Archive for the ‘Information Architecture’ Category

Best engineering flowchart, ever?

Monday, December 26th, 2011

The best engineering flow chart, ever? You judge.

Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks so, so I’m willing to consider it… however, there is no hammer. A hammer would clinch it. Or, a la Mythbusters, perhaps C4.


Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of Mythbusters… my wife and I sprung for the expensive tickets for this event in Sacramento on January 9th, 2012. Yes, there’s a live roadshow! Maybe I should’ve gotten seats further from the stage?

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Nearing Completion on my First Magento site…

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Over the years I’ve done a few e-commerce things with commercial systems like Miva Merchant and with PayPal carts and the PayPal API… to name a few.

I was asked by a client how best to do a 1200+ SKU e-commerce site, and I suggested Magento… then they said ‘OK, let’s do it’. A couple months later we’re almost ready to go live… with the first 350 or so products.

I’m reminded of a trip to Aruba, when my wife and I, and our friends, said we wanted to rent a ‘Jeep’ (we got a Suzuki Samurai) and drive to the Natural Pools on the far side of the island. The windward side. It’s like Mars over there. They said, “drive down this road then that road then go past the white house onto the dirt road… and then your adventure begins“.

Magento is like that. The destination is awesome, but the markers are hard to find, the routes are multiple, various and nefarious, not much is obvious… but in the end, you get a site that has everything you need to compete with the big dogs… product comparisons by attribute, ratings, surveys, multiple store fronts on a single database, direct support for major payment systems, Google Base, Google XML Sitemaps, etc. and an upgrade path for when you start making millions in sales (I dream big).

Underneath is the PHP framework called “Zend Framework” which is extensible and comprehensible and logically defensible (if you know this stuff) but not for the faint of heart.

But here’s the thing to think about: Are you ready to merchandise your products?

There are a ton of useless e-commerce sites out there that don’t provide useful information, have blurry pictures (more on this later) and don’t really support the buyer’s decision. The reason is that it takes time and effort and expertise to make what is essentially a mini-site all about each product line, manufacturer and category. Companies that open brick-and-mortar store fronts spend hundreds of thousands on signage, window displays, staff training, and store fixtures… then set a budget on their e-commerce site of a few thousand bucks, and virtually no staff-time… If it’s worth doing a window display for your products so passers-by walk in the front door, why is it not appropriate to present products on the web with the same care?

For a small company, there’s another side to the story: The minimal e-commerce site you know you can afford may not pay off, so you don’t invest much. This is understandable, but if you don’t put enough effort in, it’s almost guaranteed not to work. You might try a small number of products where there’s not much e-commerce competition, and put more energy into presenting each product. But do put in the energy to make each product look the best you can and the content about the product as useful as you can, rather than shovel bad images and product id codes without descriptive text onto a cheap or free cart and then call it done. It ain’t likely to work.

For this site, we’re not doing it all at once… we’ll go live with the most important products. We’ll have product descriptions in. We’ll have the best images we can find (legally). But it won’t go live in a perfect state… it will evolve into a (near) perfect state over time. This is the same as a WordPress site… it’s designed to grow and improve over time… and that’s actually a good thing. You want your site in a state of change with new discoveries appearing each week. You want people to shop. To browse, explore, learn, try things on (virtually)… yes: Shop. It’s the national pastime. Play it!

A note about images: Most people now have broadband. Manufacturers that still don’t supply adequate images on their websites for fear of download speed issues (or some other excuse) need to wake up and smell the coffee. Their online, catalog and brick-and-mortar retailers need good photography and those that don’t provide that service are blowing it, big time. Every product should be shot from every angle and web retailers should be given access to the these in sizes sufficient for a print catalog! The bandwidth is there. The browsers aren’t going to squawk. The cost is truly worthwhile. Good images are made with good Photoshop skills. Don’t shoot your products with your cell phone in a dingy yellow light, crop it to 128 pixels square and then JPEG it to death to make it even tinier. Seriously: Half the e-commerce I see is exactly that, and every e-commerce site selling that widget got their photos (mostly exactly the same photo) from the Manufacturer’s website.

I’m always shocked (shocked, I say!) to see a medium to large company that still has a ’90s-era website… Maybe it’s just a lack of understanding about what sells, and why. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to realize that — even though people aren’t going to buy directly on your site — they will buy based on how well you promote your products on other sites, which is largely about imagery, and those images need to come from you, the manufacturer.

I just had to get that out of my system… thanks for listening.

Bad Idea for Your Blog – Make it harder to Read

Monday, April 18th, 2011

A recent study has been making the rounds, and has now made the New York Times. If you only read the first couple paragraphs, as we are all prone to do, you might get the wrong message:

Trick question: Is it easier to remember a new fact if it appears in normal type, like this, or in big, bold letters, like this?

The answer is neither. Font size has no effect on memory, even though most people assume that bigger is better. But font style does.

New research finds that people retain significantly more material — whether science, history or language — when they study it in a font that is not only unfamiliar but also hard to read.”

Well, keep reading, it’s an interesting study, but don’t apply this logic to your blog. Because people won’t start reading it, or keep reading it, if it’s hard to read; surrounded by distractions, or poorly formatted. The point of the study is that the mental effort that goes into acquiring information is directly related to how much of it is retained. But only material that is required reading can benefit, since voluntary reading is, well, voluntary.

Another study, coincidentally commissioned by the New York Times in the 50’s, showed that line-length, font choice, white space and other factors determined how far their readers worked through an article, as well as how fast, and page designers (who study good design) have been following that advice ever since. It’s worth noting that if no one reads the material at all, it won’t be retained, either. Making people struggle to read your blog simply means it won’t be read. Good design is good practice. Clear, clean formatting is still the best way to get your message across.

Planning a New Website: The Creative Brief

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Why does this site look the way it does? This started out as a personal blog to experiment with WordPress, now it is dated and technically way below my standard. So, I need to start out with a clean design and a clean message.

Starting a website can be overwhelming. There are so many variables, what-ifs, and strategic decisions to answer about the content. And then there are the questions about the technology. And then there are the questions about presentation, including design, organization, and ongoing development. All this, and by the way, you have to keep up with your regular responsibilities on top of all that planning.

I recommend working with someone who solves these problems every day, and letting them guide you through the process. (Disclaimer: I’m that guy. Hire me. Never mind I haven’t gotten to it myself… that’s a sign I’m in demand and busy!) But if you want to get further before you start that conversation, start with the following questions (Surprise! None are about technology). Most of these are Marketing 101 questions. But most people in business either never took Marketing 101 or have forgotten it. But this is the information you will need to relate to the web designer, so it’s time to polish your answers. The technical term for these questions and their answers is “The Creative Brief”. Start your Creative Brief now:

  • Who is your target audience?
    People who are selling something need to ask:
    a) Who currently buys my products?
    b) Who should, but doesn’t yet?
    c) Who might influence people who buy my products?
    Content providers need to ask:

    a) What content can I create, and what can I consolidate from other sources, and how can I frame it, uniquely?
    b)  Who’s already trying to do what I’m trying to do? How will I compete with them?
    At least a dozen times I’ve been asked to advise someone on selling a product on the web, and in the course of the meeting I find they haven’t done a simple Google search to see what their competitors are doing. This is second only to the “I want to make something like eBay, and my budget is $700” in causing a web developer to develop sudden breathing problems.
  • Who are your closest competitors?
    a) Go to their websites and ask “what are they up to?” and “what are they missing”
    b) Make a list, with their urls, and features of their sites you like and don’t like.
  • What type of product or service do you offer?
    a) Compile your existing marketing materials, and make sure they’re up to date.
    b) Make sure you’re framing your presentation to the buyer, not to yourself.
    c) If your current offerings are not already compiled in other marketing materials, plan to use the website creation process to get graphics and content for print materials: i.e. Get the designers/photographers to make high-res versions of everything, and use colors that work in print as well as on the web.
  • What is your unique selling proposition?
    Make sure you know how your competitors are getting their clients, and up the ante:
    a) Consider price positioning (discount, competitive, premium)
    b) Don’t just copy others, exceed expectations for your industry and region
    c) Don’t promise what you can’t or won’t deliver. Reputations are increasingly transparent with the web. Online review sites can make it clear to everyone if you don’t deliver value.
    d) Having trouble thinking up an answer to this one? Try writing down all the selling phrases you and your staff use to move your product… Just write them all down, then organize them by priority… What words make people focus, What makes them go dreamy? What makes them empathize? What words create trust or counter distrust? What are the objections?
  • What is your budget?
    a) A website can run from “free” (Do it yourself isn’t really free) to annual budgets in the millions. The limiting factor is always the budget. Don’t skimp, this is your brand on the Internet! But don’t say you can spend more than you have: Your site can often be shut down by the developer, if you can’t pay for it. And even if not, it’s expensive to change developers.
    b) Consider what it will require to get to “Live” and then consider what it will take to keep it fresh, after that. A website doesn’t stop needing attention immediately after it is made public. What are you going to do for the long haul?
    c) The most powerful way to build a brand on the Internet inexpensively is the WordPress blog, with SEO and Social Network features embedded, and ongoing posting (twice per week is good).
  • What is your deadline?
    a) Consider a phased rollout. Sometimes it makes sense to get something done for, say, holiday season, or back-to-school, that’s quick and cheap, then do the big redesign after that.
    b) Really? Just one deadline? Are you thinking about ‘Keeping it Fresh’?
    c) Sometimes it makes sense to start small and grow the site in front of your customers. Blogging is a great way to do that.
  • Is your branding worked out yet? Is this an opportunity to do that?
    a) As a designer, I like well designed sites that have beautiful spacing and graphic qualities, but sometimes you don’t want to look too slick… If you’re a discount shop or a funky coffeehouse, maybe it’s ok to be a little ragged and homegrown looking.
    b) Big companies pay millions for logos, but little companies often sketch something themselves or get a stock logo from a business card company. Really, a couple hundred bucks for a small business that isn’t too picky might be enough to get a logo that’s really yours and pretty good. Being unique matters on the web — you’re not just local any more. Being local, you can often have a company name that exists in other towns in other regions. But on the web, you might get a cease and desist from a lawyer. Search your name in several ways online. If someone has a competitive product or service and the same name, you have an issue.
  • Does your logo present well on the web?
    a) Logos with fine details need to be displayed large, because websites have low resolution.
    b) Is your logo limited to black and white? Is it going to look bad on a colorful site?
    c) Has it been copied and recopied, and looks ragged along the edges? Fixing it up may be critical to your presentation.
  • What is your company’s slogan or tagline?
    a) If it’s descriptive, it should show up in any Google search, and not just be invisible in a graphic (the contents of graphic elements of your website won’t show up in a search).
    b) Can it be improved and made into a selling point or competitive differentiator?
  • Describe at least 5 websites you like, including what you like about them. Include URLs.
  • Do you have a typographic preference? (Heavy, light, modern, classic, etc…)
    A good site designer will look at examples of your existing marketing materials, and the sites that you like, and create a composite impression that they will use to guide their design. Then they will exceed your expectations.
  • Are there any specific images you’d like to incorporate?
    a) Do you own the rights?
    b) Are they of high quality, or should they be recreated?
    c) Let your designer or web developer prepare the images… just give them the very best and largest version you have. Good graphics define the website user’s perception of quality of your whole company.
  • Are there any specific colors you may want to use?
    As mentioned above, a good designer will take your existing materials, and sites you like, as well as the images you’ve given them to guide them on colors. Generally a good designer will pick better colors than you can, because they’ve studied how color effects people and also what colors go well together. But if you have specific branding materials that you need to stick to, make sure you can provide specific color information.
  • Are there any specific concepts or colors or imagery you’d like to avoid?
    I remember a client that used an early Terabyte storage system; It was a huge selling point. The design company worked very hard on branding strategy around the image of a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex taking a huge bite out of… something. (I can’t remember.) Turned out, the CEO was a fundamentalist, and didn’t believe in dinosaurs… And two weeks of work went down the drain. Tell your designer of any taboos your company might have.
  • Finally, ask yourself: How is this website going to stay fresh? Can I write content or do I have staff that can write? Do I need an editor? Do I have authorization from the Big Boss or do we need a content brief.
This is just the beginning of the journey… but it’s a great way to get your head into the project. There have been numerous times I’ve participated in projects that effectively redefine an existing company, because the company finally sat down and said “This is who we are” with the Creative Brief. Older companies often experience this, because over years, they drift without redefinition or reviewing the original business plan. Sometimes the world changes under their feet, and the Creative Brief wakes them up. Sometimes the discussions of what should be in the web site lead to enormous efficiency improvements in customer service, or whole new products, delivered digitally. By the way, I just switched credit unions because of a lousy website. It does matter.

A beautiful job explaining biodiversity: infographic

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

This animated short film was made by students of the Vancouver Film School. It does a beautiful job explaining biodiversity, and does it with awesome infographics.

Biodiversity – Vancouver Film School from Vancouver Film School on Vimeo.