Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Sep 24

SoCal UX Job Fair & Meetup

Posted: under New Marketing, new media, UX/UI.
Tags: , , , ,

Nerd heaven: learning about the latest in UX while meeting killer startups

On Sept. 17, I attended the latest SoCal UX group meetup in downtown Los Angeles, where 29o designers mingled with startups looking for talent, and honed their skills by learning about the latest trends in web design and marketing.

The whole UX field is still very much a tech sector that is under construction. I’ve seen UX described as everything from the process of identifying the potential users of a new site, to the graphic design of a site, to the utter stats-based refinement of online marketing.

Sometimes, working in UX feels a lot like the “Alice in Wonderland” quote from Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

UX is a field of study and implementation that really didn’t exist even a decade ago. It’s not surprising that we’re still struggling with the nomenclature to describe what it is that we do, now that web design has evolved to become a meld between art & science. Even moreso, now that we’ve seen the rise of DIY, paint-by-numbers sites like Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace.

It used to be that to build a site required a wide range of knowledge (and to a certain extent, it still does). But the democraticization of tools designed to make to make it “forehead install easy” to publish content to the web, has meant that the differentiator in the market has moved from technique … back to content.

If just about any schmo can spin up a responsive site with integrated forms and CSS transforms, then what use all those coding skills we all burnt so many brain cells to acquire these past 15 years?

 

That’s a larger discussion, and one I have had many times over the past few years (and will explore in more depth in future postings).

Meanwhile, enjoy these candid photos of the attendees and speakers at the SoCal UX Job Fair.

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Oct 18

JetPack: the Always-Open University Library that Fits in Your Pocket

Posted: under Design.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

…but without the annoying biology grad student who is using himself as a human guinea pig to see if it’s possible to survive for 3 months on a diet of only beer, vitamin pills and broccoli florets. 

the website for jetpack

The switchover to all-digital textbooks is happening faster than predicted. I'm not too sure about reading an entire text on a smartphone screen, but for in-between class cramming, or getting instant updates to course material, it's not a bad choice.

I’d love to say that this is it, we’ve found the perfect replacement for textbooks, but from what I can see here, this is still a very limited solution. They are also trying to accomplish something that is unbelievably complex. I know, because we’ve been trying to do the same thing: come up with a way to create once-publish many.

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Jul 01

Sweet Mother of FSM, Google+ Is Smart!

Posted: under Design, Digital Migration, google.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In less than five minutes, I responded to an invitation (that is probably still in pretty high demand) and signed up for Google+.

Being able to add people to the circles is an absolutely frickin’ brilliant move! The little animations are absolutely killer. I have been wanting this and talking about this and boring the living shit out of my tech-dw33b friends about how the one big problem STILL with social media is that it’s damn near and all-or-nothing game.

No longer. Someone at Google “got it,” and this is a killer feature that Facebook DOES NOT HAVE.

Also: Google+ aggregates my information from all manner of sources, so I don’t have to go through that goddam tiresome “OK, let’s fill in all the blanks on this profile page yet again … wait, what? … it timed out? (long cursing session)”

Check out the screen cap below – this is after only a few minutes of cursory work:

dave lafontaine profile on google plus
All this got added to my profile automatically. It borders on the creepy … except for the fact that I wrote and posted all this info about myself in the first place, and I approve of it and can tell instantly where it came from. Also note on the right-hand side: all the various places where I have established a social profile, all aggregated in the same place.

I kinda disagree with this post on AllFacebook, where they focus in on how Google has made it “compulsory” to be part of Google+, and that the key to all this is “time on site.”

While tech pundits are widely praising Google’s new Plus product, I’ve found the one feature that could take away from Facebook where it’s most dominant: Time on the site.

Facebook users are known for staying on the site for over half an hour a day, something no other site could compete with… until now.

To be honest, my gut reaction after using Google Plus was initially, “Why on earth would anybody switch to this from Facebook?”

However, when I loaded up Google Finance as I do every morning, I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The reality is that users won’t have the option of not using Google Plus.

However, later on, they kinda stumble into something interesting, that’s also come up recently in the kerfuffle over the “Open Letters to RIM” — that is, that tech companies are starting to realize that what will really make them successful, is making it easy for developers & propellorhead-types like, well, us … to come and play in their sandbox.

Add to that this very insightful dissection of what was at the core of MySpace imploding – the same thing at work, i.e. pissing on indie developers — and you start to see something fascinating emerging in corporate thinking … for those intelligent enough to read the tea leaves (or Cheeto crumbs, if you will).

 

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Sep 02

Janine Warner shows off top 10 new Dreamweaver CS5 features

Posted: under Design, New Marketing.
Tags: , , , ,

Janine played to a packed house at Photoshop World. Apologies for the muddy pic and the brevity of posts, but I am in info-overload mode.

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Jul 20

Mobile Web Design for Dummies — DONE!!!(eleven)1!

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

UPDATED WITH NEW COVER: Like any project, the last 5% takes 50% of the effort. So here is the new&improved cover of the book, which shows the essence of what we want to communicate — that it is possible (if you take the time and know what you’re doing) to achieve a consistent good design look&feel, even across a variety of mobile devices.
While this does not quite rank up with “Our long national nightmare is over…” I assure you that the relief that Janine and I feel over finally putting the finishing touches on the book we’ve been co-writing for the last six months is truly special. We knew going in that writing about designing web pages for mobile devices was going to be a difficult and intense task — but we didn’t know it was going to be THIS difficult.
Cover of Mobile Web Design for Dummies book by Janine Warner and Dave LaFontaine

Contrary to what you might see on Amazon.com, this is what the cover of our new book will look like.

But the upheaval and changing standards in the mobile web space in just the last year have been, from a designer’s perspective, a real handful. What was once the conventional wisdom – create a dumbed-down, simple website that will work on any device – has been supplanted by a much more nuanced approach, involving using sophisticated scripts to detect what device is accessing your site, looking up what technology that device supports in a vast (you hope) database, matching your content to the capabilities of the device (that means video in Flash, 3GP or MP4 formats), and then assembling a site on-the-fly and delivering it quickly and cleanly.

If the struggles of Apple with their antenna (see the Mobile Web Design Blog for more on this) have provided us with a stunning example of how even the market-leading mobile device company can stumble, well, trust me, we have had our moments these last few months. I’ve felt like the digital/authorial equivalent of Dr. Stanley searching for Dr. Livingstone, hacking my way through the dense underbrush of acronyms like WAP, WML, 3GPP, LTE, GIS and many more guaranteed to make your head spin.

We have worked extremely hard to ensure that the book is as current and accurate as possible; re-reading it one last time before it went to the presses last week was a real moment of pride for us both. We are going to deliver some real value to both designers that want to figure out how to jump on the mobile bandwagon, and for business owners who want to look beyond the “Gotta get an App!” frenzy that is leading so many down what is increasingly apparent as a blind alley.

By the way – the cover illustration above is only the placeholder – we redesigned it to feature our grinning faces. At least in Janine’s case, it should help spur casual walk-by sales (cue soundeffect: “Awwww…”).

We now return to your regularly scheduled online media-commentary snarking. The last six months have kept me hopping so much that I’ve really had to de-prioritize my blogging. I’m looking forward to being able to devote some more time to writing about all the developments in the content monetization & distribution space.

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Nov 12

Newspapers’ Dying Swan Song: SF Chronicle Tries Glossy Paper, Splashy Color

Posted: under Digital Migration, infographic, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Print die-hards claimed that all that was needed to reverse the audience migration to the internet was to make newspapers more “lively” in appearance. Early verdict: looks pretty, but the advertising still isn’t there, and that sound you heard was Mort Zuckerman puking and weeping over in the corner.

I’ve been in the Bay Area for a convention of “[fill in blank] for Dummies” authors and various business meetings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to scope out what the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing with its much-ballyhooed investment in glossy magazine-style paper for the front pages of its sections, and the use of high-quality color images.

SF Chronicle - Front Page Wraparound Ad

This is a strategy that is also being pursued in New York by NY Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who has invested more than he would like to admit to (millions? hundreds of millions?) into high-tech printing presses, capable of churning out massive print runs with razor-sharp color. The 15-tower, triple-width ultra-compact Commander CT press looks a lot like the last-generation Nikon F6 film camera. It was the apex of film technology, what many analysts recognized at the time as “the perfect camera” — but that alas, was rolled out just as every working professional made the move to use digital.

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Aug 04

Unruly Adobe Tag Cloud for MAX in LA

Posted: under Design, New Marketing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stumbled across this today while poking around at the new Adobe products, trying to decide whether it’s worth it to upgrade to CS4 for the new features in Premiere Pro and Photoshop, or to just hang on to CS3.

Anyway, this is a 3-D animated tag cloud to promote the Adobe MAX conference here in LA; but I think they might want to regulate this a bit more, because some of the user-chosen tags are getting a little … pungent.  Hey. That’s pretty good. Maybe I’ll go there and add “pungent” to the mix…

I'm not sure if you can geo-anchor the text; if not, having "PORN" appear about where Chatsworth is located, is a stroke of serendipitous genius...
I’m not sure if you can geo-anchor the text; if not, having “PORN” appear about where Chatsworth is located, is a stroke of serendipitous genius… (click to embiggen)

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Mar 10

New Online Ad Models

Posted: under advertising, Design, Digital Migration, New Marketing, Online Video.
Tags: , , ,

To quote Michael Corleone: “Everytime I think I’m out – they draaaaag me back in!”

I just got done with a Big Scary Article for the NAA about charging for online content.  I’ve marinated myself in all sorts of arcane data about how to make money from online content, whether or not publishers are being forced to charge for content or are doing it because they are angry and unwilling to make the fundamental changes to adapt to the New Media environment, etc. etc.  Basically, a whole bunch of business theory that makes me sound like a Web 2.0 dweeb, spouting buzzphrases like “Freemium is a viable long-term marketing strategy, but a short-term disaster if you need to make crushing debt-service payments,” and “Big Media brands must leverage their local trust networks to sign up small advertisers.”

I thought it was all behind me, but it turns out that the Online Publishers Association has been hard at work trying to solve the underlying problem with online advertising – that is, that the basic unit of banner ads, really don’t work all that well.  Here’s their proposal:

“As consumers and advertisers increasingly turn to digital media, we must create formats and programs that support and sustain the differentiating aspects of our businesses,” said Martin A. Nisenholtz, founding chairman of the OPA, and senior vice president, digital operations, The New York Times Company. “Agencies must be given the tools to build brands on the Web and publishers must provide the formats for their advertisers to thrive, while balancing the needs of their users.”

The proposed new advertising units are:

  • The Fixed Panel (recommended dimension is 336 wide x 860 tall), which looks naturally embedded into the page layout and scrolls to the top and bottom of the page as a user scrolls.
  • The XXL Box (recommended dimension is 468 wide x 648 tall), which has page-turn functionality with video capability.
  • The Pushdown (recommended dimension is 970 wide x 418 tall), which opens to display the advertisement and then rolls up to the top of the page.

I have mixed feelings towards these things.  As a web publisher myself, I am in favor of anything that delivers real value to advertisers, since if advertisers get value, then they’re much likelier to direct fat stacks in the general direction of indie weasels like me. 

However, as a web surfer, the idea that sites are going to have annoying “Fixed Panels” that follow me as I try to scroll through the page … well, have you ever gone to a MySpace page where the background is busy and annoying, and all the content scrolls across it, increasingly impossible to read?  It’ll be like that.  The Fixed Panel is going to judder and jerk as you use the scroll wheel, and if you’re a person who has multiple tabs open in your browser, well … hope you’ve upgraded your RAM and you have at least four cores going in your CPU to handle all the load.

The XXL Box is a bit more promising. If an ad is actually visually appealing, and it is delivering information about something that I’m interested in, then I would consider it to be part of the content of a page.  If it has page-turn capability, and can also display a short video clip, well, that might be amusing.

But the Pushdown – oh Christ. Where do I start.

This reminds me of the takeovers that most sane publishers did away with a couple of years ago. The one that sticks in my mind is the takeover on Yahoo for Batman Begins, where a crazy swarm of bats exploded out of the ad, covered the Yahoo page to turn it mostly black, and then the text advertising the movie then appeared. 

Hard to ignore, I’ll give you that.  But at the time, I was using Yahoo as my default email address.  The ad slowed things down so much that I switched over to Gmail.  This, despite the fact that I know that Google is scanning all my email messages and indexing everything I write, or that is written to me. 

aaa

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Jan 12

Great Design Equation

Posted: under Design, New Marketing, new media, Online Video.
Tags: , ,

Here’s another quick hit:

Al Gore divided by Bill Gates?

Al Gore divided by Bill Gates?Does that mean that the polar icecaps will now recede as slowly as a Vista boot-up? 'Cause that'd actually be pretty cool.

I really love the playful spirit behind this ad – the way that it takes great design, which by its nature cannot be reduced to a set of integers and mathematic functions, and reconstructs the evolution of great forces in advertising and marketing into an arresting image.  Great stuff.

Maybe I’m loving this just because it’s so “meta” – an ad image that seeks to comment on, and explain forcefully & originally, what is best & most innovative about advertising design.  The Big Scary Project I’m working on right now is kinda like this – it’s a journalistic project that seeks to impress other journalists with its depth & insight.  Which is a high-wire act that borders on the reckless.

Jay Rosen did a piece today that was so good & interesting that it pissed me off.  I’ll be blogging about it, in light of the stuff I wrote about last night from David Simon.

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Oct 06

Replacing Newspapers: A Cocktail Approach

Posted: under advertising, Blogs, Design, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I hate like hell to keep doing quick, off-the-cuff bites at such big topics, but maybe I should just resign myself to accepting the web ethos of not trying to do all things at once.  Yeah, yeah, I know – “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”So here’s an interesting coinkydink: two items I bookmarked to read later – and actually got around to reading (pause here for an astonished gasp) – struck me as having a stronger relationship than was initially apparent.

First was this bit from the Economist, about how professionals are starting to really flock to online social networks:

On LinkedIn, the market leader, members have been updating their profiles in record numbers in recent weeks, apparently to position themselves in case they lose their jobs. The two most popular sites, LinkedIn and Xing, have been growing at breakneck speed and boast 29m and 6.5m members respectively. And, in contrast to mass-market social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, both firms have worked out how to make money.

The article goes on to raise two interesting points 1) if Facebook can start becoming friendlier to business users it might start actually making money, and 2) professionals are shit-scared about the economy and looking at social networks as great “Career Insurance” places to schmooze people you met once at a conference, snarfed their biz card and never had a use for.old friends.

Next to this was a piece from BusinessWeek, another in the seemingly endless series of kidney punches from the biz community about how newspapers are doomed, done for, goners, forks stuck into them and vultures already descending.

So who would profit from a disappearing newspaper? Local TV and cable, for starters. The city daily is still the biggest single media entity in virtually any market. Its main pitch to advertisers is brutally simple: We have more craniums to dent with your message than anyone else.

(snip)

Which brings me to a disquieting conclusion. The obvious venues for all this displaced journalistic energy are a gazillion new independent online endeavors, be they individual blogs or bigger efforts like MinnPost.com. They will make for fascinating media ecosystems within individual cities, and some will become hits. It is much less certain whether ad dollars will follow. Ultracheap classifieds site craigslist has simply “destroyed revenue,” [emph. mine – dlf] says Dave Morgan, a former newspaper executive who founded behavioral targeting firm Tacoda, and revenue that no longer exists won’t shift to new ventures. Others point out that key newspaper advertisers—local auto dealers and realtors, say—already have many outlets for ads online, not least of which are their own Web sites or national sites such as Cars.com that serve up targeted ads.

For those sensing untapped riches in ads from pizzerias and dry cleaners, well, good luck, says Borrell. “Local is a very unorganized and dirty business,” he says. “People look at local as this one-ton gorilla, but in fact it’s 2,000 one-pound monkeys.” And no publisher can afford to sit down with a city’s 2,000 small fry to sell each a $50 ad. The bitterest pill of all for newspaper denizens is that, while nature abhors a vacuum and all that, in this case there may not even be one left to fill.

Yowch. So newspapers will all just die, and by this point in time, they’ve become so irrelevant and useless that nobody will even really notice that they’re gone?  Sheesh.  Start passing out the pistols & hemlock in America’s newsrooms, eh?

El Tiempo's DIY interface. This is for their very profitable "Portafolio" spin-off site.

El Tiempo

I’m going to have to disagree with this nihilistic conclusion.  Yeah, I know the local online niche ad market is impossibly fragmented, and it would cost a publisher more to pay an ad sales rep than that person would produce in revenue.  Solution: don’t pay the ad rep.  Do what El Tiempo in Bogota calls “auto-pauta,” or DIY ads.  BTW, I really do recommend you click through on that link to El Tiempo.  They are one of the smartest operations out there, they are making piles of cash off internet ads, and they are constantly (ruthlessly, relentlessly) refining their approach.

Moreover. When you look at what the social networking sites are really selling their users, you start to come to the conclusion that what a local newspaper – correction: what the local newspaper of the future – offers can be a lot more compelling.

Think about what the users really want from these social net sites.  Chatting with friends, yeah sure. Blowing your own horn in a socially acceptable way, yessiree. Looking for the next step up on the ladder? Well, yeah … but the problem with a lot of the listings on the social net services is that they are from all over the place. Yeah, you can filter them. But we all know that most of the really good jobs are never spamadvertised like this.  We find them through referrals – which is where recruiters/headhunters come in. And local friends & business acquaintances.

One of the fastest-growing areas on LinkedIn is the “Question” section, where pros reach out to other pros in their groups, and ask something that’s on their mind.  They’re trying to have conversations.

That should be taking place at a newspaper site.  Sooner or later, it will.  Either the papers will replicate it and include it in their future selves, or they will do a Borg takeover.  The paper is a much more logical place for this kind of activity – it includes access to the reference materials from the past, a panel of trained experts to step in and help moderate the discussions, or kick new discussions off with provocative questions, and a huge archive of relevants facts and materials that can be used to make the conversations that much more valuable.

Example: One of the questions I’m participating in on LinkedIn is where to put your money now that the market is tanking so badly. There are some very smart market analysts chiming in here. But it would be nice to be able to have a window/panel open on the screen showing the various stock tables, and perhaps links to content locally that makes the point that some foreign markets are going to be able to ride out this storm, while others just get crushed.

The fact that biz users, those who have education & disposable income, have had to range far afield in search of information that they need to use in their careers, is an indictment of the lack of creative thinking at newspapers.   It will take time and effort to reverse the momentum … because the very users that papers covet most are abandoning papers.

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