Christian Heilmann

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Archive for the ‘Tips & Tricks’ Category

DOM scripting essentials in under 10 minutes

Monday, February 12th, 2007

I am going to use you as my guinea pigs here. For an upcoming workshop in Singapore I am creating presentations and also screencasts to take away. Therefore I just recorded one of the sessions on the essentials of DOM scripting and put this “dry run” screencast on my server for you to check out.

You can also check the high quality version:DOM Essentials in 10 minutes screencast and tell me what you think.

My public speaking survival kit

Friday, January 26th, 2007

I must be a nightmare for organisers of conferences and summits. I am prone to change my speeches in the last second and actually starting to write them the day before if not on the way to the summit. This is OK for me as I work much better under pressure than when I feel confident of knowing the speech by heart. Fact is, I get bored of my own stuff very quickly.

However, there are some things I learnt to be a good idea to take care of before you go on that stage and monkey around in front of a powerpoint or keynote:

  • Keeping a copy of your presentation online (on a reliable server or in your webmail)
  • Keeping a copy of your presentation on a memory stick (preferably one that is compliant with USB 1)
  • Knowing your presentation – nothing worse than a presenter that is confused by his own slides (“and this seems to be a doodle of me – in a sombrero”)
  • Not expecting anything to work on the presentation site – plan for the need to speak up, use flipcharts as the projector died with a bang, maybe even the need to paint on a OHP (wow, blast from the past).
  • Bringing a power lead – your laptop battery is less reliable than you think it is.
  • Bringing a connector to plug your laptop into the oddest outlets there are (a lot of airlines sell these onboard, with differences of up to 8 pound from airline to airline for the same thing) – god I wished they’d standardize power plugs world-wide.
  • Arriving early at the site and assess the audience. They are there to see you, but you should also make sure you speak their language and change nuances on the spot if need be. This also gives a cool surprise effect as somebody in the audience out of a sudden becomes the presenter and it may entice clever people in the audience to do the same one day (come on you sleeping geniuses, go out there!). For reasons unknown to be this trick never works for me though, there seem to be features of me that people can spot in a crowd…
  • Having some water with you on stage (and a coffee if you are an addict like me) as your voice might need it
  • Preparing for your body to surprise you in unpleasant ways. Your mind might be strong but traveling and time differences really mess with your biological clock. So, bring some medication to stop nasty issues like bad stomach, tummy trouble, headaches or heartburn right when they occur. Your mind should be free of these troubles when you are up there.
  • Being open to and expecting some really tricky questions from the audience – or none at all…

During the presentation I realised some other things to work for me:

  • Being honest and WYSIWYG. If you don’t know things, don’t bring them up or sell yourself as knowing them. An honest “I don’t know, but I am happy to help anyone find it out” is much better than smoke and mirrors.
  • Being yourself as a presenter. If you are a shy “only the facts” person, make this your presentation, if you can and want to entertain as much as educate, do that.
  • Not seeing the audience as somebody who scrutinizes you but as somebody you want to communicate with. This is the old “dance as if nobody sees you” trick.
  • Never taking yourself serious, instead mention other people’s work and what you learnt from it.

How was it for you and what worked for you?

Behind the mirror – usability testing musings (day one)

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

I spent the day today in some usability testing of a product I am involved in at the moment. We sat in a small room with coffee, soft drinks and far too many chocolately nibbles and watched people through a one-way mirror remark on our wireframes and try to solve tasks given to them.

I’ve done this in the past, but had a bit of a break in between, so it was fun coming back to it. The most interesting part is that in the year or so I have been out of that loop not much changed.

Test subjects are still very much confused and driven by page copy.

There is somehow no way you can win this. If you use Lorem Ipsum the testers asked what language that is and why it was allowed there. If you use copy nicked from other sites or made-up by a copywriter user names or headlines make testers judge the site by this and don’t see it as just a demo of what can be done.

Everybody is a designer.

Even when it is obvious that this boxed grey monstrosity is not the final page, you get lots of feedback about font sizes, image sizes, and even the look and feel of a map although you kept them deliberately the bog-standard Google or Yahoo maps

It is easy to kill functionality with copy that makes assumptions about how tech-savvy the user is.

My favourite example is “People tagged this with� and “add a tag�. The functionality of tags – being able to give something a memorable keyword that allows you to find this again – is appealing to a lot of users, but the term “tag� just does not wash yet. A lot of users get confused about it and discard this functionality instead of seeing it as a benefit. The danger of that is that it becomes an assumption for webdesigners that way. “People don’t use tags� in reality should be “people don’t know tags if we don’t make them understandable to humans who are not ‘web-savvy’�.

Don’t show your colours prematurely.

Brand perception is a very powerful thing. Concepts that were alien to testers magically become very useful and interesting once you tell them who is behind the product. This messes terribly with your test results. My favourite example is Maggi, the German OXO, a company that produces spice-mixes, instant soups and sauces trying to start a range of sweets. They produced chocolate that was the same quality as competitors like Milka or Lindt, and branded it with their name. Nearly every test subject liked the chocolate but complained about “a slight aftertaste of herbs�.

Think about the viewport, not about the whole layout.

Our wireframe was a three column layout that sorted different content into columns but without a strong visual separation between them. On the whole page there was no confusion at all but as two headlines of separate columns with totally unrelated content ended up on the same horizontal line testers ended up seeing this content juxtaposed in the viewport. This confused them as they started wondering what one thing has to do with the other. Of course, this is something that can be solved with proper design, but it was interesting to see how fast people forget what was at the top of the page.

Separations that make a lot of sense in the whole layout may become confusing when you consider that users only see a part of it.

Users know more than you do!

User testing makes you aware of the pros and cons of a product a lot more than any brain-storm, thought-shower, war-room or repeated stand-up session will ever be able to. Things you considered obvious and conventions on the web turn out to be stumbling blocks and things you considered too complex turn out to be a spark for users to come up with ideas how to enhance that functionality in ways you just didn’t think about.

Christmas Shopping the geek way: Blank DVDs

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

I just got some blank DVDs for my brother and I am amazed how much you money you pay in highstreet shops for low quality DVD-Rs.

Here’s some dirty secrets:

  • The brand of the packaging is irrellevant, there are a lot less DVD-R producers out there than brands.
  • There is a stunning web site that explains you all about quality and reliability of DVD-Rs at No more coasters
  • according to this web site – and that has proved right for me in the past (having burnt about 500 DVDs since I got a writer) you need to make sure you know the real brand of the DVD-R which are:

As you normally won’t find a shop or online store that has this information, check out SVP who give this information for each of their DVD offers.

I am not at all affiliated with SVP, but they did save me a lot of money in the past and I don’t think you should pay a lot for consumables.

This one day, on twitter…

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006
Craig: I haven’t had a spam comment in about two months. Either my Akismet/BadBehavior combo is working or the spammers have learned to target POPULAR blogs.

5 out of 5 for good humour, Craig Cook

Yes, I also got hooked on twitter which is a system built by the people behind odeo that allows you to send 150 character long messages about what you are up to at this point in time either via a web interface, mobile phone or instant messaging.

Twitter also comes with the option to show your latest updates in a badge on your blog and has an API to play with (which I am going to do very soon). Jeremy Keith, non office meeting dweller that he is already did so and incorporated his twitterings into his stream of information that goes out to the web.

It is funny though how twitter is being abused as a replacement for IM (with a worse interface) or IRC and not as it is intended to be. What amazed me though is how fast you actually accumulate contacts (I don’t like to call people friend immediately) and how many people that are harder to track via normal communication spend a lot of time there. Want proof? Check my twitter page

A bit of an annoyance is that the web, mobile and IM interface gets out of sync from time to time which made me answer some of Veerle’s questions before they showed up.