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SXSW: Expression Engine 2.0 - Total Domination

Next Gen Publishing from CodeIgniter and ExpressionEngine

This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to. We've been using ExpressionEngine for the last couple of years for a lot of our web development projects. EE 2.0 has only recently been released and is still under 'Release Candidate' status. Personally, I've found it pretty unusable at this stage but I have no doubt it'll be a big hit once a few niggles have been ironed out and third party developers start building extensions for it. The panel was made of five EE advocates (four of them from the US development company Happy Cog and one other. Note: There was not official representation from EllisLab (developers of ExpressionEngine and the successful PHP framework CodeIgniter ) itself.

Panelist 1. Kenny Meyers

Big EE community member Kenny Meyers kicked of by giving an overview to EE for those in the room new to the application. He talked about the main elements of the CMS and particularly some of the changes in labels from 1.6 to 2.0 - i.e. Weblogs to Channels - as well as discussing Categories, Templates, Fields and Field Groups.

Panelist 2. Ryan Irelan

Ryan Irelan went into a bit more depth, talking through an example EE site that included specific controls for an events based site. It was still fairly basic stuff, but it showed a nice use of the custom 'Status' parameter. It also showed some good examples of pulling in Twitter content.

Panelist 3. Jenn Lukas

Jenn Lukas then talked about some solutions for streamlining repetitive configuration tasks with EE. She took us through a site that she's setup to act as clean base to begin EE projects with. Starterfiles.com contains likely templates files you're going to need, and builds on templates found on ExpresionEngine.com but goes a bit further adding CSS and JS - all available to freely download. And with improved template creation in 2.0 (templates no longer have to be created from within the CMS, as it can automatically read external template files) these can easily be plugged-in to any site, instantly.

Panelist 4. Mark Hout

Mark Hout talked about a specific new feature of EE 2.0: Accessories. Accessories are predefined popup blocks within the control panel of the CMS. They allow developers to add extra features cleanly and distribute them across certain pages and to certain users. Mark showed off some nice examples including Google Analytics, Addon Updaters for Super Admins, as well as After Sales Features, Screencasts, One-off Controls, Support Form and Site stats. I can't wait to use these.

Panelist 5. Brian Warren

Brian Warren then went into more detail about the API setup for EE2.0. Much of the development of 2.0 has been about taking away some of the headaches when using the API. From what Brian explained the changes should now mean that as EE develops, the API can remain the same. This should hopefully benefit Ellislab and third party developers as there should be less of an issue with backwards compatibility. Again lots of exciting stuff here, that should hopefully means we've only seen a little of 2.0's potential. As I said this was one of the panels I was most looking forward to and, thanks to Kenny Meyers' compering, it actually turned out to be one of the most entertaining - it certainly had more life to it than the Drupal session that preceeded it. Whilst the panelists covered a broad spectrum of issues surrounding EE and had something for all levels of users, they didn't go overboard in trying to sell it. This I guess is a good thing, however, most of the questions at the end were from non-EE users and I don't think the panel had enough time to do justice to some of the best features.

Why we like Expression Engine

For front-end development it's beautiful: it leaves you to write perfectly clean HTML before adding tiny amounts of code to pull in dynamic data from the CMS. The CMS itself is lightweight, and it's easy to bolt-on custom extensions and other third party apps - especially given that 2.0 is now built entirely on CodeIgnitor. The core build features a variety of custom fields that you can add to sections of your site. As a designer I love this because it means I get to style content before it exists and I can adjust the amount of formatting under the control of a site's administrator so there's not lots of excess stuff that they don't need. Here are the slides from the Panel ...

SXSW: Pain-free design sign-off

Nice badges and postcards courtesy of Veer

This talk was by Paul Boag from Headscape, a UK based digital agency. Paul also runs the designer/developer blog and forum Boag's World.

Paul began the talk by outlining the nightmare scenario of a designer who takes a terrible brief and turns around a design masterpiece only for the client to subsequently reject it and then slowly dismantle it over a drawn-out set of iterations - all before the whole project sinks into a mire of failure and regret.

Suggestions for improving sign-off:

1. Outline everybody's role within the design process The client's role is to identify problems. The designer is the problem solver. Hence, when a client requests a logo to be made bigger they are attempting to solve a problem, not identify one. As a designer your role is to unearth the underlying problem.

2. Have a strong methodology By ensuring the client you are both experienced and confident in your methodology, clients will feel more likely to trust your problem-solving decisions.

3. Include the client often and early Don't race ahead. By involving the client early you're less likely to waste time creating an unwanted masterpiece.

4. Educate clients If you can explain to clients your design decisions on colour, type, grid etc. they are, again, more likely to feel you're working for them rather than your portfolio.

5. Feedback Ask for specific feedback. Paul made reference here to the fact that despite many designers' view, it is actually important that the client personally likes the solution. (After all they are going to be using the site/brand or at least having to sell it to other stakeholders.) However, rather than just subjective opinions it is also important to ask for more specific feedback - i.e. How well does this design fit with your business objectives? Will a certain set of users be able to identify with it?

6. Avoid saying no This follows on from the first point - if a client asks for something you as a designer believe is unreasonable you need to help identify the problem. I guess if you've followed all of the previous points, you should avoid a situation where you have to say "No" to a client anyway. I think this is partly an exercise in language (i.e You never say "No" if you're a hostage negotiator).

Certainly from my experience, at the point when you have to say 'No', something has gone wrong. One of the things we pride ourselves on at Supercool is working with rather than for our clients - explaining our working process, how we interpret a brief and how we arrive at key decisions, as well as involving the client throughout the process. It generally works very well and is something we attribute to being a small agency with no top-heavy structure or account managers. As a result I wasn't expecting to get that much out of this talk, however, as usual, some of the most obvious suggestions made are probably the some of the most useful, even if they just confirm we're doing the right thing.

In many ways some of the above appears to contradict points made in my previous post, however I think managing time, as well as client expectations shouldn't need to fight against each other. All in all another great talk.

A culinary experience

Categories: Extra-curricular

Last night James and I were lucky enough to attend Repast – an event to celebrate the life of creative professional development organisation Arts+Media which is evolving into a purely online organisation at the end of this month.

Repast was set in the seemingly strange location of a disused warehouse in Coventry's Far Gosford Street – though as this is an area currently undergoing redevelopment into a hub for creative businesses and activities, it's actually a perfectly apt venue for a creative event.

The building had been divided into different rooms, the first of which had been dressed with Bill Drummond manifestos and notices and, with the usual drinks table in the corner and some background music setting the tone, it wasn't terribly different from the usual arty shindig. And then we were greeted by a lovely but, I'm sure she won't mind me saying, slightly peculiar woman who introduced herself as Blanch.

Curious.

Anyway, we mingled, sipped wine, chatted with artsy folks – then James did a quick interview on camera whilst I met Blanch's friend who introduced herself as 'Shock'. Hmmm … so this is how the evening's going to be, is it?!

So yes, Repast's catering was provided by Blanch and Shock and the food was served by … you guessed it, Blanch and Shock; two welcoming yet bizarre pantomime/fairytale/mediaeval/Judderman/Pippi Longstocking-type characters. This was proper smile-inducing, enjoyable and not-at-all-scary-like-I'd-thought-it-might've-been performance art. (And possibly something to do with Kindle Theatre? If you know either way please pop a note in the comments.)

As for the food itself – it was stunning. Weird and wonderful Ferran Adrià-style concoctions; the most incredible of which was a 'spherified lime and mint cocktail' which seemed to be a jelly-like oystery thing, but it then burst into liquid as soon as it left the spoon. It really was a feast for all the senses – especially when the aroma balloons were released!

I loved the fact that the venue was peculiar but perfect, and that the folks handing the food around – who'd usually remain in the background – were, along with the food, the main event of the evening. Suffice to say, Repast was magical, amusing, delicious and wonderful – and most certainly an experience.

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A+M have documented Repast and the process of putting the event together, and this'll be online for all to see over on their website shortly.

SXSW: Why you aren’t done yet

Screenshot of the Basecamp web-app by 37 Signals

Screenshot of the Basecamp web-app by 37 Signals

'Why you aren't done yet' was a talk by David Heinemeier Hansson from 37 Signals (the chaps that make the brilliant productivity web apps including Basecamp and Highrise).

The talk was an enlightening look at why we as web developers are not as productive as we should be - although much of what was discussed could be applied to many jobs.

1. Too many distractions

Essentially the main problems we all face is that our working environments are not conducive to getting things done. Problems include distractions around the office, emails, phone, colleges, social-media and the main offender, meetings. Meetings often involve too many irrelevant people, act as an opportunity for one person to broadcast their point of view and generally result in very little productive outcomes (especially given the collective time one meeting can consume). Heinemeier explained the even a one and a half hour meeting in the middle of the afternoon can often wipe out your whole afternoon.

Solutions here include:

  • Working at home to avoid distractions - particularly for highly focused tasks.
  • Be ruthless when it comes to attending meetings - they will cost you more than you think.
  • Mulitasking is un-productive. So close down all of those other applications on your computer and switch off notifications for email and any social media. If you use a Mac, task advantage of 'Spaces' and use different desktops for different tasks.

2. Your estimates 'suck'

Another key offender on productivity is often self-imposed deadlines. Most of the tasks we estimate for we've done tens (if not hundreds) of times before in some shape or form.

Despite this we often give unrealistic deadlines, thinking this time will be different, and this time we'll work that bit longer and be that bit more focused. However, according to Heinemeier, giving realistic deadlines is harder than it sounds. We work in a world that tries to corrupt our minds. Words such as Need, Can't, ASAP, Easy, or Fast are regular culprits when it comes to warping our minds.

He did make a very good point here in saying that very few jobs anybody takes on have a low priority. There's no reason why you can't get your weeks worth of work done within 40 hours. I'm certainly guilty of feeling that the weekend is overflow time for anything that doesn't get done within the working hours.

We're so encouraged either by our employers or our clients to be workaholics. Most employers feel better about those that work late into the night and all hours at weekends, however these are often the least productive people.  

Peak moments of productivity are useless - productivity can only be achieved over the long term. Another great observation and another mindset that I feel I'm guilty of. I will often feel that tight deadlines are possible, or I will be highly productive tomorrow morning or next week or late at night.

The reality I guess is that productivity is a bit like riding a bike: gentle rhythm results in higher efficiency. Thrashing around will only be good if you're near the finishing line.

3. You're indecisive

Decisions are progress. Most of the work you're putting off is because a decision needs to be made. Take charge, make the call and carry on. Next!

4 You're a perfectionist

Good enough is usually fine. Stop trying to make everything the perfect article, step back and review the goal. Like a lot of small agencies we like to think we're in it for the love, and as a result a lot of our work is about trying to make projects that best they can be.

This is obviously a great ethos and you won't have to look at to many design agency mission statements to find repeated. However, I do think at times we may be guilty of a little too much experimentation, or too much tweaking and in many instances clients would prefer things just to be turned-around that bit quicker and wouldn't necessarily notice the extra 100 lines of code we hadn't managed to whittle down to 20.

I think the thing here, especially if you're self employed or in a small team with little or no management structure above you, is that it's very easy to lose sight of what you're doing. That may sound ridiculous, but sometimes you just need to step back, look at what you're doing and actually question 'Why am I doing this? Is there an easier or better solution?'.

5. You're flogging a dead horse

Heinemeier also talked about the concept of giving up as a solution to productivity woes. Whilst an incredibly inspired thought, I'm not really sure how this would work in the real world. For 37 signals who create great web apps these may be relatively easy to implement. However I'm not sure how many of our clients would endorse the 'give up' message.

 

Nice ad for the new book by 37 signals: Rework

37 Signals were at SXSW promoting a new book (trailer above) which I think clearly drove some of the more radical suggestions here. However, all in all it identified brilliantly with the problems of a small agency. It also provided some tangible things to take away; particularly to do with reducing distractions and better time-planning. Overall; a great talk.