Why not to use Flash for your portfolio

Do you remember the day when it was cool to have a Flash intro on your home page? All the creative people were trying to outdo each other and to come up with more and more complex animations, spiced up with sound effects and music that would enforce the visitors impression about the owner’s good taste.

I can see you’re nodding… Those were the days…

But than, people started complaining about the background music, and would find it too intrusive. Music got muted by default and sound effects slowly, but steadily disappeared as an accessory for web design. It didn’t took too long to realize, except all the self-absorbed “geniuses” and misguided clients, that Flash intros are a huge waste of time, they are not accessible and have zero SEO value, not to mention the high bounce rates.

Good!

The other day I clicked a link shared by a friend on Facebook, it was the portfolio of a photographer with a series of images shot in India. It was done with Flash, the fancy way, I could click back and forth, there was even a full screen mode or I could just sit back and let the slideshow play. I did not had a lot of time, I wanted to quickly go trough the images, but I couldn’t. The pictures would appear one after another, with a loading counter between them, but what I wanted to have a general view and not to be forced to wait.

Today there are less and less devices that play Flash, even Adobe stopped developing the mobile version, so why put your eggs in a basket that is sinking?

Raj and Niru

It was about this time two years ago, that I was invited to the wedding of my best friend, Raj, and he also trusted me to take pictures during the ceremony.

As a photographer weddings always make me nervous, because the pressure to have great result is huge. There is no going back, it’s a unique event for the groom and maid and their whole family. Raj told me not to worry and to be as creative as I want, because there were two more photographers hired to document the event.

It was the first time I witnessed a Hindu wedding, so to make sure I’m familiar with the ceremony, beforehand I watched a couple of time the video recording of another Tamil wedding.

I decided to go for a more journalistic approach and to focus more on the small details, those that are usually the first to fade from the memory.

Here is a small sample of some of the pictures I took that day:

Web accessibility, a case study

Developing an accessible website

We’re getting there, the website is in its final phase of development and polishing. The launch date is getting closer and closer and we want it to be perfect. Of course, the many years of designing for the web, taught me that there is no such thing as perfect when it comes to websites. The good thing bout the Web is that it’s a platform and a product that can be tweaked and improved even after it lives in the public realm.

From the very begging of the planning and development of the website, we wanted to make it accessible. Everything was checked and double checked, to make sure that the design, the navigation and the content will make sense for a person using a screen reader.

The technology

Our choice of Drupal as a CMS, proved to be the perfect match for developing an accessible website. It comes with many built in functionalities that help develop accessible websites.

There are other CMS-es too that you can use to make accessible website, the tool is not as important as the way you implement it and use it.

The design

Everything on the website has to have a meaning, we reduced the number of decorative elements to a minimum, in order to speed up the loading time and also to direct the attention of the visitors to the main content.

The color scheme, while following the visual identity guidelines of the City, it is used in a way that even color blind visitors will be able to navigate it. The contrast is high enough that even users with poorly calibrated screens will understand the structure and the navigation.

Links in the content are underlined and in the navigation, there are visual clues to highlight a roll-over or an active link.

The navigation

While we were working on the tree view of the navigation, we organized the links in a logical way. Ulterior testing with users helped us fine-tune it even more.

The first link screen readers will get is a “Skip to content” link, that helps the users skip the whole navigation of the page and get to the juice of the content. This is hidden for other users, not to clutter the menu and unnecessarily confuse people.

On the bottom of the page there is an expanded sitemap with the main pages organized by section. This is to help people navigate the site without having to deal with the drop-down menu.

The content

The content is organized with headers, to give a logical hierarchic order.

Illustrations, all have alt attributes, where there is a description of the image for the screen reader. It was quite funny to see that the blind lady, who was so kind to accept to test the website, had found a typo in one of the alt texts. Something that we overlooked, she was fast to find.

Tables are used only for tabular data only, there is no table used for design. They are structured with thead and tbody, as well as with th and td, to make a clear distinction between table heads and the rest of the tabular data.

We built the forms in a way to make it clear for the screen reader what is the label for the input.

The test

Testing was a very important part of our development. Having the website tried out by people of different age group and different familiarity with the Internet, gave us important clues about how to tweak the website to make it better. We had one test subject who is using a screen reader and she loved the website, she had no problem navigating and understanding the content of the site. There was one exception, that we’ll have to sort out in the coming days, before going live with the website.

Conclusions

The first step is to recognize the need to pay attention to it, at the very beginning of the project.

Think of the user who can’t see the website, or can’t identify colors, or even the one that can’t use a mouse to brows, how will they see or navigate the content? Answering this questions will have a huge impact on the wireframe and the layout mock-ups.

Following web standards will already place you on the right track, but there are other great resources to learn about accessibility. I learned a lot from WebAIM, they have a great collection of resources and articles about how to build accessible websites. Of course the W3C WCAG 2.0 is the ultimate source of web accessibility info and if you live in Quebec, you should follow the standards developed by the Gouvernment (in French only).

The good news and the bed news is that, even after the development of the website is done and all the initial content is integrated in an accessible manner, the job is not finished. There are always tweaks you can do, to make it better and if you are not the only person contributing with content to the website, be prepared to give proper guidance to the other contributors about accessibility.

The cherry on the top of the cake

If you have a hard time convincing your client or boss, about the importance of accessibility, tell them that Web Accessibility is not rocket science and it’s not difficult to achieve. If they still don’t listen, you can always pull out the ultimate ace, Google is the biggest blind on the Web, so you better make it accessible if you want to have a decent ranking.

Drupal Camp Montreal 2011

I spent this beautiful autumn weekend with fellow Web geeks at the 2011 Montreal Drupal Camp. Three days of talks about nodes, fields and other intimidating codewords. Although I consider myself a beginner, I still managed to follow to a certain degree a few intermediate level presentations and some of them I really enjoyed.

Since we were in Montreal, for obvious reasons, many presentations were dealing with current, or upcoming internationalization features of Drupal. I found especially interesting Gábor Hojtsy‘s presentation about the future of i18n in Drupal 8, a project on witch he’s working on with a bunch of other developers. I’m happy to see that the interface is going to be cleaned up, a lot of junk will go away and there will be a lot of effort put into making the Configuration translatable.

He also held another great presentation about Drupal security, where he basically went trough the OWASP Top 10 Web Application Security Risks for 2010 and talked about how to use Drupal to avoid these problems. If any of you want to learn more about Drupal security, according to Gábor, Greg Knaddison’s Cracking Drupal: A Drop in the Bucket is a must read.

I also attended Jake Strawn’s presentation about responsive design. He’s the guy who developed the popular Drupal theme, Omega. He’s main messages was that design should be done with mobile in mind first, and only once that is sorted out to think about larger screens. There were a few case studies presenting different approaches and techniques to achieve a responsive layout.

Overall it was a great conference and as always, attending the presentations was just as fun as the breaks, when I could meet really interesting people. I found the presentations of only 45 minutes to be too short, often there was not enough time for questions. Maybe next time the presenters should cut down on their slides and leave more time for Q&A.

It was my first time at a Drupal Camp and if I would compare it the Wordcamp we had back in July, I was surprised to see so few participants. I met with people who came down from Ottawa and they were really happy to be here, so I don’t know where were all the other Montreal Drupalists? For sure I’m looking forward to Drupal Camp Montreal 2012.

Would you tell everything?

Last week I attended a conference/camp about social media and PR for municipal employees. The day past fast, there were quite a few interesting workshops, but what really puzzled me was a workshop about PR during an emergency situation.

The presenter is consultant for municipalities in what to do and how to do things during an emergency. He asked us a question, what would we do if we would know that something bad will happen in the next hour, would we tell everything or would we withhold the information from the public?

He asked us to raise our hand if we would tell everything. There was no one in the room who would raise their hand, so I went ahead and raised it. There were others who joined me, but still we were a minority, the trouble makers…

He than gave us an example from his personal experience: during the infamous ice storm of 1998, he was in the emergency management team of a city hall, when they got the news that the city has water for one more hour. What to do? If they tell the public, the water would be finished in five minutes and they feared that chaos will erupt. Finally they have decided not to tell the population, but instead warn different official institutions about the imminent water shortage.

Well, his example was an elegant way of telling us, that we were wrong; here it is a good example when withholding an information can result in certain advantages.

Somehow I’m still not convinced by his argument. Is it easier to handle a crisis when just a few people know about an imminent situation? For sure it is! Is it the best thing to do? I’m not that sure.

I don’t have to go far back in time,let’s just take the example of Fukushima, where authorities have downplayed the danger of the radiation even as the whole World was following it closely. For sure they achieved what they wanted the World is now starting to forget even as radiation is worst than ever. Or we can think of Chernobyl, where the Soviets didn’t tell anyone about the accident. Back to Japan, there was the  Toyota, for sure it was way less catastrophic situation, still the management of Toyota preferred to hide under the carpet, or if you prefer, under the floor mat, their problem.

What was the thing that they all lost? Credibility!

By hiding the truth, you might gain something on short term, like you have water for 45 minutes instead of five, but on the long term you lose credibility.

Well, this is my two cents… How about you? What would you do? Would you tell everything?

Architecture in uniform at the CCA

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, installation view at the CCA. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

We were on our way to home from work with my wife, when we got caught in that blessing of peace and prosperity, called traffic jam. On the radio they were talking about the exhibition Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, organized at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and a conference that was about to start, given by the curator of the exhibition, the professor of history of architecture Jean-Luis Cohen.

What an interesting and unexpected subject to research, because war I see as a period of extreme violence, a time when civilization stops from evolving to plunge into a self-destructing chaos, but Jean-Luis Cohen looked beyond the surface to uncover the fascinating world of civil engineering and architecture during WWII, an uncovered period in the history of Architecture.

The decision was taken on the spot; we took the first exit and headed to the CCA building. The exhibition was not yet open to the public, so we could not go trough it beforehand, this made us even more curios to learn about this topic.

When the lights went off, there we had Jean-Luis Cohen on the stage of Paul Desmarais Theatre, talking about war, architecture, architects, propaganda and politics. I don’t recall any conference that would equal this presentation, the slides were archive images without any text whatsoever (PowerPoint presentations are for images not for texts) and Mr. Cohen was talking freely with such eloquence that I felt humbled by the knowledge he was emanating.

The presentation was not structured chronologically, but rather on different topics, a structure that later when I returned to see the exhibition I recognized in the way the way the exhibits are organized in seven galleries.

This approach offers a bird eye view of different problems architects and engineers were faced during this period, such as the resistance of civilian buildings against bombs, the importance of bunkers, camouflage of cities and the way architects would come up with solutions in the different parts of the World, from France to Russia, from England to Germany.

At the time when there were no GPS guided bombs delivered by drones, or night vision, pilots were guided by the light of cities and the shape of rivers and mountains. Every nation had its own approach to concealing strategically important buildings and neighbourhoods. To mislead the enemy, some went as far as recreating Paris, the City of Lights, by using a network of light bulbs outside the city, others, the Russians for example created a fake Kremlin while hiding the real one. The Americans used Hollywood set designers to cover strategic factories with fake gardens and parks.

The exhibition is also presenting those architects that were putting their knowledge to the service of destruction, such as the ones that laid down the plan of Auschwitz, were killing people was part of the design, or the architects in the service of the US Army that helped in the research and development of bombs, to maximize their effect on the German civilian buildings.

The exhibition is beautifully designed and it doesn’t matter if you are interested in history or in architecture, in design or in propaganda, you will find plenty of things to learn and discover. It is open until the 18th of September and I find it to be one of the most interesting exhibitions in town at this time.

The bird inside everyone

For Hungarians birds are symbolizing freedom. Free as a bird, because a bird can fly anywhere, it can escape Winter, a hunter or hunger. All it has to do, is to open its wings and let the wind take her up, high in the sky.

People stopped from their work and looked up on the sky to see the birds fly South as Autumn was settling in. How many of them wished they could escape Winter? How many times they wished they could escape age? Yes, age, because birds never get old, or at least nobody ever saw an old bird.

When the snow is melting, the cold silence of the Winter is suddenly replaced by the noisy chirping of birds in love. A noisy and colorful love, a shameless love, a sincere love.

Then there is the chicken. The poor thing, for Hungarians is representing ignorance. How else could they could explain that there is a bird that prefers to rout for food in the dirt, and it keeps laying eggs every single day and never tried to learn how to use its wings?

We are all born with a bird inside, as we grow up, our bird is itching more and more try out its wings, it wants to fly, it wants to go see the World from the sky, it wants to go South when Winter comes. We are then told that we should tame our bird, we should teach it how to become a chicken, because the chicken is safe, the chicken will never go hungry. How sad, we listen to them, because in our naiveté we believe that their big fat chicken is the most amazing bird. Soon, we forget the sky, we forget the inviting warmth of the South and we start laying eggs every single day.

What kind of bird is inside you? Is it a chicken? If yes, would you please start using your wings!

You know, the sky is still there.

Black screen problem solved

CR2032 battery

The other day, when starting up my computer, it would not boot… I could hear some buzz, probably from the hard drive or the fan, but there was no beep at all, and my screen was black.

Not a good sign, my thought have immediately went to the story I heard about the high number of solar explosions this year, and how they are going to affect our gadgets. It was the last thing I wanted to do, to change my computer… It was behaving just right, nothing fancy, doing what it was supposed to do and now I am looking at a black screen.

I started googling, to find a solution, but most of the websites were talking about short circuits on the motherboard and other scary scenarios. Not finding an easy solution I turned to Tweeter to see what tweepl can recommend as a laptop to replace my desktop. A friend of mine recommended an Assus machine from Newegg.ca, great specs and amazing price. I slept on it and the next day I bought it with extended warranty, just in case the solar explosions would play me another bad trick.

I started getting used to the idea, that I’ll have another computer and that I’ll have to spend a whole weekend to set it up the way I need it, when I made one last try and I found a website mentioning the battery on the motherboard.

Bingo! That was it, all it took was to replace the battery that came from the factory with a new one and now my computer would boot normally ( I’m actually writing this post from it).

Now the big question was, what am I going to do with the laptop that I just bought? I logged in to my account on Newegg and I saw that the order is still processing and it was not shipped. I contacted customer support over chat, in 2 minutes my order was canceled and I was fully reimbursed.

Conclusions

1. Sometimes all it takes is a battery to get your computer back to normal.
2. Social networks are great places to start
3. Newegg.ca has very attractive prices for well equipped laptops
4. and they also have great customer service

Why social media is important for the Green Party of Canada

I won’t write a blog post listing “Top 10 …” whatever reasons and advises, let me just focus on a single event that happened today. It was in the news since this morning, that the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May is not invited to participate in the TV debate of the leaders.

While at first this seems to be a fatal blow to a political campaign, not all is lost. We’re in 2011 and social media can still save the day, especially if it’s used in wisely. Let’s see how the Green Party is doing on the different social media platforms.

Blog

Although the press likes to talk more about Facebook and Twitter followers, at the end of the day it’s still the blog that is the corner stone of any social media campaign. On the Green Party website there is a section used for the blog, so there they have plus one (+1) from me. It’s not given though enough emphasis on the website. A website that is heavy on text and tight on images, let’s take for example the page presenting the message of the leader: at 579 words, it’s quite a long text. Would there have been a video with the same message, it would have been more digestible by people who are lazy to, or can’t read. (-1)

The blog gives me the feeling that I truly read her personal opinion, which is great (+1), but she could have taken this further with spicing up the posts with photos and videos (-1). Commenting on the posts is a complete failure. Anyone wanting to comment has to first register, accept a lengthy terms and condition text, go trough a Captcha (which is not accessible for visually impaired) and only than the comment can be posted. (-5)  The result is that there are really few comments on the posts. Would they have used a more open concept, without putting up all these barriers, commenting would have been much more fun. If they are afraid of trolls, well, there are other methods to fight them, they could have been using the Facebook username and password for comments, or less intrusive tools, such as Akismet.

Facebook

I had to search a bit around to find the right page. First I was looking for the Green Party of Canada, page that exist, but seems to be neglected; all it has it’s some text copy-pasted from Wikipedia. Then I was looking for Elizabeth May, here I finally found a page that has more up to date stuff (+1), with more than 8000 fans (+1). Here is another tip I would give to the person in charge of this page: Facebook pages that have more than 25 fans can have a clean URL, meaning that instead of http://www.facebook.com/pages/Elizabeth-May/20647428344 they could have changed the URL to http://www.facebook.com/Elizabeth-May. Again it’s a small detail, but it can make a big difference, when it comes to printing the address on promotional materials. Until this is fixed, I have to give a minus one (-1). What is interesting to notice, the Facebook page, unlike the blog, is open and it’s thriving (+5).

Twitter

She’s using two Twitter accounts, @ElizabethMay for her English tweets (812 Tweets | 4,232 Following | 15,332 Followers | 1,129 Listed) and @MayElizabeth for the French tweets (166 Tweets | 268 Following | 322 Followers | 41 Listed). While on the English account there is a lot of interaction and dialog going on (+1), the French account is purely a broadcasting tool (-1), I’m not sure about its value as a separate account.

YouTube

Quite surprising, they actually have a YouTube channel (+1)! After visiting their website, I have a hard time believing there is a Green Party YouTube channel, but I could not find one video on their website (-1). Comments are open, but not too many views, no surprise if they keep this channel secret. Why there is no video section on the Facebook page (-1)?

Conclusion

I don’t want to comment if the Broadcast Consortium did the right thing, or they just shot themselves in their foot. It remains to see how the Green Party will be able to capitalize on all the buzz created by this news.

As the other Canadian political parties, they have a social media presence too, with some of their platforms more active than the others. What is missing, is a bit more creativity in using all these channels together. Mashups are not just fun ways of spicing up websites, but they are also important in sending out a strong message. Now it might be too late, the campaign has already started and social media is a long term investment.

Modern civilization shaking and melting in Japan

The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Ukiyo-e by Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Ukiyo-e by Katsushika Hokusai

The extent of the damages, caused by the earthquake and tsunami, are slowly being revealed. As I’m writing these lines, the outcome of the Fukushima nuclear power plant failure is uncertain and there are less and less optimistic voices.

The reaction of the outside world to all these events is quite different compared to other recent events of this magnitude. Let’s just think back to the tsunami of December 2004, or the more recent earthquakes of Haiti and Chile.

The Canadian Red Cross has collected far less money for the Japanese disaster relief than during the Haiti quake. People are hesitant to donate, after all Japan is a rich country, a G7 member and it’s probably the best prepared nation to face earthquakes and tsunamis.

There is another factor too that can have a big impact on the donations the Red Cross or other NGOs are receiving, the media with is TV and photo cameras are covering differently this event. While in Haiti the news were filled with images of people in tents, even weeks after the quake every night the evening news was almost entirely all about the victims of the earthquake, the people.

In Japan, just few of the images are showing people, mostly focusing on the spectacular shots of the tsunami and the explosions at Fukushima. We won’t see women crying, kids screaming and men rioting, instead we are shown soldiers and rescue workers in uniforms working tirelessly to find survivors, clean up the mess or being busy to sacrifice their own health to cool down melting nuclear reactors. We’ll also see man in suits discussing in Vienna how to handle the PR coup the nuclear industry just got, or finance ministers trying to get back the market to green.

When I hear in the news that soldiers at Fukushima had to stop working because the levels of radiation is too high, I wonder where the technological miracle of Japan and the Western World in general is? To what good is to have robots able to play a violin or play soccer if during a nuclear crisis, human beings have to be sacrificed? Where are all the wonder robots, the transformers and remote controlled gadgets? Why can’t we leave music, painting and sports for to humans to do it? These are all activities that need soul, while going close to a melting reactor should be rather left to robots.

Why engineers have to work on building drones to kill people, instead of building tools to save lives? Imagine a drone that could be used for aerial firefighting, it could work non stop for days and could go to places you wouldn’t send anyone. I’m sure there are brilliant engineering minds that could come up with many other solutions to build a better World, why are they employed to do the wrong gadgets?

In Japan our entire civilization shook and now it’s melting, so don’t hesitate to do the right thing by helping.

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