Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Tag: best practices

“Use Browser X”? Spare Me This Mockery of Justice!

Spare me this mockery of justice!Today, I experienced something that, as a web developer, really burns my blood. When I inquired about a specific web application’s flaws within a certain web browser, I was informed that I should be using “browser X” instead. As the doomed Transformer proclaimed when condemned to the Quintesson pit in Transformers: the Movie, “Spare me this mockery of justice!”

There are exceedingly few reasons why you should ever tell the users of your web application to use a specific browser over another. If you’re on the public domain, or, if your users can pick from more than one browser to get to your application, account for it. Don’t force the users to bow to your decision; it comes across as exclusionary and elitist. The days of “best viewed in Internet Explorer/Netscape Navigator” are far, far behind us.

Of course, there are plenty of whiz-bang features in HTML 5, CSS3, etc. that have yet to be adopted by all browser variants. Publishing experimental or proof-of-concept websites and web applications that push the envelope and challenge previous assumptions on how we interact with the web is perfectly acceptable. However, if you intend to have a product that will be used by a broad audience, alienating a key portion of your users will do you no good, especially if the “unworthy” browsers introduce glitches or errors that break a key feature. Even minor flaws will make it seem as though your product is buggy, incomplete, unprofessional, and sloppy.

Now, I certainly don’t advocate building something that conforms to every browser variant throughout time; that’s a fool’s errand. Your web analytics program can educate you about which browsers and variants your audience is using. Pay attention to that data and use it to establish your lowest common denominator. My basic rule of thumb is to code for all browsers with greater than one percent of your total market share. You can also choose to “degrade gracefully,” where any fancy features unreadable or unusable for less modern or less compliant browsers can still be operated effectively and correctly. Check your statistics regularly, as market share can change quickly. Usage can often differ dramatically between countries, so, if, for example, your European users prefer Firefox over Internet Explorer, make sure that version of your website is ready for them.

Pay attention to your mobile users as well. Those folks using iPhones and iPads will show up as Safari users in your web analytics, so keep track of your mobile device usage in tandem with your browser statistics. You may wish to consider a mobile-friendly version of your web application, a dedicated app, or a responsive web design that transitions smoothly no matter where your users are browsing. Again, pay attention to your percentages to decide what path to take. It never hurts to ask your users directly, whether through site intercept surveys, focus groups, or simple e-mail questionnaires.

There are plenty of ways to avoid the “browser X” debacle. Spare us all the mockery of your self-imposed justice and build your web application for everyone. You have no excuses!

Image source, Google Images: http://www.anivide.com/gallery.html?view=158846&pid=1318514144.

Need to Help Others Understand Twitter? Have an “Elevator Pitch”

You’ve heard it all before: “Why should I join Twitter? Who cares what I had for lunch?” or “What am I supposed to talk about?” or, even better, “We don’t have time for our staff to be playing around on Twitter all day.” It’s not like Twitter is the new kid on the block anymore; with over 500 million users and several years of robust growth under its belt, it’s becoming more and more a staple social communications platform.

So what is it about Twitter that makes it so hard to understand?

Its premise is incredibly simple: send a short snippet about what you’re doing for others to read, and read snippets others have written for the same purpose. Sometimes conversations ensue, most times, they don’t. You can be a chatterbox with everyone who’s decided to follow you or an ivory tower who talks to no one. It’s your choice.

Beyond some basic etiquette rules crowdsourced by its users, there’s really no right or wrong way to use Twitter. It can be a real-time news feed, a community of interests, a message board, a chat room, a virtual classroom, a professional development tool; whatever you need.

Twitter is simple, and that’s where the trouble comes in.

In my experiences, many neophytes and first-timers who join Twitter feel lost, despite Twitter’s helpful attempts to ease the sign-in process with suggested topics and accounts to follow. They don’t seem to know what to say or how they should say it.

It’s also a challenge for businesses, who can struggle to understand how to use Twitter to its fullest in listening to their customers and promoting their wares. If clients read about how celebrities use Twitter or who among them are considered “influential,” they can get the false impression that tweeting is frivolous or a plaything not worthy of serious consideration.

I’ve learned that you need to have an “elevator pitch” for Twitter. If you want your friends, family, colleagues, or management to really feel the energy and potential of Twitter, you have to be able to explain it in one or two sentences. Back it up with good examples of people or businesses that really make Twitter shine, and save the arcane jargon (such as retweets) for later.

What’s your “elevator pitch” for Twitter?

Image credit: Unknown

Some Helpful Advice from a Nitpicky Web Developer

Ever heard the phrase “the devil’s in the details?” I’m here to tell you it’s true!

For every clean, elegant, and professionally designed website or web application, there are droves of slipshod, sloppy, or just plain lazy pieces of code I encounter every week. What pains me most is that many of these quirks are really simple to fix and can go a long way to adding to your reputation and credibility.

I’ve put together six examples of detail work that you should include in your digital design and development. These suggestions may seem nitpicky, but as a professional web developer who’s been coding and designing websites for over a decade, these “fit-and-finish” items are the ones that always jump out at me when browsing a site or web application.

1. Display Current Copyright Dates

Most websites these days have copyright dates in their footers, usually followed by the formal name of the company or organization and legal text such as “all rights reserved.” Make sure the year displayed here actually matches the current year! Nothing says “out of date” like a mismatched copyright year. This is especially glaring following New Year’s Day. Scripting languages such as ColdFusion, JSP, PHP, and JavaScript can easily handle dynamic dates, as can content management systems.

2. Match Link Names and Page Titles/Document Names

Your users want to get to your content as easily and quickly as possible, so don’t make the process more complicated or confusing by using mismatched names in your website links. Make sure the language you’re using in the link text is a good match, if not exact, to the document or resource at the other end. You want your users to be confident that what they clicked on is what they needed. And please, avoid acronyms or business jargon! Simple language is best.

3. Use Accurate Singular/Plural Descriptors

This is one of my personal pet peeves: if you’re going to display a list of items, show a group of updates, or otherwise show a collection of objects dynamically, always add a condition in your code to change the descriptors from plural to singular when there’s only one item. I can’t stand to see phrases like “1 search results found” or “1 new tweets.”

4. Link Banner Graphics Back to the Home Page

Users have come to expect that clicking on the website’s banner or logo will take them back to the main page of the site. Make sure your banner is linked this way so users won’t get frustrated, or, at the very least, give them an obvious way to get there using a “Home” link or icon (a house is typical). For mobile applications, a “Home” icon in the contextual menu can help solve this problem.

5. Use Clear and Distinct Timestamps

If you’re managing a news website, blog, or any site or application that has time-specific or time-sensitive content, always show the publication date or the “last update” and make sure it’s easy to locate. This is especially important for users arriving at your site from search engines; they’ll want to know that the content you’re providing is the most current or up-to-date for their needs. I personally prefer to see timestamps right below the headline/byline, or, if that’s not possible, at the bottom of the article before any comments.

6. Make Your Social Channels Prominent or Easy-To-Find

Is your organization or corporation on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube? That’s great, but don’t curtail your efforts by burying the channels in your “Contact Us” or “Resources” pages. If you’re actively using these channels, place social icons in prominent locations, such as the header (near the search box is a great spot for visibility) or anywhere where other contact information, such as phone numbers, is displayed.

What Advice Do You Have?

What about you, my faithful visitors? What common mistakes or omissions do you come across in your browsing that you would suggest as improvements to the site’s owners and developers? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

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