I wrote a post for IdeaLab earlier today. It’s a short update on ReportingOn development, framed as a weighing of the pros and cons of a few different development platforms.
It occurred to me near the end of it that I should treat this project as if the developer was someone other than myself. (Yes, at some point in the next year, I’m planning on hiring out some design work on the site, and possibly some development for a specific purpose or two, but not right away.)
So here are five tips for working with Web developers and designers:
- Content is king: Your new hire or freelance pal can’t magically build a site out of nothing. You need to know exactly what type of content lives on your site. That doesn’t mean you need to write a bunch of fake entries or create phantom profiles, although that couldn’t hurt. It means you need to know what belongs in each space on the front page, and where the links on that page lead. Please don’t tell a designer what you want “it” to look like if you haven’t talked about what “it” is. This happens all the time.
- Start with a pencil: That’s right, it’s time to whip out ye olde dead tree times two — paper and pencil. Personally, I prefer swiping a sheet of 11×17 from the nearest printer. Lots of room for notes at that scale, plus, you’re going to want to draw all sorts of crazy arrows and add captions and numbers and diagrams and… maybe that’s just me. But either way, this is your first prototype: Paper and pencil. Pen if you prefer to live dangerously.
- Prototype in HTML if you can: If you know enough HTML (and preferably, CSS) to build a little dummy page with links that go nowhere, by all means, do it. Not only will this exercise help you build out a map of your site, showing you and your developer friends what needs to be a link and where it might lead, but if you’re good with HTML and CSS, these dummy pages might even become templates you can plug dynamic code into later.
- See more than one option: Once you’re relatively settled on branding and a rough color scheme (stick with words for colors at this stage, not hex codes), you’ll want to see multiple iterations of the design. Consider these rough drafts, not final products to accept or reject. Now is the time to finalize that color scheme, make some decisions about where to place those blocks of content, and eliminate any features that feel superfluous.
- Don’t pixel-push: Seriously, do you really think it’s going to matter in the end whether or not there’s just a little bit more whitespace around that heading? It’s not going to matter to your users. If precise design and perfect typography is your thing, hire someone who is an expert at putting those elements in just the right spot. It’s nice if you can get it all looking just the way you pictured it in your head, but you should really just hire people you can trust, and then trust them. Chances are, they have built more of these than you have, and their judgment (and experience) is there for a reason.
And a bonus tip: Pay attention to the dominant trends in Web development and design. If you’re involved at all in the building of Web sites these days, you should at least be taking a cursory glance at A List Apart, 37signals, and the work of Khoi Vinh, Dan Cederholm, and everyone you see in the blogrolls or posts on all these sites.
The goal here isn’t to throw around buzzwords; it’s to better understand the real words your developers and designers are using. Don’t say “AJAX!!!” without reading about it first, for example. You’ll have a better time talking with the construction crew if you have some level of familiarity with the materials.
Your tips for working with humans who work with code?
In the comments…
The cool kids launched like a bazillion sites last night. Impressive stuff.
New Wicked Local – Howard Owens
A great follow-up to this weekend’s Carnival of Journalism. Doug Fisher goes in-depth on one town / one newspaper, analyzes what they’ve tried, re: innovation (or catching up, as the case may be).
Anderson conflicted – Common Sense Journalism
I’m jumping the gun on putting up this post to serve as the center ring for the May Carnival of Journalism.
Earlier today, I asked the list of carnivalers to consider answering this question at the core of driving innovation at mainstream news organizations:
What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?
People ask me a version of this question nearly every day, overwhelmed by the barrage of demands made on them by people like me who roll through their newsrooms and ask them to put in more time on online news.
Think you have the answer? Let’s talk about it in the comments.
I’ll add links below to what the CofJ performers have to say, but here’s a starter link to get the ball rolling:
Matt King, a reporter and beatblogger at what I’d call a small-to-medium sized newspaper in New York, says the low hanging fruit of the police beat is actually a bit of an albatross, and that meeting stories should be the next item up against the wall when the revolution comes.
What do you think? What are we covering that we could turn over to the community? What are we wasting our time on?
- David Cohn, my Knight News Challenge brother-in-arms, says news organizations should save money by dropping AP wire content. I’m with him on this, more or less: No one is subscribing to your newspaper to find out what’s going on outside of a 50-mile radius of your town, unless you’re the New York Times, Washington Post, or USA Today, with few exceptions.
- Pat Thornton, Journalism Iconoclast, says the problem is a staffing issue first and foremost: “Why have two staffs to produce editorial content, when most employees could be creating content that works on multiple platforms?
- Charlie Beckett, Director of the POLIS journalism think think in the UK, lets Dr. Who help explain how new media technology is like time travel, or at least, how it can be for the traditional institutions willing to focus on the advantages it brings along.
- Adrian Monck, a J-School professor in London among other affiliations, is unimpressed with what most local newspapers are up to on the Web: “The online newspaper remains the formula for almost everyone. The paper is still the ‘brand’ – for which read the fraying security blanket on which ad sales are predicated.”
- Alfred Hermida, BBC veteran and journalism educator, takes the pulse of where traditional media stands when it comes to participatory journalism. I definitely think giving readers clearly defined spaces to add information to the offerings at a traditional news site is one of the keys to freeing up full-time staffers to Do Journalism instead of copy editing calendar submissions, among other timesinks.
- John Ndege of ScribbleSheet offers up three tips for news organizations. My favorite is #3: Behave like a technology company.
- Jack Lail, online content boss at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, reports on the answers to the above question from three colleagues at Scripps, including the editor of a paper in Anderson, S.C., which has dropped a daily Lifestyles section and flattened its newsroom structure a bit, with all reporters essentially on a general assignment beat for a geographic area.
- Will Sullivan, Journerdist and Interactive Director at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, lets fly a long missive with details on how your news organization can get organized to save time and money. Details include: Use Web-based collaboration tools to track projects and progress, cut way down on meetings, and streamline middle-management.
- Jay Rosen, NYU J-School professor and PressThinker, notes in the comments here that my question is aimed at getting newsrooms to cut a task instead of getting the people formerly known as the audience to perform one of those tasks. I definitely see these as complementary angles. For example, there’s absolutely no reason why a staffer should be proofing and formatting calendar submissions e-mailed in by readers. They should be submitting their own items in a Web-based tool that puts out an XML feed to reverse-publish into print.
- Andy Dickinson, a UK J-prof and longtime newspaper video thinker, says getting over “the ownership thing” can free up intellectual cycles for innovation. His advice: “Give everyone in the newsroom playtime” a la Google. Agreed!
- John Hassell of the Newark Star-Ledger reframes the question, pointing out that innovative ideas can come straight from staffers intent on changing their own workflow. Conveniently enough, John has several great examples handy from the Star-Ledger, including Morristown Green, a hyperlocal play that appears to be drawing in local readers, comments, and even video from the community — if I remember correctly, John was heading up an effort to hand out Flip video cameras to locals with a little training.
- Bryan Murley of the Center for Innovation in College Media passes the question back to student media advisers, wondering what – if anything – can be cut out of a news organization’s workflow in a learning environment.
- Adam Tinworth, blogger-in-chief at Reed Business Information, offers up some straight talk: “If your business is predicated on breaking news on paper, give it up now. That’s a doomed effort. It ain’t going to work.” Long-term, he’s right. So how much of your news staff’s time is spent slogging through a list of daily tasks that assume a once-a-day print publishing cycle is going to be around for long?
- Doug Fisher, J-School profblogger, digests the question and comes up with a practical method for cutting down on double work in the newsroom: Write your budget lines like you mean it. I think this can kill a few birds with one stone in larger newsrooms, saving reporters brief-writing time (or budget line writing time, depending on your order of operations) while getting news out quickly.
Rob Curley moderated a panel at the conference I was at last week, and he said that he tries to only work on projects that “move the needle.” So what are you spending your time on today that isn’t moving the needle?
(Flickr photo originally uploaded by David!!!!!!)
Here are the highlights, in no particular order, from my trip to Missouri and Kansas:
- Talking shop with Will Sullivan and Kurt Greenbaum from STLToday.com.
- Getting much better at making my presentation on the mysterious world of Web-first publishing.
- Watching reporters get excited about pothole maps and point & shoot video.
- Pizza and pitchers with Clyde Bentley, Isabelle, and Beth at Shakespeare’s in Columbia, MO.
- Looking over a publisher’s shoulder as he signed up for YouTube and posted a video he had edited while I talked with his news staff.
- Finding the best local lunch spots by looking for crowded parking lots.
- Driving through Kansas City, MO at sunset after three days in the middle of Missouri.