Episode 60 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week, your hosts Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) and Brad Williams (@williamsba) interview Paul Boag of Boagworld and Headscape about web design, podcasting, book writing, and getting design signoff.
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Patrick: May 7th, 2010. We chat with Paul Boag of Boagworld and Headscape about web design, podcasting, book writing, and getting design signoff. This is the SitePoint Podcast #60: Entering Boag’s World with Paul Boag.
Hello and welcome to another edition of the SitePoint Podcast. This is Patrick O’Keefe and I’m joined today by Brad Williams as we interview Paul Boag. Paul is the co-host of the extremely popular web design and development podcast, Boagworld, and the author of Website Owners Manual, which is a great book aimed at those who are organizationally responsible for the planning, launch, and management of a website. He’s also the creative director at Headscape, a UK based web design company. In addition to serving clients, they also have created Get Signoff, a product aimed at helping web designers to more easily gain client approval, and build better client relationships.
Without further ado, let’s bring Paul on.
Patrick: Welcome to the show, Paul. It’s great to have you on.
Paul: It’s good to be on, thank you for having me. It seems like forever. I don’t think I’ve been on this one yet and that’s not good enough. You need to get me on every podcast that has ever mentioned anything to do with web design ever.
Patrick: Well, this is the last one, I think, in existence that you haven’t been on yet to date unless someone starts one.
Paul: I’m sure someone will before long. I think Jeffrey Zeldman started one, isn’t he?
Patrick: Well, I don’t know but I imagine that you should be in the first line up of guests.
Paul: I flippin’ better be – I’ll have words, otherwise. Good to be on, thank you for inviting me.
Brad: Yeah Paul, so you run the Boagworld podcast, which is arguably probably one of the top podcasts for web design, if not the top. What was the kind of inspiration behind starting that podcast?
Paul: Knitting was the inspiration. It’s true – it’s the truth. Basically, what happened was is the iPod started supporting podcasts, so I immediately set off to iTunes, having a look for a web design one – “seems a logical thing to do,” I thought. It’s a techie tool – podcasting – so there’s bound to be lots of techie podcasts. What I discovered is that there was nothing on web design whatsoever and the closest thing that I could see was This Week in Tech and things like that. There wasn’t anything on web design, which struck me as very bizarre. Bizarrer still with the fact that there was a podcast on knitting and it appalled me that there could be a podcast on knitting and not one on web design so I decided to take control of the situation and produce my own.
I think the reason really for the success of Boagworld and the fact that it’s arguably the biggest web design podcast is simply because it was the first. There was nothing else out there and I didn’t know when to give up. So yeah, it was all because of knitting.
Patrick: I take it you don’t have any interest in knitting?
Paul: None whatsoever. My wife recently tried to take it up and I was so appalled that somebody in her 30s would take up knitting, that I banned her from doing it. Disgraceful – it’s for old people, not for young people. I’m now going to get… “Aww! She just hit me!”
Patrick: Yeah, that’s some control you have in your household if you can ban knitting.
Paul: Yeah, I’ve banned knitting, is not allowed. She is muttering in the background, I apologize for this unprofessional interview, please carry on.
Patrick: No, I enjoy the background noise.
The first Boagworld podcast was released on August 23, 2005. I went back in the archives to the post titled “web design podcast…”
Paul: I was just going to do one.
Patrick: And then web design podcast episode 2, and it continued on for a while with that format, but that was coming up on five years, so are you planning anything special for the five-year anniversary?
Paul: No, we’ve done it on the basis of episodes. As you know, we did something special for the 200th, where we did a live 12-hour show, which you we’re kind enough to participate, Patrick, but no, we won’t celebrate the five years because I don’t really want to think about it too much. That’s a scary number, isn’t it? Wow, I’m getting old.
Patrick: Speaking of the 200th episode and it was a pleasure to be on, but Alex Dawson in the SitePoint Forums, @alexdawsonuk on Twitter, he says that the podcast, “The 200th episode, was a massive success and a huge amount of fun for him to listen to. Those 12 hours were certainly a challenge of no small measure,” but he wants to know “What were your highlights, he says, apart from Marcus having that successful showcase of his guitar playing while you were off having break, which of course had to be #1?”
Paul: What was my highlights of 12 hours? – gee, the honest truth is, the highlight was when it finished. No, it was such a blur, it’s hard to remember it all. I really enjoyed talking about science fiction with Jeremy Keet, which was nothing to do with web design whatsoever, but I enjoyed that. I really enjoyed talking with Dan Reuben towards the end because I was really beginning to flag by that point and he just came in and kind of took over the conversation and that was really great. But there were so many people that gave so much of their time.
I think really the highlight was the community spirit behind it, the fact that all of these web designers gave up their time to come on the show and that there were so much positive vibes in the chat room, so many people getting involved, and encouraging us on. It felt a little bit like running a marathon and having all these people either running beside you or standing at the sidelines cheering for you. It was an amazing experience, really. I really enjoyed it.
Patrick: I may have been one of the only people that don’t really consider themselves a web designer.
Paul: Nah, there was a bit of a mixture people. We had Alex Hunter who is a kind of venture capitalist / kind of social media guy who came on and talked and there were some developers. It was quite mixed, but I just shove everybody in the same pot, called everybody a ‘web designer.’
I’m not into these fancy job titles people keep coming up with – “product evangelist” or “front-end coding development monkey” – they’re all web designers to me.
Patrick: My business card says “Director of Everything.”
Brad: “Director of Awesome.”
Paul: I’m currently going with “Web strategist,” but I’ve no idea what that means.
Brad: The podcast is actually produced by Headscape, which is the web design agency that you’re one of the funding members of – I’m curious, how has the podcast actually helped Headscape grow over the years?
Paul: I would say pretty much that that it is the primary reason that we’ve grown from three initial people to 18 of us now. It was never intended for that purpose initially. I mean, the podcast was just a side project that I wanted to do, but what it kind of demonstrates that being open and giving away stuff is a really good way of attracting in business. We found that something like 90% of our new business, so not repeat business, but our new business comes via Boagworld and it has become a very good marketing tool for a couple of reasons.
One is that we obviously show that we know what we’re talking about and that we’re experts in our field, but secondly I think that they know what it’s like to work with us. They know the kind of people we are and how their project is likely to go – they get a taste of what is to come – because a lot of time people hire companies not just on the basis of their skill set, but also can they work with these people, do they like these people. We’re very transparent and open and honest on the podcast and I think people respect that and like that. So yeah, it has been very influential in the growth of Headscape.
Brad: You now have what you’re calling Boagworld Bites. Could you kind of explain what those are, what’s the difference from your normal podcast episodes?
Paul: Yeah, sure. Our normal show consists of three segments – there’s normally news, a feature or an interview of some kind, and then some element of listener feedback or listener contribution. What we were finding – in the main part of our show, the start of our show is a lot of banter, a lot of messing around, a lot of being rude to one another and there were some groups of people that didn’t want that. They just wanted the kind of core information and just skip all the rest of it.
We were thinking about well, should we cut that down, but then there’s another huge audience who absolutely love that kind of stuff so we didn’t feel we could do that, so that was one problem we had.
Alongside that, the other problem we were having is that we were creating complete show notes for our show – which includes transcriptions of all the interviews and pretty much a word for word outline of the podcast. When you have a podcast that lasts the best part of an hour or sometimes even more, that’s too long for show notes on the web and what people wanted you to do is they will want you to tweet about, “Hey did you see that great interview with Zeldman that they had on Boagworld?” They were pointing people at the show notes, but then people would have to look all the way through the show notes and try to find the bit where we talked about Zeldman.
So the “bite-size” really solves those two problems. First of all, it gets rid of the banter because a lot of the banter is either at the beginning of sections or the beginning of the show between sections, so by removing that and releasing them as short segments – “this is just the news, this is just the feature, this is just the interview” or whatever – you remove that kind of superfluous nonsense really.
The other thing that you do is you then release a series of blog posts so people can link specifically to the piece of content that they were interested in – whether it be the news segment or an interview, or whatever. That was the kind of the two reasons. It’s partly for SEO, it’s partly for those that don’t like the waffle and it’s partly really to encourage linking and to enable people just to listen to the bits they want of the show.
Brad: Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. That might be something we need to look at doing on the SitePoint podcast. We typically try to hit the 30-minute mark, but it’s very easy when you get to some passionate topics to hit an hour plus. I really like the idea that you’ve done here, kind of segregate those conversations into smaller episodes. I think it’s great.
Paul: It’s also great from kind of the blog point of view because it means that there’s content going out pretty much every day. We record on Monday, news goes out Tuesday, the interview or feature goes out Wednesday, the listener contribution section goes out Thursday and then the actual show goes out Friday. The only day where there – after the weekends where there’s no content is on Monday, and then often there are the bits and pieces that go out then – listener contribution, blog posts, or I’ve reviewed something I don’t feel would get fit in the show, but is still interesting. So we’ve got pretty much content going out every day of the week, which is great – except weekends.
Brad: We have another question from Alex Dawson of the SitePoint Forums and Alex mentioned your plans to potentially make a premium edition of Boagworld, covering certain topics more extensively and Alex wondered, “Do you see a more extensive future in online video and audio training for subjects like web design especially with the likes of Lynda being so popular and web design education being a bit slow to keep up?”
Paul: Yeah, I mean Lynda is hugely popular and I would highly recommend it to people. I also, although I can’t tell you, this is such a tease, I know that there are other people looking into this as well – this idea of paying subscriptions for content. There’s other players out there doing similar thing. What we’re talking about with the pro shows is tackling some of the subjects that we don’t cover on Boagworld because Boagworld is meant for, as I said, at the beginning of every show designers, developers, and website owners.
It means that we try and kind of keep away from talking about how to run a web design business or how to convince clients to sign off stuff or whatever else. We don’t cover that kind of stuff. It was that that I was talking about doing a pro show for. I think there’s a massive feature in that kind of stuff and I think you’ll see a lot more of it. I mean, there were people doing it for free, who to be honest, could charge a small amount of money for those kinds of subscriptions. I mean, we make our money in other ways. We make it because of referrals and that kind of stuff, but I actually think I would pay subscriptions for really good video tutorials on certain subjects and I’m sure other people would too. It’s getting the price right is the key, isn’t it?
Patrick: Yeah and speaking of revenue, I want to talk a little bit about advertising because you do sell some advertising on Boagworld. There’s ads in the sidebar and I don’t know if they’re on the show or not, but I noticed that we both use BuySellAds.com and it appears that you also might be doing some direct selling – so I wanted to ask you about what you’re doing with advertising and how you manage it.
Paul: We’ve always been cautious about advertising because we don’t want to kind of take the Michael out of people and to stuff the show full of advertising and we’ve tried lots of different approaches, but we’re slowly settling on basically two advertising packages that we run.
The first one is traditional banner advertising, which sits on the right-hand side of the Boagworld website. We sell that for a mixture of direct advertising that we sell ourselves and also what they call buy to sell—
Paul: Yeah, BuySellAds, thank you. We trying BuySellAds out really. So far, we’ve done it pretty much direct, but it’s so convenient to go with them that I think we’ll probably use them more for that advertising on the right-hand side. However, the advertising that I think is more interesting is the advertising we include in the show now. The thing is with banner advertising, as we all know, is people get blind to banner advertising quite quickly and quite easily, but inserting adverts into a show is much more effective. People are much more likely to remember it. It’s not something you could easily skip past. It’s something that basically is a much more effective advertising tool.
It also can be much more annoying if you’re not careful. What we are doing at the moment is we’re having one short advert at the top of each bite-size that we release. So each segment of the show has one advert. It’s just literally a couple of lines, sometimes I’d say a little bit more, and that also appears on the blog post as well to kind of accompany it. The people that have advertised with us so far have been extremely pleased with the kind of feedback they’ve got, Shopify in particular, are always doing interesting things with us and they’ve got some interesting things coming up as well, which is really cool.
That has all been really arranged on a pretty ad hoc basis. We don’t actively go out looking for advertisers, they tend to come to us, and yeah, we’re still kind of finding our feet with it because we don’t want it to become too intrusive basically, but interestingly I haven’t had one negative comment about the advertising in the entire time we’ve done it, which to be honest, I find incredible, because normally people really get irritated by advertising.
Patrick: Yeah, that is somewhat surprising, but like you said, it’s a fine balance – that those of us that care about the sites that we run, we struggle with that balance in a way because there’s this need to make some money at least for those that are just writing the content, not so much dealing with the referral end of the business. But there’s this need to make money, but also there’s the users and how comfortable the site is and how usable it is. I struggle with it myself, I mean, when we make ad adjustments it’s something I think long and hard about when we add something new or you move something or how it all works because there are serious implications for it.
Paul: I mean we’re looking at all kinds of different ways to make revenue from Boagworld, which offers value. Advertising is really my least favorite of the options that are available and although we try and pick advertisers that are very relevant to our audience, it doesn’t add huge value to the user experience. Okay, they might get excited to see that I’ve discovered a tool, they’re like Little Snapper that advertise with us or Perch or whatever, but it’s not adding massive value.
But we’re also looking at doing things like running workshops off in the back of Boagworld or even doing online kind of webinars – and I hate that word – those kinds of things where people are getting a real value out of it. I mean, we’ve also looked to merchandising as well, but you never quite get around to it, although people have started doing their own thing. There’s some very funny Boagworld t-shirts knocking around.
Patrick: Well, I love when people experiment with different models. I always hate when people say, “This is a dead model and this is a bad model, advertising is dead, blah blah blah” – I don’t want to know that this is a dead model. I want to know the model that will replace that income for me. I love when people experiment. I mean that’s how we learn and get better.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. We try loads of different stuff and the community soon lets you know when you’ve over-stepped the line.
Patrick: With audio ads on the podcast, I’m really unfamiliar with that myself, what do you track and where do the metrics that advertisers expect or want you to provide?
Paul: Well, because again, we’ve done this – people have primarily come to us. We haven’t really worried massively about that. I give them the metrics of roughly what the download levels are, but I mean as you know, those are so hard to track accurately when it comes to a podcast because there’s caching that’s going and some people download and then don’t listen to it, and there’s all kinds of things that— and throw them out.
A lot of our advertisers are just more interested in being associated with the Boagworld brand and they are necessarily the exact conversion rate or the exact amount of traffic they’re going to generate. It’s interesting to see those that have stuck with us the longest from an advertising point of view – it’s over time that they’ve really built the momentum from it.
For example, I mentioned Shopify earlier, have been with us as long as we’ve done advertising, and I’m forever seeing on Twitter now, “Paul recommends Shopify for this,” but that has only come over time where there’s kind of an established relationship that has been built. I think metrics only take you so far really when it comes to podcast advertising, but obviously, when we refer them, we refer them to a unique URL – shopify.com/boagworld or whatever – so they can track it that way.
Yeah, but other than that, we don’t promise them any certain levels of traffic. We don’t say that the podcast generates this number of guaranteed listens or anything like that – because we simply can’t.
Patrick: Right. Boagworld.com, the podcasting community, as well as your writing and speaking appear to be, as we discussed, generating some revenue or at least they could or they’re moving in that direction with their various experiments. Is this something – the podcast, your writing, your speaking, et cetera – that you want to continue to grow to become a bigger part of your life and perhaps your livelihood or if being designer your first kinda true love and something that you’ll always want to have that primary focus on?
Paul: I’ve long since stepped away from hands-on design, although I am kind of doing some at the moment actually, so that sounds very contradictory, but that’s been the first one in a very long time. People often wonder what it is I actually do. Any my kind of job splits into three areas for Headscape and I like it the way it is.
Basically, a third of my job is doing kind of marketing stuff at Headscape, which essentially is Boagworld, it’s the Website Owners Manual, the book that I wrote. It’s the things like the speaking engagements and all that kind of stuff – so that’s kind of one third of it.
Another third is what I call R&D, effectively, which is me keeping up to date with the latest innovations, integrating those into our internal processes, making sure that everybody in the company is up to speed, lots of internal training, that kind of thing.
Then the final third is consultancy where I’m working with clients at a kind of consultative level, so I tend to be involved in the early days of a project. I maybe get involved with some of the wire framing work and some of the conceptual business work upfront and then it’s handed off to a designer. I mean, our designers are way better than I am. I mean, they do such stunning work. It would be a bit of a travesty if I was involved with it, really, they’d all screw up their noses and they’d send me to the corner.
Brad: So what tips would give anyone thinking of starting a web design podcast or maybe a knitting podcast?
Paul: Don’t. Don’t. I want the traffic to myself.
Brad: Just pulled this off the top of my head here…
Paul: The big thing that I think people miss when it comes to podcasting is the need to entertain – that even if you’re doing a really serious subject or really dull subject – you could hardly say web design is the most scintillating of subject areas in the world. It’s not like with, I don’t know, professional wrestlers or something. There is a need to kind of entertain and engage with people because people aren’t being paid as part of their job to listen to a podcast. They listen to the podcast when they’re going to or from work, when they’re in the gym – those kinds of environments. They’re doing it off their own back. It’s kind of you have to get this balance between providing valuable information that informs them, but at the same time making it entertaining.
Making something entertaining is really hard to do when you’re sat in front of a mic. It’s very easy to go very monotone, “And-this-is-what-I’m-talking-about-now-and-I-hope-you’re-as-interested-as-I-am-on-this-particular-subject.” It comes across wrong. You’ve got to have real enthusiasm, you’ve got to have real passion, you got to really talk as if you’re talking to an audience of people.
The other thing that I found – the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is do it with someone else. I started off by myself and it is hideous. It is a train wreck. I encourage you to go back and listen to the first ever Boagworld. You’ll manage it for 30 seconds maybe and then you’ll want to stab out your eyes… oh, that’s not what you’re listening to it, so stab out your ears – there you go. But when I started doing it with Marcus who I’ve worked with for a long length of time, we’ve got this kind of natural rapport and we bounce around with each other and he’s very rude to me and I’m very undeserving of his criticism and we kind of got this thing that goes on. That makes it fun. That makes it enjoyable.
We’ve kind of – the way I’ve always described is, effectively, what we do is we’re talking about web design in the pub, and if you can create that kind of atmosphere, if you can create that conversational environment, then great. That’s far more important than technology. It’s far more important than getting the audio right or anything else – is make it engaging, make it conversational.
Patrick: As we discussed, the first Boagworld podcast was nearly five years ago. For that initial recording, what equipment did you use?
Paul: Gah, flippin’ heck… you expect me to remember that?
Patrick: If you can’t, you can’t.
Paul: For starters, I was on PC other than Mac. What would I have been using? I just had a very basic normal external mic – the kind of thing that you would just pick up in PC World or wherever. I had… what software was I using? I think I found some strange kind of podcast – no, I couldn’t have found podcasting software because it only just started. I can’t even remember what I was recording in – I mean, it’s terrible. The quality is awful. We struggled with quality for such a long length of time because basically, it wasn’t there. There weren’t people doing this. Now, you can find podcasting mics and podcasting software and all of this kind of stuff – none of that existed when we started.
I look at new podcasts that start today like Think Vitamin Radio or even SitePoint when you started. I mean the quality of what you got started was way above what we did, which I think because there was nobody who had done anything like it before particularly, and we’re all kind of making it up as we’d go along.
Patrick: Right, so what’s your setup now then for episode – I guess, 208 was the last one, right?
Paul: Yeah. Marcus is the guy you really want to talk to about this kind of stuff, but we have now a small mixing board that has going out of it three mics. I don’t know what they are. They’re kind of mic-y things – mics plugged into a mixing board, which Marcus controls and then out there into Logic Pro – and he basically records it all into Logic. But I couldn’t tell you what make or anything like that.
You should be able to tell that I know nothing about the audio because whenever Marcus isn’t here, the audio sounds terrible.
Patrick: What is the, I guess, the team that creates Boagworld? How big is that team?
Paul: Oh, it’s massive. There’s hundreds of us to make it…
Paul: …Internationally, spread across the globe. No, let me think… Right… so there’s me. There’s Marcus that co-hosts with me and basically records the audio and does the mixing and stuff like that. There is Ryan Taylor who now works at Headscape actually, but started off as a volunteer who is what we call our producer and his role is basically to contact people that we want to interview. He produces the show notes for us, just makes sure every thing is on track and kind of organizes us basically.
Then there is Anna Debenham who is a volunteer, and she does kind of technical stuff, so she’ll publish the actual podcast on the Friday, make sure that iTunes is updated, deal with all those kind of bits and pieces. She also edits audio for us as well. If we’ve done an interview, she will clean it up and balance the levels and all of that kind of stuff, so there’s her.
Then there is Paul Stanton. Paul is our kind of news guy. He reads more RSS feeds than any human should have to read and helps to selects our stories for the show. He also posts them on Boagworld itself and there’s a Twitter feed called @BoagLinks that you can follow with loads of new stories there. He does that kind of role, which is a biggie.
After that, we’ve got a lot of community leaders in the Boagworld forum – who are all volunteers again – that kind of keep the forum going and answer questions. They’re helpful, wonderful people in the forum and they are quite incredible. It’s quite frustrating sometimes because I check the forum everyday, feeling that I want to contribute to it and somebody asks a question and by the time I look at it, they’ve already given four different brilliant answers that I can’t improve on so it makes me somewhat redundant in my own forum.
The final group of people are the transcribers – who I just think are insane. These people give up their time for free to transcribe all of the interviews that we do so that they can be accessible on the website for people that have hearing problems. I’ve got so much respect for those people because it must be the most dull job in the world ever, but they do it. So it’s quite a big team, I guess. The group of transcribers is 20+ people, but yeah, everybody volunteers and pitches in.
Patrick: It has to be great to have, I guess, a community behind you that is willing to volunteer so much of their time.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely, and in fact, we almost have the problem now where we’ve got more volunteers than we actually require, which is a very bizarre situation to have, but they’re really wonderful. I mean, I’m constantly amazed at people online. If they find something that they like, they want to get involved with it, they want to contribute to it, they want to add to it. It sounds really naff and corny, but if it wasn’t for the community, Boagworld would’ve never have succeeded.
Patrick: We’ll switch off the podcast questions now, for awhile. I think we’ve spent half the show on it. Just some more general web and web design questions – Alex Dawson again, he was curious, what has been your web design highlight of the year in terms of the things that you’ve been doing yourself lately?
Paul: There has been so many. We work on a large e-commerce site on a kind of continual basis. I absolutely love working on that site and we’ve done some great stuff recently where we’ve re-done the user interface for it and added a load of kind of cool Ajax-y stuff in there and the user experience has improved massively, we’ve done loads of A/B testing on it – user testing and that kind of stuff.
I find that a very satisfying site for a couple of reasons – the number one being that when you’re working on the e-commerce site, you know whether you’re succeeding or not. You either sell more stuff or you don’t. So every little change that you make, you can go, “Has it increased conversion rate, yes or no?” So you know whether you’ve been successful and that’s very satisfying.
The other thing about the website is it has got such a unique audience. It’s aimed at to be kind of over 60s market, really. I think their average customer is like in their 80s or something ridiculous. It’s absolutely unbelievable. It’s very satisfying with working with an audience like that that’s so unique and has so many unique challenges about it, so I love working on that site and that has been a real highlight for me.
I guess the only other thing that is worth mentioning is Get Signoff, which I know you’re going to come on to later. We’ve been making some big changes with Get Signoff, which is an app that we run, and yeah, that has been a very exciting project to be involved with. But we haven’t really seen the kind of workings-out of that yet. It hasn’t kind of hit the public in a strong way, so I guess that’s to come, rather than stuff that has happened.
Brad: When you’re working on a new design or maybe a redesign for a website, where do you draw a kind of inspiration from for that design?
Paul: Everywhere. I use an application called LittleSnapper, which allows you to collect stuff. Like most web designers, I collect websites that I think are cool. But I collect a lot more than that. I collect photographs I think are cool. I collect color swatches that I like, but I also take photographs when I’m out and about of signs and patterns in nature and architecture and all kinds of things.
I’m a great believer in looking beyond the Web for inspiration because I think the problem is, is otherwise we’re all looking in each other’s work and things never move on. It takes people from the outside to… or things from the outside to really inspire of us. One of the designers that I like most at the moment is a guy called Mike Kus because his background is in print and the websites he produced look more like posters and they do websites. I find that very inspiring to look beyond the web for inspiration.
Museums are great places as well. I don’t get to go there as much as I would like, but there are some great inspiration there, printed materials I said, logo design, good typography – all that kind of stuff – you can find it everywhere, and I think increasingly, I’m looking further and further away from web design for my inspiration.
I’m not doing a lot of hands-on design work anymore. A lot of the inspiration I’m looking at is more strategic stuff. I’m looking at things like psychology, sociology, even history to some regards and I’m looking at how they sell in supermarkets and all these different areas that lie outside of the field of web design. I’m actually giving a talk at Future of Web Design, which is coming up soon, and I’m talking about exactly this, this idea of new skills that we’ve got learners, web designers and one of them that I talk about is psychology that as web designers we really need to have a good understanding of users and how our brains work and how we make decisions and that kind of stuff.
Psychology is a huge inspirational area that I highly recommend. We’ve got an interview coming up soon on the Boagworld show with a guy called Stephen Anderson who spoke at South By Southwest this year about delighting and surprising people and about persuading them to do what you want and he has produced a brilliant set of cards called mental notes cards. You can check them out at GetMentalNotes.com. The cards have basically got different aspects of psychology on them so you kind of learn about different aspects of psychology and then how you can apply that to your website.
For example, one of the things that is intrinsic in humans is we’re social and we’re led by other people. So how can you apply that to your website? Well, you can apply it using customer testimonials by doing “the average donation on this charity website was X amount.” So people are kind of led by the crowd. It’s all these kinds of things in psychology that I find very inspirational, but I don’t necessarily think that’s what you were getting at. Anyway, there you go.
Brad: I really like your point about kind of looking outside the web and I want to mention the article that you wrote back in November called Stop Designing Websites, Start Designing Posters and it really kind of highlights the challenges of designing a poster and a website and how to have some of those same challenges. I thought that was really kind of interesting take on ways to draw inspiration on design. So we’ll definitely link to that article in the show notes. It looks like it’s a pretty popular one, there’s quite a few comments on it.
Paul: Yeah. It turned out to be very popular. I’ve discovered something that basically whenever you put loads of pictures in, people look at it. It’s like people really enjoy their inspirational articles rather than the ones stuffed with loads of theory, which I guess I can understand, but I think sometimes we’re becoming a bit lazy as a web community and that we perhaps should delve a bit deeper sometimes, but yeah, there you go.
Brad: I’ve heard rumors that you are not a fan of Flash, is that true? And if so, why?
When it comes to very interactive games, I don’t think Flash can be beaten. When it comes to things like recording audio that you’re going to upload onto a website, Flash can’t be beaten there.
So there are situations – I mean I use Flash on Boagworld for crying out loud. Obviously, I don’t dislike it that much, but I do think that it’s the old story, it’s not about the tool itself. It’s what people do with the tool and I think oftentimes, people use Flash very unwisely and use it too much. I think ultimately – and this is where I’ll get hate mail – but ultimately I think Flash will go away. I’m not talking about in the next six months, I’m talking about in the next ten years – but I see it becoming less and less important especially now with the stand that Apple has taken over Flash, I think that could only hasten its demise, but we’re not talking in a hurry.
Brad: Yeah, I was going to say I would imagine Apple would like that statement that you just made, but I would agree. Another question that’s not so much web design, but it’s definitely a hot topic right now and that’s the announcement of Facebook made with their new ‘Like’ button, which essentially allows people traveling across the internet to like sites that they’re visiting. Is that something you plan to kind of implement on sites you’re building and do you have any thoughts on that as far as how that ‘Like’ button is going to start getting kind of factored into website designs?
Paul: Truth is I’ve kind of ignored it so far. What I often tend to do when a new technology like this comes along is I will sit on it for a bit and I will just kind of mull it over and I will see what other people do with it and I will see how it works out before I kind of jump in on it. There are some quite serious ramifications of what Facebook have recently announced and they’re very much trying to position themselves almost as a kind of underlying infrastructure for the Web, which makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable, but I don’t know enough about it really to be able to judge.
What normally happens is once I decide something is worth playing with, I’ll experiment with it on, say, Boagworld or my own personal sites and only later will I then start introducing it into client sites. I don’t have a strong opinion on it yet. I don’t know enough about it to be honest.
Patrick: Let’s talk about the book a bit – Website Owners Manual. It’s a great book. I’ve read it myself. I recommend it to designers, people who are looking for designers especially and anyone related to those groups – but now that you’re a published author, what was your opinion of the book-writing process?
Paul: Horrendous, painful, awful. I’d never do it again.
Patrick: Sounds about right.
Paul: Yeah. Why anybody writes a book is quite beyond me, but there you go. It was a little bit of a frustrating process because I’ve got the attention span of a small child, so having to concentrate on something like that for that length of time was not a comfortable fit with me. Also, I’m used to writing something and it being live within minutes, so that was quite a frustrating process as well. Also, to be honest, I find publishers quite frustrating – and that’s not a reflection on Manning who published my book. I think it’s a fairly general experience that I hear from most authors that publishing is not moving particularly fast at the moment in terms of adoption of new techniques and just how people interact with books these days. That was a little bit painful as well.
So no, I wouldn’t rush to do it again. Also, you don’t get rich out of it. You don’t do it to get rich. You don’t make any money particularly out of it. I mean, the Website Owners Manual sold incredibly well, yet, it’s not going to cover the amount of time that took me to write the book, but it’s kind of you do it because it’s a good way of raising your profile. It makes certain people take you more seriously, which is bizarre and silly, but it’s the way it is and you do it for ego, don’t you? You know, I’m a published author. Let’s be honest about it. But yeah, I mean I don’t regret doing it but I’m not in any hurry to do other one.
Patrick: I was going to ask you about publishers actually and obviously, you went with a more traditional publisher in Manning, but I wanted to ask you, what is your reasoning for going with a publisher and what do you view as the strengths and weaknesses of traditional publishers?
Paul: The reason I went with a traditional publisher was, to be honest, nothing more than the kind of kudos that comes with that – the kind of recognition. If you self-publish a book, it doesn’t sound as cool, does it, basically? It’s one part of it. Another part of it is Manning approached me. I had no intentions of writing a book. They kind of persuaded me into it and so to some degree, I got a bit of swept along by them. The pros of it? The pros of it are you do get someone that gives you that kind of editorial attention. I mean, they pushed me hard to kind of improve the quality of my writing and I think it really has helped. They also are very good at helping you be more concise, and I learned a lot from them in that regards as well. For somebody that doesn’t consider themselves a natural writer, which I don’t, it was very reassuring having somebody there holding your hand. So I think there are some benefits there. I think there are also some benefits in terms of reach that they can get the book in places that you as an author cannot. So those are the pros.
The cons are really you give them a lot of money, essentially. They’re making a big chunk of money out of doing this that you could keep for yourself. Self-publishing potentially is a lot more profitable. I think the publishers slow down the process more than it needs to be, which with a time-sensitive book could be an issue. Fortunately, Website Owners Manual wasn’t particularly time-sensitive.
Were I to do it again I think I would self-publish, but the trouble is, is kind of you need a certain level of notoriety before you can self-publish and make it successful, and publishing a book with a traditional publisher enables you to get that kind of notoriety you need – if that makes sense? I’ve got very mixed feelings about the whole thing, really.
Patrick: Basically what you said, I can only echo and Brad just recently had his first book published as well, but the thing is, people have always cited to me the example of 37signals because they self-published their book – or one of their – I don’t know how many they’ve written by now. But the book at the time they had self-published and they’d written this blog post about how it did so well, but what I always say to that is – if you go back, 37signals, their first book – was published by New Riders, which was part of a very large imprint.
We all have to start somewhere and you give away some of that money for, like you said, the access and the legitimacy, which is a big deal.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t argue with that. I think that when you talk to established authors that have written several, they all go “self-published it,” but that’s because they’ve already built out that reputation so they get less value from the publisher at that point. If it’s your first book, I think there is a value of going with a traditional publisher.
Patrick: Have you found the book has opened up a lot of doors for you and given you many opportunities that you would not have previously had, i.e., people saying, “Oh, he really knows about this stuff” now.
Paul: You know the honest answer is no, but let me explain. If I’d published the book then, when they originally approached me, then yes, I think it would have opened up all kinds of doors and would have been hugely beneficial.
What happened over the period of time as I was writing the book is that Boagworld suddenly gained much, much more exposure and became much, much more well known. What the book was meant to achieve happened anyway, so it became less valuable from that point of view. Where the real value of the book comes from our point of view and why I don’t regret for a minute writing it is the fact that it is a book for our potential clients and so every time we go along to a pitch, every time we’re up for a project, we hand over a book and say, “Well, whoever you pick, this would be useful to you,” and that is a massive selling tool that is hugely beneficial and I think it has attracted certain customers and clients to us. Also, a lot of those people obviously have read the book and so kind of know the way we work, so we do find that projects tend to run smoother because clients are better informed.
It has been a good sales tool, I guess, and it has been a valuable education for our clients to ensure that they’re better and actually a lot of the sales that we have seen from the book have been web designers who have bought multiple copies of this book to give out to their own clients in order to kind of bring their clients up to speed and ensure the kind of quality of relationship you really need to make a website successful.
Patrick: Yeah, if you’re charging $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 for a job, the $30 for the book for what it can offer is a drop in the bucket.
Paul: Exactly, absolutely.
Patrick: We’ve talked about the podcast, the book, the design agency… I guess the last product we haven’t talked about or the last major thing you’re involved with is Get Signoff. Can you tell us about GetSignoff.com?
Paul: I can tell you lots about GetSignoff.com and in fact, I can repeat the URL – GetSignoff.com lots. This is what I’m most excited about at the moment. I’ve got to be very careful not to turn this into a sales pitch. Essentially what Get Signoff is – and it has been around for a little while – it started off a side project to scratch your own itch, right? We have this problem of when clients – we were working with clients especially on design signoff and getting a design signed off, and they were sending through – one person will make a comment via our email, another person would call us up. Especially with the kind of work we do, there are more than one client, however much we wish that wasn’t the case.
I mean, we were even receiving faxes for crying out loud where they fax the design back to us with scribbles on it. It was all getting very out of hand so what we did is we built an application where we can upload designs and we can log into that, the client can log into it, they can make their comments there, they can add notes to the designs, you can have a whole discussion. It’s all in one nice ordered place and you can then upload multiple versions of the design as it progresses. When the client is happy with it, they click on the big signoff button. They know what they’re committing themselves to, they know that the design is set in stone and everybody knows where they stand.
We were really pleased of what we produced. It was something that was very useful, but it was a side project and it never really got the attention that it deserved and I’ve had all these other ideas about Get Signoff that we could build a community around it, a community where we talk about the issues of working with clients and how to get them to sign off on things and issues about running a web design business, which we don’t really cover on Boagworld because that’s more aimed at website owners, but we just didn’t have the time to commit to it and to make it happen.
It kind of stagnated as a project until probably a couple of months ago where we hired Ryan Taylor, who I mentioned is the producer on Boagworld. He has now become the kind of product evangelist to Get Signoff and is now kind of re-launching Get Signoff and in fact, it should be re-launching as we speak. The site is currently down because we were re-launching it, although obviously by the time this goes out it should hopefully be up again.
We’re putting up a new site and we’re adding a blog into it and we’re going to start blogging about all those things of running a website agency and dealing with clients – all that kind of good stuff – we’re going to start covering. We’re also going to be making massive changes to Get Signoff itself, the application, adding new features to it like batch-up loading, like dealing with Flash files and HTML wireframes and all that kind of stuff. He has got loads of stuff in the pipeline there, but the big change we’ve made at the moment is we’ve significantly reduced the price of it because we’ve learned a lot from the audience that have already used it and so now we’ve got three packages aimed at freelancers, teams, and agencies that are at ₤10 per month, ₤15 per month, and ₤25 per month.
We’ve kind of made it much more accessible to people and we’re really quite excited. The big thing that excites me the most is having dedicated people to work on this, rather than it being tagged on to your other work because anybody out there that is kind of listening to this that is working on client work that has this kind of little side project – this kind of baby that they want to nurture and grow – you know how impossible it is. The client always comes first; it always overrules stuff.
Having Ryan and another developer called Simon as well that are dedicated 100 percent to Get Signoff really is exciting for us because we can do loads of stuff that we weren’t previously able to do. So that’s my pet project at the moment and that’s what I’m really excited about, but I won’t go on about it anymore because this is sounding like a sales pitch.
Patrick: No, not at all. You’ve answered all of the questions I think that I was going to ask about it.
Brad: Just in case nobody got it, what was the URL?
Paul: It’s GetSignoff.com.
Brad: Ah, OK. We’ll make sure that’s in the show notes as well.
Patrick: That’s your mantra, isn’t it? You go around pounding your chest saying “Get Signoff, Get Signoff, Get Signoff!”
Paul: I’m actually wearing a T-shirt right now. It’s a Get Signoff T-shirt and basically, the Get Signoff logo quite small and discreet and then a flipping big arrow pointing to it with underneath it’s written, “Yeah-yeah, that’s great, but can you make the logo bigger? – the client” So, yes, I’m completely branded head to toe in Get Signoff at the moment.
Patrick: Well, Paul, it has been a pleasure to have you on and to finally get you on the show here. Hopefully, we can maybe get over there on Boagworld at some point – maybe some of the other guys, not me, they’re all jealous of me – but thanks so much and good luck with Get Signoff and everything you got going on.
Paul: Thank you very much for having me on the show. It’s much appreciated.
Brad: Thanks, Paul.
Patrick: Well, that was a lot of fun, and now let’s close out the show. Brad?
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