My Experience with Workplace Experiments

37signals, makers of Backpack, Basecamp, Highrise and other great software have published their ideas for making their company a great place to work: Workplace Experiments. Included in their experiments are shorter work weeks, funding people’s passions, and discretionary spending accounts.

As I read their introductory post I reminded myself that in my one-man business I’ve already put several of these ideas into practice.

Shorter work week
I started a 4-day work week April 25th, 2007. Having Fridays free from client work has been a huge blessing. I can play, work on personal projects, or just catch up on reading and learning. In the middle of our traveling and RVing it was often a perfect day to leave our RV park and hit the road. We would beat the weekend traffic, get to our location sooner, and be able to visit and sightsee before starting the next week of work. And as 37signals points out, “We found that just about the same amount of work gets done in four days vs. five days.” So true.

Funding my passions
This is self-fulfilling since I am a freelancer. But, I still have to be disciplined enough to put it into practice. My current passion is travel and learning; this includes working with my wife to publish our photos and stories (she does most of that work). Our work discipline has paid off big in this regard. Having a mobile and flexible work situation funds our passions directly. We can travel where we wish—visiting family and friends and seeing every corner of our beautiful country.

Spending accounts
This one is also easy to do when you are your own boss and accountant. I generally buy any book that is needed for learning web design or development—especially if I can find a used copy on Amazon. I decided with my wife, who I include on business and financial decisions, that anything under a certain amount (say $100) would not require a discussion—I could just buy it and not have to worry about it. Big ticket items still require careful thinking and planning, which is the way it should be whether you are a one-man team or a 100-person in-house group.

I’m glad to see 37signals set the bar high for the industry in publishing their workplace experiments. They continue to be an enormous inspiration to businesses big and small. I’m also happy that I’ve been setting these same principles into practice for at least a year—with great results.

Prologue Theme for WordPress

If you like Twitter and the idea that you can easily follow along with what your friends and colleagues are doing all day, you might like the new Prologue WordPress Theme.

The theme skins your blog to look like a set of Twitter updates, and the “what are you doing now?” form for posting an update is conveniently located on the top of the home page.

This setup would be perfect for small groups or distributed teams who want to keep track of each other. You could password-protect the blog if you want to limit who can view the posts. In the same way, you limit those that could post updates by having only registered users be able to post updates.

The Prologue team has already released an update that improves the layout of the updates and includes Gravatar support.

Give it a try on your own by downloading the theme, or open a free WordPress.com account and give it a spin there.

Better USPS Tracking

The United States Postal Service finally caught up to UPS, FedEx, and DHL with automatic tracking. Previously I had to manually enter the same tracking code over and over again on their website until the letter or package was delivered and the USPS updated its status in their system.

Now, after you enter the tracking number the first time, you will see the email tracking option underneath the search results.

postal screenshot 1

The email form allows you enter 1—3 email addresses for receiving updates on the package status.

postal screenshot 2

I wish this had been available when I worked in a mail order department of a retail store (Summit Hut backroom staff take notice).

Package tracking for me is most convenient via RSS. I use Bloglines‘s built-in Package Tracker to add tracking numbers. When an update is available, it is marked as “new” in Bloglines. Since my last use of the Package Tracker, Bloglines has now added USPS as an option.

If you track USPS packages or letters, it is now easier.

Interesting Links for June 1–8, 2007

SXSW 2007 Wrap-up

It’s over… my time in Austin, that is. I had a great time listening to live music, seeing friends and colleagues, and enjoying the city’s great eateries. Big cheers to the free buses (aka “Dillos”) that served our RV campground conveniently, though I must say the walk home was very pleasant along the Town Lake bike/hike path.

Three hip-hip-hurrays to the SXSW Interactive conference, also. It was great to meet everyone including: Dominique Lussier (Ottawa, Canada), John Mosteller, Christiano Prado, Grant Hutchins (newly of SpiceWorks in Austin, TX), Rob Grady, Dan Ritzenhaler and Ryan Johnson (Forty) and the good folks from SOMA FM (I told them that I love Big Al, their AI DJ and got a sticker!). James Archer and Nathan Smith—sorry we didn’t get to talk and catch up. I hear from lots of folks that attended this year that it was almost impossible to catch everyone for more than a “hello”, so hopefully we can connect again soon.

The conference has grown (a lot) since my first time in 2005. It’s good for the industry, and shows an enthusiasm that is contagious enough to bring the creative industry (aka Interactive) to the mainstream. The downside was some logistical issues at the conference center and a harder time meeting and talking to everyone. I’m thinking of skipping next year and going to a WDN or AEA conference instead.

Here are my thoughts, gripes, and notes:

Helvetica: Love it or Hate it

I had the pleasure of attending the world premier of the film Helvetica. It was inspiring, educational, funny, and elegant. Most impressive for a film about a typeface! Go see it if you get a chance. See the full screening schedule. (Also note Kottke’s review.)

Future Panelists?

Notes to all future panelist/speakers:

  1. Please post slides to a URI for later reference (and for those that didn’t make it to the panel)
  2. Please use a simple, not clever, title for your talk, and stick with the topic after giving the details to the SXSW folks. There were several sessions this year that seemed to promise A,B,C and delivered X,Y,Z; in one case it worked out well and in another case it was disappointing.

Sessions

Following are my notes and links from the sessions I attended. Like several other attendees, I tended to enjoy the one or two person sessions that were focused and well-prepared (as opposed to a fairly general panel that covered some ground but didn’t leave us with a lot of “take-aways” or solid learning.)

My favorites: After the Brief: A Field Guide to Design Inspiration (slides, podcast) and Web Typography Sucks. I liked both because they were superbly delivered, had great content, included valuable lessons, and covered areas that I need to work on.

Wishlist: Two sessions that I wish I had gone to are Writing, Better and Javascript: The Big Divide — both had great feedback and started good discussions. Can’t wait for the rest of the podcasts…

Continue reading SXSW 2007 Wrap-up

Important Questions for Your Web Site Project

When approached about taking a web design project, the first thing I do is to ask a series of questions of the site owner. The idea is to get him or her thinking about important aspects of the web site before any work begins.

I send the potential client a questionnaire with questions ranging from technology needed to budget and timeframe expected. I also explain my web design philosophy: simple, clean, and to-the-point (read more about the simpledream philosophy).

Along these lines, Drew McLellan recently shared his list of important considerations when planning a web site. He came up with five factors that go into the process.

In summary, these were:

  1. Who is the site for?
  2. What are the visitors trying to achieve when they visit the site?
  3. What does the site owner want visitors to achieve when they visit?
  4. How frequently do people expect to use the site?
  5. How will the site owners measure the success of the site?

This is a good start; the only one I would change is number four. My number four would be: “Budget: how much do you want to spend in time and money?” Knowing how much investment a potential client wants to make in the site makes a big difference on whether I take the project or not.

Money is not the only thing, either. Respect for you as the designer, time spent preparing content, and overall concern for the site’s success go a long way. Typically, if the client is excited about their site and wants to be involved in the process, the site itself has a greater chance of being successful.

There are other important questions for web sites including what technology is required, how much maintenance is needed once the site is launched, and what marketing exposure is required. The ability to answer these questions honestly gives you and the client a great foundation to build upon if you decide to work on a project together.

What questions would you ask? Do share.

Search Engine Rankings for Your Site

If you own or operate a web site it’s likely that you are concerned about your search engine rankings. I have received enough questions from clients about rankings that I realize some of you really care about how high your site ranks. Here are some resources to help you.

The Basics

If you have been relying on others for your site’s SEO, don’t worry! The basic techniques are not hard to understand. The maxim for basic SEO is:

Add quality content regularly and make sure your site is well-built.

That quote is from Roger Johansson’s great article, Basics of search engine optimisation. As Roger says, good content is very important. Frankly, if you don’t have compelling content, you shouldn’t even have a site in the first place, right? So work hard on your site’s content and you will be well on your way.

The well-built part, well, that is slightly more complicated. It involves using web standards such as XHTML and CSS correctly to ensure that your site is visible and attractive to both human and search engine robot visitors. Good use of these technologies not only helps your site do better in search engine rankings, but makes it easier to maintain that all-important content.

Read Roger’s Basics article article if you would like a more in-depth analysis with examples.

Ethical SEO

Some clients have asked: Do I need to hire someone to perform SEO for my site? One reason to do your own SEO is to avoid bad situations where you pay lots of money to “optimize” your site and actually lose visitors in the aftermath. Beware of so-called “SEO consultants” even if they claim to use ethical methods. For a fascinating horror story, read Chris Heilmann’s article Ethical search engine optimisation my foot!

Deceptive SEO methods might make your site perform worse or even get you banned from search engines. Forty Media’s James Archer posted a great treatise on his blog Return of Design.

James broke SEO techniques into three categories: search engine optimization, search engine exaggeration, and search engine deception. If you read his article, it will reinforce in your mind that basic SEO is enough to make your site successful, as long as you put work into the content and making sure the site is well-built.

Accessible and Searchable

As a bonus, read High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization to find out how improving your site’s search engine rankings correctly can also increase your site’s accessibility.

SEO and You

You can do it! Don’t take shortcuts, build and maintain your site lovingly, and keep the content fresh and attractive. That’s the start to getting the optimal search engine ranking.

Be Your Own Client

I am very intrigued about this business idea: “be your own client.” It sounds simple and logical, but it is easy to say and hard to practice. As part of investigating the idea for myself, I thought I’d flesh out some ideas here about what I’ve found so far.

There seem to be two schools of thought that propose “being your own customer”. One assumes that you are testing and using your products or services in order to be able to meet customer needs. The other is more specific: “fire your clients and become your own customer.” The first is general and a good practice, and the second is more specific and harder to do.

Be your own customer to improve your business

To research this one, all you have to do is perform a “be your own customer” Google search (keeping the quotes intact). When I did this, I found many sources for the “think from your customer’s point of view” idea in the product world. The basic idea is that if you use the products that you sell, your business will benefit. Your product will be thoroughly tested and constantly improved.

This is all good, but I didn’t find too much writing online about taking a more radical approach to “being your own customer.”

Be your own customer and fire your regular clients

This means changing the way you do business, not just getting to know how your business works by getting inside the mind of your average consumer. Instead of just using the philosophy as a guide or usability study, companies that practice this approach have the “be your client” as their main business philosophy.

The idea is quite a drastic one: throw all the clients out the window that you did work for over the years. Instead, create a commodity (service, blog, book, etc) that produces revenue. Essentially you are changing revenue models by consuming the very thing you produce; you are truly your own customer.

Jim and Jason

Two important proponents of this latter business philosophy are Coudal Partners and 37Signals. They talk often about being your own user, client, and customer. Since both of these companies are very successful in the web design and development industry, it’s definitely worth digging deeper to figure out how they found the value in this philosophy.

The way they put the idea into practice was to shift their business strategy from providing a service to producing consumable products that they themselves consume.

I first heard about this take on “being your own customer” at a panel at SXSWi 2005 on “Blogging for Business” where Jim Coudal mentioned that his blog has a business. I remember thinking, “that is so cool, it sounds great.” The questions I have now are: What are the benefits? What are some examples? How does it work?

Background on this radical approach

First, for some background, I recommend reading an excellent A List Apart article by the same Jim Coudal: Be Your Own Client. If you haven’t read it, go now, it’s worth it.

Good tips and testimonials from that article:

  • Your blog should have a business
  • There’s an amazing freedom in building something for yourself
  • If you want to free yourself from the tyranny of clients you have to become one
  • Jason Fried says, “When you are your own target audience you can’t help but make better products.”
  • David Greiner with Campaign Monitor “We focused on the features we needed and it turns out that thousands of other web designers found those features just as useful.”

Some related reading to help illustrate this principle:

  • From Being Predictable
    Lesson: Be predictable. Think like your users. Better yet, be your own user. It’ll be much rarer that you’ll come up a non-solution like this one.
  • From 200 Proof Marketing
    Lesson: Be your own customer… Become a part of a market before you sell to it, so you can better understand what the market wants.
  • Article on Six Sigma. This article’s ideas apply to the first school of thought in how to improve your marketing and business tactics.
  • From Your Site Better Be Your Best Employee
    Lesson: Your site greets more users than any team member in your company. Make sure it’s ready for it! Put more time and energy into it…And make sure it is the most impressive and helpful of all your resources.

Clear signals

It’s not an accident that a lot of the material that I found in researching this topic was from 37signals poignant blog, SVN. They are huge proponents of this philosophy, and they practice what they preach. Recently, Jason Fried pointed out in his blog entry The Tools We Use to Run and Build 37Signals that they in fact use their own software for all their own projects. This shows that they not only believe they product the best product out there, but they also can tie in the other philosophy of improving the products by using them constantly themselves in order to test and improve them. It’s a great combination of both of these principles that I have explored here.

Ask yourself

What would be different about your business or daily grind if you were your own customer?