I've been hunting for a new tool to help me mockup sites lately. I use Photoshop, but it's not quite right. It helps me lay things out quite nicely, and it doesn't bother me at all that it doesn't produce code — it's more about creating an image as close as possible to what I could replicate using HTML and CSS.
And that's actually where it falls over. Photoshop does many things, bless its bloated heart, but it doesn't support CSS styles. And why should it? It's not a website-mocking-up tool really. But it does become a pain if I want to set individual border styles, or test a repeating background image, or any of these things that are better described in code.
So in my search for something better I recently asked my faithful tweeps what they used. I got a couple of common answers: Photoshop, Illustrator/Fireworks, and "I code it all by hand." Personally I think coding it first when you haven't decided on what it'll look like is a bit silly, but that's just me. I think visually, or something.
But nobody enlightened me about the existence of the product I have in mind: an app that exists only to mockup websites.
I've mentioned previously that I'm really excited about Android. Well, since the launch of the G1 phone, SDK 1.0, and now that its release is due very soon, I've changed my mind somewhat.
My feelings on the essential Android concept remain unchanged: I think it's a brilliant idea. A free, open mobile OS, unburdened by mobile operators' notions of what is appropriate, and with the ability to easily add and replace apps on the fly.
However, the Android concept and the final Android experience are two different things. Playing with the emulator and watching the UI walkthrough have made me uncomfortable. It's mostly a solid, functional UI, with some nice animations thrown in to spice it up a bit; certainly no worse than anything else on the market at the moment that doesn't start with a lowercase i. But I have some usability concerns.
It's been a while, folks.
Just over a month ago now I waved goodbye to my previous job; to steady pay, job security, and working with some close friends. I gave it up for the chance to do my own thing. I liked my job, but was becoming increasingly bored and disillusioned with the work. What had begun as a chance to develop new applications from the ground up, to really be involved in not only the implementation but the core ideas behind the app's functionality (which is something I really love to do) had devolved into a cycle of "Hear from existing client -> Make arbitrary changes for client, often hacking apart code into a steaming mess -> Release -> Repeat."
But I'm not here to criticise my previous job, which really did teach me a lot and let me make a lot of great software without being overly constrained. The main thing I am here to tell you is this: freelancing rocks*.
I've recently moved house, and last weekend I went for my second grocery shop at Safeway, my new local supermarket. This Safeway has recently installed a new set of 'self checkouts' which allow you to scan, bag, and pay for your own shopping, without a checkout operator involved.
This was the second time I'd used the system, and the first time had passed without incident — it was even a little bit novel, a tiny bit fun to scan my own items and bag them myself. But the second time was different.
This time, I had more than one bagful of items. As I finished filling the first bag, I went to take it off the scales — the bags are weighed to make sure you don't slip anything extra in — and the POS system beeped at me. "Please replace item such-and-such," it asked me.
So I put the bag back down. "Please replace the item," it asked me again, tonelessly. So I removed the bag and put just the item in question (a packet of biscuits) back onto the scales. But no luck, the system simply refused to allow me to proceed. It wouldn't recognise that I'd put the biscuits and/or bag back onto the scales, no matter what I did.
Growing increasingly frustrated, and with a growing line of people waiting too (installing self checkouts allows Safeway to cut down on the number of express checkouts open) I signalled to one of the brightly-vested 'experts' hovering nearby. I explained the situation, and he whipped out a PDA and tapped out a command to allow the POS system to continue.
"Out of curiosity," I asked him, "what did I do wrong? Just so I know for next time."
His voice was curt as he replied, "You can't remove a bag until the big dollar sign is flashing."
My experience with the system illustrates perfectly how not to design with usability in mind. Members of the public will be using the self checkouts without any training, and even as I used one I could see other people getting frustrated with their experience as well. If you are dealing with an untrained userbase, things should be as obvious as possible. There should be very little room for mis-interpretation.
Adding a flashing dollar sign (next to a button marked 'finish and pay', not what I wanted to do) is far from a simple and obvious way to tell users, "it's okay to start packing a new bag now".
Twitter is a funny little thing. It's one of those services that has been pared back to its most basic, essential ingredients — asynchronous chat/messaging. Or is it microblogging? Or lifestreaming? Whatever you'd like to call it, it provides the one service, and that's it. No file sharing. No 'social network' (well explicitly, anyway).
It actually sounded incredibly banal to me when I first heard of it. It seemed far too basic to be interesting, and once I did get into it, I found that it didn't really provide me with much. But as noted by Scoble, the service's value is in its users. Once I started adding people to follow, I started to get addicted. It gives you an insight into people that you don't get reading their blog posts, and an added benefit of finding out about news as it happens.
But the way in which Twitter lets people interact has provided other interesting developments as well.
When I came up with the domain name techAU, it wasn't already taken — but it wasn't unique either. Jason Cartwright had already been working on techAU.tv, a weekly tech podcast. And amidst the flurry of activity post-launch this week, I've been talking to Jason about the similarities in our sites' names. He isn't particularly happy.
Now, when you buy a domain, say a .com, and someone else buys the .net of that name, you're not really able to jump up and down about it. After all, if you wanted to be the sole owner of that name, you should be buying all of the TLDs for it. That's just how it goes.
However, being the jolly good sport that I am, and the endeavour being relatively new, I decided I would concede defeat to Jason. I don't want to go around making enemies, and the guy's already got his thing going. Seeing as I'm only aggregating blogs, I don't mind particularly about the domain name. Maybe I can sell it and make a tidy profit.
Hurrah! I'd like to think it's an even better domain. Invokes images of solidarity, and camaraderie. Bringing people together, and gently feeding them technology news.
For the moment, techAU is still active and redirecting to the new domain. But eventually, who knows. I trust you good ladies and gentlemen will remember the new domain and this will not slow anyone down.
Thankyou for a successful launch
Otherwise, thankyou everyone for all the positive attention you've given me for the site — we're still focussed on Aussie web and tech bloggers, and I'm sure we'll succeed in getting some more awareness of the local industry.
It didn't take long, and now it's live. As it says on the site itself, "techAU aggregates both prominent and up-and-coming Australian bloggers who write about the new generation of the web and related technologies." And it doesn't do much else at this stage. I mentioned my list of bloggers in the previous post, and with the exception of Sam Lai (get back to me Sam! We'll figure something out), all have made it to the list.
The idea is that, like Alltop or Web 2.0 Workgroup, you're able to visit the site and quickly scan a list of relevant bloggers for posts that look interesting. In this case, the focus is on Australian content, as I really wanted to boost recognition of prominent figures in our local industry. Bookmark the site and keep up to date on what Australian bloggers think about the future of the web.
Who can be on the list?
Any Australian blogger who writes consistently insightful posts on the web, social media, startups, and the like. I wanted to include Duncan Riley, but I'm not sure the world needs to know about his penchant for rescuing stunned birds :) If you do know someone who you think should be on the list, let me know. I'd be happy to add anyone who fits — the longer the list, the better!
Who said that laziness doesn't yield good results? Earlier this year I called for tech bloggers to help me launch a local-based tech blog in the vein of TechCrunch, but I didn't get a great deal of interest and I don't have a lot of time to follow the idea up, as much as I think it has merit.
So after a bit of thought I have come up with something different, which I think could still help raise awareness of our local industry.
In the same vein as Web 2.0 Workgroup, I'd like to aggregate the blogs of prominent Australian bloggers in the IT industry. I'd like to feature bloggers who consistently write about web-related technologies and ideas, and have something worth adding. Here's my list so far:
What I'd love for everyone else to do, is to let me know in the comments if you know of anyone else who fits the bill. I'd love to feature anyone who falls into the right category, but I don't necessarily know everyone who qualifies at this stage.
Let me know below!
I've recently discovered popurls.com. I like it. it has the very simple purpose of aggregating a number of popular social media sites (most of which are themselves psuedo-aggregators) into one easy to browse page, so that when people like me are bored we can scan for interesting links without expending too much effort.
But are sites like popurls just getting a free ride off the hard work of the sites they aggregate? Do they deserve their traffic when they don't provide any of the content?
It's easy to see it that way. The site provides none of the content itself, but could've been knocked up in a day by finding an RSS parser and choosing the sites whose content it would display. Not exactly a work of art.
But really, I think the answer is no — it's not a free ride at all. Just like 'easy' art which causes jealous viewers to mutter, "I could've painted that", aggregators provide a service which is inherently easy to do, but is still useful to the end user — whether they "could've done it themselves" or not, they didn't. The aggregator exists as a valid service, and while it doesn't create any of the content, it still provides the service of aggregating. As long as it doesn't attempt to exploit the content, all traffic the site receives is fair and valid.
Besides, syndicating your content through RSS only serves to increase recognition of your brand and traffic to your site in the long run. So the sites owning the content are still winners — everybody's happy.
Sometimes it might seem like what your manager wants you to do, and what you wish you could do, are two different things. You, as the shining pinnacle of developerness that you are, would like to satisfy your client's requirements by developing a generic solution that fits, but can also scale up, down, and sideways depending on the scenario. But this isn't what your manager wants to hear.
By the way, this isn't aimed at my manager, or anyone I know — just an attempt to explain a programmer's thought processes.
Let's take an example. Say your web application needs to allow admins to create a tree stucture of users, assigning them to groups and sub-groups. Each user will be two levels deep, in a subgroup.
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