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- Why Responsive Design Matters
Published on February 14, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication
Whatever your views on the internet, there is no doubt that its influence is ever-growing and that more and more people are using it as time goes by – there are currently over 1.6 billion users of the World Wide Web. As internet use increases, there is a growing debate about whether or not it actually helps to bring people closer together. Certainly when web designers create websites, it is often for companies who are looking to reach out to their customers and keep them up to date with what their business is working on, suggesting the intention to bring people closer together is there in theory. So does this actually work, or does the internet only serve to isolate us?
The Internet brings us closer together
Probably the best argument in favour of the internet bringing people closer together is the fact it is a global phenomenon. People from all over the world are online, sharing content and using the same websites. This gives both individuals and businesses more opportunities than ever before to extend their networks and reach out to people they may otherwise never meet.
This is best seen in the growth of social networks, which are massively popular. Facebook is probably the best example of this, which has over 500 million active users and is still growing. People often use the website to connect with friends and contacts, such as people they knew at school but have since lost touch with. Seen in this manner, the internet does bring us closer together as it offers a platform through which people can interact not just with people they know, but with people in other countries.
Businesses and web designers have obviously noticed this trend, too. Facebook’s own statistics suggest that over 10,000 new websites integrate with the Facebook site every day. This suggests that there is massive potential for interaction on an online platform and for smaller websites to benefit from the success of larger ones, thereby connecting different groups from different industries through a central hub.
This can also be seen in the recent predilection for organising grassroots campaigns through the internet. It is widely thought, for example, that without planning through the social media and the wider internet, Barack Obama would have found it much harder to mobilise the grassroots voters in the US who ultimately helped him reach the White House. We can also see it in the UK, where mass campaigns have been organised online by a variety of groups. For example, UK Uncut have arranged tax avoidance protests, 38 Degrees and others are campaigning to save the forests and UKpling are working to organise an online campaign to save the libraries. We can easily argue that, without the internet, all the people involved in these campaigns would not have been bought together.
The Internet doesn’t bring us closer together
Of course, every argument has a counter argument and this debate is no different. Many people have argued that even though there has been tremendous growth in communicative technology – most notably those platforms operated through the World Wide Web – it has actually had the effect of driving people further apart.
This can perhaps be best seen through the idea that although people are now more able to get in touch with others than ever before, the quality of communication you experience with someone through a social networking site will never be of the same standard as if you were talking face to face.
There is some merit in this – when you consider that many people who work in the same office now frequently email each other instead of going to speak to each other directly, you can see how the internet can end up isolating people.
There are also arguments to be made about internet governance; as a global entity outside of effective international legislative control, there are very few laws to regulate the internet and its operations. Of course, there is an argument to be made that this is a good thing, as it means people have a space in which to interact away from their everyday lives. However, when you consider that some websites are blocked in countries such as China, North Korea massively restricts internet use and the Egyptian government recently switched off the internet in an attempt to control protestors, it can also be argued that there is a power to be found in controlling the internet and that those who are not online are isolated from those who are through the denial of communication. Therefore, even if the internet works to bring its users closer together, it pushes those who aren’t online further towards the margins.
Both sides of this debate have merit and they are, of course, much more complex once you get further into them. Perhaps, though, this is the point – on the surface of it, the online world is a brilliant opportunity for global connections to be made and it offers users the chance to experience different lives and cultures by proxy. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Google and many more provide portals of communication that are unrivalled in human history.
However, as the internet grows and becomes more influential, as governments move many public services online and campaigns are organised through social networking sites rather than the town hall, it suggests that those who aren’t part of the phenomena are indeed more isolated than others. This suggests that there is still work to be done to make the internet a truly connective, interactive platform and that the debate isn’t over, not by a long way.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Why not complete the comments box below to let us know and we'll publish your thoughts here.
Published on February 11, 2011
Tags: Internet Security
In January 2011, the OECD released a report arguing that much of the current rhetoric and poor analysis about cyber warfare is unhelpful in the pursuit of governments to plan for increased cyber protection.
Internet security has been an issue almost as long as the internet itself has been in existence and it has added new dimensions to the types of crimes perpetrated today. Without adequate security, it is all too easy for hackers or other malicious types to send viruses out into the ether to infect the computers of ordinary web users, break into online databases to steal information, spy on people’s computers to find out their secret information and a whole range of other web-based crimes.
This means that one of the longest running challenges for web designers, software developers and code writers has been to develop systems that can stand up malicious attempts to access them and keep the details of all web users safe. This doesn’t always work: there are thousands of viruses and Trojan horses that infect people’s machines on a daily basis. There is, however, an increasingly good range of internet security packages available for common web users to install in order to protect themselves against all known viruses, with databases that are regularly updated as new threats are identified.
Hacking is another issue that needs to be considered when websites are designed as this can lead to the loss of important data and the effective crippling of online businesses. A couple of recent examples demonstrate this well: in January 2011, the retailer Lush reported that many of its online customers’ data was at risk due to security problems. On a larger scale, the ‘hacktivist’ group called ‘Anonymous’ targeted certain websites following the WikiLeaks scandal for cutting off funding to the organisation.
These are the sorts of challenges that web designers can and do work to avoid, but what of the larger issue of cyber warfare? This is what the report from the OECD was about, arguing that lumping together computer viruses and relatively small time hacking incidents under the banner of cyber warfare doesn’t help in the fight against the much bigger issue at stake, one that can’t simply be solved through good web design. This is a growing concern as an extensive, coordinated cyber attack would not only easily get through even the best of defences installed by internet security specialists and web designers, but could also take down the entire infrastructure of a country. As recently as September 2010, Iran reported that its nuclear reactor had been infected with the Stuxnet virus and, while no serious damage was done, it shows the potential magnitude such attacks could have. The really frightening thing is that it’s possible for such viruses to be sent to similar locations or to disable key equipment such as fighter planes completely anonymously.
This potential for disaster in such key parts of countries’ infrastructures is a particularly large problem as many of the services cyber attacks would target are in the private sector (such as communications, energy, food, finance, transport and water) and so taking a ‘military’ approach to the problem wouldn’t be able to solve it. This, plus the fact that it’s often extremely hard to work out who has launched such an attack, means that it’s even more vital recovery systems are created so the infrastructure could recover.
It is for reasons such as this that the British Government is currently investing a lot of money in cyber security - £650m to be precise. It’s clear that the government sees it as a priority issue – they’ve also ranked cyber attacks as ‘Tier 1’ threats, along with terrorism, conventional warfare and natural disasters – and are massively upgrading the country’s capabilities to deal with cyber attack.
As well as a role for governments in upgrading online security, there’s also a growing role for what are known as ‘ethical hackers’. These are people with the skills to hack into heavily secured internet systems, databases and company accounts. The purpose is for them to work out where the weaknesses are in the system, so that they can be dealt with properly before a less ethical hacker works out how to exploit them. The thinking here is that it’s much better to have the hackers on the side of the nation, defending its interests, than it is to have them tempted by terrorist exploits.
One of the best, most popular and defining features of the online world as been the fact that it is so free and democratic. With the ever growing threat of cyber terrorism, virus attacks and new malware being developed with astonishing regularity and precision, let’s hope it’s not also the thing that turns out to be its biggest weakness. There is a growing awareness of and action on the issue, though, so even as we become increasingly dependent on the internet in our everyday lives, there is still much that can be done by all of those who work in online services to help protect infrastructure and individuals against cyber attack.
Published on January 31, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law
In 2003, European regulations known as the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) came into force. The purpose of these rules is to govern electronic and other marketing, particularly marketing relating to online activities. Other covered areas include telemarketing, faxes and SMS messages. The regulations are enforced in the UK by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Since they came into force, there have been major issues surrounding the application of the PECR, with many organisations flouting the rules, whether intentionally or not. One major example of this is the opt-in/opt-out checkboxes found on many websites as well as in emails.
To illustrate, the regulations dictate that no individual should receive any marketing emails unless a series of criteria have been met (the same rules don’t apply to businesses). The criteria are:
the individuals’ details must have been obtained by the company in question through a legitimate sale or negotiation;
the sent message must relate to similar products offered by the sender;
the individual must have been given the opportunity to refuse marketing messages from the sender and can easily opt out at any time of their choosing.
This means that companies who don’t offer individuals the means to opt out of marketing messages are in breach of the PECR and, therefore, both UK and European law.
The reason this is such a big issue is the way such opt out facilities are currently implemented. Take the example of an online retailer. When you make a purchase through that retailer’s online store, you will be presented with a series of checkboxes at the bottom of the form relating to marketing. In simple terms, these give you the chance to refuse marketing from the retailer and any third parties. The problem, though, is often in the way the checkboxes are worded. For example, it is common to find statements written in a negative manner (such as ‘click here if you do NOT want to receive information from us’).
This assumes automatic agreement unless the customer takes action to dictate otherwise and it is a problem in the world of online marketing: naturally, there is a desire and a need for online companies to market their business and services to customers, but they also have to comply with the PECR and the Data Protection Act to ensure that individuals’ rights of privacy are met. This means that assuming customers are willing to receive marketing emails unless they instruct otherwise is not only dangerous but increases the chances of the rules being breached.
This problem is exacerbated by pre-selected checkboxes. This most commonly happens where you have to check the box to opt in to a marketing messaging service – retailers and marketers often pre-select the checkbox in the hope individuals will leave it as it is. Conversely, in cases where you have to check the box to opt out, retailers and other businesses tend to leave the box unchecked to maximise their mailing lists. While they are in theory complying with the regulations, if an individual was confused by the phrasing or layout of the options, any complaint to the ICO would be likely to be upheld (the ICO receives around 5000 complaints every year on matters relating to unwanted marketing).
Of course, it can be argued that this is not just a problem related to online marketing practices: similar ‘opt in’ assumptions can be seen everywhere from pension schemes to organ donation, with new processes being bought in to assume the compliance and participation of individuals unless they explicitly state otherwise. The major issue for online marketers and businesses, though, is determining the reasons why people choose to opt out of marketing messages in the first place in order to work out the best ways to persuade them to opt in.
This requires much more careful action than wording opt in/opt out checkboxes in such a way as to ensure maximum compliance by default. It means that online marketers need to carefully consider what attracts individuals to certain websites in the first place and how they can keep their attention once they’re there, thereby encouraging them to sign up for marketing messages.
It has been widely reported that people are turned off by pop ups and other unwanted forms of advertising, so it’s likely that they are just as put off by marketers sending messages that the individual sees as being unsolicited, either because the marketer is flagrantly breaking the rules or because the individual accidentally opted in to something.
Perhaps the solution is as simple as having a good web design to catch people’s attention and then providing the best possible product / service to customers so they will be interested in finding out about new offers and services from the company in future marketing messages. This would be coupled with an obvious and easy means of opting out if an individual so desired (such as can be seen in email newsletters, which are required to include a ‘click here to unsubscribe’ link).
Whatever the solution, it is clear that there is currently a widespread problem relating to breaches of the PECR that is not only annoying to individuals receiving unwanted messages, but could ultimately damage the otherwise good reputation of a free and democratic internet.
Published on January 25, 2011
Tags: Web Design London
As with any rapidly expanding industry that’s reliant on technology, the world of web design is fast-changing and constantly evolving. Whether you're a designer, developer, or responsible for the rebuild of your personal or company web site, we take a look at some of the key issues and changes that will be affecting web designs over the coming months and years.
Since the release of Apple’s iPad, the popularity and demand for the tablet computer is continuing to grow. As more people use these computers, they’ll also be using them to browse on the internet, posing a challenge for web designers. This is something of an urgent issue, considering the predictions from Forrester Research that tablet computers such as the iPad will occupy around a quarter of the market within five years. This growth is predicted to come largely at the expense of desktop PCs rather than portable devices, suggesting that web designers are going to have to act to create websites that work on an increasing range of portable items.
One issue to be considered is the versatility of portable devices. For example, the ability to use the tablet computer either horizontally or vertically not only gives consumers more options but also means that website designers may have to incorporate two different designs for websites so they can easily be viewed however consumers use their computers. This means there is a need for more versatile web design templates that can be utilised on a growing range of screen types, from tablet computers to new laptops, netbooks and smartphones.
Related to this is the massive growth of touchscreen devices. This means that new features have to be built into websites to be able to accommodate the different methods of operation. For example, while traditional website design has to be suitable for a mouse clicking links and moving around the screen, touchscreen technology means that allowances have to be made to make up for the fact it’s people’s fingers doing the pointing and clicking, rather than the mouse. The impact here is that links and buttons need to be bigger and more spaced out to accommodate for the larger finger over the traditional mouse cursor.
For a while, this has been an issue confined to smartphones, but with the growth of tablet computers and other touchscreen technology, it is an issue that’s becoming more mainstream. This in turn throws up questions for web designers relating to design and aesthetics; after all, it isn’t just a case of incorporating larger buttons - for websites to remain attractive as well as functional, there is going to have to be a shift in design so that none of their visual impact is lost.
Relatively new on the block is WebTV (Internet via your TV set). Again, this introduces some interesting challenges as screens will typically be viewed from a distance (around 10ft) and need larger fonts and graphics on effectively a smaller screen resolution. Google has produced an excellent primer on web designing for WebTV.
There are also changes happening in the world of web fonts. One challenge that web designers have faced for a while now is the restriction over the different fonts they can use as they can’t always guarantee that they’ll be supported by different operating systems. This can often affect the viewing experience of web users or often prevent particular fonts from showing up at all. The reason for this is simple: the most widely used and accessible fonts are those that are saved or available on the greatest number of machines. If a designer uses a font that is somewhat obscure, the chances of it being supported are lower.
The growth of cloud computing and the emergence of CSS3, though, means that more fonts with attractive designs are becoming more commonly supported through web-based hosts such as Google. One recent development here is Google Web Fonts) which allows web designers to access Google’s massive database of fonts for free under an open agreement. This works through the Google Font API, which works on the vast majority of browsers and is easy to use, thus opening up the options available for internet typography. This presents web designers with more options and means they can be more creative in their designs and the fonts used in them.
One final challenge for web designers is the growth of mobile internet and the need to develop websites that can be viewed on much smaller screens such as those featured on mobile smartphones. This is another phenomenon that needs urgent attention: Morgan Stanley recently released some research that suggests there will be 1 billion heavy mobile data users by 2013 and that smartphones are fast on their way to outselling PCs globally. While many companies are not yet focused on adapting their websites for mobile devices, it is a growing trend and we can expect to see web designers spending more time on this in the future. When you consider that 100million Facebook users currently access the site through their mobiles, it becomes clear that the growth of the mobile internet is not a trend that can be ignored.
Mobile internet has also opened up a whole new area of web design, not just through the need to develop sites to fit a range of (often small) screen sizes, but through the growth of apps. The iPhone is probably the best example of the growth of apps, but there is increasingly a market for BlackBerry, Android and other styles of app that have to be tailored to individual operating systems, creating a major challenge for web designers to adapt to a new style of design and programming that many will not be familiar with. And tied in closely with this is the small matter of the search engines, as creating a mobile version of a main site can cause duplicate content issues if not handled properly, though thankfully with a web developer or search engine optimisation on board that understands these issues, any problems can be negated.
This is just a sample of the emerging challenges for web designers in 2011 and beyond. If you’ve thought of others whilst reading this article, why not complete the comments box below, tell us about them and we’ll publish them here!
Published on January 20, 2011
A question we've frequently been asked is, does a mobile version of a web site create duplicate content issues on Google? The answer, if done correctly, is apparently not. The main things you should consider are:
- Consider making a separate web site for your mobile content, and not just as different content served up under your main URL. For example, m.yourdomain.com.
- It is okay to redirect users based on the user agent their browser is sending. So, if your site detects an iPhone or Android user agent you can redirect to your mobile site automatically.
- Google has a specific user agent for mobile site indexing called googlebotmobile. Again, it's okay to redirect this agent automatically. However, don't redirect based solely on the IP of this user agent as that could create cloaking issues.
If you follow these three key rules, you should find yourself on the rigth side of Google and not suffer any penalties as a result of duplicate content. For more information, watch the following video from Google:
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