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CMS: the missing feature

12 Apr '12 | New Media Thoughts

CMS workflows start at the point where the author already knows what will written and the system becomes a repository of final, polished content.

Often a piece has been written in Word and saved in a folder with other related docs and assets, and a few links saved as bookmarks. A lot of info is also saved in the author’s head.

Some of the more clever people use apps like OneNote or Evernote to keep material and ideas in one spot.

But what if it were the CMS to play this role? To collect and connect assets and ideas that will shape the final piece.

This could be an idea nurturing system where notes, images, links, videos, stats, etc… would be stored so authors can easily access their reference material as draft and refine their pieces.

Added features couldinclude discussion areas for teams and analysis tools to identify patterns and themes across the material.

And even publish this material as reference, which is something I have described in a previous post as Telling the story behind the story.


Another great thing about cloud apps

12 Jan '12 | New Media Thoughts

Much has been written about the pros and cons of cloud apps but little about another reason for their success: the type of companies that build them.

Rand Fishin, CEO and founder of SEOmoz (offering tools for online marketing folk) has just tweeted about their revenue doubling between 2010 and 2011. A great result.

I’m also thinking about similar companies such as 37signals and Campaign Monitor that are very successful providers of Software as a Service products.

They have this in common: they provide very good products and value for money. They are also great companies to work for. And I think that these two things are related.

37signals have published a book called Rework describing their different approach to running a business. In their office meetings are toxic and ASAP is poison. Workaholicism isn’t a virtue.

It’s not just about adopting more flexible and smart working practices but nurturing an environment where employees can work comfortably and, I suspect, free of the political bullshit that you get in old school businesses.

Just look at how Campaign Monitor work, wouldn’t you want to work for them too?

We offer very competitive salaries and regular pay reviews, but we think it’s the little extras that make the difference.

Which means:

  • An awesome office. Check their video for proof.
  • Every team member receives all the gear they need to get the job done. How many of us are still stuck on a 2008 PC running XP?
  • Depending on your position, you can usually work the hours that suit you and your lifestyle. 9 to 5 isn’t a hard and fast rule at Campaign Monitor. We rarely do overtime and almost never work weekends. Amen to this.

No doubt Rand has created a similarly awesome working environment at SEOmoz too.


Anti AntiSpec

03 Nov '11 | New Media Thoughts

Are designers right to be pissed off about crowdsourcing?

antispec.com explains and campaigns against two forms of “spec(ulative)” design work:

  1. Crowdsourcing work via website such as 99designs.com.au where many designers compete against each other by submitting final, polished designs
  2. Briefs that request design work as part of a pitching process

The argument, in a nutshell, is that designers invest a lot of time producing work that may well not be renumerated.

The argument against crowdsourcing is a fair but pointless one. A bit like the music industry pre-iTunes trying to stop people from sharing files on peer-to-peer networks.

No amount of campaigning is going to stop crowdsourcing and more businesses will embrace it. There is no legal argument against it either.

Established designers point out that their skills and experience guarantee a better product; value that low-cost crowdsourcing can’t deliver. The truth is that crowdsourcing has produced a lot of quality too (at a fraction of a price).

What is happening is that the cost of design work is correcting itself. For example, the $5,000 price tag on an agency designed logo is being stripped off all the extra non-core related costs (eg. project management) and calculated at a lower rate as crowdsource folk tend to work in less expensive set ups (eg. a cool office, ergonomic chair, award compo entries, etc…).

  • Creative / Strategy: $3500
  • Execution: $1,000
  • Project Management: $500

Best in class will always be able to justify the high cost of a design. Everyone else… sorry… you’re not that special. A freelancer teleworking from home will charge a third of that and produce something just as good.

Those supporting the AntiSpec movement should really focus their energies on figuring out how to survive in this new environment. Adapt or die like everyone else.


Will Yahoo! ever build deeply personal digital experiences?

06 Oct '11 | New Media Thoughts

This is their latest mission statement, following the ousting of Carol Bartz and years of non-innovation.

I used to be a Yahoo! fanboy even after switching to Gmail and Skype, and I still like the company very much — they were there at the start and I will always associate the Yahoo! brand with many positive online experiences.

A feeling of nostalgia more than anything else. My perception of Yahoo! now is equivalent of walking into a hotel that was luxurious back in 1987 but hasn’t been renovated since. There are a few new flat panel screens no the wall and it’s all nice and clean. But they will never be able to get rid of that subtle smell of innovationlessness.

Back in 2009 they announced “a major milestone in the Yahoo! Open Strategy” – a new homepage. Big deal. The revamped Yahoo! Mail is slick but nothing new – just bearly catching up on Gmail.

In the meantime the likes of Facebook, Google and thousands of other start-ups have come up with society-defining products. User interface design has evolved a thousand times over.

So what now? With Carol Bratz, the architect of non-delivery, now gone one would think that that Yahoo! would tuck in its shirt and find a real focus. Instead, their mission statement remains fluffy: to build deeply personal digital experiences

What does this actually mean? What are they going to offer? The risk here is that the Yahoo! brand will join Excite and Lycos in the history ebooks.

I think that there is hope if they re-invent themselves as something 10,000% different. Something of great courage. Here is an idea for a mission statement:

Reclaim your you-time

Yahoo! should position themselves as an alternative to the fast paced nature of online by offering tools and experiences for people who:

  1. Don’t want to communicate 140 characters per second
  2. Want their privacy respected
  3. Don’t want their personal information traded
  4. Don’t want to be exposed by the ‘bad stuff’ online: porn, gambling, stalkers, etc..
  5. Don’t want to spend their life in front of a screen or attached to a device
  6. Don’t want to share the fine details of their daily routine with friends and family

How about that, Yahoo!?

As commercially unsound and brandingly confusing this may be it has more meaning than your latest statement.


Where are all the CIOs?

06 Sep '11 | New Media Thoughts

“Content is king”. “We live in a connected world”. “Big data is the next big thing”. “Move your business to the cloud”.

Information is so many things in a business. It’s the common language, the invisible structure holding everything together.

We know that. We repeat it many times in the expressions like the ones above. Or a pretty infographic.

And yet CIOs are a rare breed. Instead, responsability is often shared across those functions that often abuse information.

Then you get reports about how expensive inefficient processes and badly designed systems are and wonder what could have helped. And how businesses are generating gazillions bits of data per day.

Google has become what it is by helping people make sense of the infinite volume of information we are producing. Apple has made a killing by desiging stylish gadgets to carry that data. Then there is the cloud…

And yet CIOs are nowhere to be seen.


PayPal's schizofrenic support

21 Jul '11 | New Media Thoughts

I’m trying to close my UK PayPal account as I am now in Australia, getting nowhere via the website but getting good feedback via Twitter.

To close a PayPal account you need to Confirm Account Ownership, which is the screen that follows when you click on ‘Close account’.

Here I am told this:

To begin the process of requesting a security code, please let us know where you can be reached.

And given the option to select my old UK home address or ‘other’.

The logical thing to do would be to change my address to my current Australian one but that is not possible: PayPal UK accounts are only for UK residents and I can’t set a non-Uk address.

So I head back to the Confirm Account Ownership page and select ‘other’. Here I specify that I’m no longer in the UK and submit my request. At this point I’m asked to get in touch with them by phone. But I’d rather not spend time and money on this, thank you very much.

Contact Us

PayPal’s Contact Us is reassuring. It looks like a well designed system offering all options, including what I want to do: Email Us.

Next, I choose Managing My Account as a topic and Close my account as a sub-topic. This doesn’t generate a form or email address but more self-help instructions:

PayPal strives for complete customer satisfaction. If you’re having problems with your account, please see our Help Centre.

Help Centre

Closing your account is final and both your account history and reputation number will be lost. There is a cheque processing fee of $1.50 USD (or the equivalent amount if your balance is in another currency). If your balance is the equivalent of $1.50 USD or less, you will not receive a cheque.

Close Account

The Closer Account link sending me back to where I started: the Confirm Account Ownership page. Oh well.

So I go back up the Contact Us path and fire off an request via the File a complaint against PayPal option hoping that someone on the receiving end would forward on the appropriate department. No chance.

Twitter to the rescue

Somewhat surprisingly the good people behind the @AskPayPal handle were very prompt and helpful. They listened to me and forwarded my concerns to the relevant person — Harry — in the Compliance Department of the UK office. A few days later I receive an email from him that half resolves the situation.

My account had been flagged as requiring some kind of action to comply with EEC rules — not a show-stopped for closing an account. This has now been removed. The email also included the following instructions:

Log in to your PayPal account.

Click Profile near the top of the page.

Click My settings.

Click Close Account in the Account type section and follow the steps listed.

Back to square one.

Replying to the email, of course, resulted into a ‘We want to help you but we’re not able to respond directly to emails sent to this address.’ auto-response. Foolish to me to assume I would be interacting with a real person… a Harry, for example.

The automated response included the usual prompts to check out the help section and how to ‘Contact Us. Been there, done that.

So, just like at the end of Finding Nemo… ‘now what’?

I’ll head back to Twitter and point them to this blog post so that they get an idea of the catch-22 situation I am in.

Is PayPal’s customer support crap?

No, I don’t think so. Their online help is good and contact options reasonable. I’d say that they’re just as good or bad as most big companies and that I’m unlucky to have an issue that falls in a poorly defined process.

This is my main criticism, in fact. That they are not able to properly support those who’s issues are non-standard. Before getting onto Twitter someone should have recognised my issue as requiring special attention. Instead, it seems that no one has take responsibility for it.

But they are being inconsistent by offering very good support via Twitter, which explains the title of this post.


Google +1: the <g:plusone> tag looks very much like a Textpattern tag

01 Jun '11 | New Media Thoughts

In a previous post I suggested that Google buy my favorite cms, Textpattern, and adopt its tag system.

As explained before, Textpattern’s tag system allows non-programmers to ad logic (eg. conditionals) to their website.

Textpattern tags look something like this:

<txp:if_category name=“fruit”><p>Juicy!</p><txp:else /><p>You need to eat more fruit</p></txp:if_category>

The PHP equivalent is a messy affair, incomprehensible to the non-coder’s mind.

That’s why I was excited to see Google’s code for adding the +1 button looking similar: <g:plusone size=“small”></g:plusone>

I did a quick search for any similar tags – searching for <g: – but didn’t find anything. That said, this may not be something new.

But if it is new, does it mean that Google are developing their own, easy to use syntax?

A bit like Facebook’s FBML I guess. But hopefully as extensive and flexible as Texpattern’s own system.

One last thing… don’t forget to +1 this post!


Contextual, natural adverts

01 Jul '10 | New Media Thoughts

Can advertising online be more stealthy than this?

My brother was approached by a London based online marketing company to advertise on this personal website. He is a molecular biologist and content is all about exciting stuff like… nuclear processing to export, editing, splicing, translation, localisation and stability, RNA interference and non-coding RNAs.

They asked him to place some text in a specific paragraph of a specific page, linking to a health related website which has very little to do with what my brother’s content is about. Health and biology are related, but in this case distance cousins at best.

I got my brother to suggest an alternative position under a ‘Sponsored link’ heading and this is what they replied:

“As _____ only work with contextual, natural adverts, I would appreciate it if it’s not directly stated that our advert is an ‘advertisement’ by placing it under a sponsored link heading. We have found that a more discreet form of advertising is more successful than overt brand messages. I hope you understand.”

No S**t.

I wonder how much of this natural advertising is going on and what can be done to stop it.


Designing iPad-ready websites

16 Jun '10 | New Media Thoughts

A few tips for web designers wanting their layouts to fit an iPad too.

Back in 2008 I re-launched Tablet PC Italia, my Italian-language website dedicated to Tablet PCs, making sure that it would work for users reading my articles in slate mode.

It was an interesting project and at times a bit tricky (as I’m no CSS god) but I did manage to achieve the 3 goals I set myself:

  1. A layout that would work in both landscape and portrait mode
  2. Give left-handed users option to switch the navigation menu from right to left
  3. Design navigation so that things could be easily clickable using a stylus

Now, this was the era when tablet computing was predominantly pen based and touching a computer screen limited to the particularly perverted.

For my next iteration of the design (which should happen before the end of the year) I will have to cater for both styluses and much larger finger tips.

Is Tablet PC Italia an iPad-ready website?

So far it hasn’t been included in Apple’s list of iPad ready websites, so obviously Steve Jobs doesn’t think so.

But my own testing tells a different story:

Tablet PC Italia on an iPad

The iPad’s resolution is 1024 × 768 pixels on a 9.7-inch screen. This also means that the maximum width in portrait mode is 768, which will not even fit those websites designed back in 2005 for 800 pixel widths.

But this is a non issue. All you need to do is to rotate the iPad in landscape mode and your problem is solved.

However, offering the option to view a site in the two orientations is not a bad thing. One advantage portrait has over landscape, and this is my own personal observation and preference, is that the tablet device is lighter to hold. Something to do with physics, I think. And there must be a reason why most mags are printed in this orientation…

Tips for designing for iPads

First of all you need to do what Apple say: support the latest web standards. What this really means is… don’t use Flash. Apple sure don’t like it. Now that I think of it, this must be one of the reasons why Tablet PC Italia will never be included in the aforementioned list. I’ve embedded far too many Google videos in it.

Think about using a liquid (or is it elastic?) layout that presents content neatly when stretched and pushed together. I ended up setting both a min and max width on my site after spending hours figuring out sizes of elements so that articles would still be neat and readable when squashed together.

Don’t forget that you will need to make navigational elements big enough for fingers of different sizes. Have that giant Chinese basketball player test your interface if you can. Position your navigation elements so that clicking things is not a) awkward and b) obstructs the user’s view.

Keep navigation simple so that the user doesn’t have to prod on the screen 100 times to find something. You wouldn’t want to have too many greasy fingerprint marks on your iPad’s screen. I predict that the state of one’s tablet device’s screen will become a more significant indicator of a person’s cleanliness than their hair, clothes, fingernails, etc…

Safari supports gestures and swipes too so think about how users can make the most of these. Perhaps they should be flicking through your pages rather than clicking links?

You can’t use a stylus on an iPad but you have the option to use a sausage instead. Will your interface work in Germany?

Can’t think of anything else at the moment but one I’ll start work on the re-design on my Tablet PC site I should have more tips to share. I hope to have an iPad to test the site with too, but I don’t think I can make a strong enough case to my CFO (wife) for one. Sigh.


Why Google should buy Textpattern

06 May '10 | New Media Thoughts

Google’s stable of web publishing tools is limited to Blogger (good, but for a specific purpose) and Google Sites (good, but way too simple). Google Textpattern would sit nicely in between and take a bite out of WordPress’ massive share of the market.

Read WordPress’ About Us page and you’ll get an idea of how big they are:

[Wordpress]… has grown to be the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world, used on millions of sites and seen by tens of millions of people every day.

They deserve it. Their product is as awesome as their commitment to improving it. WordPress has evolved from a blogging platform into a powerful CMS fit for many different types of websites.

WordPress is great for web designers with little programming knowledge that have clients that require a certain degree of customisation. For example, a business that needs a check out process that follows a particular path. For this purpose, though, Textpattern is much better.

Textpattern is the holy grail for web designers lacking programming skills

There are many of these around.

A client may ask…

I want a list of the 5 latest news items on the homepage, but the first one must feature an image and the other four as simple links. I don’t want any news items listed that are Press Releases, though, and it’s one from the Photos section it should also include its thumbnail.

This can’t be achieved in HTML alone, of course. A non-programmer would not be able to define such a dynamic.

Textpattern, instead, allows extensive control over dynamic content without the need for programming. It uses an XML-style tag system that is intuitive that looks more like HTML than PHP.

This tag, for example, lists 5 links to pages in the News section of a website that have been associated to a category called ‘Apples’. But only if the page that displays it is associated to a second category called ‘Red Fruit’:

<txp:if_article_category name=“Apples”>
<txp:article_custom form=“list.articles” section=“News” category=“Red Fruit” limit=“5” />
<txp:else />
<p>Sorry, there are no articles about apples.<p>
</txp:if_article_category>

The form=“list.articles” bit specifies the HTML code that will be repeated. It could looks something like this:

<p><txp:article_image /><txp:permlink><txp:title /> <br /><txp:category2 link=“1” title=“1” /></txp:permlink>

To output an article list comprised of a linked title, category and image.

Easy! Textpattern offers many such tags out of the box to allow for all sorts of behaviours. Tons more are available as plugins.

Google wants to make programming simple too

Hence, their efforts to provide such a language via a project called, rather appropriately, Simple.

With Google Sites, though, they’ve made things too simple too the extent that even a GeoCities (R.I.P.) website would have been more customisable.

I’m not a Google Sites expert, to be honest, but it seems to me they are trying to achieve a system where one can plug content and feeds into pages as ‘modules’. Isn’t iGoogle a bit like that?

The plan: Google to buy Textpattern and take on WordPress

Businesses are already using a whole bunch of Google products on their websites — AdWords, Google Maps, Analytics, etc… — so why not offer them a proper CMS too?

Textpattern would serve this purpose wonderfully.