Wednesday Feb 13, 2008

Rolling Over & Dying

We just recently resolved an implementation issue that had been going back and forth between Greg, Andrew and me for a good few weeks. It wasn't a big thing, but sometimes the simplest things push the boundaries when I try to do it myself.

For a long time, we've had invitations to talk directly with sales advisors on sun.com, whether you want to chat, call, email or even have sun call you back directly. These invitations have been reasonably prominent in the right-hand navigation of specific pages. More recently, we've been able to embed these invitations by deploying inline rollovers, at the point where customers commit to a call-to-action, making the invitation much more relevant and immediate. You can see the current deployment on some of our promotions, like the Uniboard Upgrade Promotion (until April 1st, which happens to be my birthday, by the way). As you rollover the 'Start Saving Now' call-to-action, our rollover appears, with all the options you might need.

Nice as this is, its actually a pretty cumbersome implementation. When I say cumbersome, I mean, its elegant code (as all our web components are), but the way in which we had to deploy it in the short term left a bit to be desired. Our ever-patient publishing team reluctantly agreed to hard-code the components into specific pages, knowing that that was a huge backwards step, and a potential maintenance disaster - they know we'll change our mind about what's in the component and expect them to find and update it in all the places we asked them to deploy it but never actually kept a record of ourselves. What we all really wanted was a separate source file for the component itself, which could be referenced by a standard piece of code that would be provided to content owners to use as they require.

This, unfortunately, is where I, as usual, said "I can do that, don't worry".

I do know my way around html, CSS, javascript and most other basic web technologies (I expect someone will now point out that it should be HTML, as its an acronym, and JavaScript, or something, just to prove, before I even get to where I'm going, that once being a developer, doesn't mean always being a developer, and in terms of knowledge assimilation once you gravitate to marketing, all your code is belong to us), but sometimes, when you put them all together, and then call it 'Ajax', then I start to lose the plot. What I actually needed to accomplish was quite simple, from an abstract view. I have a self-contained web component (snippet of sun.com source), that exists in 1 source file, say, source.html, and I have a parent page, say, parent.html that contains a reference to that source file as part of an Ajax call which renders the component code so that it can then be referenced by a CSS-implemented rollover and magic fairy dust scatters over the page and the share price goes up or something. If you're still with me, and super-interested, I was actually trying to include a K02v1 DHTML Popup Component, saved as source.html), by calling it from a G32v0 Onload Ajax Include (in parent.html) and then invoke the Popup by using the Popup div id as a class attribute of the invoking anchor in parent.html.

Needless to say, despite my best efforts, I simply could not arrange 10 lines of code and a couple of hash references in the correct order, and ultimately I prostrate myself at the altar of the web design church for forgiveness. Happily, for me, they couldn't either (for about 10 seconds), but eventually resolved the issue with a flourish of staged content, and I took their code and stuck it into my development site. Of course, it didn't work when I tried it, but another couple of hours (and a few gin and tonics by now) later, everything was as we wanted it to be.

The trouble is, it took me so long that Neal probably doesn't even want the rollover any more, but, you know, its useful to 'keep your hand in' with this stuff (not for the developers and publishers who have to clean your mess up, naturally, before they point that out).

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Listening Post: Outlaw: Nothing Else To Say

Tuesday Feb 12, 2008

Code Branch Madness

I've come across some dot-versions in my time, but nothing quite so spectacular as the JavaScript source file referenced in my flickr template. As I was flicking through the lines of source - I can't even remember why - I stumbled across this rather nice block:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://l.yimg.com/www.flickr.com/javascript/fold_main.js.v1.2.1.2.1.3.1.2.1.2.1.4.1.126.1.3.1.8.1.92.1.5.1.6.1.23.1.8.1.33.1.79.1.3.1.43.1.7.1.108.14"> </script>

Not only does it have the most stupendous filename, but on closer inspection, it also includes the lyrics to Stop the Pigeon, Hong Kong Phooey and others, as test data for some kind of bubble div.

It must be time to sign off for the day. I can't top that.

Note: Thanks to Scott for pointing out that since I'm in marketing, I don't know what I'm talking about...

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Listening Post: The Waterboys: We will not be lovers (via Musicovery)

Friday Feb 08, 2008

Spam Me Gently

I normally get a reasonable amount of unsolicited offers for make her saTisfy you wanT prescription cheap online! and insurance I will never need via email. They even filter through the sun.com domain occasionally - congratulations to them - but they are, almost without exception, meaningless twaddle or borderline abusive. What a nice surprise then that this morning I got 38 emails forwarded from a) the blogs.sun.com comment system and b) the sun.com postmaster replying to bounces from the comment system sending to people who don't work here anymore, that were all rather, well, polite in their spamness.

I'm sure others got them, although I didn't check, and Igor was kind enough to let me know what was going on, but the basic message was something like "thanks you very much". There were a couple of variants, like "That is nice", or "thank you admin", but overall, there wasn't anything unpleasant in there. They were only trying to generate traffic back to their domains, bless 'em. I was kind of glad to help out, since they asked so nicely. Of course, after a few minutes, I rang Scotland Yard, replied to the sender with some vicious cease-and-desist, blocked their IP and did a reverse DDOS spam bucket mangle attack, which brought down the entire internet connection of Turkey, after which I felt better. Then I sent then a nice message saying "thanks you for your spam".

I didn't really do all that, of course. I'm a designer, not a programmer or a system administrator. I just looked at the comment system and thought "that's table cell's not aligned correctly".

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Listening Post: Primal Scream: Shoot Speed/Kill Light

Wednesday Feb 06, 2008

Where Designers Go

As Jen McGinn relates, there's something going on at the Santa Clara campus, at least, there was, for the last couple of days. I know this, because everyone I work with has disappeared, including my management chain and at least 5 other people I was thinking about working with (well, I say working with, I mean checking their Facebook status). It was the annual Design Summit at Sun and there was a healthy focus on our online presence and a key note from Curtis. I believe there's another summit going on somewhere, so it's all pretty summitastic right now.

I'm not there, however, so I'll miss out on those conversations about design tools, publishing processes, community engagement, calls-to-action, component sets ("no, we use this one, it's a bit like your one, but it's not the same, even if it looks like an application, which its not, its a web venue, even if it does do kind of application-like things, yes I know its a thin line"), and suchlike. I find those conversations are usually the most enlightening few hours you can have with people gathered together in a room for once a year. You might even get to see what some people look like, which is often enlightening in its own way ("your org chart picture must be really old" etc.), which, in itself, is a design consideration I agonize for hours over every morning.

I'm hoping Marilyn and Chris come back all enthused with some tangental web design direction and exciting feedback, but there's always a danger that they'll simply come back saying "they're trying to do exactly what we're trying to do" or something. Perhaps they'll have seen this, and just decide we should all lie down in a dark room for a while.

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Listening Post: Aimee Mann: Goodbye Caroline

Friday Jan 18, 2008

Social Share and Subscribe Shortcuts

I'm sure, as usual, I'm way behind the curve here, if way behind the curve is a valid expression for being slow on the uptake, but I've just found the useful social bookmarking widget button things at addthis.com. I've opted into our beautifully crafted Sun template on this blog (which you probably don't see anyway, because you're using a feed reader), and out of hacking roller templates and html, so I've not added them here, but I have added them here.

I had, in a previous bout of template shenanigans, tried to add all the delicious, digg, facebook, etc. links in my permalink and day entries and that worked fine, as long as nothing changed and I didn't need to add any other web services. But, of course, I do. So when I spotted the addthis link on Martin's blog, I figured I would get me own. I expect it'll work perfectly for six months, like Natuba did, and then they'll try to monetize the service and turn it into some cracked up social information troll device selling wallpapers, but, for now, it does what it does, which is takes all the hard work out of keeping track of all the bookmarking, sharing and feed/subscription services out there. Not that anyone will actually share or bookmark anything where I've used it, but that never stopped me spending hours on top-aligning an RSS icon for the same purpose.

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Listening Post: Doves: Sky Starts Falling

Thursday Jan 17, 2008

House of Flying Blades

I kind of like this video. I mean, I probably should like it by default or something, but I actually like this one. I particularly like how happy everyone is and how sunny it is. As I look out of the window on a drab January day in the east of England, watching someone put bottles into a wheelie bin, watching this video instead is a much better option. As well as everyone in it being sickeningly healthy and pretty much oozing vitamin supplements, I'm always happy to see those shots where you pull back from a scene as far as you think is possible until the disappearing frames turn into dots on a whiteboard and you overlap into an office scene where people are pointing earnestly at things and you continue to zoom back, right out the window, where you see something relevant on the roof or something and you zoom back, a bit like that movie that zooms into the earth's core and back to space again, right back, until the earth is a dot on the screen and it morphs into a dot at the end of a sentence that is so rammed with clarity your eyes hurt.

You know what I mean. The best bit, however, is the house of flying blade servers (about a minute in). I used to occasionally go down to the server room in Bagshot to reboot the remote access modem pool, but it was all pretty static. I don't know how any sysadmin survives in this place though. These guys in yellow shirts must be some kind of ninja sysadmins, or watch the Matrix too much and are able to dodge flying hardware or something.

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Listening Post: 808 State: Magical Dream

Tuesday Jan 15, 2008

Web 2, Content 1

Obviously there should be some clever dot nomenclature in that title to make it more obvious, but that would have made it it just, well, too obvious, and besides, I didn't fancy the idea of what the permalink would look like and since when have I written a meaningful title anyway.

Maybe you've read this far. Maybe you only got the first line in your reader and so you haven't seen this line and I wasn't interesting enough to make you get this far. I'll probably end up putting some screen grab or other in here later to make it look nice and as for the Sun template, that makes everything I write look nicer than it really is, which makes me seem more authoritative, when obviously I'm not. But you might not see that either.

If you grew up with the 'content is king' mantra stuck on your huge CRT monitor with a post-it note in the late 90s, and you were devising a strategy for your web content that was focused clearly on what you had to say, rather than how it looked, then welcome back to relevancy. As we've (the royal we've) integrated web 2.0 capabilities further into our core publishing architectures, and in many cases, foregone ownership of publishing technologies altogether, we've willfully opted back into html 1.0. Sure, we have open, distributed platforms that mean we can write once, publish multiple and aggregate endlessly (how fun was it to make recursive feeds of yourself on natuba, before it turned into some weird iphone freakshow?), but how can I squeeze my multimedia in there, or my flash-based corporate profile? Answer is, you can't. Not really. Not without accepting that things will end up a bit, well, not exactly how you want them. Of course, you can publish a bookmark to your 1.0 web site, which looks as fantastic as it ever did, and even has all the pixels in the right place, if you're using the right browser/OS combination, natch, but an RSS feed? What kind of losers want to read that stuff?

If you've spent 17 hours updating your blog template, like I often do, to get the icons left aligned and the text justified and just the right size, then you've just fallen into the pit marked 'waste of time', where you'll find me. Of the 17 people that read anything I ever write, about 16 of them have probably subscribed via google reader or bloglines or something, which means that all formatting has disappeared and my carefully crafted font is now 19 inches tall and my in-line images are not in-line at all, but a huge page break in the middle. Mind you, of those 16 people, only 6 of them are actually reading, the others are just marking it as 'read'. In fact, I'm the only one who cares, but even I don't care anymore. I'm writing everything with html 1.0 as the lowest common denominator, which means at least I get to right-align my images, but not much else. It's quite nostalgic. I might dig out my copy of Mosaic and see how things look. And then take a ride on my space hopper or something.

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Listening Post: John Martyn: Certain Surprise

Friday Jan 11, 2008

There's a Package For You

I just opted in to our design documentation standard, to do the right thing. I mean, we always do the right thing, but we've not really defined the 'right thing' very well up to this point. However, we're just getting our design process rationalized across the team, including the technology we use to interface with other teams, vendors, agencies etc. We've always had the super web design component standards out there, which I'm sure you've all seen, but internally, well, it probably isn't a surprise to anybody out there who is part of a reasonably sized design team to know that there's always been a number of different ways in which we initiate, manage and deliver our design projects.

Not any more. No sirree. The few good people here that have been tasked with coordinating our activities are just starting to cement some of the pieces in place. These are not new ideas. We've talked about the need to do this for about 10 years, and in that time, the size of the organization has grown many times its original small, lithe, sexy size. Now, more than ever, we need to be able to track and tune projects on a predictable path, to set expectations, engage the multiple teams you need to engage with these days, and even just understand what the project we're currently working on actually is (surprising how often you stop in the middle and realize you have no idea what it is you're supposed to be delivering. That's not just me is it?. Oops.).

Which brings me to documentation. I've always been the kind of rapid prototyping kind of person. If you want to see what the web pages will look like, I'll write them, and then you can tell me what you think. Context, you see. So what if it takes a bit of work to do the initial set up and a few frantic nights of html hacking to make it look like it will fit seamlessly into the Solutions section, when you know really that it won't actually look like that because that section is actually implemented on a hack of a content management platform and none of those components will really sit together like that? At least you see it in context. Trouble is, you can't, as I often found, take that development site to the publishing and engineering teams and just say "I want that one". They want to know things like "what happens when I click this", "how many of those can you have", "has this been reviewed?". How unreasonable. Its just a mockup, its not supposed to actually work, you know.

Which is where the new documentation standards come in. Some sickeningly efficient folks in our team have been doing this kind of thing the right way for years. You know, they're the ones who have actually qualified somehow to be a designer. People like me, however, just have never had a clue. So, how serendipitous it is that Creative Suite 3 finally gets delivered to me (after protracted supplier delays), and I get my hands on InDesign, for that is the tool of choice. Our friends at Eight Shapes did a grand job, a while back, of working on a design documentation framework that supports our component set and incorporates "mapping & annotation standards, artifact modularization, and tricks of the trade learned over years of experience" (their words, but they're the right words). What this means in practice, is that I can now develop fully annotated design specifications, with consistent wireframes, nomenclature, and interaction definitions, which are understood by clients, designers, publishers and engineers alike. This is nothing short of a revelation to me. I mean, it doesn't actually do the designing for me, so I can still get that hopelessly wrong, but its a huge change for the better on the project and process management front, and its a self-documenting exercise. I also get to learn a new application, which is nice. Oh, and, of course, I get new friends on Facebook, so I now know what Nathan's Star Wars character is, which is always useful.

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Listening Post: White Stripes: Bone Broke

Tuesday Jan 01, 2008

Small Design Nicety

I only wonder how uncontrollably out of shape I am when I'm looking for a new pair of Levis. In the UK they have a few ranges that I like and then they discontinue them without warning. When I'm out in the US, I look for cheaper versions of the same ranges only to find that they don't do that range, but they do a 5xx boot cut which may be like that, but I really don't know, sir, I've never heard of a 5xx. I usually come away with 17 pairs of 501s and a spare new suitcase, but they don't quite fit right. The 501s, not the suitcases. Actually, the suitcases aren't too bad a fit right now.

When I find myself drawn to the Levi store in the mall, when I really should be buying a battery for a dead submarine or something, the only thing that really foxes me (apart from how old I seem in there), is trying to remember what size I'm looking for. I mean, I know it's 2 sizes bigger than it really should be, but I don't know quite what state my protruding guts and stubby bow legs are in, and so when someone half my age asks me what size I'm looking for, I can't say. Most embarrassingly (for them), I end up asking them to look at the label on the pair I'm wearing to see what size I need, as I can't actually rotate my head around far enough to read the feet and inches, upside down at the bottom of the label.

It seems that Levis have been following enough old forgetful fat people with wonky heads around to realize that this is a problem. When I was looking around at my own backside to see what I'd sat in on the picnic bench at the Marsh Larder at Holkham the other day, I happened to notice that at the top right of the label on my Levis (518s) are the W and L measurements that I so often am looking for. Nothing unusual there maybe, but they are now printed upside down. Which means that I can now look over my shoulder and read the label to see exactly what my waist size and leg measurements are (and then cry a little bit, obviously). This is genius. It's like when, as a child, you first realize that they've printed ECNELUBMA like that on purpose, so you can see it in your rear-view mirror. Even my hairdresser does it on their gowns now, so that when you're looking at your woeful lack of hair in the mirror, you can also see 'Croppers. Since 1974' in there as well, because it's printed backwards on the unreflected version.

Its only a small design update, and they might have done it ages ago, but I only just noticed it, and it made my day (sadly). I'll buy another pair of Levis as a result. After I've been to the gym a bit. Well, a lot.

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Listening Post: XTC: Respectable Street

Friday Dec 21, 2007

Are We Ready Yet?

Web ready? There must be some simple process to make sure that all this product data is stored somewhere, so that we can access it it when we're rendering product content on sun.com? No? Ah. But there is a process. There's a few.

Designing interactivity based on product taxonomies is really interesting stuff. There's a number of ways you can slice the data which enables you to present compelling experiences that drive to conversion. It's even more interesting when you're designing on an assumption of what those taxonomies look like, rather than what they actually look like. There is a point up to which you can make sensible design decisions, based of top-level and subcategory branching, for example, but there does come another point where, without the data, you really don't know whether you can entertain alternate experiences, through, say, filtering across common product attributes. If you don't know what attributes there are, you don't know if they are common.

But designers like challenges. The challenge is often to get folks to lust after the design so much that they'll give you whatever you want. I'm asking for the data.

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Listening Post: Public Image: Public Image

Wednesday Dec 19, 2007

Select/Deselect

Or maybe that's Unselect, although that's obviously not a real word, but when does that stop us? As I try and complete a design specification for a product finder, only interrupted by my writing about trying to complete a design specification for a product finder, I notice that its the subtle nuances that really take the time to figure out. I know what a table looks like. I also know what a drop-down list of comparable subcategory products looks like. I even know what a Products By Category: Subcategory Listing: Filtered: Single Attribute product list item looks like. But I don't know whether the 508 label for a button that allows you to uncheck a range of checkboxes should say 'Unselect All' or 'Deselect All'.

Actually, I do know that its 'Deselect All', but I only know that because somebody told me. I'm sure someone here who can quote the style and editorial guides complete with page references and footnotes off the top of their head would have been able to point out to me the grammatical and semantic reasoning behind that decision, notwithstanding the fact that unselect isn't actually a word, even though I thought it might be, because my vocabulary necessarily contains a mixture of English, US English, and web terms, which means I'm never quite sure these days when I write an email or comp a blurb that I'm making any sense at all. Much like as I'm writing this.

The thing is, however long I agonize/agonise over the relative placement of a product image and whether the attribute listings should be bulleted or repeat the attribute names, or what labels we give to information architecture in context with other category pages, the thing that will take 20 minutes to resolve, in a meeting where you've got 15 minutes to present the design specification, of which that component appears on 2 pages which should take 2 minutes to cover, will be the annoying label for the widget. So I'm sorting that out right now. I've probably missed an entire interaction flow as a result, but that label is now correct, right?

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Listening Post: Teenage Fanclub: Commercial Alternative

Monday Dec 17, 2007

The Secret Is Out

There's no magic bullet for design, no one-size fits all, or cross-market, cross-audience component set that captures unique customer needs across your entire audience. But there is some cream.

It's worth investing 7 minutes of your life watching the video to discover what you probably already knew - customers really do know best when it comes to design. Designers are just here to do exactly what you say.

In noting this approach to making your design customers instantly happy, I'm considering making a purchase. As we wind down to the holiday season, we're winding up on deliverables on a few design projects that should see the light of day early in 2008. I could really do with some Information Architecturizer Spray to instantly organize some category page frameworks. If anyone knows where I can get some by Wednesday, that would be great.

But seriously. No, hang on, that was seriously.

p.s. Happy birthday, Martin

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Listening Post: Iggy Pop: Nightclubbing

Friday Dec 14, 2007

New Team Home

For any of you have been following the Sun.com Customer Experience and Stuff blog, you've probably realized it's no longer Martin Hardee writing it. Since Martin left Sun to go and customer experienceizate Cisco.com, we've been running that blog as a team effort and it's probably about time we got ourselves a new team home. There's no particularly good reason for moving, except that the blog's URL is a personal one - blogs.sun.com/martinhardee - and we wouldn't want to misrepresent Martin, or give a false impression of who's writing for it.

Actually, that's not 100% true. It sounds good in a corporately responsible way, but actually, the reason we're moving is that this new blog is MINE. ALL MINE. Well, its the sun.com design team's, so we've given it an abstract URL identifier so that its not associated with one person. We'll probably lose 80% of our regular readership that linked to the old URL in a feed reader or added a link in their del.ectab.le bookmarks or just have it favorited, but I'll be sure to put an enormous blinking message on the old blog, to try and redirect folks here. If nothing else, it'll show us if people actually read the other one, rather it being popular through automated referrals.

We will endeavor, of course, to make this an interesting place to come, so hopefully, if you've never even read the old blog and are reading this because you thought 'New Team Home' might have something to do with football, then we're already reaching out. As a point of interest, even though I might say something like 'favorite endeavor', I'm actually in the UK, so when I say 'football', I really mean 'soccer', but I'll let you interpret it as it makes most sense to you, which is probably more sense than it makes to me. Most other contributors to this blog are in the US, so when they say 'soccer', they probably mean 'football', if you're reading this in London. Not that they will. They might say something like 'community', though, which will refer to our programs to engage with specific audiences to build a relationship, not to a block of flats in Hackney.

We'll be posting thoughts on web design, customer experience, usability and letting you know what's happening on sun.com and associated sites. I expect we'll post completely irrelevant things too, but we'll try and make them sound relevant by adding a web design tie-in in the last paragraph. You can let us know what you think, or maybe just quietly agree/disagree. Either way, we hope you'll find it a worthy distraction for a few minutes and maybe we'll even be interesting or useful. That'll be a first for me, but there's more cleverer people on the design team, so if I can somehow bribe/blackmail them into breaking their blogging duck, it should be an interesting web experience.

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Listening Post: Chris Morris: Radio Show 27/07/94

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