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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.


Will the new thetimes.co.uk be worthy of a subscription?

18 Apr '10 | New Media Thoughts

The Times can justify a subscription model if their offer is good enough. If they reward readers who contribute they have a better chance to make a success of it.

When you read comments such as don’t just read The Times – listen to it, watch it, shape it, be part of it and Question our journalists in The Hot Seat in the context of a Murdoch publication that will be switching to some sort of subscription model then a degree of excitement is legitimate.

You can read more about the above here: www.timesplus.co.uk/welcome/index.htm

Pressure is on to deliver…

So the pressure is on to deliver on the promise of an online newspaper that engages beyond reader comments and the occasional video clip to justify readers parting with their hard earned cash.

In a previous post I argued that online newspapers need their own economy where users can earn, spend, invest and speculate as part of the experience.

In its most basic form this means rewarding those who contribute. Extend that by introducing a currency and you will allow all sorts of interactions.

Reward readers that contribute

Perhaps this is a bit far fetched and not quite in tune with an online newspaper’s core offer. But unless a paper like The Times rewards those who contribute they risk pissing them off. They need to do what YouTube did a while ago and ‘reward creativity’ via a revenue sharing scheme — the Partner program.

The new version of The Times will be live some time in May. It will be interesting to see if it sets a benchmark in terms of innovation and whether it will be good enough to justify paying for it.


Make Government websites like Facebook

08 Feb '10 | New Media Thoughts

Or perhaps like an operating system with a consistent user interface, access to data and applications and less Comms-spinned content.

I’ve just read Luke Fretwell’s post titled Why Gov 2.0 means the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations and couldn’t agree with him more: it’s easier and cheaper to manage a single, well executed website than multiple ones ranging from very crappy to very good.

Cost is a major factor in this line of thought. Just think about how much it must be costing Governments to maintain multiple web teams doing the same thing 1,000 different ways and using god only knows how many different content management systems. Luke is spot on when he describes the end result as as ‘disjointed’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘outdated’.

The Facebook model and why it’s good for Government

No doubt Facebook’s user experience has contributed to its success. It’s unobtrusive, clear and usable. Adverts are out of the way and the Facebook brand has a subtle presence.

Facebook has been designed to allow users to get things done, much like an operating system. Facebook is as much an office application (eg. a spreadsheet as it is a social network connecting friends.

So why is this a good model for a centralized Government website? Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. It could be a single destination where all things Government (agencies, projects, news, data, profiles, etc…) are presented in a clear and consistent way
  2. Citizen’s could voice their opinion as individuals or in groups. Voices could be heard, counted, aggregated and re-proposed as measurable data
  3. The opposition would use the same platform, whether a traditional party or groups forming around shared thoughts
  4. It would allow instant feedback on issues and, at some point in a more connected future, voting and referendums
  5. It would offer useful applications (eg. to pay your fines online) and resources for anyone to develop and share their own. For example, an application could be developed to filter out spin from any Government communication
  6. Government data could be shared raw or processed and presented via an application. Private companies could feed their own data into the system too.
  7. It would be much cheaper to manage. No need to sack web professionals either — they could be re-trained to help people find information, moderate discussions, identify trends and report back on people’s sentiments
  8. Closed areas would act as intranets offering the level of collaboration and knowledge sharing many Government agencies dream of today
  9. Poke your elected representative functionality

Anything else?

No doubt there are cons to this line of thought. Security may be one of those as a single system may be harder to keep safe than many.


Yahoo! & the Taiwanese Hack Girls: If girls & Gods can mix so can girls & geeks

20 Oct '09 | Miscellaneous

Chris Yeh, Head of Yahoo! Developer Network for the female dancers hired to make the Taiwan Open Hack Day a little bit more spicy. He shouldn’t have.

Read the apology on the Yahoo! Developer Network Blog.

http://developer.yahoo.net/blog/archives/2009/10/taiwan_ohd_apology.html

You can see the incriminating images on Simon Willison’s Weblog as well as read comments such as:

I’ve heard arguments that this kind of thing is culturally acceptable in Taiwan—in fact it may even be expected for technology events, though I’d love to hear further confirmation

Well, here’s confirmation. I took shot this video in Taichung last year during the Lantern Festival. It was a party organised by the authorities together with the people from the local Temple. If girls and Gods can mix so can girls and geeks.



Is Facebook helping phishers hack email accounts?

13 Oct '09 | New Media Thoughts

Social networks contradict themselves when they state in their terms that users should not share their accounts and passwords and then ask people, duing sign-up, to submit their web mail details to ‘invite’ their friends too register too.

Earlier this month thousands of email accounts from providers such as Hotmail, Google Mail and Yahoo! Mail were compromised. If you haven’t heard about that you can read up about it on the The Times Online.

Microsoft blamed phishing schemes rather than breaches in their own system — We are aware that some Windows Live Hotmail customers’ credentials were acquired illegally by a phishing scheme and exposed on a website

Google’s statement started on a similar note — This is not a breach of Gmail security, but rather a scam to get users to give away their personal information to hackers.

Facebook should take some of the blame

And so should MySpace, Friendster and other social networks out there that feature email harvesting functions that require users to submit their email account’s login details. Such as Facebook’s Friend Finder function – Step 2 of the sign up process:

Facebook's first step of the sign up process

The system works like this. You enter your Yahoo! Mail login details, for example, and a Facebook script will extract email addresses from your contacts list and fire off an email inviting them to join Facebook too.

It is a useful tool, I admit, but a risky one for 2 reasons:

  • Are we 100% sure that log in details are not being recorded? Perhaps some criminally minded engineer is recording all this info on a USB stick…
  • If Facebook and Myspace are doing this people will think that it’s a standard feature for social networks and that it’s OK to share their login details. Would you do the same on some obscure site?

Ironically, Facebook’s prohibits this kind of thing

Point 4.6 of their terms states:

You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.

I posed this question to Mozelle Thompson, a former TC Commissioner and a legal consultant at Facebook the other day (he was in town for a IAPP conference and gave a talk where I work) and his reply was that it is a very useful tool and that, ultimately, it’s user has a choice to use it or not. Not much of an answer.

Less marketing, more security

I doubt that social networks will want to give up such a viral tool so I’m wondering whether email providers can put a stop at this practice. Surely they’re unhappy about it?


Online newspapers need their own economy

11 Sep '09 | New Media Thoughts

The question shouldn’t be ‘how can we engage readers to the point they are happy to pay for content?’ but a much more ambitious model where users can earn, spend, invest and speculate as part of the experience.

Google has just confirmed that it is working on a micropayment system for Newspaper Association of America based on Google Checkout. This is good news for the industry and not-so-bad news for consumers if pricing will indeed be ‘micro’.

How about ‘micro earnings?’ If user generated content becomes core content publishers may well start reward schemes enabling people to gain from their efforts. For example, a reader that posts 100 insightful comments may premium access for a month.

I know little about economy but these seem to be the basic ingredients of how markets work. So why not make things a little bit more interesting and allow that economy to develop? Here are a few ideas that may or may not work for an online newspaper:

  • Establish a currency (eg. the New York Times dollars – $NYT) can be bought and sold and perhaps even tied to the value of the newspaper in terms of real $$$
  • Allow members to earn $NYT by contributing content and posting comments (different rates would apply) and spend them buying access to content, features, games, etc… or even exchange $NYT between themselves
  • Allow members to pool together and invest in the production of special reports and earn a % of the revenue the reports generate
  • Establish affiliate schemes members can earn from
  • Prize giveaways

This doesn’t sound too far-fetched if you’ve tried Second Life. If you haven’t, have a look at their market data.

Newspapers would generate revenue from selling content as well as taking a small % of every transaction. I wonder if this scenario would help create a stronger bond between the brand and the user too.


EBRD Blog: transitioning towards... web 2.0

20 Jul '09 | Miscellaneous

Good to see my former colleagues in the EBRD Comms department trying to make the most of new media. But I don’t think they haven’t got it quite right yet.

Change was the name of the game when I left the EBRD’s Comms department last year. Apart from a number of key staff that moved on to bigger and better things a new Director was appointed – Reijo Kemppinen – that no doubt is more web-friendly than his predecessor.

“an opportunity for you to communicate and connect directly with experts, partners and clients”

This is how Mr. Kemppinen introduces the EBRD Blog when it launched in April.

It’s a bit early to say whether the blog will ever establish a meaningful dialogue or whether it will just allow the EBRD to check the ‘Do Web 2.0’ box on their management reports. Ironically comments are closed on a post that is about dialogue, sharing knowledge and exchanging lessons learnt.

Apart from this, there are a couple of things that I would have done differently:

Talk about 3 things: projects, projects and projects

The core business of the EBRD is to finance projects to help build economies. This is what most people are interested in.

What people want to know is how the money is been invested, what is being achieved and whether lives are changing for the better. Instead we get articles worthy of the Harvard Business Review:

BIS data-what? Non-performing… boomerangs?

If you don’t have a Ph.D in Economics you’re going to find it difficult to understand any of this. Or, like me, you don’t bother reading at all.

But it’s not all technical stuff. Larry Sherwin’s reflections on the events of 1989 is an entertaining read. I can’t quite picture someone in Russia who’s quality of life depends on the success or failure of an EBRD project to be interested in the flash-back of an EBRD Comms Deputy Director.

Blogs need proper information architectures too

ebrd.com may look like 2001 but at least content has been organised rigorously. One of the key meta-data is the Project ID (you can see these on Project Summary Documents). Project IDs can be used to pull together content across the whole of the site about a specific project. Similarly, content is categorised by country and business sector.

But the EBRD Blog does not plug into the IA scheme. For example, the blog post Riding Russian rail: the 12.56 to Sergiev Posad is about the transport sector in Russia. There are no links from the blog post to relevant content on the main site.

Oddly, it has been cloned on the main site as a story titled Riding Russian Rail: then and now in the News and events section. I can’t quite understand what the point of this duplication is – any ideas?

I suspect that the reason for the lack of a more sophisticated information architecture is that they are using a blogging platform provided by an external company that would have taken a developer half a day to set up. A cost effective option, no doubt, but opportunities are being missed to give blog posts proper context.

A better strategy for the EBRD Blog

Here’s my idea: the EBRD should not publish a blog at all.

All they are doing are presenting us articles that already have natural home in the News and Events section of ebrd.com.

Instead, they should create, maintain and promote a platform for people involved in their projects to publish their own thoughts about the challenges, successes and failures they experience. Lets hear it from the foot soldiers and the civilians and not the generals back at HQ.


The site's first special feature: Google Chrome OS, simply put

15 Jul '09 | My Web Work

Purpose of the guide is to explain in simple terms what Google Chrome OS is, who it’s for and what you can do with it.

I’ve done this for three reasons:

  1. I honestly believe that a person like my dad (75 years old who just wants his PC to work) would benefit from Google’s approach.
  2. If I get enough traffic to the guide I can try and earn a few extra bucks by placing some AdWords here and there
  3. I’ve always wanted to publish a ‘Special Feature’ of some sort :)

The third point is more relevant than it seems. Now that I have developed the model, code and functionality for a mini-guide I can publish other special features covering subjects I am interested in. My site now has an additional purpose.

So, if you’re interested to learn more about Google Chrome OS here’s the link:


Why Building43 isn't a... community

11 Jul '09 | New Media Thoughts

I’ve had a look at the latest Rackspace / Robert Scoble effort and didn’t find much of a community. I found a blog.

So what is Building43?

To quote their About us page again…

The goal is simple – make it easier for businesses to use the new Internet to improve their business results.

It’s a Rackspace owned website with a celebrity blogger at the helm of it — Robert Scoble. The ultimate purpose is to sell hosting, which is perfectly fine.

Scoble calls it a community too on his About page:

I work at Rackspace and am building a community for people fanatical about the Internet called Building43.

Don’t call it a community, please

Call me old fashioned by to me an online community still means a forum or chatroom where one can sign up and initiate discussion or participate in existing discourse, where your role is defined by what, how and how often you say things.

At Building43, instead, your role has been determined from the start:

But building43’s foundation and future is its community — people like you who contribute valuable content, through video, blog posts, podcasts, Friendfeed comments, Tweets or by simply dropping us an email to tell us about the latest or next great thing. Participate now. We can’t do it without you.

In other words, to participate you have to contribute content via the latest web 2.0 cleverness (eg. Twitter, FriendFeed). Which is more about social marketing that than giving users space to express themselves.

Building43 is a blog

It looks like one, reads like one and behaves like one.

And it would be great if they added a forum of some sort.

Now that I’ve made that clear I’ll go ahead and bookmark it because it promises to be a pretty useful resource.