Usability

26

Nov 2010

Is investing in internet security worth the money?

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When I came into possession of my first Mac computer, I was giddy at the thought of a computer that, back then at least, was completely immune to viruses simply because it couldn’t run them. For once, the fact a Mac wasn’t able to run .exe files was a major advantage.

How times have changed.

Like many diseases, computer viruses will continue to evolve, and now they’ve spread to Apple computers. Realistically, you’re still far less at risk than you are on a Windows machine, but you’ve got to keep an eye out. It’s an ignorant Mac geek that clicks on anything with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to challenge the virus gods above. But are you wasting money when you can make your own security?

Take a look at external hard drives. Fully encryptable, easily partitioned and getting cheaper by the second (especially thanks to Black Friday – one thing I’ll give a happy nod to US commercialism for), they’re ideal. When I finished my novel for National Novel Writing month the other day, I backed up, and I new that by applying various security techniques I was, in a sense, making my own little system that was more customised and reliable than something I could grab out of Regent Street’s Apple store.

The problem with internet security is that it’s a little bit of a polarised market when it comes to pricing. It’s either ridiculously overpriced for what it is (Norton, I’m looking at you) or such good value you begin to wonder how effective it really is (sorry Kapersky, I know you’re great and all, but it’s a viable worry). A lot of antivirus suites claim to be fantastic at what they do, but frankly some of them are so overkill you end up firewalling off bits of your network you’ll need access to when you don’t have the time to fix it, and of course the endless lag that comes with the daily sweep for malicious code lurking in your hard drive.

Of course, many people will point to machines like the iPad and list them as something so simple they couldn’t be infected, as they plug their Amazon passwords and bank login details into a browser they’re not 100% sure is safe. But the fact of the matter is, you’re never going to beat the little fellows out there who want your money. For you, it’s a tragedy, but for them, it’s a business strategy. They acquire funds, your funds, your online reputation, and soon enough the cash is rolling in and you’re wondering which idiot at work told you the Apple logo meant “be as careless as you like, man, it’s all good.”

Looking back at the past fortnight, I’ve delved quite a bit into spam, though I suppose that’s because I’ve been inspired by a spate of recent events. After having an email address that lay in blissful ignorance (somehow) of spam for a year or more, it now regularly fills its little Spam Folder with offers of Russian matrimony, larger appendages and other pointless, materialistic fripperies that don’t actually exist outside the fake logos and dodgy spelling. But as long as you prepare yourself – sort your antivirus, learn your numeric unlock codes, don’t be arrogant with Mac computers – you’ll be fine.

We all get viruses from time to time, whether in real life (winter, ah, don’t you just love it?) or digitally, and hopefully with a bit of logical thinking, neither will ruin your Christmas. Just remember that those emails are fake, your spam comments are mostly spam, but not always, and of course, never think your Facebook is of no value as a hacked account used for marketing. We all have our vulnerable moments. Just make sure yours aren’t digital.

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23

Jul 2010

Half a billion and counting…

Posted in Contact, Usability | 0 Comments

Yep, it’s official – Facebook has hit 500 million users, and the internet continues its struggle for dominance over our lives and minds. Quite frankly, I think it happened years ago, but I’m sure many people paranoid about how much time they really spend on social networking sites would love to disagree with me, especially in front of their line manager.

Sometimes, I wonder how big Facebook’s going to get, really. With Mark Zuckerberg due to appear on The Simpsons, Facebook’s fame will be cemented in history, a history that is now digitally catalogued, stored, and compiled into the amateur encyclopaedia that is Wikipedia. That being said, are we truly grateful to Facebook for what it’s done to the internet?

For one thing, it’s connected 500 million people, and you simply can’t disagree with that statistic. It’s an incredible achievement, and one that the forefathers of the World Wide Web would be proud to see occur. However, it also means 500 million people are slowly exposing more and more of themselves to their employers, rivals, the press and to the darker agents sifting through Facebook’s many groups and friend networks.

It’s like the six degrees of separation, only multiplied to the nth degree. People are losing their jobs after whining about their employers, but that’s only possible because they’re publicising the wrong parts of themselves. If you’re a high-profile businessman, that gallery of Bangkok pictures is probably a silly idea. Basic stuff, no?

It just proves we’re still learning when it comes to technology that made its debut less than a couple of decades earlier. People are still releasing potentially harmful information about themselves onto the web, other people (or, intelligence-wise, the same people, really) are buying the iPhone 4 despite the recorded flaws, and most still get Windows releases even though we know they won’t work near-perfectly for almost half a decade.

At the same time, we’re more connected than ever before, and this has advanced politics, social networking, business networking. Hell, I may not be the biggest advocate of Facebook around, but I respect and know the power of it, and my LinkedIn account helps me get recommendations I can then use when I’m bigging myself up somewhere else.

LinkedIn, however, is rather different to Facebook. There’s no gossip, no controversy, no intimate details, just pure business, and the odd brown-nosed recommendation from someone you’ve hardly worked with who’d like to be introduced to that CEO you know. It’s more competitive, more serious, and for that reason, far more likely to fail.

Look at society – down go the serious films, up come the comic book movies. Down goes the classic literature, up comes vampire novels. We’re entering into a paradise of fun, of not caring about the more serious ways of enjoying ourselves, and aiming instead for the appealing, the easy, the simply enjoyable and the indulgent warmth that comes with that.

For this reason, Facebook will, in my opinion, hit a billion users well before 2015. This sounds like a mind-bending figure, but it’s not. Once the tweens reach adulthood, and the ever-younger net users hit the right age to start surfing, we’ll see a generation of social networkers who don’t even know what a VHS is. Doesn’t that terrify you? Terrifies me, all right.

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5

Jul 2010

Applied knowledge

Posted in Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0 | 0 Comments

If you’re working in social media, or realistically anything that involves logging onto something once a day, chances are you’ve probably got a smartphone. I’m going to go ahead and push that even further, and wager that if you do, it’s either a BlackBerry or an iPhone. If it’s an iPhone, and unless you’re one of the many shedding tears over the recent issues with the fourth iteration, you’re likely happy to spend a little bit of cash on a huge variety of useful applications, or “Apps”. If you are one of those people, and you’d love to find out how useful a businessperson with their Apps geared for productivity can perform above their peers, then read on. If you’re not busy sending hate-mail to Steve Jobs, that is.

Apps: tasks made convenient

If you’re on the run and you’re needing to work on the accounts for last year as April’s creeping up on you a little too quickly – then don’t worry. Grab your iPhone, launch the App Store, find Spreadsheet, pay just under six dollars, and you’re able to edit a spreadsheet on your phone. I’m not joking, and it’s even visually appealing. Personally, I’m on a hiatus from Apple products, but I have to admit that the appeal of being able to do mundane tasks on the commute and the more enjoyable ones in the office sounds fantastic, and why not up your productivity?

If that’s not enough, why not Documents To Go? That’s your PowerPoint, Word, Excel, PDF, iWork (c’mon, it’s still an Apple phone), Google Docs… the list goes on, quite literally. Netbooks are all good and well, but if you’re a city-dweller, you know as well as I do that bar Starbucks, taking a computer out in public is a risky proposition, at best. However, an iPhone is literally the size of a phone, and unless you’re an optimistic-but-misguided person trying to pocket an iPad, it’s perfect for the job.

The main advantage is functionality, and of course, portability. Being able to ensure your presentation runs the way you want it to, or correcting a typo or two moments before taking to the stage is a vital business advantage, and you’ll find your productivity soaring. If you’ve got the phone, take advantage of it – not doing so is like having a car but never putting it in reverse – you can keep going forward, sure, but when everyone else is squeezing into the smaller spots you’re going to be aiming for the bus lane and praying for the warden to look the other way.

But there are other smaller benefits – simply having a smartphone as a manager or a CEO is crucial in today’s digitised economy. Missing that vital email or PDF contract just before you’re in a phones-off meeting can be disastrous, and making sure you’re hooked into the biggest communications network on the planet is all too logical. It’s a pity one of the best phones on the market is rather pricey, but if you’re after something that lets you edit, record, document, process and approve almost as smoothly as on your office computer, then invest.

Anyone else out there?

Of course, one of the biggest draws of smartphones, and the iPhone in particular, has to be the ability to social network. Twitter and Facebook have become a huge part of almost everyone’s everyday lives, and with a massive 400 active Facebook accounts and the mind-bending Twitter statistics from one of my recent posts, you’re looking at a lot of time invested in other people’s comings and goings. So, with that in mind, and the business tactics we’ve discussed on this blog quite often about getting more customers through good social networking on behalf of a company, how do we engineer the smart use of Apps in order to facilitate this?

The answer? Ensure people know you’re thinking on the move. A CEO who’s in a meeting but still finds time to Tweet about his breakfast is a bad thing. A CEO who Tweets about the important and public aspects of said meeting is an honest, open, respected CEO. If you’re sitting high on the employee hierarchy and you’re feeling a little left behind by the office’s dedicated social media buff, then take it into your own hands. Of course, it’s worth making sure you know what and what not to say, as not everyone will appreciate a mix of your charity work and a TwitPic gallery of your new boat, but otherwise, why not ensure everyone knows you’re not someone with more money than time?

There are, of course, other benefits – subscribe to the Twitter accounts of your competitors, even with a subtle account. Being able to monitor them on the go, especially if they make an announcement five minutes before your annual press conference, is a key business strategy. All too often, announcements go unheard by competitors until they see it on the showroom floor later that day and, hand clasped firmly to forehead, stagger towards the hungry press-hounds to redeem themselves. Even tweeting in response to a competitor’s announcement moments after they make it can have a huge impact – you’re aware, and you’re critical but appreciative of your rival’s business presence.

We live in a world where Stephen Fry’s more interested in tweeting on his iPhone than anything else, and when one of the UK’s leading minds is into Twitter, it’s worth taking note. But being able to do so, as Fry has done, in the middle of a television broadcast, and watch the presenter laugh at Fry’s tweet from across the set is something quite exceptional to watch. Now, imagine that Fry is your competitor, and the rest of the room represents the show’s host, and you’re the only one with no iPhone App for Twitter. Sound isolating? It is, and if you’re going to rocket to the top, you’re either going to need a lot of chemistry and astrophysics, or you’re going to need a phone heralded by a man called Steve that has turned public transport into a phone-rotating, music-heavy, endlessly tapping festival of productivity.

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28

Jun 2010

Fidget with your widgets

Posted in Blogging, Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 2 Comments »

A while ago, I was searching for a way to make some money with an older domain of mine. There were a ton of options, and all of them seemed good as money or traffic generators. Some stood out – everyone who’s ever looked at the online side of their business and thought “I could make this work for me” has looked into Google AdSense or affiliate programs. More recently, we’ve delved into an even better way to make your site the best possible one-stop-shop for visitors. These would be the Batman utility-belt of the consumer-savvy web-designer: the widget.

It does what?

Widgets are ingenious little fellows that you settle into the sidebar or various other digital playpens of your web-pages. They do all sorts of things, from providing lists of useful links and recent posts, to offering you DVDs based on the article you’re reading and allowing you to Tweet what you’ve just read. It’s a fascinating wealth of opportunity – do you offer Twitter functionality on the homepage, or on press-release pages? Do you allow users to add your CEO on Facebook? Do you need a meta/login widget? The choices are endless, and it’s all too tempting to get so many  that your website begins to look less like a coherent online representation of your products and services, and more like a scrapbook.

If you’re running your site through another site-building engine and built-in CMS, like WordPress and their .com and .org solutions, then you’re in luck – many widgets come as standard for .com. If you’ve opted for the self/externally-hosted .org option, there are countless communities across the web who make and upload their own, mostly for free. It’s as simple as installing a small bit of software on your computer – plug in the plug-in, and in no time at all you’ll have additional functions for new users.

It’s important to make sure you’re choosing the right ones – I know it’s tempting to get loads of widgets that let users do just about everything, but there’s a fine line between using a sharing plugin (digg and reddit, for example) and allowing users see which of their cousins are on Facebook right now. If you’re a social media company, the latter is fine, but if you’re an Independent Financial Advisor (IFA) with 30 years of industry experience, then this may not be the ideal representation of your attitude to online business presence. The widgets you use are as representative of the company’s tone and style as your choice of t-shirts vs. suits for big global conferences, and the wrong choice can make your business’ web design look slack or uncaring.

Let’s take an example – if you’re a site that does custom kitchen design, then there are a fair few ideal widgets that would come in handy. First, you could offer them a widget that displays the latest galleries you’ve uploaded to Flickr, as a means of offering them a “recent work” section that retains better functionality than an in-built gallery. They know Flickr, they may even use Flickr, and by applying the same brand name to your site as they do to their own lives, then you’re putting the business on a level that makes it seem more human and more appealing – key to ensuring your business spreads and evolves via word-of-mouth, if anything.

Tactical widget deployment

You’ve also got the option of placing them everywhere, and if not placing them in the correct sidebar, then why not taking it a step further, and creating your own? Of course, it requires programming, time, money, and a hundred other considerations – but then again, what doesn’t? It’s no more difficult than organising the business’ tax declarations when April rolls around, as you can contract it out to a programmer and designer in much the same way as Barry the accountant is contracted out to you to sort through the endless restaurant-based “team-building meetings” receipts on your expenses list for the year.

Of course, then there’s the various options that go with that – do you make a WordPress widget? One for all websites? One for the iPhone (an App, strictly speaking, but we’ll discuss those next week) or the Mac’s widget overlay? It’s a tough choice, but I’d again state that it depends on your business. Personally, if I ran an investment firm, I’d want an iPhone-compatible website that ran widgets allowing people to connect via LinkedIn, and possibly even one tracking the stock market and another crawling finance feeds from global papers and displaying them for people to scroll through as they explore the site. All of this would be free, easy to install and afterwards make the site, its design, and therefore the business look clued-in and web-savvy enough for the visitors to have faith in them as they make big investments in a new, scary, more-digital-than-ever environment.

It’s also worth considering their source. If you’re not aiming for commercialisation and want to remain professional, ensure the widgets are for functionality only, and have no secondary agenda. This rules out the Amazon Associates widgets, for one, which may be a slight dent in your plans for monetising a site. However, it also means that you’re not associating yourself needlessly with a vendor of goods that is world-renown, as any poor performance on their part is therefore tied to you – though only if you’re working in a private-sector, b2b environment. If you’re a big, outrageous blog about celebrities and big hair, then by all means, ensure Amazon’s recommendations widget has Hair: The Musical‘s DVD release displayed proudly on the sidebar. If you’re not, stick to news.

My personal pet hate is the ridiculous amounts of sharing widgets on the bottom of each page, as I feel most of them are so seldom used that their existence on the page is, for all intents and purposes, pointless. But that’s just me – everyone’s got their own tastes, and it’s easy to appreciate why they’re on the page when they’re well-chosen and well-placed. So if you’re appealing to your resident widget-fidgets, then go in guns blazing, and allow them to log how many bullets you’ve fired in that little box on the right-hand side of your site at the same time.

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21

Jun 2010

Use your head

Posted in Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

It’s here; the final frontier. The Big One. The moment everyone’s been waiting for – Web 2.0. Hold on, what’s that? It’s already been and gone? Well, I’ll be damned. I guess my text-only, black-and-grey page with endless raw URLs and no .gif files is going to do down fairly badly. As are all the business sites who are still refusing to embrace the amazing impact web design can have on their traffic, business image and message in a world that’s all about the online.

It’s a tricky business, reorganising and redesigning a site. If it’s essentially an address and a floating logo, it’s no big deal to have it prettied up on the sly while you keep working away in the office. But if you’re always blogging and dealing with customers through it, it’s the equivalent of a White Van Man’s MOT – he can’t get work without the van, but the van can’t work without the MOT, and he can’t pay for the MOT without the work that comes from owning the van. You follow? Losing a site can be like losing a limb, even if it’s only for a week, but the benefits are huge. Everyone needs to do everything they can to stand out in the digital popularity contest that is 2010′s World Wide Web, and if you’re not flashing your widgets, you’re going down.

Pruning the hedges

First off, you’ve got to look at the aesthetic side of your website, and whether it’s really as good-looking as all its siblings in the same industry. If you’re an IFA and offering a bare-bones Blogspot domain as a means of communicating with your clients, sitting alongside your biggest competitor who’s fully Flash enabled and has Facebook and Twitter integrated into the footer, then it’s likely most people will gravitate to the one that allows them to play Asteroids while the site calculates their service fees. You’ve also got to factor in the realistic prospect of optimising your site for a multitude of different browsers, some of them no bigger than the iPhone’s resolution. Not everyone’s on dual-monitor setups; most are going to be on home laptops, netbooks, and smartphones, so think about this when you’re designing.

I know I’m promoting Flash and Apple’s wonder-phone (Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, well done Steve Jobs) but the point still stands. There are a lot of people looking for multi-browser and even multi-platform sites becoming the norm, taking it as far as utilising internet campaigns in order to reach their goal. It’s long-term, sure, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take part. Look at the way most businesses are communicating via social networking – most of these operate through smartphones and are optimised for Macs, netbooks and Chrome (the SEO expert’s choice, in my opinion). Giving them the ability to double-check your figures against that press release you just tweeted is a seriously positive bit of functionality.

It’s also worth checking out what you can do with your GUI. If you’ve got a landing page full of adverts, sidebars and endless widgets, most people aren’t going to picture you as the most informative site in the world. If your website looks like this rather than this, then you’ve got a serious problem. In fact, make sure you click the first link – we’ll go forward from there.

From what we can tell, it’s a political news site, though why it’s called Haven Works is unclear. It’s also a complete mess; I asked a web designer friend of mine to take a look and make some suggestions. He stared at it for a few moments, and I turned to him as he sat, pensive, looking at the mess of HTML and horrible, clashing colours. “Strip it out and start again?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Some sites aren’t salvageable, and if yours looks anything like that monstrosity, let me offer some advice: delete. Wipe everything, get a basic WordPress site running as a temporary replacement, and seek help. Now, that probably gets a fair amount of traffic simply because of the amount of aggregate articles and traffic it absorbs, rather like the Blob. But it’s not something you’d visit unless you, like myself, are passing it around to your friends and loved ones as a “get a load of this” site, and that doesn’t rake in the customers.

Behind the scenes

When designing a website, a lot of people seem to forget it’s not just shoving a bunch of stuff together in MS Paint and clicking on it. A lot of code and very heavy maths can sometimes go into very slick websites, and programmers work alongside designers to make this happen (though most designers have a wealth of HTML and CSS skills at their disposal as an unofficial industry standard). Breadcrumb trails, clean source code and good loading times are all factors that are managed by people working in hosting, administration and coding, and not the people who’re putting that sun-glare effect on the side of your logo.

Breadcrumb trails are also seriously important – if you’re looking to optimise for social media, think about the length of your URL. www.news.com/18472 is great if you’re wanting people to fit it into a tiny Twitter window. However, it’s not very easy to just reel off verbally, and you might be better off with www.news.com/this-just-in instead. The difference? Not much. Most people use Tiny URL and similar online services when linking to your content anyway – even we do it, sometimes. The point of a clean breadcrumb trail is that it looks nicer. Having domain.com/category/subcategory/subsubcategory/article-929282822 is just sloppy and makes your business’ approach to its web presence look the same. However, if you clean that up and simply give each page its own page without a wealth of parent pages or categories, then you’re more likely to have people remember where they were, and continue from there, if they’ve forgotten to bookmark. Humans can remember “this just in” on a predictive-search browser like Google Chrome. They can’t remember an eight-digit number they saw last Thursday.

My point to you is this – there’s a lot that goes into coding a site, building it up and making it look good, and these are a few points a lot of people (like good old Haven Works) seem to miss. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me on this topic, though, you’ve been warned. Next week I’ll be tackling widgets and sidebars, and heaven help anyone in social media who’s staring at this sentence with glazed-over eyes. Here’s a tip for popular web-design techniques – if you don’t know it – get it. If you don’t get it, the people who do and their users won’t get you.

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