2001 : September 11 : The World Changed

The morning began normally – kids’ lunches packed, I sent them off to school with our car pool partner.  Showered and after drying my hair heard a bizarre report on NPR, that one of the Twin Towers in Manhattan had been hit by an airplane.  Immediate response was “what?!” followed by something I never do – turned on television news.

About that time, the second tower was struck and I know my jaw dropped.  What at first seemed to possibly be an accident became clearly intentional and evil.  Something Bad was happening.  As the tension rose and the news anchors’ voices took on an intensity they couldn’t conjure for everyday drama, the Pentagon was hit and it was revealed that a plane heading west was off course and out of contact.  Ironic that the planes all left from Boston, a seat of US independence and a symbol of the revolution.

Something Bad became even worse, as that day, no news was good news.  I went to the office where nothing was getting done, except the beginnings of contingency plans for what we’d do with all the upcoming international travel  (our firm planned incentive travel programs, large group trips involving months of logistical planning).  There was one TV in the office, and the Internet had basically broken – couldn’t connect to any news.  A friend in Thailand sent me updates by email, since he could get CNN on the other side of the planet.

I left work as soon as we could pick up kids from school, it was a very quiet evening as we were all glued to the news.  Nothing changed, and details were slow to emerge.  I don’t think we knew what terror meant until that day.  I slept on the sofa with the TV news on (another thing I never do), and I believe this was the time FOMO began – like many people, I think I had the sense that anything could happen at any time, terror was part of the new normal, and if any other horrors were to take place I wanted to know right away.

A month afterwards, we traveled to Chicago for an annual trade show, but this trip involved planning for emergency response should there be any threats on the flight: who was to sit where, what type of shoes were we wearing, how much carry on baggage.

Three months afterwards, I visited New York City and was astounded at the change in the heart of the city.  People were somber but kinder (yes, New Yorkers can be kind), and the city was decked out in American flags, including the Chase building, fully swaddled in a giant flag.  Rockfeller Center’s Christmas tree was decorated in red, white and blue lights and ornaments. As fine snow swirled, the sense of unity and patriotism was palpable and if there was one Good Thing that came from the Bad Thing, perhaps that was it.

Let us never forget – let us hold on to unity and patriotism, and use those principles to make more Good Things happen in spite of the terror.

Where were you in 2001, on September 11?

Welcome

WhereWereYou.in is an online memory bank that allows you to organize your memoirs and share them with the audience you select.

If you are a baby boomer who wants to record events that took place ‘back in the day,’ or are a senior who wants to describe life before the Internet for your grandkids, or you’d just rather reminisce about how you earned your wrinkles than report on the sandwich you had for lunch, come back soon and start your virtual memory book.

Until then, comments are welcome, and I hope you enjoy reminiscing with me!

Successful Web-building Relies on Client Satisfaction

In my decade-and-a-half on the Internet, I’ve learned that technology will always evolve, devices and browsers will always bring new challenges, and that it is impossible to predict how we’ll be solving problems in 3 years – but one thing has been consistent throughout my career: if your clients aren’t happy, your web development business will not succeed.

Satisfying clients seems to rely on 3 factors, which are all attached at the hip:

  1. Accurate project scoping
  2. Responsiveness to client needs
  3. A solid delivery solution

I’ve worked on projects that approached #1 from all directions: thorough scoping process which takes lots of time and can delay closing a sale, minimal scoping to get a signature – where project costs are ballparked and often underestimated – and incremental, Agile-based scoping in which our team and the clients collaborated throughout the development to produce a launchable site that continued to grow as budget allowed.

My most satisfying and successful work has fallen into the last category, but it is definitely the unicorn …. few clients have the budget, patience and long-term vision for this to work, however when the stars align and there is trust in the vendor, the results are excellent and the process exciting for everyone.

Under-scoping a project leads to frustration on all sides: clients feel cheated when the vendor attempts to manage costs by cutting corners or enforcing a change order/ add-on policy.  A contentious atmosphere invariably pervades and in the end, the site will launch but the animosity developed through the implementation cycle taints the experience and corresponding faith in the vendor. Bruised projects are completed and then move to day-to-day-operations and support, and the poor client manager can’t un-do the bad blood drawn during the exhausting build … the client may have a great site but has lost trust in the vendor and it’s almost impossible to re-boot the relationship at that stage.

The second point, responsiveness to client needs, relies on a genuine desire to collaborate for the benefit of the project’s success.  Canned solutions and a one-size-fits-all approach to delivery is a recipe for disaster, however convenient for the vendor it may seem – a project can’t be accurately scoped if the website design and development firm isn’t responsive to each client’s unique needs.  Not all platforms are created equal, and in this day and age, it is rare to see a site built without a CMS system of some sort behind it … understanding the virtues of all the options and matching the client’s real-world needs to the delivery mechanism requires well-honed, empathetic listening skills as well as great technology to deliver the goods.

Delivery is where appropriate technology comes in.  If a web development vendor has done their jobs well on the scoping and responsiveness fronts, technology is where the pudding is proofed and the solutions are no longer hypothetical but real.  I’ve delighted in seeing my favorite development platform, WordPress, grow from being a respectable blog application to the versatile, robust, ever-evolving ticket to success for clients who need brochure websites, ecommerce sites, community, news, real estate and pretty much any other flavor of website.

I don’t think any client I’ve worked with has been dissatisfied with a well-crafted WordPress solution, and capable teams always seem stimulated with the fresh goodies and supportive community of developers – who are typically evangelists for the framework, and rightfully so.

It’s sad when bad listening skills, weak technology and a disregard for the client-vendor relationship collide.  Avoid the vicious cycle by ensuring that business development teams have a commitment to client success, not just a signature on a loosely-defined SOW, and that the technology you’ll rely on for the foreseeable future is elegant, in constant development and expandable to meet your ongoing needs.

2013 : September 3 : Why Diana Nyad’s Words are So Inspiring

I was on the Internet when news of Diana Nyad’s impending march to the shore of Key West hit the news – while I marveled at the athletic achievement, it wasn’t a huge surprise – after all, she knew what she was up against and had prepared well, and seemed to have the determination needed to make it across the Florida straits this go-around.

When she did alight on solid ground, walk up on the beach and a mic was thrust into her face – obviously fatigued beyond imagination and running on sheer adrenalin – she was still ready for her close-up and spoke words that will be etched into my memory as long as I have one:

“I have three messages: one is we should never ever give up; two is you are never too old to chase your dreams; and three is it looks like a solitary sport but it is a team.”

While I’m sure she mulled these words not only during the grueling swim through vicious waters but many times before, they were spoken with such spontaneity and sincerity – almost coming across as a message from a space creature, landing on our brutal, immature planet for the first time bearing wisdom we’re rarely privy to.

“We should never, ever give up”

With this component of the message, she recognized that all too often we lack the essential deep spirit needed to keep plugging along, whether it is finding the motivation to run farther than usual or work those extra two hours on the presentation that will take us to the next level of our careers.  When one is exhausted physically or mentally, the simplest chores become daunting obstacles.  By invoking sheer will and determination to complete an exercise of any form, we often find we really do have the inner resources needed to reach the objective.  There is a certain outcome if we give up, there’s always the opportunity for success if we persist.

“You are never too old to chase your dreams”

And for that matter, you are never too young to chase your dreams.  Obviously this reference to Diana’s age acknowledges that she is no longer a typical Olympian, and that for many of us that don’t pursue physical fitness professionally, her achievement Monday is unthinkable.  Most people have a dream, a goal that receives less focus than we’d like to give it during our youth and early adulthood, and the sense that suddenly one is too old to execute comes upon us like a lead cloak.  I believe that Diana provides us all with a great example of the payoff that can come with dedication, hard work, imagination and preparation – all hallmarks of people of a certain age.  It is important to recognize the strength of maturity and apply its assets to our dreams, so they can be recognized and enjoyed as part of our reason for being here.

“It looks like a solitary sport but this is a team”

Life sometimes looks and feels like a solitary sport, but if you look around you, there’s a team … your friends and family, husbands, wives, and children, your co-workers and even that nice guy who let you on the bus first when it was raining last week.  We rely on the people around us for spiritual sustenance, for physical assistance and for the need to fill in gaps – no one can do everything, but with the right team and proper planning, seemingly impossible feats can be achieved.  Being thankful for the teams that contribute to our lives is the least we can do – acknowledge your team, personal and professional, and recognize how much farther you can go with them than you can alone.

Thank you Diana Nyad, lady named for Greek water nymphs, for inspiring me today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future!

The Usability Tightrope: Making Complex Websites Simple

I’m fortunate to have worked on the Internet long enough to experience the evolution of usability first-hand: a few years ago, I was responsible for giving people who had little familiarity with the web, didn’t have an email address, and perhaps only used a keyboard on mainframe-type systems an easy way to register for and earn sales incentive rewards. As my incredibly talented team and I assessed how to best migrate people who typically performed these activities using a fax machine to this new thingy called the Internet, a few facts drove our approach in developing custom UI – and they are all still quite relevant today.

In evaluating the latest wireframes and development specifications for WhereWereYou.in, my online memory bank for baby boomers, I’ve kept these principles in mind – and experience with great, deep, complex sites like Ancestry.com bolster these contentions:


1. Introduce the interfaces in stages.
 Compare the first user experience of your website to dating … let users become familiar with who you are and what you do before snapping open the raincoat and flashing them with all your goodies. If your site needs a multi-step registration process, request as little info as possible to allow a user to register, then offer advanced options. Hook the user, let then get to know you a bit, and then seek more information to support advanced functionality.

2. Keep the initial experience linear. Millenials are notorious for multi-tasking, but studies are revealing that this is not necessarily the most efficient way to manage anything, especially website user interfaces. After you’ve created a great, complex website chock-full of fantastic information and tools, it is definitely tempting to throw it all out there in sidebars, tabs, three layers of header navigation and account options – but this is often overwhelming, especially for baby boomer generation users. Always make sure the user can get back to the point of entry – this is a HUGE element in successful interface design for older users – they want to know how to get back home, and home should have a valid place in the site structure and not simply act as a login page.

3. In advanced interfaces, retain simplicity and anticipate user needs. After the user is comfortable in your environment, it is easier to lead them to more information and tools in a comfortable manner. Later in an initial visit or on return visits, users tend feel the info they need is there and they are more confident seeking it. Make logical suggestions for branching off the main interfaces, but watch how they are layered – resist the urge to create too many possible branches for a user to take, and you’ll have less “fight or flight” response, which lead to site abandonment.

Overall, baby boomers need elegant interfaces that allow them to perform complex tasks and queries without being overwhelmed. When working on UI for any age group, organization of options and simple presentation is key to success.

Banner Ads vs. Content Marketing: Balancing your online branding efforts

When I first began working on the Internet in 1998, we made hundreds of web banners. At the time they were technologically challenging due to extremely low file size limits (11kb for a 468×60 animated GIF – kids, I dare ya to try making anything relatively cool or compelling within those guidelines!) but were an integral part of page layouts and over time, came to occupy designated space all over any site that looked for ways to monetize their real estate. Today, banner ads are the digital equivalent of outdoor billboards you drive past every day as you do important things in your life, but never stop, write down a phone number or URL, or actively pursue the product or service – unless you have a specific reason to do so.

No matter how funny, creative, sexy or “experiential” a web banner may be, I’ve learned to tune them out, as have most regular Internet users. They usually represent so much sound and fury, and impose themselves in places I don’t want to be interrupted, I perceive them as visual clutter – but admittedly, I form and retain some awareness of brands I might not otherwise be familiar with in a rather subliminal manner.

Whatever their imperfections in marketing a product, banner ads in all shapes and sizes still consume a large percentage of web real estate and drive tons of revenue, and since Mr Google is an active recipient of the revenue, they won’t be going away anytime soon. This article makes some interesting observations on how online advertising has grown over the past decade, and what comes next in for web marketers – and I have to agree that content marketing is not only strategically preferable given the evolution of user patterns, but does more to reinforce brand identify than a banner ever can – a rare case in which words may be more powerful than pictures.

Content marketing is strong because people seek it out via casual searches, or take time to read and retain as they research a product or service marketed by competing brands. Since a user has voluntarily uncovered the information, they not only spend more time on it, they recall and use the information in decision-making. The process of discovery enables the brand to differentiate itself, and its products, from competitors and form a bond with the reader – the foundation of a brand relationship and subsequent loyalty.

The approaches and the results of these two online marketing techniques are entirely different – the only way to compare the two is by remembering that people learn in different ways and experience/ interpret the Internet in different ways. To maximize the value of your online branding and marketing campaigns, a “both” not “either” approach ensures you achieve the subliminal awareness needed to establish a brand identify, and the substance people seek when they truly relate to not just the product, but the parent brand and its family of products.

Things Baby Boomers Prefer in Website Design

In my job as “project manager” for a boutique website design company, I wear a lot of hats. A typical workday could require me to groom content for a real estate site, set up a series of email newsletters promoting an event, overhaul the architecture for a legal firm’s 150+ page website, and work with new clients and our designer to create the home page layouts of the clients’ dreams.

It is increasingly apparent that the age of the client impacts their concept of what looks good in website design. I’ve observed demographic preferences of other sorts for years – men and women have noticeably different tastes in color palettes, use of fonts and imagery; industry, income and education levels also seem to impact what people find pleasing – but the emergence of distinct preferences based on age is starting to help shortcut my creative briefs and enable us to deliver satisfying designs faster.

Two examples that spring readily to mind are:

The “make my logo bigger” syndrome. Most any design professional you ask will have experience with the request to enlarge the scale of the client logo, no matter what medium it appears in. Current website design trends are using logos at no more than 150 pixels tall by whatever wide, which typically is plenty – businesses are not usually selling logos, and the focus should theoretically be on what the site owner sells or does – and younger clients seem fine with the trendy proportions.

Roughly eight times out of ten, a client who insists on an epic logo is over the age of 38; the older the client, the more likely we’ll have to get out the Make My Logo Bigger cream and blow the balance of all other elements in the page layout to get the design approved.

Splash pages, intros and music. Back in the early days of the commercial Internet, as companies began to work with marketing people to not just make a website but make a website that was different from their competition, graphic designers began to create animated slideshow or movie-like introductions to preface the “real” website. Some designers went as far as to add music or sound effects to the introduction and even the site itself (horrors), and for those who didn’t want to go as far as animation, “splash pages” were invented to create additional exposure for a logo, product or the brand identity.

By 2002 or so these sins occurred rampantly on the Internet, but fortunately inherent issues curtailed the trend after a few years: between the development expenses and plugin issues with Flash, its lack of visibility on search engines, the wasted load time and uneven availability of bandwidth in those days, and the increasing respect of site owners and designers for their viewers, the “intro” design premise went the way of the dodo for the most part.

The only clients who still find this pleasing/ desirable are without fail over 35-years-old, and like the make my logo bigger people, the more adamant they are that these time-wasters are part of their web identity the older they tend to be.

So, I’m on a personal mission to help balance the expectations of middle-aged clients with current UI trends, and to help my twenty-something designer understand the preferences that go against his grain but are somehow critical to meeting the needs of baby boomers.

Online Marketing to Baby Boomers: Why social media may not return the results you seek

I love seeing the current adoption rate stats for baby boomers and seniors’ general use of the Internet – people who didn’t grow up with such ready access to information truly appreciate the new-found connection to facts and opinion on any subject imaginable – and with the increasing use, I continue to see evidence that the post-50 generations do not relate to technology in the same manner millenials who create websites and mobile applications do.

The stats in this great post about marketing to baby boomers online dovetail with my less formal observations and support my contention that the value of the silver demographic is still relatively untapped due to both generational user preferences and ad strategies geared to younger markets. As effective as advertisers are in connecting with Gen X and younger, connecting with baby boomers online presents marketers with inherent obstacles.

Baby boomers readily acknowledge the role of technology in the workplace and have allowed it to reach into their personal space, yet the way boomers integrate social media, whether delivered via mobile or desktop, into their lives is very different from the outright dependence of our children. Participation in social media is viewed as an option, not a given, in the consumer decision-making process – while a product recommendation online makes perfect sense to the generation who used the first Consumer Reports publications, I suspect seeing a photo on a Pintrest page generates far less interest in the product – overall, boomers seek and use objective product information more than they can be pushed or prompted to purchase via virtual peer pressure.

Product promotion via social media has its risks when targeting boomers and seniors … recent experience has revealed two obstacles to be aware of:

One: Fundamental lack of understanding of the platforms. A lovely, visionary, not-quite-middle-aged community organizer phoned me one day and stated that she needed to Tweet security updates to her neighborhood association, and requested help in making this happen. I emailed her step-by-step instructions for stetting up a Twitter account and included draft text for an email inviting her contacts to follow her to receive valuable information, yada yada, and promptly received a phone call – “but I just want to send the neighbors Tweets on their phones – I don’t want them to have to set up an account to get them!”

You see the problem? The organizer recognized the existence of a perfect means to get the word out, but didn’t understand the platform is not meant to push anything to those who don’t actively request it. She also failed to understand that receiving Tweets on one’s phone is a secondary option, and viewed setting up an account an impediment …. so there was a substantial amount of education needed for the organizer, before she had any hope of engaging others in her demographic, to prepare her to best use a fantastic, free tool she knew would benefit her physical community.

Two: Mobile devices are not considered essential to life. Unlike many people my age, I’ve relied on email to do my job since 1998. In the early-mid 2000s, as I traveled weekly in a business development position, I not only carried a personal cell phone but also a BlackBerry, on which I was able to stay connected to my teenagers via AIM while waiting on perpetually delayed flights, find client offices, occasionally find an emergency hotel. Using a handheld device to get directions is second nature to me, but the majority of my peers have never checked in on FourSquare and don’t look for new dining spots on the spur of the moment, based on location – our lives are not as loosely structured as those of our young-adult children, and we don’t have the need to update our online statuses to the minute – and we tend to view using a mobile device in a nicer restaurant downright rude to one’s dining companions. If we have smartphones, they are typically used more purposefully than the devices are used by millennials; we don’t text if we can talk and we sometimes turn the things off entirely.

Circumstances like this present challenges in gaining the maximum value from mobile social media, if a significant portion of your target market is older than about age 45. Staying connected to the boomer audience requires integrating more desktop-focused efforts such as email, and even QR codes in print, and the adoption rate for smart phones among boomers will probably always be low enough to relegate the most successful campaigns to those emulating traditional direct marketing. Remember this generation still thinks anything important should be printed – green initiatives aside, printing is a hard habit to break – and acknowledge that being memorable to the 50-plus demographic requires different strategies than you’ll find need for the unplugged generation.

Click the Cog, Folks

The more I talk to baby boomers – people in my age group – about the way they use the Internet, one fact is consistent and clear: we are sometimes stumped by interfaces and often abandon websites in sheer confusion.

We have to remember that most websites these days are being designed by people of our children’s generation, and they use interfaces in ways we never consider. This is a product of their growing up playing video games, using complex remote control devices and being trained to use keyboards and navigation devices like mouses and game controllers to interact with screens – skills our generation didn’t hone at the tender ages our kids did. If you’ve ever handed your new phone off to your high schooler to solve some mysterious interface obstacle, you know what I mean – or if you watched a kindergartener pick up an unfamiliar game controller and immediately, intuitively understand how to make the character jump, twirl and swipe a hidden gem from the dragon you’ve seen this proof.

(I, for one, have never understood video game controllers or what they made the screen do, or why it is interesting in the first place. It just isn’t my thing, and I sometimes wish I had more interest in games and their usability, as it might be helpful if I wanted to make websites for children – which I don’t – but this “converse knowledge” is useful as I work to create websites for baby boomers, seniors, GenX and Y, and everyone else.)

Anyway, all this leads me back to the premise that websites these days are using a visual shorthand that is sometimes confounding to middle-aged users who don’t decode iconography as naturally as people under the age of, say, 35 do. This year’s Google Gmail interface overhaul, that then impacted most of their related services, produced confusion among users of many age groups, but it is a perfect example of the minimalistic and sometimes ambiguous UI design that can drive otherwise-satisfied users away from a great website.

The best advice I can offer is: if you find you are lost on a website – can’t login, can’t logout, can’t find the basic tools you need to do whatever it is you went to the site for in the first place – look for and then click the little cog icon. Chances are you’ll find it in the upper right corner of the screen, and it will be very small.

It seems that at some point in the past 4-5 years, a 20-year-old decided this would become Internet design law and didn’t tell us about it. This one element can be the key to unlocking the graphical code that you’ll start to see everywhere once you recognize it – this new iconography can be found everywhere from a smart phone to my new gas range’s “control panel” (because knobs, dials and buttons aren’t cool anymore – we have control panels on ovens!). Get used to it; this convention is universal and we’re still young enough to learn and adapt.

If you’re lost on a screen or device control panel … look for the cog.

1981 : October 26 : Atlanta GA : The Fox Theater

Rolling Stones at the Fox Theater 1981On the night of October 26, 1981, I was in the fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta, GA, enjoying one of the greatest rock ‘n roll shows ever to grace that venue: the Stray Cats opened for the Rolling Stones.

While we regularly took in rock shows in the storied 1920’s entertainment palace – which has a Moorish design throughout, from the ceiling down – seeing the Stones with only 4600 of one’s closest friends was an unexpected treat. Up and coming modern bands like the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, even Prince and his entourage were typically booked, but on the 1981 tour the greatest rock band in the world made an appearance. Tickets had gone on sale at about 3am a few weeks prior, without warning, and sold out by dawn. Fortunately my connections in the record store community put one into my hands (at the low low price of $16!) and gave me admittance that memorable night. The marquee on Peachtree Street read: The Cockroaches … the name used on the first night of the tour, for an impromptu dress rehearsal, carried over to many of the tour dates.

Set list was classic, and by all reports it was the first tour of the Keith Richards sober era. Stray Cats “Rocked this Town” by way of warmup but didn’t overshadow the masters. I’ve always loved the Stones’ liberal use of a damn fine horn section and keyboards, which are crucial to achieving the depth of rock n’ roll tones they produce – from all “All Down the Line” to “Miss You,” the songs’ perfection relies on guitars as well as the full band that is more than backup.

Funny to think it was 33 years ago, given the timeless nature of their repertoire and the fact that they still perform it so well.