Friday, March 30, 2007

The use and ABuse of AJAX

I'd like to tackle the theory of AJAXification for a moment, mainly because I was just in the middle of an AJAX-rendered hellish portion of an otherwise OK website.

AJAX is a buzzword and people who even know it are probably some of the few web programmers out there still able to compete over 6-digit salaried jobs.

The simple definition is that AJAX is a browser-side technology -- in other words it doesn't run on the webserver, it runs on your home or office computer -- that sends data and fetches data to and from a web server without the need to reload or load the webpage. Only the portion of the webpage that needs to be changed is changed, rather than the whole webpage. It can save time and looks better to the user because the pictures and background of the page don't need to reload. It can also be a waste of time, as shown in the example below.

With the proper use of AJAX, a web application can swiftly and seamlessly load information and change something on the webpage. Perhaps it can be used to anticipate the user's next move, load some data on the sly, and have it ready to slip in with some slick javascript maneuver when the user clicks. "Ha, ha! I knew you were going to click that!" This is especially cool when there are fewer choices for what the user might do. Not so great when there is a lot of data to pull from the webserver and not so great when there are too many choices to properly anticipate the user's next maneuver or when the data being pulled is directly dependent on the user's input.

The result of AJAX used correctly is a user experience that resembles a desktop application. Google (gmail at least) has it right, and I sure hope their programmers are getting the 6-digit income they deserve.

What annoys me is when AJAX is used to "be cool" -- not to enhance the user's experience.

The application that annoyed me today is the largest area newspapers' online calendar of events. Perhaps the application ran "slick" in testing with only 5 or 10 events listed. I'm sure it ran very nicely. Especially from their high-tech offices with terrific web service, or even with the servers at the same location.

There's a mini calendar which shows a bit into next month, and underneath it, starting with "today", is a huge detailed listing (date, time, name of event, location...) of the area's events for the next several days.

Each date on the calendar is a link that, when hovered, brings up a floating list of that day's events. If there were 3 events per day, this would be bright. There's more like 40. It takes as long to load the floating list as it would to reload the web page. You have to sit there hovering your mouse over the date for what seems like an eternity as it makes a call to the database to pull up and format the day's events. There's a nice swirly thing that shows up if you hover over the mini calendar. Without the swirly thing, if I went to the mini calendar to click, I wouldn't ever know that a "cool" list would eventually pop up. It pops up next to my mouse with a listing so long that when I then move my mouse down the list I eventually hit the bottom of the browser, and the whole AJAXified listing goes away. It doesn't scroll as I move down. That's real helpful.

Ok. Well, one could live with that -- instead of hovering and getting a hand-cramp, how about clicking on the date. As one would expect, the listing under the mini calendar changes to start with the date selected. However, this incites another AJAXified call to the database to fetch several days' events and replace the vast majority of the content on the webpage. Again, this data pull results in a long "load time" for the javascript (AJAX) to pull the data. It's nice that the sidebar dancing ads don't change, but exactly what time are you saving? Does this make you look "smarter" and "slicker"? the advertisers since you suddenly have nothing to do but stare at their glowing undulating ads.

But let's say I want to peruse today's events, and pull up the event details for items I'm interested in in another window, or in another tab, of my browser? Then when I'm done selecting a bunch, I can look through the event's details...

Because these aren't real webpage links, it ignores my attempt to open the link in another window. They're all "javascript links" and when I click them, the entire page goes away, even if I've attempted to open it in another window or tab. To get back to the mini calendar or listing, now I have to get the whole page by going "back" in the browser. That's not the way I want webpages to behave. At all. I'm a tab-oriented person. I let pages load in another tab and look at them when I'm good and ready.

All this time my laptop fan is going nuts, the load on my laptop was increasing, my laptop was getting hotter, and it was a waste to even be on the page. I have better things to waste my time with, like ranting about the abuse of AJAX!

This is just one example of a webpage that needs an AJAX Anonymous support group. Perhaps they never thought through what the user would do, how they would expect it to behave. They created a webpage Frankenstein monster based on what was "cool". It's not EASIER. It's not CHEAPER. It's their self-aggrandizement at stake. "Look, we have AJAX!" -- so what?

It doesn't help that I went for an interview with that company a year ago and they kept asking me if I knew AJAX and I kept saying "Not Yet." I still say not yet because I'm still not convinced that anything good would come of it. I've seen very very few things that would REALLY be enhanced by the use of AJAX. AJAX is not the killer tool to make a website cool. A website is either cool or not, regardless of the technology behind it. If doing something in AJAX would really make the experience better, go for it. Gmail is cool because it rather closely replicates the experience of a desktop email application. I hardly use it, but when I did, I was suitably impressed, then went back to my own email app. :)

An online shared calendar doesn't need to be AJAXified like this one was, though. I would have preferred to load each day's events in a separate tab, or view event details for selected dates in different tabs so I could keep flipping between them and comparing times and locations to see how many events I could attend.

What this AJAX stuff does to search engine optimization: Since search engines ignore javascript, all that data means nothing to them. Terrific on a private area of a website, horrible in a calendar application.

So, in conclusion, if you're looking for AJAX because you heard that AJAX is cool, ask to see some good and bad AJAX in action and talk to an expert to decide whether or not AJAX would enhance your users' experience given what you're doing on your website.

If you really do know AJAX, please stop people before they ruin their websites with it. You have a moral and ethical responsibility to guide people correctly in how they use their websites.

Please curb your AJAX. Good boy. Sit.

[tags]custom programming,education,ajax,information,programming,rant,fads,usability,web application programming,web applications,web standards,navigation,seo[/tags]

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

How Green can you get?

I've been working on the Orange Environment website, and one perk is that I'll have a table at the Earth Day event in Warwick on April 21st.

I'm a very conscientious person, so I have to scrutinize myself to justify being there. When people walk up to my table and ask me why a web designer is there at a booth on Earth Day -- what can I say to defend my "position"?

  • My office runs either on sunlight from a big bay window or compact fluorescent lights
  • I use 100% post-consumer paper
    • loosleaf for client notes
    • multi-use printer/copier paper for my laserjet

  • when I get mail or fliers that are only used on one side, I keep them by the phone for quick note jotting.
  • when a paper is used on both sides, I recycle it (sometimes shredded first)
  • I have a home office only
    • the same heat for my home is heat for my office (the office room adjoins the kitchen; it's a one-zone house, but at only 830 sqft it should be!)
    • I save on auto fuel & auto wear-n-tear

  • I drive a used but still energy-efficient car for business & personal use (1994 honda civic at up to 33mpg)
  • I turn the printer off when not in use
  • I work by sunlight whenever possible
  • I leave any extra computer equipment off whenever possible so only one computer is running the majority of the time
  • I use wash-n-wear clothes for the most part
    • the washer is a high-efficiency front-loader rated exceptionally for water efficiency
    • the dryer has a dampness sensor thus is self-regulating
    • I use a scent and dye free detergent
    • I don't use a fabric softener

  • I use refurbished toner cartridges
  • we have a duplex printer, and I print on both sides of the page for any multi-page documents
  • whenever possible I print 2-up duplex, for reference documentation, because I don't mind reading tiny print, but I do mind wasting paper
  • I save the plastic &/or cellophane windows of envelopes I receive for craft projects (they make great filling for homemade cat toys!)

There are still areas in which I'm a culprit, however. I could (always) do better. We occasionally use whiteboards in my office, and I'm not really believing the EAP certification regarding the inks. I want desperately to know if there's such a thing as soy laser toner cartridges, or any other alternatives that won't turn the laser printer into a hunk of waste. I could use dryer balls, and I'm considering that (if they make the dryer even a tad more efficient it's worth a 1 time expense). I could scold my roommate for leaving the bathroom light on. I printed up letterhead I could hardly afford, it came out lousy, now I have a ton of letterhead that shouldn't have been printed in the first place, and should have been on recycled stock -- live & learn. That letterhead is now the back of any one-page fliers I produce as handouts. :)

So I guess instead of feeling guilty, I could try to relax and realize that there are a bunch of things about me that cause me to stand out in a crowd of web design/programming professionals that could be considered when positioning myself in the "green" community as well: I've been an herbalist for about 15 years, I'm an Interfaith Minister, Reiki master, & Shaman. I guess having a booth isn't such a bad idea after all!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Horrors of Banking in the 21st Century

Bank acquisitions have become so commonplace around here that I'm not at all surprised to walk into my nice local upstate-only bank and find that some global giant is gobbling it up like yet another Pac-Man pellet. I look on with concern, watching them rip apart the interior of my local branches to change the branding so that we can know for 100% certain that our money is no longer helping a local institution.

They even tore out the ATM machine and replaced it with a Diebold monstrosity. It has all the bells and whistles, or should I say beeps. Every number in your password elicits a LOUD beep so everyone in the bank knows how many digits there are in your password. When the cash is coming out, it beeps loudly. Thanks for letting everyone in a 12-block radius know I now have cash in my pocket. Wheeeeee! I hope they're not rolling out these monsters in NYC proper, but they probably did. Now they're infiltrating upstate New York. As if it weren't bad enough that the bank is changing, the new regime has installed monster equipment from the same company many people suspect have rigged elections. I'm scared to death to put my credit cards and debit cards into it's gaping maw. The only thing I can say in its favor is that it has an exquisitely sensitive touch screen. Everything else -- and I mean everything -- disgusts me. Every. Shiny. Millimeter. And I'm a geek.

I had 2 accounts at this bank. One personal (free for life -- *cough*) and one business. The business account's days were numbered already -- I never have enough money in the bank to escape monthly fees -- the bank gave me my first year in business for free. I threw enough of a stink that I got my second year free. But any day now, the account is going to start costing me $12 a month. That's enough chicken to feed my family for 3 weeks!! Forget it -- I was SO out of there. I started shopping around for a new bank. One that respected that my miniscule business needs every penny it works so hard to earn.

The DDay was to be March 23. I needed that account closed before the official 100% turn-over to the other bank. I didn't want them to send me new checks with a new routing number. I didn't want their promises that things wouldn't change too much. I didn't want their new signage. I definitely didn't want the Diebold ATM.

I had an outstanding check floating around in the wild, so I called the payee, and I made arrangements to send a money order and I was to put a stop payment on the check in question. They wrote a note in my account not to cash the check. I went to put a stop payment order on the check. Note the check is only for about $40.

It would cost me $33 to put a stop payment order on the check. For crying out loud, that feeds my family chicken for over 2 months! :P That's a lot of rice & beans. I hope they sleep well at night! Who would put a $33 stop payment order on a $40 check??!?

So, given that it could cost me $40 if the check goes through after I get the money order -- or $73 if it goes through but there are insufficient funds (but wait, then another $33 on top of that if the fee for insufficient funds sends the balance into the negatives!) -- or $33 to put a stop payment on the check, I chose the best thing. I'm closing the account out. Right now. It's cheaper. They're absolutely INSANE. They've sold their soul to someone out there, and I'm just another cow to be milked for my money.

Good Bye. Good Riddance.

I want to tell you about my savior. She came into my Thursday morning referral group and mentioned Federal Credit Union and lightbulbs lit up and chorusses of angels began to sing. Nancy Finn of Mid-Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union said the magic words of lower fees, lower (or non-existant) minimum balances, non-profit bank-like institution. Magic. I promise.

I opened accounts in December, and started the confusion of having my money spread out in too many places, too many accounts to juggle, etc. I waited until after the 30 day probation period required at a new banking institution before moving all my money over. Now I'm doing all my banking at the Federal Credit Union, and only keeping the personal monster account open so that my ex has an easy place to deposit child support payments if needed.

When you open a business account at a for-profit bank, you pay probably $20 for 50 business checks. It doesn't last long. I paid $10 for a whole box of personal-sized business checks.

None of my accounts have a minimum balance, except the $5 minimum for my savings accounts -- which is more like a membership deposit. When you quit the credit union you get $5 back. Who would quit? :)

All my accounts, including joint accounts, are on one screen when I do online banking. They've created such a simple interface for banking online that I'm very impressed.

I feel like the cow that woke up from a dream to find out they were human -- was I a human dreaming I was a cow? Or am I a cow dreaming I'm human? Who cares as long as I'm not getting milked! heh

They're friendly, they're not out to get you. There are some fees if you do something stupid, just like at the for-profits, but the fees are lower, sometimes very significantly lower.

The best thing, though, is that they're local, non-profit, and they're going to stay that way. The big for-profits won't gobble them up. No Diebold machines. Please. *phew*

[tags]money,chamber,expenses,gratitude,information,inspiration,life,local business,networking,non-profit,organization,personal,prices,rant[/tags]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Waist not, Want not (ode to Chocolate!)

My taste in chocolate went from white and milk in childhood to darker and darker chocolates. With the one exception of some stale 70% cocoa concoction my roommate gave me, I can go up to a 90% bar and be quite happy. I keep a bag of Ghiardelli double chocolate chips in the house to dip into for a quick fix, or for a rare batch of cookies or pancakes. Organic, free trade, Swiss, German, it doesn't make much of a difference to me -- just give me my chocolate, and no one gets hurt!

Except that those are made in a factory. The best chocolate to give, receive or eat is chocolates made with love.

Fran Greenfield (aka "Candy Fran") of Candy Designs by Fran is sought-after and well received in both Orange and Sullivan counties, and most definitely makes her chocolates with love. Hand-made, melted, dipped, coated, drizzled, packaged, and often hand-delivered, Candy Fran makes the most exquisite treats you could ever eat. People who have given her corporate gift baskets always come back to give them again and again. Last fall, all my top clients got a treat created by Fran and I got thank-you emails including one with the subject line of "MMmmmmm chocolate!"

One was undeliverable, and so I ate it (can I still deduct it from my taxes? I tried!!). Clients shouldn't move without informing their vendors *tsk*.

Fran's treats are available retail and wholesale, and she'll ship them to you or your clients. If you buy your candy from other online vendors, you might just be getting Fran's chocolates under a different name...I just hope for everyone's sake they still have a healthy dose of Vitamin-L (love), because if that's lost in translation you ought to order straight from the source.

"My name is Fran, and I'm a chocoholic...." (Fran Greenfield, Orange Networking Alliance, Feb 20, 2007)

A year ago, I joined the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, and I went to my first business networking blast last July. I didn't have the networking thing down yet, so I was sitting and crowd-watching, and saw this woman with an enormous basket of little bags. It was a "speed networking" event, and I wasn't in her row, so I didn't have the pleasure of being directly gifted with a sample. When the event was over, she announced that she had plenty left, and put them on a table on the side of the room. I still didn't "get it" and continued networking as much as I could stand to before fleeing. The event had started at 6:45am, so I beg both ignorance and exhaustion as my lame excuses.

In September there was going to be an Expo, and I considered sharing a booth at the Expo with another business. I had been taken under wing by Melanie Richards of Prism Promotions who showed me the ropes and gave me several really good lessons about networking in Orange County, NY. It was due to Melanie that I spoke to the Chamber about sharing a table, and Fran was recommended as a booth partner. I spoke to Fran about possibly sharing a booth with her, but as enticing as sharing a booth with the highly-sought-after Chocolate Lady was, I bowed out due to financial frustrations and a lack of preparation time. It was my first year in the Chamber, and I'm the type who learns (A LOT!) by watching. I volunteered to help at the event rather than take a booth. So I finally met Fran at the member dinner mixer after the event. She was bubbly, lively, friendly and forthcoming, if a little frazzled, but who isn't frazzled at the end of a long day at an expo?

I had been checking out local networking/referral groups, and because several people I had met and really liked at the Chamber were members of Business Exchange Network, I ended up joining that group. Fran is one of the members, and since I now get to see her almost every week, I'm a little more out-of-shape, a lot more chocolified, and I've gotten to know this wonderful woman much better than I would have otherwise. She is quirky, but bright and cheery, and I admire her. She's modest and exceptionally generous, and she actually has two jobs -- Candy Fran by night and child photographer by day. I can only imagine she gets the biggest and brightest smiles out of children, without needing to bribe them with chocolate, because she gets smiles out of adults without the chocolate as well, though I suppose the chocolate anticipation really helps.

If you're looking for a treat for a holiday, a gift to say Thank You to a client, something to bring for an extra "Ah" or "Oh" at a networking event, an unforgettable chocolate business card, or to put on a few pounds in absolute ecstasy, talk to Fran. If you don't believe me, come to some of the events where Fran often shares her treats by bringing samples. Or I'll send you a chocolate business card made by Fran, I have a few left...

This post is a whole lot of thank you for someone who touched my heart as well as my taste buds!

[tags]clients,Chamber,candy,creative,expenses,gratitude,holiday,humor,information,inspiration,life,local business,networking[/tags]

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Proportions of Busy-ness to Organization

There seems to be a natural law of the universe that dictates that the busier we are, the less organized we become. We're too busy to put something away. Too busy to take proper notes after a meeting or phone call. Both being busy and being disorganized lead to stress, and "stressing out" is very counter-productive -- I can't say whether it's correlation or causation, but remedying the disorganization can help sort out the busy-ness.

Just like a diabetic craves candy, sometimes we continue to crave things that are bad for us. Stress leads to a mindset that begets more stress. Stress can be addicting, because the brain chemicals that come with the pressure are addicting. Just like other addictions, however, it takes a toll on our ability to think, to plan, to be productive and to even live a longer and healthier life.

Conversely, the more organized we become, the more productive we can be. The less we need to stress. When you can easily review notes from a meeting, you can give yourself permission to "let go" and relax about it. When you know exactly what you need to do next (cf. Getting Things Done by David Allen), you can really concentrate on the one task-at-hand with all your mental ability.

I had a plan in place after last year's Tax Time to keep my books in order, and failed to make a good habit of following through on it. Thankfully I'm a pretty organized person, and don't have to stress too much to find all the paperwork I need. But now, work has picked up (finally!) and it's a bad time to have to take hours or days to do my accounting and tax paperwork. My lack of planning, poor foresight, and being somewhat disorganized are coming back to haunt me.

As a result I'm stressed, and my normally rather organized habits start falling apart at the seams. A few client notes haven't found their way into the books they need to be in. I have more hasty post-its laying around. I have to consciously review the last week to make sure I didn't miss anything important...

If you're finding that you are disorganized in direct proportion to your level of busy-ness, take a moment to step back and clear up the clutter -- it might take an hour or two, but the rewards are worthwhile, and you can get yourself back on track. It helps me to regroup, find some space on my desk, filter through the small side projects I started and abandoned part-way through.

If you are never organized in the first place, you are in danger of becoming disorganized to the point of putting yourself out of business. When you become busy, the resulting increase in disorganization may wreck your ability to focus. I've considered hiring a professional organizer on several occasions, to help me sort through the clutter. But I have meticulous systems in place, even if the system straggles a little when I have a stressful week, and there are people who need those services much more than I do.

Many people require a professional to help them set up a system in the first place: If you live in my area, I would highly recommend calling Cindy Croll of Croll Organizing (she's not a client; that's not my website :) [ed (post-September 2007) Actually, now it IS a website I have created, re-using the design of her old website!]) -- she's a highly perceptive person who tailors her organizing services to suit her clients, then leaves the client with a system in place. She specializes in small businesses and home offices, and travels throughout the Orange County area, and I believe she even goes into Rockland, and maybe even NYC. I'll see if I can get her to comment on this post so people can follow up with her. I see from her website she's giving a workshop soon!

Keeping organized takes work and dedication, but has many rewards. I could sail through tax time if I had kept to my system of entering receipts and invoices weekly. Instead, I have a pile of work to do, several open projects, and I have to take an entire weekend to enter receipts and fix my accounting system so I can do my taxes. The resulting stress is hampering my ability to concentrate on anything at all.

Good luck!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Easy-to-Edit website Demo Movie available!

Liberate Your Website (part 1)

I've come to realize that people aren't "getting it" when I tell them that my websites are "easy to edit" so I've created a movie (6 minutes 10 seconds) to demo it.

It isn't one of those build-your-website applications you always see on the web -- those force you to do all the dirty work and BOY can you break the website, create some hideous Frankenstein-monster website contraption that frightens away clients.

No, that's not at all what this is.

You can't really break the website when you use this application. Maybe you can make some poor content design choices, such as making all your content text bold, or italic, so that you have no means left with which to emphasize a word. Maybe you can type in all caps, make everything on the page a headline, etc. But you aren't playing with the design, only the content, of your website, and changing styles and colors is not an accident.

So, take a look at the demo and see how this is a simple CONTENT management system, and don't frighten your clients away anymore! In the demo movie -- which is only 6 minutes! -- I play with several real live websites, so you can see how easy it is to edit your own content. In 6 minutes I could hardly explain to a web designer what I want them to change on a website; I'd rather do it through the Easy-to-Edit system. That's why all my websites are using this system: in spite of being a web designer, I want to have a quick and easy way to add and edit website content on my sites.