My Software Preferences

I just bought a new laptop and have spent a couple of long evenings setting it up. After babysitting it through the initial tedium of installing, connecting, updating, registering – lots of watching progress bars and restarting the machine every few minutes, I realised that I have my own strong ideas about which software I’m going to use for various tasks.

AVG FreeSecurity
Top of the priority list is security and getting some good anti-virus, anti-spyware software in place. I uninstalled the McAfee 30 day trial. I’m sure it’s excellent but why pay a subscription fee when there are free alternatives. I downloaded and installed AVG Free Version, which is free for home use. It performs scans and updates itself automatically keeping your PC safe.

Mozilla FirefoxWeb Browsing
Windows Vista comes with Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) installed but personally I find that Mozilla Firefox offers a much better web browsing experience. It’s noticeably faster and the add-ons available mean that you can really customise it for your own needs. My personal favourites are Adblock Plus, which collapses known ads in web pages and, of course, Web Developer, which provides all sorts of options and extra information about the web page you are browsing.

OpenOffice.orgOffice – Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentations
I boldly decided to ignore the 30 day free trials of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and instead downloaded and installed OpenOffice. It’s open source which means the code behind the software is freely available for software developers to tinker with and suggest improvements. OpenOffice is a suite of applications made up of Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations/slideshows), Draw (graphics) and Base (databases). It’s fully compatible with Microsoft Office so you will always be able to open and edit anything you receive.

Web Development
From my software choices so far it may sound like I’m anti-Microsoft but I’m really not. I’m just a big fan of open source software and the open collaboration. For my web development work I do love Microsoft Visual Studio. There’s a lighter version of it called Visual Web Developer which is free to download and use. This makes it easy, well, easier, to create dynamic database driven web applications.

Open SourceIn summary, there is a lot of free and open source software available and it’s worth looking at your options rather than just going with the big names. Like me you might actually prefer some of the free software over the licensed and for the home user it could save you quite a bit of cash.

Moving from Print to Web in Stages

RGBCMYKThere are many good reasons for moving from producing printed publications such as leaflets, brochures or catalogues to putting all information onto a website – better for the environment, wider reaching, faster and cheaper. Even though we know this taking the plunge and stopping print media suddenly is scary.

It doesn’t have to be so sudden and drastic. It is possible to use a more gentle phased approach.

Stage 1 – Getting the web right

If this is going to work the website has to have the most up to date information, and if not exactly consitent with printed information, the web needs to be the most accurate source of information.

Stage 2 – Produce a Digital Edition

When your publication is complete create what is called a digital edition or an electronic version of it which can be downloaded or emailed to people. The most common format for this is PDF but you can use anything which can be easily distributed electronically.

Whilst a PDF download might not have quite the same feel as holding a high quality brochure in your hands there are advantages. Firstly, the customer gets it right away, whilst they’re still interested. By the time a brochure arrives in the post the next day they may have gone off the idea or found a competitor’s information online. The download also means that they can share it with friends or colleagues easily and at zero cost.

Rather than launching both print and electronic media simultaneously it might be better to release the electronic version in advance. By doing this anyone waiting for the publication will have their information earlier and there’s a good chance they may not feel the need for a print version.

When it comes to the next edition of the publication it is worth considering the electronic means of distribution when it is designed. For example, if printed by the user, does it look good in black and white, does it fit onto A4?

Stage 3 – Monitor publication requests

Once you have both hard copy and electronic versions out there it’s essential to monitor how many people are accessing the 2 types of media. You need to keep a note of how many hard copies are requested and compare this against numbers of downloads. Over time you should notice a natural increase in the downloads and this will, in turn, create a drop in the requests for print.

Stage 4 – Use incentives

When trying to get numbers using the electronic media up and print down you can give people a nudge in the right direction by offering reduced prices online. Even those who don’t use the internet might show an interest if they hear they can get something 10% cheaper.

Stage 5 – Reduce print runs

Rather than stop the publication altogether it may be preferable to reduce quantities slowly over time based on the demand you have been monitoring until you reach the point where the publication no longer offers a return on your investment.

Amazon – design a 4 year old can use was recently using Amazon at home and my 4 year old son joined me. After I’d completed my ordering he asked me if he could have a go. To put this in context he’s at the stage where he can recognise brands (e.g. Tesco, M&S, etc.), his own name and a few letters but can’t actually read other words.

I found it fascinating to observe how he managed to use the site easily despite not being able to read.

Add to Shopping BasketHe clicked the logo taking him back to the home page. On there he saw a product image he liked (Star Wars video game), clicked it. On this page he clicked a play icon to watch a video preview of the game. When that ended he clicked the yellow button with a shopping basket icon to buy it. He then looked further down the screen where Amazon displays other related products – items other customers bought or viewed – and found some Star Wars toys. By following this process of clicking on related products and adding them to the basket he soon had over £300 of toys and video games in the basket. He even seemed to understand the product star rating system.

This speaks volumes about how good the design of this site is.

It can be navigated without any need for reading text. Amazon‘s use of images and dynamically generating related images is superb. The human brain processes and recognises images and icons much faster than it can read text.

It’s obvious how to buy something even to someone with almost no previous internet experience. A clear button which stands out from the rest of the page bearing a shopping basket icon leaves no doubt about how you proceed to buy the product.

One final tip – if you’ve got young children make sure you don’t leave yourself logged in to Amazon or Father Christmas might be back sooner than you’d expect.

Google’s Personalised Search

GoogleSearch on the internet is changing. We all know how Google works – you type in your search term, hit the “search button”, Google beavers away in the background trying to match what you typed with the most likely matches and you’re presented with a list of results, all within a split second.

If you are logged into Google when you do the same search things are now slightly different. Once the results come back you are given further options. You can “promote” a site by clicking on the little up arrow next to it. This is your way of saying that this is the site you wanted and it will push it to the top of the list for next time you do that search. You also have the option of clicking “remove”, the cross. This means that the result is not relevant to you and won’t be shown next time around. Finally, you can “comment” by clicking on the speech bubble. This allows you to make notes as you go.

It doesn’t stop there though. Google doesn’t just remember your feedback on searches you have done but uses this information to predict your areas of interest. For example, if I do a search for “ajax” it will, in all probability, return results on Ajax the web programming technology. For someone else with no interest in web development but an interest in football it may return results on the Dutch football team.

The wider effect of this new personalised search is that as people start making use of it then what one person sees when they perform a search may not be what another person sees. In fact, after prolonged use it almost definitely won’t be. This means that the SEO companies who claim that they will get you top rankings on Google will no longer be able to measure how well your site is faring. They will be forced to revert to using numbers of visitors to a website as a measure of success instead, which, as any marketing person will tell you, is the only real measure anyway.

I want an ecommerce site. Maybe you don’t?

Taking a chance?I often get invited to quote for designing ecommerce sites or online stores and more often than not I actually decline the invitation. I don’t feel it’s morally right to invest my time and a customer’s money in something that is doomed to failure.

It’s not that people have bad ideas, it’s just that they don’t have a business plan. I think most of us know that most new businesses fail in their first year and online businesses are no different. All too often people see having a website as the answer when it’s only part of a larger process. I get the feeling that people still believe that they can spend money on a new website and then sit back and wait for the orders to come in.

Whilst having your own ecommerce site or online business is appealing it is a big initial investment for a new business and you should consider how many sales you’d need to cover the cost. If you can’t be sure that you can recover this cost within a reasonable timescale you shouldn’t take the risk.

There are other ways. I often advise people starting out on a new venture to start off selling through eBay. You pay a nominal amount to list your products and have to give eBay a percentage of your revenue but this is a lot cheaper and less risky than shelling out for a website. After a time, if you feel that there is a proven market and that you can make a profit then you can look at running your own site. Hopefully, if things have gone well, you’ll have a bit of money in the bank to invest too.