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23 things artificially intelligent computers can do better/faster/cheaper than you can

Seth Godin - Wed 05th Apr 2017 18:04
Predict the weather Read an X-ray Play Go Correct spelling Figure out the P&L of a large company Pick a face out of a crowd Count calories Fly a jet across the country Maintain the temperature of your house Book...        Seth Godin
Categories: thinktime

Widen Out: Using Your Blog to Attract New Clients

a list apart - Wed 05th Apr 2017 00:04

Attracting future clients on autopilot—that’s the whole point of your website, right? Most freelancers accept the story that great work attracts leads, but I’m going to be straight with you: clients have no clue you exist. What usually tips the balance isn’t your portfolio—they see plenty of those.

Not many people talk about failures they had promoting their products and services. We struggle and we hide it. It’s one of the reasons I hate to read marketing “success stories” and “How to drive traffic and make money!” posts—they seem hollow and vaguely manipulative. They also invariably circle around an answer we already know: The key to attracting non-referral clients is making it easy for them to discover you.

Simple as that is, we fail for two reasons:

  • Most freelancer websites are only concerned with showing portfolio work.
  • We haven’t figured out who we want as clients, what makes them tick, or how they solve problems.

We’re focused on showing, not serving.

Serving hits the ground running—it answers a question, solves a problem, satisfies a curiosity. There’s a difference between saying you will and proving it with a real takeaway during the first impression. Portfolio-focused sites also don’t give Google much content to index and rank, lessening your chances of ever getting high in organic search results, much less on their radar.

Designers are “supposed” to do certain things to find clients. Well, I did all that, for years. And I had a pretty depressing success rate, considering how much time I put into it. Then I tried one thing that single-handedly turned around my freelance career. I started blogging with clients in mind.

Do it your way

Let me tell you about Brian Dean.

Brian Dean of Backlinko gets 130,000 monthly uniques. Want know how many articles he has on his blog—in total?

30. That’s right, 30.

Readers aren’t coming because he publishes frequently—they’re coming because he writes about what they want to know and because every piece he’s got is the best on that given subject, hands down! He keeps visitors coming back to the same posts because he’s constantly improving the material little by little to ensure it’s always the best that’s out there.

As people come across it—web professionals, curious readers, and potential clients—it’s building up his reputation and making it easier for people to find him via search and re-shared content links.

You don’t have to write regularly. Or much. And you don’t need an industry-rocking idea. With your expertise, you have what it takes to say something that other people consider valuable.

The key to success is making a target, then sticking it out for a few rounds of research + content creation + promotion to start. The more posts/articles you create, the more properties you have on the Monopoly board called Google. Having a few widely shared articles also kicks off a virtuous loop where all your subsequent articles get a jump start from your existing traffic. This approach is repeatable and scaleable.

(One quick heads-up: you can also expect your content to attract the “wrong type” of visitors, such as recruiters and people looking to hire someone for low-end, piecemeal work. It’s possible to turn these inquiries into opportunities by politely refusing their offer and asking if they know anyone who is seeking the type of work you do provide.)

Pre-planning your content

As you know, Google determines how high your page ranks for certain search terms based on factors like:

  1. Whether your page content is relevant to the search term
  2. How many other quality, relevant sites link to your page
  3. How well-made readers think your content is (i.e. how long do people spend reading your content).

Translating that, your goals are to:

  • Create content that is relevant to search terms visitors use
  • Create high quality content that invites re-links and social shares
  • Ensure that time-on-site for the specific piece of content is high.

It may feel a bit unnatural to create content around ranking well on Google, but you’re actually just creating a really valuable article that answers all possible questions a reader is most likely to have about that topic.

Know what matters to clients

Instead of randomly choosing a topic, it helps to be a bit strategic. After all, it’s a way to get discovered by the right people.

First, know—and learn how to write for—your intended audience. Almost any topic about your field would interest fellow professionals. But let’s recall, who is it you want to attract, first and foremost? Clients. So how do you find out what they’re searching for?

When I started doing this, I began by listing questions a new client typically asks, such as:

  • How much do your services cost?
  • How does your [service] process work?

To see the types of questions business owners and entrepreneurs ask most often, take a look at community sites where they hang out (Fig. 1). Good ones include:

Fig. 1: People frequently questions about web services, such as these found on the community site Quora.

Based on the questions you find, you could brainstorm three topic ideas that relate to each one, or even split larger topics into separate articles. For example, instead of writing one giant piece on how much web design services cost, write about one service in each post, such as:

  • How much does a landing page cost?
  • How much does custom website cost?

They should be written in the style of a comprehensive educational guide that teaches the visitor everything they need to know about the topic.

Example:

  • How much does logo design cost?

This article could cover:

  • The reason rates vary so much among designers
  • The different types of designers they can hire (freelancer, agency, etc.)
  • A description of the creative process for designing a logo.
Write a better article

Now that you’ve settled on a topic, it’s time to create a comprehensive leave-no-stone-unturned piece of content about it.

What’s “comprehensive”? It’s helpful to set a benchmark for yourself by researching other popular articles that have already been written about it. Use them as inspiration, then go and create an even better version. This both demonstrates your command of the topic and attracts links from relevant, high authority sites (which signals to Google that your site contains high quality content, triggering it to bump your page higher in the search results for those keywords).

A popular tool for doing this research is Ahrefs.

After you create an account, enter a topic you’re considering, then select “Traffic” in the Sorted by dropdown. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2: The filter screen on Ahrefs helps when narrowing down search results.

Here are some of the highest trafficked articles on “web development cost.” (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3: Ahrefs search results after filters are set.

Analyze each article and write down every single point that’s covered. Your goal is to be just as good when it’s your time to address each one. You’ll then brainstorm at least five original or interesting angles they didn’t mention or tackle extensively. This “value add” is your selling point when the time comes to start promoting the piece.

Another way to dig deep is to learn more about the authors. For instance, how does their expertise differ from yours? This can help you catch things they didn’t cover. You can also pull up every article a specific author has written on a subject, such as this topic search for journalists and bloggers writing about “web development cost.” (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4: Doing research on what other writers have published can help to determine subjects to pursue. Other effective ways to juice up your content Use compelling (and/or controversial) examples

Buttress each major point in your article with compelling (and if possible, controversial) case studies and examples.

For example, here’s an excellent analysis of the controversial logo design for the London 2012 Olympics (Fig. 5). It explains why (despite the negative public reaction) the versatility and instant recognizability of the logo actually make it an example of great identity work.

Fig. 5: Analysis of the London 2012 Olympics logo design. Use visual assets with your article

Visual assets make your article easier to read by breaking up chunks of text. For images, choose ones that instantly convey the emotion or message of a major point you make (Fig. 6). For infographics, choose ones that visually illustrate and compare data or statistics you mention in the article. A good visual asset also attracts social shares.

Fig. 6: Selecting images that instantly convey the emotion behind the message supports the point you want to make. Interview someone interesting (and influential)

Seek out people who can contribute an interesting insight or experience related to your topic. Not only does this add perspective to your article, you can ask this person to share the article with their audience (which may give you a nice traffic boost).

Capture every question

Before you start writing, make a list of every single possible question someone could have about this topic. Based on your research of existing articles, also include details and angles they don’t.

For example, if you’re writing an article about logo cost, details and angles that many other articles miss are:

  • Reasons why corporate logo designs cost so much
  • The psychology behind how logos affect brand perception
  • Conversion stats before and after logo redesigns
  • Why negative public reactions don’t necessarily mean the logo design is bad.
Add a call to action

Avoid losing potential clients who would have contacted you later—if they hadn’t forgotten. Add something encouraging them to act right away by making it a simple click, such as a call to action (CTA) banner in every article. (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7: Use prompts that encourage users to take action or engage with additional content. Promoting your article the right way

Promoting your content may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to reframe that in your mind. Instead of “Marketing your content,” you’re “Helping people by educating and inspiring them with your well-researched, well-written information.”

Clients who don’t know about your site won’t magically enter your URL into their address bar—they have to discover you through some other source (other websites, search engines, social media). That’s why promotion and outreach are so important, and why it pays off to ask other sites to link to your content.

To kick off the first wave of traffic, it helps to win a few links and social shares. From there, the new people who discover your post may also link to or share it (which in turn boosts your article’s ranking on Google).

Let’s look at a few effective ways you can promote your content.

Offer your actual article as a service

This is an old timer technique that still works amazingly well—one my very good friend and coach Brian Harris wrote about on his blog. I like to alter the technique just slightly, but here’s what to do:

Take the URL of one of the articles you found in the previous section (when you were choosing a topic to write about). Try to pick the one with the most shares.

Go to Buzzsumo and enter the URL to the article (use the 14-day free trial they offer to do this step).

In my case, I chose this SEO techniques article because I’m looking for clients who might be interested in my SEO consulting. (Fig. 8)

Fig. 8: Research a URL on Buzzsumo to help generate article ideas.

Next, click the “View Shares” button to see a list of everyone who shared the post on Twitter. You can then click on the “Followers” filter at the top left to sort by users who have a sizable audience (i.e. enough money to pay you for a service). (Fig. 9)

Fig. 9: Buzzsumo brings visibility to social sharing.

Now you have a list of people who have already shown an interest in the topic, you could reach out to them individually and see if they’d be interested in sharing yours, as well. The following example highlights a number of points.

Subject: Re: Brian’s article you shared
Body Text:

Hey AJ,

I’ve been following you since last January when I saw you share Brian Dean’s article on SEO techniques. Great article, I truly enjoyed it!

I couldn’t help but notice that it did not include how to convert the traffic you get from these techniques into actual leads. I’ve done SEO and lead nurturing work for 9+ years .

I just recently published a more comprehensive post on how to do everything Brian talks about as well as lead nurture and convert the traffic into actual leads, so I wanted to run this by you since you’re interested in the topic.

I took a look at Wordtastic <insert their company name here>—love the app. I checked and it looks like you get a decent amount of traffic.

I came up with three ways you can improve your calls to action to get more conversions every single day (based on Brian’s advice compiled with my article above)

Here is the link to the recommendations, a potential campaign, and some projected results once you implement this: [link to Google doc you put together that will blow their socks off]

Would love to help you guys implement some of these strategies.

-Dmitry

(I’ve collected examples that seem to work really well for people; you can check out those posts here: cold email templates and business email templates.)

Join some groups where your potential clients hang out

I listed these community groups earlier, but it’s worth mentioning them twice:

Don’t just join—leave meaningful comments. If you do that, most groups will start to see you as a valued contributor and won’t bat an eye if you to post something that mentions your own content once in a while, like this example from a private entrepreneur group (Fig. 10)

Fig. 10: Be courteous and tactful when contributing to groups.

When you do share, be sure to mention a few points you’ve covered that would be highly relevant and valuable to that community.

For example, if you write an article about web design, a business community may be most interested in how to evaluate web designers in order to find one that’s reliable. Conversely, a marketing community may be most interested in how to design funnels that convert more visitors into subscribers and customers.

You can also ask a question related to your article topic to kickstart a discussion, then offer to answer any questions a group member may have.

Share your links with family and friends

The easiest, non-intrusive way to do this is by posting it on your Facebook feed. Add a description highlighting a few points a general audience would find interesting and worth the effort of clicks and likes.

Add interesting visuals to illustrate your points

Add relevant illustrations and pictures throughout your article to break up the text and keep your visitors engaged. Bonus points: use relevant visuals from your own portfolio so it does double duty prettifying your article and showcasing your skills.

Improve your search ranking with some SEO basics

Focus on one search keyword or phrase you want your article to rank for, then use different variations of it throughout your article, especially in your article headline and section headings.

Make sure your pages and articles load fast; you might consider caching your pages with something like CloudFlare (they offer a free plan) to speed up load time. (CloudFlare shows cached versions of your files and images so visitors don’t have to wait for them to load real-time from your servers.)

Compile a list of relevant sites to ask for links

Remember how you looked up the most popular articles on Topic X? If you find out which sites link to those articles, why not ask them to link to your (much improved) version, too?!

Use a backlink checker tool such as Open Site Explorer or Ahrefs. (Fig. 11)

Fig. 11: Use a backlink checker tool to find out who links to articles related to your topic.

Go to each site and find the names of either the site owner or, if it’s a company, the person in charge of marketing.

To find their email address, enter their site domain into AnyMailFinder or Email Hunter. These sites will tell you the most likely email format (for example: firstname@company.com). Based on the most common email format the site or company uses, you can “smart guess” the likely email of the person you wish to contact.

You can send them a personalized version of this template1 to ask if they may be interested in linking to your article:

Hey [Name],

I was searching for some articles about [Your topic] today and I came across yours: [URL]

I noticed that you link to [Article Title] - I just published something similar that [2 major points why it’s better]: [url of your article]

May be worth a mention on your page.

Either way, keep up the awesome work!

Remember that infographic I mentioned earlier, the one you could create to accompany your article? You can also ask some of the other sites you found in the Backlinks tab to include it in one of their existing or future articles and credit you (earning you a link this way).

Here’s the template link Luke from Pest Pro App used:

Hey [First Name],

I really liked your article on [relevant topic to your article]. Great stuff!

You actually inspired me to take this a step farther and create something even deeper.

I thought I’d reach out to you because I just published an infographic on [topic] and I thought it might interest you. It covers [list of major points, stats or facts.] It’s all based on research, and I have the sources to back it up.

Love to see if you may find it a good addition to your article.

Promote it in relevant Facebook groups

If you develop websites (for example), find Facebook groups that discuss web development, have 500+ members, and show signs of recent activity. For a few weeks, post meaningful comments every once in a while and start interesting discussions to provide value to the community. If the group guidelines allow it—and if the timing is right—share your own article now and then, but make sure you ask a question in your post to spark a discussion. This will help the post stay on top of the group feed and members’ newsfeeds to bring you more traffic.

Content creates visibility outside your network

It’s becoming tougher and tougher to stand out these days—there’s a lot of noise online. For a lot of freelancers and part time contractors, DIY service platforms and online hiring marketplaces have become the status quo for finding gigs. The quality of clients drawn to these hubs is very mixed, unfortunately, and most come because they want to pay as little as possible for the work. It is also very challenging for freelancers who don’t already have a presence there to start gaining leads right away.

Freelancers relying on word of mouth referrals also run into pitfalls. Nurturing those opportunities can be just as time intensive, not to mention leave you with limited control over when they actually convert into meaningful business.

These conditions should prompt every freelancer to try something outside the box, to find uncrowded spaces for meeting and gaining clients. Strategically creating content can consistently attract the right kind of client. When a prospective client reads your article, she’ll learn something immediately useful from you and see you as a knowledgeable pro, which creates a solid start for a client-freelancer relationship.

It’s a way for you to have something in common, something to prompt a conversation. Imagine yourself at a conference talking to a person you just met—would you rather discuss an article you wrote or dive straight into discussing your hourly rate? Of course you’ll want to show off your know-how before you talk about prices!

Writing content to attract customers is a perfect strategy for this—it engages people and generates higher visibility for your work, both within and outside your network.

Ok, I’ll hand this off to you now; it’s your turn to do the research and write one article in the next three weeks. That’s my challenge to you. One article in the next three weeks on your site. Are you up for the challenge?

Post in the comments which topic you would like to write and I’ll comment back with my feedback and thoughts.

Ready? Get set. Go.

Footnotes
Categories: thinktime

Practical CSS Grid: Adding Grid to an Existing Design

a list apart - Fri 24th Mar 2017 04:03

Understanding and using CSS Grid is easier than you might expect. The day Grid support shipped in Firefox 52, I decided on the spur of the moment to convert the basic layout of my personal site to use Grid. And it was a fairly simple process—five minutes to write the grid styles, then 15-20 spent troubleshooting.

Grid allows us to literally define column and row grid lines, and then attach elements to those lines in any order we choose. That may sound like tables, but Grid is so much more than tables ever dreamed.  It means more responsive layouts, far more accessible documents, and far cleaner markup than even floats and positioning ever afforded us.

It’s been decades since CSS first emerged, but it’s never contained a system anything like this. And Grid is already supported in both Chrome and Firefox, with Safari coming soon (its Technology Preview releases support Grid as of this writing). A new era in digital design is dawning right now.

The way things used to be

Before we get to the Grid, allow me to take just a moment to explain the markup structure of meyerweb’s main pages, and the positioning-and-margins approach I’ve been using for, um, about 12 years now. Here’s how the markup is structured:

<body> <div id="sitemast">…</div> <div id="search">…</div> <div id="main">…</div> <div id="extra">…</div> <div id="navigate">…</div> <div id="footer">…</div> </body>


Some of those IDs are idiosyncratic holdovers from my early-2000s view of layout and naming conventions. #extra, for example, is what most of us would call #sidebar. #sitemast stands in for #masthead. And #footer is from the days before the actual <footer> element

The divs (which should probably be sections these days, but never mind that now) are arranged the way they are so that if the CSS fails to load, or a speaking browser is used to browse the site, then the site’s masthead is first, the ability to search the site is second, and the main content of the page is third. After that, extra materials, site navigation, and the footer follow.

All of these were stitched together into a layout by absolutely positioning the navigate and search divs. The sitemast was set to be 192px tall, and both the navigate and search divs were given top: 192px; to show up just below it. In order to leave space for them to land, top margins were applied to the main and extra divs. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: meyerweb’s home page (foreshortened)  Constructing the grid

So that’s how things have been laid out since the middle of 2005, more or less. I fiddled with a flexbox layout at one point as an experiment, but never shipped it, because it felt clumsy to be using a one-dimensional layout tool to manage a two-dimensional layout. I probably should have converted the navigation bar to flexbox, but I got distracted by something else and never returned to the effort.

Besides, Grid was coming. In the run-up to Grid support being released to the public, I was focused on learning and teaching Grid, creating test cases, and using it to build figures for publication. And then, March 7th, 2017, it shipped to the public in Firefox 52. I tweeted and posted an article and demo I’d put together the night before, and sat back in wonderment that the day had finally come to pass. After 20+ years of CSS, finally, a real layout system, a set of properties and values designed from the outset for that purpose.

And then I decided, more or less in that moment, to convert my personal site to use Grid for its main-level layout. It took me less than five minutes to come up with the following:

body { display: grid; grid-template-rows: 192px min-content min-content 1fr; grid-template-columns: 1fr 20em; } #sitemast { grid-row: 1; grid-column: 1 / span 2; } #search { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 2; } #main { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 1; } #extra { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 2; } #navigate { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 1; } #footer { grid-row: 4; grid-column: 1; }

That’s not all I had to do, but it’s the core. Let me break it down for you.

body { display: grid; grid-template-rows: 192px min-content min-content 1fr; grid-template-columns: 1fr 20em; }

This part of the CSS sets the body element to be a grid container and sets up the grid lines. When you make an element a grid container, all of its children become grid items. (If you’ve worked with flexbox, then this pattern will be familiar to you.) So with that display: grid, I turned all of the child divs into grid items.

Next come the rows in the grid. The values in grid-template-rows actually define separation distances between grid lines (the same is true of grid-template-columns, which we’ll get to in a moment). So the value 192px min-content min-content 1fr; means: “Go 192 pixels down from the top of the grid container and drop a grid line. Then drop another two such that they provide enough vertical space for the contents of the rows they define. Finally, leave one fr (fraction) of distance between the third grid line and the bottom of the grid container.” (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2: Defining the rows 

The value min-content is pretty cool. It means just what it says: “Take up the minimum amount of space needed to fit the contents.” So for the second row, the one that will contain the navigation bar and search field, it will be as tall as the taller of the two, and no taller.

Ditto for the third row, the one containing the main and extra divs. On the homepage, the main div will be taller. On subpages, that might not always be the case. In all circumstances, the row containing those two divs will always be tall enough to contain them both.

With the rows figured out, next come the columns. I decided to keep things simple and just set up two. If you look at meyerweb’s home page, it appears to have three columns, but that’s only true of blog posts—a substantial but minority part of the site—and the left-side “column” is more of a sidebar inside the main column.

In the original design, the sidebar (#extra) is 18em wide, with some extra space to keep it away from the main column. But the column also has to fit the search box, which is a bit wider. After some experimentation, I settled on a width of 20em. The rest was left to flex as 1fr. (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3: Defining the columns 

Now that I’ve used the fr unit twice, a few words of explanation are in order. fr stands for “fraction,” and means “a fraction of the available unconstrained space.” In this grid, there are two columns. One of them has an explicit width of 20em, which is thus constrained—there’s no room for flexibility. The rest of the column space is unconstrained—as the width of the grid container changes (say, due to changes of the browser window) the unconstrained space will change to be the container’s width minus the 20em of constrained space.

Imagine for a moment I’d decided to split the grid into four columns, with the rightmost being 20em wide and the rest being equal, flexible widths. That would have looked like:

grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr 20em;

Alternatively, I could have written it as:

grid-template-columns: repeat(3, 1fr) 20em;

In any event, that would have caused the unconstrained space to be divided equally among the first three columns. If the grid container were 65em wide, the last column would be 20em wide, and the other three 15em each. (3 x 15 = 45; 45 + 20 = 65.) Shrink the grid container down 50em wide, and the first three columns would shrink to 10em each.

In my case, I wanted that first column to take all of the space not given to the constrained last column, so it got 1fr. The final result is shown in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4: The complete grid  Placing the items

With the grid lines set up, now it’s just a matter of attaching grid items to the grid lines. This can be done automatically, using the grid-flow algorithm, but this is a case where I want to place each item in a specific place. That leads to the following:

#sitemast { grid-row: 1; grid-column: 1 / span 2; } #search { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 2; } #main { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 1; } #extra { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 2; } #navigate { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 1; } #footer { grid-row: 4; grid-column: 1; }

For each of the six divs, I simply said, “Pin your top edge to this row line, and your left edge to this column line.” I used line numbers because that’s all I gave myself—it’s possible to assign names to grid lines, but I didn’t. (But stay tuned for an example of this, later in the article!)

So, to pick one example, I set up the #main portion to start on the third row line and the first column line. That means it will, by default, fill out the space from the first to second column lines, and from the third to fourth row lines.

Almost all of the divs were set up in this way. The exception in this case is the #sitemast. It starts at the first column and row lines, but since I wanted it to go all the way across the grid, I set its column value to 1 / span 2. That means “Start at column line 1, and span across two columns.” I could have gotten the same result with the value 1 / 3, which means “Go from column line 1 to column line 3.” (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5: The grid items’ placement 

But realize: that’s just a diagram, not the actual layout situation. Not yet, at any rate.
Something I want to be clear about here is that while you can explicitly assign all of your grid items to specific rows and columns, you don’t have to do so. Grid has a flow model that allows grid items to be automatically assigned to the next open grid cell, depending on the flow direction. In my case, I could have gotten away with literally just these rules:

#sitemast { grid-column: 1 / span 2; } #navigate { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 1; }

That would have ensured the masthead was two columns wide, and that the navigation div was placed in the exact grid cell I wanted. That would have left the second row’s first cell filled by navigation, and the rest of the grid cells open.

Given that, the unassigned items would be flowed into the grid in source order. The masthead (#sitemast) would be placed in the first two-column row it could find, which turns out to be the first row. The search div would flow into the next open cell, which is row 2, column 2, because row 2, column 1 is already occupied by the navigation div. After that, the main div would flow into the first open cell: row 3, column 1. Extra would go into the next cell: row 3, column 2. And then the footer would be placed into row 4, column 1.

The end result would be exactly what’s shown in Fig. 5. The difference would be that if I had a special page where another div was added, it could throw off the whole layout, depending on where it appeared in the HTML. By explicitly assigning my layout pieces to the places I want them, I prevent a stray element from upending everything.

Given the styles I wrote, if a child element of the body is added to a page, it will become a grid item. If I don’t give it an explicit place in the grid, it will end up flowed into the first available grid cell. Since the lower-right cell (row 4, column 2) is unoccupied, that’s where the extra element would be placed…assuming it isn’t set to span two columns. In that case, it would end up at the bottom of the grid, in an automatically-created fifth row.

Accommodating the past

It’s easy enough to set up a grid, but when you drop grid items into it, they bring all of their existing styles in with them. That might not be a big deal in some cases, but in mine, it meant all of the margins and padding I’d used to keep the layout pieces apart from each other were now messing with the placement of the grid items. You can see this in Fig. 6, created using a local copy of the site.

Fig. 6: Grid + legacy = yoinks 

Ouch. It was time to override the pieces of the legacy layout styles I didn’t need in Grid, but did need to keep for browsers that don’t yet understand Grid.

So I wrapped the whole bit in an @supports block. Since I wanted to constrain the grid layout to wider displays, I put an @media block just inside @supports, and then proceeded to zero out or otherwise change the various margins and padding I didn’t need in a Grid context. Here’s how it turned out:

@supports (display: grid) { @media (min-width: 60.001em) { body { display: grid; grid-template-rows: 192px min-content min-content 1fr; grid-template-columns: 1fr 20em; } #sitemast { grid-row: 1; grid-column: 1 / span 2; } #search { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 2; position: static; padding: 0.25em 0 1em; } #main { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 1; margin-right: 0; margin-top: 1.25em; padding-top: 0; } .hpg #main { margin-top: 0; padding-top: 0; } #extra { grid-row: 3; grid-column: 2; position: static; top: 0; margin-top: 0; padding-top: 0.5em; margin-left: auto; } #navigate { grid-row: 2; grid-column: 1; position: static; margin-top: 1px; padding-bottom: 0; } #footer { grid-row: 4; grid-column: 1; margin-right: 0; } } }

I probably could refactor that to be more efficient, but for now, I’m going to leave it as-is. It makes clear what had to be done to which grid item—which ones needed to override position so their absolute positioning didn’t interact weirdly with the grid, which margins and padding needed to be changed, and so on. Let’s look at the end result (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Grid + @supports = yowza! 

You might be forgiven for thinking that this was much ado about not very much. Why go to all that effort just to make it look the same? The real power here, in what is admittedly a simple case, is how I no longer have to worry about overlap. The footer will always be below the main and extra divs, no matter which is taller. When I was using positioning, that was never guaranteed.

Similarly, the navigation and search will always maintain a shared height, making sure neither will overlap with the content below them—and thanks to min-content, I don’t have to guess at how tall they might get. Grid just handles all that for me.

And remember, the layout still functions in old browsers just as it always did, using positioning. I didn’t “break” the site for browsers that don’t understand Grid. The more capable Grid layout is there, waiting for browsers like Chrome and Firefox that understand it.

If you want to see all this live for yourself, head over to meyerweb.com and inspect elements in Firefox 52 or later. There you’ll see a little waffle icon next to the display: grid declaration on the body element. Click it, and Firefox will draw the grid lines on the page for you to scrutinize. (You can also enable a more powerful layout tool in Nightly builds of Firefox; see my post “ Grid Inspection ” for details.)

Naming conventions

I mentioned earlier that it’s possible to name grid lines. I didn’t do it for my own styles because the grid I defined was so simple, but for more complicated grids, naming the lines might be useful.

Using the stripped-down version of the styles, the one without all the legacy overrides, naming the grid lines would look something like this:

body { display: grid; grid-template-rows: [masthead] 192px [navsearch] min-content [mainextra] min-content [footer] 1fr; grid-template-columns: [left] 1fr [middle] 20em [right]; }

Each of those square-bracketed words is assigned as a name to the corresponding grid line. (Fig. 8)

Fig. 8: Named grid lines 

Once those names are defined, you can refer to them in your grid-row and grid-column properties. For example:

#sitemast { grid-row: masthead; grid-column: left / span right; } #search { grid-row: navsearch; grid-column: middle; } #main { grid-row: mainextra; grid-column: left; } #extra { grid-row: mainextra; grid-column: middle; } #navigate { grid-row: navsearch; grid-column: left; } #footer { grid-row: footer; grid-column: left; }

Much like class names, you can assign multiple names to a grid line by supplying a space-separated list. Try this one for size:

grid-template-columns: [start left] 1fr [middle sidebar] 20em [right end];

You can then refer to any one of those names in your grid-column declaration. There’s no defined limit on the number of names, but remember what comes with great power.

In case you were wondering, you can mix grid line names and numbers, so something like grid-row: navsearch; grid-column: 2;} is completely fine. You can use any name the browser can parse, which means you can specify just about anything Unicode and your CSS file’s character encoding will allow.

Grid and Flexbox

A question you may have is: now that we have Grid, do I throw away Flexbox? Absolutely not! The two can and do work very well together.

Consider the navigation bar of my design. For years, it’s been laid out using an unordered list and float: left for the list items. Simplified a bit, the CSS and markup looks like this:

#navlinks { float: left; width: 100%; } #navlinks li { float: left; list-style: none; margin-left: 1px; } <div id="navigate"> <ul id="navlinks"> <li><a href="…">Archives</a></li> <li><a href="…">CSS</a></li> <li><a href="…">Toolbox</a></li> <li><a href="…">Writing</a></li> <li>><a href="…">Speaking</a></li> <li>>><a href="…">Leftovers</a></li> </ul> </div>

Why not display: inline-block instead of float: left? Because that literally wasn’t an option when I wrote the CSS for the navlinks, and I never got around to updating it. (You may be sensing a theme here.)

Now I have two much better options for arranging those links: Grid and Flexbox. I could define a grid there, which would go something like this:

#navlinks { display: grid; grid-template-columns: repeat(6,min-content); } #navlinks li { list-style: none; margin-left: 1px; }

That would essentially get the same result, only in a grid, which is far more robust than either floats or inline blocks.

On the other hand, I’d be using Grid, which is a two-dimensional layout system, for a one-dimensional piece of layout. It’s certainly possible to do this, but it feels a little like overkill, and it’s not really what Grid was designed to do. Flexbox, on the other hand, is designed for exactly these kinds of situations.

So I might write the following instead:

#navlinks { display: flex; justify-content: flex-start; flex-wrap: wrap; } #navlinks li { list-style: none; margin-left: 1px; }

Again, that would be basically the same result, but in a more robust fashion. In addition to keeping the links all lined up, the wrap value will let the links go to a second line if need be. And because the flexbox sits inside a grid item that’s part of a grid row whose height is min-content, any increase in height (due to line wrapping or whatever) will cause the entire row to become taller. That means the rows after it will move down to accommodate it.

And now that I look at the markup again, I’ve realized I can simplify that markup without needing to touch any grid styles. Instead of wrapping a list with a div, I can drop the div and reassign its ID to the list. So the markup can become:

<ul id="navigate"> <li><a href="…">Archives</a></li> <li><a href="…">CSS</a></li> <li><a href="…">Toolbox</a></li> <li><a href="…">Writing</a></li> <li><a href="…">Speaking</a></li> <li><a href="…">Leftovers</a></li> </ul>

After adjusting the selectors in my CSS from #navlinks to #navigate, the resulting layout will be exactly as it was before. The ul will become a grid item and a flex container. That is a thing you can do.

The downside in my case would be dealing with any interactions between that change and my legacy layout, but it’s not a huge issue to solve. It’s just a matter of doing it.

Letdowns

So what are the down sides?  Not many, but they do exist.

Most fundamentally, there’s no way to define an overall page grid that has all items relate to it. In other words, if I say:

body { display: grid; grid-template-columns: repeat(16, 1fr); }

…then that sets up a 16-column flexible grid for the body element only, and its child elements are the only ones that can become grid items. I can’t reach down into the document tree and assign elements to be placed on that body grid. That’s the main reason I didn’t try to put the little sidebar bits on my blog posts into a shared grid: I literally can’t, at this point, unless I resort to ugly CSS or HTML hackery.

The capability to do such things is known as subgrid, and it hasn’t been implemented by any browsers as yet. There are questions as to exactly how it should or shouldn’t work, so there’s still plenty of hope that everything will work out in the end. It’s a disappointment that we don’t have it yet, and that lack restricts the full range of grid’s power, but hopefully only for a short while.

In the meantime, I’m sure people will come up with ways to work around this limitation. A basic workaround in this case: I could define a grid that applies to every blog post individually, and arrange the pieces of each post on those nested grids. The CSS would look something like:

div.post { display: grid; grid-template-columns: [meta] 10em [main] 1fr; grid-template-rows: [title] min-content [main] 1fr; }

With that, I could place the metadata, the title, and the post’s body text into the defined grid cells, using either grid line numbers or the grid names I set up. Something like:

div.post h3 { grid-column: 2; grid-row: title; } ul.meta { grid-column: meta; grid-row: main; } div.post div.text { grid-column: main; grid-row: main; }

The drawback is that the metadata is then constrained to be a specific width, instead of my being able to set a column that all metadata shares, and size it by the longest bit of content.  That’s no worse than right now, where I’m setting the floated metadata to an explicit width, so this doesn’t lose me anything. It’s just a (temporarily) missed opportunity to gain something.

Another limitation, one that may or may not be addressed, is that you cannot directly style grid cells. Suppose I’d wanted to put a box around the #extra sidebar, completely filling out that cell. I’d have to style the div. I can’t do something like this:

@grid-cell(2, 3) { background: teal; border: 1px solid; }

I mean, I’m not even sure the syntax would look anything like that (probably not), and this sort of capability is only now starting to be debated by the Working Group. If you have use cases for this sort of capability, definitely share them with the world and the folks at www-style. The more real-world cases there are, the stronger the case for supporting them.

And there will, inevitably, be bugs to fix. For example, as I was finishing this article, I discovered that in some situations, Chrome 57 can suffer from a page-blanking bug when using Grid. It appears to be caused by having absolutely-positioned elements removed from a Grid page, and can be triggered by extensions like Window Resizer and LastPass. The good news is that a fix has been accepted for Chrome 58, so it should be fixed by the end of April 2017 at the latest.

Grid power

I hope this exploration of applying Grid to a live site has given you a taste of what’s possible. But I want to warn you that it’s just a taste, and a minor one at that. I was only able to scratch the surface of what the Grid syntax makes possible, so if this has captured your imagination, I strongly encourage you to experiment and then to dive into the Grid specification to see what else is possible. (Grid gaps! Dense grid packing! Inline grids! Auto-filling rows and columns!)

But even more, what I explored here was the barest wrinkle on the outer edges of a scratch on the surface of everything that Grid will make possible. Sure, it can make our existing designs more flexible, robust, and simple to maintain. That’s pretty great. It also makes possible layouts we’ve never even dreamed of, because they were impossible given the tools we had available. There are new techniques, even new art movements, waiting to be discovered. We haven’t experienced a phase shift this profound since the original move from tables to CSS. I hope you’ll be a part of exploring this new realm.

Resources

As I said, this is at best an introduction. Want to know more? Here are some great resources to get you going:

 

Categories: thinktime

Practical Design Discovery

a list apart - Fri 10th Mar 2017 02:03

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Dan Brown's new book, Practical Design Discovery, available now from A Book Apart.

One of the hardest design problems I ever worked on was for a company that helps IT groups manage risk. Their product focused on open-source components—inexpensive and widely supported by an enormous community, but often vulnerable to security flaws.

What made this design problem hard was the complexity of the product’s underlying structure, a triangle of interrelated abstract concepts. To work through the problem, we created a series of sketches that helped us understand it.

The outcome ended up being a relatively simple prototype, a model of the overall structure of the application. Though we were chartered to create a detailed design, our client later admitted that they knew we wouldn’t get there, but that they highly valued our efforts to solve the underlying structure. Those efforts set the direction for everything else on the product.

Direction-setting assertions

Much like when we frame problems, we can make assertions that set direction and describe decisions about the design. These decisions will be pretty high-level, meaning they’ll deal with a holistic view of the site or product. Decisions about details come later, though you’ll see that some assertions get pretty specific as a way of clarifying and testing the direction.

There are three kinds of assertions you can make about design direction:

  • Principles define what the design should or shouldn’t do. These statements are grounded in research, and may be referred to as implications when you can tie them to research.
  • Concepts establish an overall approach for the product, expressed as a central theme or idea.
  • Models describe the product in an abstract way, showing the underlying architecture, structure, flow, or approach. They offer a sense of how the product will work (without actual functionality).

If you try to make tactical decisions too early, you may set a precedent without understanding how it influences what comes next—it’s difficult to trace low-level decisions back to a specific objective or problem statement. Why is the button blue? There’s no project objective in the world that can justify such a decision.

Instead, you’ll make a few low-level decisions alongside your assertions, using samples to illustrate, clarify, and demonstrate the application of the high-level decisions. For example, you might arrive at the design principle that the site’s tone should be friendly without being too casual or informal. You would demonstrate that through sample screen designs and content, showing messaging that says “Thanks!” instead of the too-formal “Thank you very much” or too-casual “You rock!”

Exploring the big decisions through examples might encourage you to reconsider them, or to find places in the product experience that need variation. Perhaps the color palette is insufficient for everything you need, or the authoritative voice isn’t appropriate for certain pages.

By venturing a solution, you’re not just asking, “Will this work?” You’re also asking, “Do I have enough knowledge to know whether this will work?” That is, steps toward solving the problem may trigger additional insights, or questions, about the problem. Great discovery entails providing just enough shape and definition so the team can get aligned behind them as direction for the product.

Principles and implications

Principles are rules that help designers evaluate their decisions about the design. They provide guidance in the form of absolute statements about what the design should or should not do. That said, no set of principles can be exhaustive. They read, sometimes, as commandments: rules that may be applicable to many different kinds of design decisions, and therefore open to interpretation.

There’s no industry standard on how to write design principles, so you won’t be violating some ordinance if you use pictograms or write a dialogue. But principles are usually just one sentence, often written in the imperative:

Do more with less (Microsoft Design Principles)

Design for the customer and instill confidence (Intuit)

Use data to make and improve decisions (Principles for 21st Century Government, Code for America)

I like these, but they don’t feel specific to the product or company. Principles are most powerful when they’re directly relevant. These use more elaborate phrases that closely relate to the product:

More than boxes on a screen (Google Calendar)

Transitional interfaces are easier to learn and more pleasant to use (MapBox)

Time matters, so build for people on the go (Windows User Experience Design Principles)

Sometimes, you’ll find principles rendered as one- or two-word noun phrases, as if to complete the expression, “The Principle of ______.”:

More Contrast (10 Principles of Codeacademy.com)

Consistency (First Principles of Interaction Design, Bruce Tognazzini)

Principles are sometimes followed by deeper descriptions and examples. My favorite variation of this comes from the Windows User Experience Design Principles. These principles include questions for designers to ask themselves about design decisions:

  1. Personalization, not customization
    • Does the feature allow users to express an element of themselves?
    • Have you made the distinction between personalization and customization?
    • Does the personalization have to be a new feature, or can it make use of existing features and information (such as the user’s location, background picture, or tile)?

Regardless of the approach you take in framing the principles, use consistent language and structures, if only to make them easier to remember and use. If you lead with a verb, always lead with a verb. If you write a pithy phrase or a complete sentence to express the principle, always do that. If you write single-word principles, well, there’s a special place in purgatory for you.

In my practice, I phrase principles as direct consequences of what we learned in research. I call them implications, and I prefer them because they fit into the narrative: “We learned that users often lose their place in the system. The implication is that the UI should prioritize clarifying context.”

Implications answer the question, “So what?” You’ve generated a lot of data, and now need to explain why it all matters. I typically document this in a spreadsheet that identifies project questions, answers I’ve uncovered, and the resulting implications (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Gathering activities generate answers to questions concerning context or requirements.

Ultimately, principles and implications do the same thing, so I won’t belabor the distinction between them. In both cases, they make an assertion that, yes, guides the designer, but also provides a test: designers can compare an idea to the principle and determine how closely it adheres to the guide.

There’s no standard for design principles, though there are lots of suggestions out there (the Resources section includes a few of the best). Here are my suggestions for crafting design principles.

Be specific

Principles should be as specific to the product as possible. “Easy to use” isn’t a meaningful principle, because it could apply to anything.

For the project with the risk-management company I described at the beginning of this chapter, we used a number of principles. In early versions of their product, users complained that it was easy to lose their place, so they couldn’t keep track of what they were working on. This led us to the principle:

Always display the user’s context within the system, so they know where they are and what they’re working on.

Context became something we talked about a lot. It forced us to think carefully before moving information to a different screen, or triggering a dialog box for taking action. Because of this principle, we often asked ourselves, “Can the user tell where they are? Is loss of context here okay?”

Question your choices

Good principles go beyond specificity: they issue a direct challenge to designers. They force you to take a second look at your work: does the principle invalidate any of your decisions? Done right, principles should make you squirm a little.

In the risk-management product, the complexity of its requirements inevitably produced dense, esoteric designs. Elaborate displays attempted to capture every nuance, pack in every detail. At the same time, our client had heard their users didn’t like the dense displays. We had to walk a fine line, and so we relied on this principle:

Show just enough information to support essential decisions—no more, no less.

The principle’s borderline self-contradiction provoked us to reconsider what stayed on each screen as users worked through the process. Did we take out too much? Is everything on this screen absolutely necessary? On one hand, we wanted users to feel confident about where they were, but on the other, we didn’t want the page overwhelmed by navigation devices irrelevant to the current task.

We also constantly asked ourselves, “What is ‘just enough information?’” and “What are the ‘essential decisions?’” Every iteration of the design tested the meaning of these key phrases.

Inspire your team

Specific and provocative principles may seem like whip-cracking: Do this, and do it this way. But a good principle also inspires you, pointing you to even loftier goals. It opens up possibilities by encouraging you to explore—and providing rationale for where you end up.

In Luke Wroblewski’s summary of a 2009 talk by Stephan Hoefnagels of Microsoft, he writes, “Goals are the mountain peaks you are trying to get to. [Design] principles are the path we use to get to the top of the mountain.”

One of the driving principles for my client’s product rested on the insight that the product was focused on bad news: every display was about what was going wrong in the IT department that day, how bad it was, and what wasn’t getting done. Like most interactive products, though, this one was meant to be a pleasure to use. In short, we needed to balance the gloom and doom with the satisfaction that comes from understanding the nature and extent of the bad news. We relied on this principle:

Build confidence by clearly stating risks and making the data actionable.

We knew the goal was to help customers manage risk. This principle acted as the path to the top of the mountain by inspiring us to focus not just on reporting the bad news, but also on ensuring customers could do something about it.

Link principles to research

Principles grounded in research make for stronger statements. The death knell of any principle is arbitrariness: if a principle comes from the subjective preference of the Chief Something Officer or because it reflects the (dysfunctional) way the organization has always worked, designers will ignore it. Your principle can be otherwise perfect, but if its source is suspect, the team won’t take it seriously.

The team’s participation in all discovery activities is crucial here, too. Since they helped with the research, they can also help with writing the principles. By participating in crafting principles, your team will internalize them. Seeing the principles later will trigger memories of user observations, which they can integrate into their work more readily.

The Windows User Experience Design Principles came directly from research. In reading some of these principles, you can almost hear supporting quotes from users:

  • Reduce concepts to increase confidence
  • Small things matter, good and bad
  • Be great at “look” and “do”
  • Solve distractions, not discoverability
  • UX before knobs and questions
  • Personalization, not customization
  • Value the lifecycle of the experience
  • Time matters, so build for people on the go

You might argue that these lack specificity. When you take into account the scope of the project, however—an entire operating system—they’re sufficiently provocative and inspirational. “Solve distractions, not discoverability” is a bold statement, offering clear opportunities to refine the design without dictating a particular solution. It opens up conversations, and steers them, too.

Concepts and big ideas

One of my favorite scenes in Mad Men, the television show about advertising agencies in the 1960s, is the pitch to Kodak at the end of the first season. Kodak is introducing a new product, a circular tray that makes it easy to store and show photographic slides. They call it “The Wheel,” admitting, “We know wheels aren’t seen as exciting technology.”

Creative director Don Draper, the show’s main character, explains that this product isn’t about the technology: it’s about tapping into our memories and emotions. The agency then pulls the veil off their concept for the campaign: the carousel.

By establishing a central concept, a team (whether in advertising or web design) has a singular source of inspiration, a template for considering ideas. And while principles can serve as guideposts, only a concept can establish a vision. With both of them in your toolkit, your team has a potentially interesting tension to draw from.

Using a carousel to describe a slide projector creates a metaphor brimming with meaning and possibility. It shows two ways we can express a big idea:

  • How the product makes you feel: carousels evoke the joy of reliving happy memories.
  • How the product works: the spinning carousel mimics storing and displaying photographic slides from a wheel.

Either approach can help us express the big idea behind our digital products and websites. (Though I’ve never worked on a project that gave us a central concept as elegant as the carousel, which employs both approaches!)

How the product makes you feel

The purpose and function of interactive products offer ripe opportunities for metaphors, but metaphor isn’t the only way to express a central concept. For one web application project, my team expressed the essence with the phrase, “Power with flexibility.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the word carousel, but it evoked the desired feeling: that the app should make users feel like they can do anything.

We elaborated with descriptions of how people would experience unconstrained power with the product:

Provide users up-to-date status so they feel in control

Lower barriers to entry

Allow different styles of creating new content

We also described what “Power with flexibility” meant from the user’s perspective:

  • Knowledge: having the right data to shed light on immediate needs
  • Responsiveness: being able to provide answers to stakeholders immediately
  • Accomplishment: getting up to speed on a crucial tool right away
  • Control: being able to fine-tune their content to suit different needs in different situations
  • Comfort: seeing the application as an extension of one’s own thought process

Since this essence was a succinct idea, a little elaboration helped it to resonate with both the client and the project team.

How the product works

Complex interactive products benefit from a central idea that describes how they work. This usually means employing a big idea to convey the underlying structure.

Shopping cart, for example, is a popular metaphor used on ecommerce sites. You could use it even if you weren’t working on an ecommerce site. The idea of “adding stuff to the cart” is a familiar metaphor that conveys a site’s underlying structure. We even relied on this metaphor on our career-guidance site: students would “add careers to their cart” after taking an assessment.

There are a few other tried-and-true frameworks for describing the structure of a website. For web applications, there are two common ones beyond the shopping cart:

  • Hub-and-spoke: This is perhaps the most common pattern for structuring a website or digital product. The hub-and-spoke metaphor implies that the web application has a central screen, from which users may trigger all other functions.
  • List-detail: Another typical approach consists of a list of items from which users can select for more detail—like your email inbox.

Do you have to use one of these structures? Of course not. But if your site lends itself to one of these approaches, you have your big idea that the rest of the functionality revolves around. (That wasn’t a carousel reference. I promise.)

For sites that focus on delivering content (rather than transactional functionality), the tried-and-true frameworks deal more with how the content is organized:

  • Topics: what the content is about, or the subject matter
  • Actions: what tasks the content supports (like researching products versus troubleshooting products)

These aren’t the only structures for categorizing content, but they are my go-to starting points.

None of these is a fully fledged design in and of itself. They are well-understood frameworks that serve as the backbone to a much larger design. They are big ideas that describe how the product works.

You don’t have to rely on an abstraction or metaphor (like the carousel) to convey the big idea, but instead draw from the emerging library of understood frameworks. That they are becoming part of web design lingo is a testament to their power and flexibility.

There’s more where that came from!

Check out the rest of Practical Design Discovery at A Book Apart.

Categories: thinktime

OpenSTEM: Oceanography and the Continents

Planet Linux Australia - Wed 08th Mar 2017 11:03

Marie Tharp (30 July, 1920 – 23 August, 2006) was an oceanographer and cartographer who mapped the oceans of the world. She worked with Bruce Heezen, who collected data on a ship, mapping the ocean floor.

Tharp and Heezen

Tharp turned the data into detailed maps. At that time women were not allowed to work on research ships, as it was thought that they would bring bad luck! However, Tharp was a skilled cartographer, and as she made her maps of the floor of the oceans of the world, with their ridges and valleys, she realised that there were deep valleys which showed the boundaries of continental plates. She noticed that these valleys were also places with lots of earthquakes and she became convinced of the basics of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Between 1959 and 1963, Tharp was not mentioned in any of the scientific papers published by Heezen, and he dismissed her theories disparagingly as “girl talk”. As this video  from National Geographic shows, she stuck to her guns and was vindicated by the evidence, eventually managing to persuade Heezen, and the scientific community at large, of the validity of the theories. In 1977, Heezen and Tharp published a map of the entire ocean floor. Tharp obtained degrees in English, Music, Geology and Mathematics during the course of her life. In 2001, a few weeks before her 81st birthday, Marie Tharp was awarded the Lamont-Doherty Heritage Award at Columbia University, in the USA, as a pioneer of oceanography. She died of cancer in 2006.

The National Geographic video provides an excellent testimony to this woman pioneer in oceanography.

Categories: thinktime

Lev Lafayette: Multicore World 2017: A Review

Planet Linux Australia - Tue 07th Mar 2017 17:03

Multicore World is a small conference held annually in New Zealand hosted by Open Parallel. What it lacks in numbers however it makes up in quality of the presenters. The 2017 conference included a typically impressive array of speakers dealing with some of the most difficult issues facing computational science, and included several important announcements in the fields of supercomputing, the Internet of Things, and manufacting issues.

read more

Categories: thinktime

Craige McWhirter: Adventures in Unemployment

Planet Linux Australia - Mon 06th Mar 2017 14:03

Due to a recent corporate fire sale, implosion, what ever you'd like to call it, I found myself joining thousands of my former colleagues unemployed and looking for "new opportunities" (hire me, I'm dead set amazing).

As a parent who also has an ex-wife and children it is incumbent upon me to inform the Department of Human Services (DHS) of any changes to my income within strict time frames. So like a dutiful slave of the state, I called them to advise of my new $0 income status.

The following conversation actually happened:

[DHS] "So taking into account your new income of $0, you will need to pay $114 / month."

[McW] "With an income of $0, how would you expect me to pay that?"

[DHS] "Borrow money from family and friends."

[McW] "You know you just said that out loud, right?"

[DHS] "Yes sir."

[McW] "Okay, so let me clarify this. I have an income of $0, 3 dependent children living with me, one dependent adult and the DHS priority is not for me to provide food and shelter for them but to pay child support?"

[DHS] "That is correct."

[McW] "..and this is something you've not only said out loud but on a phone call that's being recorded for 'service quality and training purposes'."

[DHS] "That is the nature of the legislation and what we are trained to say."

[McW] "You do see the problem here, don't you?"

[DHS] "Yes sir, I do."

[McW] "Are there any other things you're trained to say that might help?"

[DHS] "You could apply for work benefits."

[McW] "Okay, let's think this one through. Let's say I did get the dole, which would be about $400 / fortnight, less than my fortnightly rent even before I commence buying food, would the DHS still want $114 from that?

[DHS] "Yes, child support would be taken from the benefits before they were paid to you."

[McW] [long pause] "Back to the $0 income and obvious incapacity to pay, when the inevitable non-payment occurs, what does the DHS do next?"

[DHS] "Despite your excellent payment history, the DHS would have to pursue avenues for collection."

[McW] "So I have a family of 6 to shelter and support and the DHS will still end up going collect to strip us of whatever they can? That's not particularly helpful to anyone, not those I'm directly supporting nor my children for whom the DHS is collecting child support."

[DHS] "That's correct sir, once a child support debt of $1,000 is accrued, DHS will pursue collection avenues. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

[McW] "Unless you can change the legislation, I think we're good here. Thank you."

Having been in the child support "game" for about 13 years, having seen female friends dudded by former male partners, have seen male friends rorted by former female partners, it's not as though I was unaware the system was truly broken and unfair to all parties in so many cases.

This conversation however, was truly breathtaking. I doubt Douglas Adams could have scripted this any better. :-)

Categories: thinktime

OpenSTEM: The Week in HASS – term 1, week 6

Planet Linux Australia - Mon 06th Mar 2017 11:03

HASS students have a global focus this week. The younger students are looking at calendars, celebrations and which countries classmates are connected to, around the world. Older students are starting to explore what happened at the end of the Ice Age and the beginnings of agriculture and trade. These students will also be applying the scientific method to practical examinations – creating their own mini Ice Ages in a bowl and making mud bricks.

Foundation to Year 3

Our standalone Foundation/Prep classes (F.1) are looking at calendars and celebrations this week, starting to explore the world beyond their own family and gain an identity relative to each other. Integrated Foundation/Prep (F.5) and Year 1 (1.1) classes; as well as Year 1 (1.1), 2 (2.1) and 3 (3.1) classes are examining our OpenSTEM blackline world map and putting coloured dots on all the countries that they and their families are connected to, either through relatives, or by having lived there themselves. It is through this sort of exercise that students can start to understand the concept of the “global family”.

Year 3 to Year 6 Making an Ice Age

Students in years 3 (3.5), 4 (4.1), 5 (5.1) and 6 (6.1) are consolidating their learning and expanding into subjects, such as Science and Economics and Business. The ever-popular Ice Ages and Mud Bricks activity links to core Science curricular strands and allows students to explore their learning in very tactile ways. Whilst undertaking the activity, students make a mini Ice Age in a bowl, attempting to predict what will happen to their clay landscape when it is flooded and frozen, and then comparing these predictions to their recorded observations, during empirical testing. Students also make their own mud bricks by hand, once again predicting how to make the bricks strongest and testing different construction techniques. We have even had classes test the strength of their mud brick walls under simulated flood conditions, working inside a tidy tray.

Making mud bricks

Students move on from studying the Ice Age, looking at what happened as the climate changed and global sea levels rose. The pressures that these changes brought to people’s lives is examined by looking at the origins of agriculture with domestic plants and animals. Students consider how people needed to wok together to survive. The cooperative Trade and Barter activity allows students to role play life in a Neolithic village. Faced with a range of challenges, such as floods and droughts, students discover how to prioritise their needs for food to survive the winter, against their wants. They also discover that trade, counting and writing all grew out of the needs for people to exchange items and help each other to survive. This activity covers all the basic concepts in the Economics and Business curriculum, whilst providing a context that is meaningful to the students and their own experiences. Replicating the way that people developed trade, counting and writing in the historic period, the students’ experiences during the Trade and Barter activity lay the foundations for a deeper understanding of the basic concepts of Economics and Business.

flooding the mud brick wall
Categories: thinktime

Ben Martin: Non self replicating reprap 3d printer

Planet Linux Australia - Sun 05th Mar 2017 19:03
The reprap is designed to be able to "self replicate" to a degree. If a part on a reprap 3d printer breaks then a replacement part can be printed and attached. Parts can evolve as new ideas come along. Having parts crack or weaken on a 3d printer can be undesirable though.

A part on this printer was a mix of acrylic and PLA, both of which were cracked. Not quite what one would hope for as a foot of the y-axis. It is an interesting design with the two driving rods the same length as the alloy channel at the back of the printer.



A design I thought of called for 1/2 inch alloy in order to wrap the existing alloy extrusion with a 3mm cover. The dog bone on the slot is manually added in Fusion 360 so it is larger than needed. The whole thing being a learning exercise for me as to how to create 2.5D parts. The belt tensioning is on a 6mm subassembly that is mounted on the bracket in the right of the image below.


The bracket and subassembly are shown mounted below. Yes, using four M6 bolts to tension a belt is overkill. I would imagine you can stretch the belt to breaking point quite easily with these bolts. The two rods are locked into place using M3 tapped grub screws. The end brackets are bolted to the back extrusion using two M6 bolts.


The z-axis is now supported by a second 10mm alloy custom bracket. This combination makes it much, much harder to wobble the z-axis than the original design using plastic parts.




Categories: thinktime

Pia Waugh: Service Innovation in New Zealand – the new digital transformation

Planet Linux Australia - Fri 03rd Mar 2017 11:03

Over the past fortnight I have had the pleasure and privilege of working closely with the Service Innovation team in the New Zealand Government to contribute to their next steps in achieving proper service integration. It was an incredible two weeks as part of an informal exchange between our agencies to share expertise and insights. I am very thankful for the opportunity to work with the team and to contribute in some small way to their visionary, ambitious and world leading agenda. I also recommend everyone watch closely the work of Service Innovation team, and contact them if you are interested in giving feedback on the model.

I spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand looking at their “Service Innovation” agenda, which is, I can confidently say, one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen for genuine digital transformation. The Kiwis have in place already a strong and technically sound vision for service integration, a bunch of useful guidance (including one of the best gov produced API guides I’ve ever seen!) and a commitment to delivering integrated services as a key part of their agenda and programme along with brilliant skills and visionaries across government.

I believe New Zealand will be the one to watch over the coming year and, with a little luck, they could redefine the baseline for what everyone should be aspiring to. They could be the first government to properly demonstrate Gov as a Platform, not just better digital government, which is quite exciting! Systemic change and transformation generally happens once a generation if you are lucky, so do keep an eye on the Kiwis. They are set to  leave us all behind!

There is more internal documentation which I encourage the team to publish, like the Federated Services Model Reference Architecture and other gems.

In a couple of weeks, on the back of a raft of ongoing work, we analysed why it is with such great guidance available, why would siloed approaches still be happening? We found that the natural motivations of agencies would always drive an implementation that was designed to meet the specific agency needs rather than the system needs across government. That was unsurprising but the new insight was the service delivery teams themselves, who wanted to do the best possible implementations but with little time and resource, and high expectations, couldn’t take the time needed to find, read, interpret, translate into practice and verify implementation of the guidance. Which is quite fair! So we looked at models of reducing the barriers for those teams to do things better by providing reusable infrastructure and reference implementations, and either changing or tweaking the motivations of agencies themselves.

This is an ongoing piece of work, but fundamentally we looked at the idea that if we made the best technical path also the easiest path for service delivery teams to follow, then there would be a reasonable chance of a consumable systems approach to delivering these services. If support and skills was available with tools, code, dev environments, reference implementations, lab environments and other useful tools for designing and delivering government services faster, better and cheaper, then service delivery teams and agencies both would have a natural motivation to take that approach. Basically, we surmised that vision and guidance probably needed to be supplemented by implementation to make it real, moving from policy to application.

It is great to see other jurisdictions like New Zealand starting to experiment and implement the consumable mashable government model! I want to say a huge thank you to the New Zealand Government for sharing their ideas, but mostly for now picking up and being in such a great position to show everyone what Gov as a Platform and Gov as an API should look like. I wish you luck and hope to be a part of your success, even just in a small way!

Rock on.

Categories: thinktime

Long-Term Design: Rewriting the Design Sales Pitch

a list apart - Fri 03rd Mar 2017 02:03

We run our client service businesses just like door-to-door salespeople hawking vacuum cleaners. That may seem unfair, but it’s exactly how we sell design. We’re focused on short-term wins—but we’re teaching clients to see our work as disposable.

I want to believe we’re better than that.

We spend our entire careers knocking on doors and shilling our services. It’s just how we do business. Even if a potential client’s old design is working just fine, we might go for the hard sell. But that’s damaging, both to us and to our clients. This practice perpetuates the idea that design is only valuable when new.

Consider the salesperson’s pitch:

Your [design/vacuum] is old. Other people have newer ones. You’re going to lose out if you don’t buy a new one. Your family/business might even be unsafe with your current one.

We believe that being a designer requires cycling through clients and booking new projects. Instead of talking about dust or maneuverability around furniture legs, the designer’s pitch is more like this:

Your current design is not allowing your brand to resonate in the marketplace. It looks dated, and your competitors all recently launched new branding. You could lose market share to competitors without a more modern design. Short-term engagements are bad for our clients

We write articles in phenomenal publications like this one about how design isn’t just about aesthetics—design should be a fundamental part of how a business operates, conducts market research, and creates products and services. Design is powerful and important. So we preach the doctrine of Design Thinking. We work to improve accessibility and web standards for the good of all. We preach user advocacy.

However, when we pitch design work to clients, so often we’re only selling the aesthetics. And, when we book the gig, we try to ship that design and get that final invoice paid so we can bring in the next client.

We designers rarely stick around to see how well the design works. We begin each project with design thinking, but rarely maintain it. And because of that, each client goes shopping for another new design (or succumbs to the pitch of another designer) much sooner than they need to.

Design requires time in order to deliver its full value. For example, when a new website launches, we can measure changes in analytics immediately. But that design also carries the potential for further improvements—enhancements that can be unlocked through A/B testing, analysis, and optimization.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of sites are never optimized. They launch, sit for a year or two, then get replaced. Our clients aren’t getting the full return on their investments.

And if you think about that even further, this “cycle of redesign” makes design less valuable. In other words, if design is only valuable when new, it isn’t very valuable in the first place.

New, cheaper solutions are encroaching upon our profession, such as logo-designing software, theming algorithms, and drag & drop design tools. We fear we are being replaced by these alternatives or that the perceived value of design is decreasing. And in the next breath, we tell our clients “Let’s make a fresh, new design for you.”

We can’t blame clients for trying affordable new options; we’re the ones who taught them to value “new” design in the first place.

Cycling through clients is less lucrative

Finding a constant stream of new clients takes a lot of effort and is a constant challenge for many designers and agencies. Freelancers spend countless hours crawling job boards and submitting their portfolios in hopes of getting hired. Agencies spend considerable resources responding to RFPs, and many employ sales staff and account managers.

When designers enter more senior-level positions, they eventually face the frustration that more time is spent selling, meaning less time to design.

Sales isn’t bad and will always be necessary to some degree. That said, when we spend more time on sales than we need to, compensation suffers. Naturally, reducing the time and effort on sales so we can do more design work would be more lucrative. To do this, we only need to stop knocking on new doors and instead continue to serve the clients we already have. We need to change how we structure our services and start supporting clients over the long term.

Long-term work can be personally and professionally satisfying

Designers have a certain obsession with making new designs, and you might think that working with the same client for a year sounds boring.

I’ll admit it: making new designs is fun. I love the act of creation and the satisfaction of making something fresh and cool. However, by cycling through clients, we’re missing out on some of the most satisfying design work there is.

Few projects are as challenging or gratifying as redesigning a responsive web app that has four tiers of navigation. That might sound horribly tedious and painful at first, but solving a difficult design problem brings incredible satisfaction.

Further, witnessing people benefit as a direct result of your design can be powerful and rewarding—much more rewarding than the temporary thrill of making something new. You see your design taking an active role in growing a business or in improving a person’s daily work. You see other people recognizing your design’s value. That’s a great feeling.

This is often only possible when you stick around and serve the client over the long term.

What it’s like working with clients over the long term

For me, the idea of a long-term structure for my design services started when a client said this:

I’m tired of signing a contract every 6 weeks. Can I just pay you every month instead?

Now I only do retainer work. All my current clients have been with me for more than a year.

In the early days of running my solo consulting business, I spent a lot of time crawling job boards, writing proposals, scheduling “nice to meet you” calls, and booked only a small fraction of projects. Some weeks, I only did sales work and didn’t get to spend even a minute on design.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at a job board. I don’t do sales calls. I don’t respond to RFPs, search for leads, or write long proposals every week. I do more design work than ever. And, I rarely do revisions on my work because my clients trust me. My design business is completely different now that I work with clients for the long term. I find more satisfaction in my work. I solve difficult problems and enjoy seeing my clients thrive.

I make more money this way, too, because I get paid for more of the time I spend at work. (I don’t bill by the hour, but another way to put this is: I’ve increased billable hours and decreased non-billable hours.)

How to set up long-term client relationships

If you are tired of needing a constant flow of new clients and investing in the long view sounds like a plan, here’s how to start.

Look for long-term needs. Most design projects conclude when we deliver the design and the client pays the last invoice. It seems final. But this can be terrifying for the client. Many clients don’t know how to use the tools we produce for them—they don’t know how to use a website or marketing campaign, and they struggle to determine whether it’s successful.

By offering support and advice after the first project concludes, you not only show that you are committed to helping the client succeed and get value from the investment (which is good for the client), but you are opening the door to future projects with that client (which is good for you).

There are many, many opportunities for continuing design work with clients who have profitable and growing businesses. Long-term work doesn’t have to consist only of small updates and maintenance; it can include supporting new business initiatives and keeping the brand and assets in line. You can position yourself as a design director and advise on strategy and brand consistency. These are extremely valuable services to our clients and protect their investment in the original project.

Most clients don’t know how to match all of their marketing efforts to the new brand you created for them. Or, they may want to launch a new feature or product, or weave a new ad campaign into the design you’ve created. These evolutions need design support. By sticking around after the first project and showing the value of your partnership, you can position yourself to get hired repeatedly.

To be clear, long-term work is not unpaid work. Delivering a design doesn’t mean a designer should be on the hook for free support indefinitely. Depending on the client and the kind of work you do for them, there are many possible ways to structure a long-term relationship, such as:

  • Monthly retainers
  • Additional project phases, such as conversion rate optimization (CRO) and user testing
  • Scheduling a check-in call a month after launching a new design
  • Including a written analytics report in the project fee.

Clients might see these as attempts to increase fees and the project scope. That’s because long-term structures can be as unfamiliar to clients as they are to designers. To address those concerns, designers need to educate our clients about the benefits and value of long-term engagements. Great ways to begin the conversation include:

  • Explaining that optimization will help the client see the most return from their investment
  • Explaining that optimization will help avoid the need for a redesign later.
Design’s “old money”: Big agencies and bigger accounts

Long-term client service is old hat to big ad agencies; they’ve been operating like this for decades. If you read AdAge.com, you’ll see announcements about big agencies landing accounts from bigger companies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, the agency doesn’t get to keep all of that—much of it goes to TV networks for ad time, and websites and print media for ad placements. But it usually means everyone gets to keep their jobs for a year.

When a big account changes hands, it’s news. As in, the kind of news serious journalists cover.

Agencies pour a ton of resources into landing big accounts, and, when they do, they get a year to prove their worth. Changing agencies is a major decision for big companies because it is a big investment and substantially impacts marketing success.

While I don’t advocate replicating every aspect of the big agency model (especially not spec work), small agencies and even freelancers can offer long-term services to smaller clients in the same way. Consistent income and long-term relationships aren’t only for huge agencies that date back to the Mad Men era. Even operating on a smaller scale, the benefits to both designers and clients are the same.

Practical freelancing concerns

For me, personally, there was a lot to learn when I decided to try long-term engagements. That investment has paid off by providing me a more consistent freelancing income, reducing administrative and sales tasks and increasing my total income.

That said, there are risks and complicating factors in long-term relationships.

For freelancers, the risk of working with clients over the long term is that if you lose a client, you will have to work harder to refill your work schedule because your lead pipeline for new clients is slower. Worse, if you only work with a single client for a long period, it’s like putting all your eggs in one basket. Losing your only client is obviously a serious concern.

Because of that risk, keeping several engagements active simultaneously is important for earning consistent income and protecting yourself if you do lose an important client.

Additionally, long-term freelancing carries tax implications. The legal distinction between a salaried employee and a full-time contract worker, or even an independent contractor, varies in many countries, and some countries, such as the UK, are suspicious of long-term, full-time contract work because it can be used as a strategy by companies to avoid tax liability or to avoid providing legally required benefits.

If not just for the financial stability, but also to avoid tax headaches, I recommend keeping several long-term client relationships active at once or limiting full-time engagements to shorter periods that then transition into part-time work for each client. And, of course, consult your tax advisor.

If you’re working full-time for a client for a long period, such as six months to a year, you deserve benefits. While long-term work is stable and attractive for many reasons, don’t let it become a way for someone who is essentially an employer (as opposed to a “client”) to withhold compensation you deserve.

Finally, writing contracts for long-term work can be complex, especially for structures like retainers. It’s always a good idea to consult a lawyer and to buy errors and omissions and general business liability insurance to protect yourself.

Respect for designers and profit for clients

With long-term optimization, design works better and better. And when clients see their profit increasing and that business goals are being met, they place greater trust in their designers.

A long-term partner who works month after month to support a client’s business is vastly different from the door-to-door salesman.

When designers behave as long-term partners, we prove the value of design and earn more respect. It also sets the stage so we can make great money while avoiding the less desirable sales work that so often invades our calendars.

Categories: thinktime

OpenSTEM: Mildred Dresselhaus, the Queen of Carbon | NY Times

Planet Linux Australia - Tue 28th Feb 2017 13:02

“Dr. Dresselhaus, who helped transform carbon into the superstar of modern materials science, was renowned for her efforts to promote the cause of women in science.”

1948 A tribute at Hunter High School.

“Mildred (Millie) Dresselhaus, a professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research into the fundamental properties of carbon helped transform it into the superstar of modern materials science and the nanotechnology industry, died on Monday in Cambridge, Mass. She was 86.”

Read more.

Categories: thinktime

Linux Users of Victoria (LUV) Announce: LUV Main March 2017 Meeting: Multicore World / Patching with quilt

Planet Linux Australia - Mon 27th Feb 2017 21:02
Start: Mar 7 2017 18:30 End: Mar 7 2017 20:30 Start: Mar 7 2017 18:30 End: Mar 7 2017 20:30 Location:  Level 29, 570 Bourke St. Melbourne Link:  http://luv.asn.au/meetings/map

PLEASE NOTE NEW LOCATION

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
Level 29, 570 Bourke St. Melbourne

Speakers:

• Lev Lafayette, MultiCore World 2017 Wellington
• Russell Coker, Patching with quilt

570 Bourke St. Melbourne, between King and William streets

Late arrivals needing access to the building and the twenty-ninth floor please call 0490 627 326.
 

Before and/or after each meeting those who are interested are welcome to join other members for dinner. We are open to suggestions for a good place to eat near our venue.

LUV would like to acknowledge Dell for their help in obtaining the venue.

Linux Users of Victoria Inc., is an incorporated association, registration number A0040056C.

March 7, 2017 - 18:30

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Categories: thinktime

Linux Users of Victoria (LUV) Announce: LUV Beginners March Meeting: node.js workshop

Planet Linux Australia - Mon 27th Feb 2017 21:02
Start: Mar 18 2017 12:30 End: Mar 18 2017 16:30 Start: Mar 18 2017 12:30 End: Mar 18 2017 16:30 Location:  Infoxchange, 33 Elizabeth St. Richmond Link:  http://luv.asn.au/meetings/map node.js workshop

Node.js® is a JavaScript runtime built on Chrome's V8 JavaScript engine. Node.js uses an event-driven, non-blocking I/O model that makes it lightweight and efficient. Node.js' package ecosystem, npm, is the largest ecosystem of open source libraries in the world.

Members will be invited to install and learn about node.js with peer assistance.

The meeting will be held at Infoxchange, 33 Elizabeth St. Richmond 3121 (enter via the garage on Jonas St.) Late arrivals, please call (0421) 775 358 for access to the venue.

LUV would like to acknowledge Infoxchange for the venue.

Linux Users of Victoria Inc., is an incorporated association, registration number A0040056C.

March 18, 2017 - 12:30

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Categories: thinktime

OpenSTEM: This Week in HASS – term 1, week 5

Planet Linux Australia - Mon 27th Feb 2017 09:02

This week students are exploring a vast range of topics, across the year levels. From using a torch and a tennis ball to investigate how the Earth experiences Day and Night to case studies on natural disasters, celebrations and indigenous peoples, there is a broad range of topics to spark interest.

Foundation to Year 3

Our youngest students (Foundation/Prep – Unit F.1) are talking about where they, and other members of their family, were born. Once again, this activity gets them interacting with maps and thinking about how we represent locations, whilst reinforcing their sense of identity and how they relate to others. Students in Years 1 to 3 (Units 1.1, 2.1 and 3.1) are using a torch and a tennis ball to investigate how the Earth experiences Night and Day, Seasons, Equinoxes and Solstices. This activity ties in what we experience as weather, seasons and their related celebrations to the Physics of how it all works, allowing students to draw connections between what they experience and what they are learning, and providing essential context for the more abstract knowledge. Teachers can easily tailor this activity to the needs of each class and explore the concepts in as much detail as required.

Years 3 to 6 Charlotte St, Brisbane 1893 floods

Students in Years 3 to 6 (Units 3.5, 4.1, 5.1 and 6.1) are looking at a range of different case studies pertinent to their year-level curriculum requirements, this week. Year 3 students are examining celebrations in Australia and around the world (the Celebrations Around the World resource has been updated this year, and contains some new material, please check that you have the latest copy, and re-download it if necessary) and Year 4 students examine areas of natural beauty in Australia. Year 5 students are looking at the effects of natural disasters, especially here in Australia. Case studies on floods, such as the Brisbane Floods of 1893, and bushfires, such as the infamous Black Friday fires in Victoria, are available for more in depth study by teachers and students wishing to explore the topic in more detail. Year 6 students are examining Indigenous groups of people from Australia and Asia. A range of case studies are available for this topic, from groups within Australia, holding Native Title, such as the Quandamooka People, to groups from the mountains of Southern China, such as the Yi people. The larger number of case studies available, which can be found in our store resource category Indigenous Peoples, allows for Year 6 students to pursue more individual lines of enquiry, suited to their developing abilities.

Categories: thinktime

Lev Lafayette: Nyriad: An Agile Startup Done Right

Planet Linux Australia - Sun 26th Feb 2017 17:02

I have recently spent a few days in the company of Nyriad, a New Zealand IT company specialisng in GPU software. I wish to make a point of a few observations of the company because they are an example of both a startup company that uses agile project management, two terms much maligned and subject to justified cynicism, and does it right. Because I have seen so many colleagues burned by companies and organisations which profess such values and do not do it right, I hope the following observations will be useful for future organisations.

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Categories: thinktime

Big Data Visualization with Meaning

a list apart - Fri 24th Feb 2017 02:02

The web is not the traditional home of data visualization. You might come across a bar chart here or there in your online journey on any given day, but they’ve never been an artifact of web history. It seems like that’s been changing.

With the world becoming increasingly data-driven, we’re seeing more and more visualizations make their way onto our web pages and into our design briefs. They help us tell stories that better engage our users, and can even get them to take some kind of meaningful action.

The problem is that these datasets—sometimes so large they’re literally called “big data”—can make visualization with meaning difficult. But that’s something we as designers are equipped to tackle. We just have to know what our users are hoping to gain from viewing and interacting with visualizations, and what we have to do to make their effort worthwhile.

Data has a very strong power to persuade—powerful enough to change users’ everyday behavior, especially when data is informative, clear, and actionable. We should be putting data visualizations to work on our sites, enhancing our designs to show users how data is in service to the story they’ve come to learn about.

Data visualization on the web can be meaningful through allowing people to discover the smaller stories that resonate with them, customizing their user experience instead of putting them on a predetermined path.

Users attempting to interact with large and generally disconnected sets of data while navigating a site or trying to access relevant information end up facing a difficult, if not impossible, task. Our sites lose a certain measure of usability if they aren’t well-designed, even though the web is a natural medium for delivering truly interactive data. 

As with all design, the approach we take when creating a user-minded visualization is based on the context and the constraints we have to work with. Good data visualizations—those with meaning—need to be accessible and human even though data is rarely described with those words.

Telling a story

The key to designing visualizations is to focus on something in the dataset that is relatable to and resonates with your users. I stumbled upon this while creating a visualization from the publicly available Open Food Facts dataset, which contains crowd-sourced information on food products from all over the world.

Although the dataset covers an extensive range of information (even down to packaging materials and number of additives), I chose to focus on comparing average sugar consumption among different countries (Fig. 1) because I was personally concerned about that topic. It turned out to be a concern for others as well and became the most popular project for the dataset on Kaggle.

Fig. 1: Average national sugar consumption

Even though I didn’t make extensive use of the dataset in my rough and ugly visualization, what I chose to focus on told a story that resonated with people because most were from the countries listed or had a growing general awareness of high sugar consumption and its effect on health. In retrospect, what’s more personal and important than your health?

Selecting data points that strengthen a story with a positive result (whether that’s eating less sugar or reducing large-scale chemical emissions) can be great, but it’s important to present a story that is as unbiased as possible and to make ethical decisions about which parts of the data we want to use while telling the story.

But what exactly is a story in the context of a data visualization? We can’t kick it off with “once upon a time,” so we have to approach the idea in a different way.

Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks provide these definitions of a story in their book Storytelling for User Experience:

  • Stories describe the context of a situation
  • Stories can illustrate problems
  • Stories can be used to help people remember
  • Stories can be used to persuade and entertain.

And I would add to the list:

  • Stories can make you question the state of a situation.

Addressing some or all of these attributes is a particular challenge for big datasets because the sheer amount of information can make finding a narrative difficult. But big or not, the principles remain the same. Visualizing any kind of data-driven story that resonates can have a powerful influence on users’ decisions.

It also stirs other questions the user might ask.

For instance, why do certain countries consume higher quantities of sugar? Are they the ones we expected? The information could challenge an assumption or two someone may have had prior to seeing the results. Just remember that visualization can be a stepping stone to further discovery, increasing the user’s knowledge and possibly affecting their everyday choices going forward.

If you’re trying to embed meaning into a large visualization through the story of a dataset’s subsection, it’s important to:

  • Discover what your users care about in the dataset. Make it relevant to their personal needs, desires, and interests.
  • Focus on that subsection ruthlessly. Get rid of anything that doesn’t further the story your visualization is telling.
  • Take care to make ethical, unbiased decisions about which data points you use to create visualizations that might influence your users.
  • Be careful not to give people all the answers; allow them to ask their own questions and make their own discoveries about the data.

This approach allows you to create something that not only resonates at a personal level, but also presents meaning in a way that encourages and allows users to take action.

But we already have a story

Though large, some big datasets already revolve around a single story. An interesting way of dealing with this particular issue is to simultaneously display different aspects of such a dataset, allowing the user to discover that meaning. This is called the “small multiples” technique. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2: Memory stall visualizations from the Rivet project at Stanford.

The cluster of visualizations above, for example, deals with the “story” of memory stall issues on a computer. What I find interesting about the cluster is that the heading of every visualization starts with some variation of “memory stall time.” Despite being separate visualizations, they are linked by the single story they tell and they’re presenting it from simultaneous, distinct perspectives.

It’s possible for perspectives to look completely different from one another if they visualize different kinds of data. For instance, bar charts and area charts can harmoniously coexist if the representations are appropriate for the data they’re showing. The Australian Census Explorer illustrates how this might work (Fig. 3). It allows the user to establish their own narrative through choice of topic, such as language or place.

Fig. 3: Given freedom to explore, users inherently craft a personal narrative.

Framing visualizations around a personal topic (like someone’s native language) affects all associated small multiples appropriately; reframing serves to personalize the data. (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4: Comparison of gender and age data for Australians and English-speaking Australians Fig. 5: Country of Birth breakdown for Australian citizens Fig. 6: Income ranges by gender for Australians and English-speaking Australians Storytelling through interaction

It can be very useful with this approach to include an interaction in one design that is capable of affecting the others—something to help the user see relationships between data points they might not have considered before. This example from essay site Polygraph shows all Kickstarter projects across space, organized here by category and American city. (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7: Well-designed data visualizations can convey multiple concepts and information in parallel

The visualization is particularly interesting because it allows users to view the relationship of one variable (in this case, the project category) to others, such as American cities or project sizes. (Notice the prevalence of music projects in Nashville and game projects in Austin and Seattle). 

The Lens does something similar in its visualization of the human genome (Fig. 8) by allowing users to change views by way of various filters.

Fig. 8: Data can be filtered to display different views of the human genome.

This can be even more effective for small multiples shown across time. Fig. 9 shows how this approach is used on a fund manager’s website. Changing the time period of an investment fund’s performance also shows how risk rating and the growth of an investment change during that period. By leveraging intuitive web animation, we can view snapshots of the data at precise moments in time.

Fig. 9: Interacting with one “small multiple” affects others, revealing relationships at distinct points of time

If the dataset is already centered around some kind of overarching story, it can be a good idea to:

  • Display different parts of the dataset in separate visualizations simultaneously
  • Treat these separate visualizations as individuals tailored to the data they’re presenting. (Bar charts and area charts can live together in harmony if the data makes it appropriate.)
  • If there is interaction, ensure that it affects the entirety of your visualization approach so that the relationships between data points are more apparent
  • Apply well-considered web animation techniques to ensure that the interaction is intuitive.
There are too many stories

What do we do when a dataset doesn’t have a single, big story to tell, yet we still need to visualize everything in it?

Although some datasets lack a specific focus (e.g., “memory stall time,” “fund performance,” or “all-Kickstarter-projects-ever”), data points may have internal relationships that reveal bite-sized stories. How do we create actionable meaning for those visualizations?

Simply showing data as-is, even in a visualization that seems to fit, rarely works well. In Fig. 10 we see relationships between Python code packages, but in a way that’s just as messy and incoherent as the data in its natural state. The lack of focus and narrative is notable. (That said, the dataset is extremely large, so a single narrative isn’t actually possible.)

Fig. 10: This visualization presents nothing actionable, despite the tremendous amount of data

Since a single story isn’t possible in this situation, a better approach is to allow users to discover their own story. Your job is to facilitate that via the interaction design of the visualization.

This browser-based design in Fig. 11 (you can explore it here) visualizes code package relationships, too (in this case, JavaScript), but gives users what they need to explore the data in a meaningful way.

Fig. 11: Use well-designed interactions to help users work with large, multi-narrative datasets.

Again, at first glance the visualization seems to be messy and incoherent—but look closer. Users can investigate any individual package of code, including its personal relationships (listed in the bottom left). A handy search bar has also been incorporated in the top left corner.

What makes this particular visualization more meaningful is that the user can explore it in 3D space via keyboard and mouse. Leveraging this uniquely digital capability in the browser allows users to start discovering their own story in the enormous swarm of data, “moving” toward areas in the visualization that they find more relevant to their interests or needs. (Fig. 12)

Fig. 12: “Moving” intuitively through the data allows users to find meaning that’s personally relevant to them

Once the user finds a package or groups of packages they’re interested in exploring, they can click on one for a specific and focused view of the package in isolation, including its relationships with other packages. A full breakdown of these relationships is posted on the left of the screen, including visual nodes linking directly to the Github page for that code package. (Fig. 13)

Fig. 13: Isolation view of a specific package.

This visualization, like the one shown before it, uses the idea of a network in order to display the immensity of the data, but it also uses intuitive interaction and lets the user explore in order to extract personally relevant meaning. It uses the modern advantages of the web to deal with the modern problems of big datasets, much like the following visualization from OpenCorporates. (Fig. 14)

Fig. 14: Look for ways to “translate” data into simple and relatable concepts and simple explanations.

This design allows users to zero in on data they care about, choosing where they go and which breadcrumbs offer meaningful insight.

If a dataset needs to be fully visualized but has smaller stories within it, it may be useful to:

  • Show all data, but give users the ability to create chunks or segments they wish to explore
  • Leverage the advantages of being digital. For example, explore how input devices (e.g., keyboard and mouse) can facilitate how users interact with the data.
  • Use visual metaphors that support extensive and intricate relationship associations, such as a tree or network.
Visualization with meaning

Data is powerful in the right hands, and something we’re skilled at presenting in our websites. But toss in words like “big data” or “data visualization” and we second-guess ourselves instead of owning it as part of our workflow. The web is actually a great place for data visualization.

Leveraging the benefits of “digital” environments and tools, we can help users get what they need from large, complicated datasets. They are looking for insights, for meaningful information presented simply, for stories that resonate—for data stories they care about. We can help them find those stories by blending in a few new techniques on our end, such as sub-selections of data, use of small multiples to show relationships between data points, or even allowing user-driven focus on the full dataset.

Categories: thinktime

OpenSTEM: This Week in HASS – term 1, week 4

Planet Linux Australia - Thu 23rd Feb 2017 15:02

This week the Understanding Our World program for primary schools has younger students looking at time passing, both in their own lives and as marked by others, including the seasons recognised by different Aboriginal groups. Older students are looking at how Aboriginal people interacted with the Australian environment, as it changed at the end of the Ice Age, and how they learnt to manage the environment and codified that knowledge into their lore.

Foundation to Year 3

This week our standalone Foundation classes  (Unit F.1) are thinking about what they were like as babies. They are comparing photographs or drawings of themselves as babies, with how they are now. This is a great week to involve family members and carers into class discussions, if appropriate. Students in multi-age classes and Years 1 to 3 (Units F.5, 1.1, 2.1 and 3.1) , are examining how weather and seasons change throughout the year and comparing our system of seasons with those used by different groups of Aboriginal people in different parts of Australia. Students can compare these seasons to the weather where they live and think about how they would divide the year into seasons that work where they live. Students can also discuss changes in weather over time with older members of the community.

Years 3 to 6

Older students, having followed the ancestors of Aboriginal people all the way to Australia, are now examining how the climate changed in Australia after the Ice Age, and how this affected Aboriginal people. They learn how Aboriginal people adapted to their changing environment and learned to manage it in a sustainable way. This vitally important knowledge about how to live with, and manage, the Australian environment, was codified into Aboriginal lore and custom and handed down in stories and laws, from generation to generation. Students start to examine the idea of Country/Place, in this context.

Categories: thinktime

Julien Goodwin: Making a USB powered soldering iron that doesn't suck

Planet Linux Australia - Wed 22nd Feb 2017 23:02
Today's evil project was inspired by a suggestion after my talk on USB-C & USB-PD at this years's linux.conf.au Open Hardware miniconf.

Using a knock-off Hakko driver and handpiece I've created what may be the first USB powered soldering iron that doesn't suck (ok, it's not a great iron, but at least it has sufficient power to be usable).

Building this was actually trivial, I just wired the 20v output of one of my USB-C ThinkPad boards to a generic Hakko driver board, the loss of power from using 20v not 24v is noticeable, but for small work this would be fine (I solder in either the work lab or my home lab, where both have very nice soldering stations so I don't actually expect to ever use this).

If you were to turn this into a real product you could in fact do much better, by doing both power negotiation and temperature control in a single micro, the driver could instead be switched to a boost converter instead of just a FET, and by controlling the output voltage control the power draw, and simply disable the regulator to turn off the heater. By chance, the heater resistance of the Hakko 907 clone handpieces is such that combined with USB-PD power rules you'd always be boost converting, never needing to reduce voltage.

With such a driver you could run this from anything starting with a 5v USB-C phone charger or battery (15W for the nicer ones), 9v at up to 3A off some laptops (for ~25W), or all the way to 20V@5A for those who need an extremely high-power iron. 60W, which happens to be the standard power level of many good irons (such as the Hakko FX-888D) is also at 20v@3A a common limit for chargers (and also many cables, only fixed cables, or those specially marked with an ID chip can go all the way to 5A). As higher power USB-C batteries start becoming available for laptops this becomes a real option for on-the-go use.

Here's a photo of it running from a Chromebook Pixel charger:
Categories: thinktime

Linux Australia News: $AUD 35k available in 2017 Grants Program

Planet Linux Australia - Tue 21st Feb 2017 11:02

Linux Australia is delighted to announce the availability of $AUD 35,000
for open source, open data, open government, open education, open
hardware and open culture projects, as part of the organisation’s
commitment to free and open source systems and communities in the region.

This year, we have deliberately weighted some areas in which we strongly
welcome grant applications.

More information is available at: https://linux.org.au/projects/grants

Please do share this with colleagues who may find it of interest, and
feel free to contact the Linux Australia Council if you would like a
private discussion.

With kind regards,

Kathy Reid

President, Linux Australia

Categories: thinktime

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