WEB DESIGN – ALEX HARRIS

WEB DESIGN

INTRO

Web design and development is not new, but it’s young. It’s a fascinating sector simply because it’s become a vital asset to a business, and yet nobody really knows what going on. You don’t have to know much about engines or mechanics in order to understand the difference between a Fiat 500 and a Hummer. However, when talking about web sites, to begin with, nobody wants to hear about programming, then you throw gas on the flame by trying to explain to the client how the website will perform differently on every computer, tablet and phone and sometimes even each browser. Today, there’s more than enough work for everybody in web development because in reality, web sites come in all shapes and sizes. There are developers who for instance just focus on landing pages, and agencies who perhaps focus on global size e-commerce. I, am right there in the middle.

BRIEF HISTORY

My history with web design started in the most unexpected of ways. At 22, I decided to go solo with music and used the name 17Kings. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about web design, but do bear in mind that my dad was a programmer, so programming wasn’t exactly foreign to me, at least, the idea that you had to write code that would tell a program to do something wasn’t. One of my best friends and flat mate at the time made me a website for 17Kings. Being a graphic designer, he even created the logo which I still use today. What a great gift! As years went by, I needed to update the site and while living in Dublin, found a friend of a friend who could do it, but this time it was going to cost me. I had a growing catalog of material and realized that updating the site was going to be costly. Still I didn’t really give that much importance to the site because I had other things to deal with in life, like life itself. At that same time, MySpace was the big thing and being me, I was always unsatisfied with the way my profile looked. I’d change Monday, and wake up on Tuesday already tired of it. It’s important to remember the brilliance of MySpace due to the fact that you could actually customize the look of your profile and contact section. So, the first time I ever used html, was actually in my MySpace bio in order to customize the page. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it worked. Moving on, I found myself living in Stockholm during the economic crisis of 2008. With not much work to be found, and enough time on my hands to learn something new and useful, a Swedish friend who worked in web design introduced me to Adobe Dreamweaver and explained that I should try learning about html so I could manage the 17Kings site on my own. Throughout that cold and dark Swedish winter (which I love), I studied html and Flash. At one point, I took a month off from doing any work, and basically slept 4 hours, then studied for 8, then slept for 4 and studied another 8. Sure, after that month, I learned almost everything I know about html…but I also learned a lot about my own sanity. But hey, I’m all in or nothing, that’s just me. Around 2010, back in Milan, the growth of iPhones relentlessly pushed Flash off the ledge, HTML5 and CSS3 were in, and thus I had to evolve because not only was I working on my own site, but a few friends were asking me to do theirs as well. A few years later, a good friend with whom I’d gone to audio school introduced me to WordPress…and that was it. Sure, I enjoyed the web development process, but because I was so used to doing it the long way, WordPress practically cut my delivery time in half and I found myself doing sites for not only friends, but friends of friends without any real sweat. I kept studying, and at some point, and I can’t remember when, I started charging people and it became a great job!

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PERSONAL TOUCH

Today, after all the sites I’ve done, I can say that next to the actual quality of your website, the most important thing a client needs, is to understand what their website is all about. Web design is mostly a form of advertising. Now, don’t worry, I’m not saying a client needs to know how to create a website or even update it. A client doesn’t need to know 95% of the technical aspects of a website. But not knowing that remaining 5% of technical information, is the real, and I emphasize “real” reason a year later, the client is unhappy with their website and have to spend more money on version 2. Sometimes they don’t know about that 5% because they blatantly ignore it, sometimes the web developer couldn’t be bothered to educate a client and just walks away after payday, and then there are those expensive options in between where you just delegate everything to an agency but is perfectly understandable in this context.

In my case, educating the client, even briefly is imperative and is actually free. I don’t charge for that time simply because I don’t consider it an option, I consider it fundamental so that the client is happy with the product, and I am too. It’s a known fact that if a person is unsatisfied and doesn’t know where things went wrong, rightfully so, they’ll put the blame on the guy who did the job. In addition, I don’t agree with charging someone when you explain their newly bought product to them.

Putting some exceptions aside as well as paid advertising options, if you have a website that performs poorly, responds poorly and doesn’t fit Google’s standards, I honestly think it’s better not to have one. If you want to impress Google, you have to do everything and anything possible to better the users experience. This is why I flaunt my scores. If you don’t know what GTmetrix is, for lack of better terms, it’s a site that grades/scores your website. Don’t confuse this with something like Google Analytics which gives you stats on engagement. There are a few sites around but GTmetrix is the biggest. Now, there are many developers who argue that your Google PageSpeed scores or GTmetrix scores don’t really mean anything in the end if the site works. My response has always been, well if you’re Apple or Nike, yeah, that’s true, but that’s because everybody knows of them and most importantly, trusts them. Instead, what about the little business with no name among another 99 nameless businesses? How do they rank? Well, Google favors those with not only the right content but better functionality. If the user experience is nice, Google eventually rewards you. However, if you don’t care about those things, the easiest solution is to just dish out loads of money directly to Google, if that’s your thing.

Though I can’t guarantee a double A score on any site simply because the client has the final word on what goes on to a page and what doesn’t, I can guarantee that whatever is up to me instead, will be up to standards. If you’re curious to see how your website fairs, just go to the most important page on your site (your choice, but usually the home page), copy the url (the link eg: https://example.com/), then go to GTmetrix, paste your url in the space and click on Test your site. By the way, if yours is http rather than https, you should look into that. Anyway, you will get a more precise idea of how your site fairs if you open even just a free account with GTmetrix, but it’s not the end of the world. Here’s your reference point:

Fully Loaded Time Avg. 7.2s
Don’t focus too much on this because there are settings for this if you have an account with GTmetrix. For instance, by default, GTmetrix uses their server in Vancouver, but if you’re in Europe, you would want to change that to London. However, I would try to get this under 3s.

Total Page Size Avg. 3.05mb
This is usually good from 2mb to 3mb. If you have something like 4mb, you might want to look into it.

Requests Avg. 88
Unless you’re loading a store with 20 or more products, a gallery with 30 or more images or a news site, you should have around 50 to 70 requests. In any case, though that is the norm, a well-developed page often has around 40. Requests can really make a big difference in your loading time.

PageSpeed Score Avg. 75%   YSlow Score Avg. 76%
As far as these scores are concerned, if you don’t have at least B’s on both, either your site is the 1 exception out of 100 or it probably isn’t optimized. Typically, I get A’s. That’s me bragging😉

An example of optimization that you might think about is what we call stripping the fat. Here’s the scenario: Your home page uses an image slider (an image slides to the left and another one appears), and though sliders tend to slow a page down just a bit, you need it on this page and so…who cares. But did you know that in most cases, a WordPress template will pre-load that same slider function (script) on each of your individual pages? Well now instead we should care because that slider, among many other scripts, is going to significantly slow down your site needlessly. In this case, we do asset management, and in layman’s terms simply tell the slider to load only on the page where we’re using it.

Here’s another example and then I’ll leave you alone. I actually referred to this before when I mentioned the https. So, does your site use an SSL certificate? Don’t know? Don’t worry, just load your site and check if it has a lock icon to the left of the url or if it says Not Secure, or simply says http or https depending upon the browser you use. If you’re using SSL, it has the lock or say https. Great! Now, there are those who say it’s not that important, “Well neither is a knife and fork” I respond. But did you know Google favors those with SSL?

Nobody knows exactly how Google works because they don’t disclose much of that kind of info. There are many who claim that scores and such won’t make a real difference in the user experience and to them I say “Sure, and I guess speedometers are useless too, right?” At the very least, a great score is going to assure you that on the technical end, everything is fine. Not to mention that sure, a bad score doesn’t necessarily mean that your site is broken, but a great score instead absolutely does mean that you have a well-functioning site, so why discard tools that will help you achieve greatness?

Lastly, take the example of the SSL mentioned above. If you and your competitor have the same exact site, same keywords, same everything but you use SSL and the competitor doesn’t, well guess what, Google puts you above them! Together, many little details make a big difference. By the way, setting up your site with an SSL certificate takes literally 5 minutes at worst. It frustrates me, but I see too many cases of developers who exploit the fact that most clients are only capable of judging based on aesthetics, and all this, just to skip out of another hour of work.

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