Tuesday, 31 March 2015

If in doubt ... redesign

There are many reasons why a web site should be redesigned. Being stale is one, as is following a rebranding of the organisation it serves. Catching up with user habits and new technologies is yet another.

The arrival of a new iteration of the Bootstrap framework from Twitter, which reached version 3.1.4 a couple of weeks ago, coincided (coincidentally) with the launch of the latest version of the BBC's web site. Being one of the most visited online destinations in the world, and also being an organisation who generally try to 'do the right thing' when it comes to its publications, this is worth looking at in more detail.

While not linked, the two changes are connected in that both revolve around responsiveness. For quite a while, mobile users of the BBC web site had been redirected to a responsive version, and I have been using this regularly. I should also add that I use it instead of the BBC News app on my iPhone.

I suggest you start with Robin Pembrooke's blog piece entitled BBC News: a single web solution for everyone (One web to rule them all, perhaps). This links onwards to further background information. You should also read the comments: they do seem somewhat unhappy, but this could just be following the basic rule of comments that people complain (which allows specifics) rather than praise (which is more general). Personally I find the layout a bit large on a desktop screen, with some images not only over-sized but even over-stretched (a problem with responsive sizing of images), but on the whole I am happy to continue using it.

The image problem, whereby an image is set to fill a particular cell of the layout and so changes its displayed size dynamically, is a symptom of the increasing reliance on JavaScript to manage the layout based on things such as window width. This runs counter to the older guideline that you should tell the browser how large something is before it renders the page. This can be bad enough on a desktop but on a phone it can be really irritating as things you start reading suddenly disappear below the fold as the browser inserts an image further up the page. For the latest kit with fast processors and download speeds this will be disguised by the speed at which the page is put together but a slow connection or a slower browser can make this build process very evident. (I should add that this isn't a problem I've seen on the BBC site.)

If you can, then, see how your responsive pages render on slower systems.

Of course, sites don't always have to keep revamping themselves if they just work from the start. I regularly use the MacInTouch web site and this doesn't appear to have changed ever. No images, no advertising banners (apart from a funding plea), but plenty of useful content.

Update 1st April: After getting on for a lifetime, MacInTouch changed their design today! Were they listening? It's still simple though ... and hopefully not an 'April Fool' prank.

Update 2nd April: It was an 'April Fool' prank. Ah well ... back to the spaghetti tree harvest.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Access and accessibility in digital: Issues in vogue for the UK

I started off looking up some present trends in digital accessibility but ended with some surprising stats on the UK’s lack of basic digital access that upstaged ‘accessibility’ somewhat.

So, I’ll try to blend the key points from both salient issues although it may involve a bit of leap-frogging on your part. But if you’re part of digital already, that’s par for the course, right?

I’m sure that many of us will do a double take at the focused, hard-nosed approach taken by none other than the Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills. They published their Report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, on Feb 17th. It actually is easy to read, hard-hitting and sounds sensible. Yes, quite a shock. Suddenly what all of us in digital have all been saying for years has reached a crescendo of warning bells for the UK. Am-Az-Ing! If I just throw out a few tasters from the report, you’ll see what I mean.
  • A report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 2013, meanwhile, found that the size of the digital economy was almost double official estimates.... Digital technology is pervasive across all aspects of life, so much so that the ‘digital economy’ is becoming synonymous with the national economy.
  • Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. ... It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies.
  • All of this will require universal access to the internet to engage with vital public and personal services. That is why we conclude that the Government should define the internet as a utility service, available for all to access and use.
  • The new digital age offers huge opportunities as well as significant risks; it can make the UK, or break it.
  • Access to digital technologies
    • 49. Objective 1: The population as a whole has unimpeded access to digital technology.
    • 50. This includes:
      • facilitation of universal internet access: the internet is viewed as a utility; and
      • removing ‘not-spots’ in urban areas
The BBC News, Digital skills should be core subjects, says the report (17 Feb 2015), highlights the following stats that are pretty shocking. In themselves, they relate to ‘access’ and motivation. No wonder the report is hard-hitting. The Select committee genuinely believe that the UK is at a tipping point that undermines the economic health of the country.
  • A digital divide persists in the UK, with some six million citizens never having used the internet and 9.5 million lacking adequate digital skills, partly because they have been "poorly served at school", the report warns.
Well, with such basics as hard infrastructure of access to superfast broadband and soft infrastructure of digital skills in the population under the microscope, you’ll see why I got a bit side-tracked.

So here’s the counterpart about ‘accessibility’ of sites. Once people are accessing sites, they need to be easy and straightforward to use. Again, some stats worth noting are:
  • the UK’s 12 million disabled people have a spending power of £120 billion
  • accessible sites are 35% more usable by everyone whether they have special access needs or not
Ability Net, Web Accessibility Resources, This site has many pointers to accessibility resources so it’s worth noting.

Better Connected’, is a report about the accessibility of council web sites that has been done annually for 17 years. There was a massive dip in performance in 2013 that the report’s originators, Soctim, put down to the poor testing of mobile sites. Soctim uses people with disabilities to test the sites. Many might not understand the range of disabilities that can cause problems with sites such as dyslexia, learning difficulties and poor vision. The Digital Accessibility Centre has a good resources page with some free testing that you might find useful.

This is a larger blog than usual but you can see why. I hope.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

‘Searching for unicorns’: good Digital Project Managers

I liked this description although it seems to suggest that good digital project managers are elusive!

As the role expands with the number of electronic communication channels increasing, the basics of good project management don’t change although the emphasis on what the flavour of the month is does.

What is happening to the role? Well, the number of jobs for digital project managers is increasing as are their salaries. That’s the good news. Defining the specialities within the role that are needed for emerging social media, marketing, e-learning, platforms, and so on, is challenging for those seeking ‘the unicorn’. Many digital project managers have just dealt with an expanding role as it happened not realising that they were specialising. Many and varied channels were just part of the job. This expansion of the role explains why the search for new people often gets divided into Senior, Middleweight and Junior Digital Project Managers. The quote about unicorns comes from Adam Edgerton’s The Successful Digital PM Part 1 (6 May 2013) and is part of a 5 part analysis of the role.

There’s no better way of keeping up-to-date on what’s happening than getting other people to define and collate trends. Now DPM UK 2015 was a recent two day conference just for Digital PMs. Did you miss it? Keep an eye out for next year’s. They don’t give a summary yet although they say it’s coming, but Sarah Clarke gives a succinct account of the conference in the White October blog (6 February 2015). It appears that the current flavour for digital project management emphasises people management. And why not? So the snippet of advice from Sarah learnt from the conference is: ‘We’re all humans trying to do our best. Sometimes we mess up. Admit it, deal with it, move on.’

Luckily for us, someone is finally analysing strategic trends in the UK digital sector. These types of reports are good news for us because they show we are beginning to be taken seriously enough to influence UK performance. The Tech Nation Report looks at cluster growth of technology firms and how they affect a region. Scroll down the page to reach some highlights out of the report. Danny Palmer in Computing, The technology sector is thriving across the UK (6 February 2015), extracts some facts from the report. He cites 1.46 million people working in the digital industries with 74% outside London. There are some conflicting opinions about whether there is a skills shortage in the sector or not in and accompanying this article, but the report itself states one million jobs were advertised last year and by 2020 there will be a 5.4% growth (above average) in the sector.

Seen any unicorns recently?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Accuracy and meaning

My eye was caught this morning by two unrelated news items but which have in common the ideas of accuracy and meaning. How can a seemingly small change be significant?

In some ways my first isn't a small change: the BBC Arabic Service have said they will not describe an act as terrorism or a person as a terrorist. Instead the terminology will be more specific, such as bomber or attacker or gunman. There's an interesting analysis of this by Memphis Barker in the Independent. Apparently this stance is already reflected in the BBC's editorial guidelines which say that the BBC "does not ban the use of the word. However, we do ask that careful thought is given to its use by a BBC voice."

The word itself is interesting in that it derives from the French terrorisme which specifically referred to the then French government's reign of terror.

That said, use of the word, and by extension any emotive word, needs to be carefully considered, especially if it has connotations beyond its literal meaning. Such risk can be exacerbated when working out pithy and attractive headings for web pages (and stories in newspapers), and avoidance of such problems is part of the skill of the newspaper sub-editor. If you're writing for a blog or web site then you will also be taking on that role. If you're an organisation like the BBC then communicating with 'your voice' is also a factor. Are your clients big enough to think this way too?

My second example is something to strike fear into the hearts of anyone running databases: can a small error be catastrophic?

In recording data about companies that had been wound up, the UK companies registrar, Companies House, accidentally failed to notice a letter 'S' in a company name that should not have been there. Taylor & Sons Ltd had not gone into liquidation, it was Taylor & Son Ltd. As this Guardian piece explains, that single letter cost Taylor & Sons dear ... it really did go out of business ... and now, even though they corrected the mistake after three days, Companies House have to carry the can to the tune of what is likely to be several million pounds.

This kind of error can be caused during data prep, when the data is input, or during processing or data retrieval. From your company point of view, it would probably be covered by professional indemnity insurance, should there be a financial liability. Sometimes, however, it might just be embarrassing. In the BBC Domesday Project, an inadvertent error made the UK seem to be highly radioactive. Fortunately it was noticed before publication and fixed by a software engineer doing the data equivalent of a high wire act to correct a single byte of data.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Children and social media sites

This is a bit of a nightmare for parents and has been for several years. Are you a parent? Do you know what sites your children are using? What data are they sharing? Does it include data about you? Are the sites offering inappropriate content – sexual, self-harm, bullying or violent among others? Did you know that the number of children receiving hurtful cyber-bullying messages rose from 8 to 12% in the last 4 years.

This issue is so sensitive that parents feel vulnerable. It is hard to find out about privacy settings, safety information, where and what to report. It’s all very well, you might say, we’re not dealing directly with this issue. It’s another side of ‘tech’. Well, have you considered advising your clients (where parents might shop/seek information etc.) that they might include a ‘parent’s social media guide’ or the equivalent on their sites? This wins on all fronts – moral, social responsibility, ethical, good branding association, positive thinking and the rest. Yes, you might have to research the topic to do it justice and make sure the information is updated regularly on the client’s site by whatever means agreed, but, worth considering, don’t you think?

With all this in mind, here are a few links to get you started.
It’s not all bad news though so maybe we can point out the positive side of social media as well.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Back to basics: controlling your digital projects

Moan, moan, moan. Yes, it’s the January blues time and the last thing you and your team may want to hear is ‘back to basics’! It’s a nasty fact though that a festive break allows time not just for you and your team to recharge your think-tanks but for your clients and stakeholders to recharge theirs also. We know what that means – lots of new ideas and changes suggested to the project! Changes mean disruption to time, cost and quality. Panic is allowed – quietly. You have put in the controls, haven’t you? It’s time to remind all that changes and even improvements are possible but at a new schedule and cost.

Estimating any time implications and therefore costs of changes is always problematic. But Ben Aston gives a really good tip about ‘question when questioning’, meaning that when your team members come back to you with an estimate about what the changes will cost, you question them as to how they reached that figure. Together you’ll find that you revise the figure to be more accurate by recognising where some gaps in thinking have occurred. This is good training for your team member and yourself because both of you will work in the refining process and learn along the way from each other. You’ll find Ben’s other tips useful too.

See Ben Aston’s, Creating timing plans: a summary (December 12 2014)

Paul Spencer has a down-to-earth approach to project management. His tips may not be specific to digital projects but common sense is common sense. The tip I like best is a reminder that defining the scope of a project is not just about what you will achieve but also what you will not do. That’s equally important to define or your clients will push the boundaries quite happily at your expense. If you want a humourous motivator for an individual team member, or, just yourself, take a look at his animation at the Digital Doctorate for Bristol Graduate school. It’s about moving a vision or an idea to fruition which is like taking a digital project through its cycle.

And, in the spirit of New Year and being positive, what about championing yourself and your fellow digital project managers. It is true that few appreciate the difference you really make to projects. You do have skills and expertise that set you apart from the others in the team. Many of them really wouldn’t want your role even though they might moan about you – openly or not!

If you feel your role isn’t appreciated spread a little of Paul Boag’s Be proud of your digital project managers’ around. Do you agree that there should be a Digital Project Manager of the Year award as an incentive for people to recognise your value? What else would you suggest?

Happy New Year.