Behind the scenes of a project

You can’t imagine how much I’d like to write on this site regarding the details of designing and building an online project, especially one that involves large and many different professions.

But I won’t do it.

I won’t do it not because I do not want to share what I learned in those 15 years of work.

I won’t because I can’t.

I can’t because the first thing I am asked to do during my consulting activities (and, in the past, as an employee) is to sign a non disclosure agreement that states that I can’t share the details of my work.

If don’t want to judge if signing clauses of this kind is an effective strategy, but I regret not being able to share experiences and practical case studies that are difficult to find reading books. The reality is often different from what we read in academic texts.

Proposing non disclosure agreement, however, is a vice that propagates with a certain speed. If until recently this was a problem of larger companies, more and more often I hear friends and colleagues who are asked to sign an agreement of this kind, even for projects of a few bucks.

But that’s not what I wanted to discuss today.

There are indeed lucky ones that are not afraid to share their experience in detail, as in the case of the BBC.

An example is the redesign of the weather section of their website, which has been masterfully described by the team: BBC Weather Design Refresh in Pictures. Why masterfully?

  • Because they illustrate the entire design process and not just a part
  • Because they host graphs and charts (like the one on the 5W – Who, When, Why, Where, What) that open full screen, so you are able to read everything with no secrets
  • Because they list the parts of the old site they have deleted, and the reason
  • Because they are not ashamed to show that everything comes to life from sketches on paper (see Designing with paper)
  • Because they state their vision and how to reach it
  • Because they stress the importance of icons and infographics in a project of this type.
  • Because they knew that describing in detail the complex redesign would have attracted the (inevitable) criticism of those who prefer the previous version (see comments 12 and 13)
  • Because they write the names of agencies and partners who have helped in the design of the site, instead of keeping them hidden (perhaps by signing a non disclosure agreement, just to return to the opening theme)

The fact they share their experience in detail probably derives from the fact that the BBC is paid for by users’ taxes and this is a way to show how the networks is using this money.

It would be nice that the Italian Rai could do the same, but given the quality of the projects they are perhaps in the previous phase, in which they have yet to learn how to effectively design a site.

Recruitment and social networks

Two reports, published by Jobvite, analyze the relationship between social media and recruitment, with special regards to the American job market.

They are 33 essential recruiting stats and Job Seeker Social Survey 2011. In short:

  • 55% of the companies surveyed plan to invest more resources in the next year for recruiting with social networks
  • more than 80% of companies use LinkedIn, but just 30% of job seekers is in LinkedIn
  • 89% of the U.S. companies surveyed indicated their willingness to use social networking as a tool for recruiting
  • LinkedIn is confirmed, with 73% of usage, the largest social network in terms of recruitment, followed by Facebook (20%) and Twitter (7%)
  • 2/3 of the companies surveyed have hired thanks to social networks

On the same topic there are two interesting infographics published by Mashable, the first with suggestions on how to protect and improve the professional online presence, the second presenting the results of a survey based on recruiters and the relationship with social networks.

And, speaking of statistics and surveys, I remind you that also this year A List Apart published one for anyone who works with the web. Starting from the results of a previews survey, in 2008 I tried to give an interpretation to better understand the role of the web project manager.

Meetings and multitasking

This video contains an apt metaphor regarding the work of a web project manager: coordinate many projects at the same time with varying percentages of completion and communicate with many different actors.

The same happens during meetings. The project manager has to deal with the meeting agenda making sure that all cables are connected and that the network is working, taking notes to prepare the meeting report, and of course bringing the coffee from time to time. The risk is to forget important details.

And since in the past I forgot many details, I learned to use some tricks, especially for internal meetings.

I try to write and forward the agenda in advance via email. Spending 15 minutes to list the main points to be discussed during the meeting allows you to clarify both the arguments that deserve to be addressed and the order in which you are going to present them. It may be useful to use a projector so that the agenda is accessible by everyone. In fact, if the meeting lasts one hour and after 40 minutes you are still discussing the first 2 points out of 10, you should be worried. Advance the agenda, but do not expect everyone to read it. And ask for any other topic to add.

When I can, I record the audio of the meeting. No matter how much you developed your ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, there is still a limit. Instead of taking notes, managing the conversation and browse slides at the same time, try to understand whether it is possible to record the audio. Apart from asking permission (do not do it without permission) you don’t need much more. Almost certainly you will be there with a laptop, that means you can easily record the audio from the internal microphone (I use Wiretap Studio for Mac), but you can also use a portable recorder or phone applications.

Even if you are very good in note taking, knowing that you have a recording in case of doubt has no price. I listen to the recorder audio using ExpressScribe, a freeware that allows you to easily control the playback speed from the keyboard, so you can write down the salient points of the conversation. If you want to know more about this topic, I suggest you to read an interesting article written by Sam Barnes for his blog.

If audio recording is not an option, you can ask a colleague to help you in taking notes, so you can compare them at the end of the meeting.

In any case, do not wait too much time, otherwise it will be almost useless.

Everything has its own name

I went to the client’s office with our art director and now he is ready to show various layouts to illustrate the project. He made some minor changes last night so we could not see them together. He opens the laptop and double-click cool.psd.

The colleague who develops the frontend sent an email containing the latest corrections requested by the company that will address the integration. Once unzipped the files, on the desktop appears the folder named WTF.

These are only two examples, but I could easily go on for hours and hours and never repeat myself., another_one.psd, today_i_lack_ideas.png: I have a whole literature of meaningless and embarrassing names.

Tired of spending days to rename the files and send them to different actors (if I still have time) I have developed a simple system of nomenclature which I try to apply and enforce.

The advice is to start as early as the wireframing phase, to continue during the graphic design up to the development of HTML pages. Each wireframe should properly be named before sending it to the art director, who is usually happy to keep the creativity for other tasks.

I’ve tried over the years different types of classifications, but the one that ended up being more effective is the result of a compromise between the highly informative content and ease of application of the rule.

A typical example of the nomenclature would be as follows:

  • HP010
  • PR010
  • CH010

The first two characters indicate the section of the site that the page refers to (in this case HP stands for the homepage, PR for product page and CH for the checkout), while the number indicates the sequence of the page within the section (HP010 may be the main homepage, HP020 a particular version for the Christmas period, etc..). I use tens as units because, if we find out that we forgot a template that “logically” has to be inserted between two others, we can include it (eg. HP015).

As you can see the rule is trivial, but for this reason is also easy to apply. It saved me a lot of time, but in particular it has allowed us to verify at a glance if all the template were made.

Web project managers’ world

Sam Barnes, a web project manager based in Windsor, had the great idea of organizing a series of interviews with some web project managers.

There’s also one with me. In the 30 questions I address many topics, more or less serious, from the tools that help in the web project management discipline to the reasons the site works fine in all browsers except your client’s one.