Category Archives: Web

Why designers need SEO

You may be a great graphic designer and you may be able to come up with breathtaking designs in a few hours and draw illustrations from scratch, but do you have the means to sell your skills online? Can you market your designs and acquire new customers every single day? Do you have the means to expand your business so that you can reach potential international clients? Do you know how to use SEO to help people find your business on search engines?

You may be the only person holding yourself back. For all you know, you might already have been able to make it big in the design industry, if only you had known how to use SEO when you started out. Yes, even graphic designers need to learn SEO. The sooner you accept this, the faster your business will grow.

What is SEO?

If you’re still reading this, you have probably decided that you wanted to learn SEO. I know that this term may be unfamiliar to many of you, which is why I included the following explanation.

SEO stands for “search engine optimisation.” Simply speaking, it is a process that helps you optimize your website and links, so that search engine robots believe your site is about a particular keyword.

This process came about due to the fact that most people use Google and other search engines to discover new websites. When searching for something, you key in a particular keyword in the search bar. The process of getting your website to appear on the front page of search engine listings became known as search engine optimization.

I know that some of you may be thinking SEO sounds a little complicated. That’s okay. After all, I’m still trying to explain why you even need it.

So, why do you need SEO (even as a designer)?

You can get repeat clients from the quality of your designs alone, but you can get new clients using SEO.

First of all, I’ll state the most obvious, you can create amazing designs, which may win you some referrals and some repeat clients, but you have to realize that a lot of new clients come from SEO. Why? You need to be ranked highly on search engines if you want to have an online presence. It isn’t good enough to have wonderful designs if nobody can find you.

If you think that SEO is way too technical or not your cup of tea, you can always outsource the process. It is a worthwhile investment, as it can get you more clients. But if you have the time, try your best to learn SEO yourself, as it will pay off more in the long run.

You cannot do SEO friendly designs if you don’t know anything about SEO

Let’s face it. Webmasters no longer require mere designs. Usually, they need a designer who also understands how SEO works. Why is this the case? Well, they are hiring designers to help boost their business, so they want a designer who won’t hurt their rankings. Sure, they need your design, but you need to convince them that it can easily bring in sales. Forgetting to use SEO in the design process is a detriment to your business.

Now, if you’re more of a designer and you don’t have the time or patience to learn SEO, you can always work with a SEO company or team to help make your designs search engine friendly before submitting them to your clients. This extra feature will require extra money, but it’s definitely a feature worth paying for.

It is best not to put all your eggs in one basket

You may be a master of design, but, as every business owner knows, you should never let your business revolve around only one type of service. If you can learn SEO, link building, and even computer programming, then you should absolutely do so. Always diversify your services so that you can make more sales.

Now if your design team has too much on their plate, you can always work with an independent SEO team. The good thing about this is that you’ll be working with people who already know SEO. You no longer need to train them. You just need to create a deal and you’ll be ready to attract some clients.

It’s time to end your solitary love affair with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, and spend some time with Google, Yahoo, and Bing. It is just a matter of learning basic SEO.

If you chose to outsource your SEO needs, make sure to use a trusted SEO provider that has been in the business for a long time and knows what they are doing. This way, you’ll know that your design firm is in good hands.

Top Firefox & Chrome Extensions for Designers

For freelance graphic designers hard at work on their laptops all day there are literally thousands of browser add-ons and extensions that can be utilized to enable your creativity to flow at its maximum potential. But it can be a difficult task knowing which extensions to choose. So here is my personal list of top extensions for graphic designers for both Firefox and Chrome.

The best of Firefox

Fireshot

Fireshot is capture tool that allows you to take an instant screenshot of any webpage you are visiting. The tool also has many editing and annotation functions which can be used to insert words and text alongside images on a page. Fireshot is the perfect tool to enable quick notes and edits to be logged without the need to open up various documents at one time. This tool is also perfect for creating presentations of a webpage for clients.

Pixel Perfect

This add-on is great for tweaking the opacity of images by allowing you to compensate for and edit the amount of pixels an image has. The Pixel Perfect tool allows designers to overlay the composition of their images and make adjustments if the images are over pixilated.

Measureit

A tool that operates in the vein as Pixel Perfect, Measureit allows you to measure the sizing of any images or graphics on any webpage. With this tool you are able to instantly measure graphics and the ease of using the tool cannot be overstated.

Open With Photoshop

This tool can be summed-up perfectly by its title. Open With Photoshop allows any graphic designer to instantly open up any image found online in Photoshop. The image is saved automatically and has been created with Photoshop CS4 users in mind.

ColorZilla

Any list of top Firefox add-ons would be incomplete without a mention of ColorZilla. This versatile tool allows you to firstly identify any colour used on a webpage including subtle differences in tone. The tool allows you to view the RGB, HSL and hexidagonal code of any colour and once identified, enables you to save this colour tone for ever. This means that you can build your own personalized colour palette from scratch and are not forced to use the pipette tool.

The best of Chrome

What’s the Font

Ever come across a unique style of font used on a webpage and not known what the font was? Well this problem will now be a thing of the past as the What’s the font tool will identify any type of font at once. All you need to do is highlight the piece of text in question and voila!

Evernote

The life of a freelance graphic designer can be pretty chaotic at times and tools such as Evernote are designed to keep you on top of those important deadlines. The tool functions as a virtual notepad, allowing you to make notes, doodles and lists at ease. Additionally, images, audios or pdfs can be attached to these notes at an instant. To keep track of your notes, you can organize them via keywords meaning you’ll never lose track of that source of inspiration again.

Split Screen

Whilst your home office will have many screens, when you’re out and about you cannot carry a second screen with you. The tool Split Screen eliminates this problem by allowing you to keep one half of the screen fixed to one webpage, whilst the other half functions like a second screen and can be used for browsing and other tasks. You’ll never need to switch from tab to tab again!

Microstock Photo Power Search Tool

Whilst most designers will have their favrouite stockphoto image sites, there are times when your usual site doesn’t have the right image that you’re looking for. That’s where Microstock comes in. The tool aggregates images from some of the best sites (Shutterstock and Dreamstime to name two) and allows you to search these agencies through the comfort of one tool. – This add-on is an absolute time saver.

Bounce

The Bounce extension is a great way to share your work with other designers or your friends. You can receive instant feedback to your work by making a screenshot of the page in question; add some notes to the shot and then share the URL of your screenshot. This URL can be shared with your friends via twitter and Facebook within just a few clicks.

What add-ons do you use and do you have any favourites that are not featured in this list?

Form Design: Best Practices

Gradients. Don’t you just love their multi-coloured wowness. And drop shadows – where would we be without them? And forms… yeeaaaaah! Wait, they’re a bit boring, aren’t they?

Whilst designers (sorry, I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush!) have been doing their darndest to create fancy feature panels, bold backgrounds and tricky transitions; there’s the runt of the litter that seems to always be neglected. The after-thought.

We all hate filling out forms on web pages but they are a necessary evil – conveying information from one party to another for a specific purpose. Therefore, why shouldn’t this part of a web page be given the same treatment, the same amount of time and resources, as any other? Unfortunately, it does seem to be the case that forms are often chucked together (I’m guilty of it too!) with minimal thought but a form is often the best way of communicating with your audience so that makes them pretty important right?

In this article I’m going to share a few tips that may make your web forms easier for your visitors to use. Fortunately many modern website templates come with already built and fantastic forms!

1. Top-aligned labels

One of the biggest factors contributing towards ‘web form frustration’ is that the user is actually forced to THINK about what they are doing rather than just absorbing information. Looking at something on a web page usually ellicits a response – ‘that looks pretty’, ‘this product looks interesting’, ‘I wonder what this does’ – and the user then CHOOSES an appropriate action – ‘I’m going to click/touch this’, ‘I’m not going to click/touch this’. This is generally a smooth experience that the user feels comfortable with and they continue to browse on their merry way.

With web forms, the user doesn’t have an option other than to fill in the fields laid out in front of them. Therefore, they have to look at something, absorb the information, process what the information is telling them and then figure out for themselves what to do. Obviously, over the years, forms have developed certain conventions which everyone is aware of but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t improvements and efficiencies to be made. One particular step at which these improvements can be made is during the ‘processing’ stage. The clearer and easier you make it for the user to determine what they need to do next, the better the form experience and the less ‘web form frustration’ is felt.

Here we can apply some basic human and typographical conventions. Look around you. Whether it’s a book, road sign, billboard or other assortment of text, it is always easier and quicker to read something ‘long and thin’ than something ‘short and fat’ – where more words are stacked on top of each other than written side-by-side. This is why newspapers have columns – humans are lazy and it is easier to read a little bit across and start a new line than it is to read a big long line before moving to the next one. This same logic can be applied to form elements.

A top-aligned label is easier for the user to process and recognise the associated input field. The focus of the eye naturally starts on the left and the user immediately groups the label and input together before reading and processing what the label actually says. Moving onto the next label and input group is also easier as the user just moves their gaze downwards rather than ‘returning’ from the previous line.

Compare that with a layout where the label is aligned to the left (or even right) of the input field and the user has the extra step of recognising where the associated input is, as they haven’t spotted it yet, as well as encountering the ‘returning’ issue when they move on.

Try filling out a form with top-aligned labels and one with left-aligned labels – the top-aligned form just seems to flow better.

Top-aligned labels are also a lot better suited to handheld devices. With limited horizontal screen space, top-aligned labels are an absolute must when using forms on a mobile device as making your users scroll horizonatally is a cardinal sin.

One slight cost of having top-aligned labels is that the length of the web page will, inevitably, be longer than if using left-aligned labels. However, as we’ve discussed, the user will find ‘long and thin’ easier to process anyway so this is a sacrifice worth making.

2. Use the same form for the password reminder

The thing that maxes out ‘web page frustration’ is not having the information required to complete an input. One such case is forgetting your password. We’ve all done it and sometimes it’s a very laborious process trying to recover it.

Commonly, the password reminder process is triggered by clicking a link near to the password box. This is simple enough and works well. Often, however, this link will take you, the user, to a different page entirely where you have to process some more information before finally getting to the point where you get your password back. Sometimes a modal window is used, which is a better solution than sending the user off to another page, but it is still fairly intrusive. Why not switch a few things around, show a message and use the same form? The following example shows how the ‘forgot password?’ link fires a transition from the login form to the reminder form. It’s clear that this is a different form but it’s taken a tenth of the time it would (and looks a lot nicer!) than sending a user off to a different page.

Checkout this awesome password reminder example…

The wonderful Codrops have also produced a good example of this technique.

3. ‘Review and check’ email address inputs

One of the things I find most baffling about web forms is that the user is asked to repeat information they have already entered. There are two very common examples of this – email address and password fields. Firstly, the email address input. How many of you just copy and paste what you typed in the first box into the second box? Come on, hands up. Everyone does it including the person who built the form so what is the purpose of typing the same information twice? The answer is to ensure that the email address entered was indeed correct as this is obviously the best (and often only) way of communicating with the user. This is perfectly understandable and a hugely important check to make but why does the user have to repeat what they’ve already written? Why not ask them to review what they wrote previously and confirm it is correct?

This review can very easily be carried out with the use of a checkbox. The user checks the box next to the email address input to confirm they have written their email address correctly. Review and check.

Now, the user could, in theory, just check the box without reviewing what they wrote in the email address field and this could lead to mistakes. But with the duplicate field method, if the user is just copying and pasting anyway then these mistakes will still happen. It’s often argued that you should imagine your mother is using your web page (why is it always mums who are crap at using computers?!) and she should be able to understand and use it but why should all users be treated as the lowest common demoninator? The email field is probably the most important one on the form and the user knows it – it’s been hammered into them through years of repeatedly having to copy it to a second box! – so they WILL take care. The likely result of using the ‘review and check’ method is that there will be the same amount of mistakes made but the experience for the majority of users will be a lot smoother and less painful.

This leads us on nicely to the other repeat offender – the password field.

4. ‘Show password’ button

The password field is a slightly different but equally frustrating case. The user cannot copy and paste their entry from the first box to the second so the ‘auto-pilot’ mistakes won’t happen but, unlike the email address field, the user cannot actually see what they’ve typed. Therefore, if a failure happens there is no choice open to the user but to completely start over and fill out BOTH boxes again. So by typing one character incorrectly, the user has to fill out, essentially, the same input field FOUR times! Madness.

Now, obviously, the password field has certain security considerations surrounding it so, whilst it isn’t quite as simple as having a checkbox for the user to tick, a similar solution can be implemented to streamline the user experience.

Through the use of a nifty jQuery plugin*, we can insert a hidden duplicate input field with an accompanying button or checkbox which, when clicked, will ‘swap’ the password input for a regular input showing the password text (it hides one and shows the other depending on the state of the button). This means that the user can check their password and make sure it is correct before they submit the form.

There are a couple of obvious pitfalls with this method however meaning some refining is needed. Showing your password on screen isn’t advisable but how often do you type in important passwords with someone looking over your shoulder? This is a minor issue but a much larger one is using this method on a sign-up form. If the user types in their password, doesn’t check it and then submits the form, there is no reason why the information wouldn’t be correct but if it is incorrect then there is no recourse for the user and this would obviously lead to problems. Potentially, you could force the user to click the check button at least once but then this method becomes as equally intrusive and confusing for the user as the duplicate input method.

Another solution is to add a checkbox to accompany the form which acts as a confirmation much like the ‘review and check’ email address method discussed above.

NB. jQuery plugins

5. Have the newsletter sign-up checkbox unticked by default

For me, this is an act of common courtesy. If a user WANTS to hear about your company’s latest and greatest product then they will tick that little box themselves. Or they might visit your Twitter or Facebook page. Spamming with weekly, monthly or in some cases daily(!) emails telling people information they don’t really want to know does not endear you to them – it downright pisses them off. People don’t like to feel as though they have been tricked but that is exactly what pre-ticked newsletter sign-ups do. Why do you want to send an email – which will cost your company money! – to someone who most probably doesn’t want to hear what you have got to say?

Advertise your newsletter on the sign-up screen. Make it loud and proud and maybe say what is regularly included – that way you are genuinely inticing users into hearing your message and they will appreciate it rather than feeling duped.

It’s amazing how a small gesture like this is appreciated and casts you in a more human light to a user. That is infinitely more successful in promoting your product than a spam newsletter can be.

6. Make use of HTML5 input properties today!

To round up, I’m going to get a little more technical on y’all.

HTML5. Many people shy away when that initialisation is muttered, usually for one of two reasons; either they are scared of having to learn the ‘new’ markup or they know browser support isn’t universal just yet so they don’t bother.

But many HTML5 features CAN be used today quite safely and one area in which this is most relevant is with form elements. Several new input types and input attributes have been introduced into the HTML5 spec. They include the datepicker input, colour picker input, required attribute and a few others and in many modern browsers these will work out-of-the-box. Unfortunately, their styling is native so it could be very detrimental to your UI should the browser chuck in a validation message or two. And on browsers that don’t support them it provides a really bad and potentially unusable experience for the user.

However, some inputs and attributes can be used in the knowledge that they will be safely implemented across all browsers.

Email, URL and number input types

One trick tip regarding forms is that, if a browser doesn’t support the input type you have specified then it will revert to a standard text box input. For inputs such as a colour picker, this is not an acceptable solution but for fields like email address and URL, this is a perfectly acceptable example of graceful degradation.

For mobile users, where the keyboard layout can be particularly important in helping the user, these inputs are of particular importance and should be used generously.

Placeholder and autofocus input attributes

Two HTML5 attributes of a particularly subtle nature are placeholder and autofocus. Placeholder puts your specified text into the input box until the user focuses on the input, at which point the text disappears to leave the user free to fill in the input. For years, we’ve been hacking this solution into our forms and now it’s in the spec by default – magic! You can even use CSS to style the text in some browsers by using the custom attribute selectors ::-webkit-input-placeholder and :-moz-placeholder{color: red;} (yes, the colons are correct).

The autofocus attribute simply places the cursor into the input field on page load enabling the user to start typing straight away – typically this would be the first input in your form. For obvious usability reasons, autofocus is not supported by mobile browsers.

So there you have it, six tips to improving your website forms. These techniques can be used in nearly all situations, in all browsers with no regard as to whether CSS and/or JS is turned on so why not give them a go!