LESSONS LEARNED, PART 2

As promised, here is the continuation of the first blog post on The Best Blog On Earth.

Whereas the first post was focused more on the business side of things, this part is mainly about webpage design.

1) Don’t try to please everyone. Show 10 designers any design, and I’m betting that at least 3 of them will dislike it. If you listen to everyone, you will never be able to finish. Worse still, you may find that the things you were looking forward to working on have now become a chore, as you are trying to please other people instead of yourself.

2) Make sure that YOU like the design, first and foremost. If you like it, chances are that other people will like it as well. If you think to yourself, ‘I want my website to be popular. It doesn’t matter what I want, as long as other people are interested in it,’ you are likely going into a dark path. Why? Because you will never be able to measure, with any degree of reliability, how much your design pleases other people. The only real opinion you have is your own. If you compare your design with other designs that you find pleasing, and it meets your standards, than that is a solid measurement.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to feedback, or fix usability issues. If users complain about something, fix it as soon as you can. Yet just like a chef, people will tell you if they don’t like the food, not how to prepare it or what ingredients to use.

For every person who hates broccoli, squid, or oysters, there are many other people lining up to eat that food. If your usability is solid, if your design poses no usability issues, and you find it pleasing, then your work is ‘done’.

3) Remember, a design is never really complete. All you need is a solid base from which you can modify. Every time your website undergoes a major overhaul, it means your prior design was a failure (or your management sucks). Despite the fast-paced world of the web, human beings are very different by nature. We tend to prefer things that we are accustomed to. We may learn to deal with the quirks, with the little problems, and when we do so, we start to enjoy the things the web designer actually did right. Changing it means that we have to learn how things work again, which is typically an unpleasant experience.

4) Working on something for very long will probably make you hate it. The fact that there are no scientifically-proven methods to create good and original design, means that there is constant tweaking and changing. Some things change for the better, others for worse. Look at software releases, including operating systems and software, to see how much some users love the changes and how much some of them hate the changes. Youtube anyone? Unless you have time and money to burn, your work is better spent creating new and better content instead of investing time and effort into the nebulous and mystical black hole of making things look better. When you’ve had enough, just take a break for a while, come back and see things again through a fresh perspective. You may realize that your perfectionism is unreasonable.

5) To be original is good, to be familiar is better. This seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Good design is that which offers familiar methods of navigation, so users don’t have to learn anything new (or that learning is kept to a minimum). In addition, good design is memorable somehow, and original in order to distinguish your website from the rest.

However, when looking at the bigger picture, you must look at things pragmatically: will the effort required in order to make the webpage unique bring in higher dividends than using that effort to create great content? The answer is almost always no. It’s better to get things working well, test the market, see if your audience is really there and is excited about what you provide. I’ve never heard the phrase, ‘I love this website because it’s design kicks ass!’ However, I have heard the phrase, ‘I don’t care about how this website looks, but they provide me content I want, or content I need.’

6) Colours, colours everywhere. Here is a tip, that I have learned the hard way. It may seem hypocritical, because our homepage uses colour-coded categories for easy recognition. I think that our design works, because I was the person who created it, and I don’t want to seem like an idiot. More still, I admit being incredibly frustrated with choosing the right colour combinations. The deep blue theme may have paid off, but it’s too early to tell. Since I already spent the effort, I’ll be damned before I change it, but a word to the wise, keep your colours to a minimum, unless you have experience working with them.

7) Keep things simple. Minimalism may not always be the best design choice, but it’s never a poor choice. Besides, almost everyone wants to keep complexity in check, but without a continuous effort to do so, your website will keep on expanding and getting more cumbersome to navigate. A part of that may be inevitable, and even desirable if you add worthy features. However, as a general rule, your website will turn out to be less simple than your had initially planned for.

Plan for something small, you may end up with something medium-sized. Plan for something big…and you may end up with a labyrinth on your hands.

8) Templates are not evil. Use any and all resources at your disposal to make your job easier. If a temple fits, use it. If you’re worried about being a copy-cat, then consider creating a cool logo, or graphic that distinguishes you from the others. Sometimes, a simple change will yield significant effects. Of course, you can do things your own way, which is a good idea if you are starting out and want to learn how things work, or if you are convinced that being original is the way to go. Yet looking at things from a logical standpoint, you’ll see that professional designers now have better tools at their disposal than ever before, and they may offer you precisely what you need.

Choose wisely, and make an effort to keep things simple and fast. It’s easier to modify, and slow speed is one of the things that users hate the most.

9) If you’re doing it yourself, then here is a golden rule that you have probably read in other places: drop crappy browsers and forget about them. It isn’t worth developing for junk. The time it takes for you to get it working for IE6 and IE7 won’t pay you back, compared to that time spent making your website better for modern browsers. It’s only a rare circumstance, when your target audience uses a particular kind of browser, that you’ll need to make sure it works for your website.

The corollary to this rule is not to be bleeding-edge, and attempt to use browser-specific CSS rules, unless there is a general rule that does the same thing and is standardized. Of course, in some cases, making the website look a bit better on one browser with a special CSS attribute will not harm anything for anyone else. Be sparse in your use of browser-specific rules, but remember that such practices generally harm web development.

(Use the latest standards available. If you’re reading about it, then chances are that it’s usable. Use HTML6 and CSS4 as soon as browsers support it. Typically, there is graceful degradation for the older versions).

10) Sometimes, a modern browser has some bug which prevents your website from working properly. My advice is, look at the overall number of users who utilize that browser, as well as your logs to determine if it is worth fixing. There is probably an upgrade, right around the corner. If you think it needs fixing, then use any dirty trick in the book to get it working, with as little fuss and as few lines of code as you can get it.

Only hardcore web geeks care about what sort of code your website uses. If it’s fast, it’s fast. If it works, it works. Make sure it won’t break anything else, but if you find the easier method it a ‘hack’ that isn’t standard and gives an error that users won’t ever care or know about, then go for it.

There, I’ve said it. Use any hack that works, and use it well. No website is popular because it uses completely standard code, and no website is unpopular because it uses all kinds of tricks to obtain good functionality. Use whatever works, and prepare yourself for the angry townsfolk with their pitchforks storming in and saying how wrong you are. After their 5 minutes of bitching complaining they’ll leave and things return to normal. Oh, and no one will care.

BTW, web developers, I have high respect for all of you. You toil and slave, and then someone asks you why your code doesn’t work in IE7. I imagine that is damaging to your sanity, to say the least. You create new and better ways for things to function and look, then it becomes standard and you have to find something else that interests people, which if successful will also become standard. This process is never ending, and I don’t think I could do it.

However, I don’t believe that some crusade against non-standard code is serving your cause well. The form should never precede the function, and admittedly it can be difficult to keep things in perspective.

Mr. X

Lessons Learned

Ah, the first post on The Best Blog in the Universe on Earth.

There are many lessons that I (yes, that mysterious Mr. X) have learned when creating this website. I believe that these lessons are useful for anyone that wants to make a living from a website, be it a business or an individual.

1) There are two types of web-page design. The bad design that no one cares about, and the bad design that only you care about. Need some evidence? Check out whichever website you love to visit, inside the wayback machine at archive.org.

Go back a few years and you’ll see, with few exceptions, significant visual and navigational overhauls. The verdict? Design constantly changes. What’s acceptable today is sub-standard tomorrow. What’s considered cool this month seems cheap and trivial next year.

At best (in most cases), designs last a few years, and then an overhaul comes. If there is an ‘ideal’ design out there, no one has reached it yet. If it isn’t ugly, and it’s functional, then the design is fine. If the website is memorable, then any further tweaks to the design is likely a waste of time.

More about designs next blog post.

 

2) If you’re a business and are excited about your product or concept, here is some news you should expect: No One Cares. Many estimate that there are 200 million active websites. 200. Million.

What do you really have to bring to the table? A flashy logo? Another faceless (heh) corporate entity with a lame ‘testimonials’ section? We get it, your product is great. It’s just that it’s lost like a drop in the sea.

If you think that by launching, the world will be enthralled with your ‘isn’t it like this other thing?’ idea, you will probably receive a rude awakening. Oh sure, look at the big popular websites. Whether it’s Yahoo, or Joe the Plumber, the fact is that unless they were lucky (good luck, literally), filthy rich and could afford massive advertisement campaigns, they had to grit and shove their way to the top, trampling your competitors every chance you got.

You’re about to launch? No one cares. Oh, and one more thing. The game is just beginning. The race is a marathon that lasts years until you make some real $$$. See you at the top. Oh, and welcome to the jungle. Survival of the fittest, and all of that.

You’ve got something out? Then it better be good, damn good. You’ve got to be prepared to get behind it and push it, almost if it were a fat mother-in-law you had to get up 20 flights of stairs on her way to her apartment because she forgot her stupid cat. Then find out you pushed her in the wrong *@!^ing apartment building, and some wacko wants your head for abducting Fat Fluffy.

 

3) In case I wasn’t clear enough, you’ve got to have a few screws missing in order to play this game. It’s a high-risk, high-reward, high chance of you losing your time, money, and sanity. I think the only way you can actually succeed is if you enjoy the thrill of doing the almost impossible. 200 damn million. How many of those million are profitable? How many of those will be gone tomorrow?

 

4) Here is where you’re expecting me to tell you the magic solution. Or the ‘it’s not magic, but you can achieve it with hard work and dedication’ solution. The fact is, you need a test market. You need to imagine, ‘what do my readers want?’ when you’re medium-sized, ‘what does my boss want me to puke out?’ when you’re large-sized, and ‘what kind of readers do I even want?’ when you’re starting out?

(Corporate would be, ‘just stick on a fresh coat of paint and release a fancy commercial.’)

Most websites fail. What do you call a website that dies with no one around to hear it? Business as usual. To fail and actually get some attention is to be called a loser. In the web world, Losers are important, because a Loser had to have done something right in order to be noticed.

Get out there, make a website, be a Loser, have a drink, then get back in the ring. Think battered wife syndrome but for web developers, blog writers, or programmers. If you start to enjoy it, then either you’ve gone crazy, you’re delusional, or you’re really onto something.

Me? I’m new here.

 

5) Social Networking?

First of all, what the heck is social networking? If you’ve made a friend or a business contact, then congratulations, because you’ve created a ‘network’, that is ‘social’. Is it necessary? Probably. Make sure who you associate with, because just like a good partner can help you reach heights you couldn’t reach on your own, a bad one will drag you down. How you do it is up to you.

 

6) Learn How to be Lazy (a.k.a. how to get things done), and keep your eyes on the ball.

Presumably, what you make is useful to your audience. You had to think and create something that people want. Once you’ve done that (or are in the process of refining it), something interesting probably happened: you thought of changing direction, of adding features, of improving the product that hasn’t been market-tested.

‘Not yet, it isn’t ready to launch yet.’ FreedomsLink might need an even more transparent layer, with cool text that pops up and says, ‘Click Me, You Scoundrel!’ Maybe it could use 1000 other links to even cooler websites. Maybe even a feature that lets users send links to one another and another feature that links to the toaster in your kitchen and creates an interesting logo in your bread.

Those features that look cool are probably superfluous; most users won’t care. Despite the massive popularity you envision, not too many of those users will be browsing your website using Internet Explorer 5.5, while zooming the text so that it breaks that top-right section of your page.

Be lazy. If you think a feature is really important, then do the absolute minimum to get it working, or just create a placeholder that tells you if users are interested. Take Jason Nazar’s advice.

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