KimKim's blog at Community MX

Right on the edge of useful

The New iMac: Whoo Hoo! or Ho Hum?

Posted Tuesday, August 31, 2004 6:35:07 PM by Kim

Apple introduced their new iMac today with a minimum of hype (by Apple standards anyway) and you have to wonder if they aren't a little less than enthused over the new design. Sure, it looks pretty cool, but it's certainly not in the ground-breaking think outside the box mode of the previous two versions of the iMac.

There's plenty of opinions to find on the new model. Over at Wired's Cult of Mac you can read how the chief designer of the iMac is returning to his original design that he had envisioned for the last model. The all-in-one flat panel display with all the hardware on the back was rejected by Steve Jobs in 2000 for something more organic.

Meanwhile, The New York Times (subscription required, sorry) reports that some financial analysts are disappointed with the $1,299 starting point for the new machine. Seems like a reasonable price to me, especially if you compare the price of a quality PC with an excellent flat panel monitor and a rocking processor. But I digress.

C|Net News continues in the "It's cool, but we're disappointed" mode by pointing out that, yes, it looks great, is priced well, but notes some things that Apple might have done better, including building-in an Airport WiFi card or a TV tuner.

Me? I love my 2 year old iMac and have no plans to upgrade anytime soon. That's one of the beautiful things about owning a Mac. While a 2 year old PC would be coming to the end of its useable life my little iMac is still humming along quite happily and meets all my needs. Besides, two more years or so with this machine will let me build up a good case of geek-lust for the new machine.

Category tags: Mac

Those Wacky Canadians

Posted Monday, August 30, 2004 8:55:02 PM by Kim

Maybe this is a publicity stunt to draw a particularly desirable group to the fair city of Winnipeg, but you have to wonder if there will be any unintended consequences when you start handing out free crack pipe kits.

I think it's really considerate of them to give out chewing gum and lip balm along with the actual pipe. I don't know about you, but if I ever decide to develop a life-threatening drug addiction I'll be sure to head to Canada!

Category tags: On the Personal Side

Much Ado About SP2

Posted Monday, August 30, 2004 8:35:28 PM by Kim

Meryl Evans, over at Meryl's Notes, has a good list of links to reviews and resources all about the changes in Windows XP SP 2.

The article at Personal Computing World gives a good overview, but Meryl also links to more in-depth articles for IT pros and developers. A good one stop source for more information on Service Pack 2 and how it may affect your work.

Category tags: Designing for the Web

I Really Hate Outlook

Posted Friday, August 27, 2004 5:17:44 PM by Kim

Alright, who's the Iron Curtain refugee who designed this piece of work? Man oh man. I was kvetching about Dreamweaver and Fireworks earlier this week, but for truly awful user interfaces in a major software product the award has got to go to Outlook.

I have to use Outlook in my new job, and that's not going to change anytime soon. At an enterprise level there's really no competition. So I've been plunging into the depths of Outlook attempting to kick out the cobwebs in my brain and make myself use it. And you know, I don't think it's me. I've used Apple's Mail program, in addition to Entourage, Outlook Express, Eudora, Netscape, Mozilla, and Thunderbird at one time or the other. No problem.

But Outlook. All I can say is "Oh my." Somebody must have hidden the usability manuals when that thing was put together. And removed all the letter "I's" from their keyboards just in case someone wanted to make a note about how intuitive the program should be.

So what's got me all riled up? Simple. I need a personal file to archive the many many many many e-mails that I get. OK, got it. In there I have an exact duplicate of everything in my "regular" folder. Including my calendar which I have been posting to when I have appointments out of the office--as I'm required to do. But hey, guess what? I was posting to the wrong one, the "personal" folder instad of the regular "Outlook" folder. And when I came back to the office this afternoon our secretary gave me The Look and let me know that I needed to get my head out of...well, you know the rest. She needs to see where I am and she can't do that when the appointment is in my personal folder.

So, my bad and all that, but what a stupid construct for program design. Why give me duplicates of everything? How about asking first huh? And why put the personal folder in the same level of the document tree as the regular one? Shhesh!

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. It seems that every blessed thing I want to do is found in some obscure path through multiple clicks and arcane tabs into an area of the interface that I'll never remember how to get back to. I bet the Outlook engineers were really good at memory games when they were kids.

But me, I'm sure having trouble getting my head around that puppy. Maybe when the magic Longhorn version is released Outlook will become simpler and easier to manage. I'm not holding my breath.

Category tags: On the Personal Side

Extreme Makeover for Fireworks

Posted Thursday, August 26, 2004 8:23:32 PM by Kim

I love Fireworks. Really. Of all the tools in the MX Suite it's easily the one I'm most comfortable working in. But just like Dreamweaver, there are parts of the interface in need of an extreme makeover. In the case of Fireworks it's the Batch Process dialog.

Fireworks can be many things to many people. It's a superb graphic design program that allows you to work in the magical world of live effects and vector objects almost effortlessly. When it comes to ease of use when developing site compositions the drawing tools combined with the ability to slice images into different graphical objects really makes the page design process much more manageable.

But the one area where the program should also excel, the ability to batch process large number of images, is exactly where it falls down on the job. The actual batch process works just fine, but once again the dialog that you have to work through seems like it was designed by committee.

To begin with, how is it possible that you can still proceed all the way through the steps in the batch process without ever selecting the images to be process? That's the first thing you're supposed to do, but adding images or entire folders that hold your images is an easy step to mess up. Without any feedback from the program you proceed happily along, until you get to the last screen where you can go no further. That's just not right. Help me catch my mistakes before I get going, not after the fact please.

And as with the CSS editor in Dreamweaver, the interface itself is sorely in need of an update to this century. What I'd love to see is a drag-and-drop interface, with a batch area on the left side of a window where I can drag files of folders into place and then build my batch process as I need. Only need to rotate 2 images out of 70? I should be able to apply special processes to individual images as I need to. And how can there be no scale to a set proportion, or scale to a target file weight? Those features really need to be there so I can do the work I need as productively as possible.

So, to the good folks at Macromedia, I say let's think outside the box a little bit. Head on over to the Apple Store and play with the interface in Motion for instance. See what a smooth and non-obtrusive user interface can be. For that matter, spend a little money and beef up your user interface design and programming staff. Most users are way past the hunt and peck and poke and pray mode when using the Studio MX tools. We (and I use that term guardedly) are pros who need the best tools we can find to do our jobs. I want to see Macromedia remain the leader in the world of web design, but that means taking a hard look at some of the ways that your users interface with the tools and the kinds of work we need to get done. In some cases an extreme makeover may be in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Category tags: Fireworks

Extreme Makeover for Dreamweaver

Posted Wednesday, August 25, 2004 7:35:00 PM by Kim

I love Dreamweaver. Really I do. But there is one area of the user interface that is overdue for an extreme makeover. The CSS Styles Definition Editor.

Now before you start ragging on me and telling me that I really ought to be using a text editor, or TopStyle, or some other method for defining my styles, I'll admit that the world of heavy-duty styling is sort of new to me. Sure, I've always understood intellectually how things are done in the CSS Editor, and even written a tutorial or three about using it. But now that my job has me spending a significant amount of time in Dreamweaver, and creating a complex style sheet, the sheer inelegance of the interface seems to slap me in the face all the time. When I'm designing I need to be able to do it from the gut, and not have to think quite so much about operating that editor thing.

I also think that the current user interface is an impediment to creating styles and makes it harder for people new to web design to learn how to create and style their work. The CSS Editor is clunky and kludgy and feels like it was designed by committee. Two areas in particular rub me the wrong way.

First, the categories listing on the left side is meant to be descriptive, but really conveys too little information to be helpful for those of us who don't eat, drink, and sleep CSS. OK, some of those categories jump out at you, but what's the difference between Box and Block? Shouldn't it be more evident what each of those categories allows you to do?

The second one that gets me is a lack of any visual feedback when working in the editor. For someone who is new to this type of styling the whole notion of setting properties in some sort of modal dialog box, and then hitting OK or Apply to see things take effect is just too big a leap of faith. How hard would it be to allow me to see a preview of the style before I apply it? Are there too many variables? Too many options? I don't know, but I do know that the current design is counter-intuitive. I hope it gets some serious work done before the next version of Dreamweaver is released.

Dreamweaver isn't the only application in the MX Studio that needs some work. Tomorrow I'll write about my pet peeve in Fireworks. If you've got one of your own feel free to post a comment.

Category tags: Dreamweaver

Interview with Joey Lott

Posted Monday, August 23, 2004 5:03:48 PM by Kim

Interview with Joey Lott: CMX author Joey Lott gets the rock star treatment by Francis Bourre over at the Tween Pix blog.

Hey, is that really the elusive Joey in that photo? Word has it that he was at the last TODCON, but I sure don't remember seeing him in person. At any rate, nice interview, Joey!

Category tags: Flash

Macromedia Upgrades Flex

Posted Monday, August 23, 2004 5:24:12 AM by Kim

Macromedia Releases Flex Builder Extension: C|Net News has a story today on the release of the new Builder extension for Macromedia Flex. If you're unfamiliar with Flex and its intended uses, the article provides a good overview and background information from Kevin Lynch, Macromedia's chief software architect.

In a nutshell, Flex is:

"...a server application that converts code written in Java 2 Enterprise Edition, one of the most common languages for Web applications, into a form of XML (extensible markup language) optimized for reading by the Flash client software. The idea is that J2EE developers can dress up their Web applications with snazzy interfaces without having to learn the complex development tools typically used to create pure Flash applications."

Category tags: Macromedia News

Nothing Like a Fresh Pair of Eyes

Posted Friday, August 20, 2004 4:14:30 PM by Kim

So, this afternoon I'm busily banging away at a page design, trying to get a simple CSS rollover menu to work correctly. Not a big job, but for the life of me I could not get the menu to display correctly in Internet Explorer. I kept getting this weird padded area above some links, but not above others. I stripped out everything I could think of from the style definitions, one at a time, thinking that there must be something in there that was causing IE to whack out.

Finally I asked a coworker to come and have a look. He knows nothing about CSS, but it only took him a minute to spot the blank spaces after some of the list items. Ah yes. I seem to remember that very thing causing people problems. All I had to do was remove those spaces and Voila! No more weirdness.

I might have found it myself sooner or later, but sometimes you just need someone who hasn't been staring and cussing at the code for an hour to have a look.

Category tags: Dreamweaver

The Last Word on Aqua Buttons

Posted Thursday, August 19, 2004 3:57:30 AM by Kim

The Ultimate Aqua Button: Brian Edgin has written what he claims to be the very last word on creating aqua buttons in Fireworks. His tutorial gives the clearest explanation of the how and the why of creating a translucent button composition that I've ever seen, and I do believe I've seen them all. Heck, I've written one or two myself.

Brian has also thrown down the gauntlet to you Photoshop users out there by the way. He claims that Fireworks is the best production graphics software for screen graphics and beats Photoshop hands down. If you'd like to take Brian up on his challenge to compare the number of steps it takes to create an image in Fireworks vs. Photoshop, then pop on over and leave him a note. He's been getting awfully cocky lately.

Category tags: Fireworks

Power Creator, Older Creator, or Content Omnivore?

Posted Wednesday, August 18, 2004 5:38:37 PM by Kim

Content Creation Online: This Pew Charitable Trust report on the activities of those of us who live much of our lives on the web isn't news (published 2/29/04), but it caught my eye as I was drilling down through some blog entries. I was following a discussion posted in a blog that compared newsgroups to blogs and discussed the merits of blogging in a business environment.

The Pew report says that about 11% of web users read blogs somewhat regularly, and that about a third of that number actually write their own. According to Pew, most blog writers are what they call Power Creators, with an average age of 25. Older Users, with an average age of 58(!) are likely to have built their own sites. Finally, Content Omnivores, are the least likely to blog, with an average age of 40, but are heavy-duty web users who spend a lot of time during the day on-line.

So, is all that accurate? I know I've got characteristics across all three groups, but some are pretty far off. 25! Sheesh. I was 25 a good long time ago, back when Ronnie Reagan was president. And my buddies here at CMX certainly aren't in any of those categories. That ultimate Power Creator himself, Ray West, is 78 years old for instance. And Stephanie Sullivan is only 14. :-) Not that they look it mind you.

What about you? Do you fall into one of those groups?

Category tags: Blogs and Blogging

Organically Grown Web Sites

Posted Monday, August 16, 2004 8:10:24 PM by Kim

In my new job I am going to be responsible for the overhaul of our entire school district's web presence. Not alone of course, since we are an incredibly large district (#11 in the US in terms of student population) and with a budget approaching $2 billion, we are in essence an enterprise-level organization. There are a lot of people who work on the site already, and many department web masters and mistresses who have overseen the growth of the district's web presence over the last 6 years or so.

So my job is a big one, and made more daunting by the way that the web site has grown organically, with little central control applied to the construction of individual department sites. Let's be brutally honest. It's an unholy mess, with dozens of different navigation methods and color schemes and varying page layouts. One part of the site might have a horizontal navigation while moving to the next department presents you with a vertical one. Go to another and there are drop-down menus while the next one might have Flash navigation. It's entirely possible that there are people lost in our web site. Poor souls who wandered in and can't find their way out, much less the information they were after.

This isn't to blame anyone for the state of things--it just is. The approach we have taken in the past is to purchase web design tools (Studio MX) for the department web masters and after some perfunctory training, set them loose with permissions to their folder on the site. No one really supervised their work, because no one was put in charge. As a result, the site grew organically, like something that was placed in the refrigerator a long time ago and then forgotten.

As I begin the design process, and probably equally importantly, the education process with my supervisor(s), part of what I'm trying to do is impart on them the absolute necessity for establishing standards on how pages should be built. Of course, there are the W3C standards in place, and much of what I'll be doing will be trying to insure that content is portable--able to move from one design to another without a major gutting and dissecting. Hopefully I can be an effective messenger and drive home the point that you simply can't have a positive user experience if your site looks more like a moldy lump of something that has grown on its own instead of a well thought out information system.

Category tags: Designing for the Web

Shout Out to Ray West

Posted Saturday, August 14, 2004 6:14:24 AM by Kim

Our "boss" here at Community MX (and I use the term very loosely) is Ray West, who lives in Orlando. Last night Hurricane Charley ripped through Orlando and left lots of damage, hopefully less where Ray lives than what happened along the coast.

At the very least I know Ray is without power this morning. Our internal newsgroup server is off-line and Ray hasn't shown up in Messenger yet. We're hoping to have good news from Ray soon but I just wanted to send him my best wishes and prayers and give you a place to do so as well.

Category tags: On the Personal Side

Waking up to a Hurricane

Posted Saturday, August 14, 2004 5:31:52 AM by Kim

The sun is just coming up here in West Palm Beach--about 100 miles due east of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Two places that you're about to hear an awful lot about.

As the TV trucks roll in this morning the absolute devastation that happened across the state last night will start becoming real to all of us. There will be destruction on the scale of Hugo and Andrew, but with an even higher cost as tens of millions of people have been affected by this storm.

What really strikes me though is how poorly we were informed of what was likely to be the result of this storm. We were barely affected by Charley, but we all watched intently yesterday as the killer storm slid into Charlotte Harbor--directly over two islands that were about to go under the ocean. Winds at 145 miles an hour. Winds strong enough to blow roofs off and send people into their bathrooms to huddle in fear. Roads that would become impassable. Major public buildings like fire stations and hospitals destroyed. Possibly huge numbers of people killed if they didn't evacuate.

Those stories have yet to be told, mostly because the media was focused on the inanities of formulaic reporting. Our state experts knew when they predicted $14 billion in damages from the storm. (It will be much much higher.) The scientists at the Hurricane Center knew as they talked about the storm being a nightmare scenario. You can bet that the insurance companies knew. Heck, even I knew that this was going to be an awfully destructive storm

But no one in the local television market talked about this. No one on the Weather Channel. The major news outlets and networks treated it as just another story.

In a few minutes the TV trucks and helicopters will begin transmitting the story into our homes. The fancy graphics and impressive tag line and matching musical accompaniment will be prepared. And after the fact we'll see what has happened to my neighbors across the state and begin hearing their stories.

Now it will become real.

Category tags: On the Personal Side

The Big List of Web Design Basics

Posted Friday, August 13, 2004 4:46:45 AM by Kim

One of the things I like about following blogs is how frequently I find new sites and new writers discussing things that interest me. When your focus tends to be more tool-specific, like many of us who work with Macromedia products can be, it's good to get outside of the Dreamweaver/Fireworks/Flash box and have a look at the bigger issues of design and usability.

One of my favorite blogs that looks at the bigger design picture is Design by Fire, which is promintently listed in my Bloglines blogroll. Design by Fire had a nice pointer today to yet another design blog that I hadn't known about. (See how this works?)

Over at Asterisk* I found a nice little blog about design with some timely articles, including one that I thought was a good checklist for design usability: The Big Web Design Details List. There are some excellent points in that article, and more goodies down in the comments section.

Category tags: Designing for the Web

First Round Fired in My iPod Campaign

Posted Thursday, August 12, 2004 5:30:39 PM by Kim

I've had the normal geek-lust for an iPod for some time now, but yesterday I took the first step in my campaign to get The Wife to buy one for me as a birthday present. I sent her a link to the Apple Store and we had a short discussion on the subject last night.

Me: "Please please please please please please please please please please please pretty please."

Wife: "$300 bucks? Are you nuts?! Oh wait, here's a chair I want and it's only $1,200! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!"

OK, that didn't go well, but I intend to persist.

My birthday comes at an inconvenient time for the budget planning of a teacher. Our somewhat weird pay schedule divides our annual salary into 24 payments. Normal right? But, we get three of those at the end of June, and those funds have to be stretched to the next paycheck, which doesn't come until August 31st. Those are a long two months, and having your birthday at the end of that time (and when you're right at the end of the available funds) means the presents tend to be on the modest and practical side. So, hey, that's the way it is. I'm a big boy right? (sniff)

But this year I have a new job in the central office and I got a paycheck today! Whoopee!

Me: "Hey, maybe I can ask The Wife for an iPod as a birthday present? Yeah, an iPod. That's the ticket."

So, the campaign has been launched and I intend to be steadfast and resolute. Clearly though, what I'm after here is an indulgence. With any luck I may be granted my boon. I just need to appeal to a higher power.

Category tags: On the Personal Side

How Deep is Your Web?

Posted Wednesday, August 11, 2004 7:44:26 PM by Kim

Deep Web Searching: Now if this isn't geeky, I don't know what is. Marcus Zillman is the Executive Director of the Virtual Private Library, and as his life's work he has conducted extensive research into the part of the web known as "The Deep Web".

The Deep Web covers somewhere in the vicinity of 600 billion pages of information located through the world wide web in various files and formats that the current search engines on the Internet either cannot find or have difficulty accessing. The current search engines find about 3.3 billion pages at the time of this writing.

At the link above you can find a huge number of references all about the Deep Web and the steps that are being taken to access it.

When you think about the amount of stuff that is stored on government, business, and private servers all over the world it's pretty mind boggling the amount and kinds of data that can be retrieved, if you know how to look. Add in pages that are behind registration gateways (like the one at Community MX) and you have many millions of documents that the bots can't find.

For instance, a search at the GPO Access search engine allows you to dig into every U.S. federal budget going back to 1997, and every document in the Congressional record back to 1994. (Maybe I can find that tax refund I was sure I was supposed to get.)

There are way too many links on that page to go into them all, but some of my favorites are the massive databases you can search at the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Library of Canada, and the National Library of Australia, among others.

OK, I admit I find this kind of thing really interesting. Guess that lands me squarely in the geek corner.

Category tags: Using the Web

Are Blogs Worth the Hype?

Posted Wednesday, August 11, 2004 6:39:02 PM by Kim

Are Blogs Worth the Hype?: C|Net News has an excellent breakdown of articles discussing the seeming explosion in popularly that blogs have enjoyed the last few months.

But are they really any more popular, or is it just that the "Mainstream Media" has decided to sit up and take notice of a communication medium that's been around for awhile?

The article is a rich treasure-trove of links to some thoughtful articles about blogging, and also lists the more popular blogs over in the right sidebar of the page.

If you're relatively new to the whole blogging thing I can't think of a better place to start than this article. Maybe landing here at CMXtraneous is your first entry into the world of blogging, and dazzled by the wit and wisdom of the people who have been posting (not to mention our fabulous good looks) you've decided that blogs are good and want to know more. Start here and you'll be in good stead my friend.

Category tags: Blogs and Blogging

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