Top 10 Lists vs. Web Craftsmanship

Are you the type of person who loves to read Top 10 lists, and then link them up on Twitter ad nauseam? Do you love Smashing Magazine and the tuts+ network (psdtuts, nettuts, …)? If so, this post is for you.

My latest pet peeve involves people who post and share links to web design and development tricks and “quick hit” tutorials. What are the odds that the list or tutorial is going to help you with your current work? Also, did you actually go read the list and follow the links and do the tutorial and launch a site based on it and can you show that product to me? What did you actually learn?

The tendency toward listmania is misleading at best and damaging to the web design and development community at worst. It promotes superficial knowledge, quick fix schemes, and small-minded solutions.

If you want to do quality work and be proud of your craft, avoid these sites and lists. The quick trick can’t make you a better web craftsman or -woman. There isn’t a shortcut or quick fix to learning web design and development fundamentals.

Instead spend time actually making awesome sites yourself. Build something and launch it to the public. Go to An Event Apart. Learn by doing: your experience will teach you more than any top 10 list ever will. The critical thinking and solid skills will come from your hard work, not from the latest, hottest tut.1

More fuel for the fire:

Here is the thing. While it’s fun to learn the latest way to vertically center a div on a page using jQuery, HTML5 and your mom, you’re wasting your time. You may use that what, 1-2% of the time in your projects. Your fundamentals are what is important. Positioning, layouts, typography, spacing, etc. Master those things. Tricks are just tricks. Fundamentals win the game. —Noah Stokes

One can only really learn by doing, by making mistakes, and not by following someone else’s abridged instructions. The tips might get you a quick ‘n’ dirty result, but after that, you’re none the wiser and will need more hints to get you through the next problem. To anyone with genuine aspirations to be great and to really improve themselves, drop the ridiculous lists of quick fixes and shortcuts and start learning for yourself by doing and by making mistakes. —Contrast blog

There is a “quick hit” culture amongst net junkies, where they read the bare minimum and foolishly believe they’re getting value or insight. These are the same people who bookmark links “to read later” but never do, and order piles of amazon books to sit on shelves forever. Someone thinking they’re getting value of 10 sentences along the lines of “Launch early, launch often” or “Your brand is beyond your control” is in need of far more than a top 10 list in my opinion. —commenter on the same Contrast post

1 And, this is silly, but I hate the word “tut” so much. Argh!

Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide

I recently came across a wonderfully rich resource on search engine optimization (SEO) called Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. Originally written by Google for their internal teams, they decided to generalize the recommendations so that it would be useful to any website author or owner.

Access the guide from Google’s SEO page, or download the PDF directly [552 KB].

While the recommendations might already be known to you, they are still worth reviewing. Among Google’s tips for good organic SEO:

  • Create unique, accurate page titles
  • Make use of the “description” meta tag
  • Use appropriate URL structure
  • Make your site easier to navigate
  • Offer quality content and services

One notable omission is the recommendation to use the “keywords” meta tag. That’s because Google does not use the “keywords” meta tag in web ranking, and has in fact ignored it for years due to abuse.

Our web search (the well-known search at Google.com that hundreds of millions of people use each day) disregards keyword metatags completely. They simply don’t have any effect in our search ranking at present.

For more on the “keywords” meta tag see Google does not use the keywords meta tag in web ranking from the Google Webmaster Central blog (posted Monday, September 21, 2009).

If you are a web designer or web developer with clients who look to you for SEO-related advice, consider giving them a copy of the Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide—it’s a great summary of how to optimize websites for search engines, and it’s available for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Tucson's Web Design and Development Scene Is on Fire

There is a lot of excitement right now in the Tucson web design and development scene. Tucson Digital Arts Community is rocking the house with monthly workshops, local companies like Bookmans are innovating with their agile web development and engaging user-centric website, and there is a buzz of energy around getting together, sharing ideas and best practices, learning, networking, and improving our community.

Local web ninja Jared McFarland summed it up nicely in Capitalizing on the Tucson Tech Community.

We, as a community, can work together to educate and inspire one another. We can enjoy the same benefits as the people in major tech centers simply by knowing each other and inventing ways to work together. It isn’t about vast numbers of people, but small passionate groups. The web brings like minds together globally, but we can now use the web to find each other and act locally. We can turn Tucson into something intentional, and beautiful, for ourselves and the city.

The larger Tucson community is also bubbling with social events like Ignite Tucson and the myriad of Twitter meetups (“Tweetups”). Just search Twitter for #tweetup #tucson to be amazed. These events cover a much broader range of topics than web design and development but they all share a common goal: to mingle, network, and share with others.

This is how I think it breaks down: socially, the larger community wants to meet itself and technologically, web designers and developers are joining together to improve the tech community. All of this energy and enthusiasm is contagious!

In contrast, I want to share the story of the Tucson Geek Meet1, a group I was personally involved with for four years. Started as the Tucson Web Standards Group in 2003 by Molly Holzschlag, the Geek Meet slowly lost momentum over time. Instead of growing and expanding, it stayed a small core of five or six people.

Don’t get me wrong, because of those meetups the five or six of us are now steadfast friends, and several of us have had the opportunity to work together. Now that we are friends we can socialize anytime—we don’t need to call it anything. The idea of the Geek Meet isn’t going away, it’s just being replaced by ad hoc Tweetups and other social happenings around town.

What I want to encourage, and I think Jared hit on this, is not just the social aspects of meeting together but the educational and inspirational benefits of sharing code, experiences, and real-life examples of our work. TDAC is spearheading the effort by organizing workshops and collaborative coding days to get people together to educate, inspire, network, and improve. I’ve been a part of TDAC for six months now, and the tech community in Tucson isn’t just soaking it up, it’s clamoring for more.

We’re hoping soon to have a Refresh Tucson—our neighbors in The Valley have had a strong Refresh presence for three years—we can do the same here in the Old Pueblo. So please participate: join up, tweet up, meet up, share, and pass the word to your colleagues and friends.

Let’s do it, Tucson.

How to get involved

Tucson networks to join and participate in

Are you on Meetup.com? Tell your Meetup.com cronies to join the fine sites listed above, especially if you are on the Meetup.com Web Standards “waiting list”. Wait no more!

Notes

1 The Tucson Geek Meet is no more, it’s pushing up the daisies, it’s kicked the bucket. This meetup is not pining for the fjords, it’s gone to meet it’s maker. It’s… OK, enough of the Monty Python!

For posterity, here is a brief history of the Tucson Geek Meet:

2003(?): Started by Molly Holzschlag.

2005: Tucson Web Standards Meetup moved to Upcoming by Lance (from Meetup.com). We met at B-Line and Famous Sam’s. See Molly’s 2005 post and my 2005 post as well as the Upcoming group page.

2006: Met monthly at the Old Chicago patio. A few Flickr photos from 2006 events: Great Discussion at Tucson Web Standards Meeting, Geoff in Action.

2007: Changed the name to Geek Meet.

2008: The infamous Hooter’s incident. D’oh! (Yes, Molly gave us a good lashing for that, and it was deserved.)

2009: Called it quits in favor of other local groups and Twitter meetups.

This post was originally titled “Rest in Peace, Tucson Geek Meet” but I decided that it was just a small part of the burgeoning Tucson web design and development scene.

Site Testing With Alkaline and Load Impact

I came across two new (to me) tools today for testing websites, Alkaline and Load Impact.

Alkaline is a new Mac application from Litmus that allows you to “tests your website designs across 17 different Windows browsers right from your Mac desktop.” It works as a standalone app, or with Coda and TextMate using plugins. The free version tests in Firefox and Internet Explorer 7, and if you sign up for a paid Litmus account you can test in all 17 browsers.

Load Impact is an online testing tool to simulate high user loads. There is a free option allowing you to simulate a low load level, and the test results help you see which assets (CSS, images, JavaScript) are slow-loading or problematic as well as how the site performs the more users hit it at once. I don’t see this replacing YSlow for quick and dirty speed tests and load optimization, but it could be an awesome tool for larger websites that need to do “real” stress and load tests.

Discouraging Image Theft

Recently I received a question from a colleague regarding image theft and how to prevent it. The sad truth is that you can’t. There are techniques to discourage downloading and reuse of your preciously-crafted images, but they generally aren’t 100% effective or user-friendly for your normal site visitors.

The reality of unwanted image downloads is a bit depressing: there is no guaranteed way to protect your images from being taken—the most you can do is discourage it.

First, make sure your copyright notice is clearly posted on each page indicating that downloading or using images without permission is not allowed. In doing so you are legally holding your site visitors accountable if they steal and reuse your content.

If you suspect that image search engines or IE-only users are the culprits, using client- and server-side techniques might help alleviate the problem. But if you are looking for a universal solution, editing the images is your best bet since all these techniques can be circumvented by taking screenshots, using screen scraping tools, or simply viewing the locally cached images.

Client-side techniques

  • Disable the right-click menu
  • Disable the shortcut menu in Internet Explorer
  • Use a transparent image overlay

There are JavaScript solutions for disabling the right-click contextual menu; unfortunately, it will only deter a few people. Anyone that is intent on stealing images can still do so. In older versions of Internet Explorer you can disable the image shortcuts that appear when you hover over an image; again, if that is your target browser (or if you suspect that’s where it’s coming from) then implementing IE-specific techniques might work.

Most right-click disabling scripts rely on browser-specific functionality or JavaScript, making them unreliable in other browsers. The downside is that you risk annoying your real customers by removing expected menus and links.

Another technique—which Flickr employs—is the transparent image overlay. This involves layering a transparent GIF over the top of the image you wish to protect. When the image is right-clicked and saved, the person assumes they are downloading a JPG but instead get the transparent GIF.

From Flickr’s download prevention help text:

Preventing people from downloading something also means that a transparent image will be positioned over the image on the main photo page, which is intended to discourage people from right-clicking to save, or dragging the image on to their desktop. By “discourage” we do mean simply “discourage”. Please understand that if a photo can be viewed in a web browser, it can be downloaded. The transparent image overlaid on the photo will not keep your images safe from theft, and is intended only as a slight hindrance to downloading.

Using Flash to display images is another method to discourage image theft (since Flash right-click menus can be customized), but it isn’t foolproof. Just like these other techniques, people can simply take a screenshot to capture the image.

Server-side techniques

  • Block image search engines
  • Disable image hotlinking

Image search a popular way to access images. If you notice a lot of traffic from image search engines, try blocking them with a rule in your robots.txt file. See Remove an image from Google Image Search for more details.

I also recommend disabling hotlinking by adding rules to your site’s .htaccess file. Doing so will not only potentially save you bandwidth costs by stopping other sites from reusing your images and content, it will prevent directly linking to your images without your permission.

Image content editing

  • Add watermarks
  • Use very low quality images

Although altering the image affects how it looks and works on your site, it is quite a bit more effective than simply trying to disable downloading or saving. Again, this is only a means to discourage theft — skilled graphic artists can remove a watermark and still have a usable image.

Using low quality images could also help, but finding a good balance between impressing your customers and deterring theft can be difficult.

Bottom line

If someone really wants the image, they will get it. Using the techniques described above will discourage most people from downloading your images, but remember that posting your images online means you run the risk of anyone downloading and reusing them.

Further reading

Color Blindness and User Interface Design

As a user-centered designer and developer I am always looking for ways to improve interfaces to be useful to all people, including color-blind people. Particletree has a great guide, Be Kind to the Color Blind [editor's note, October 2012: link now offline], that nails the essential pitfalls and best practices in designing for color-blindness.

My rule of thumb is to use color only as a secondary indicator. This means that an important detail in my user interface should not rely on color alone to indicate meaning.

This type of design decision came up recently in my work on DF Studio. As part of a redesign for version 5 of the software, the design called for colored icons to show status for a photographer’s online portfolio. A green icon for an active portfolio and yellow icon for a disabled one (a disabled portfolio is not accessible to public viewers).

portfolio-status-version1

The problem with the icons being only differentiated by color is that a color-blind person that can’t distinguish yellow versus green would not be able to easily know the portfolio’s status.

The solution was simple: add a lock overlay to the disabled yellow icon. You can now easily tell that one is “locked” and one is not.

portfolio-status-version2

It is always good to run your design through a color-blind testing tool like Colorblind Color Filter or Vision Simulator. The DigitalFusion development team is fortunate in that the CTO of the company (who is also our product development manager) has a color vision deficiency; since he is constantly looking at the interface we have a way to find color-blindness issues in early stages of development.

If you work on websites or any kind of visual user interface, I would highly recommend reading the Particletree article, including the Additional Reading links. Knowing about the problem is half the battle, and you’ll be able to keep color-blindness in mind when developing and designing your interfaces.