From a Problem to 100,000 Downloads

It was 1054 days ago that I first wanted to place a WordPress widget into a post I was writing. Whether it was for a client site or personal one I can’t remember… the important thing is that out of the solution I came up with emerged the Widgets On Pages WordPress plugin.

The plugin has undergone very little change since it’s 0.0.1 check-in to the plugin repository but since then it’s had very favourable reviews and been included in several blog posts and conference talks. But more importantly, for today at least, it’s now been downloaded over 100,000 times!

It has a current rating of 4.7/5 and at the time of writing sits as the 105th most highest rated plugin on the repository. 105th might not seem too good but it should be noted there are over 23,800 plugins in the repo.

Web Celebs and Sasquatches

Since my first forays into the world of Web design and development I was actutely aware of what seemed to be a circle of folk who were everywhere. There were those that were involved in The List Apart empire, those that contributed to .net, those that had authored books on the subject, those who spoke at conferences and so on. It was very common for those who were involved in one of the above to be actually involved in many.

Bigfoot Sighting by JD Hancock, on Flickr

Starting out, these were the folk I kept an eye out for; if they were doing something new with JS then I should take a look too… and if they had a view on clients then I should probably read up on what they were saying. They were our leaders, our chiefs.

Slowly it dawned on me (perhaps I’m not the sharpest tool in the box after all) that these chaps and chapesses were all quite well acquainted with each other.  After some time I formed the opinion that this smallish circle were actually very tight-knit. It appeared to be like some kind of site-cross-linking that had managed to manifest itself out of the virtual web. If one of the members had written a book then others of the group would be very quick to back it up… and sometimes this support seemed to be there regardless of how poor the material was. The pat on the back was always there… even for the most mundane insight or mediocre execution.

I remember one Boagworld podcast (a Christmas special I think) when some dude came on and started talking about a new approach to building sites. He was shouting about it like he’d had some crazy dream and now he had to teach the world. He was, however, just regurgitating the well-known verses of Graceful Degradation and Progressive Enhancement but trying to re-sell it. I was bemused at this.

Please excuse me if you think I’m saying that everything I received from this Web Celeb group was all drivel, it most definitely wasn’t. It was through these dabblers that I first learnt of media queries; it was this circle that brought the wonderful Silverback parallax affect to my attention… and it was these guys and gals who introduced me to cheese and Marmite on toast. I have a lot to thank them for.

And so it was that yesterday, the Responsive Day Out was mentioned on twitter by Jeremy Keith. An instant backlash of “it’s the same folk as at every other conf” appeared… and thus ensued a lovely conversation between Jeremy Keith and Zack Inglis. It was this conversation that sparked me to write my thoughts on the Web Celeb (non)existence.

Having been to a few conferences (note, not a lot) I can say that I’ve enjoyed the whole experience of meeting new folk, chatting about geekyness and drinking beers just as much as I’ve enjoyed the talks. And in general the talks have been good too. I was pleased to catch Jeremy at DIBI as I was initially sure it was he who had babbled on about re-inventing Progressive Enhancement… though I was proven to have made a mistake and loved his talk. I have also enjoyed talks by other Web Celebs but equally have been bored by some. In the same way I have very much been grateful to be in the audience for non-Web Celeb’s talks… as I have also been sad to be for others.

I suppose I should try and bring some clarity to my ramblings (too late, I hear you cry)… and I think it comes down to a couple of points;

What do we mean by Web Celebs?

Are these just anyone who’ll get a retweet by Elliot Jay Stocks or Jeffrey Zeldman. Are these people who we’ve seen on a handful of conference line-ups? Are these the people who appear on Boagworld or have A Book Apart published?

Why are the Conferences full of them?

The answer to this question, although is an easy answer, isn’t the one we all want. Surely a conference organiser wants to break-even if not make money, so why not get a Web Celeb on the line-up? It was these people I wanted to hear from when I was starting out… so surely these folk now starting off on their journey into web design and dev also want to see them too… and are more than happy to part with some cash to see them.

What makes a Web Celeb?

So a Web Celeb probably needs to be good at speaking and getting their point across. Those that don’t will probably fall out of the higher tier quite quickly.

Are they the best at what they do? If we mean designing, writing, developing, etc then the answer is “Probably not”… but that doesn’t mean they’re not good at selling their knowledge and experiecnce.

They also appear to need to work hard on getting where they are. I’ve never written a book (though I was a technical reviewer on Rachel McCollin’s WordPress Mobile Web Dev) but have been told by all who have that it’s very hard work. I’ve also never spent the time writing an article for .net or a tutorial for Smashing Mag. And I’ve never put in the hours needed to record a Podcast. But these Web Celebs have.

The Bottom Line

Do Web Celebs exist? Damn straight they do… but they’re there because in general they’ve grafted away. Perhaps they’re lucky to have a good personality or to know someone on the inside as well… but I can’t knock them for that

What about these conferences full of them? Try not to begrudge the organisers for this. It’s what a lot of people want. If you don’t then perhaps look to attend the smaller conferences… or get involved in organising one.

Do I like it? Nah, but that’s life… and to be honest that’s why I really like the Build It  track at the DIBI conferences. Full of folk who really know they stuff.

So Web Celebs and Sasquatch… let’s just say I believe in one of them.

WordPress 1 Minute Wonder – Quick Performance Boosts

WordPress One Minute Wonder

This latest WordPress 1 Minute Wonder installation covers a couple of quick alternative steps that can be taken to dramatically increase your site performance… and yes I’ll be honest and say that actually to cover all 3 steps here it takes more like 10 minutes.

In the below investigation I based “performance” on Google’s PageSpeed rating and Yahoo’s YSlow and this was run against a newly launched online craft store site called Designs and Such.

Step 1 – Optimise Images

Using the PageSpeed tool (in Chrome) it was possible to  see that I had several un-optimised images on my site. I processed these with the free optipng tool and instantly saw an increase in 6 PageSpeed points and  2 YSlow points. Not bad for something which anyone can do.

Step 2 – W3-Total-Cache Plugin

Now there is some stigma around having lots of plugins on your WordPress site and the detrimental affect it can have on performance… now whether you back this line of thought or not* sometimes plugins can really benefit your site in this context. Now please be sure to backup your DB (or entire site) before using any plugins which might modify you’re .htaccess and potentially other files in your installation.

For my investigation I installed the W3-Total-Cache plugin and configured it just to cache and minify my HTML, JS and CSS. The results were staggering… I saw an overall increase of 11 Google PageSpeeed points and 12 YSlow points

Step 3 – .htaccess Tweaks

Another step, this time plugin-free, should immediately give some good results. Simply by adding the following lines to one of my site’s .htaccess file I saw a further 4 point increase in my PageSpeed score and a 1 point increase in Yahoo’s YSLow rating.

The following lines do 2 things, add expire headers to static files such as CSS, javascript and images and also removing ETags. Of course please backup your .htaccess before doing any of this.

This is defining a 1 month expiry for all content covered by the files types listed above. Note if you do this there’ll be implications if you want to modify any of the files, like CSS, and have the changes to affect immediately.

This technique (and more info on it) was found over at Tips & Tricks HQ

The overall results

So in total by carrying out the above steps I saw the following performance increase. Of course the results will vary site by site but I believe that with Search Engines using site performance as a factor when ranking your site that 10 minutes spent here will be of value.

Google PageSpeed Increase = 21

Yahoo YSlow Increase = 15

[jbox color=”blue” vgradient=”#fdfeff|#bae3ff” title=”Found this useful?”]If you’ve used this technique on your site for performance reasons and have some results then please leave them in the comments.[/jbox]

* When speaking to @westi at WordCamp UK (or WordCamp Manchester) in 2010 he said that putting code in plugins rather than the core should result in no performance hit… of course it depends on the quality of code

WordPress 1 Minute Wonder – Styling Widgets on Pages Horizontally

WordPress One Minute Wonder

In this edition of WordPress 1 Minute Wonders I will answer a question which I frequently get emailed about… and that is how to style widgets next to each other when using my Widgets on Pages WordPress plugin.

In this post I have 3 widgets in one of the sidebars created by the plugin. I have named the sidebar horiz.

To get the Widgets to display as they do above there was some extra CSS that I had to add to my theme’s style.css file to get them to display like this… here it is.

I have put a fair amount of styling in there to make them look a bit more appealing but essentially the important bit that makes the widgets sit next to each other can be done with just the following;

In the first section we style the whole sidebar (you would replace .horiz with whatever you had called your sidebar), making sure that the content overflow is set to auto. This makes sure that any content following the sidebar does not also creep up alongside the widgets.

The second section styles the widgets (all three in this case). The key part here is the float:left; which makes them site alongside each other.

[jbox color=”blue” vgradient=”#fdfeff|#bae3ff” title=”Found this useful?”]If you’ve used this tip why not subscribe to my feed or check out the first item in the WordPress 1 Minute Wonder series?[/jbox]

WordPress 1 Minute Wonder – Styling Author Comments

Styled Author Comment

This is the first in the series of my 1 Minute Wonder series for WordPress where I’ll be showing simple and quick tricks for WordPress to add a little extra to your blog or WordPress powered website. And in this series debut I’ll be showing you how to add extra styling to the comments made by the post author.

So a quick caveat… this trick depends on your theme’s implementation… hopefully it’s been created with all the correct semantic markup needed. If you find this doesn’t work then to resolve the issue may take slightly longer than the one minute.

So here we go, all you really need to do is add the following to your current theme’s style.css file (usually located in ~/wp-content/themes/<theme_name>/ directory);

What we’ve done here is added extra styling to give the author’s comments a background specific background colour with a nice rounded border and a subtle box shadow. The rounding of the corners and the shadow are created using CSS3 so may not show on older browsers.

Styled Author Comment
Styled Author Comment

This styling can be seen on this very blog over at this post on the Responsive TwentyTen child theme for WordPress. Of course the comment can be styled in any manner of ways depending on the CSS you apply.

[jbox color=”blue” vgradient=”#fdfeff|#bae3ff” title=”Found this useful?”]If you’ve used this technique on your site for styling comments then please leave me a comment below with a link so I can take a peak.[/jbox]

Goals for 2011

Inspired by a few folk around the web I’ve decided to put together a post outlining some of the goals I have for 2011. My thinking was to list here some personal and non-personal goals I’d like to complete and as such set myself up for fall if I fail… hopefully meaning I’ll have more motivation to complete them.

  • Complete work on our house – I’d like for us to complete our intial phase of improvements to our house, this includes replacing all the internal doors, replace all the carpet, fit the new (enlarged) loft hatch, insulate and board the loft and finish making good the works we’ve already started in the kitchen.
  • Give blood – This has been on my long-term list for some years now but I keep chickening out… that has to stop,
  • Slight weight loss – I’d like to get down to around 11 stone, this year I dropped 2 stone but feel a slight further drop would be good.
  • Take up drawing – This is a little vague… I suppose I just want to improve my drawing/illustrating. Perhaps I’ll go on a course or 2… perhaps I’ll just practice more.
  • Release a WordPress theme – Would be nice to have a fully developed theme released into the WordPress theme directory. I have built many themes for projects but all have been bespoke so far.
  • Create another Android App – Following the release (and subsequent lessons learnt) from the development and release of Asssist I’d like to take on a new Android project. I’m still at a loss in terms of what the project could be so please let me know if you have any ideas.
  • Get listsed in the next Web Designer’s Ideas Book – On the face of it this seems a tad vain, and perhaps it is. The core idea behind this is to keep pushing myself to create sites which have that extra punch. To be inspired yourself check out the either volume of the Web Designer’s Ideas Book
  • Get Drafted to DribbbleDribbble is a “show and tell” for designers and I’d just love to be invited into the community… especially as I’ve developed the Android client for the site (Asssist). At present the membership of the site is by invite only. My 1st step to getting drafted is my recently published 3 Pointers page which I’ll keep updated with my latest design snippets which I hope I can share and impress with.

WordPress Ribbon Menu with CSS

For a recent project I was asked to replace a Flash site with a CSS/HTML version which was to match the existing look as closely as possible. This was essentially straight forward apart from the menu that was needed. The menu had a ‘wrapped ribbon’ affect on the currently visited item.

Flash Ribbon menu
Flash Ribbon menu

What I’m going to do here is run you through how I replicated this in CSS/HTML on a WordPress powered site. The finshed menu should look like the following;

CSS WordPress Ribbon Menu
CSS WordPress Ribbon Menu

The approach I took was to use the built in wp_nav_menu hook in WordPress to display the menu (which gives a lot of control) but to pass in an extra parameter to the call to define an extra div with a class defined which would be output before the link text.

With some fairly standard CSS (all source can be found below) I now had a menu which looked like the following;

CSS Ribbon Menu Work in progress

The trick now was create the actual wrapped ribbon affect… and to do this I gave the selected item negative left margin

CSS Ribbon menu work in progress

The next step was to creat an image to make it look like the ribbon wrapped back around the menu. This is simply a triangle image with a radial gradient along it’s angled edge to give a feel of depth. For my menu the image I used was this one.

I then assigned this image as a background to the div element we added earlier in our wp_nav_menu call for the selected menu item.

And there you have it… our finished article

CSS WordPress Ribbon Menu
CSS WordPress Ribbon Menu

A Responsive Twenty Ten WordPress Theme

UPDATE: Although the following still exists and is available I have now released a WordPress plugin which gives the same output as the child theme but with the added benefit that it is hosted on the repository. The plugin can be downloaded here.

After reading about Jon Hicks implementation of media queries on his site to make it more responsive to user’s browsing context and the release of the (highly recommended) latest WordPress build I thought it was time to get my feet wet with Responsive site design.

After toying with the idea of implementing this on one of my client sites I thought “Hey! hold on I’m using WordPress 3.0 default theme on my blog… why not extend this?”. And so that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve created a child theme for TwentyTen which not only makes it fluid (up to 940px) but also makes it more responsive at smaller sizes. As well as these I’ve added some extra CSS to make it handle iphone and android browsers too thanks to some interesting articles by The CSS Ninja and riklaunim

The result of this the current 0.1 version of the Responsive Twenty Ten WordPress theme. It should be noted that this is a current work in progress which is one of the reasons that I’ve not published it to the themes directory just yet. There are a few known issues still too;

  • IE fluidity is not implemented – seemed to cause issue with the CSS introduced to pick up mobile resolutions (portrait and landscape).
  • Mobile (read Android and iPhone) have some issues dealing with the orientation. Still looking into this. Update – fixed 😉
  • Requires use of some JS for IE (though I’ve disabled this at the moment.]
  • Not got round to validating the CSS yet (naughty naughty, yes I know). Update – fixed 😉

The theme is essentially a fluid version of the default Twenty Ten theme with a fixed maximum width. The extra “responsive” magic comes in when the browser viewport width drops below 661px. What then happens is that the primary and secondary sidebars drop below the main content and appear just above the footer. Some tiny extra rules come into play for iphone and android browsers too to make the page layout flow better.

By all means download the theme in it’s alpha state and let me know your views. Of course you can just have a play with this site as I’m using it at present too.

Too Helpful

I’d be the first to admit that I’m no “deisgn guru” and that when you come from a developers back ground trying to work out how users will use a system (be it an e-Commerce web site or a Twitter Client) it is always tough to work out just how the users will go about their business. There is a real hurdle to overcome when trying to use a system as a user rather than as someone who’s deisgned (in terms of workflow at least) and built it.

It’s easy to get into the kind of mindset of “well of course you then click X to get to Y” which is why usability testing is really important. We have to remember that web sites will be used (hopefully) all the time by people who’ve never been there before and hence things should be logical and flow… and when this is not always so simple provide enough guidance to aid the user.

Sometimes folks can go too far… and in fact confuse the user. Take a look at the screenshot below and think about where you’d instinctively click to go to the next page. Bear in mind that it’s likely you’ve just scanned down the text (although I’ve blurred it here but please pretend that the text might be semi-important).

Too helpful?

I would think that most people would click the right facing arrow at the centre bottom of the page, bearing in mind that they’ve just scanned the text above. Yup, the one with the word continue written next to it. Either that or they also see the button at the top right and then may think “Oh, which one do I press and does it matter at all?”. Sadly you’ve got at best a 50% chance of going nowhere. In fact these arrows at the bas of the page are not buttons at all but simply ‘helpful’ instructions about the arrows that will appear at the top right corner of each page.

So what’s the lesson here? Testing is important… and it’s no good just testing something yourself as you know what and how a system is meant to work.

New Moo Business Cards

So with the launch of the new colour-scheme over on Gingerbread Design main site it was time to get some new business cards printed up. Having read only good things about I decided to give them a shot… and boy was I pleased with their service and products!

Following getting the first batch through in the post I was disappointed to see that the ‘front’ had a black background instead of the white I was expecting. I mailed the Moo customer service suggesting that perhaps this was due to my use of transparent png images. They promptly replied stating that ‘yes’ they use a default black background colour. They also offered me a discount code enabling me to get a second order for free (inc P&P) and that once I’d placed it they’d check to make sure that they looked OK.

Once I’d replaced my order I did contact them giving my order number and got a reply back from their CS saying that all was good with my new cards… what great customer service!

Our new business cards
Our new business cards

And front…

Our new business cards
Our new business cards

I would definitely recommend Moo to anyone who needs this kind of printing to be done… just brilliant!

Oh… there’s a useful page here with a template image that can be used.