Advice for the Geographically Challenged Employee (AKA Working Remotely)

Ryan Irelan of Happy Cog recently posted about the challenges of working remotely as part of a team in the web development industry. I’ve got some experience with that; before moving back to Vermont I spent about a year working from an apartment in Florida, 1400 miles away from the rest of my team. A lot of what Ryan said resonates with my own experience. He touched on keeping a strict schedule for certain tasks and emphasizing certain types of communication to minimize interruptions and protect your time. He also talked about techniques he uses to avoid breakdowns in communication that can occur when you’re never face to face with anyone. He has some great tips that are probably almost as valuable if you do work with your team in an office.

I’ve got a few other tips that I’ll throw out, just for kicks:

Communication

Ryan touched on this. Use as many methods of communication as you need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then take it a little farther. Know what everyone on the team is up to and let them know what you’re up to. Check in about non-work stuff, too (but only when it’s not going to be an interruption.) It’s tough to keep a good working relationship going via single-sentence emails.

Discipline

You may be working 6 feet from your comfy bed. You may be tempted to oversleep. You may have lots of great stuff to play with at home. You may have cool games on your computer that call to you. You may have friends asking you to hang out (you don’t really work, anyway. Right?) Ignore it all. Don’t fall into these traps. Don’t tell yourself “I can sleep in 10 extra minutes and no one will know.” It’s a slippery slope. You’re a professional and you should act exactly as you would in an office with other professionals. Arrange schedules to keep yourself on task. Always be available at the same time every day. Communicate often. Stay focused. Discipline is absolutely the key to working successfully when separated from your team by geography.

For me, keeping rigid discipline in my workday was the way to make sure I didn’t inadvertently abuse my employer’s trust or let down my team members. And it paid off. I was the most productive I had ever been.

Shoes

Seriously. I don’t remember where I read this tip originally, but it always helped me. Something about wearing shoes always made it feel like I was out of the house and into the office, even though I was working from my bedroom desk. If you’re struggling for focus, slap on a pair of shoes and tie them, tightly. This is not a joke.

Browser Use in 2009

Douglas Bowman at StopDesign recently shared how his site visitors break down in terms of browser use. As a hero of the web standards movement (sort of like our Hercules or Michael Jordan,) Douglas admits that his stats are skewed toward tech-savvy folks. I decided it would be interesting to look into stats from a more general audience. I develop a lot of real estate websites at work, so that seemed like a natural place to look. I surveyed several of our more heavily-trafficked sites and I’ve made the following observations (which I have also posted at Douglas’ site:)

  • Internet Explorer users account for between 65% and 85% of all visits
  • Firefox and Safari account for almost all the rest of the traffic, and Firefox tends to have 2-3 times the share of Safari.
  • 70% of IE users are browsing these sites with IE7. There was very little variation here, even though the percentage of IE users in general varied by 20% across sites.

(Observations are based on the last month of data, across a sampling of sites based around the United States. Visitors were primarily from the US.)

It’s unfortunate to see how dominant Internet Explorer is sector, but progress is evident. It’s a relief to see that IE7–a fairly capable browser in its own right–has seen increased adoption recently.

Micro-Micro-Niche Advertising

I was reading a local news story and in the sidebar I noticed what appeared to be an ad banner for Barack Obama in the sidebar. It turns out it was actually a link to the news site’s section of Obama-related stories. What struck me about the banner was the wording: “President-Elect Barack Obama Click Here.” Apparently they are targeting the extremely small niche of web users that are President-Elect Barack Obama, and imploring them to click on a mysterious banner (and for those counting along at home, that’s a niche of one.)

Just a little mid-week levity. The moral of the story: think carefully about your calls to action. You need to make it clear to your readers what you want them to do and why they should want to do it. Give them a reason to click your banner or sign-up button. And if something isn’t an advertisement, make sure that it doesn’t look like one. This banner looks like a paid ad for who knows what and I never would have clicked on it if I weren’t planning to write this post poking fun at it. It doesn’t represent a compelling call to action for me. At face value, I can’t tell what I’ll find once I click, or even if I’m supposed to. After all, I’m not President-Elect Barack Obama. That’s some other guy.

Blog Post Title SEO–The Only Tip You Need

Quick tip: Search engines are designed to work for people, not the other way around. They’re designed to pick results that are likely to be what the searcher is looking for, and for a blog the post title is an important part of that. If you want people to find your blog post in a search engine and click through, do the following:

  1. Think about what you would type into Google if you were looking for whatever information you’re about to post. Make it specific.
  2. Put that in the title. You can add some more detail to make the title more “punchy,” but make sure your search phrase is in there.
  3. There is no step 3.

If a searcher sees exactly what she typed in the title of a search result she’s going to click. The trick is that your content has to support the title you picked. Otherwise, even if you trick the search engine, your site visitor will take one look and hit the back button.

140 Characters

I recently launched a just-for-fun project called The 140 Club. As the site mentions, “The 140 Club is a group of Twitter users loosely committed to writing tweets of no more and no less than 140 characters.” I’d like to say that it’s an artistic experiment in creating something in a constrained environment, but it’s really just for fun. After finding that I had a knack for writing updates that were close to 140 characters (the maximum on twitter,) I decided I would start rewording my updates to be exactly 140 characters. I announced my plan with the following tweet:

Also my new thing is writing updates of exactly 140 characters. The one before last only made it because I put an extra word in by mistake.

Shortly thereafter, Sean Bossie, a client of the company I work for and all around cool guy replied:

@scottnelle That cracks me up Scott…I am now joining The 140 Club. So the thing is: Can you end with incomplete words or must be dead on??

Sensing an opportunity to get a chuckle out of Sean, I bought a domain, cracked open Photoshop, and got to work over my lunch break. An hour later I had designed, built, and launched the140club.com. Talk about agile. 🙂 The 140 Club is currently accepting new members, so why not join up?

Jeremy Keith Covers AEA San Fransisco 2008

Jeremy Keith is live-blogging An Event Apart San Fransisco 2008 over at his website. He has the uncanny ability to write up organized, well-written, and thoroughly-linked summaries of events in near-real-time. If you (like me) were unable to get to the conference Jeremy’s site is the place to get the scoop on all the presentations. Thank you, Jeremy.

The Problem With Em-Based Layouts

I was recently working on a project and thought it might be interesting to try out an em-based layout (where the layout of the entire site changes based on the font size.) I was hoping to preserve ideal line-length for my copy. The geek cred associated with em-based layouts was also appealing–earlier this year it seemed like they were all the rage. This trend may have been kicked off by the brilliant Mr. Dan Cederholm, a personally hero of mine in the web development community–as silly as that may sound.

It occurred to me, however, that there’s a fundamental flaw in the logic of an em-based layout. As a visitor increases the size of the text on screen, the layout will increase in width so that everything remains in proportion. Now I’m generalizing here, but if a visitor needs to bump up the text size to read it, it’s possible (perhaps even likely) that they could be older and potentially less technical than us web developers with our 20+ inch monitors. As the text size (and therefore layout width) increases, these users with their smaller monitors will run out of room to grow pretty quickly. This causes dreaded horizontal scrolling which no one likes, no matter what designers may have told you in the late 90s.

Roger Johansson acknowledged this flaw on his blog and suggested that by setting a maximum width in pixels you could prevent this issue. The problem that is titular to this post, though, is that this just doesn’t seem to work. It’s possible that it did work at one time, but I’ve tested many layouts online in addition to my own test case and found that in recent versions of Firefox the layout expands unchecked, causing horizontal scrolling. Perhaps this feature was broken during recent updates to Mozilla’s rendering engine. Unless I’m missing something em-based layouts are self-defeating as it stands. So are they anything more than geek-chic?

Dustin Tigner points out in the comments that something has changed in firefox 3. It now uses page zooming by default. If you enable text-only zooming these layouts start to work again. That begs the question, however: With browsers moving toward page zooming by default, how much longer will em-based layouts be a practical use of our time? I think in some cases page zooming provides a worse user experience than a well-coded em based layout (see http://www.456bereastreet.com/ as an example,) and as a default it tends to override those careful layout considerations.

Happily Hosted With Dreamhost

If there were such a thing as a regular reader of this site, he or she might notice that I’ve added a little blurb about my web host to the bottom of my sidebar. I’ll be up front in saying that It includes my affiliate link so that if anyone signs up through my site I’ll save a bit of money on hosting. That person will also save a bit of money on his/her hosting.

For a long time I left my affiliate link off the site. I was concerned about promoting a product that people were having trouble with (I’m sure searching Google for “Dreamhost Downtime” will yield ample evidence.) However, Dreamhost has been so reliable for me and for such a long time now, that I’m ready to shout their praises from the rooftops, so to speak. They also have the easiest-to-use control panel I’ve ever encountered at a web host, which is a nice bit of icing on the cake. So go forth and and take advantage of their value-priced hosting with excellent features, and feel free to use my affiliate link if you’d like to save yourself a bit of money. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.