White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen, a Book Review

White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen

White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen is a beginning design book. And I purchased it because I definitely need assistance with design. While I (at least I think I do) have something of an understanding of which color goes with which, it is sometimes difficult for me to make something look good. Seeking some inexpensive professional help, I turned to this book.

Practical Help

White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen

So apart from the obvious title, the book offers tips on color combinations, font selection, focal points and even how to prepare a document for a professional print job. And the chapter on design sins really resonated with me. I have seen poorly designed advertisements (both online and offline) and websites, and have never really been able to adequately articulate just why they were so hideous. So now I can.

Exercises

The exercises in the back of each chapter seemed, I thought, somewhat superfluous. However, I did find myself beginning to look at designs with a more critical eye. For example, I noticed a print advertisement where the background photograph was of varied colors. Some were light, some, dark. The print, however, was pure white, and cut horizontally along the middle of the photograph. Hence this would have been fine, except the copy crashed straight into a white space, so some of the print was invisible. Which part? The company’s name. Epic design fail.

Foolproof

Another extremely helpful chapter: the one on the “works every time” layout. This layout is all over the Internet and all over print media, and for good reason. It is, essentially, a full width photograph or other graphic across the top third of the screen or page, with the remaining two-thirds divided into two vertical columns for text. A cutline (caption) goes directly underneath the visual (if appropriate; some visuals don’t need a cutline), with a more prominent headline directly below that.

Break up the columns into paragraphs and beware widows and orphans (one or two short words on a line). Place tags (these aren’t Internet meta tags), which are the logo, company name and small nugget of information such as the URL or physical address, in the lower right-hand corner. In addition, round it all out with generous margins all around. Voila! An instant beautiful (albeit somewhat common) layout!

If nothing else, that chapter has a greater value than the price of admission.

Learning Creativity

Creativity cannot, truly, be taught. But the peripherals around it can, such as how to gather ideas and nurture them, and how to place those ideas together in a coherent format. It’s like teaching pottery and smithing but not cookery: you get enough so that you can set the table, but not nourish anyone.

For that, you need to be an artist. And that, sadly, no book can ever teach you.

Rating

5/5

Avinash Kaushik’s Web Analytics 2.0, a Book Review

Avinash Kaushik‘s Web Analytics 2.0 – Yeah, I’m a Fan

Web Analytics Matter!

We Go Way Back

First of all, the first book that truly caught my eye and made a huge impression on me was Avinash Kaushik’s Web Analytics 2.0: The Art of Online Accountability and Science of Customer Centricity.

Avinash Kaushik's Web Analytics 2.0

As a (hopefully) former data person, I can relate to the idea of needing analytics. E. g., the measurements of how your website does. Why do you want to measure? Why, you need to see whether your message is actually going anywhere.

For e-commerce sites, the ultimate test is, naturally, whether you’re getting sales. But it’s hard to tell – particularly in a complex organization – whether the website drives sales or offline marketing efforts. And even measuring orders via these channels may not tell the entire story, as customers may see offline advertising and then come online to buy, or they may do the reverse and buy in-store after researching a product online. Or they could just be coming online to think about it and compare and mull it over and could convert to a paying customer days or weeks or months later. Or never.

What if You’re Not in e-Commerce?

And what about sites (such as my own) where nothing is offered for sale? My ultimate customer becomes, of course, someone to hire me, either permanently or temporarily. And this would mean as a consultant or a partner or a founder or a director or whatever, but that might be months away. What happens in the meantime? I might be able to dope some of that out with SEO and seeing where I am in search engine rankings, but just because people can find my site doesn’t mean they’re going to convert into hiring me or are even in a position to do so. My mother (hi, Mom!) can find my site and read it, but she won’t hire me any time soon. Unless I want to come and clean the gutters or something.

How do you or I know what’s happening?

Enter analytics.

It is, admittedly, still an imperfect science. But Mr. Kaushik breaks it down and describes the reports that you need to understand what’s happening with your site. He talks about what is essentially a Trinity strategy: experience, behavior and outcomes.

User Experience

It’s not enough to just track sales (outcomes). It’s also about user experience and behavior. This is much like in the offline world, if you think about it. Going to a restaurant is an experience and many of them are packaged as such. But it is a far different experience going to a McDonald’s or a Chik-Fil-A versus a Bertucci’s. And that experience differs from going to Legal Seafood‘s which in turn is different from Blue Ginger (celebrity chef Ming Tsai‘s restaurant). You can intake the same amount of calories. You might even be able to get in the same quality and types of nutrition. And you might enjoy a Big Mac as much as you enjoy one of Chef Tsai’s specialties. Aside from price, what are the differences?

What Sort of User Experience?

When you go to a McDonald’s, a part of the price is wrapped up in the experience. For chain entities in particular, it’s about sameness and predictability. If you find yourself in rural Oshkosh and have never been there before, you see the golden arches and you realize what to expect. For Bertucci’s, even though it costs more and there’s table service, there’s a similar vibe. You go there because you can depend upon it to be a certain way. And Blue Ginger is also dependable in the sense that it’s very upscale so you know you are going to be treated a certain way and it will look a particular way and presumably the food will taste in a way that reflects that kind of investment, both by you and by Mr. Tsai and his team.

Enhanced User Experience

Mr. Kaushik shows how understanding analytics can help you to enhance user experience.  And this, ultimately, drives user behavior. While conversions (sales) are the ultimate in user behaviors, he doesn’t forget about other valid behaviors.

Hence for the e-commerce site, product research is a valid and valuable behavior. So is printing a map to a brick and mortar store. Or comparing prices.

And for a non-e-commerce venture (again, I’ll use myself as an example), valid user (reader) behaviors are things like reading my writings and getting to know me. I put myself out there in order to be known, because that’s a piece of the hiring puzzle (why are there interviews — it’s not to know about skills, which should already be known. It’s to see if there’s a personality and a culture fit). Plus it enhances networking. Know me, think I’m worthwhile (at least, I hope you do) and you might think of a place where they might need me, or someone I should meet. And I do the same, in turn, for you. And cosmic karma gets us both into better places.

Back to the Book

But I digress. Let’s get back to the book.

The book has a lively, engaging style. It’s long but I sailed through it. And Mr. Kaushik (who is very gracious and seems to be very approachable, by the way) is clearly having fun and loves what he does. It’s a refreshing joy to read a book where the author is constantly delighted.

Read his book. Learn about analytics. Make the web a better place.

May your bounce rate be low, and your conversion rate high!

Rating

5/5

The Power of Social Media (Neurotic Writers’ Edition)

The Power of Social Media (Neurotic Writers’ Edition)

Chicken Scratch

Neurotic Writers. I know aspiring writers.

You probably do, too. There are lots of people with a Adventures in Career Changing | Janet Gershen-Siegel | Quill | Neurotic Writersmanuscript out there … somewhere. Perhaps it’s just in a hard drive. Or maybe it’s been uploaded to a fiction site. Or perhaps it has gotten a little exposure by having a chapter or a tantalizing fragment tossed onto a forums site. It might take the form of a blog (Gee, I wonder if I’m doing that …?). There are some that are typed (Remember that?). Others are only in long hand. And still others are locked away in brain form only.

Attention Monsters, All

Neurotic Writers
Social Media Iceberg (Photo credit: Intersection Consulting)

Whatever form it has taken, there is one thing I have learned about aspiring writers (And this includes fan fiction writers, by the way. Don’t dis ’em; they care about what they do, too!). This may also be true of established writers as well. I’m not even so sure where “established” starts happening. If it starts when you’ve gotten a check for writing, then count me in the established camp. If not, well, then it might be that I am still waiting for my established writer card. But I digress. What have I learned about aspiring writers?

It’s that we are all attention monsters.

We all crave attention. But it’s more than just “Look at me! Look at me!” Instead, it’s more like, “Please oh please oh please read my stuff and leave detailed feedback so I know you really read it and don’t forget to tell me how kick-bun awesome I am!

Er, yeah.

Now, pretty much everyone on the planet adores hugs and positive attention and love and happiness. For aspiring writers, though, it’s poured onto a page. The soul is naked, for all to poke at (Erm, that wasn’t meant to evoke an NC-17 image. Shame on you for thinking so. And now that’s all you can think of, am I right?). It is scary and it is daunting. And it is exhilarating when you get even a scrap of positive feedback.

Enter Social Media

For aspiring writers with a backbone and a somewhat thicker skin, social media can be a way to get some of that craved feedback.

How?

The first and probably most obvious method is to have a Twitter stream dedicated to your writing. I doubt that most people want to read about writer’s block, so you need to have something going on. Perhaps you could write about inspirations, or earlier works, or how things fit together in your universe.

Hence I am also talking about a blog. You can blog about writing. The creative process can be fascinating for people who are into it. Maybe you’d like to review your own work, and comment on what you’ve learned, and how you’ve grown as an author. Put both of these together, and you’ve got a pretty dynamic combination. You write, you blog about it and then you tweet about your blog posts and your writing.

Plus writing begets writing. Even blog writing (which is a rather different animal from book-writing) can help keep writer’s block at bay. It helps to exercise these muscles fairly regularly.

Another Option?

Post on social sites. Hence for fan fiction, there is Fanfiction.net. And for purely original stories, they have a sister site, Fiction Press. Or try Wattpad. In addition, plenty of more specialized fiction and fan fiction sites exist. Google is your friend!

Be aware of scams; they do exist. Furthermore, putting your work out there does not guarantee that you retain full rights to it. And this is despite the laws in your own country. In addition, understand there’s a lot of plagiarism and downright theft out there. So remain as cautious as with any other information you put online.

Understand, too, that if you neurotic writers are going to submit to a traditional publisher, they often don’t want you to have posted your story elsewhere beforehand. Because this has to do with the full rights to your product. Hence you might want to put out your smaller or less important works, and save your really big one, if you are ever planning to submit to a traditional publishing house.

Competitions

Yet another option is competitions. Here’s one, at America’s Next Author. Because the inspiration from this blog post came from learning that a friend had a story in this competition. The competition ran as a pure social media experiment. Hence, while good storytelling and story-crafting matter, so does publicity. Like with any other social media site, “likes”, comments and popularity all play a role. For my friend, and for others trying to make it, putting the link onto Facebook or Twitter is essential to getting the word out. Even this blog post is helpful (FYI, and just for the record, this post is my own idea and she did not request or suggest it).

The Reader End of Things

The community of aspiring writers is, truly, a community. And that means give and take. What kind of give and take? The kind that goes along with reviews and comments. Because for those who are trying to write for a living, commenting and reviewing should be a part of that. Readily and cheerfully provide constructive criticism, if desired.

Aspiring neurotic writers write for exposure. And often they get exposure from fellow aspirants. What better way to forge a sense of community than to read one another’s works, and comment thereon?

The Upshot of It All

For those of us neurotic writers who put it out there every day, who bare ourselves and our souls with prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, fan or wholly original, short story or multi-novel series, we all have a major issue in common – we want recognition. We don’t even necessarily want to be famous, but we want to be the one at the fireside who spins a yarn as others sit, enraptured. And with social media, we hope, there just might be some people listening.

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter, a Book Review

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter

Joshua Porter had some interesting ideas.

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter was recommended to me by Kevin Palmer as a good read about the fundamentals of creating and perfecting online communities and social software.

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter

Not How, But Why

The book is less of a how-to and more of a why-to, if that makes sense. If you’re looking for code examples, look elsewhere. Instead, the book covers theory and explains how and why certain tasks need to be done.

Essentially, any social site, whether in the shape of forums or something else, faces the following user hurdles:

  1. Pay attention – users need to have an idea that they want your software, product, services, etc.
  2. Decision to sign up
  3. Input personal information
  4. Pay money (if applicable)
  5. Decide for someone else (if applicable)
  6. Give up the old way of doing things

Back Up a Second

Frankly, there’s even one item before #1, call it #0 if you will: the potential user must understand that he or she has a need. And, hand in hand with that, the potential user also needs to decide to fulfill that need online. Hence if a potential user, say, decides that they want support because they’ve just gotten a cancer diagnosis, but they further decide to only get their support via an in-person group and not an online board then, so far as you’re concerned, it’s game over. After all, not everyone “gets” the social aspect of the web.

Get Over Those Hurdles

Joshua Porter covers the handling of some of these basic hurdles, such as designing to favor signing up and hanging around. One main point he makes is: don’t make signing up too arduous a task. And its corollary: don’t ask for information you don’t need. Far too often, sites ask for what ends up being ludicrous levels of granularity of detail. After all, when was the last time that anyone, really, needed your middle name for you to apply for a job? Yet sites ask for this trivial piece of data. And, even if they don’t require it, that begs the question even further. Why is the field even there in the first place if the site so openly acknowledges that it’s just plain unnecessary?

Eight Seconds to Impress

Porter makes the point all too forcefully: the decision to sign up for an online service is made in eight seconds. That’s an awfully short window of opportunity to convince a potential user that his or her time and attention should be paid to you and not your competition.

The book abounds with these kinds of helpful nuggets, and is also chockful of references to blogs and books to support the author’s recommendations. The generous sprinkling of citations was helpful as it was a clear signpost suggesting online readings. It can seem counterintuitive to learn about designing for the web by reading a completely offline book. Porter’s work bridges the gap back to the web and lets the reader in on where to find more information situated a lot closer to where the reader is going to be placing new social software or services.

A Quibble

Finally, Designing for the Social Web does not seem to draw an overall conclusion. Rather, the book instead seems to simply run out of gas in the end. It’s as if the author had run out of what to say. Hence a final upshot or even some words of encouragement would have, I feel, helped. But that’s a small issue with an otherwise interesting and eminently practical work.

Rating

4/5

Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, a Book Review

Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson

Kristina Halvorson has really got something here.

Content Strategy for the Web is a short, snappy read that combines information about Content Strategy as a discipline with tips and tricks for throwing a lasso around your own company/site’s content.

Kristina Halvorson
content-strategy-burger (Photo credit: raphaelle_ridarch)

Kristina Halvorson is essentially the doyenne of Content Strategy. Her main ideas:

  • You probably need less content and not more.

Figure out which content you’ve got and archive whatever isn’t working for you, e. g. fulfilling some sort of purpose. Good purposes include building trust and expertise, answering customer questions and facilitating sales. Not such good purposes are things like get some content out there because we’re naked without it!

Archive that Stuff!

  • For whatever currently published content that does not fulfill a good purpose, either archive it or get rid of it entirely. It does not help you, and it may very well harm your company.

Get Organized

  • Get someone in charge of content. Not surprisingly, a Content Strategist comes to mind but definitely get someone to steer the ship.
  • Listen to the customers and the company regarding content. The company may be setting out content that’s confusing to the users. The users may be asking for something that can’t quite work. It may or may not be in the company’s best interests to fix either problem, but at least you’ll know what the issue is and,
  • Start asking why content exists out there in the first place.

This process begins with a content audit, e. g. know what you’ve got out there. Then talk to the users. And, once these processes are completed, one can start to think of a strategy.

Yes, it’s really that much time before actually creating any content. Why? Because doing the ramp-up now will save a lot of headaches later. Think it’s a bear to audit and check every single piece of content on your site now? How are you going to feel about it next year?

I bet you’d be thrilled to only have as much content to deal with as you have right now, at this very moment. So start swinging that lasso now. It’s time to audit.

I have to say, while I can see where Ms. Halvorson is coming from. Furthermore, there was also a large chunk of the book devoted to, essentially, justifying the Content Strategist’s existence. And perhaps this is necessary with a new discipline — I don’t know. But it does make for an edge of defiance, e. g. this discipline is good enough!

It is. Don’t worry.

Rating

Review: 4/5 stars.

Writing

Writing

Writing rules.

Writing
The Nano Rhino says… (Photo credit: mpclemens)

The Before Time, Where There was Weeping and Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth

One aspect of my career transition consists of writing a lot more.

And I found that I had truly missed it.

Sure, I had typed tons and tons of stuff before. But a lot of it covered such thrilling topics as documenting queries, or making lists of terms used by public service officers. It very rarely encompassed topics with wit, or style. And I certainly did not have permission to make up any of it.

NaNoWriMo, I Love You

I had known about NaNoWriMo for a while, but hadn’t thought I had anything to offer.

In 2013, I woke up with an idea during the last week of October. I created a wiki and an outline for it, and signed up.

And I wrote. And wrote. Writing

Then about halfway through the month, I had finished. By the end of the month, the story was edited.

Now the Real Fun Begins

Writing

Because, yes, it was published.

It was and is the right thing to do, and the right path.

In addition, it feels fun. And it feels exciting. It feels like it’s a fit.

Furthermore, it does not feel like something where I’m stretching to fit into someone else’s idea, or parallel someone else’s vision. And I certainly don’t feel like I was going through the motions. In addition, it does not feel like ho-hum, same old-same old.

It feels right. And it feels honest. So it feels free. It feels good.

And it feels like it’s about damned time already.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Review: Killer UX Design by Jodie Moule

Book Review: Killer UX Design by Jodie Moule

Killer UX Design by Jodie Moule is a decent beginning book on user-centered design. What was probably of most interest to me was how close the process of user-centered design (at least, according to Ms. Moule) is to iterative software development.

Book Review: Killer UX Design by Jodie Moule
Iterative Development Model (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that anyone who is familiar at all with iterative software development might not need all of the basic information provided in this work.

Not High Tech Enough?

Further, I found that Ms. Moule pushed for a lot of rather manual and paper-centric activities surrounding design. While roughly sketching out a design or even a set of wireframes might be of great use to designers, those of us mere mortals who really can’t draw are going to end up with a lot of incoherent scribbles. My understanding is that Visio or even Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator would be the tools for this. Not that I don’t mind a cheaper and probably faster solution. But if all the illustrator can do is barely draw a circle or a square and a few stick figures, these sketches won’t necessarily make anything easier or more comprehensible.

Involving Users

Another curious aspect of the book was Ms. Moule’s push to involve users in numerous phases of the project. This made a great deal of sense. She starts users off with a kind of homework where they write about what interests them in the upcoming project. Users are invited to look at the sketches (again, bad sketches don’t necessarily help anyone, I feel). They are invited to evaluate the manufactured prototype, and to beta test the initial product and take it out for a spin. To my mind, the often manual and paper-based aspects of this made more sense, as users don’t always have access to the kind of technology, hardware and software, and talent that professional designers are going to have as a matter of course.

Furthermore, the book reads well. However, the end portions of each chapter (and of the entire book itself) end up as really the only parts that you need to know. The remaining details are all well and good. However, since I already knew the basics of iterative software development, they were a bit superfluous to me.

The book is better than average and is certainly of help. Hence readers with less experience with iterative software development will likely rate this work higher than I do.

Rating

3/5

Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

As a part of the Quinnipiac social media writing class, we were required to purchase and reference The Elements of Style (illustrated) by William Strunk, E. B. White, and Maira Kalman.

Rather than just reference this work, I read it from cover to cover. And it turned out to be an easy read, considerably more comprehensive and better than I had remembered.

Simple Rules

Simple rules emerge in clear and concise prose which never talks down to the reader. It contains all of the rules that so many people should known, and should have learned years ago. Yet these days it seems that so many people just plain don’t know.

Case in point: forming possessives. Therefore, on Page 1 the guide just says, “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”

That’s it, no more.

Information about punctuation remains equally succinct. Hence on Page 15, the guide says,

“A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”

Easy to follow and remember, the above two sentences tell more about colons, semicolons, and dashes than I think I learned in most of my formal education.

Furthermore, language comes across as something knowable, with rules and formal logic, instead of what English can sometimes seem like, e. g. a messy stew of words from all over the world.

Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

The Elements of Style (illustrated)

Write better.

Review: 5/5 stars.

Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple, a Book Review

Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple

Michael Fleischner‘s SEO Made Simple is a terrific book about search engine optimization.

Michael Fleischner's SEO Made Simple

First of all, written in a straightforward and engaging style, Mr. Fleischner makes his point: in order to dominate search engine listings, you need to make yourself known. Furthermore, you need to get your keywords into your website (but not stuffed there!) in a logical and natural manner.

Yahoo and MSN

Mr. Fleischner’s sole focus is Google but he does talk a bit about Yahoo and MSN. Furthermore, the reason to zero in on Google is made immediately apparent by the fifteenth page: Google is dominant. Here’s how the percentages of search stack up (he got his numbers from comScore for SearchEngineWatch.com)

  • Google: 43.7%
  • Yahoo: 28.8%
  • MSN: 12.8%
  • AOL: 5.9%
  • Ask: 5.4%
  • Others: 3.4%

Hence Google matters – but so do Yahoo and MSN, particularly when you consider that, combined, their share is nearly identical to Google’s. Yet don’t worry: many of the techniques Mr. Fleischner advocates will help with your placement on those search engines, too.

White Hat

White hat techniques abound, everything from adding unique keywords on each page to making sure that your page’s overall design doesn’t keep the spiders and crawlers from doing their thing. And that’s just on-site optimization. In addition, he also covers off-site optimization, e. g. writing and distributing articles, or generating press releases.

Furthermore, interestingly enough, there is little to no information on working the social media angle, e. g. Tweeting the existence of new blog posts or announcing page updates, adding similar information to one’s LinkedIn or Facebook statuses, or creating a fan page for your work (or, better yet, getting someone else to do that). However, that is, in part, a function of this being a book and not an e-book – there’s a time lag between going to press and the actual production of a paper book. Hence information is sometimes not as fresh as desired.

Instincts

However, there’s still plenty in here, for the serious web entrepreneur and the hobbyist. In addition, for someone like me, one great piece of it was some validation that I’ve got pretty good instincts when it comes to my own social media website. Oh, and if you’re paying attention – you’ll see that I just practiced two of his techniques in this very paragraph.

Dominate Google and get noticed. It’s that simple.

Rating

4/5

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, a Book Review

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies

I don’t mind reviewing a book with the word “Dummies” in the title. It helped me – I’ll even admit that.

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies is an interesting first book on website creation and design. As a bonus, it includes a CD with examples and code.

Andy Harris's HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies

Code

The book wastes no time and, by the tenth page, you’re already writing a little code. Mr. Harris’s style is to learn by doing. You read, you type, you copy what he’s written, you try it out. I found myself almost immediately altering his work to see what would happen. When the code didn’t break, or if it could be fairly readily fixed, it was a victory.

All concepts are explained, even those which may at the time seem like overkill, such as the practical differences among the .jpg, .gif and .bmp image formats. One of the earlier concepts explained is why CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the way to go. By the time you get to Chapter Two of the first book (the book is divided into eight mini-books), Mr. Harris is already talking about online validation. And that’s a good thing, as that by itself can help a novice web developer to fix recalcitrant code.

No Design and No SEO

There is very little about design and virtually nothing on SEO. Whether that is a pitch to bundle Sue Jenkins’s Web Design All-in-One for Dummies book with this one, I don’t know. The ploy works, though, and Amazon reports that the two books are often purchased together. I was able to jump in and create my own social media website while I was in the process of reading this book. I also must add — Mr. Harris is jazzed about what he does. And that help you to become excited about what you can do with HTML code, CSS and XML, and even JavaScript and PHP/MySQL.

Basics

Between the two of them, read this one first and learn the basics for creating your website. Then read the design book in order to give it some beauty. But lay the foundation first.

Rating

3/5