips for keeping up with social media without losing productivity? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

February 09 2012

10:00

Punch Procrastination in the Face and Accomplish Your Goals

Working from home or even an office as a freelancer can be very rewarding. Free time, creating your own schedule, the chance to be your own boss—the freelancing life is one that a lot of people envy.

Unfortunately, without a boss or supervisor breathing down your neck, the accountability starts to decrease and freelancers can become entangled in a web of distractions and procrastination without even realizing it.

Facebook, emails, Twitter, blog comments, your mother calling to gossip about the family —all of these and more vie for your attention.

Distractions


Distraction-Freelancers-Beat-Procrastination-Accomplish-Goals

Image credits

Distractions are all around you, from your telephone and your neighbor’s barking dog to Facebook and a YouTube video that has been calling your name.

Do any of these distract you too? I know I have fallen prey to these types of distractions more than once.

  • Your mother calls and you pick up the phone while in the middle of a client’s project…how can you leave your mother hanging?
  • Your friend emails you about his latest accomplishment…how can you not call him back? He deserves a quick congratulations. You can finish your work later.
  • A client emails you about a project but it is not a rush. You feel obligated to answer even though you need to finish what you are working on. You will finish the project later. The email will only take a few minutes.

LATER

This word will take on a life of its own if you do not omit it from your mind’s vocabulary. Trust me, distractions always last more than a few minutes, even if they are only one minute long. If you add that time up, it will amount to money you could be making doing more projects.

Friends and Family

Consider your workday similar to how you would work for an employer. Our friends and family don’t seem to understand that just because we work from home doesn’t mean we are available during the day. When I started freelancing, I often was asked to help family and friends with tasks during the day. Because I was working from home I decided it was not a big deal. I soon realized that these activities were stealing my productivity. It was time for me to consider my workday the same as anyone else in corporate America or anyone who works for an employer.

How do you resist these distractions?

First, create a daily schedule…

Scheduling


Image by iotdfi

If you don’t set daily goals, you will open up the door to many distractions. It’s nearly impossible to stay focused if you don’t have a clear idea of what you need to accomplish and when.

Break up your weekly goals into daily tasks. At the end of the day, you will feel great for accomplishing your goals and you will also not be struggling at the end of the week to get your work done because you were distracted.

Here is a rundown of some tips and the steps I take to create a daily schedule:

  • Every Saturday or Sunday, compile your tasks by weekly goals and client deadlines.
  • Break up your tasks into daily increments. Your goals should reflect the time you have in the day, not overwhelm you or give way for multiple distractions. For example, every other Monday I have a personal commitment so I know on Mondays I cannot complete as much work as I can  on Tuesday. I factor this into the equation instead of just randomly filling out the schedule.
  • Don’t forget about miscellaneous tasks. For me, this equates to lead generation, social media updating, responding to project inquiries and emails, crafting proposals. Some other miscellaneous job-related tasks could include writing a blog post, researching a competing website, watching a design tutorial, etc. Factor these tasks into your week as long as they are applicable to the work you are doing. You can research training tips for your dog during breaks or after work hours.
  • Schedule your miscellaneous tasks. Pay attention to how much time you are spending on them. You may need to adjust your schedule as you move along, but this is a great starting point. I currently spend about 30 minutes to an hour on miscellaneous tasks daily. How do I know this? Stay tuned to learn about a cool time tracking tool below!
  • Your work schedule doesn’t have to be 9-5. As a freelancer you have the ability to create your own schedule. If you are a parent, your hours may be different than someone who is single. The goal is to ensure you meet your daily goals whether your day starts at 12 pm or 7 am.
  • Breaks and Fun Stuff – Make sure to schedule breaks because they are very important. Your mind will need time to re-energize. I schedule a few small breaks during the day and one lunch break. On your breaks you can do fun stuff like going on Facebook for pleasure, watching cool videos or taking a walk in the beautiful weather (yes, I live in sunny Southern California).
  • Tip: If you have trouble staying on one project for more than 30 minutes, schedule your breaks in smaller increments. You may need 5-10 smaller breaks during the day instead of 2 large ones.
  • To beat those urges to procrastinate, write out your weekly schedule and post it in front of your computer. As you finish each goal, check it off and go on to the next one.

Tips to Deal with Procrastination


Project Completion

When you are working on a project, try not to step away from it until it is complete. If you are like me, you have 25 windows open at the same time and any one of them can be a distraction. Email is my biggest challenge. To combat this, I tell myself I can only check my email once a project is complete and I cannot answer any emails until my miscellaneous time or after work hours. The only emails to which I respond are pressing client projects or deliverables.

Boredom

We all know how boring a task can become if it is dragging on and on. Instead of running to Facebook or texting your friend, switch to another project or start doing some of your miscellaneous tasks. Resist the urge to go off your schedule unless it is close to break time. Sometimes your brain just needs something different to do.

Accountability

If you feel like you will have a hard time sticking to your daily schedule, ask someone you trust to make you accountable at the end of every day. Put your schedule up for all to see so you can be held to it.

Use a Time Scheduling Tool


Chrometa is an amazing free tool that tracks your every move on your computer. It will show you exactly what you do each day from how much time you spend on Facebook to the hours you put into a client’s project.

Chrometa-Distraction-Freelancers-Beat-Procrastination-Accomplish-Goals

The image above is what a day would look like in its simplest form. As you can see I was away for 2 hours and 51 minutes (you can pause the tool when you step away from your computer) and it breaks down my tasks into the sites and programs I visited. If I click on each entry, it will display a detailed summary of specific information. For example, if I click on Mozilla Firefox, it will show me the 32 sites I visited and how much time I spent on each.

You can also categorize by project and create invoices for clients. If you are working on a project paid by the hour, you can send your client an invoice directly from the interface with a detailed description of your time (this is a paid service). You can personalize the entire system to your freelancing schedule and projects.

This tool helped me realize how much I was procrastinating and how much time I was spending on frivolous tasks. I realized that one minute away led to ten and when I added up all of my one minute distractions, it amounted to hours of procrastination…not a good business model by any means.

Other Awesome Tools:

  • Wunderlist - to keep track of your tasks
  • RescueTime – to save you from wasting too much time by telling you what you did

Be Honest


In the end, if you want to beat procrastination, you must get honest with yourself. Look at your daily activities as if you were someone else looking over your shoulder. In the end, it is YOUR success that is being affected.

No one is perfect so take a load off…but don’t allow yourself to become complacent in the process. We all face procrastination in one form or another. If you really want to become efficient and grow your freelancing business by accomplishing your goals, you must take a close look at what you are doing daily.

Also…please don’t think you can’t do this. I was the queen of procrastination. I used to do my work whenever I felt like it and was constantly distracted by Facebook and emails. If I can become more efficient and productive, so can you.

Take it from a fellow procrastinator…if you put the effort in, you will get the same reward back. And eventually, finishing tasks will feel more rewarding and something you will want instead of something you dread.

Do you ever procrastinate as a freelancer? Share with our readers how you beat procrastination or if you need more help accomplishing your goals.

February 07 2012

09:05

Time for Mail: Services That Improve Gmail Productivity


  

Gmail exploded onto the internet in 1994 offering users a whopping 1GB of storage. This was unheard of at the time with the largest email service Hotmail only offering a few megabytes of storage. Currently Gmail offers 7GB of free storage with competitors such as Hotmail offering 5GB of storage and Yahoo offering an unlimited amount.

Gmail is popular with business users due to how quick, reliable and customisable it is. In addition to the experimental add ons that Google offers through Google Labs, there are a lot of 3rd party tools and services that help you enhance gmail.

Today we would like to show you 25 great tools that will help you get more out of Googles pioneering email service, and ensure that your personal Gmail productivity rating remains high. Enjoy.

Let’s Get Productive

* Fun fact: Google purchased the Gmail domain from Garfield, who were using it as a free email service for their members.

1. Find Big Mail
Online Service

Find Big Mail is a fantastic free service that helps you locate large emails in your Gmail inbox. All you have to do is enter your Gmail email address and then grant access to the service to check your account.

Find Big Mail

Once you have done so, you will receive an email advising you that they are processing your request and will email you again after 5 to 60 minutes once their search is complete (depending on your volume of emails). The email details your top 3 and top 20 messages by size. It also shows you the number of emails over 1mb, over 5mb and over 10mb. Each large email is linked, making it easy to review the email and check whether you need to keep it or not (or save the file elsewhere).

Find Big Mail

Pie charts are also displayed in your email and online. These show you the number of messages by size (small, over 1mb, over 5mb and over 10mb) and the corresponding space by size these messages take up.

Find Big Mail

It also adds labels to your Gmail sidebar that lists messages that are over 1mb, 5mb and 10mb. Find Big Mail is useful if you are nearing your maximum amount of storage and don’t want to upgrade.

2. CloudMagic
Google Chrome

A search tool that lets you search Gmail, Google Apps, Google Docs, Google Docs and Twitter. Once you have installed CloudMagic and refreshed your Gmail page, you will see a search box at the top of the page. This box can be moved anywhere on the page (as you see fit).

CloudMagic

Search works in real time i.e. results appear as you type. You can view results from other services such as Google Docs instantly by simply changing the tab at the top of the box.

CloudMagic

It’s worth checking out if you search through your inbox on a regular basis.

3. Google Mail Checkers
Google Chrome and Firefox

Do you find yourself checking Gmail frequently to see if you have new mail? If so, you may find the Google Web Checker (Chrome) and Gmail Watcher (Firefox) add-ons useful. Once installed, the apps will show add a Gmail icon to the top of your browser. Whenever you receive a new email the icon will be updated to let you know that you have received mail. A simple add on that’s very useful.

Google Mail Checker

4. Better Gmail
Google Chrome and Firefox

Better Gmail for Chrome and Firefox are great add ons that add a lot of great features to Gmail.

Better Gmail

The exact features differ slightly between the Chrome and Firefox versions. Both versions highlight rows when you hover over messages, adds attachment icons to your Gmail page and help notify you of new messages using pop ups or sounds. The Chrome version also removes advertisements from your page.

Better Gmail

5. Google Redesigned
Google Chrome & Firefox

A great extension for Chrome and Firefox that gives Gmail, and other Google services, a complete redesign. Worth trying out if you are bored the default design of Gmail.

Google Redesigned

It works with Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Reader. You can disable or enable the design for each service individually.

Google Redesigned

6. Active Inbox
Google Chrome & Firefox

A productivity tool for Gmail that adds a lot of welcomed features. Active Inbox helps you prioritise tasks by allowing you to set which messages are top priority. Emails can be added to a to do list to help you plan what needs to be done.

Active Inbox

Emails can also be assigned to projects and notes can be added to conversations too. In the Active Inbox bar at the top of the page, all of your to do items and projects are listed. It also lists those emails that are defined as high priority, emails that need to be tracked until completion and emails you are awaiting a reply on. All of these filters can be applied to emails within each message at the top which makes organising your workload much easier.

7. Rapportive
Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Mailplane

Replaces advertisements at the right hand side of Gmail with an informative profile of the person who has emailed you. It shows you their photo and information about what they do. It helps make new connections via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn too.

Rapportive

8. Boomerang for Gmail
Google Chrome & Firefox

A wonderful application that adds a ‘Send Later’ button to your message compose area. You can send the email in an hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon, 2 days, 4 days, one week, 2 weeks or one month. Alternatively, you can also set the exact time the message can be sent or ask for help by clicking on the random time link.

Boomerang for Gmail

You can also set reminders for important messages and if you don’t hear back from the contact, Boomerang will remind you to follow it up.

9. WiseStamp Email Signatures
Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari

This browser extension makes creating modern interactive signatures a breeze by enhancing your Gmail signature with social media icons and your latest tweets and Facebook posts. You can also add social icons, quotes, your latest ebay auctions, music and much more.

WiseStamp Email Signatures

You can create as many different signatures as you want (personal, business 1, business 2 etc). A link is placed discretely at the bottom of each email unless you upgrade to a paid account ($36 per year).

WiseStamp Email Signatures

Images can easily be inserted into signatures and you can place information in columns using tables. You can also edit the HTML source directly.

10. Grexit
Online Service

A great application that businesses will find useful. The service lets you share emails in a common shared folder so that other colleagues can easily reference important discussions and information.

11. The Email Game
Online Service

Finding it hard to get motivated to clear your crowded inbox? You may find ‘The Email Game’ service useful. It times how long it takes you to address your unread emails. You can deal with emails right away by replying or forwarding them, boomerang posts or skip them and deal with them later, or archive or delete the email. Points are awarded for dealing with emails quicker, with 3 minutes being given to you for each reply.

The Email Game

12. 0Boxer
Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Mailplane

Another game that aims to help you be more productive. oBoxer rewards points for clearing emails and writing them. You can compete against friends and the site lists weekly and daily leader boards for other users.

0Boxer

Halfway Down

The post continues on page 2 here.

December 21 2011

00:00

Taming Complexity

I’m going to step into my UX trousers for this one. I wouldn’t usually wear them in public, but it’s Christmas, so there’s nothing wrong with looking silly.

Anyway, to business. Wherever I roam, I hear the familiar call for simplicity and the denouncement of complexity. I read often that the simpler something is, the more usable it will be. We understand that simple is hard to achieve, but we push for it nonetheless, convinced it will make what we build easier to use. Simple is better, right?

Well, I’ll try to explore that. Much of what follows will not be revelatory to some but, like all good lessons, I think this serves as a welcome reminder that as we live in a complex world it’s OK to sometimes reflect that complexity in the products we build.

Myths and legends

Less is more, we’ve been told, ever since master of poetic verse Robert Browning used the phrase in 1855. Well, I’ve conducted some research, and it appears he knew nothing of web design. Neither did modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a later pedlar of this worthy yet contradictory notion. Broad is narrow. Tall is short. Eggs are chips. See: anyone can come up with this stuff.

To paraphrase Einstein, simple doesn’t have to be simpler. In other words, simple doesn’t dictate that we remove the complexity. Complex doesn’t have to be confusing; it can be beautiful and elegant. On the web, complex can be necessary and powerful. A website that simplifies the lives of its users by offering them everything they need in one site or screen is powerful. For some, the greater the density of information, the more useful the site.

In our decision-making process, principles such as Occam’s razor (in a nutshell: simple is better than complex) are useful, but simple is for the user to determine through their initial impression and subsequent engagement. What appears simple to me or you might appear very complex to someone else, based on their own mental model or needs. We can aim to deliver simple, but they’ll be the judge.

As a designer, developer, content alchemist, user experience discombobulator, or whatever you call yourself, you’re often wrestling with a wealth of material, a huge number of features, and numerous objectives. In many cases, much of that stuff is extraneous, and goes in the dustbin. However, it can be just as likely that there’s a truckload of suggested features and content because it all needs to be there. Don’t be afraid of that weight.

In the right hands, less can indeed mean more, but it’s just as likely that less can very often lead to, well… less.

Complexity is powerful

Simple is the ability to offer a powerful experience without overwhelming the audience or inducing information anxiety. Giving them everything they need, without having them ferret off all over a site to get things done, is important.

It’s useful to ask throughout a site’s lifespan, “does the user have everything they need?” It’s so easy to let our designer egos get in the way and chop stuff out, reduce down to only the things we want to see. That benefits us in the short term, but compromises the audience long-term.

The trick is not to be afraid of complexity in itself, but to avoid creating the perception of complexity. Give a user a flight simulator and they’ll crash the plane or jump out. Give them everything they need and more, but make it feel simple, and you’re building a relationship, empowering people.

This can be achieved carefully with what some call gradual engagement, and often the sensible thing might be to unleash complexity in carefully orchestrated phases, initially setting manageable levels of engagement and interaction, gradually increasing the inherent power of the product and fostering an empowered community.

The design aesthetic

Here’s a familiar scenario: the client or project lead gets overexcited and skips most of the important decision-making, instead barrelling straight into a bout of creative direction Tourette’s. Visually, the design needs to be minimal, white, crisp, full of white space, have big buttons, and quite likely be “clean”. Of course, we all like our websites to be clean as that’s more hygienic.

But what do these words even mean, really? Early in a project they’re abstract distractions, unnecessary constraints. This premature narrowing forces us to think much more about throwing stuff out rather than acknowledging that what we’re building is complex, and many of the components perhaps necessary.

Simple is not a formula. It cannot be achieved just by using a white background, by throwing things away, or by breathing a bellowsful of air in between every element and having it all float around in space. Simple is not a design treatment. Simple is hard. Simple requires deep investigation, a thorough understanding of every aspect of a project, in line with the needs and expectations of the audience.

Recognizing this helps us empathize a little more with those most vocal of UX practitioners. They usually appreciate that our successes depend on a thorough understanding of the user’s mental models and expected outcomes. I personally still consider UX people to be web designers like the rest of us (mainly to wind them up), but they’re web designers that design every decision, and by putting the user experience at the heart of their process, they have a greater chance of finding simplicity in complexity. The visual design aesthetic — the façade — is only a part of that.

Divide and conquer

I’m currently working on an app that’s complex in architecture, and complex in ambition. We’ll be releasing in carefully orchestrated private phases, gradually introducing more complexity in line with the unavoidably complex nature of the objective, but my job is to design the whole, the complete system as it will be when it’s out of beta and beyond.

I’ve noticed that I’m not throwing much out; most of it needs to be there. Therefore, my responsibility is to consider interesting and appropriate methods of navigation and bring everything together logically.

I’m using things like smart defaults, graphical timelines and colour keys to make sense of the complexity, techniques that are sympathetic to the content. They act as familiar points of navigation and reference, yet are malleable enough to change subtly to remain relevant to the information they connect. It’s really OK to have a lot of stuff, so long as we make each component work smartly.

It’s a divide and conquer approach. By finding simplicity and logic in each content bucket, I’ve made more sense of the whole, allowing me to create key layouts where most of the simplified buckets are collated and sometimes combined, providing everything the user needs and expects in the appropriate places.

I’m also making sure I don’t reduce the app’s power. I need to reflect the scale of opportunity, and provide access to or knowledge of the more advanced tools and features for everyone: a window into what they can do and how they can help. I know it’s the minority who will be actively building the content, but the power is in providing those opportunities for all.

Much of this will be familiar to the responsible practitioners who build websites for government, local authorities, utility companies, newspapers, magazines, banking, and we-sell-everything-ever-made online shops. Across the web, there are sites and tools that thrive on complexity.

Alas, the majority of such sites have done little to make navigation intuitive, or empower audiences. Where we can make a difference is by striving to make our UIs feel simple, look wonderful, not intimidating — even if they’re mind-meltingly complex behind that façade.

Embrace, empathize and tame

So, there are loads of ways to exploit complexity, and make it seem simple. I’ve hinted at some methods above, and we’ve already looked at gradual engagement as a way to make sense of complexity, so that’s a big thumbs-up for a release cycle that increases audience power.

Prior to each and every release, it’s also useful to rest on the finished thing for a while and use it yourself, even if you’re itching to release. ‘Ready’ often isn’t, and ‘finished’ never is, and the more time you spend browsing around the sites you build, the more you learn what to question, where to add, or subtract. It’s definitely worth building in some contingency time for sitting on your work, so to speak.

One thing I always do is squint at my layouts. By squinting, I get a sort of abstract idea of the overall composition, and general feel for the thing. It makes my face look stupid, but helps me see how various buckets fit together, and how simple or complex the site feels overall.

I mentioned the need to put our design egos to one side and not throw out anything useful, and I think that’s vital. I’m a big believer in economy, reduction, and removing the extraneous, but I’m usually referring to decoration, bells and whistles, and fluff. I wouldn’t ever advocate the complete removal of powerful content from a project roadmap.

Above all, don’t fear complexity. Embrace and tame it. Work hard to empathize with audience needs, and you can create elegant, playful, risky, surprising, emotive, delightful, and ultimately simple things.

Tags: productivity

December 07 2011

07:14

Front-end Style Guides

We all know that feeling: some time after we launch a site, new designers and developers come in and make adjustments. They add styles that don’t fit with the content, use typefaces that make us cringe, or chuck in bloated code. But if we didn’t leave behind any documentation, we can’t really blame them for messing up our hard work.

To counter this problem, graphic designers are often commissioned to produce style guides as part of a rebranding project. A style guide provides details such as how much white space should surround a logo, which typefaces and colours a brand uses, along with when and where it is appropriate to use them.

Design guidelines

Some design guidelines focus on visual branding and identity. The UK National Health Service (NHS) refer to theirs as “brand guidelines”. They help any designer create something such as a trustworthy leaflet for an NHS doctor’s surgery. Similarly, Transport for London’s “design standards” ensure the correct logos and typefaces are used in communications, and that they comply with the Disability Discrimination Act.

Some guidelines go further, encompassing a whole experience, from the visual branding to the messaging, and the icon sets used. The BBC calls its guidelines a “Global Experience Language” or GEL. It’s essential for maintaining coherence across multiple sites under the same BBC brand.

A screenshot of the BBC's Global Experience Language website
The BBC’s Global Experience Language.

Design guidelines may be brief and loose to promote creativity, like Mozilla’s “brand toolkit”, or be precise and run to many pages to encourage greater conformity, such as Apple’s “Human Interface Guidelines”.

Whatever name or form they’re given, documenting reusable styles is invaluable when maintaining a brand identity over time, particularly when more than one person (who may not be a designer) is producing material.

Code standards documents

We can make a similar argument for code. For example, in open source projects, where hundreds of developers are submitting code, it makes sense to set some standards. Drupal and Wordpress have written standards that make editing code less confusing for users, and more maintainable for contributors.

Each community has nuances: Drupal requests that developers indent with two spaces, while Wordpress stipulates a tab. Whatever the rules, good code standards documents also explain why they make their recommendations.

The front-end developer’s style guide

Design style guides and code standards documents have been a successful way of ensuring brand and code consistency, but in between the code and the design examples, web-based style guides are emerging. These are maintained by front-end developers, and are more dynamic than visual design guidelines, documenting every component and its code on the site in one place.

Here are a few examples I’ve seen in the wild:

Natalie Downe’s pattern portfolio

Natalie created the pattern portfolio system while working at Clearleft. The phrase describes a single HTML page containing all the site’s components and styles that can act as a deliverable.

Screenshot of Natalie's pattern portfolio
Pattern portfolio by Natalie Downe for St Paul’s School, kept up to date when new components are added. The entire page is about four times the length shown.

Each different item within a pattern portfolio is a building block or module. The components are decoupled from the layout, and linearized so they can slot into anywhere on a page.

The pattern portfolio expresses every component and layout structure in the smallest number of documents. It sets out how the markup and CSS should be, and is used to illustrate the project’s shared vocabulary.

Natalie Downe

By developing a system, rather than individual pages, the result is flexible when the client wants to add more pages later on.

Paul Lloyd’s style guide

Paul Lloyd has written an extremely comprehensive style guide for his site. Not only does it feature every plausible element, but it also explains in detail when it’s appropriate to use each one.

Screenshot of Paul Lloyd's style guide
Paul’s style guide is also great educational material for people learning to write code.

Oli Studholme’s style guide

Even though Oli’s style guide is specific to his site, he’s written it as though it’s for someone else. It’s exhaustive and gives justifications for all his decisions. In some places, he links to browser bug tickets and makes recommendations for cross-browser compatibility.

Screenshot of Oli's style guide
Oli has released his style guide under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license, and encourages others to create their own versions.

Jeremy Keith’s pattern primer

Front-end style guides may have comments written in the code, annotations that appear on the page, or they may list components alongside their code, like Jeremy’s pattern primer.

Screenshot of Jeremy's pattern primer
You can watch or fork Jeremy’s pattern primer on Github.

Screenshot of Jeremy's pattern primer

Linearizing components like this resembles a kind of mobile first approach to development, which Jeremy talks about on the 5by5 podcast: The Web Ahead 3.

The benefits of maintaining a front-end style guide

If you still need convincing that producing documentation like this for every project is worth the effort, here are a few nice side-effects to working this way:

Easier to test

A unified style guide makes it easier to spot where your design breaks. It’s simple to check how components adapt to different screen widths, test for browser bugs and develop print style sheets when everything is on the same page. When I worked with Natalie, she’d resize the browser window and bump the text size up and down during development to see if anything would break.

Better workflow

The approach also forces you to think how something works in relation to the whole site, rather than just a specific page, making it easier to add more pages later on. Starting development by creating a style guide makes a lot more sense than developing on a page-by-page basis.

Shared vocabulary

Natalie’s pattern portfolio in particular creates a shared vocabulary of names for components (teaser, global navigation, carousel…), so a team can refer to different regions of the site and have a shared understanding of its meaning.

Useful reference

A combined style guide also helps designers and writers to see the elements that will be incorporated in the site and, therefore, which need to be designed or populated. A boilerplate list of components for every project can act as a reminder of things that may get missed in the design, such as button states or error messages.

Creating your front-end style guide

As you’ve seen, there are plenty of variations on the web style guide. Which method is best depends on your project and workflow. Let’s say you want to show your content team how blockquotes and asides look, when it’s appropriate to use them, and how to create them within the CMS. In this case, a combination of Jeremy’s pattern primer and Paul’s descriptive style guide – with the styled component alongside a code snippet and a description of when to use it – may be ideal.

Start work on your style guide as soon as you can, preferably during the design stage:

Simply presenting flat image comps is by no means enough - it’s only the start… As layouts become more adaptable, flexible and context-specific, so individual components will become the focus of our design. It is therefore essential to get the foundational aspects of our designs right, and style guides allow us to do that.

Paul Lloyd on Style guides for the Web

  1. Print out the designs and label the unique elements and components you’ll need to add to your style guide. Make a note of the purpose of each component. While you’re doing this, identify the main colours used for things like links, headings and buttons.

    Photo of some annotations on a print-out of a designI draw over the print-outs on to tracing paper so I can make more annotations. Here, I’ve started annotating the widths from the designer’s mockup so I can translate these into percentages.

  2. Start developing your style guide with base styles that target core elements: headings, links, tables, blockquotes, ordered lists, unordered lists and forms. For these elements, you could maintain a standard document to reuse for every project.
  3. Next, add the components that override the base styles, like search boxes, breadcrumbs, feedback messages and blog comments. Include interaction styles, such as hover, focus and visited state on links, and hover, focus and active states on buttons.
  4. Now start adding layout and begin slotting the components into place. You may want to present each layout as a separate document, or you could have them all on the same page stacked beneath one another.

Document code practices

Code can look messy when people use different conventions, so note down a standard approach alongside your style guide. For example, Paul Stanton has documented how he writes CSS.

The gift wrapping

Presenting this documentation to your client may be a little overwhelming so, to be really helpful, create a simple page that links together all your files and explains what each of them do.

Screenshot of some documentation that Clearleft send to clients with their web style guides
This is an example of a contents page that Clearleft produce for their clients. They’ve added date stamps, subversion revision numbers and written notes for each file.

Encourage participation

There’s always a risk that the person you’re writing the style guide for will ignore it completely, so make your documentation as user-friendly as possible. Justify why you do things a certain way to make it more approachable and encourage similar behaviour.

As always, good communication helps. Working with the designer to put together this document will improve the site. It’s often not practical for designers to provide a style for everything, so drafting a web style guide and asking for feedback gives designers a chance to make sure any default styles fit in.

If you work in a team with other developers, documenting your code and development decisions will not only be useful as a deliverable, but will also force you to think about why you do things a certain way.

Future-friendly

The roles of designer and developer are increasingly blurred, yet all too often we work in isolation. Working side-by-side with designers on web style guides can vastly improve the quality of our work, and the collaborative approach can spark discussions like “how would this work on a smaller screen?”

Sometimes we can be so focused on getting the site ready and live, that we lose sight of what happens after it’s launched, and how it’s going to be maintained. A simple web style guide can make all the difference.

If you make your own style guide, I’d love to add it to my stash of examples so please share a link to it in the comments.

Tags: productivity

December 05 2011

00:00

Collaborative Development for a Responsively Designed Web

In responsive web design we’ve found a technique that allows us to design for the web as a medium in its own right: one that presents a fluid, adaptable and ever changing canvas.

Until this point, we gave little thought to the environment in which users will experience our work, caring more about the aggregate than the individual. The applications we use encourage rigid layouts, whilst linear processes focus on clients signing off paintings of websites that have little regard for behaviour and interactions. The handover of pristine, pixel-perfect creations to developers isn’t dissimilar to farting before exiting a crowded lift, leaving front-end developers scratching their heads as they fill in the inevitable gaps. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading Drew’s checklist of things to consider before handing over a design.

Somehow, this broken methodology has survived for the last fifteen years or so. Even the advent of web standards has had little impact. Now, as we face an onslaught of different devices, the true universality of the web can no longer be ignored.

Responsive web design is just the thin end of the wedge. Largely concerned with layout, its underlying philosophy could ignite a trend towards interfaces that adapt to any number of different variables: input methods, bandwidth availability, user preference – you name it!

With such adaptability, a collaborative and iterative process is required. Ethan Marcotte, who worked with the team behind the responsive redesign of the Boston Globe website, talked about such an approach in his book:

The responsive projects I’ve worked on have had a lot of success combining design and development into one hybrid phase, bringing the two teams into one highly collaborative group.

Whilst their process still involved the creation of desktop-centric mock-ups, these were presented to the entire team early on, where questions about how pages might adapt and behave at different sizes were asked. Mock-ups were quickly converted into HTML prototypes, meaning further decisions could be based on usage rather than guesswork (and endless hours spent in Photoshop).

Regardless of the exact process, it’s clear that the relationship between our two disciplines is more crucial than ever. Yet, historically, it seems a wedge has been driven between us – perhaps a result of segregation and waterfall-style processes – resulting in animosity.

So how can we improve this relationship? Ultimately, we’ll need to adapt, but even within existing workflows we can start to overlap. Simply adjusting our attitude can effect change, and bring design and development teams closer together.

Good design is constant contact.

Mark Otto

The way we work needs to be more open and inclusive. For example, ensuring members of the development team attend initial kick-off meetings and design workshops will not only ensure technical concerns are raised, but mean that those implementing our designs better understand the problems we’re trying to solve.

It can also be useful at this stage to explain how you work and the sort of deliverables you expect to produce. This will give developers a chance to make recommendations on how these can be optimized for their own needs.

You may even find opportunities to share the load. On a recent project I worked on, our development partners offered to produce the interactive prototypes needed for user testing. This allowed us to concentrate on refining the experience, whilst they were able to get a head start on building the product.

While developers should be involved at the beginning of projects, it’s also important that designers are able to review and contribute to a product as it’s being built. Any handover should be done in person, and ideally you’ll have a day set aside to do so. Having additional budget available for follow-up design reviews is also recommended. Learning how to use version control tools like Subversion or Git will allow you to work within the same environment as developers, and allow you to contribute code or graphic assets directly to a project if needed.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of designer and developer sitting next to each other. Subtle nuances can be explored far more easily than if they were conducted over email or phone. As Ethan writes, “‘Design’ is the means, not merely the end; the path we walk over the course of a project, the choices we make”.

It’s from collaboration like this that I’ve become fond of producing visual style guides. These demonstrate typographic treatments for common markup and patterns (blockquotes, lists, pagination, basic form controls and so on). Thinking in terms of components rather than individual pages not only fits in better with how a developer will implement a site, but can also ensure your design works as a coherent whole.

Despite the amount of research and design produced, when it comes to the crunch, there will always be a need for compromise. As the old saying goes, ‘fast, cheap and good – pick two.’ It’s important that you know which pieces are crucial to a design and which areas can allow for movement. Pick your battles wisely. Having an agreed set of design principles can be useful when making such decisions, as they help everyone focus on the goals of the project.

The best compromises are reached when both sides understand the issues of the other.

Richard Rutter

Ultimately, better collaboration comes through a shared understanding of the different competencies required to build a website. Instead of viewing ourselves in terms of discrete roles, we should instead look to emphasize our range of abilities, and work with others whose skills are complementary.

Perhaps somebody who actively seeks to broaden their knowledge is the mark of a professional. Seek these people out.

The best developers I’ve worked with have a respect for design, probably having attempted to do some themselves! Having wrangled with a few MySQL databases myself, I certainly believe the obverse is true. While knowing HTML won’t necessarily make you a better designer, it will help you understand the issues being faced by a front-end developer and, more importantly, allow you to offer solutions or alternative approaches.

So take a moment to think about how you work with developers and how you could improve your relationship with them. What are you doing to ease the path towards our collaborative future?

Tags: productivity

November 22 2011

15:26

The Big Think: Breaking The Deliverables Habit





 



 


Right there in the center of my boilerplate for design proposals is a section that I glare at with more resentment each time I complete it. It’s called “Deliverables,” and it’s there because clients expect it: a list of things I’ll deliver for the amount of money that I specify further down in the document. Essentially, it distills a design project down to a goods-and-services agreement: you pay me a bunch of money and I’ll give you this collection of stuff. But that isn’t what I signed up for as a designer. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about deliverables. And neither should you.


(Image: Snoggle Media)

Case in point: for months now, I’ve worked consistently with a particular client for whom I do almost no work on actual design artifacts (wireframes, prototypes, etc.). Rather, I hold frequent calls with the main designer and developer to go over what they’ve done with the product (i.e. poke holes in it) and what they should do next (i.e. help prioritize). Some days, they hand me wireframes; sometimes, a set of comps; other days, live pages. Whatever the artifact, our purpose is always to assess what we have now versus where we need to get to. We never talk about the medium in which these design ideas will be implemented; we focus strictly on the end result, the vision of which we established long ago and continually refer to. And in working this way, we’ve been able to solve countless significant problems and dramatically improve the client’s website and products.

It’s not about deliverables. It’s about results.

Understanding why this works depends on understanding the real role of the designer and the deliverables they create.

A Designer’s Work

First, consider the role of a designer compared to what we actually spend most of our time doing.

What designers are hired to do — the reason why companies seek out designers in the first place — is what my friend Christina Wodtke calls “The Big Think”: we’re hired to solve problems and develop strategies, determining what needs to be achieved and making design decisions that help to achieve it. But because companies have a compulsive need to quantify The Big Think, designers end up getting paid to create cold hard deliverables. Our very worth, in fact, is tied intrinsically to how well and how quickly we deliver the stuff. Heck, we’re often even judged by how good that stuff looks, even when much of it goes unseen by a single user.

Is this how it should be done? Absolutely not.

Hiring a designer to create wireframes is like hiring a carpenter to swing a hammer. We all know that the hammer-swinging is not what matters: it’s the table, the cabinet, the deck. Clients don’t hire us to wield hammers, but to create fine furniture. It’s not the process they need or the tools, but the end result.

In theory, companies understand this. In practice, not so much. They cling to the deliverables.

The Essence of Deliverables

So let’s look at what a design deliverable really is.

The purpose of a design artifact, whether a wireframe, prototype or sketch, is to illustrate our thinking. Pure and simple. It’s part of the thinking process. It’s also, according to some, a record to look back on later to aid when reconsidering decisions, tweaking the design and so on. But let’s be honest: people rarely look back at these documents once the design grows legs and starts walking on its own. More often than not, significant changes result in new wireframes, and minor tweaks are made on coded screens, not back in the deliverables that we were paid so much to create.


(Image: HikingArtist.com)

Most of the time, design artifacts are throwaway documents. A design can and will change in a thousand little ways after these documents are supposed to be “complete.” In terms of allocating time and budget, design artifacts can be downright wasteful. They can even get in the way; designers could get attached to ideas as they transition to functioning screens, precisely when they need to be most flexible. Every design is speculation until it’s built.

Like it or not — and some of you will surely disagree — we can survive with fewer deliverables. Of course, what this looks like depends on how you work.

Breaking the Deliverables Habit

The most important parts of any design project are the vision of the end result, the requirements for it, the design itself, and a way to measure its success.

Interestingly, only one of these parts involves complicated design artifacts. The vision is merely a statement that describes the purpose and desired outcome. Requirements are but a list. Success metrics? Another list. The only part that involves more than a simple, concise summary is the design itself. And nothing requires that process to involve layer upon layer of wireframes, prototypes and comps before going to code. (More on how to change this in a minute.)


(Image: lucamascaro)

Comps, of course, are a must when graphics are involved; in addition to necessarily being the source of the graphic files to be used in the actual design, they define the visual language, the specifics of layout, spacing, typography, etc. Creating wireframes, on the other hand, as quick as it is compared to creating coded screens, can take much longer than going from sketch to code. So, consider cutting the load down to what’s most essential and useful: the interaction model.

In other words, you don’t have to create wireframes and comps for every idea or every screen; just for the toughest screens, the ones that define the most crucial interaction paradigms. Use them to iron out the model, not every last detail.

It’s time for more design and less stuff. Consider the revised process below.

1. Strategy Document

Distill your research on users and the business down to a short vision statement on what the user’s experience should be like. Add to this a list of design criteria (specific guidelines or principles for the design), as well as success metrics (how you will know that the design is achieving your goals). You should be able to do all of this within just a couple of pages; and keeping it short will help to ensure that everyone reads it.

2. Activity Requirements

Write a list of tasks that users should be able to perform, and functions that the system should perform that will benefit users. Prioritize the ones that will appear on the screen.

3. Sketch

To apply the design criteria and meet (or exceed!) the requirements, sketch a dozen or so ideas — in Keynote, on paper or on a whiteboard — and then take pictures of the sketches. Sketch the toughest, most complicated and most representative screens first. These will frequently determine the interaction model for most of the design.

4. Comp and Code

If you’re not doing the visual design yourself, collaborate with the graphic designer to iron out the details of the most representative screens and any other screens that require graphics. At the same time, collaborate with the developers to identify issues and areas for improvement throughout the process.

Forget the lengthy strategy documentation. Forget the deck of wireframes. Just short summaries (long enough to get the point across, but short enough to be able to do quickly), sketches and comps, limited to the things that need to be brought to a boil in Photoshop. Skimping on the deliverables can save a lot of time.

Untying Deliverables From Project Fees

Of course, sufficing with this shorter list of artifacts and untying deliverables from your fees require a change to the design process. In short, we need to shift the emphasis from documentation to collaboration.

Set the expectation from the beginning that you will work with stakeholders collaboratively. They will help you think through the design at every step. You will not be a wireframe monkey. Rather, you’ll focus on The Big Think. And you’ll do it together. If the client is unwilling or unable to spend time and energy on the design as you develop it, find another client. A client who is too busy to get involved in the process is a client who doesn’t care about their customers.

Collaboration is essential to great design. No one person can think of everything or always have the best ideas for every aspect of a product. It takes a group to make this happen. This might require you to occasionally browbeat the client into being available for frequent discussions on new and developing ideas, but the result will be infinitely better. And with the added input, you can focus less on stacks of deliverables and more on converting rough ideas into comps, prototypes and/or functioning pages that give undeniable weight to those ideas.

In practical terms, this means working closely and constantly with the visual designers and developers (assuming you’re not doing this work yourself). And it means frequently reviewing what’s being done and discussing at a deep level and at every step how to make improvements. It means talking through every detail and making sure someone has the job of being the resident skeptic, questioning every idea and decision in the interest of pushing the design further.

Break The Habit

By focusing on The Big Think, the deliverables will matter less. And for a designer, focusing on beautiful products is a whole lot more rewarding than dwelling on the step by step of deliverables. On your next time out, consider breaking the deliverables habit. Go from idea to code in as few steps as possible. Hefty amounts of collaboration can cure the sickly feeling that you’re an overpaid wireframer, empowering you to build designs that you know are killer work.

(al)


© Robert Hoekman Jr for Smashing Magazine, 2011.

September 06 2011

15:06

Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

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In part one of this series, we looked at the consequences of designing and developing software in isolated environments. Some people work in lonely silos where no process exists, while others work in functional silos where too much (or the wrong) process makes innovation and progress difficult.

So, how do we break down the artificial walls that keep us from creating great things together? How can organizations foster environments that encourage natural, unforced collaboration?

There are no quick fixes, but these are far from insurmountable problems. I propose the following five-level hierarchy as a solution:

Pyramid1 in Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

There are no shortcuts to breaking down silos. You can’t fix the environment if the organization doesn’t understand the problem. You can’t improve the development process if the right environment doesn’t exist to enable healthy guidelines. You have to climb the pyramid brick by brick to the ultimate goal: better software through true collaboration.

Let’s look at each of these levels.

Level 1: Make Sure Everyone Understands The Problem

Software-front-page in Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?
Photo credit: TransGriot

Most organizational leaders would probably admit that collaboration is not as good as it should be, but they might try to solve the problem incorrectly. As Louis Rosenfeld recently said in “The Metrics of In-Betweenness”:

Many senior leaders recognize the silo problem, but they solve it the wrong way: if one hierarchical approach to organizing their business doesn’t work, try another hierarchy. Don’t like the old silos? Create new ones. This dark tunnel leads to an even darker pit: the dreaded — and often horrifically ineffective — reorg.

The first level is admitting that there’s a problem and that the current problem-solving methods just aren’t working. This isn’t about moving branches of the organizational tree around. It’s about planting the tree in more fertile ground to establish the right foundation in order to start looking for solutions.

Level 2: Empower Teams To Do Great Work

Once the organization is united around a common understanding of the problem, then the starting point for breaking down silos is to take a healthy look at the culture and work environments. Above all, the needs of makers (such as designers and developers) should be taken seriously by managers (those who direct and enable the work). Mike Monteiro takes on this issue by attacking the calendar in “The Chokehold of Calendars”:

Meetings may be toxic, but calendars are the superfund sites that allow that toxicity to thrive. All calendars suck. And they all suck in the same way. Calendars are a record of interruptions. And quite often they’re a battlefield over who owns whose time.

Paul Graham takes a more holistic view in “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” He explains that managers break their days up into hour-long stretches of time, while makers need large blocks of time in order to focus:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

Makers need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done, and get them done well. Most siloed environments don’t support this because of an insatiable need for everyone to agree on everything (more on this later). So first, helping managers understand why this is such a big deal for makers is important, so that the managers can effect cultural change.

Michael Lopp talks about this in his article “Managing Nerds.” Substitute the word “nerds” in this article with “designers and developers” (no offense intended). Michael describes how nerds are forever chasing two highs.

The first high is unraveling the knot: that moment when they figure out how to solve a particular problem (“Finally, a simple way to get users through this flow.”). But the second high is more important. This is when “complete knot domination” takes place — when they step away from the 10 unraveled knots, understand what created the knots and set their minds to making sure the knots don’t happen again (“OK, let’s build a UI component that can be used whenever this situation occurs.”).

Chasing the Second High is where nerds earn their salary. If the First High is the joy of understanding, the Second High is the act of creation. If you want your nerd to rock your world by building something revolutionary, you want them chasing the Second High.

And the way to help designers and developers chase the second high is to “obsessively protect both their time and space”:

The almost-constant quest of the nerd is managing all the crap that is preventing us from entering the Zone as we search for the Highs.

So, how do you change a culture built around meetings and interruptions? How do you understand what designers and developers need in order to be effective, and how do you relentlessly protect them from distractions? Here are two ways to start:

  1. Ask the makers what’s missing from their environment that would help them be more effective.
    Find out what your designers and developers need, and then make it happen. A quiet corner to work in? Sure. A bigger screen? Absolutely. No interruptions while the headphones are on? Totally fine. Whatever it takes to help them be as creative as possible and to be free to chase that second high.
  2. Start working on a better meeting culture.
    This one is a constant struggle for organizations of all sizes, and there are many ways to address it. I try to adhere to two simple rules. First, a meeting has to produce something: a wireframe, a research plan, a technical design, a strategic decision to change the road map, etc. Secondly, no status meetings. That’s what Google Docs and wikis are for (agile standups are an exception to this, for reasons best left to a separate article).

Level 3: Create A Better Design And Development Lifecycle

Once a team is optimized for creativity, then it becomes possible to build appropriate guidelines around that culture to take an idea from vision to shipped product. This includes the development process as well as the prioritization of projects, so that you only work on things that are important.

The Design And Development Process

Formalizing the design and development process is so critical: from the identification of user, business and technical needs, to the UX design cycle, to technical design and, ultimately, to development, QA and launch. By formalizing this process based on a common understanding of the needs of the business, the team will have no excuse for skipping the UX phase of a project because “it would take too long.” By providing different scenarios for whatever timelines are available, the team ensures that design and UX always remain a part of the development lifecycle.

But one particular aspect of the development process has a direct impact on organizational silos: ensuring the right balance between design and engineering, and how designers and developers work together. This isn’t explored enough, yet it can have far-reaching implications on the quality of a product.

Thomas Petersen describes the ideal relationship between designers and developers in “Developers Are From Mars, Designers From Venus”:

They are the developers who can design enough to appreciate what good design can do for their product even if it sometimes means having to deviate from the framework and put a little extra effort into customizing certain functionality. If they are really good developers they will actually anticipate that they have to deal with it and either use a framework that allows them be more flexible or improve the framework they prefer to work in.

And they are the designers who learn how to think like a programmer when they design and develop an aesthetic that is better suited to deconstruction rather than composition. They know that composition in the Web world is not like composition in the print world and that what they are really doing is solving problems for customers, not manifestations of their creative ego.

Beyond the usual discussion of whether designers should be able to code, one of the main causes of bad blood between the groups is that developers are rarely asked what they need in order to write the best possible code. Designers should always ask their development teams two questions:

  1. “How would you like to contribute to the product development process?”
    It is amazing how few people actually ask this question, as is how the opinions of the people who understand the product at its most detailed level often don’t have a voice in ideation or prioritization. Any cycle that doesn’t include developers from the beginning will likely fail, because the conflict between design and utility cannot be resolved with detailed specifications. It can be resolved only around a table, with plenty of paper to draw on and time to argue about the best way to do things. Of course, designers need time on their own to create, but developers need to be given a chance to contribute to the product that they’re building in a way they’re comfortable with.
  2. “What information do you need to start coding?”
    The theoretical discussion about low-fidelity versus high-fidelity mock-ups or prototypes is largely misguided when it comes to real-world development. The goal is right-fidelity specifications, and that all depends on the maturity of the application you’re working on and the style of the developer. Some developers need perfect PSDs before they start coding; others are fine with back-of-the-napkin sketches along with a solid UI component library. Find out what they need, and provide just that — anything more than what they need will not get looked at, and that’s when tempers can really flare up.

Bringing such diverse worlds together is hard work. But, in “So Happy Together: Designers and Engineers,” Dave Gustafson warns what might happen if you don’t invest in this:

What’s the alternative to this kind of collaboration? Keeping design and engineering separate, where the pass-off from one to the other is aptly called “throwing it over the wall.” Designers may enjoy an unhindered blue-sky design process, but they’ll likely be disappointed with what actually gets made. Without engineers in the design process, there are bound to be some unrealistic features in the concept — and without an understanding of the designers’ intentions and priorities, engineers are likely to compromise the design with changes to meet cost goals. Some money may have been saved on the engineering and manufacturing — but not enough to offset a product that misses the mark.

The Prioritization Process

When there is no clear development process, “prioritization” can end up being a complex algorithm consisting of the last email request sent, the job title of the requestor, and proximity to the development team. This is no way to build a product. One way to address the difficulties of prioritization is through the concept of a “product council.”

At a start-up, the entire company could make up this group — even if it’s a group of one. In large companies, the group should include the CEO and the VPs of each department, including marketing, product, engineering, support, etc. The name is not important — the purpose is. The product council would have weekly or by-weekly meetings with two goals:

  1. Review the current product road map to assess whether the right priorities are being addressed.
  2. Introduce new ideas (if any) that have come up during the week and discuss business cases and priorities.

This meeting would have several very positive outcomes:

  • It would give the management team complete insight into what the product or design team is working on, and would allow for anyone to make a case for a change in priorities. This eliminates the vast majority of the politics you see at many organizations, and it frees up the teams to do what they do best: execute.
  • No one in the company would be able to go straight to a designer or developer to sneak things onto the road map. The user, technical or business impact of every big idea must be demonstrated.
  • It would prevent scope creep. Nothing would be put on the road map without something else moving out or down. This is absolutely critical to the development cycle.

From there, projects would move to small dedicated teams, which would have complete ownership of the design and implementation. The product council sets the priorities, not the details of implementation — those are up to the teams themselves. I’m always reminded of what Jocelyn K. Glei says in her excellent article “What Motivates Us to Do Great Work?”:

For creative thinkers, [there are] three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators.… In short, give your team members what they need to thrive, and then get out of the way.

In pursuit of collaboration, we run the risk of overshooting our target and gaining the false sense of security that “consensus” brings. Consensus too often results in mediocre products, because no one really gets what they want, so the result is a giant compromise. Marty Cagan says this very well in his article “Consensus vs. Collaboration”:

In consensus cultures people are rarely excited or supportive. Mostly because they are very frustrated at how slow things move, how risk-averse the company is, how hard it is to make a decision, and especially how unimpressive the products are.

So, even though everyone agreeing on something is great, having someone be responsible for the decisions in that particular project is infinitely more important. This person does not do all the work, but rather is the one who owns the product’s fate — its successes and failures.

Pc in Building Better Software Through Collaboration: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

In many organizations, this person is the product manager, but it doesn’t have to be. Whoever it is, the role should be clearly defined and well communicated to the rest of the organization. The role is not that of a dictator, but of a diplomat, working with UX, business functions and engineering to build products that are driven by user, business and technology needs.

Level 4: Communicate Better

Once the appropriate guidelines are in place and the teams are working effectively, it’s time to root out any other causes of mistrust that might still exist. And one of the best ways to build trust in an organization is to eradicate secrets.

I am huge believer in full transparency, and I see little need in keeping any relevant information about a project from anyone. (The prerequisite? Hire trustworthy employees!)

If plans, progress and problems are published for all to see, there is no need to hide anything and no need to play politics to get things done. Here are just some of the things that should be published on a public wiki for anyone to view and comment on (written from the perspective of a UX team):

  • Roles and responsibilities of the product and UX teams.
  • How road-map planning and the prioritization process work.
  • How the product development process works, including (critically) where UX fits into even the smallest projects.
  • The goals and success metrics for every product line.

Publish everywhere, invite anyone. The tools at our disposal make this so easy, from Dropbox and Google Docs to ConceptShare and Campfire. There is no excuse for keeping things to ourselves.

Level 5: Prove That It Works

When the groundwork is laid for silos to start crumbling down, one last piece of dynamite will blow it all up: it’s time to start proving that it works. People will believe you for only so long if you say, “Trust me, this is the right thing to do!” At some point you have to show them the money.

A common theme throughout this series has been that better collaboration results in better software. The only way to cement these changes into the organizational culture is to show that you’re actually shipping a better product because of it.

Here’s what I do to demonstrate the business value of a collaborative development process that includes a tightly integrated UX cycle:

  1. Share case studies from other companies or projects that clearly show the business benefits of working this way. Showing that it’s been successful elsewhere should buy enough time and resources for the team to put in place its plans to follow a proper collaborative design and development process in one or more of its projects.
  2. Start on a project where changes can be measured by an improvement in one of the three A’s of revenue generation:
    • Acquisition
      Getting new users to sign up for your product.
    • Activation
      Getting those new users to make their first purchase.
    • Activity
      Getting those first-time purchasers to come back for more.
  3. Benchmark well before the start of the project, and set clear goals to measure the success of the project.
  4. Follow through on the commitment to collaboration, and measure your results. See “How to Measure the Effectiveness of Web Designs” for ideas on which measurement tools to use.
  5. Publish your metrics widely so that everyone in the organization can see the results. And don’t hide the failures. There will be failures — the trick is to own those mistakes, learn from them and get better.

Summary (aka “Whose Job Is It, Anyway?”)

So, whose job is it to break down organizational silos and build a collaborative development process?

Guess what? It’s your job. Whether you’re a designer, developer or manager, this isn’t something that someone else will get around to — if it was, then it would have happened already. Building collaboration is best done through a groundswell in the organization, led by the makers, the people who build the actual product. It might be difficult, but I hope there are enough case studies and examples in this series to help you get started on this journey of organizational change.

Collaboration only works if everyone in the organization is open about their processes and workflows, without fear of being judged unfairly. Arguments over what’s right and how to do things differently will happen. And they should — it’s the only way to get better at what we do.

Building collaborative environments is not easy, because change management is not easy. But the positive outcomes of doing this far outweigh the pain of making it happen. You’ll end up with happy, creative teams that feel a sense of ownership over what they’re building and a sense of pride in its quality.

I often remind my team that we are judged on the products we ship, not on the number of times we ask for help along the way. So, what possible reason could there be not to collaborate and create a better product — because it will make us all look better in the end anyway? (Hint: there isn’t one.)

Go. Make it happen.

(al)


© Rian van der Merwe for Smashing Magazine, 2011.

July 20 2011

14:15

Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business

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It didn’t work out as you expected, did it? The freelance life was supposed to give you more time with the family and free you from that incompetent boss. You even thought you might be better off financially. Instead, you’re working longer hours and under constant stress, worrying about various aspects of your business.

To relieve the pressure of entrepreneurial life and avoid burning out, freelancers and business owners need strategies. In this post, I’ll share some tactics that have helped me be more in control of my business, my projects and life in general. I hope they help you, too.

Let’s begin by putting some solid plans in place.

You Don’t Have Time Not To Plan

For a business owner, being reactive is easy. We spend our whole time fighting the most intense fire, while worrying about what the future has in store. To cut stress levels and take control of our business, we need to put a few basic plans in place.

Take, for example, the ongoing concern about where our next job will come from. Most of us just “hope” that something will turn up. This passive response can leave us victims of circumstances and full of anxiety.

We need a marketing plan that ensures a flow of business. This plan should account for the following questions:

  • Who is your target audience?
    If you take a scattershot approach to marketing, your voice will get lost in the noise of the Web. But if you target a group, like real estate agents, then you have a better chance of making an impact.
  • What differentiates you?
    With so many other Web designers out there, what makes you different? Is it your expertise in a technology, a sector or a particular user group? Is it your design style, or perhaps the way you approach projects? Whatever it is, be sure you can articulate it.
  • What channels will you use to reach your audience?
    Are there forums you should take part in or blogs you should write for? Should you be attending certain conferences or offering to write for industry publications?
  • What regular tasks do you need to complete to keep your name out there?
    How many posts will you write for industry blogs per year? How often will you take part in forums where your audience congregates? How frequently will you send out newsletters to prospective customers?

This last point is where the real danger is. The best plans are often reduced to nothing when things get busy. When you’re under pressure, marketing is the first thing to get pushed out. But pushing it out will result in worry and potentially less work down the road.

Evernote in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
Evernote is a great tool for recording long-term plans for your business. It is always available on your desktop, the Web and your mobile phone, so you can easily jot down new ideas. Large view.

This approach applies not only to marketing. You should have plans in place for all major areas of your business, from finance to training. Without them, your subconscious will worry about whether these areas of your business are doing well.

Sticking to a plan is tough, but that’s where routine can help.

Create A Routine

Both the blessing and curse of being your own boss is that you can set your own schedule. On the one hand, working when we want and scheduling around our family lives is great. The downside is that we are left with the sense that we should always be working.

Some say the answer to this problem is to set a rigid routine: start and finish work at the same time every day, as if you were in an office. However, this undermines the main reason for being self-employed: flexibility.

Instead, I opt for a time-independent routine. I do certain things every day, but I don’t insist that they happen at specific times. For example, I always start and end my work day by reviewing my task list and clearing emails. This helps me mentally prepare for the day and gets me into work mode. Once I have shut down at the end of the day, you won’t find me picking up work later in the evening.

Another tactic is my Friday review. Every Friday morning, I step back from the pressing business of the day and review where I stand with all of my projects and broader aims. Carrying out this weekly review gives me confidence that nothing will get missed in the whirlwind of daily life.

Fantasical-1-1 in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
Fantastical is a great application for managing your routine, including a weekly review. Large view.

For me, having a routine and carrying out these rituals of starting up, shutting down and reviewing weekly build confidence that I am in control and doing enough to keep my business on track.

Another crucial element in maintaining this sense of control is my task list.

One List To Rule Them All

To succeed in your business, to work less and to overcome that nagging sense of worry, you need to maintain control. Unfortunately, maintaining control is hard when tasks are coming at you from so many directions. Just a few of those tasks might be:

  • A check from a client has arrived by post and needs to be cashed.
  • You’ve received an email about a bug on a website that you recently launched.
  • You’d like to try a new CSS technique that you found in an article.
  • An angry client calls to say they are unhappy with your design.
  • A great idea for a Web app pops into your head as you’re driving to the supermarket.
  • You’ve scribbled action items into a notebook during a client meeting.

These tasks need to get done, but the items associated with them are scattered in different places. For example, you need to cash that check, but where did you put it again?

With no definitive list of all the things you have to do, there is only one place left to store this information: in your head.

Unfortunately, we forget stuff. We know we aren’t capable of remembering so many details, and so we worry. Worse still, our subconscious constantly reminds us of everything we need to do, and so we end up endlessly going over the same things — over and over again.

The solution is simple: write it down. Carry one list with all of the tasks you have to do. When you get that check, add a task for cashing, and note where you’ve put the check. If you attend a meeting and jot down action points, don’t leave them buried in your notebook. Add them to your task list, which you will be checking daily as part of your routine.

Things in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
Things is one of many list apps that allow you to take your task list with you wherever you go, via the desktop, iPhone and iPad apps. Large view.

Having a single list that has all of your tasks will bring you peace of mind and make you considerably more efficient, because you won’t be wasting time tracking down emails and notes of what you have to do.

Speaking of email, almost all business owners seem to complain about this, but few do anything to solve the problem.

Solving Email Problem

Most email clients check email every five minutes. That is nearly 100 interruptions in an average working day. This constant ping of your email client instills a sense of pressure that is, in fact, usually unjustified.

After all, the majority of email we receive is either spam or non-urgent items such as newsletters. But every time that “New mail” message pops up, we feel compelled to check whether it is an urgent request from a client. This causes us to lose the flow of our work and creates a slight sense of unease that can accumulate throughout the day.

Here is a radical suggestion: turn off those notifications, and check your email only once or twice a day! I know what you’re thinking, but I promise, it is possible. Let me explain how.

As mentioned above, the majority of email either can wait or is just junk. You probably receive only a handful of emails a day (maybe even less) that need urgent action. You could probably say right now who they would be from and what they would be about.

Your computer should be telling you only about those urgent emails so that you don’t need to keep checking.

The answer is a service called AwayFind. With AwayFind, you can specify which topics and people you want to be notified instantly about, what can wait, and how to receive notifications, with options for everything from text messages to iPhone updates. This one service frees you from having to check email, enabling you to focus on what’s important.

You may be wondering how AwayFind is different from Priority Inbox in Gmail. While Priority Inbox is great, it suffers from two weaknesses:

  • It doesn’t allow you to specify what is important.
    While Gmail’s algorithms for predicting important email are good, if you’re waiting for an important email from someone, you can’t trust Gmail to flag it, and thus you won’t stop worrying.
  • You’re still required to check your email.
    Priority Inbox does not take care of email the way AwayFind does. You still suffer from the constant ping of incoming mail, and you are not freed up to close the email client.

Awayfind in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
With AwayFind, you no longer need to constantly check email. Large view.

Of course, when you do check email, the junk is waiting for you. Spam filters help, but you’re still left with all of those emails that you signed up for but don’t want anymore or can’t remember subscribing to.

For this, check out Unsubscribe.com. After signing up, tell the service what email you no longer wish to receive, either by using one of the plug-ins for major email clients or by forwarding the message to the service. Unsubscribe.com then does its best to unsubscribe you and to pursue those who continue sending you junk.

Unsubscribe in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
Unsubscribe.com has dramatically reduced the number of unwanted email I receive. Large view.

I have to say that Unsubscribe.com has made a phenomenal difference. I have gone from several hundred emails a day to a few dozen, and the number is going down all the time.

By combining Unsubscribe.com, AwayFind and the “one list to rule them all,” you can reach email nirvana: an empty inbox. Nothing is more satisfying or calming than one of those. All of your emails will have been unsubscribed, deleted, filed, delegated or turned into a task. Nothing is left to gnaw away at your subconscious, leaving you to wonder whether you have dealt with it.

Obviously, there are plenty of other techniques for managing email. For instance, you could start your emails with a subject line that clearly identifies the topic, perhaps including a status category: [Info], [Action], [Time-sensitive], [Low priority]. If your message can be expressed in few words, just put it in the subject line, followed by [EOM] (end of message). This saves the recipient from having to open the message. Also, ending a note with NNTR (no need to respond) is a wonderful act of generosity.

Of course, you’ll need to be sure that the recipient understands the acronyms, so perhaps you could add a short explanation in your signature. These and other guidelines are covered in the “10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral,” which might come in handy when you’re replying to your next email.

With email out of the way, you can finally focus on the work that needs to get done. As you will find, though, this is hard to do.

Finding Your Focus

We often use email as an excuse for our lack of productivity, when really it is a distraction for avoiding work. Like spending time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and indeed the whole Web, checking email is easier than getting stuff done.

Unfortunately, staying focused on a task is hard. We need to train ourselves to do this effectively.

One way to do this is the Pomodoro technique. According to this simple method, we work in concentrated blocks before taking a break for five minutes, after which we do another “sprint.”

A good starting point is to try working for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. Over time, you will find that you can increase these 25-minute blocks to something more substantial. You’ll also enjoy the challenge of seeing how many sprints you can fit into a day.

Pomodoro in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
There are many applications to support the Pomodoro technique. My personal favourite is simply named Pomodoro. Large view.

Not only will this make you more productive, but by tracking how many sprints you have done in a day, you also get the peace of mind knowing that you are doing enough work. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you have done six hours of distraction-free work in a day. Too often, we work for 10 hours or more and yet are unsure by the end of it exactly how much we have accomplished, because so much of that time was wasted reading email, answering phone calls and surfing the Web. If you have done six hours of uninterrupted sprints, then you’ll feel guilt-free when you sneak off early to play with the kids.

Of course, it is not just about how many hours you work, but about how productive you are. Fortunately, there are ways to work less but produce more.

Work Less, Produce More

As business owners, we are paid not for the hours we work, but for what we deliver, so we have to be as efficient as possible. Doing more in less time is an article in itself. But here is one principle that has served me well: recycle.

We are so busy putting out the latest fire that we fail to plan for the future. If you’re coding, say, a news listing for a website, you will probably be in such a hurry that you fail to mark it up in a way that could be reused in your next project.

Also, we often complain that we don’t have time to market ourselves because we regard that as “extra work.” But in many cases, it is just a matter of documenting what we are working on.

Let me give you a real-world example. I needed to redesign my personal website. I also needed to launch the second season of our podcast. I thought I didn’t have time for both, until it occurred to me that the second season could be about the redesign process of my website. My redesign of the website could be recycled into an episode for the show. What’s more, this process inspired tweets, forum conversations and improvements in the overall working processes of our company.

Whether you are writing a blog post, designing a website or coding an app, ask yourself whether a bit of extra work could turn it into something that serves another purpose.

Snippets in Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business
Reusing code through tools like Espresso is just one way to be more efficient. Large view.

Code is often recycled, but you could just as easily reuse design elements, client presentations and even responses to common objections from clients. On this last point, see my post “Where Are My Rounded Corners“: I got so fed up from having the same conversation with clients about progressive enhancement that I decided to write a document that I could just hand out. You can also use pre-written templates and resources such as Spec Work template and Wee Nudge to communicate common problems, issues and misconceptions to your clients.

By recycling, you can significantly cut your workload and your stress.

What Are Your Stress-Busting Techniques?

I have only touched the surface of worries for freelancers. We are under so much pressure that it can feel overwhelming at times. Yet we can do many more things to improve. With that in mind, let’s continue the conversation in the comments. What stresses you most, and what stress-busting techniques do you recommend?

(al)


© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2011.

May 20 2011

12:37

Distraction Management: How To NOT Procrastinate or Get Distracted

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Whenever we are working on a design, facing a deadline, it is of the utmost importance that we stay on track and power through til the end. Doing whatever is necessary to keep us walking with progress over stalling with digression.

All too often, we find ourselves facing a project that is somewhat hampered by our inability to become properly motivated and dive in to the design without looking back. We allow ourselves to become distracted and we linger there. Placed on pause by this distraction or sense of procrastination. It is here that we find ourselves struggling for a way to kickstart our motivation and work our way free from those hands that are holding us back.

58694182 Bf6e244a51 in Distraction Management: How To NOT Procrastinate or Get Distracted
We need to find ways to stave off the call of those pitfalls to our design progress. Image Credit

Enter today’s post. Here we are going to examine a few different ways that we can attempt to keep ourselves focused and driven during a design project, so that we do not end up falling behind. So below are the distraction management techniques that we felt could assist any designer feeling the pull of procrastination or the digressive distractions that creep up in our path of productivity. If you follow the tips and implement them into your design process, then you are less likely to be pulled off topic and find yourself facing this problem.

Consider Some of Our Previous Posts

Project Breakdown

Often there are times when we first begin a new design project that we end up feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the entire scope and size of the project. And we let this overwhelmed sensation keep us from getting started. However, if we breakdown the project in the beginning into assignments of dedicated focus to tackled individually, it can feel less bewildering. Because you are not attempting to take on the entire project at once, instead you take all of those pieces and allow yourself to focus on one piece at a time. This focus can not only keep you from procrastinating any longer, but it can also help your mind keep on track and from wandering off topic and potentially off course.

Sites and Services to Assist

  • BaseCampHQ premium project management software that focuses on communication and collaboration.
  • ActiveCollab is a premium tool which installs on your server or local network for better project management and collaboration.
  • Project HQ is an open source solution to your collaborative project management needs

Set Clear and Achievable Daily Goals

So if we feel overwhelmed by the scope of the project, but we are not too keen on the idea of a full breakdown for the project, then another way to come at it to combat that feeling is to set clearly defined and achievable daily goals. By giving ourselves daily project goals that are completely achievable within a day we effectively lessen the scope that we are dealing with. This makes the project seem less daunting, as we have smaller steps to focus on that will take us to the end. Rather than trying to focus on the overall outcome that seemed so overwhelming from the very start.

Apps to Assist

  • Tadalist is a completely free, very popular to do list tool that is easy to use.
  • Remember the Milk is an online based to do list with great functionality that is free to use.
  • Todo.ly is an intuitive and easy to use online Todo list, and Task Manager.

The Bare Necessities

Now once you get started you have have to keep moving forward, and that is not always easy to do with a workspace built to distract you. So you want to keep your work area neat and refined to the bare necessities as much as we possibly can. The more that you have in your work area to distract you or keep you stalling, the more likely you are to cave to these interlopers of progress and indulge their less than productive ways. So if you are in an office setting, go minimal with your workspace to keep your mind focused on the task at hand. If you are working from home, then this is especially important.

If you have a workspace that is combined with your regular living spaces, then your work environment is more than likely going to be working against you in this respect. So for those designers who have a home office, keep this a space apart from the rest. Sure you want your workspace to be comfortable, but that is not the issue here. Filling that space excessively only feeds that areas ability to keep us from focusing on our work. So we need to be aware of our environment’s effects on our productivity and if necessary, keep it bare.

Scheduling

This can mean everything in aiding your focus. If you work straight through for hours and hours without a break, your tired mind is much more susceptible to distraction. So keep this in mind, and while you are scheduling your time to work on the design project at hand, be sure to include breaktimes in there for yourself. This will do wonders to help keep your mind fresh and focused, and less prone to diversion. Scheduling can also benefit those finding it hard to get started initially. If you have set a schedule for yourself, then you are more likely to follow it and not allow procrastination to rear its ugly head.

Also use this scheduling wisely to keep you better mentally suited and less apt to be distracted by outside influences. If you have regular daily routines try to not schedule your design work against any of the peak times for your daily activities. For instance, if you are a social media hound, and you have particular times that your various streams tend to be full and a majority of those you regularly engage with are online, then do not pick those times to schedule your design work. This way your mind is not constantly being drawn towards that routine you know you are missing out on.

Apps to Assist

  • Klok is a personal time tracking app with a free and premium version that can help you get your schedule under control.
  • Toggl is a time management app that promises to keep you on track with reports to help. Both free and premium versions are available.
  • Rescue Time an automated web-based time management and analytics tool for anyone serious about tracking and managing their time.

Get Specific With Your Schedule

Instead of just scheduling time to design, actually take the breakdown of the project that you have made, and schedule the individual areas of the project to work on. Get specific with your scheduling of the various pieces that you have to tackle and this will further your focus, and keep you less likely to allow digressions back and forth between areas of the project itself. And as you schedule these various project tasks, try to mix up the different times so that you are not working on the same elements or areas back to back. This will also help to keep your thought processes refreshing and uncluttered.

Pomodoro to Assist

  • Pomodoro Technique can help you get the most out of your time management and may be just the key for you.
  • Focus Booster is a free lightweight Adobe AIR app that was built around the Pomodoro Technique that is simple and elegant.
  • Tomato Timer a web based Pomodoro timer that is basic and very straight forward.

Unplugged

This may prove somewhat difficult to do, but for some it is necessary to avoid distraction and delays. That is to stay offline. Even if you run up against barriers that you would normally turn to an online outlet for, hold off. Make notes of the problems you come across so that you may address them later. Move on to another area of the project, or to another area in the same vein that will be unaffected by this unexpected roadblock. But breaking from your flow and getting online can quickly take an unexpected turn, and by the time you look up again, an hour has disappeared. Your flow and focus have been compromised, and that never bodes well for the design.

If you are using a schedule to help you stay focused, then use your break times to get online and search for answers that you may need when you return to work. Or even schedule times that are specifically just for plugging into the web. This can sometimes help with curbing the temptation to just pop online for a second. If we know that we will have time for that later, then we can allow the design to remain at the forefront of our focus. This is not to say that designers need to avoid the web to stay productive, however, it can become necessary as the web can be a huge distraction as well as a tool. So staying unplugged and offline at times can work wonders for keeping you locked on target and moving towards the project’s end.

Add-ons to Assist

  • Leechblock for Firefox is a simple productivity tool designed to block any time-wasting sites that sap the productivity from your day.
  • StayFocusd for Chrome increases your productivity by limiting the amount of time you can spend on any sites you consider time-wasters.

Keep the Project Fresh

The moment we start getting bored with the project and the design, then we are begging for a distraction, or worse we put off the work altogether. Looking for something to engage us and reconnect us with fun. So we have to do all that we can to keep the project feeling fresh, fun, and exciting to hold our focus. Find ways to push the proverbial envelopes and challenge yourself throughout the course of the project so that it continues to hold your interest. Naturally there is a balance to strike here. You want to keep yourself intrigued but you do not want to compromise the design in the process. So find ways to keep yourself captivated by the project however you can, but keep in mind that you still have a goal and a deadline on the horizon. We cannot allow our project to become the distraction.

Reward System

If all else fails and the project seems to be barrelling towards boring, then keep yourself engaged and interested with a sort of personal reward system that you employ while you work. In the vein of video game achievements and the like, establish certain milestones for the project that once you achieve, you get some sort of predetermined prize for yourself. This does not have to be anything major, or even tangible, just whatever works for you personally. Like an extra break in your schedule, or whatever you can think of to keep the project engaging and progressing.

Share Your Progress

One way to keep yourself focused and highly motivated to get your design work handled is to commit to sharing your project progress with others. Be it the client, a close circle of design friends from the community, or even an online audience that you are sharing your ‘dailies’ with. As long as you have promised to share some kind of virtual progress report with someone, you tend to be more driven to actually get the work done and turned in. This also allows for us to get some sort of feedback on our progress, which can always come in handy as we work through the project. Once again, we have to understand that processing and implementing all of the feedback, especially if we are sharing daily, can be just as much as a derail as it can be an aid. Balance is important here as well.

Sites to Assist

  • Forrst is a community driven invite site dedicated to providing thoughtful critiques, and sharing knowledge to build better applications and websites, and more.
  • Dribbble is another invitation based site for designers to share their work with a sort of game like system that it is built upon.
  • Behance is a free online community for designers and more to come together and share their work with others in the community and beyond.
  • Concept Feedback is a premium service where members can share their work with other designers and get useful, honest feedback on their projects in progress.

Isolation Equation

There are occasions when just having someone familiar in the vicinity of our workspace can be as much of a distraction to our progress, or even to getting started, so there are instances where we might need to add a little isolation into the equation. Especially those who are working as part of a team, may find it benefiicial, at times, to get away from the other members and work on the project alone. So isolation can be an easy way to keep those accidental acquaintance interruptions from stealing large, productive portions of your work day from you. This tends to be why most designers who work from home, maintain an office area away from the rest of their families. Just like unplugging from the internet, virtually unplugging from the world around you can increase your ability to remain focused.

Keep Healthy and Rested

Finally, one area to keep in mind is our physical and mental well being. If we allow our health to decline, or our mind and body to fatigue then we are more prone to having our focus and drive impacted. So it is important to get enough sleep and exercise, along with a balanced healthy diet to keep our mind sharp and alert. Design is an intricate and at times delicate field, that some would call an art, so keeping both our mind and our body in as peak of a condition as we are able can do wonders for our attention and motivation with regards to our work.

In Conclusion

That wraps up this end of the discussion, but as always, things are just getting started. Now we turn the comment section and the topic over to you. What are your thoughts on staying motivated and focused on your design work. What techniques or processes do you implement and employ to aid you in this? Feel free to leave us your two cents!

(rb)

April 28 2011

11:40

21 Productive Things Designers Can Do with Down Time

Bored at Work

Designers, freelancers in particular, go through various cycles and there inevitably will be some times when you’re between client projects and you don’t have a whole lot to work on. During these situations there are a lot of options that could still make effective use of your time. Rather than feeling like you have to resort to crowdsourcing consider all of the options that are available.

This post is intended to show you a sample of things that you could focus on when you do not have enough client work to keep you busy. Read through the list and find a few that interest you the most. Keep these in mind for when the slow times come and you’ll always have something you can do to keep moving in the right direction.

1. Code Your Own Framework or Starter Template

Many designers use CSS frameworks (such as the 960 Grid System) as a starting point for their projects. WordPress theme frameworks are also commonly used by WordPress designers and developers. Although there are a lot of frameworks to choose from, it’s likely that you might like to change or tweak some things to meet your own needs. Consider using some of your down time to work on developing your own framework that could be used on many of your projects in the future. It could make your work quicker and easier going forward.

2. Design Templates for Sale

With the increasing popularity of marketplaces like ThemeForest and MojoThemes, making money by selling templates is a realistic possibility. If you’re only using your down time for creating templates, as opposed to making it a major part of your business, selling at a marketplace is probably a better idea than creating your own theme shop since it won’t require as much work from you. By having a few templates or themes that appeal to buyers you can start earning some on-going income to supplement your revenue from client work.

3. Design Stock Graphics for Sale

In addition to designing and selling templates, you also have the option to create stock graphics for sale. Stock photography sites like iStockphoto and Fotolia will allow you to sell vector artwork and other graphics. Marketplaces like GraphicRiver are also an option. Like selling templates or themes, selling stock graphics can help you to build up some supplemental income, which is always a good use of your spare time.

4. Design for Membership Sites or Blogs

You can also make money with stock graphics even if you don’t want to sell at stock sites. There are an increasing number of membership sites (like our Vandelay Premier) and design blogs that buy work from freelance designers. The items will then be given to their members or blog readers, which can also give you some added exposure, assuming you are credited.

5. Create Freebies

Aside from selling, you can also create graphics and resources to be given away at your blog or at another blog. Freebies are always appreciated by readers, and the highest quality freebies are also great for attracting links, tweets and shares on Facebook. There are any number of types of freebies that you could work on, including textures, Photoshop brushes, vectors, icons, design elements, etc.

6. Work on Your Blog

If you have a blog on your site, chances are that it doesn’t get a lot of your attention when you are busy with client projects. The time you have between projects can provide an opportunity to update your blog and reach more readers. Blogs can be excellent sources for helping new clients find you, they can attract links to your site, and they can allow you to have another avenue to network with others in the industry.

7. Write for Other Blogs

In addition to writing for your own blog, you can also use your time to write for other design blogs. There are lots of blogs out there that pay for articles, and even more that are willing to post free guest submissions. Freelance blogging can be an excellent supplement to your income from client work, and any type of work on other blogs can help with exposure, name recognition, and link building. Writing for popular blogs will also push you to do your best work and you’ll probably learn new things in the process. From my experience, one of the most beneficial things about writing for other blogs is the opportunity to network with influential blog owners and editors.

8. Write for a Magazine

Writing for blogs is not the only writing opportunity that is available. There are many design magazines that accept articles from designers like yourself. Being published in a magazine can also be a nice addition to your resume and may bring added credibility.

9. Read a Book

Most of us would love to be able to dedicate more time to learning and improving in certain areas. There are tons of quality books that designers and developers could benefit from reading. It’s difficult to find the time to read when you have a lot going on, so why not use your down time to pick up some new skills by reading a book. If you’re not sure what you want to read, take a look at 10 Free Online Books for Web Designers and 44 Brilliant Books for Web Designers/Developers.

10. Follow Tutorials

There are thousands of quality tutorials available online that can help you to learn new skills or techniques. It could be a Photoshop tutorial, Illustrator tutorial, coding tutorial, or anything else that can help you to learn something that will help in your work. This is also something that tends to be neglected when you’re busy, so time between projects is perfect for going through tutorials.

11. Learn About Photography

Photography can be an ideal creative activity for designers. Many designers enjoy photography, and learning more about it can even help in your design work. Not to mention that having some quality photos can be useful your design work. Many designers like to photograph textures that they’ll use in their work. You may want to read a book about photography or just simply get out and practice.

12. Follow Up with Past Clients

If you’re in a situation where you currently don’t have any work, why not get in touch with your past clients to see if there is anything that you can do for them? This can be an easy way to pick up a new project as many of your clients will need some tweaks on their website, business card design, help with marketing, or any number of other things that you can offer. Even if the client doesn’t have any immediate needs it helps to stay in touch with them, and when they do have a need for your services you’ll be on their mind.

13. Be Proactive with Networking

Having a solid professional network is essential to success as a web designer, especially for freelancers. Why not use some of your available time to reach out to other designers, developers, marketers, or anyone else that you would like to network with? Your networking efforts could include face-to-face networking, sending an email, connecting on Twitter or Facebook, leaving blog comments, etc. See 5 Principles of Effective Networking for more tips.

14. Work on Your Portfolio Site

Your design portfolio website is a critical asset to your business, but it probably doesn’t get much of your attention when you are busy. You can take this time to add new items to the portfolio, post new testimonials, make tweaks to the design, or completely re-design the site.

15. Setup a Portfolio on Behance, deviantART, etc.

In addition to showcasing your work on your own portfolio site, there are a number of community-oriented sites that allow you to showcase your creations. Some of the popular options include Behance, deviantART, Carbonmade, Flickr, Coroflot, and design:related. These sites can be useful for networking with other designers and for gaining exposure to potential clients.

16. Volunteer for a Non-Profit Organization

If you want to put your skills to work for a good cause while you don’t have other projects to work on, consider volunteering your services to a non-profit organization. I would recommend that you work with an organization that you are personally involved with or that a family member or friend is involved with. There are certainly some situations where an organization that is getting free work won’t put as much emphasis on the process as they would if they were paying for it, which can make things difficult for you. This can be made a little easier if it is an organization that you’re involved with, and it also helps if you’re passionate about the organization and their work.

17. Experiment with a New Content Management System

Most designers use content management systems or e-commerce platforms on a high percentage of their projects. There are tons of systems out there to choose from, but typically designers tend to stick to the ones that they are familiar with, and in some cases this may not be the best fit for a particular project. Using your down time to experiment with a new CMS or e-commerce platform can help you to identify solutions that may be a goof fit for future projects.

18. Do Analytics Work

Your portfolio site may be one of your leading sources of new business, and if it’s not, it has the potential to become one. Most of us don’t take the time to analyze where our visitors are coming from, how they are interacting with the site, and what can be done to make the site more effective. Why not use some of your down time to do some in-depth analytics work on your portfolio site?

19. Design a Business Card

You may want to use your available time between projects to design your business card or other marketing materials. A well-designed business card can help to make an impact with people that you meet, and may lead to more work.

20. Get Outside

Sometimes it’s nice to simply get out of the office and away from the computer. Getting outside and being around nature can provide inspiration and can also refresh you so that you’re ready to go when a new project comes along. Depending on how much time you have available you may even want to travel and see new places.

21. Enjoy the Time Off

Not everything that you can do with your down time needs to focus directly on work. Sometimes it is best to simply appreciate the slow times by relaxing, because when new projects come along you’ll certainly need to focus and dedicate yourself to the work. A short time off can help to recharge so you’ll come back with more energy and enthusiasm about your work.

What’s Your Experience?

What do you like to do with your down time? Have you found something that works really well for you? Please feel free to share in the comments.

For more on business and freelancing please see:

 

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