A List Apart
It was supposed to be a simple web project. Our client needed a site that would allow users to create, deploy and review survey results. Aside from some APIs that weren’t done, I wasn’t very worried about the project. I was surprised that my product manager was spending so much time at the client’s office.
Then, she explained the problem. It seemed that the leaders of product, UX and engineering didn’t speak to each other and, as a result, she had to walk from office to office getting information and decisions.When two people have a bad interaction, they can work it out or let the conflict grow, spreading it to other team members and their leaders.
The conflicts probably started small. One bad interaction, then another, then people don’t like each other, then teams don’t work together well. The small scrape becomes a festering wound that slows things down, limits creativity and lowers morale.
Somehow as a kid working my way through school I discovered I had a knack for getting around individuals or groups that were fighting with each other. I simply figured out who I needed to help me accomplish a task, and I learned how to convince, cajole or charm them into doing it. I went on to teach these skills to my teams.
That sufficed for a while. But as I became a department head and an adviser to my clients, I realized it’s not enough to make it work. I needed to learn how to make it better. I needed to find a way to stop the infighting I’ve seen plague organizations my entire career. I needed to put aside my tendency to make the quick fix and have hard conversations.
It’s messy, awkward and hard for team leaders to resolve conflict but the results are absolutely worth it. You don’t need a big training program, a touchy-feely retreat or an expensive consultant. Team members or team leads don’t have to like each other. What they have to do is find common ground, a measure of respect for one another, and a willingness to work together to benefit the project.
Here are four ways to approach the problem.Start talking
No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem. Gerald M. Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully
Resist the urge to wait for the perfect time to address team conflict. There’s no such thing. There will always be another deadline, another rollout, another challenge to be met.
In our office, a UX designer and product manager were having trouble getting along. Rather than take responsibility, they each blamed our “process” and said we needed to clarify roles and procedures. In other words, they each wanted to be deemed “in charge” of the project. Certainly I could have taken that bullet and begun a full-on assessment of our processes and structure. By taking the blame for a bad company framework, I could have dodged some difficult conversations. But I knew our process wasn’t the problem.
First, I coached the product manager to be vulnerable, not an easy thing for him to do. I asked him to share his concerns and his desire to have a more productive relationship with the UX designer. The PM’s willingness to be uncomfortable and open about his concerns lifted the tension. Once he acknowledged the elephant in the room—namely that the UX designer was not happy working with him—the designer became more willing to risk being honest. Eventually, they were able to find a solution to their disagreements on the project, largely because they were willing to give each other a measure of respect.
The worst thing I’ve seen is when leaders move people from team to team hoping that they will magically find a group of people that work well together, and work well with them. Sometimes the relocated team members have no idea that their behavior or performance isn’t acceptable. Instead of solving the problem, this just spreads the dissatisfaction.
Instead, be clear right from the beginning that you want teams that will be open about challenges, feel safe discussing conflicts, and be accountable for solving them.Have a clear purpose
Although many aspects of our collective endeavor are open for discussion, choice of mountain is not among them. J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances
I was working on an enterprise CMS re-design and re-platform. Our weekly review and estimation sessions were some of the most painful meetings of my career. There was no trust or shared purpose—even estimating a simple task was a big fight.
When purpose and priorities are murky you are likely to find conflict. When the team doesn’t know what mountain they are trying to climb, they tend to focus on the parts of the project that are most relevant to them. With each team member jealously guarding his or her little ledge, it’s almost impossible to have cooperation.
This assault on productivity is likely because the project objective is non-existent, or muddled nonsense, or so broad the team doesn’t see how it can have an impact. Or, maybe the objective is a moving target, constantly shifting.
Size can be a factor. I’ve seen enterprise teams with clear missions and startups with such world-changing objectives they can’t figure out how to ship something that costs less than a million dollars.
When I’m meeting with prospects or new clients I look at three areas to see if they are having this problem:
- What language do they use to describe each other? Disconnected teams say “UX thinks,” “The dev team” or “product wants.” Unified teams say “we.”
- How easy or hard is task estimation? Disconnected teams fight about the level of difficulty. United teams talk about tradeoffs and argue about what’s best for the product or customers.
- Can they easily and consistently describe their purpose? Disconnected teams don’t have a crisp and consistent answer. Unified teams nod their heads when one of their members shares a concise answer.
If a team is disconnected, it’s likely because you haven’t given them a common goal. A single email or a fancy deck isn’t enough. Make your objectives simple and repeat them so much that the team groans every time you start.Plan conversations
Words do not sit in our brains in isolation. Each word is surrounded by its own connotations, memories and associations Simon Lancaster, Winning Minds: Secrets From the Language of Leadership
Years ago I was frustrated to tears by a manager who, I felt, took from me the product I spent two years building. I knew I needed to talk with him but I struggled to find a productive way to tell him why I was upset. (Telling someone he is being a jackass is not productive.)
A good friend in HR helped me script the conversation. It had three parts:
- I really work well when…
- This situation is bothering me because…
- What I’d like to see happen is…
Leaders have an important role to play in resolving issues. When a leader decides that their person is right and another person is wrong it turns a team problem into an organization problem. Instead we should should provide perspective, context and show how actions could be misunderstood.
Leaders also need to quickly, clearly and strongly call about bad behavior. When I found out one of my people raised their voice at a colleague, I made it clear that wasn’t acceptable and shouldn’t happen again. He admitted that he lost his cool, apologized and then we started working on the resolving the situation.Require accountability Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off. General Colin Powell,former U.S. Secretary of State
If you have a problem and you go to Holly Paul, an inspiring HR leader, you can expect that she will listen. You can also expect that she’ll work with you on a plan to resolve it. Most importantly you can expect she will make sure you are doing what you said you’d do when you said you would do it.
Before I met Holly I would listen to problems then try to go solve them. Now I work with the person and tell them that I will be checking back with them, often putting the reminder in my calendar during the conversation so I don’t forget.
Since I started focusing on fixing conflict, I’ve seen great changes on my team. Many of them have started for the first time dealing with the people, fixing their issues and forging much stronger relationships. Our team is stronger and having a greater influence on the organization.
It’s messy, awkward and hard. I’ve been working on this for a long time and I still make mistakes. I still don’t always want to push when I meet resistance. This will never be easy, but it will be worth it and it’s your responsibility as a leader. For however long these people are with you, you need to make them better as individuals and a unit.
You don’t need a big training, a touchy-feely retreat or an expensive consultant. You just need to start doing the work every day. The rest will come.
A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Geri Coady's new book, Color Accessibility Workflows, available now from A Book Apart.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 contain recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for making the web more accessible to users with disabilities, including color blindness and other vision deficiencies.
There are three levels of conformance defined in WCAG 2.0, from lowest to highest: A, AA, and AAA. For text and images of text, AA is the minimum level that must be met.
AA compliance requires text and images of text to have a minimum color contrast ratio of 4.5:1. In other words, the lighter color in a pair must have four-and-a-half times as much luminance (an indicator of how bright a color will appear) as the darker color. This contrast ratio is calculated to include people with moderately low vision who don’t need to rely on contrast-enhancing assistive technology, as well as people with color deficiencies. It’s meant to compensate for the loss in contrast sensitivity often experienced by users with 20/40 vision, which is half of normal 20/20 vision.
Level AAA compliance requires a contrast ratio of 7:1, which provides compensation for users with 20/80 vision, or a quarter of normal 20/20 vision. People who have a degree of vision loss more than 20/80 generally require assistive technologies with contrast enhancement and magnification capabilities.
Text that acts as pure decoration, nonessential text that appears in part of a photograph, and images of company logos do not strictly need to adhere to these rules. Nonessential or decorative text is, by definition, not essential to understanding a page’s content. Logos and wordmarks may contain textual elements that are essential to broadcasting the company’s visual identity, but not to conveying important information. If necessary, the logo may be described by using an alt attribute for the benefit of a person using screen-reader software. To learn more, check out accessibility specialist Julie Grundy’s blog post on Simply Accessible, where she goes into the best practices around describing alt attributes.
Text size plays a big role in determining how much contrast is required. Gray text with an RGB value of (150,150,150) on a pure white background passes the AA level of compliance, as long as it’s used in headlines above 18 points. Gray text with an RGB value of (110,110,110) passes the AA level at any text size, and will be AAA compliant if used as a headline above 18 points (Fig 3.1). A font displayed at 14 points may have a different level of legibility compared to another font at 14 points due to the wide diversity of type styles, so keep this in mind, especially when using very thin weights.
Fig 3.1: Text size also plays a role when calculating compliance ratios.
Personally, I recommend that all body text be AAA compliant, with larger headlines and less important copy meeting AA compliance as a bare minimum. Keep in mind that these ratios refer to solid-colored text over solid-colored backgrounds, where a single color value can be measured. Overlaying text on a gradient, pattern, or photograph may require a higher contrast value or alternative placement, such as over a solid-colored strip, to provide sufficient legibility.
These compliance ratios are often what folks mean when they claim that achieving accessible design by “ticking off boxes” can only come at the cost of stifled creativity or restricted color choices. But that simply isn’t true. Experimentation with a color-contrast checker proves that many compliance ratios are quite reasonable and easy to achieve—especially if you are aware of the rules from the beginning. It would be much more frustrating to try to shift poor color choices into something compliant later in the design process, after branding colors have already been chosen. If you fight your battles up front, you’ll find you won’t feel restricted at all.
If all this talk of numbers seems confusing, I promise there’ll be no real math involved on your side. You can easily find out if your color pairs pass the test by using a color-contrast checker.Contrast checkers
One of my favorite tools is Lea Verou’s Contrast Ratio (Fig 3.2). It gives you the option of entering a color code for a background and a color code for text, and it calculates the ratio for you.
Fig 3.2: Lea Verou’s Contrast Ratio checker.
Contrast Ratio supports color names, hex color codes, RGBA values, HSLA values, and even combinations of each. Supporting RGBA and HSLA values means that Verou’s tool supports transparent colors, a handy feature. You can easily share the results of a check by copying and pasting the URL. Additionally, you can modify colors by changing the values in the URL string instead of using the page’s input fields.
Another great tool that has the benefit of simultaneously showing whether a color combination passes both AA and AAA compliance levels is Jonathan Snook’s Colour Contrast Check (Fig 3.3).
Fig 3.3: Jonathan Snook’s Colour Contrast Check.
At the time of writing, Colour Contrast Check doesn’t support HSL alpha values, but it does display the calculated brightness difference and color difference values, which might interest you if you want a little more information.Color pickers
If you need help choosing accessible colors from the start, try Color Safe. This web-based tool helps designers experiment with and choose color combinations that are immediately contrast-compliant. Enter a background color as a starting point; then choose a standard font family, font size, font weight, and target WCAG compliance level. Color Safe will return a comprehensive list of suggestions that can be used as accessible text colors (Fig 3.4).
Fig 3.4: Color Safe searches for compliant text colors based on an existing background color.Adjustment tools
When faced with color choices that fail the minimum contrast ratios, consider using something like Tanaguru Contrast Finder to help find appropriate alternatives (Fig 3.5). This incredibly useful tool takes a foreground and background color pair and then presents a range of compliant options comparable to the original colors. It’s important to note that this tool works best when the colors are already close to being compliant but just need a little push—color pairs with drastically low contrast ratios may not return any suggestions at all (Fig 3.6).
Fig 3.5: This color pair is not AA compliant.
Fig 3.6: A selection of Tanaguru’s suggested AA-compliant alternatives.There’s more where that came from!
Check out the rest of Color Accessibility Workflows at A Book Apart.
As product owners or developers, we probably have a good handle on which core assets we need to make a website work. But rarely is that the whole picture. How well do we know every last thing that loads on our sites?
An occasional web performance audit, done by hand, does make us aware of every last thing. What’s so great about that? Well, for starters, the process increases our mindfulness of what we are actually asking of our users. Furthermore, a bit of spreadsheet wizardry lets us shape our findings in a way that has more meaning for stakeholders. It allows us to speak to our web performance in terms of purpose, like so:
Want to be able to make something like that? Follow along.Wait, don’t we have computers for this sort of thing?
A manual audit may seem like pointless drudgery. Why do this by hand? Can’t we automate this somehow?
That’s the whole point. We want to achieve mindfulness—not automate everything away. When we take the time to consider each and every thing that loads on a page, we get a truer picture of our work.
It takes a human mind to look at every asset on a page and assign it a purpose. This in turn allows us to shape our data in such a way that it means something to people who don’t know what acronyms like CSS or WOFF mean. Besides, who doesn’t like a nice pie chart?
Here’s the process, step by step:
- Get your performance data in a malleable format.
- Extract the information necessary.
- Go item by item, assigning each asset request a purpose.
- Calculate totals, and modify data into easily understood units.
- Make fancy pie charts.
The audit may take half an hour to an hour the first time you do it this way, but with practice you’ll be able to do it in a few minutes. Let’s go!Gathering your performance data
To get started, figure out what URL you want to evaluate. Look at your analytics and try to determine which page type is your most popular. Don’t just default to your home page. For instance, if you have a news site, articles are probably your most popular page type. If you’re analyzing a single-page app, determine what the most commonly accessed view is.
You need to get your network activity at that URL into a CSV/spreadsheet format. In my experience, the easiest way to do this is to use WebPagetest, whose premise is simple: give it a URL, and it will do an assessment that tries to measure perceived performance.
Head over to WebPagetest and pop your URL in the big field on the homepage. However, before running the test, open the Advanced Settings panel. Make sure you’re only running one test, and set Repeat View to First View Only. This will ensure that you don’t have duplicate requests in your data. Now, let the test run—hit the big “Start Test” button.
Once you have a results page, click the link in the top right corner that says “Raw object data”.
A CSV file will download with your network requests set out in a spreadsheet that you can manipulate.Navigating & scrubbing the data
Now, open the CSV file in your favorite spreadsheet editor: Excel, Numbers, or (my personal favorite) Google Sheets. The rest of this article will be written with Google Sheets in mind, though a similar result is certainly possible with other spreadsheet programs.
At first it will probably seem like this file contains an unwieldy amount of information, but we’re only interested in a small amount of this data. These are the three columns we care about:
- Host (column F)
- URL (column G)
- Object Size (column N)
The other columns you can just ignore, hide, or delete. Or even better: select those three columns, copy them, and paste them into a new spreadsheet.Auditing each asset request
With your pared-down spreadsheet, insert a new first column and label it “Purpose”. You can also include a Description/Comment column, if you wish.
Next, go down each row, line by line, and assign each asset request a purpose. I suggest something like the following:
- Content (e.g., the core HTML document, images, media—the stuff users care about)
- Analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, New Relic, etc.)
- Ads (e.g., Google DFP, any ad networks, etc.)
Your Purpose names can be whatever you want. What matters is that your labels for each purpose are consistent—capitalization and all. They need to group neatly in order to generate the fancy charts later. (Pro tip: use data validation on this column to ensure consistency in your spreadsheet.)
So how do you determine the purpose? Typically, the biggest clue is the “Host” column. You will, very quickly, start to recognize which hosts provide what. Your root URL will be where your document comes from, but you will also find:
- Analytics URLs like googletagservices.com, googletagmanager.com, google-analytics.com, or js-agent.newrelic.com.
- Ad URLs like doubleclick.net or googlesyndication.com.
If you’re ever unsure of a URL, either try it out yourself in your browser, or literally google the URL. (Hint: if you don’t recognize the URL right away, it’s most likely ad-related.)Mindfulness
Just doing the steps above will likely be eye-opening for you. Stopping to consider each asset on a page, and why it’s there, will help you be mindful of every single thing the page loads.
You may be in for some surprises the first time you do this. A few unexpected items might turn up. A script might be loaded more than once. That social widget might be a huge page weight. Requests coming from ads might be more numerous than you thought. That’s why I suggested a Description/Comment column—you can make notes there like “WTF?” and “Can we remove this?”Augmenting your data
Before you can generate fancy pie charts, you’ll need to do a little more spreadsheet wrangling. Forewarned is forearmed—extreme spreadsheet nerdery lies ahead.
First, you need to translate the request sizes to kilobytes (KB), because they are initially supplied in bytes, and no human speaks in terms of bytes. Next to the column “Object Size,” insert another column called “Object Size (KB).” Then enter a formula in the first cell, something like this:=E2/1000
Translation: you’re simply dividing the amount in the cell from the previous column (E2, in this case) by 1000. You can highlight this new cell, then drag the corner down the entire column to do the same for each row.Totaling requests
Now, to figure out how many HTTP requests are related to each Purpose, you need to do a special kind of count. Insert two more columns, one labeled “Purpose Labels” and the second “Purpose Reqs.” Under Purpose Labels, in the first row, enter this formula:=SORT(UNIQUE(B2:B),1,TRUE)
This assumes that your purpose assessment is column B. If it’s not, swap out the “B” in this example for your column name. This formula will go down column B and output a result if it’s unique. You only need to enter this in the first cell of the column. This is one reason why having consistency in the Purpose column is important.
Now, under the second column you made (Purpose Reqs) in the first cell, enter this formula:=ARRAYFORMULA(COUNTIF(B2:B,G2:G))
This formula will also go down column B, and do a count if it matches with something in column G (assuming column G is your Purpose Labels column). This is the easiest way to total how many HTTP requests fall into each purpose.Totaling download size by purpose
Finally, you can now also total the data (in KB) for each purpose. Insert one more column and call it Purpose Download Size. In the first cell, insert the following formula:=SUM(FILTER($F$2:F,$B$2:B=G2))
This will total the data size in column F if its purpose in column B matches G2 (i.e., your first Purpose Label from the section above). In contrast to the last two formulas, you’ll need to copy this formula and modify it for each row, making the last part (“G2”) match the row it’s on. In this case, the next one would end in “G3”.Make with the fancy charts
With your assets grouped by purpose, data translated to KB, number of requests counted, and download size totaled, it will be pretty easy to generate some charts.The HTTP request chart
To make an HTTP request chart, select the columns Purpose Label and Purpose Reqs (columns G and H in my example), and then go to Insert > Chart. Scroll down the list of possible charts, and choose a pie chart. Be sure to check the box marked “Use column G as labels.”
Under the “Customization” tab, edit the Title to say “HTTP Requests”; under “Slice,” be sure “Value” is selected (the default is “Percentage”). We do this because the number of requests is what you want to convey here.
Go ahead—tweak the colors to your liking. And ditch Arial while you’re at it.Download-size chart
The download-size-by-purpose pie chart is very similar. Select the columns Purpose Label and Purpose Download Size (columns G & I in my example); then go to Insert > Chart. Scroll down the list of possible charts and choose a pie chart. Be sure to check the box marked “Use column G as labels”.
Under the “Customization” tab, edit the Title to say “Download Size”; under “Slice,” be sure “Value” is selected as well. We do this so we can indicate the total KB for each purpose.
Or, you can grab a ready-made template. If you want to see a completed assessment, check out the one I did on an A List Apart article. I’ve also made a blank file with a lot of the trickier spreadsheet stuff already done. Feel free to go to File > Make a Copy so you can play around with it. You just need to get your page data from WebPagetest and paste in the three columns. After that, you can start your line-by-line assessment.Telling the good from the bad
If you show your data to a stakeholder, they may be surprised by how much page weight goes to things like ads or analytics. On the other hand, they might respond by asking what we should be aiming for. That question is a little harder to answer.
Some benchmarks get bandied about—1 MB or less, a WebPagetest Score of 1000, a Google PageSpeed score of over 90, and so on. But those are very arbitrary parameters and, depending on your project, unattainable ideals.
My suggestion? Do an assessment like this on your competitors. If you can come back to your stakeholders and show how two or three competitors stack up, and show them what you’re doing, that will go much further in championing performance.
Remember that performance is never “done”—it can only improve. What might help your organization is doing assessments like this over time and presenting page performance as an ongoing series of bar charts. With a little effort (and luck), you should be able to demonstrate that the things your organization cares about are continually improving. If not, it will present a much more compelling case for why things need to change for the better.So you have some pretty charts. Now what?
Your charts’ usefulness will vary according to the precise business needs and politics of your organization.
For instance, let’s say you’re a developer, and a project manager asks you to add yet another ad-metrics script to your site. After completing an assessment like the one above, you might be able to come back and say, “Ads already constitute 40 percent of our page weight. Do you really want to pile on more?”
Because you’ve ascribed purpose to your asset requests, you’ll be able to offer data like that. I once worked with a project manager who started pushing back on such requests because I was able to give them easy-to-understand data of this sort. I’m not saying it will always turn out this way, but you need to give decision makers information they can grasp.
Remember, too, that you are in charge of the Purpose column. You can make up any purpose you want. Interested in the impact that movie files have on your site relative to everything else? Make one of your purposes “Movies.” Want to call out framework files versus files you personally author? Go for it!
I hope that this article has made you want to consider, and reconsider, each and every thing you download on a given page. Each and every request. And, in the process of doing this, I hope you are equipped to call out by purpose every item you ask your users to download. That will allow you to talk with your stakeholders in a way that they understand, and will help you make the case for better performance choices.
A note from the editors: As a community, we can learn so much from discovering what other developers are doing around the world. We encourage everyone to participate in this very brief survey created by Jens Oliver Meiert. Jens will share the results—and an updated guide to web maintainability based on the findings—in a few weeks.
How often do we consider the maintenance and general maintainability of our websites and apps? What steps do we actively take to make and keep them maintainable? What stands in the way when we maintain our and other people’s projects?
Many of us, as web developers, know very well how to code something. But whether we know just as well how to maintain what we—and others—have written, that is not so clear. Our bosses and clients may not always think about maintenance down the road, either.
As an O’Reilly author and former Googler, I’ve been studying the topic of maintainability since 2008—and we have yet to gather our industry’s views on the subject. To help us all get a better picture of how we maintain and how we can maintain more effectively, I set up a brief, unassuming survey (announcement) and kindly ask for your assistance.
The survey aims to collect specific practices and resources—in other words, your views on current practices (both useful and harmful) and everything you find helpful:
- What helps maintenance?
- What prevents maintenance?
- What resources do developers turn to for improving maintainability?
A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Chris Noessel's new book, Designing Agentive Technology, AI That Works for People, available now from Rosenfeld Media. For a limited time, ALA readers can get 20% off Chris's book by using the code 'ALADAT' on the Rosenfeld Media site.
Similar to intelligence, agency can be thought of as a spectrum. Some things are more agentive than others. Is a hammer agentive? No. I mean if you want to be indulgently philosophical, you could propose that the metal head is acting on the nail per request by the rich gestural command the user provides to the handle. But the fact that it’s always available to the user’s hand during the task means it’s a tool—that is, part of the user’s attention and ongoing effort.
Less philosophically, is an internet search an example of an agent? Certainly the user states a need, and the software rummages through its internal model of the internet to retrieve likely matches. This direct cause-and-effect means that it’s more like the hammer with its practically instantaneous cause-and-effect. Still a tool.
But as you saw before, when Google lets you save that search, such that it sits out there, letting you pay attention to other things, and lets you know when new results come in, now you’re talking about something that is much more clearly acting on behalf of its user in a way that is distinct from a tool. It handles tasks so that you can use your limited attention on something else. So this part of “acting on your behalf”—that it does its thing while out of sight and out of mind—is foundational to the notion of what an agent is, why it’s new, and why it’s valuable. It can help you track something you would find tedious, like a particular moment in time, or a special kind of activity on the internet, or security events on a computer network.
To do any of that, an agent must monitor some stream of data. It could be something as simple as the date and time, or a temperature reading from a thermometer, or it could be something unbelievably complicated, like watching for changes in the contents of the internet. It could be data that is continuous, like wind speed, or irregular, like incoming photos. As it watches this data stream, it looks for triggers and then runs over some rules and exceptions to determine if and how it should act. Most agents work indefinitely, although they could be set to run for a particular length of time or when any other condition is met. Some agents like a spam filter will just keep doing their job quietly in the background. Others will keep going until they need your attention, and some will need to tell you right away. Nearly all will let you monitor them and the data stream, so you can check up on how they’re doing and see if you need to adjust your instructions.
So those are the basics. Agentive technology watches a datastream for triggers and then responds with narrow artificial intelligence to help its user accomplish some goal. In a phrase, it’s a persistent, background assistant.
If those are the basics, there are a few advanced features that a sophisticated agent might have. It might infer what you want without your having to tell it explicitly. It might adapt machine learning methods to refine its predictive models. It might gently fade away in smart ways such that the user gains competence. You’ll learn about these in Part II, “Doing,” of this book, but for now it’s enough to know that agents can be much smarter than the basic definition we’ve established here.How Different Are Agents?
Since most of the design and development process has been built around building good tools, it’s instructive to compare and contrast them to good agents—because they are different in significant ways.Table 2.1: Comparing Mental Models A Tool-Based Model An Agent-Based Model A good tool lets you do a task well. A good agent does a task for you per your preferences. A hammer might be the canonical model. A valet might be the canonical model. Design must focus on having strong affordances and real-time feedback. Design must focus on easy setup and informative touchpoints. When it’s working, it’s ready-to-hand, part of the body almost unconsciously doing its thing. When the agent is working, it’s out of sight. When a user must engage its touchpoints, they require conscious attention and consideration. The goal of the designer is often to get the user into flow (in the Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi sense) while performing a task. The goal of the designer is to ensure that the touchpoints are clear and actionable, to help the user keep the agent on track. Drawing a Boundary Around Agentive Technology
To make a concept clear, you need to assert a definition, give examples, and then describe its boundaries. Some things will not be worth considering because they are obviously in; some things will not be worth considering because they are obviously out; but the interesting stuff is at the boundary, where it’s not quite clear. What is on the edge of the concept, but specifically isn’t the thing? Reviewing these areas should help you get clear about what I mean by agentive technology and what lies beyond the scope of my consideration.It’s Not Assistive Technology
Artificial narrow intelligences that help you perform a task are best described as assistants, or assistive technology. We need to think as clearly about assistive tech as we do agentive tech, but we have a solid foundation to design assistive tech. We have been working on those foundations for the last seven decades or so, and recent work with heads-up displays and conversational UI are making headway into best practices for assistants. It’s worth noting that the design of agentive systems will often entail designing assistive aspects, but they are not the same thing.
It seems subtle at first, but consider the difference between two ways to get an international airline ticket to a favorite destination. Assistive technology would work to make all your options and the trade-offs between them apparent, helping you avoid spending too much money or winding up with a miserable, five-layover flight, as you make your selection. An agent would vigilantly watch all airline offers for the right ticket and pipe up when it had found one already within your preferences. If it was very confident and you had authorized it, it might even have made the purchase for you.It’s Not Conversational Agents
“Agent” has been used traditionally in services to mean “someone who helps you.” Think of a customer service agent. The help they give you is, 99 percent of the time, synchronous. They help you in real time, in person, or on the phone, doing their best to minimize your wait. In my mind, this is much more akin to an assistant. But even that’s troubling since “assistant” has also been used to mean “that person who helps me at my job” both synchronously—as in “please take dictation”—and agentively—as in “hold all my calls until further notice.”
These blurry usages are made even blurrier because human agents and assistants can act in both agentive and assistive ways. But since I have to pick, given the base meanings of the words, I think an assistant should assist you with a task, and an agent takes agency and does things for you. So “agent” and “agentive” are the right terms for what I’m talking about.
Complicating that rightness is that a recent trend in interaction design is the use of conversational user interfaces, or chatbots. These are distinguished for having users work in a command line interface inside a chat framework, interacting with software that is pretty good at understanding and responding to natural language. Canonical examples feature users purchasing airline tickets (yes, like a travel agent) or movie tickets.
Because these mimic the conversations one might have with a customer service agent, they have been called conversational agents. I think they would be better described as conversational assistants, but nobody asked me, and now it’s too late. That ship has sailed. So, when I speak of agents, I am not talking about conversational agents. Agentive technology might engage its user through a conversational UI, but they are not the same thing.It’s Not Robots
No. But holy processor do we love them. From Metropolis’ Maria to BB8 and even GLaDoS, we just can’t stop talking and thinking about them in our narratives.
A main reason I think this is the case is because they’re easy to think about. We have lots of mental equipment for dealing with humans, and robots can be thought of as a metal-and-plastic human. So between the abstraction that is an agent, and the concrete thing that is a robot, it’s easy to conflate the two. But we shouldn’t.
Another reason is that robots promise—as do agents—“ethics-free” slave labor (please note the irony marks, and see Chapter 12 “Utopia, Dystopia, and Cat Videos” for plenty of ethical questions). In this line of thinking, agents work for us, like slaves, but we don’t have to concern ourselves about their subservience or even subjugation the same way we must consider a human, because the agents and robots are programmed to be of service. There is no suffering sentience there, no longing to be free. For example, if you told your Nest Thermostat to pursue its dreams, it should rightly reply that its dream is to keep you comfortable year round. Programming it for anything else might frustrate the user, and if it is a general artificial intelligence, be cruel to the agent.
Of course, robots will have software running them, which if they are to be useful, will be at times agentive. But while our expectations are that the robot’s agent stays in place, coupled as we are to a body, that’s not necessarily the case with an agent. For example, my health agent may reside on my phone for the most part, but tap into my bathroom scale when I step on it, parley with the menu when I’m at a restaurant, pop onto the crosstrainer at the gym, and jump to the doctor’s augmented reality system when I’m in her office. So while a robot may house agentive technology, and an agent may sometimes occupy a given robot, these two elements are not tightly coupled.It’s Not Service by Software
I actually think this is a very useful way to think about agentive tech: service delivered by smart software. If you have studied service design, then you have a good grounding in the user-centered issues around agentive design. Users often grant agency to services to act on their behalf. For example, I grant the mail service agency to deliver letters on my behalf and agree to receive letters from others. I grant my representative in government agency to legislate on my behalf. I grant the human stock portfolio manager agency to do right by my retirement. I grant the anesthesiologist agency to keep me knocked out while keeping me alive, even though I may never meet her.
But where a service delivers its value through humans working directly with the user or delivering the value “backstage,” out of sight, an agent’s backstage is its programming and the coordination with other agents. In practice, sophisticated agents may entail human processes, but on balance, if it’s mostly software, it’s an agent rather than a service. And where a service designer can presume the basic common senses and capabilities of any human in its design, those things need to be handled much differently when we’re counting on software to deliver the same thing.It’s Not Automation
If you are a distinguished, long-time student of human-computer interaction, you will note similar themes from the study of automation and what I’m describing. But where automation has as its goal the removal of the human from the system, agentive technology is explicitly in service to a human. An agent might have some automated components, but the intentions of the two fields of study are distinct.Hey Wait—Isn’t Every Technology an Agent?
Hello, philosopher. You’ve been waiting to ask this question, haven’t you? A light switch, you might argue, acts as an agent, monitoring a data stream that is the position of the knife switch. And when that switch changes, it turns the light on or off, accordingly.
Similarly, a key on a keyboard watches its momentary switch and when it is depressed, helpfully sends a signal to a small processor on the keyboard to translate the press to an ASCII code that gets delivered to the software that accumulates these codes to do something with them. And it does it all on your behalf. So are keys agents? Are all state-based machines? Is it turtles all the way down?
Yes, if you want to be philosophical about it, that argument could be made. But I’m not sure how useful it is. A useful definition of agentive technology is less of a discrete and testable aspect of a given technology, and more of a productive way for product managers, designers, users, and citizens to think about this technology. For example, I can design a light switch when I think of it as a product, subject to industrial design decisions. But I can design a better light switch when I think of it as a problem that can be solved either manually with a switch or agentively with a motion detector or a camera with sophisticated image processing behind it. And that’s where the real power of the concept comes from. Because as we continue to evolve this skin of technology that increasingly covers both our biology and the world, we don’t want it to add to people’s burdens. We want to alleviate them and empower people to get done what needs to be done, even if we don’t want to do it. And for that, we need agents.
It’s not breaking news to say that the core of UX, in a vacuum, is talking to your users to gather insights and then applying that information to your designs. But it’s equally true that UX does not happen in a vacuum. So what happens when you don’t have the budget or the timeline to run user tests, card sorts, or stakeholder interviews? What should you do when your company doesn’t want you bothering the paying customers who use their software? In short, how do you do UX research when you can’t get direct access to your users?
While the best methods for gathering user insights entail first-hand research, there are other ways to quickly glean qualitative data about your users’ wants and needs—beyond the usual lightweight guerrilla user testing options.
For a start, companies that are new or have a smaller digital footprint can benefit from things like forums or even competitor reviews to get a better sense of the users in their industry vertical. And for more established companies, customer service logs and app reviews can be invaluable for learning what users think about specific products. Let’s check out a few techniques I like to recommend.App reviews
- Is the user simply disgruntled or are they asking for a tangible feature to be added to the product?
- Is the user truly thrilled with some aspect of her experience using the app or is she just a brand loyalist?
While reviews do tend to be rather partisan, keep in mind that users are most likely to leave feedback when motivated by an emotional reaction to the product. Emotionally-driven reviews—whether positive or negative—tend to be outliers on the bell curve, so the next step is taking all those reviews and distilling them into tangible insights. Let’s face it, when you want to improve the featureset and functionality, a general reaction to the entirety of an app doesn’t tend to be particularly actionable. Here are a few questions I always start with:
- Are there missing features users want to see?
- Do users seem confused by aspects of the UI?
- Are they complaining about bugs or performance issues that are popping up and making the app unusable?
- Do people really love a hidden feature that was put in as an afterthought with minimal prominence—something we should consider placing more front and center?
- Does it seem like people understand how to use the app or do they need a tutorial on first open?
Also, it’s important to remember that feedback on an iOS app may or may not be applicable to an Android app (or mobile web experience), and vice versa.Customer service logs
Customer service and help center personnel are on the front lines with your users, helping them with specific struggles they encounter with the usability of your products. In other words, they’re constantly learning how users see the product and go about using it.
Since user information can be sensitive, the first thing to try is asking whether service calls and contacts are being logged. If so, ask whether it’s possible to get access to the records for user research purposes. If there are no logs, or if you are unable to get access to them, see if a few brief stakeholder interviews with customer service team members is an option. Use the interviews to learn which types of problems and complaints they routinely field.
Given the nature of customer service and the purpose of help centers, it’s likely that much of the feedback will be negative. Even so, these logs can still provide excellent data. In particular, the feedback can help illuminate policies and business practices that are creating a negative user experience, not to mention identify the points at which they occur during the user journey. And remember, your user experience is about more than just the design of your app and website.Contact form emails
“Contact Us” forms and messages can be rich with direct input from your users. Obviously, the first things to look for are complaints about an aspect of the site itself. For example, are users struggling to find a feature or getting confused by a certain page on the site? Beyond that, the forms themselves can relate to aspects of the user journey that are problematic.
If a brand or company does not have this feature for gathering site visitors’ opinions, it’s relatively easy to add a contact form, in terms of development effort. However, it’s important to note that if you have a contact form on your site, someone should be actively monitoring it and responding to users.Industry forums
While the likes of Reddit and 4Chan have given the world of online forums some questionable connotations, the truth is that many online forums are also excellent sources of information about how digital products are operating in the wild, and how specific products and trends as a whole are influencing users. The research insights might be less obvious, but they’re easy to spot if you’re looking for them.
A look at the Apple TV Apps section of Mac Rumors reveals that many users of the 4th generation Apple TV have a problem with the YouTube app not fading out video titles when a video is playing. Similarly, a brief review of the Delta Airlines thread on FlyerTalk shows that users have questions about everything from Economy Plus seating to the Delta and American Express credit card. Reviewing this information could help Delta retool the content strategy and information architecture of their mobile app to address questions more clearly.
Many forums are industry specific, and therefore not applicable to every situation. There are just as many out there, however, that specialize in spanning numerous industries. Ars Technica covers virtually any sort of traditional tech product. For video games, IGN offers helpful feedback from players about everything from game length and storyline to controls. For nutrition and exercise, Bodybuilding.com’s BodySpace forum is a top online destination for users to discuss nutrition and exercise. Of course, not every forum offers in-depth discussions regarding specific apps, websites, or even companies, but each provides great sources of information about what motivates and interests consumers in that industry vertical.
Multi-topic forums can be searched for company- or product-specific threads. Reddit (despite its aforementioned reputation) features thriving, engaged communities of actual users talking about topics of value. Quora offers an almost scholarly approach to the format, with many users possessing strong subject matter credentials to validate their expertise.Reviews of competitors
Perhaps your brand or product is new in the market and there’s not yet enough data from any of these sources to be actionable. So what then? Find out what your potential users have to say about the competition. If you want to launch a car service, see what users say about Lyft and Uber on the App Store. Want to improve Jet? Read reviews of Amazon Prime. Do you work for InstaCart? Find out what users have to say about Fresh Direct.In summary
There’s still no substitute for actually talking to your user base, whether that’s initial research in the form of stakeholder interviews or testing design iterations, but even when that’s not an option, there’s no excuse for not gathering feedback from your users.
Good UX design should always be based on user insights, not assumptions about best practices or what might translate from other products and industries. So go find out what your users are saying. From Yelp! to Glassdoor to App Store Reviews, consumers are readily sharing their opinions about businesses of every size, in every industry.
With consumer expectations growing year after year, high quality web design and development services are in top demand. If you want to be the one to deliver those high-end results, then you’ll need to focus on playing to your strengths and be comfortable entrusting everything else to others.
Like many of us, you’re probably so occupied by managing the day-to-day and maintaining the base of clients you currently have that you don’t have the time or resources to build your web design or development business out to the next level.Why “no pain, no gain” has no place in web design
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from working as a project and content manager is that there are times when it just doesn’t make sense to take on a task or project that’s not a good fit.
I’ve seen developers struggle with marketing their business when they barely have enough time to complete their own workload.
I’ve seen web designers hire on supplemental designers (such as video designers and animators), only to lose those new hires just as quickly as they got them because they couldn’t manage the payroll aspect properly.
I’ve even seen administrative assistants given the responsibility of loading content into a CMS and, on top of that, being asked to optimize it for search despite a lack of training.
While I’ve seen this problem crop up with management of medium and large-sized businesses, I think it’s much more prevalent with small business owners and independent entrepreneurs. When you think about how much of your life (personally and professionally) is wrapped up in your business, it seems to make sense to think that by consolidating tasks, cutting corners, or just taking it all on yourself, you’ll save money and time.
Here’s the problem with that sort of thinking: it’s a dangerous and highly inefficient way to conduct business when you work in web design. No matter the size of our business, we rely on proven processes and techniques to ensure that what we create is always of the highest quality. Let’s face it, we are specialists, and diluting our offering by trying to do everything isn’t fair to our clients or ourselves.
My suggestion? Let more qualified people or tools tackle the “stuff” that forces you to slow down, lose productivity, and create something less than what your clients deserve. Sure, it’s scary to think about how much it will cost to outsource your accounting, your SEO, or anything else that isn’t in your wheelhouse. But think about how much momentum and overall quality of work you lose whenever you let that fear take over. I say: focus on what you do best, outsource the rest, and be happily surprised when you see how much your business soars as a result.
In a recent interview about the cost of doing business, Jeremy Goldman of the Firebrand Group argued that in order for business owners (or any entrepreneurs really) to succeed, they must be willing to accept when they’re not great at something.
Once you accept that you’re a bad fit for some tasks, you leave yourself more time to pursue the tasks you’re good at (or want to get better at). Outsourcing may result in additional costs upfront, but if you’re handing those tasks over to someone or something that can handle them more efficiently, I’d argue that you’ll save money in the long run. First, because the outsourced party will spend less time completing a task than it would have taken you. And second, because the investment frees you up to succeed at what you do, which, in turn, is where the real revenue-generating opportunities are.
The key to embracing this is through understanding your operations thoroughly, so you know what can be streamlined or outsourced. Start with an assessment of where your business currently is and where you want it to go. This will tell you exactly how you need to scale, and direct you toward the right forms of outsourcing and assistance.
Before you do anything else, assess your current business model.
- Outline your entire process, starting with customer acquisition and ending with the close of each project. Identify areas that can be consolidated, broken up, or removed altogether.
- Conduct a review of last year’s work. Identify trends that resulted in positive outcomes. For instance, did a certain workflow always lead to a good profit margin? Or perhaps you found that certain types of clients or projects always led to positive results for you (profit wise) and for your client (conversion wise)? If you don’t have any data, you can seek out previous customers’ opinions to identify what worked and what did not.
- Review your current pricing structure (if you have one). Determine if there are any particular areas of your operation that cost more money, or bring in less profit, than they should. Establish your ideal pipeline today. Figure out how many projects you can simultaneously work on, as well as how long each turnaround should be.
Then, answer the following questions regarding where you expect your business to be in five years:
- Will you offer the same services? More? Fewer? Different?
- Will you specialize in services for a specific industry?
- What will your role in the company be?
- How large do you expect your client base to be?
- How many employees would you like to have?
- How much will your services be worth?
Finally, make a list of what is needed to take you from where you are today to where you want to be in five years. If you’re unsure of what exactly you need, or if you want to make the process easier on yourself, keep reading.
Want to be more efficient? First things first then: take a closer look at the tasks that fall outside your wheelhouse. These are the ones that distract from your primary goal and that consume too much of your valuable time. By saying “no” to those tasks and finding ways to offload them to someone else, you’ll find that the costs associated with them end up being negligible after a while.
The following recommendations are some of the more affordable, practical, and commonly outsourced and automated areas of web design I’ve been privy to. I’ve also included a number of tools you can use for each that will grow as your business does.
There’s no doubt that technology plays a big part in the scaling of a business. That being said, most automation still requires human supervision and maintenance. While you may not be ready to hire full-time staff at the moment (or even in the near future), you’ll want to start considering what team members you’ll need in order to reach your goals.
One of the best ways to scale your team is to employ freelance or contract workers. This enables you to:
- Pay only for the work you need.
- Offload some of your work for an affordable rate.
- Test out new team members without the commitment of hiring full-time.
- Expand your service offerings to clients on an as-needed basis.
- Freelance job sites like Freelancer.com, Upwork, Toptal, and Guru are always a good place to start. They cost a bit of money to use (in addition to freelancer costs), but I’m a fan of them since they offer a relatively low-risk way to test out new talent without the serious commitment of hiring.
- You’re most likely already familiar with Envato for its theme and plugin Market as well as for its Tuts+ tutorials, but did you know they also have a freelance hiring Studio?
- Twitter and LinkedIn have also proven to be good platforms for finding freelance talent (especially if you have a solid follower base).
This isn’t one of the more popular avenues I’ve seen web design companies pursue in terms of outsourcing, but I still think it’s one worth mentioning. If you think about it, there are a number of items competing for your attention on a regular basis:
- Your daily workload.
- Clients and prospects reaching out with questions and comments. Everything related to your employees or contractors (HR, productivity, process improvement, etc.).
- Finance management.
- Marketing your business and services.
- And more
So, when do you find time to turn your attention away from the “right here, right now” stuff and look toward finding new clients so you can expand your business and make more money? If your answer is “the weekend,” then something’s wrong. Every time you add more hours to your work week, you lose money and overall efficiency.
This is where recruiters come in handy. You find someone that’s reliable, that you trust, and then you outsource the task of finding more work to them. These experts are incredibly valuable business partners who know how to sniff out those right-fit clients without breaking a sweat, while leaving you to focus on your real work.
- I’d suggest you start by signing with a creative staffing agency like Vitamin T. You’ll have the flexibility of searching for and applying to work with clients, or you can work directly with one of their representatives.
- SuperBooked aren’t recruiters, per se, but they instead help you leverage the power of your personal network to help you find clients more easily.
- Want something more comprehensive where you have access to training, career coaching, and someone who takes care of your paperwork? Hired would be a great solution in that case!
Word of mouth is a great way to get more business—especially if you have a niche or specialty. But referrals will only get you so far. You’ll eventually need to actively market your brand to prospective customers. With most of your time dedicated to the actual work that makes you money, how can you make time for cultivating relationships with potential clients?
At some point, you’ll be able to hire a marketing team to handle all these matters. In the meantime, you’ll need customer relationship management (CRM) software to tide you over. These tools typically offer a variety of marketing and sales functions, including:
- Lead collection and management.
- Sales opportunity tracking.
- Revenue pipeline predictions and planning.
- Contact reminders.
- Email templates.
Eventually, you’ll need to become more active on social media and invest in paid marketing opportunities. For now, though, get yourself a tool that will help you build relationships with prospects and customers.
- Insightly is a fairly easy-to-use CRM platform, as is ZohoCRM (see note about that below). Both of these also integrate with the Ninja Forms plugin, which makes syncing up WordPress website forms with your CRM easier.
- If you want a simpler solution that focuses more on collecting leads from newsletters or blog signups, I’d suggest either Constant Contact or MailChimp.
As a web designer or developer, you know that working with a reliable content management system can do wonders for your workflow. Then you get into a platform like WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal, or Perch Runway, and you recognize it’s the extensibility of these platforms that truly make them such valuable tools.
Using a CMS out of the box is a good start, but it’s not enough. Your business toolbox should include the most commonly used CMS tools, such as design templates as well as extensions. They were created to help users—novice, intermediate, and advanced—more easily and quickly build websites.
If you’re reading this, then you’re aware of this already. What you might not be doing, however, is taking advantage of the plethora of memberships available. By signing up for one of these, you get instant access to a wide range of high-performance tools that help you build better websites, and in less time.
- Considering that 27.3 percent of the world’s websites run on WordPress, you can start there. Some of the more popular WordPress memberships are offered by Elegant Themes, StudioPress, and WooThemes.
- WPMU DEV is also a good one to consider if you need high-performance plugins.
- I’d also suggest you look into CodeCanyon, if you haven’t already. While they’re not necessarily a membership site, having so many high-quality plugins in one place is an attractive and convenient option.
As a web developer, you may not be too excited when clients ask if you offer ongoing management or maintenance for their website. Yet, you might feel a little guilty in not offering these services, since you know there’s a good likelihood your clients won’t know about adding security, optimizing speed, making backups, or keeping the core platform and tools up to date.
If you’re not comfortable with ongoing management of your client’s website, you can still offer it as an upgrade; only, you’ll hire an expert to manage it for you. Managed hosting providers do just that. This is a great way to upsell your clients and make a decent markup without increasing your workload.
If this is something you’d rather not get involved with just now, you can always work with a low-maintenance CMS like Squarespace that doesn’t require much in the way of ongoing management. Remember: this is your business. It’s up to you how you want to run it and what sort of services you want to offer.
Whatever you choose, be sure you’re working with the best provider for your needs (especially if you generally work in one CMS). They should offer a variety of packages based on business type and size, too, as this will enable you to scale your services as your needs grow.
- For WordPress, I’d suggest you take a look at Pagely or WPEngine.
- SiteGround offers both WordPress and Joomla managed hosting.
- AHosting and RoseHosting both have some of the more robust CMS managed hosting offerings I’ve seen, so give them a try if you want to provide more coverage options.
Although it may not seem like something you need right now, a workflow and collaboration platform should be part of your business from the very start. As a business owner, you need to have a centralized hub where you can:
- Store documentation.
- Generate and save templates to streamline communication with clients, ensure consistency in project output and deliverables, and provide clear guidance to team members.
- Manage project workflows through a series of checklists.
- Gather files.
- Communicate with clients.
- Collaborate with team members.
- Track time spent on projects.
If your business is design-focused and QA-heavy, it’s ideal that you find a project management tool that includes wireframing and/or prototyping functionality.
- Basecamp is one of the more popular project management tools I’ve used, but its cost makes it a better choice for agencies.
- Asana is my personal favorite—something I use in my everyday work as well as personal scheduling. I’d suggest using this one for creating checklists, communicating with team members, and managing timelines.
- InVision is a good pick, especially because it includes prototyping, wireframing, and collaboration, which is essential to web design work.
How much time do you currently spend drawing up contracts, writing invoices, tracking payments, and managing your taxes? As your business grows, the amount of work you do to manage these administrative areas will increase, too. Rather than spend your time focusing on the numbers, use accounting software to take most of the guesswork out of it (especially until you have a need for a full-time accountant).
In addition, you can employ certain techniques that will help you get the tasks out of your head and into a systematized process and actionable checklist. I’d also suggest you take this assessment to determine whether you should even be handling any accounting tasks for your business in the first place. This may just be one of those responsibilities that make more sense in the hands of someone else.
- I’m a big fan of QuickBooks, not only because of how easy it is to use, but because it integrates with so many different programs and decreases the overall amount of work I need to do.
- Zoho is another great tool to check out. I like this one because you can manage your finances and invoices, and also use it as a customer relationship management tool.
- For anyone just starting out, I’d suggest giving Wave a try. It’s free to use and is a good platform to help you ease into finance management.
At the end of the day, you need to focus on what you do best. Time spent doing anything else is an unnecessary drain on you and your business.
If you’re looking to grow your business, it’s time to consider how you can most efficiently scale it. Review what you currently have. Then look to these tools to bring more order, control, and consistency to your operations.
Attracting future clients on autopilot—that’s the whole point of your website, right? Most freelancers accept the story that great work attracts leads, but I’m going to be straight with you: clients have no clue you exist. What usually tips the balance isn’t your portfolio—they see plenty of those.
Not many people talk about failures they had promoting their products and services. We struggle and we hide it. It’s one of the reasons I hate to read marketing “success stories” and “How to drive traffic and make money!” posts—they seem hollow and vaguely manipulative. They also invariably circle around an answer we already know: The key to attracting non-referral clients is making it easy for them to discover you.
Simple as that is, we fail for two reasons:
- Most freelancer websites are only concerned with showing portfolio work.
- We haven’t figured out who we want as clients, what makes them tick, or how they solve problems.
We’re focused on showing, not serving.
Serving hits the ground running—it answers a question, solves a problem, satisfies a curiosity. There’s a difference between saying you will and proving it with a real takeaway during the first impression. Portfolio-focused sites also don’t give Google much content to index and rank, lessening your chances of ever getting high in organic search results, much less on their radar.
Designers are “supposed” to do certain things to find clients. Well, I did all that, for years. And I had a pretty depressing success rate, considering how much time I put into it. Then I tried one thing that single-handedly turned around my freelance career. I started blogging with clients in mind.Do it your way
Let me tell you about Brian Dean.
Brian Dean of Backlinko gets 130,000 monthly uniques. Want know how many articles he has on his blog—in total?
30. That’s right, 30.
Readers aren’t coming because he publishes frequently—they’re coming because he writes about what they want to know and because every piece he’s got is the best on that given subject, hands down! He keeps visitors coming back to the same posts because he’s constantly improving the material little by little to ensure it’s always the best that’s out there.
As people come across it—web professionals, curious readers, and potential clients—it’s building up his reputation and making it easier for people to find him via search and re-shared content links.
You don’t have to write regularly. Or much. And you don’t need an industry-rocking idea. With your expertise, you have what it takes to say something that other people consider valuable.
The key to success is making a target, then sticking it out for a few rounds of research + content creation + promotion to start. The more posts/articles you create, the more properties you have on the Monopoly board called Google. Having a few widely shared articles also kicks off a virtuous loop where all your subsequent articles get a jump start from your existing traffic. This approach is repeatable and scaleable.
(One quick heads-up: you can also expect your content to attract the “wrong type” of visitors, such as recruiters and people looking to hire someone for low-end, piecemeal work. It’s possible to turn these inquiries into opportunities by politely refusing their offer and asking if they know anyone who is seeking the type of work you do provide.)Pre-planning your content
As you know, Google determines how high your page ranks for certain search terms based on factors like:
- Whether your page content is relevant to the search term
- How many other quality, relevant sites link to your page
- How well-made readers think your content is (i.e. how long do people spend reading your content).
Translating that, your goals are to:
- Create content that is relevant to search terms visitors use
- Create high quality content that invites re-links and social shares
- Ensure that time-on-site for the specific piece of content is high.
It may feel a bit unnatural to create content around ranking well on Google, but you’re actually just creating a really valuable article that answers all possible questions a reader is most likely to have about that topic.Know what matters to clients
Instead of randomly choosing a topic, it helps to be a bit strategic. After all, it’s a way to get discovered by the right people.
First, know—and learn how to write for—your intended audience. Almost any topic about your field would interest fellow professionals. But let’s recall, who is it you want to attract, first and foremost? Clients. So how do you find out what they’re searching for?
When I started doing this, I began by listing questions a new client typically asks, such as:
- How much do your services cost?
- How does your [service] process work?
To see the types of questions business owners and entrepreneurs ask most often, take a look at community sites where they hang out (Fig. 1). Good ones include:
Based on the questions you find, you could brainstorm three topic ideas that relate to each one, or even split larger topics into separate articles. For example, instead of writing one giant piece on how much web design services cost, write about one service in each post, such as:
- How much does a landing page cost?
- How much does custom website cost?
They should be written in the style of a comprehensive educational guide that teaches the visitor everything they need to know about the topic.
- How much does logo design cost?
This article could cover:
- The reason rates vary so much among designers
- The different types of designers they can hire (freelancer, agency, etc.)
- A description of the creative process for designing a logo.
Now that you’ve settled on a topic, it’s time to create a comprehensive leave-no-stone-unturned piece of content about it.
What’s “comprehensive”? It’s helpful to set a benchmark for yourself by researching other popular articles that have already been written about it. Use them as inspiration, then go and create an even better version. This both demonstrates your command of the topic and attracts links from relevant, high authority sites (which signals to Google that your site contains high quality content, triggering it to bump your page higher in the search results for those keywords).
A popular tool for doing this research is Ahrefs.
After you create an account, enter a topic you’re considering, then select “Traffic” in the Sorted by dropdown. (Fig. 2)Fig. 2: The filter screen on Ahrefs helps when narrowing down search results.
Here are some of the highest trafficked articles on “web development cost.” (Fig. 3)Fig. 3: Ahrefs search results after filters are set.
Analyze each article and write down every single point that’s covered. Your goal is to be just as good when it’s your time to address each one. You’ll then brainstorm at least five original or interesting angles they didn’t mention or tackle extensively. This “value add” is your selling point when the time comes to start promoting the piece.
Another way to dig deep is to learn more about the authors. For instance, how does their expertise differ from yours? This can help you catch things they didn’t cover. You can also pull up every article a specific author has written on a subject, such as this topic search for journalists and bloggers writing about “web development cost.” (Fig. 4)Fig. 4: Doing research on what other writers have published can help to determine subjects to pursue. Other effective ways to juice up your content Use compelling (and/or controversial) examples
Buttress each major point in your article with compelling (and if possible, controversial) case studies and examples.
For example, here’s an excellent analysis of the controversial logo design for the London 2012 Olympics (Fig. 5). It explains why (despite the negative public reaction) the versatility and instant recognizability of the logo actually make it an example of great identity work.Fig. 5: Analysis of the London 2012 Olympics logo design. Use visual assets with your article
Visual assets make your article easier to read by breaking up chunks of text. For images, choose ones that instantly convey the emotion or message of a major point you make (Fig. 6). For infographics, choose ones that visually illustrate and compare data or statistics you mention in the article. A good visual asset also attracts social shares.Fig. 6: Selecting images that instantly convey the emotion behind the message supports the point you want to make. Interview someone interesting (and influential)
Seek out people who can contribute an interesting insight or experience related to your topic. Not only does this add perspective to your article, you can ask this person to share the article with their audience (which may give you a nice traffic boost).Capture every question
Before you start writing, make a list of every single possible question someone could have about this topic. Based on your research of existing articles, also include details and angles they don’t.
For example, if you’re writing an article about logo cost, details and angles that many other articles miss are:
- Reasons why corporate logo designs cost so much
- The psychology behind how logos affect brand perception
- Conversion stats before and after logo redesigns
- Why negative public reactions don’t necessarily mean the logo design is bad.
Avoid losing potential clients who would have contacted you later—if they hadn’t forgotten. Add something encouraging them to act right away by making it a simple click, such as a call to action (CTA) banner in every article. (Fig. 7)Fig. 7: Use prompts that encourage users to take action or engage with additional content. Promoting your article the right way
Promoting your content may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to reframe that in your mind. Instead of “Marketing your content,” you’re “Helping people by educating and inspiring them with your well-researched, well-written information.”
Clients who don’t know about your site won’t magically enter your URL into their address bar—they have to discover you through some other source (other websites, search engines, social media). That’s why promotion and outreach are so important, and why it pays off to ask other sites to link to your content.
To kick off the first wave of traffic, it helps to win a few links and social shares. From there, the new people who discover your post may also link to or share it (which in turn boosts your article’s ranking on Google).
Let’s look at a few effective ways you can promote your content.Offer your actual article as a service
This is an old timer technique that still works amazingly well—one my very good friend and coach Brian Harris wrote about on his blog. I like to alter the technique just slightly, but here’s what to do:
Take the URL of one of the articles you found in the previous section (when you were choosing a topic to write about). Try to pick the one with the most shares.
Go to Buzzsumo and enter the URL to the article (use the 14-day free trial they offer to do this step).
In my case, I chose this SEO techniques article because I’m looking for clients who might be interested in my SEO consulting. (Fig. 8)Fig. 8: Research a URL on Buzzsumo to help generate article ideas.
Next, click the “View Shares” button to see a list of everyone who shared the post on Twitter. You can then click on the “Followers” filter at the top left to sort by users who have a sizable audience (i.e. enough money to pay you for a service). (Fig. 9)Fig. 9: Buzzsumo brings visibility to social sharing.
Now you have a list of people who have already shown an interest in the topic, you could reach out to them individually and see if they’d be interested in sharing yours, as well. The following example highlights a number of points.
Subject: Re: Brian’s article you shared
I’ve been following you since last January when I saw you share Brian Dean’s article on SEO techniques. Great article, I truly enjoyed it!
I couldn’t help but notice that it did not include how to convert the traffic you get from these techniques into actual leads. I’ve done SEO and lead nurturing work for 9+ years .
I just recently published a more comprehensive post on how to do everything Brian talks about as well as lead nurture and convert the traffic into actual leads, so I wanted to run this by you since you’re interested in the topic.
I took a look at Wordtastic <insert their company name here>—love the app. I checked and it looks like you get a decent amount of traffic.
I came up with three ways you can improve your calls to action to get more conversions every single day (based on Brian’s advice compiled with my article above)
Here is the link to the recommendations, a potential campaign, and some projected results once you implement this: [link to Google doc you put together that will blow their socks off]
Would love to help you guys implement some of these strategies.
I listed these community groups earlier, but it’s worth mentioning them twice:
Don’t just join—leave meaningful comments. If you do that, most groups will start to see you as a valued contributor and won’t bat an eye if you to post something that mentions your own content once in a while, like this example from a private entrepreneur group (Fig. 10)Fig. 10: Be courteous and tactful when contributing to groups.
When you do share, be sure to mention a few points you’ve covered that would be highly relevant and valuable to that community.
For example, if you write an article about web design, a business community may be most interested in how to evaluate web designers in order to find one that’s reliable. Conversely, a marketing community may be most interested in how to design funnels that convert more visitors into subscribers and customers.
You can also ask a question related to your article topic to kickstart a discussion, then offer to answer any questions a group member may have.Share your links with family and friends
The easiest, non-intrusive way to do this is by posting it on your Facebook feed. Add a description highlighting a few points a general audience would find interesting and worth the effort of clicks and likes.Add interesting visuals to illustrate your points
Add relevant illustrations and pictures throughout your article to break up the text and keep your visitors engaged. Bonus points: use relevant visuals from your own portfolio so it does double duty prettifying your article and showcasing your skills.Improve your search ranking with some SEO basics
Focus on one search keyword or phrase you want your article to rank for, then use different variations of it throughout your article, especially in your article headline and section headings.
Make sure your pages and articles load fast; you might consider caching your pages with something like CloudFlare (they offer a free plan) to speed up load time. (CloudFlare shows cached versions of your files and images so visitors don’t have to wait for them to load real-time from your servers.)Compile a list of relevant sites to ask for links
Remember how you looked up the most popular articles on Topic X? If you find out which sites link to those articles, why not ask them to link to your (much improved) version, too?!
Go to each site and find the names of either the site owner or, if it’s a company, the person in charge of marketing.
To find their email address, enter their site domain into AnyMailFinder or Email Hunter. These sites will tell you the most likely email format (for example: firstname.lastname@example.org). Based on the most common email format the site or company uses, you can “smart guess” the likely email of the person you wish to contact.
You can send them a personalized version of this template1 to ask if they may be interested in linking to your article:
I was searching for some articles about [Your topic] today and I came across yours: [URL]
I noticed that you link to [Article Title] - I just published something similar that [2 major points why it’s better]: [url of your article]
May be worth a mention on your page.
Either way, keep up the awesome work!
Remember that infographic I mentioned earlier, the one you could create to accompany your article? You can also ask some of the other sites you found in the Backlinks tab to include it in one of their existing or future articles and credit you (earning you a link this way).
Here’s the template link Luke from Pest Pro App used:
Hey [First Name],
I really liked your article on [relevant topic to your article]. Great stuff!
You actually inspired me to take this a step farther and create something even deeper.
I thought I’d reach out to you because I just published an infographic on [topic] and I thought it might interest you. It covers [list of major points, stats or facts.] It’s all based on research, and I have the sources to back it up.
Love to see if you may find it a good addition to your article.Promote it in relevant Facebook groups
If you develop websites (for example), find Facebook groups that discuss web development, have 500+ members, and show signs of recent activity. For a few weeks, post meaningful comments every once in a while and start interesting discussions to provide value to the community. If the group guidelines allow it—and if the timing is right—share your own article now and then, but make sure you ask a question in your post to spark a discussion. This will help the post stay on top of the group feed and members’ newsfeeds to bring you more traffic.Content creates visibility outside your network
It’s becoming tougher and tougher to stand out these days—there’s a lot of noise online. For a lot of freelancers and part time contractors, DIY service platforms and online hiring marketplaces have become the status quo for finding gigs. The quality of clients drawn to these hubs is very mixed, unfortunately, and most come because they want to pay as little as possible for the work. It is also very challenging for freelancers who don’t already have a presence there to start gaining leads right away.
Freelancers relying on word of mouth referrals also run into pitfalls. Nurturing those opportunities can be just as time intensive, not to mention leave you with limited control over when they actually convert into meaningful business.
These conditions should prompt every freelancer to try something outside the box, to find uncrowded spaces for meeting and gaining clients. Strategically creating content can consistently attract the right kind of client. When a prospective client reads your article, she’ll learn something immediately useful from you and see you as a knowledgeable pro, which creates a solid start for a client-freelancer relationship.
It’s a way for you to have something in common, something to prompt a conversation. Imagine yourself at a conference talking to a person you just met—would you rather discuss an article you wrote or dive straight into discussing your hourly rate? Of course you’ll want to show off your know-how before you talk about prices!
Writing content to attract customers is a perfect strategy for this—it engages people and generates higher visibility for your work, both within and outside your network.
Ok, I’ll hand this off to you now; it’s your turn to do the research and write one article in the next three weeks. That’s my challenge to you. One article in the next three weeks on your site. Are you up for the challenge?
Post in the comments which topic you would like to write and I’ll comment back with my feedback and thoughts.
Ready? Get set. Go.Footnotes
- 1. Source: http://backlinko.com/skyscraper-technique