Elements or Lower

Wed, 03 Dec 2008

Facebook Advertising

There’s ongoing discussion on whether advertising on social media such as Facebook is worthwhile, something we’ve been considering ourselves. I’d like to bring a couple of my own experiences to the table.

I’m quite the fan of the Canadian electronica band Delerium. Earlier this year, I noticed a Facebook ad for their gig at the Carling Academy in Islington, a very rare performance outside of North America, and an event I’d never have known about otherwise. With enthusiasm, and something even approaching gratitude, I clicked. Tickets were booked, a great time was had and a t-shirt bought.

It’s safe to assume that the ad was targeted relatively narrowly: people living in the UK (perhaps even just London), who have listed Delerium in their favourite music on their Facebook profile. Only a handful of people would have seen the ad, really — but because Facebook ads are PPC (price per click), the event organisers would have only paid for the times the ad was actually clicked. They may well have recouped their investment through finding me alone.

Exposure isn’t the issue here, it’s targeting. Search ads on Google are relatively well-targeted, based on the keywords you’re using for search — but here, the ad was an absolute bullseye. I was precisely the right demographic, and (unlike all the singles ads I see on Facebook that ignore the fact that I’m listed as married) the ad wasn’t an annoyance. In fact, quite the opposite.

Similarly, later in the year, I was served an ad for the new album from Oceanlab, the text of which was something along the lines of “Like Delerium? Listen to this!” — so I clicked, and discovered easily my favourite album of 2008.

What’s to take from this? Well, when advertising is that well-targeted, it stops being advertising and starts being a service. I didn’t need convincing and I wasn’t a hard sell. And, it seems, the purveyors of fine electronica know this.

I wonder if there’s an alternative payment model somewhere in here? One where you’re encouraged to be a specific as possible in your ad spend — ads that get clicked are free: it’s the ones that aren’t that cost you …?

Tue, 15 Jul 2008

Call me Noel Edmonds

It’s so good to have the iPhone back after a month with a horribly cracked screen, and this weekend afforded us the opportunity to use the GPS tracking in the maps application as we tried to navigate Milton Keynes.

And, of course, the weekend afforded the opportunity to download a bunch of iPhone apps. My favourite so far? Vicinity, which uses the GPC to provide lists of relevant Wikipedia articles, Flickr photos, banks, shops, restaurants and other local facilities based on your current location. Here’s one of the top Flickr photos for our home in Greenwich. Isn’t that just beautiful?

But I’d very much like to put a wish out there and see if the cosmos responds. There’s one app that would be really, hugely useful to me when I’m away from the studio, and that (with email) would reassure me that I could deal with work emergencies even while I’m travelling.

And that’s a SSH client. Sure, entering command line incantations using a tiny keyboard is hardly ideal, but at least it would then be possible to reboot Apache, check the contents of a MySQL database or even tweak site code if absolutely necessary, something that I’ve sorely missed on some holidays I’ve been on. It turns out that I’m not alone in wanting this.

I’d actually quite like a separate MySQL client app too, not unlike the venerable CocoaMySQL, but then I fear I’d be veering into pony territory.

Fri, 02 May 2008

A collection of unimportant things

In no particular order:

Tue, 18 Mar 2008


For over a year now, we’ve been planning and working on a new version of www.woking.gov.uk, and it’s now finally live. For me personally, the project has absolutely dominated the past six months, and together with Buy Our Honeymoon, represents some the best work I’ve ever done.

Before and after

The old Woking site had evolved gradually since prior to my involvement over ten years ago. Sure, we’d redeveloped the CMS a couple of times in that process, but each successive version of the site used content largely copied verbatim from the previous version. The structure had become labyrinthine, and the design (last updated in 2000) had become known internally as the “Rover dashboard”.

The Council’s Web Strategy Group saw the opportunity to completely refresh the site from scratch, with a brand new design, a completely reworked navigation structure, and a refresh of various aspects of the CMS. I’m terribly grateful that Article Seven was commissioned without hesitation to deliver both the new design and the technical implementation of the new site.

Accessibility was a key priority in the new site, and to that end we asked the Shaw Trust to help us work through the process. Just under a year ago, they carried out a full audit of the old site, highlighting any areas of concern. Once the new site templates were ready, the Shaw Trust assessed them, and just before the final site went live, the entire site was audited again and any final recommendations implemented. This whole process was incredibly valuable, particularly since it’s not a mere workthrough of the WCAG checkpoints. The Shaw Trust extensively test the site using people with a wide range of real disabilities, and any issues they highlight generally stem from real access problems experienced by testers using a variety of assistive technologies.

We also included an option to switch accesskeys on (your preference saved in a cookie), and have a pair of zoom stylesheets for low-vision users — that also happen to be great for mobile access too.

We wanted to include Google Maps in a number of places on the site, and so I developed a system to try to mitigate the accessibility issues of this. Maps embedded on the site have their zoom and pan controls moved to a row of keyboard-accessible buttons below the map itself (although the normal click-and-drag mechanism continues to work too, of course), and a link to Google’s HTML version of the map is displayed instead in the event that Javascript isn’t enabled.

As a result of all this, the site has been awarded Accessible Plus accreditation from the Shaw Trust, one of only seven organisations in the UK to achieve such a high standard. All of us who’ve worked on the site (including a substantial team of web publishers) are immensely proud of this — but none more so than me.

Fri, 23 Nov 2007


It’s been said that I loves me some Apple. It’s been said that I’ll run out and buy any old crap they release. It’s been said that I’ve got a tattoo of Steve Jobs on one buttock, and a tattoo of myself on the other, such that when I clench it looks like they kiss.

These things have been said. But with the release of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, it seems that my miniature Steve has kicked me sharply in the back of the balls with his tiny, inky foot, for Leopard is just one big daily regret.

My irritants, let me show you them:

On the bright side, at least Mail now allows you to forward messages as an attachment, tempting me away from the smashing orangeyness of GyazMail. The final feature of GyazMail that I’d sorely miss is its ability to attach a Finder-label style colour to a message (which I use for “Urgent Action”, “Action”, “Reference” etc). I know that one can use rules in Mail to achieve the same thing, and perversely, to assign arbitrary colours to messages using the Show Colours menu option — but were someone to create a Mail plugin that allowed assignment of Finder-label colours to messages from a toolbar icon, and further allowed these colours to become criteria in a Smart Folder, I swear I’d love them longtime. Alternatively, GyazMail could acquire smart folders and let me use Spotlight to find messages, but that seems even less likely.

I must go. Buttocky Steve requires nourishment.

Mon, 24 Sep 2007

Using HTML for Print

Over the weekend, we launched our new registry notification cards on Buy Our Honeymoon. For customers in the UK or EU, we send out a set of 100 cards as part of the service. Previously, these had used our logo, URL and a standard message, but we’d wanted to offer customised cards pretty much from the beginning.

One of the key challenges in doing this was finding an easy way to generate the artwork for the cards without having to manually alter a template each time. In some ways, the obvious thing to do would be to generate a PDF — but that’s not easy at all. Have you seen XSL-FO?

Instead we decided to use a non-obvious choice: HTML. And it worked beautifully.

A cluster of registry cards

There’s a couple of things that it’s easy to forget about HTML:

Was the resulting file fit for use on the web? Was it accessible? No — but that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to load it into Safari and print it using a very high-quality laser printer onto some nice thick card. It’s HTML, but it’s not a web page.

Why Safari? Well, for one thing, it’s the browser I use on a daily basis — but, crucially, you can also set it to miss out the normal printed headers and footers (such as the page URL), so you’re left with the content and nothing else.

So, having set up a sample file, it just needed some experiments to get the page margins correct. And then a workaround for the discovery that Safari seemed to miscalculate some of our mm box sizes by 3mm. I have no idea if Safari 3 fixes this — but if it does, it’s just an adjustment to the stylesheet.

Tue, 17 Jul 2007

Breaking America

We’re now running a honeymoon gift list for the UK, and a honeymoon registry for the USA.

Aside from the different terminology (which actually works in our favour to help to direct the most popular search queries on each side of the pond to the correct version of the site), one of the key changes we had to make was getting the various dates and times to behave correctly outside of the UK. I’d never actually built proper timezone support into anything before, so this was something of a learning curve for me.

Dave Rolsky’s excellent DateTime modules bore the brunt of the real work for this, of course, but I was anxious to make sure that assigning the correct Olson timezone to a couple’s list didn’t become a hurdle when signing up.

There aren’t many countries that have more than one timezone, of course. So I set up a small database table for the Olsen timezones, recording the country for each. When you select a country from the dropdown list on our registration screen, a small blob of Ajax kicks in to query this database. If there’s more than one (relevant) timezone for the country you’ve selected, a second dropdown appears listing those timezones. If not, a hidden field is assigned the ID value of the only timezone for that country.

There’s another small Ajax routine on each page of the UK site now to try to direct US visitors to the US version of that page. If your offset from GMT, as reported by your browser, is more than 3 hours behind, a panel is revealed at the top of the page:

The panel reads: "This is the UK version of this page.  View the US version."

We had our first sale to the US today, thanks to the glory of AdWords. Let the conquest begin!

Wed, 23 May 2007

Back in Print

Very nearly ten years ago, when I started Article Seven, my intent was to focus on print design for students’ organisations, with web design as a secondary concern. The basis of this was my work as a sabbatical for Kent Union, plus my role as Publications Assistant for the NPC, but over time, I discovered three things:

  1. The niche market “graphic design for students’ organisations” wasn’t really a market at all.

  2. Print design is a frustrating business: you send off your artwork, wait, and when it comes back with a problem (because you’re too cheap for proofs), there’s nothing you can do about it.

  3. I was getting much more skilled at web design than I’d ever be at print design. What’s more, my poor old Acorn couldn’t really cut it. As much as I loved Photodesk, ArtWorks and Impression, anything but mono work would always come back shockingly desaturated, at poor resolution, or with myriad unpredictable glitches (exacerbating point 2 above).

Consequently, before long, my print work trailed off to a logo here and there, and the occasional NPC newsletter.

When we launched our honeymoon gift list service last month, we began a careful marketing campaign, which included trying to make personal contact with a number of wedding blogs and magazines.

Shelley discovered a recently-launched magazine named Perfect Wedding, whose next issue was to be a honeymoon and gift list special. We contacted them, and were offered a full-page ad at an excellent price, but only if we could deliver the artwork within a few hours, as they were just about to go to press (I believe the page would otherwise have been used for a cross-promotion of one of the publisher’s other titles).

With no small degree of art direction from Shelley, the following ad was created in about two hours flat:

The most romantic gift lists ever!

I can intuit InDesign much better than Photoshop, so I’m glad that the design was much more of a traditional DTP project than an image-manipulation extravaganza.

Having picked up a copy of the new issue yesterday, I’m delighted with the result. The colours are rich, vibrant and match the screen colours near-perfectly, and there aren’t any horrible gotchas. Perfect Wedding were also kind enough to locate our ad right next to their honeymoon article, so we’re situated brilliantly.

Print work will never be a significant part of Article Seven’s output again, but it’s good to know that whatever skills I once had haven’t completely evaporated, and a complete thrill to see both our company and artwork in a major newsstand magazine.

Thu, 05 Apr 2007

Buy Our Honeymoon

At long last, and just as the cobwebs on this poor old blog start to get cobwebs of their own, the Big Project that’s been rumbling away in the background for the past couple of years finally goes live.

It’s called Buy Our Honeymoon, a site that couples can use to compile wedding gift lists that, instead of the usual department store fare, ask for honeymoon experiences and upgrades.

Buy Our Honeymoon - honeymoon gift lists for the independent traveller

While we were planning our wedding back in 2005, we were also planning an epic, three-week, three-thousand-mile road trip across the Deep South of the USA. This was to be the best holiday of our lives: theme parks and plenty of them in Florida, the honeymoon suite at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans, a touch of Elvis in Memphis, a touch of country in Nashville, the resplendence of Dollywood, the serenity of Savannah.

We realised that we really didn’t need any of the things traditionally found in wedding gift lists. We’d been living together for years, and had cultivated a fine habit of buying each other kitchen implements as Christmas presents. A normal gift list would have been slightly redundant and, frankly, a waste of our guests’ money.

And then Shelley had her genius idea: what if our guests could contribute to that wonderful honeymoon instead? But nobody likes to just dump cash into a big pot — we’d ask our guests for specific things we were planning for our honeymoon. Theme park tickets, a car upgrade, a cabin in the Smokey Mountains, meals, champagne. Actual gifts, not just cash contributions, and things we really wanted. Things that would make the honeymoon that much more special.

It turned out that honeymoon gift list services did already exist, but they weren’t quite to our tastes. We didn’t want our guests to pay a commission to the list company (we’d much rather have just paid an up-front fee), we didn’t want to be tied down to a travel agent’s packages, and we wanted our list to look great.

And, dammit, I’m a web developer. So we made our own.

Our guests loved it, many of them going well beyond the call of duty in their generosity. We asked for the dollar value of gifts in a card on the day, and promised to send photographs of us enjoying each gift on our return. Actually getting dollars didn’t really feel like just being given cash (the difference in currency made all the difference), and allowed for a palpable sense of decadence spending it. Paying for an upgrade to a convertible using cash is somehow as exhilarating as driving it (especially if you’d never have afforded the upgrade without the gift).

The honeymoon was everything we could have hoped for. A year and a half later, and I still get misty-eyed over it. A cabin in the Smokey Mountains. A cabin!

Off and on, we’ve spent the time since getting this ready to offer as a commercial product. We’ve put together a set of payment plans that range from the basic list to a list with 50 gift suggestions (individually researched by Shelley) and a custom design theme (hand-crafted by yours truly). Couples can ask their guests to bring the cash value of gifts on the day (just as we did), or to allow guests to pay by credit card immediately into a PayPal account. We don’t take any commission on gifts, and offer a no-obligation, 7-day trial of all list features.

From a geek perspective, the system to manage lists is dripping with Ajaxy goodness, and the magic of CSS allows us to offer a range of themes that transform each list from a database into a design.

I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, and now we’re just waiting for the first trial accounts to be created.

Thu, 07 Sep 2006

Monks Chartered Surveyors

Since then, the site has been overhauled a few times. Firstly, the “showcase” was reimplemented using a tied DBM file. Then, I added a crude administration layer so that I no longer had to update the site myself. Finally, when the company changed hands and became Monks Estate Agents, the design was refreshed and the HTML rewritten.

Now, the company’s rebranded and growing, and this morning we made a completely rebuilt monks.co.uk live. Unexpectedly, the site represents the fourth publicly-available installation of my CMS, so that content could be easily developed and edited in-house, and so that I had a convenient framework already in place for the site redevelopment.

We’ve been quite careful to include a handful of features I’d have liked in the sites the missus and I used to help us buy our home here in Greenwich a few years ago:

As always, there are various changes I’d already like to make. Principally, the map on the search page is way too big and only really serves to get in the way of the form. But it’s very early days, and we’ll continue to develop the site once it’s had a chance to settle in. Overall, I’m quite pleased with how this one turned out.