JavaScript is not the enemy – my talk at Halfstackconf

In November last year I got asked to give a talk about the state of the JavaScript community at Halfstackconf in London. Now you can watch the recording the talk at opbeat.

I really enjoyed giving this talk as I think we’re taking ourselves far too serious and we overestimate the importance of the languages that we use. Instead of building a high pressure environment of blind innovation we should be more like the language we use. JavaScript is a mess, but it was a very accessible mess in terms of getting people to start working with it. PHP has the same issues and as much as we can joke about its inconsistencies, it powers easily half the web servers we use. JavaScript has a lot of nuances and use cases and each of them come with different best practices. They also come with different experiences and sometimes learning means doing things wrong first and understanding that what you did was wrong later.

There is too much dogma in our little world. The people who love JavaScript tend to overarchitect solutions or create very strict syntax rules. This can frustrate people who think differently and cause lots of unnecessary discussion. Even worse, it can discourage people who want to start using JavaScript as they are overwhelmed by these demands. People who don’t like JavaScript have a tendency to either dismiss it as not professional or as a problem for end users as any mistake of the developer would result in a non-working interface. All of these people have the right to their ideas and are technically correct. But that doesn’t help us as a community.

There is an overuse of JavaScript right now. Far too many products rely on it and far too many developers use a lot of libraries and modules to create pretty simple interfaces. We need to own the use of JavaScript and we need to understand that people of all knowledge levels and with vastly varying approaches are using the language now. This is not a time for dogma, this is a time for education by helping people reach their goals quickly. I’d love to see JavaScript be the language that makes people enjoy creating and learning a new skill. Not a battleground of hardened principles and wishful thinking of what the language should be. We need more diversity and we can get it by making what we do accessible to people of all kinds of backgrounds. Nobody should be feeling stupid for trying to use JavaScript. It isn’t rocket science.

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Important talks: Sacha Judd’s “How the tech sector could move in One Direction”

I just watched a very important talk from last year’s Beyond Tellerand conference in Berlin. Sacha Judd (@szechuan) delivered her How the tech sector could move in One Direction at this conference and Webstock in New Zealand a few days ago. It is a great example of how a talk can be insightful, exciting and challenge your biases at the same time.

You can watch the video, read the transcript and get the slides.

I’ve had this talk on my “to watch” list for a long time and the reason is simple: I couldn’t give a toss about One Direction. I was – like many others – of the impression that boy bands like them are the spawn of commercial satan (well, Simon Cowell, to a large degree) and everything that is wrong with music as an industry and media spectacle.

And that’s the great thing about this talk: it challenged my biases and it showed me that by dismissing something not for me I also discard a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t a talk about One Direction. It is a talk about how excitement for a certain topic gets people to be creative, communicate and do things together. That their tastes and hysteria aren’t ours and can be off-putting isn’t important. What is important is that people are driven to create. And it is important to analyse the results and find ways to nurture this excitement. It is important to possibly channel it into ways how these fans can turn the skills they learned into a professional career.

This is an extension to something various people (including me) kept talking about for quite a while. It is not about technical excellence. It is about the drive to create and learn. Our market changes constantly. This is not our parent’s 50ies generation where you get a job for life and you die soon after retirement, having honed and used one skill for your whole lifetime. We need to roll with the punches and changes in our markets. We need to prepare to be more human as the more technical we are, the easier we are to be replaced my machines.

When Mark Surman of Mozilla compared the early days of the web to his past in the punk subculture creating fanzines by hand it resonated with me. As this is what I did, too.

When someone talks about fanpages on tumblr about One Direction, it didn’t speak to me at all. And that’s a mistake. The web has moved from a technical subculture flourishing under an overly inflated money gamble (ecommerce, VC culture) to being a given. Young people don’t find the web. They are always connected and happy to try and discard new technology like they would fashion items.

But young people care about things, too. And they find ways to tinker with them. When a fan of One Direction gets taught by friends how to change CSS to make their Tumblr look different or use browser extensions to add functionality to the products they use to create content we have a magical opportunity.

Our job as people in the know is to ensure that the companies running creation tools don’t leave these users in the lurch when the VC overlords tell them to pivot. Our job is to make sure that they can become more than products to sell on to advertisers. Our job is to keep an open mind and see how people use the media we helped create. Our job is to go there and show opportunities, not to only advertise on hackernews. Our job is to harvest these creative movements to turn them into to the next generation of carers of the web.

I want to thank Sacha for this talk. There is a lot of great information in there and I don’t want to give it all away. Just watch it.

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5 tips for web designers to improve their skills

This article was written by Junaid Ali Qureshi. He is a digital marketing specialist who has helped several businesses gain traffic, outperform competition and generate profitable leads. His current ventures include Elephantation, eLabelz, Smart Leads.ae, Progos Tech and eCig.

junaid-ali-qureshi

Learning web design techniques and tricks is easy. No matter whether you have the right skills or not in the start; by repeating and learning from the mistakes and polishing the weak areas you can easily step up a notch and fall among the highly experienced and professional web designers. The problem that many web design experts encounter here is the challenge to keep up their good reputation and to improve the skills they already have.

Do you have a lot of projects lined up? Every professional web designer does. The real question is whether you have different, innovative ideas for each of them or not? Wouldn’t using the same web design techniques on each project make your style monotonous? This is something every design expert worries about. To help you get through this transitional phase with ease; we have compiled 5 essential tips that help to rejuvenate the web design skills of every expert.

There are several tutorials and videos through which you can learn how to advance your web design skills level; but, every designer needs some instant tips as well. These tips help them achieve goals earlier than expected. One thing is assured; these tips are no shortcut to success but merely the best techniques used by experts worldwide.

The 5 tips that will help you improve your skills are as follows:

  1. Always sketch a rough design of your web before working with the tools. Have you ever seen an architect work? He lays down all the plans on a sheet of paper, reviews them, goes through them again and again, gets the approval of the client and only then proceeds to the next step. The number one tip here to improve your skills is to adopt the routine of making a rough draft of the website you are planning to develop. Once you have made a rough sketch, you can make changes if needed or move towards developing the final website. If you aren’t comfortable with the pen and paper idea, you can use various prototype building websites and apps to get a view of the rough version of the website.
  2. Stay in touch with the latest style guides. Make sure you have your own style guide or you follow a well-written style guide to design the web page. This will help you build the website in a uniform fashion. Keeping in view the template of the website and the effect you would like to add or not; you can either improvise the pre-written style guide or make a new one. Try to make an exquisite design that differentiates you from the other competitors in the market. Large font size is in fashion these days. Try to use it in your template and make some space for typography as well.
  3. Upgrade, expand and re-evaluate your web tools. Web design is not simple at all. You have to use several tools to achieve the effect you are trying to present. It requires using old as well as new tools to bring an innovative idea into a real form. Tip number three states that you need to upgrade your web tools. Make sure you are using the latest version of the web tool and get its updates on regular basis. Add more tools to your toolkit and experiment with new ideas. Only then you can bring versatility to your work. Our company offers new tools and features every now and then. It is the job of the web designer to incorporate them properly into the website using their skills to gain maximum benefits.
  4. Keep your SEO knowledge up-to-date. We have seen that this tip has been repeatedly offered to the readers on different platforms but the truth is, no matter how much we try to escape it, SEO rules and regulations are the standards that every website has to meet. Thus, strengthen your grip over the SEO guidelines. Use SEO optimized keywords, headings style, high-quality content and other linking features to stay in the game. Practice merging SEO techniques in your work project to revamp your skills to a better scale.
  5. Pick catchy and original images for your web page. A web page is defined by the images, content and its style. You need to make it perfect to get a better ranking and to impress the clients. Many web designers use free Google images that are available (but that’s old news now). You need to go for the options other than this to improve your skills.  Try investing in premium stock images or create an image from scratch appropriate tools. You can also capture high-quality photographs and combine them with your own sketches as well.

As web designers, we are already familiar with all these tips. However, it is always good to review these basics periodically. Make sure you follow them and you’ll see positive results within no time!

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My closing keynote of the Tweakers DevSummit – slides and resources

Yesterday I gave the closing keynote of the Tweakers Developer Summit in Utrecht, The Netherlands. The conference topic was “Webdevelopment – Coding the Universe” and the organisers asked me to give a talk about Machine Learning and what it means for developers in the nearer future. So I took out my crystal ball 🔮 and whipped up the following talk:

Here are the resources covered in the talk:

Yes, this was a lot – maybe too much – for one talk, but the feedback I got was all very positive, so I am hoping for the video to come out soon.

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ScriptConf in Linz, Austria – if you want all the good with none of the drama.

Last month I was very lucky to be invited to give the opening keynote of a brand new conference that can utterly go places: ScriptConf in Linz, Austria.

Well deserved sticker placement

What I liked most about the event was an utter lack of drama. The organisation for us presenters was just enough to be relaxed and allowing us to concentrate on our jobs rather than juggling ticket bookings. The diversity of people and subjects on stage was admirable. The catering and the location did the job and there was not much waste left over.

I said it before that a great conference stands and falls with the passion of the organisers. And the people behind ScriptConf were endearingly scared and amazed by their own success. There were no outrageous demands, no problems that came up in the last moment, and above all there was a refreshing feeling of excitement and a massive drive to prove themselves as a new conference in a country where JavaScript conferences aren’t a dime a dozen.

ScriptConf grew out of 5 different meetups in Austria. It had about 500 extremely well behaved and excited attendees. The line-up of the conference was diverse in terms of topics and people and it was a great “value for money” show.

As a presenter you got spoiled. The hotel was 5 minutes walk away from the event and 15 minutes from the main train station. We had a dinner the day before and a tour of a local ars electronica center before the event. It is important to point out that the schedule was slightly different: the event started at noon and ended at “whenever” (we went for “Leberkäse” at 3am, I seem to recall). Talks were 40 minutes and there were short breaks in between each two talks. As the opening keynote presenter I loved this. It is tough to give a rousing talk at 8am whilst people file slowly into the building and you’ve still got wet hair from the shower. You also have a massive lull in the afternoon when you get tired. It is a totally different thing to start well-rested at noon with an audience who had enough time to arrive and settle in.

Presenters were from all around the world, from companies like Slack, NPM, Ghost, Google and serverless.

The presentations:

Here’s a quick roundup of who spoke on what:

  • I was the opening keynote, talking about how JavaScript is not a single thing but a full development environment now and what that means for the community. I pointed out the importance of understanding different ways to use JavaScript and how they yield different “best practices”. I also did a call to arms to stop senseless arguing and following principles like “build more in shorter time” and “move fast and break things” as they don’t help us as a market. I pointed out how my employer works with its engineers as an example how you can innovate but also have a social life. It was also an invitation to take part in open source and bring more human, understanding communication to our pull requests.
  • Raquel Vélez of NPM told the history of NPM and explained in detail how they built the web site and the NPM search
  • Nik Graf of Serverless covered the serverless architecture of AWS Lambda
  • Hannah Wolfe of Ghost showed how they moved their kickstarter-funded NodeJS based open blogging system from nothing to a ten people company and their 1.0 release explaining the decisions and mistakes they did. She also announced their open journalism fund “Ghost for journalism”
  • Felix Rieseberg of Slack is an ex-Microsoft engineer and his talk was stunning. His slides about building Apps with Electron are here and the demo code is on GitHub. His presentation was a live demo of using Electron to built a clone of Visual Studio Code by embedding Monaco into an Electron Web View. He coded it all live using Visual Studio Code and doing a great job explaining the benefits of the console in the editor and the debugging capabilities. I don’t like live code, but this was enjoyable and easy to follow. He also did an amazing job explaining that Electron is not there to embed a web site into a app frame, but to allow you to access native functionality from JavaScript. He also had lots of great insight into how Slack was built using Electron. A great video to look forward to.
  • Franziska Hinkelmann of the Google V8 team gave a very detailed talk about Performance Debugging of V8, explaining what the errors shown in the Chrome Profiler mean. It was an incredibly deep-tech talk but insightful. Franziska made sure to point out that optimising your code for the performance tricks of one JavaScript engine is not a good idea and gave ChakraCore several shout-outs.
  • Mathieu Henri from Microsoft Oslo and JS1K fame rounded up the conference with a mind-bending live code presentation creating animations and sound with JavaScript and Canvas. He clearly got the most applause. His live coding session was a call to arms to play with technology and not care about the code quality too much but dare to be artsy. He also very much pointed out that in his day job writing TypeScript for Microsoft, this is not his mode of operation. He blogged about his session and released the code here.

This was an exemplary conference, showing how it should be done and reminded me very much of the great old conferences like Fronteers, @media and the first JSConf. The organisers are humble, very much engaged and will do more great work given the chance. I am looking forward to re-live the event watching the videos and can safely recommend each of the presenters for any other conference. There was a great flow and lots of helping each other out on stage and behind the scenes. It was a blast.

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Interview with David Braun from TemplateMonster

We had the opportunity to communicate with David Braun (co-founder and CEO of TemplateMonster.com) recently. TemplateMonster is a marketplace featuring 46,000 templates for many different types of websites.

Why should Web Professionals care about this?

  • TemplateMonster can save you time
  • Templates exist for major platforms (WordPress, Drupal, and much more)
  • This means you can speed your workflow

David Braun is a co-founder and CEO of TemplateMonster.com. This company is the oldest and the most experienced on the market in this area. We invited David to talk and provided some questions for our discussion.

David Braun, co-founder and CEO of TemplateMonster.com

David Braun, co-founder and CEO of TemplateMonster.com

What is TemplateMonster.com from your point of view?

TemplateMonster has become a marketplace now. It features 46,000 pre-designed templates crafted for different types of sites, business niches, and engines including the most popular platforms: WordPress, WooCommerce, Joomla, Magento, Drupal, PrestaShop, and Moto CMS. Our aim is to meet the requirements of as many customers as possible. We offer plenty of cool stuff apart from the ready-made templates. For instance, landing pages, plugins, email templates and many other products. 100k people are visiting the site every day. A team of 427 geeks is working for TemplateMonster. Their joint efforts let TemplateMonster reach $15M in revenue.

Template Monster landing page

Why should web professionals care about companies like TemplateMonster?

Because it’s beneficial for them. Cooperating with TemplateMonster frees their time, speeds their workflow, and lets them earn much more money.

Today all business owners understand how important it is to promote their services/products online. But not every entrepreneur is ready to pay for custom design, hire a developer, and create their online presentation from scratch.

They want to get their website within a reasonable budget, they want it to be quality, to look good, work flawlessly, and don’t wait for ages before their project will go live.

Web design agencies can cater to all these needs if they use our templates.

Tell me about the history of the company and how it was launched.

TemplateMonster was founded in 2002. Can you imagine that: people around the globe used our products when you knew nothing about Facebook and YouTube. We watched the evolution of the web and were proud to contribute into it. Hundreds of thousands websites you see today were built on the basis of our templates.

How everything started… I had been working at a custom design studio then. We tried our best to deliver top-quality products, but, unfortunately, most of our potential customers considered our services too expensive for them.

One day, I saw a designer who used a ready-made template to simplify and speed up his job. That was the moment when an idea to launch TemplateMonster crossed my mind. Eventually, this idea started to turn into a successful business.

Our company has held a leading position in the market for almost 15 years. Of course not all days were fine for us. We survived the rainy ones when something went totally wrong with our products. We got negative testimonials. And the bitter truth is that some of them were true. However, most of them referred to our outdated templates. What did we do? We just removed them from our marketplace.

They say “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. And even negative feedback can be useful. We thoroughly analyzed it and took the right turn. We got deeper understanding of what our customers need, and gave it to them.

Example of a templateMonster template

Thanks for sharing your history. Why should one rely on a template?

Both entrepreneurs with little to no development skills and professional developers use our templates. All our customers get their benefits from our products.

The best thing about templates is that TemplateMonster’s customers see the final result, a ready-made product before paying any money for it.

Templates save time, money, efforts, nerves, whatever, and guarantee satisfaction with the future website.

What are the advantages of this approach instead of coding all by hand (or using Foundation or Bootstrap or other frameworks)?

Entrepreneurs get independence from designers, coders, and other professionals who sometimes overrate their work and don’t meet the deadlines. They don’t need to spend hours and hours searching for a responsible, skillful freelancers who may design something that they may be disappointed with in the end. As I have mentioned above, at TemplateMonster you see the final result at once. In other words, you see a ready-made product you are paying for. All you need to do is just replace the default content with your own.

Suppose you are just getting started and have no idea how to install the template, add your logo and other content, change colors, etc. You think only about the ways to generate more revenues and have no desire to mess with all those things.

So, you want to skip installation, customization or, say, integration with Google Analytics. Then, contact our Service Center. Our trained professionals will take care of everything and deliver you a ready-to-use site within 24 hours. Some tasks are completed even faster, i.e.: we install the template and plugins within 3 hours. There’s no issue members of our Service Center can’t cope with.

As to the coders knowing Bootstrap and other frameworks. Developers who are able to build sites themselves pay money for our products because it is advantageous for them.

With the help of our templates, developers considerably speed up their working process. They deliver more projects and earn more money respectively. We have a vast choice of templates in stock, which means that anyone can find the theme that meets the requirements even of the most picky customers. Creating something from scratch simply makes no sense if our marketplace offers so many ready-made designs. It’s like reinventing the wheel. Smart developers prefer to customize something here and there and deliver the website to the customer as quickly as possible.

I would like to tell you about the project we have launched not so long ago. It gives developers from all over the world an opportunity to get an official certificate from TemplateMonster that proves their skills. They just need to complete a course and then pass a final test (or pass the quiz at once) at our Certification Center. Having a certificate from a globally recognized web design company is a great way to improve your online image and look more credible for the customers.

Besides, having the certificate from TemplateMonster lets you get into Web Studios Catalogue, which gives a heap of additional opportunities.

You raise good points about certification. That is why Web Professionals has been certifying web designers, developers and more for so nearly 20 years.

What are the disadvantages of using a template?

Ok, you caught me;). It’s a tricky question, but I will answer it.

There is an opinion that using a template you fall under the risk to be unoriginal. If you’re going to use a template, then the chances are that you’re not alone, that’s the truth. But what is your chance of seeing a similar website on the Internet among millions of websites if you have bought your template from a marketplace like TemplateMonster with its terrific choice especially after customization? To my mind they are next to nothing. However, if it is crucial for you to be the one and only owner of the design, you can buy it out.

The quality of available templates varies, but in some cases, you might find the choices are rather basic. Some templates rely on you to fill in most of the gaps, and may have a poor set of graphics or visual elements. Frankly speaking I don’t see a big problem here as filling the template with your own content makes your website unique.

Using a template is unchallenging. Relying on templates to put together your projects, means you don’t get the benefits of learning the ins and outs of the software you’re using. But don’t you think that this is the essence of the template – to speed up and simplify the process of website launch? Not all entrepreneurs want to learn to code, design, and so on. They just want to get their benefit from the brand new website asap. A template gives them this possibility. In case they want to study everything that was left behind the scenes, they can sign up for one of our free educational projects (like “Your web studio in 61 days marathon“) and make up leeway.

61 days marathon

Templates are naturally designed to help you get the results as quickly and easily as possible, but in many cases the customization options can be limited, restricting what you can do with your files. That’s why it is important to read the template’s documentation carefully before the purchase. Don’t want to read? Watch the short video from our playlist on YouTube. Don’t want to watch the video or can’t find the relevant one, ask the support manager. They are always available to answer all your questions and help to choose the right template for your purchase. Don’t worry, the guys will work until you are 100% satisfied.

What other products/services do you offer?

2016 became the year when our team focused on developing flagship templates. They are much more multi-faceted compared to our regular products. Let me explain the things with using flagships on the example of WordPress templates. Of course I can’t help mentioning the recent release of Monstroid2 – Multipurpose WordPress Theme. It’s not an ordinary template, it’s a whole toolkit to build an online magazine, business site, personal portfolio, web store, whatever. You can create a complex portal combining several types of sites into one as well. Supposing you want the impossible from a single template: to present your company, plus share some interesting info with clients and sell products at the same time. It’s hard to believe, but using Monstroid2, you can build a business site, add blog and store functionalities to it. Monstroid2 is a one size fits all solution for all the needs you may have.

Here’s how it was. At first we created a flagship for WordPress because it’s the most popular CMS in the world. But then we decided to develop flagships for all popular engines: Joomla, OpenCart, PrestaShop, etc.

But that’s not all, we didn’t forget about the guys who don’t use any CMS at all. You can find new flagships among HTML5 templates. You already know that it’s one of our goals to meet the needs of everyone who comes to TemplateMonster marketplace.

Please note that we don’t charge more for flagship products. You can get any of them for the price of a regular template. Considering professional 24/7 support that we provide for a lifetime, our flagships are the best deals you can find on the market today.

It also should be mentioned that the users can figure out everything by themselves, without professional help. Every template comes well documented. The instructions guide the users through all ins and outs of using it. There are also numerous detailed tutorials at our Help Center and Startup Hub for those of you who are just at the start or want to learn how to handle their template by themselves. What’s more, we run a blog to share a lot of educational content with our audience, particularly, free eBooks, webinars, tips, tools to become more productive, and much more. At TemplateMonster, you won’t just learn how to build beautiful and functional websites lightning-fast, you’ll learn to enjoy the job.

What differentiates you from the competition?

The cost and value of our products comes to my mind first. Our prices are not higher than the ones of our competitors. If you want to save, just search Google and you will always find promo codes to reduce the price by 10%-40%. We always offer great discounts on Christmas, Independence Day, and other public holidays.

Sometimes you find out that the price for this or that template is a bit higher, but, remember about the value we provide. All our customers get more goodies as bonuses to their templates. For example, all our products, except for GPL WordPress themes, are delivered with HD images shown in the demo. It’s a good opportunity to save, as there’s no need to buy stock photos. At TemplateMonster, you can also benefit from free professional technical support.

How long are your templates supported?

TemplateMonster is the only website developer that provides this service for a lifetime without charging any extra payment now. Our competitors provide it for free only for a limited period.

I don’t think it’s fair. Some people don’t use the template straight away. It’s your right to decide when to use the product you paid for. But with a time limit on free support, you’ll have to pay extra money to get consultation, say, in half a year or stay on your own with your issues.

This is not our method. We are ready to help our customers any time at TemplateMonster (the same day, in a week, in a month, in a year, and so on). What’s even more important, our team of experts works until it’s over. Every customer should be absolutely satisfied.

Though, words are not a weighty argument. Thanks to our unsurpassed customer service, we entered the top three of web design companies per the TrustPilot rating. Do you believe this bullet-proof resource with verified customers reviews? So many people can’t be under a delusion.

Here is a video to prove my words.

David, what happens with a purchased template as web technologies continue to evolve?

It’s a good question. You need to update your site regularly and redesign it from time to time if you don’t want to look outdated. Trends are changeable, you’d better not miss the moment when your site starts looking rusty. Customers never take your seriously if your corporate web presentation looks outmoded.

I also recommend you to check how user-friendly your site is in terms of navigation, readability, and other essential aspects. It’s very important to test how it works on smartphones and tablets all of us use to browse the web on the go. Your site must adjust to all modern mobile devices, otherwise you will lose clients. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you can forget about high SEO rankings. Google doesn’t like such kind of sites.
BTW, flagships owners may not worry about the matter. Their websites will serve them for many years to come as regular updates are included into templates packages prices.

Thank you very much, David. You provided lots of thought provoking information for both practicing and aspiring web professionals. Have any more questions for David? Ask them in the comment section below.

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Adobe Spark overview

I recently spoke with Ben Forta (Adobe) about Adobe Spark (a new set of free tools to allow individuals to create compelling and creative content quickly.. In this short overview, he discusses those aspects important to web professionals everywhere. The full discussion is available to our members (once you login, scroll down to find the link).

Ben Forta Interview from Mark DuBois on Vimeo.

Adobe Spark is a tool we encourage our members to try.

Best always,

Mark DuBois

Community Evangelist and Executive Director

For those who desire a transcript of the above captioned interview, we provide the following.

[Mark DuBois] Today, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking with Ben Forta, Senior Director of Education at Adobe.
Ben, thank you very much for agreeing to this; we’re going to talk a little about Adobe Spark. I’m wondering if you could share with our listeners what Adobe Spark is.
[Ben Forta] Great, thank you Mark. Happy to be chatting with you and Happy New Year. Adobe Spark is a new product. It has only been out since mid-last year, so it is relatively new
Spark is a tool that is made available either through a series of apps in iOS or as a web experience running inside the web browser. It’s a way to create content, content that is designed to be easily shared and easily distributed so you can do things
create really interesting graphics designed specifically for social media videos for story telling or idea sharing or create long form stories in text format. It is a way to take ideas that are really important that you want to share and publish in web friendly, very shareable social friendly formats and do it quickly and easily and it is fun. It is important to know that the kind of content you create in Spark, you could create in our other tools. You could create images in Photoshop and you can create videos in Premiere and web pages in Dreamweaver; sometimes you want a tool that does less but does it really quickly and easily and guarantees good looking professional results. That is problem Spark tries to solve. Getting something done very quickly and efficiently and looks really good and is designed for sharing. And I should add that Spark is designed for a very shared, very social space, which also helps.
[Mark DuBois] That is very encouraging. If you had a single message to share with web professionals, what is the single biggest message you want to convey to the web professionals listening to this?
[Ben Forta] The single most important thing to know if no matter what you are trying to do, time is of the essence. Our job has always been to give tools to be able to create content and publish get the work out there and share create and be as expressive as possible. Spark just continues that mission and solves the problem we haven’t really addressed before that is getting things out there really quickly. In today’s age of instant information, campaigns that are run on line on Twitter or Facebook, for example. The days of spending many days, weeks or months on assets are still important, but not always. That is not the only way to create content anymore. Spark is a complement to the tools you already have in that it solves the problem of creating compelling content that is designed specifically for online use and social engagement very quickly. It is a new tool. It is easy and fun to use. It has no learning curve. Runs on multiple platforms, synch built in. It solves a new set of problems in a new era. Everything we are hearing from hundreds of thousands/ millions of users is it works very well.
[Mark DuBois] I am personally quite pleased with it as I said earlier I could live without it at this point. And for those that are listening, I’ll include the URL. It is Spark.Adobe.Com and you can sign up and use it. Ben, thank you very much. Do you have any last thoughts, comments about Spark in general?
[Ben Forta] You really should give it a try. Spark.Adobe.com. It runs on Windows, it runs on Mac, even Chromebooks for younger users. If you go there from an iOS device, iPhone or iPad it will give you access to the apps. Try it, nothing to lose. Login with Adobe login, login with a social login and give it a try and I think you will be amazed at how quickly and effortlessly you can start creating very compelling content that is fun and engaging and interacts with everything else we have done. And another nice thing about it is these apps are small and focused. We are innovating very quickly. In the last few months alone there have been multiple new features all the time. We love hearing from users especially very creative users. How to improve them. Let us know. The team is available. The Spark team is on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, they are everywhere. We love rolling in new features all the time. Give it a try and give us your feedback.
[Mark DuBois] Excellent. Ben, thank you very much for your time today.

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My visit to the medical Holodeck – cancer research at Weill Cornell using HoloLens and the VR Cave

Interactive VR demo of going through MRI data
I just spent a few days in New York setting up a workshop to help minority students to get into development (soon more on that). I was lucky to be in Microsoft’s Reactor when Alex Sigaras, a research associate in computational biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medicine gave a talk about how HoloLens transforms healthcare research for the HoloLens Developer Group in New York.

I took the opportunity to talk to Alex for Decoded Chats about that. We also covered other topics such as sharing of information in healthcare. And how HoloLens despite being a high-end and rare device allows for collaboration of experts in all feld and not only developers.

If you prefer to have an audio version, you can download it here (MP3, 19MB)

Here are the questions we covered:

  1. You just gave a talk at a HoloLens meetup about medical research. Who are you and what do you do with HoloLens?
  2. What are the benefits of using the HoloLens as a visualisation tool in computational medicine compared to VR environments?
  3. Is there a collbaboration benefit in augmented reality and mixed reality rather than virtual reality? Does it scale better in bigger groups?
  4. Genomics is known to have to deal with huge amounts of data. Isn’t that an issue on a device that is self-contained like the HoloLens?
  5. Most of the HoloLens demos you see are single person use. Your use case is pushing the collaborative part of the device. How does that work out?
  6. What is the development stack you use? Did you find it hard to port to the device and to re-use code of other, VR, solutions you already had?
  7. Do you also have some success stories where using HoloLens helped find a data correlation faster than any of the other ways you used before?
  8. Is there any way for the audience here to collaborate in your research and help you further breaking down silos in medical research?

You can see the HoloLens work Alex and his team are working on in this tweet.

The slides of his talk are on SlideShare and have a lot more information on the topic.

In addition to visiting Alex at work, I also got a special treat to have a demo of their other VR work, including The Cave, a room with 5 walls that are rear-projected screens allowing you to get detailed 3D views of MRI scans.

Here’s a very raw an unedited video of Vanessa Borcherding (@neezbeez) showing their research in VR and the insights it can give you.

Warning: unless you are also wearing 3D glasses, this video flickers a lot:

I left the hospital and research facility and had to take a long walk in Central Park. It is not every day you see things that you always considered science fiction and a faraway dream happen right now. I’m looking forward to working more with these people, even if I felt utterly lost and the dummy in the room. It is great to see that technology that on first glance looks great for gaming and entertainment can help experts of all walks of life to do important work to make people live longer.

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Taking my G-Ro for a spin…

Almost two years ago the G-Ro travel bag kickstarter did the rounds and all of us travelers pricked up our ears. It sounded revolutionary and a really cool bag that is a mix of carry-on and laptop bag. It’s unique physics and large wheels promise easy travel and the in-built charger for mobiles and laptops seems excellent.

As with many kickstarters, this took ages to, well, kick in and by the time mine arrived my address had already changed. They dealt with this easily though and this last trip I took the cool bag for its first spin.

Now, a caveat: if you use the bag the way it is intended, I am sure it performs amiably. The problem I find is that the use case shown in the videos isn’t really one that exists for an international traveler.

Let’s start with the great things about the G-Ro:

  • It looks awesome. Proper Star Trek stuff going on there.
  • It does feel a lot lighter when you roll it compared to other two wheeled rollers. The larger wheels and the higher axle point makes physically sense.
  • It comes with a lot of bags for the interior to fold shirts and jackets and lots of clever features.
  • Once you spend the time to go through the instructions on the kickstarter page you’ll find more and more clever bits in it.
  • The handle is sturdy and the right length to pull. It is less of a danger to other travelers, as all in all the angle you use it on is steeper. You use less space walking. However, it still is worse than a four-wheeled bag you push on your side. People still manage to run into the G-Ro at airports.

Now, for a weekend trip with a few meetings an a conference, this thing surely is cool and does the job. However, on my 4 day trip with two laptops and a camera it turns out to be just not big enough and the laptop bag is measured only for one laptop and not even a sensible space for the chargers.

Here are the things that miffed me about the G-Ro:

  • Whilst advertising that it is the correct size for every airline to be a carry-on, the G-Ro is big and there are no straps to make it thinner. This is what I like about my The North Face Overhead Carry on Bag. This means that on an Airbus in Business Class, the G-Ro is a tight fit, both in height and length. G-Ro in overhead on British Airways
    As most airlines ask you to put your coats on your bag, this is a no-go.
  • The easy access bag on the front for your liquids and gels is flat and big, but the problem with liquids and deodorant/perfume bottles is that they are bulkier and less wide than that. This easy-access bag would be much better as another laptop/tablet holder. With your liquids in that bag, the G-Ro looks bulky and you’re sure to bump against the top of the overhead compartment with your liquids. Basically there is a good chance for accidental spillage. A bag on the side or a wider one on the back would make more sense.
  • The bag in the back in between the handle bars is supposed to be for your wallet and passport, and thus works as an advertisement for pick-pockets. I used it for the chargers of my laptops instead, and that’s actually pretty convenient.
  • The G-Ro is very clever in the way you can put a lot of cables and hardware into a very tight space. This is convenient, but also ensures that every time the bag is X-Rayed at the airport, it is taken out and officers ask you to remove things. Instead of keeping cables, iPods and chargers in the bags they should go, it would be better to have a removable pouch for them. I will use a Cable Organiser to avoid this now.
  • One thing that is not really a problem but freaked me out is that the G-Ro is always slightly tilted and I am always wondering if it will fall over. It won’t, and what is pretty cool is that you can fully open the front bag without it falling over. But it is something to get used to.Bag between handle bars, tilted standing and open G-Ro
  • Now, I might have put too much in for a four day trip, but here is the main issue with the G-Ro. For its size it is ridiculously heavy – you know, like the first two Black Sabbath albums heavy. With its big wheels it feels great to pull the bag, but once you get to some stairs, you get a rude awakening. No, you can’t roll it down most stairs, as it would bounce and as with all two-wheel bags you have the issue of a slight angle going down a step making the bag fishtail. The heaviness of the bag is exacerbated by the uselessness of the handle on the side, which doesn’t pull out at all and thus for my fat fingers is a trap and great to remove fingernails rather than a way to carry the bag or pull it out of the overhead compartment.
    Bad handle

All in all, I am not punishing myself for backing this product, but it is only useful for a certain use case. In essence, it is a glorified backpack or laptop bag, but not a full travel companion. I’m looking forward to using it for weekend business trips that last two days, as it will force me not to buy things. But with all the hype and the plethora of useful features that the web site and the videos promise us, I found it underwhelming, especially for this price.

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7 tricks to have very successful conference calls

Conference Call

I work remotely and with a team eight hours away from me. Many will be in the same boat, and often the problem with this is that your meetings are late at night your time, but early for the others. Furthermore, the other team meets in a room early in the morning. This either means that they are fresh and bushy tailed or annoyed after having been stuck in traffic. Many different moods and agendas at play here. To avoid this being a frustrating experience, here are seven tips any team in the same situation should follow to ensure that everyone involved gets the most out of the conference call:

  • Be on time and stick to the duration – keep it professional – of course things go wrong, but there is no joy in being in a hotel room at 11pm listening to 6 people tell each other that others are still coming as they are “getting a quick coffee first”. It’s rude to waste people’s time. The meeting time should be information and chats that apply to all, regardless of location and time. You can of course add a social part before or after the meeting for the locals.
  • Have a meeting agenda and stick to it – that way people who have a hard time being part of the meeting due to time difference can decline to come to the meeting and this may make it shorter
  • Have the agenda editable to everyone available during the meeting – this way people can edit and note down things that have been said. This is beneficial as it acts as a script for those who couldn’t attend and it also means that you can ensure people remotely on the call are on the ball and not watching TV
  • Introduce yourself when you speak and go close to the mic – for people dialing in, this is a feature of the conference call software, but when 10 people in a room speak, remote employees who dialed in have no no idea what’s going on.
  • Avoid unnecessary sounds – as someone dialing in, mute your microphone. Nobody needs your coughing, coffee sipping, or – at worst – typing sounds – on the conference call. As someone in the room, don’t have conversations with others next to the microphone. Give the current presenters the stage they deserve.
  • Have a chat window open – this allows people to post extra info or give updates when something goes wrong. It is frustrating to speak when nobody hears you and you can’t even tell them that it doesn’t work. A text chat next to the conf call hardly ever fails to work and is a good feedback mechanism
  • Distribute presenter materials before the call – often presenting a slide deck or web product over Skype or others fails for various reasons or people dialing in are on a very bad connection. If they have the slide deck locally, they can watch it without blurs and delays

Using these tricks you end up with a call that results in a documented agenda you can send to those who couldn’t attend. You can also have an archive of all your conf calls for reference later on. Of course, you could just record the sessions, but it is much more annoying to listen to a recording and it may be tough to even download them for remote attendees on bad connections. By separating the social part of the meeting from the official one you still have the joy of meeting in the mornings without annoying the people who can’t be part of it.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya Flickr cc

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