Web Design – How long is a piece of string?

Web Design

“I want a web site.” There’s never been so much, or so little encapsulated in such an innocent phrase. When used without any further qualification it has web designers and IT consultants in despair! Why? Let me elaborate….

A web site can contain a single page or several thousand pages. A web site can do nothing apart from show you images and words or it can be a fully fledged application with interactivity and many, many man hours of coding of the bits you see and the bits that you don’t see. In fact to ask for a piece of string without specifying its length seems positively simple in comparison.

So, how does an IT expert respond so such a nebulous 5 words? My response is to ask: “What do you want the web site to do?” Usually this is followed by a long moment of stunned silence as the business owner is faced for the first time with the concept of purpose. The bottom line is, if you don’t know what you want your web site to do for you, then why spend a significant amount of money on one. And how are you going to be satisfied that the web designer has done what you ask if you don’t know yourself?

So, if you’re considering investing in your first web site, or considering changing what you already have the first question to ask yourself is this: what do I want my web site to achieve?

Which direction to take?

WHICH DIRECTION

There’s never been more choice in how we do business, and there have never been more directions to take in order to make business IT work for you. So, how do you make those important decisions? For the startup it’s perhaps simpler, but for established businesses there come crunch points where an investment is needed or a step up is required to take the business to the next level. At these points it’s wise to re-evaluate all your options.

At it’s most basic the choice is between IT ecosystems. For decades the choice was no choice, and therefore simple. Every business user had a PC with MS Windows and Office – it was essential. Today even the decision to have an office and a desk is up for grabs.

So, how do you make the decision on which ecosystem to choose. Today it’s not just about the choice of line of business software that you need to run. Often it’s about how portable the ecosystem is, how accessible it is out of the office, how easy it is to respond from a phone or a tablet or a web page. For many the choice will end up involving a mixture of both old style tech and new. But this will increasingly disappear as more and more line of business applications go online.

You can do most things online now, from email to invoicing. For the small business this puts the risk in terms of data security with an organisation that can do it properly, for the large business the economies of scale work in your favour, along with the ability to scale up or down quickly.

Whatever the size of your business – it’s worth asking the question: Which direction do you take?

For my business I took the decision several years ago to move away from the Microsoft platform to Google for Work. Initially I still used Outlook along with Google’s excellent sync tool, but within a very short space of time I found that Google’s interface offered more. I’ve never looked back. I confess that the link with Android was part of the charm. More business is done over a variety of devices these days. I use a Windows PC or a Chromebook or an Android device – and all of them have all my main business tools available.

I do have a preference, but both Google’s and Microsoft’s online products are now mature, stable and usable – which one will you use?

What if the box changes?

THE BOX

The conversation that sparked this was about Google Drive and how it syncs back to a desktop PC. I’ve always been impressed with Google’s sync tools, they have worked flawlessly for me for years, both with Outlook and Drive. What was new to me was that Google Drive, as with the Outlook sync tool for Google Mail uses tags, not folders. As a point of interest, I’ve long since stopped using Outlook, but the sync tool allowed me to make that transition naturally over a couple of months.

The problem that was the subject of the conversation was that a round trip of syncing a Google Drive folder from a PC to Drive and then downloading again to a freshly installed PC left some items not where the user expected them to be. The root cause appears to be the fact that although Drive presents files in folders, the folder names are in fact just tags, as you might expect from a company such as Google, the question is: why make the tags into pseudo folders? The answer to the question seems to be that folders are the box!

Let me just explain what I mean. We’re told to think outside the box, to be creative, to envisage things that aren’t normally done, or aren’t yet done. You would think that in the world of IT this would be the norm, not the exception. But, the IT business, just like every other business has vested interests in keeping you purchasing their products. The IBM PC was ground breaking, but would you have thought that nearly 37 years later we’d still be using the same file storage concept? The physical analogy of a file cabinet with folders is still at the heart of our PC file system. The PC has become so ubiquitous that it has actually begun to stifle innovation, it has become the box.

But what if the box changes? What if something else comes along to challenge that ubiquity? That happened with two things: the internet and the smartphone. The first made the stand alone PC a thing of the past and the second allowed new, innovative ways of working. Now we live in a world of tags or #hashtags. It seems absurd that we should only be able to classify a file as one thing rather than tagging it with all the relevant information.

As time has gone on I’ve learned with email to tag and search, not file. I’m beginning to do the same with files. The advent of internet storage and the myriad of devices that can connect to and work with those files means that the PC way of doing things is the anachronism, the constraint, the box.

As we consider our options for business IT we need not only to think outside the box, but we need to consider how the box is changing. IT doesn’t and shouldn’t stand still – it should grow and change, and as business users we should embrace this change – consumers certainly are! We need to be thinkers, watchers, embracers of change. One of the things that impresses me about Google as a company, and its products is that they will try new ideas, sometimes for a significant period of time, but, if it doesn’t work, or technology moves past it, they will drop the product and move on (anyone remember Google Reader?). This is how it should be.

As we move more and more to an online world, where our business and personal technology assets are separate from the tools used to access them we should embrace the changing box. Can you see a business user without a full Windows PC? Would you have thought that possible 10 years ago?

Getting back to the original conversation – it was the old fashioned file storage system on the PC that was the fly in the ointment. If all the files had been stored in the cloud and nowhere else the problem wouldn’t have arisen. If cloud tools had been used to access all the files, the problem wouldn’t have arisen. Often it’s the familiar that keeps us from moving to a better way of doing things. As business users it makes sense to ask ourselves if the box has changed from the one we are familiar with, and to ask how we will embrace the new.

 

If you’re interested to know more about Google for Work, take a look at my Google for Work page.

Google for Work – The Apps Show

Google for Work YouTube playlist

Whether you’re exploring the possibilities or have already started using Google for Work this playlist will help you to understand what Google for Work can do. One of the benefits of working in the cloud is the simple scalability, so it’s easy to get started with one or two users for a new business, while scaling effortlessly to the enterprise. Costs are low for the SME, and productivity is high, but a few lessons in what is possible always helps.

If you’re still not sure what Google for Work is, or how it might be a better solution for your business then take a look at some testimonials.

Ubiquity – and the battle for the desktop

UBIQUITY

The beginning of the PC era is shrouded in urban legend, but some bits of the story are clear. IBM were the company who had the vision to see the need for a personal computing device and who had the confidence to make the design open and expandable. Bill Gates was the opportunist who tied the sale of his operating system to the sale of each PC, thus ensuring not only ubiquity, but also monopoly. IBM offered expansion, Microsoft enforced restriction. That restriction ended up being a ‘good thing’ in that it allowed a common platform for the development of applications and ultimately a widespread graphical environment where coders could thrive in producing business solutions.

With the advent of the internet that monopoly has disappeared and with the advent of mobile computing devices the ubiquity of the monolithic desktop operating system as become eroded. Outside of the workspace how often do you turn to a PC with a separate screen and keyboard?

So, where will the desktop be in 10 years’ time? In terms of productivity there will always be a need for a good size screen, a decent keyboard, and enough processing power to drive it all. Where our applications and data reside is a different matter. Part of the internet and device revolution has been the gradual migration of our data to the cloud, and the separation of the application from the operating system. The applications we use on smaller devices are generally just a web based front end to something that is cloud based. The graphic at the top of this post was produced using Canva – an entirely web based graphics application. I edit documents, calculate with spreadsheets, view my images all online – the device is only a window to this cloud based world. It doesn’t really matter if that window is a Windows PC or something else.

The battle for ubiquity has shifted – it can no longer be about tying end users to a monolithic operating system – that horse has bolted. The battle now is for eco-systems – the whole package, and I believe that this time ‘open and expandable’ will win. In order to survive the next decade IT providers will have to be flexible, adaptable and willing to work on the platforms that end users choose, they can no longer impose. And this is making its presence felt in the workplace. Most companies already have some cloud related applications – this will only accelerate. Once the majority of line of business applications are in the cloud then the choice of device used to access that is open. Windows, OSX, Chrome, Linux all will do the job – or what about Android or iOS on a desktop size screen? Many end users are now more familiar with iOS and Android than they are with Windows. There are already stories of a desktop port of Android coming along.

IT strategy for the business user requires a continued long hard look into the future. What will be the best information appliance for your staff next year, in five years’ time, a decade from now? It will certainly be cheaper, more power efficient, and cloud connected, but I would be surprised if it ran Windows (for clarification, I am typing this on a full size keyboard on a Windows 10 PC). I, for now, am putting my eggs in the Google Apps for Work eco-system. It works brilliantly across platforms, scales well from startup to enterprise and has a surprising amount of control for the admin. It integrates flawlessly with Android and allows me to take my business on the road, wherever that may be.

If you’re interested to know more take a look at my Google for Work page.