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4 weeks of Forge, Hammer and Anvil

It's been 4 weeks since I officially took over Hammer, Forge and Anvil, so I thought I'd write up some notes on the experience, things I've learned and encountered along the way.

The beauty of this acquisition was that there were already a fairly healthy bunch of users already using the platform, and some of them were also paying for the service. Before I set about writing a single line of code, I wanted to learn as much as possible as I could about how people were using the products, so I did a few things:

Communicating With Customers

By setting up Hootsuite to manage the Social Accounts

Each of the products has its own twitter account - @getforge @hammerformac @anvilformac. Along with my own personal twitter account and the new Twitter account I created for Beach (since Beach replaced my old service company Double Digital), this is setting up to be a Social Media Management pain in butt.

We don't employ anyone to manage our own social media full time, so it means we typically do our own social media pretty poorly. With Forge, there's a number of ways to communicate with our customers, but with Hammer and Anvil, it's much more difficult as we don't know who they are.

So, Twitter is a very important channel, until I can establish Forge as the main platform for all of our customers to use with whichever Beach product they are using.

Using Hootsuite at least gives me a fighting chance to keep on top of @replies and mentions, support requests and product feedback.

It was particularly useful when Forge went down a few times, to relay important platform status information and therefore limit the customer support requests that would inevitably come in.

 

Getting to Know Our Customers

By installing Intercom into Forge

One of my favourite products, one I've used on all of my products since way back in 2012, is Intercom. The first thing I did on Forge was install it and start talking to customers directly. I made sure I was on hand to respond quickly and thoroughly to all users of the service, to really understand what they thought of Forge and what their concerns were. 

 

The main support requests I received related to Deployments getting stuck. Sometimes this happens and users would just see the endless spinner syndrome - not a great experience. Most of the time, it's due to something fairly innocuous in the uploaded archive, but also the deployment just fails sometimes and can easily be fixed with an intervention on the technical support side.

Forge is actually doing quite a bit of work behind the scenes whilst the site is deploying, and it's great that this is invisible to users most of the time, but when things do go wrong, it's also really important to provide enough information to be useful in understanding what's gone wrong and how it can be fixed. Watch out for some improvements coming in that area soon, including some slightly more elegant logging and console tools.

 

 

Understanding Our Value

By creating a survey on Typeform

I issued a very simple customer survey via one of my favourite products of the moment, Typeform. This gave me a very impactful way to understand the challenge ahead of me. I wasn't really sure how existing customers felt about our products right now and I felt I needed some insight to better approach the future.

The feedback from customers was very consistent. There was a genuine love of the products, the design and simplicity of how the products went about their business. It's shown me just how important it will be to keep this guiding principal as I start to evolve the products.

There was, understandably, an overall tone of frustration. People were on the cusp of giving up all hope that these products would still be alive in the days or weeks to come. So, I was met with some scepticism, but genuine optimism at someone new stepping up and taking these products over. People really loved Hammer, and I think, would really like to love it again. 

 

Championing Our Customers

By creating a customer showcase

There are some super smart, incredibly creative people people using our products to do amazing things and that makes me so proud. I'm a big fan of championing customers, making them the stars of the show.

My first step was to reach out to those I'd identified and invite those who felt they related to the idea, to showcase their profiles on the Forge website. It was fascinating to understand how they use and love our products in their daily workflow, some relying on all three - Hammer, Forge and Anvil, whereas others really only relying on just one product. That's fine, but it's crucial in my eyes that everyone is celebrated for the great work they do and to inspire others.

The first 4 went up last week and I'm build out applications from many more customers, all of whom I'm incredibly envious of their talents.

I'll be publishing more in depth interviews and profiles on each of them very soon on the Forge blog, which will be the main resource for updates and news about each of our products.

 

Working on the Roadmaps

By creating public roadmaps on Trello

I've always been a fan of bringing ideas out into the open and sharing in how those ideas evolve and get implemented into products. So, it was a no-brainer for me to firstly establish the principal of public roadmaps for these products. Trello is my go to choice, since I already use it daily for managing internal product development tasks.

The feedback I received from the Customer Survey and from directly talking to people through Intercom, all goes into these boards, starting with the one for Forge.

 

Users and Customers are free to add ideas, comment and vote on others which helps me to understand demand and prioritise our workflow. It always takes a bit of time for people to get into the habit of contributing directly here, but is an area I really hope will build out organically as we gather momentum.

In August I'll be releasing the Hammer roadmap for people to contribute and stay informed on the progress.

 

Learning About Our Business

 Using Stripe, Chart Mogul and App Figures

We use Stripe for processing payments on Forge. For Hammer, we rely on the Mac App Store.

Both of these services are very well served by some supporting services that provide a way of looking at the data to get a better understanding of the nature of your business, instead of purely looking at timeline transactional data, but looking in terms of your key metrics.

Until I figure out what our "2000 Users" killer metric is, I'm really interested in understanding how new customers find our products (funnel), which product they choose to buy (pricing model) and how long they stay for (churn).

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 13.24.16.png

 

I found that Chart Mogul is a great service for making the most of Stripe data, though I also quite like the native Stripe apps. Chart Mogul provides information in relation to churn rates, and when I get deeper into this, I'm sure will provide much more value still.

The App Store data via iTunes Connect is typically crappy, so I'm using AppFigures for tracking the performance of Hammer. Despite the obvious frustration since stagnating the development, people are still downloading the tool and still love it. So, I'm really hopeful that when I get into the next version development, we can re-establish the trust and passion for Hammer that it once showed such promise for.

Through this initial research, I made some quick decisions on evolving our pricing model. I felt that the free version was too generous and creating too much of a comfortable zone for new users to exist in. Instead of the 5GB limit, I reduced it to 1GB. 

The $10 plan, I felt was also not driving enough value to prompt people to take that big step of putting their hands in their pockets to pay for the service, so I doubled the number of sites that can be created from 5 to 10.

I didn't think there was then enough of a significant difference in value from the basic plan to the paid plan, so I took a big step to remove the limit on sites entirely - you can create unlimited sites with custom domain for $50 per month.

A big feature of each of the paid plans is the Customer Support. It was never something that was really part of the feature set, but hopefully I've made a successful attempt to establish my intention to ensure that we really focus on supporting our customers, through all of the tools that we have available.

 

Tackling the Crooks

Using Intercom and Rack::Attack to block the crims.

All of a sudden, Forge went down. Panic. Was it something I did? I'm still figuring my around the stack, did I botch up the CDN settings? Did I knock out an EC2 instance? Arrghhh.

Turns out, no.

As I was getting to learn about the Forge user base, I discovered that there were around 100 accounts registered on the platform with Nigerian locales. On deeper inspection, it turns out that many of these accounts were using Forge to create suspected phishing sites and Amazon weren't thrilled about it.

Once I figured this out, I went through and removed offending accounts, sites and established some rules for new user signups to prevent this type of thing happening again. 

One way is simply to monitor the new account registration activity, this is time consuming, but a very important exercise to understand how people are using Forge. Intercom is a great tool for this, particularly when I have it setup to fire notifications into a dedicated Slack channel.

The other way is to maintain an active blacklist of IP addresses, using Rack::Attack.

I have a feeling this wont be the last we see of this issue, the virtues of a free account service, but we will monitor and do our best to prevent breaches of our terms of service.

 


So, that's an overview of some the main aspects of what we've been working on the past few weeks - I wont bore you with the drudgery of actually managing a transition of tech from one party to another.

I'm very excited that we're now starting to pick up the challenges of some of the Forge roadmap, from stabilising and updating the underlying technology, improving performance of existing critical features and starting some new shiny things too.




Why Forge, Hammer and Anvil?

Today is a great day and I am very happy.

I quietly announced that my company, Beach.io, has acquired three small products: Hammer for Mac, Forge and Anvil, from the guys at Riot.

A few thoughts on Hammer

Back in 2012, Hammer was born with a flurry of excitement. Back from the initial commit by Elliott to the Hammer server-side repo on June 10 2012, up to the announcement pretty much bang on 6 months later that the app was flying

People loved Hammer. It was a breath of fresh air for Mac-touting front end dev's everywhere.

I know this sentiment very well. I wasn't the first user of Hammer - in fact after signing up for the initial BETA, I didn't quite understand what it was for until I really got stuck into the first release.

It was a REVELATION to me

I wrote this guide to Hammer back in September 2013.

Since then, I haven't done anything static that didn't involve Hammer.

  • I prototyped new UI concepts for Currys / PC World
  • I used it to build Brand Swatches and Style Guides for Breast Cancer Campaign
  • I prototyped early static screens and clickable prototypes for Nourish Care
  • I built and ran value proposition experiments and lead generation for Ferticentro
  • I built product websites for Nuwe, HealthHackers, Nutribu, Beach, Double Digital
  • I used it during Hackathons
  • I converted many themeforest themes into Hammer templates just so I could use them without drowning in long HTML files...
  • I converted the Startup Framework into Hammer templates

2 years after Hammer's first release, I'm still an active customer and user of the product. But the world of Developer Tools moves so fast. We've seen the rise of javascript libraries and frameworks, from Backbone to Ember to Angular to React and Mithril. We've all been struggling to keep up, to place our bets on what will stick and what will fall by the wayside. 

In this time, we've seen other tools with similar promise to Hammer rise in popularity as the products have continued to adapt as the development technologies we use have evolved. Codekit, LiveReload, PreProc, CactusCrunch and Koala to name a few. [Editor: See additional notes at the bottom of the article]

I've tried them all in this time, but there's something about Hammer that keeps me coming back.

But, it seemed something was not right with Hammer, the updates stopped coming. New releases were not made. All was quiet. Meanwhile...

A few thoughts on Forge

Having been a Hammer user since early 2013, when I found out about the new service from Riot, called Forge, I was keen to dive in. In October 2013, when Forge opened its doors, I was right there to give it a try.

I had been having a torrid time with basic hosting, using Fasthosts VPS. It had caused me no end of bother, considering I didn't really want to be doing hosting in the first place, but when you're running client projects, it's something you end up just doing to avoid the inevitable hand holding of a client-managed hosting setup.

So, as soon as Forge came out, I moved a number of my simpler static sites straight over. That wasn't before I'd also wrestled with Amazon S3 for static site hosting, and found updating S3 buckets, configuring permissions and Route53 settings to be a pig of a job for something that should be so straightforward.

That's exactly what Forge was. Dead, dead simple. Drag, drop and forget.

I remember getting so pee'd off with the whole thing, I even ran a couple of demo sites straight out of a public Dropbox folder, I mean, jeez - so when Forge released Dropbox (and Github) integration, I was like "...are these guys reading my freakin' mind?"

Forge is like a bit of a secret weapon for me. In a way, I never really wanted to tell people about it, like they would discover my kryptonite or something. I've hosted everything from coming soon pages, to single page web sites all the way up to a rather nice React app with Parse.com integration on Forge. It's not as "static" as you might think.

I always thought to myself, I'd love to have some products like these, Forge and Hammer are just awesome - amazingly well executed, beautifully designed, simple propositions which really do have an impact on the way developers work.

Since Forge was released, we've seen a number of other static site hosting services, none more significant than Github's own pages service. Then there's Divshot, BitBalloon, Roots, Netlify, Site44, Paperplane and Brace (acquired by Squarespace)

Once again, as I could tell that Forge was not progressing at the velocity that I had hoped, I tried all of these services, but somehow, kept finding my way back to Forge.

A few thoughts on Nuwe and Me

I am CTO and co-founder of a startup, named Nuwe, which we founded in 2014. I have a small tech company, a bit like Riot, called Beach and we specialise in web and mobile app development, mainly focussed on products.

At Nuwe, we are building a developer platform which provides a Platform as a Service for people making new mHealth apps and services. I love ideas with real Social Capital.

We were recently accelerated by Startup Bootcamp, as part of the Barcelona IoT and Data Cohort of 2015.

I come from a rich background of experience in running large and small projects, from PHP-based web apps, e-commerce and CMS builds to more recently, the last few years focussing mainly on Ruby (rails), Node.js and native iOS projects. I'm a developer, product manager, team leader, entrepreneur.

I have 2 small boys, 2 basset hounds and a very understanding wife.

With Nuwe, we've been helping 20 or so companies to build their mHealth apps with significant cost and time savings, during our closed BETA phase. What I've seen in this process up close, is that although the technologies we use to build products vary massively (a huge challenge for us being truly platform agnostic), that the real problem and barrier to growth comes with the understanding and application of the skills required to build and iterate on new ideas from the ground up. Those aren't technical challenges. They are a mindset barrier.

I've seen, first hand, the tendency to assume too much, to believe our own instincts and write feature requirement after feature requirement - often forgetting the real people who you want to buy the product and drowning behind the desk in the belief that what we're building is the right thing, the thing that people want. I've seen it with startups, indie developers and with large multinational corporates.

A big challenge for the creators of new Health services, apps and services in general for that matter, is in obtaining and practising better product development processes and that starts even before we even lay down one line of code on our product.

One of the best parts of the accelerator process for us, was to disconnect from the need to build software and reconnect with our audience. We designed, tested and iterated our value proposition over and again until we found something that resonated - in language, tone, style and structure. 

Doing that somehow free'd us to build later, faster and in a more targeted way. All we needed was a website, a view of the problem and way to communicate the solutions we had in mind.

Through all this, I knew we needed to help educate our customers to maximise the use of our platform and that we'd need to invest in the content and the tools to provide this.

The Convergence of Pathways

It was a chance conversation between myself and Elliott over twitter, since I knew of his move a while back to Dropbox, to ask him what his plans were for Forge, in particular, when we started talking about the future of these products.

Within a few hours we were talking about a deal that would see me take over the on going management of Forge.

And within a couple of weeks, we'd struck a deal for me to take over the ownership of Forge, Hammer and Anvil.

You see, Elliott and I have similar visions for the products they originally created. Elliott still has unfinished business for sure and so I was delighted when both he and Hector agreed to stay close to the products as key advisors and to share in any future success as the original creators.

There's a number of things that need to be addressed quickly, in my mind as a customer of the products and I'm sure you'll agree with those.

There's many routes that these products could take, and I'm sure we'll become more divided on those ideas as we progress, since the landscape is evolving all the time.

One things is for certain, these products don't deserve to end up on the crap pile. They're too damn good, too damn valuable and have too much bloody potential as yet unfulfilled.

My Simple Manifesto

I think that it would be rather premature to tell you what I plan to do, so it might make more sense to outline what I believe in.

Customer Service is Top Priority
One of the things I want Forge to be known for is Amazing Customer Service. It's going to be hard, we're a very small team to start with, but I see the potential for this product and I will do everything I can to make sure the service you receive kicks the cr*p out of the larger, less personal and more sales-driven companies. The service will be personal and the best way to reach us is via the new Intercom tool in your Forge admin area. Look out for this...
 

forge-intercom

Openness, Transparency and Collaboration
I'm going to bring openness and transparency to the roadmap, I want all of our Customers to have a say in the way that Forge takes shape.

Build and Enable Great Products
I believe in Products. And whilst Forge itself is a product, the customers using Forge are also building and promoting their own products. So I think Forge is a tool for creating better products and better businesses and this will guide what we do with Forge.

Simplicity Is Beautiful
I love simplicity. And that's why I love Forge and Hammer, it really was the easiest way to host and build my websites. Even so, some things are still not as simple as they could be and there's lots of things I'd like to add. Remembering this value will be crucial.

Social Capital is Really Important
I like working on things that provide an amount of Social Capital. If you're in Education or you're building products for Health, then I'd especially love to hear from you to see how we can help you further.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the products, ideas you've been mulling over and waiting for over the past couple of years and your own visions of the future.

Follow Forge on Twitter

Follow Hammer on Twitter

Follow Anvil on Twitter

 

 


Edit: Thanks to @TheLoneCuber and Bryan Jones (@bdkjones) from Codekit for pointing out the potential for interpreting the article in a way that I hadn't intended.

It seems it could have been read that I was suggesting Hammer was the first tool of its kind in the market - that wasn't the intention. I was merely trying to make the point that since Hammer was released, other apps have continued to evolve and establish a place in the market and Hammer has not evolved at the same pace over recent months.

To clarify, and as both had pointed out, Codekit (thanks to Bryan's exhaustive and often entertaining public release notes) actually went live into Public Beta in November 2011 and according to the project's repo, Hammer's first commit wasn't until summer 2012.

 

 

 

10 Tips for Building Wireframes

10 Tips for Building Wireframes

I have been learning to create low and high fidelity wireframes for both mobile and web devices. There are a variety of different tools you can use to create these wireframes like Illustrator, Photoshop and Sketch ( only available on Mac ). I have been using Sketch 3 to wireframe as its a simple combination of both illustrator and photoshop. 

More and more designers are using vectors for wire framing. The following tips will help you make the most of your wire framing experience. 

Wire framing is about working rapidly and iterating quickly. The aim is not to create attractive interfaces; your number one priority is to design information and experience. 

Below are 10 tips that i believe to be important when designing wire frames. 

1.  Start Sketching

Sketch them first with pencil and paper for a quick sanity check. This should take about 30 seconds and opens up the possibility of getting early feedback. This can save a lot of time and money. The feedback gained through peer review or, best of all, from some early and informal user testing (you may need to spend a little more than 30 seconds on sketches if they're for user tests). 

2. Go Monochrome

Wireframes make clear the hierarchy on a web page; they visually demonstrate the order in which users should process the available information. If you want users to process the headline before hitting the "buy now" button, the headline needs to "trump" the button by demanding more attention.

This visual hierarchy can be defined in a number of ways. We could use size to make the headline more impactful, we could use positioning (by placing it before the button). We could use colour, contrast and a range of other things, but doing so in a wireframe only makes things more confusing.

By removing colour from the equation, the visual relationship defined by position, size and (if you want to go the extra step) contrast, is much cleaner.

We're not building pretty, pixel perfect UI kits here. Stick to a limited range of greys, then use color just for labels and notes. 

3. Don't forget the goals of the page 

Keep the goals of the page in mind when designing a wireframe. Focus on driving action. Organise the information into hierarchy that serves the goal of the page. 

4. Pick Your End Point

Prior to commencement, work out who will be consuming the wireframes, how they'll consume and what what level of fidelity is required. Remember that theres a relationship between the level of fidelity and type of feedback. Will quick paper sketches suffice or will they need to be fully interactive with accurate dimensions? Keep in mind: the less precise the wireframes are, the more liberty and creativity a designer is going to take with them. On the other hand, if you think they look perfect designers may feel inhibited and merely "colour in" the wireframes, preventing the design process from really getting going. 

5. Keep the rest of the team informed

Wire frames are not just for the client. All members of the web team should provide feedback on them, buying into the process at an early stage.

syd-creative-team.jpg

6. Use common elements

When designing a set of pages, use tools that allow you to make multiple changes to all common page elements at once. Moreover, as you're creating the wireframes, look out for design patterns that repeat. Leveraging these is key to gaining efficiency and consistency. 

7. Consider the content

If your wireframe aren't sketches then be realistic about the amount of content that will be added to the page. This holds true also for number (and length) of links and navigation. If practical use accurate sized fonts, images and consider what will happen when more text then ideal is added. Nothing on the web should be etched in stone, so ask if the design will flow as required. 

8. Draw on your experience

You do not need skills in design or development. All anyone needs is experience in using web apps or websites. Of course the more experience the better but you don’t need to understand relational databases to wireframe.

9. Keep it clean

If a particular page requires two text boxes and a button then it should have just that, no more, no less.

10. Get feedback 

I have learnt not to be afraid to test your wireframes with a couple of informal user tests. Grab people from around the office and ask them to find various bits of information or explain what they think the function of the certain elements is. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Tools | Optimizely

New Tools | Optimizely

So I have recently been introduced to Optimizely.com. Its a fantastic A/B testing site that is super simple to use. 

Optimizely makes website optimization software for companies. The Optimizely platform technology provides businesses the ability to conduct A/B testing, Multipage, and Multivariate testing allowing them to make better data-driven decisions.

 

 

It's very simple, you take your web page URL and input it into the box. Optimizely will pull through all your information from your website and bring it into a window where you can then add, edit, and change HTML, CSS and inject javascript. 

 

Its a very intuitive tool to use to create variations of experiments to try on your web page to try and increase various things such as clicks and sign ups etc. 

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 14.25.02.png

Once the page loads up, you get the options for changing, editing and adding HTML to the page so you can create variations of experiments to test out on the website. Once submitted you can then track how both compare to one another. 

 

As you can see from the image it is very simple to add HTML to the site where you can style new elements via CSS, in this case in our Header where I've just added a new <h2> element. The Options are endless to what you can do with Optimizely, you can create any amount on variations of your webpage to submit. 

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 15.03.25.png

I look forward getting to grips with Optimizely properly in the near future for various projects, as it's a very simple tool to use which could make the difference of new users signing up to our site or more people clicking links.

@steve: Tools like this are very powerful, when used correctly. Firstly, for most companies, the job of split testing design treatments, styles, messages and communication should not have to go into the development team to implement, where possible - marketeers, product owners, whoever it is responsible for optimising the site against the companies key metrics should not have a technical constraint to be able to make this part of their every day job.

The second thing is to remember, that split testing and optimising sites is just one aspect of the funnel. You need traffic first, so address this with your SEO strategy, social media, PR and other forms of organic traffic sourcing. If you’ve got even a small amount of budget, then Facebook or Google Ads targeting your market segment would be a good way to ensure your AB tests have a predictable sample set of fresh eyes to properly extract insights from your experiments.






Smoothee Steady cam| Review

Smoothee Steady cam| Review

Nowadays there's definitely no shortage of gadgets and gizmos you can purchase for your Iphone. My new favourite is the Steadicam Smoothee from Tiffen. I recently upgraded to the Iphone 5s from an Iphone 4 and was totally amazed with the difference in quality and wanted to complement it's video capability. 

OK, I should be perfectly honest with you all right now, the Steadicam Smoothee is priced at around $149.00 and it wont give you quite the same results you might see on television or the movies, but if you take time and the effort to learn how to use it, you will improve your Iphone videos and it will give you some nice, steady video. If your using this outdoors, ideally you don't want any wind. 

The stabilizer works on a system of weights and balances with your camera. These balance adjustments are critical to making it work and do take some time to calibrate. The Steadicam Smoothee is relatively easy to adjust to especially since the camera is so light. It's so much easier than trying to adjust to a heavy video camera with multiple weights. 

Tiffen's website refers to it being based on the same technology as their rigs in which are used for movies and television which cost upto $60,000. In theory they are correct and with some practice you can achieve some really nice smooth results. But with alot of practice, you can get much better results. 

It's really a matter of how much extra effort you want to add to your Iphone productions, as this product is not going to fit into your pocket or purse it removes the spontaneity you have shooting video with your mobile phone. You need to plan ahead. 

So to get started is very simple, just take out the phone case and slide your Iphone into the mount, If you have a case on your phone you will have to take it off as it is a very snug, but easy fit. Now its a matter of calibrating the IPhone and Steadicam Smoothee with two separate knobs; Tilt forward and back, left and right, it should take around 5 minutes to get balanced. 

Maintaining the steadiness of the camera from moving side to side, does not take some practice. You can control with the hand grip which uses a gimbal mechanism to keep the camera in a more of a floating state to give your video a smooth 'gliding' feel as you move around and follow your chosen subject. 

You can use your thumb and finger with a light touch to keep the camera from moving left or right if there is a breeze. 

 

 

Actually one of the hardest problems with one of these devices, including the much more expensive ones, is when you shoot while walking backwards as your subject is walking towards you. This part is difficult if your anything like me, (incredibly clumsy), unless you have eyes in the back of your head. I most definitely keep walking into things situated behind me. 

You will need to practice and become proficient at this skill because if you are only following someone walking forward your only going to film their back. 

The Steadicam Smoothee or another gadget like an external microphone, is going to take planning and extra work to improve your video. It all depends which type of shooter you are with your IPhone video because it is possible to get some very nice, smooth and floaty video while moving with your phone. 

Ive tried chasing the dogs around the house, taking a tour of the house, walking along the promenade, floating up from behind a wall. Ive tried it out in a typical situation where I was moving while shooting. Of course, this resulted in me stumbling into something while walking backwards. 

Do remember that if your on an important video shoot and your using your phone to film, do turn it onto Airplane mode as you dont it going off and missing the important moment. 

Overall, the Steadicam Smoothee did improve the footage quality and give it a more professional look. It takes some to calibrate and to learn to fly the camera. The equipment is top quality and works, it feels great in the hands of the user, it's the operator that needs to take some to get the results he's after. 

 

 

 

 

For more information and to purchase a Steadicam Smoothee, Please visit: 

http://www.tiffen.com/steadicam_smoothee_homepage1.html

 

 

 

 

Tools I Use: Hammer for Mac

Tools I Use: Hammer for Mac

Caution: Non-Mac Users, this is not for you - sadly. 

The guys at Riot have really helped me out over the past few months with their product Hammer for Mac

Hammer for Mac makes creating static websites, well actually, really good hearty fun. 

The Product

Download Hammer for Mac from the Apple Store and get started straight away, by creating a new project from scratch or by using one of Hammer's small collection of project templates.

Read the full Hammer documentation (they're pretty short and easy to digest), and I'll just give you my favourite bits of the product, which I've come to rely on. 

 

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 16.52.29.png

Includes - I now take great delight in segmenting my HTML into nice and tidy snippets via the HFM @include feature, without needing to run MAMP and use PHP as I used to.

 

SASS and Coffeescript auto compiler - The HFM build process automatically processes my .scss and .coffee files into .css and .js. If you're not familiar with either of these technologies, you should dig in. Coffeescript use is still a bit contentious, but SASS is a no-brainer. 

 

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 16.52.36.png

Javascript & Stylesheet includes - Clever paths that will rummage around in your file directory and automatically find and load your javascript and css files regardless of where you put them. A huge time saver. 

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 16.52.24.png

Clever Paths - Image files and other such assets are now always (super)relative, regardless of which folder you put them in or if you move them. HFM will find those pesky assets and load 'em into the page in a snip.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 16.52.17.png

Placeholder Images - when you're desperate to eat lunch and you want to crack out a template, the placeholder shortcut will quickly jazz up your page content with correctly sized image placeholders. You'll be ordering a beer and burger 30 minutes before anyone else with this baby.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 17.04.25.png

HFM is now on version 1.6 and the most recent updates to the software seem to have really focussed on performance - general processing speed and caching in particular. 

There's a few features within the software which I've really also come to love within the workflow.

The optimize toggle switch, which on request will compress and minify your code. 

 The Export archive link - just because it's easy and simple.

and most significantly for rapid publishing and sharing of work in progress, is the Publish Build function, which uploads your site to HFM's AWS servers with a short url to share with teammates, colleagues and clients. Hammr provides their own wrapper to the page for navigation and access to core site files, which is nice.

 

I met up with the guys from Riot around 18 months ago, when HFM was still in closed BETA. 

I was really impressed with Elliot and the team's focus on this product and how they've taken the "Mac-centric" approach to product development. I appreciate their style and business model and I really hope that HFM continues to grow and become adopted by front end web developers and designers around the world. 

Learning Ruby on Rails Development - My Progress

Learning Ruby on Rails Development - My Progress

As I took the very easy decision (albeit painful, lonely and stressful at times) to create Braindu I also undertook to learn some new technical skills.

Braindu is a complex web application that uses a number of cutting edge web application development technologies, which I've discussed briefly before.

On the server side, the platform is built using the now popular and impressive Ruby on Rails platform. My development team are extremely experienced Rails developers, but for this project, I wanted to get stuck in myself and learn to code Rails apps from scratch.

I've talked before about how I'm sudo-addicted to online learning platforms, such as Code School, Codecademy, Treehouse & Lynda.com.

But alas, with everything you have to take in, everything you come across from tutorials, courses, videos, documents, articles, e-books, plugins, gemfiles, extensions, frameworks, libraries... it opens you up to a whole world of information that you need to navigate, store, manage, curate and constantly refer to on a regular basis as you advance your practical knowledge and experience with a framework like Rails - it's a frickin' nightmare.

 How I Learn Ruby on Rails with Braindu

How I Learn Ruby on Rails with Braindu

Fortunately for me I've got Braindu. The product that is encouraging me to learn Rails is also the app that is helping me to learn rails (and many other companion technologies, such as SASS, HAML, SVG, CoffeeScript) and now I cannot live without it.

Now I know I have a slight conflict of interest, but seriously, my learning process has been transformed.

And with Braindu, I can share with you my collection of resources - a live and organic repository of information relating to my mission to hold my own at developing web applications and software. Amazing considering that I couldn't even build a website but 4 years ago.

 Sit back and Browse with the Read View.

Sit back and Browse with the Read View.

I've got a long way to go to be able to have at least a modicum of technical credibility among the experts that I work with every day, but the ability to get closer to the technical team's challenges through better technical skill development and knowledge is already paying dividends.

Right, back to a brief coffee break and a dabble with the Evernote API via the new Codecademy API pathways. How I've changed.

Into the eyes of the VC

Into the eyes of the VC

I created an Import feature for my old MySpareBrain charts to be brought into Braindu. One of my favourites is my curated collection of information about London VC's - notes, contact info, backgrounds, portfolios, office maps etc.

 London Venture Capitalists

London Venture Capitalists

After the import, I was cleaning up and adjusting the icon images via the Braindu image adjustment feature, when I came to zoom in on the guys from Accel Ventures. Most of the images positions had defaulted to just show the eyes and some small additional facial features.

I found myself staring at the collection of eyes, wondering to myself what story they told, which eyes would I trust, which eyes would be welcoming to my story, which eyes offered a balance of critical thinking and supportive encouragement, which eyes would I want to stare into at a board meeting or over coffee?

Freak huh? Look at your VC in the eye and see what it tells you...

Take a look at my London VC Chart here if you like...

Glass: I'm Eating This - Google Glass has me excited

Glass: I'm Eating This - Google Glass has me excited

I just watched Google Glass developer advocate Timothy Jordan's 50 minute long presentation from SXSW, where he publicly presented the Google Glass Project, some interesting use-cases and a first look at the Mirror API.

The whole platform feels sleek, elegant and simple. The API is similarly so, where the interaction and information transactions are small, timely and impactful snippets that augment what you are doing right now and otherwise, get the hell out of the way.

Design for Glass - The Glass design is unique and fundamentally different than existing mobile platforms. It's important to build and test specifically for Glass to create a great service.
Don't get in the way - Services should be there when you want them and out of the way when you don't. They should never take precedence over what else the user may be doing.
Keep it timely - Glass is most effective when in-the-moment and up-to-date. User requests should be handled immediately and information should always be fresh.
Avoid the unexpected - Giving users unexpected and unpleasant functionality is bad on any platform, but particularly bad on Glass given how close it is to the user's senses.

I've been working on a fascinating project with Nutribu, a startup looking to transform how we interact with the complex and boring world of nutrition into a fun, social and competitive experience.

Google Glass could be the answer to how we may capture real-time transactions, like eating a meal, in an unobtrusive or overly clunky way - a problem which currently exists with web and mobile nutrition diaries and calorie counters.

Instead, Glass potentially offers all sorts of mechanics to make nutrition, eating consciously and with access to relevant information about our consumption a fun, data-driven and socially interactive experience.

It also gets me thinking about we access our personal information repositories, with services like my very own Braindu, so that our data is available to us in an actionable, real-time mechanic. I'm very excited to try out the API and build Mirror API-based services.

You can see my Braindu chart on the subject of Google Glass here with links, videos, images and notes that I expect will grow over time.

Braindu - Collect, Organise and Share Information to Learn.

Well, I thought it was about time I show you what I've been up to for the past 6 weeks or so and I'm very excited to show you because it's been one hell of a ride.

Ever since I wrote this post, updating you on the changes at MySpareBrain, it's been all about the new project. Braindu was born.

The Braindu Product Website

Braindu continues and builds upon the work I was doing previously, but takes a more refined and targeted approach to providing a platform for collecting, organising, managing an sharing information - not only as an individual, but collaboratively.

The key here is balancing features and functionality with simplicity & elegance of design - a constant trade off that we must remain cognisant of.

I'll follow up in more detail about some of the new technologies, new features and functionality as they are added, as we build up to a more publicly accessible product launch. But here's a little teaser of the new application's core interface.

Christmas Prezzies from the Tech World

I wrote about my impending Christmas of heads down grafting on a new, improved product for managing your online information. Well, Christmas has come and gone, leaving only an empty box of Lindt Lindor chocolates, 1/2 stone in excess body fat and a little 21 month old boy even more addicted to trains than he was before.

And true to my intentions, we've been busy.

I'll be giving you regular updates on that from now on, as and when there's something significant to show and tell. But in the meantime, I want to say that having delved into the world of real-time, complex web-app development from scratch, how impressed I am with the open source eco-system. 

The technologies, tools, libraries and frameworks at our disposal our numerous, with more being created all the time. This post is a brief overview of those which we have decided to implement as core, or test as necessary. Some you will certainly know, some you may not... all worth noting and adding to your list of tech-to-try.

Hosting

Heroku - Although it is my first real experience building on Heroku, the choice was an easy one. Free setup, easy to scale, support for and easy installation of 3rd party apps like SendGrid, New Relic and others, the list goes on. I've had to become a little more familiar with GIT (I use SVN normally) but deploying to our repo at Beanstalkapp.com  has been pretty easy.

Server Side

MongoDB - Another first has been a foray into the world of noSQL databases. Not because it's trendy, hip or fashionable to do so, but because we felt this would be the best fit for database needs - primarily due to our perceived "need for speed". We took a lot of guidance from the team at Trello, who have been kind enough to detail lots of thoughts on their choice of stack.  I'm not qualified to debate on SQL over noSQL, but experience with query speeds using mySQL previously (on just about every other project I've built) urged me to try something new, and for this product, definitely seems to be a good fit.

Ruby on Rails - At MySpareBrain, the app was built on Google App Engine and thus, any server side scripting was written in Python. For this new product, we discounted Python due to new team skills and experience. We toyed with using Node.js which has been growing in popularity, but in the end opted to progress with Ruby on Rails providing the server side MVC we need, which also works very well with MongoDB.

Devise for RoR - Devise is a modular authentication solution for RoR. We've used Devise in conjunction with Facebook and Twitter social login API's for what we think is a nicely rounded model for creating and managing user accounts with different roles & capabilities. Check out the docs on Github

Client Side

Backbone.js - Backbone is, as the name suggests, at the er, *heart*, of our web application providing structure and order to the complex front-end javascript code required for something like this. Backbone's only dependency is Underscore.js, a utility-belt of functional programming support for Javascript.

Raphael.js - a nifty little javascript library for working with vector graphics on the web, we've been playing with Raphael predominantly due to it's SVG support (as opposed to other HTML5 canvas-based libraries. It's been quite useful for quickly rendering objects within the app's UI, but we have started to hit some limitations/complications for more complex uses - particularly when trying to append HTML to extend basic Raphael objects. We've got around it so far, in one case, by opting to paint in the additional interactive elements, but jury's out on it's longer term viability. Another test will be performance under stress of high volumes of objects rendering simultaneously   

D3js - D3 is a library for manipulating javascript documents using data. Some initial scoping tests suggest this may be a suitable alternative to Raphael, but we're still testing/reviewing the docs. From a pure product perspective, I'm interested in the physics engine and it's possible uses for the app, though this maybe a bit of a creative tangent.

Angular.js - This is a little misleading, as we're not currently using Angular. Consider it a bonus. But I have been playing with it a bit (I have the makings of a nifty little to-do list app). It's interesting because it enables you to write functional code into the html which makes it quick, relatively easy and clear to read when building web applications.

CoffeeScript - Hey, it's just javascript. But having done a few javascript courses and tutorials (check out my Codecademy badges) I can see how the reduction in braces and semi colons could really help speed up my learning, development and reduce stupid errors. More importantly, the devs can rattle out CoffeeScript like there's no tomorrow and therein lies the real benefit for us.

Animate.css - A sweet little CSS3 library for CSS animations that's very easy to use, cross-browser compatible. Use with class and subtlety. Overuse will kill you. 

Kinetic.js - Since we made the decision to use SVG for objects in the new product, Kinetic wasn't really going to be all that much help to us. But, I found a little time to use it to fake the drag and drop of objects that we create in the app using Raphael, in a little section of my attempt to take the online Pitch Deck to the next level. I'll be posting about that soon... Kinetic is good for lots of reasons, just a quick look at some of the demos / examples show just how complex graphical animations can be produced.

SASS - Less or SASS, Less or SASS? OK, SASS. Development team choice, I think related to personal preference of indentations and workflow with HAML, which SASS takes it's own inspiration from. See this to help you decide which to use. 

HAML - Our pursuit for beautiful code, something which we decided we wanted to get right from the off, led us to use HAML, for simplified template creation - particularly useful for RoR apps. Our development principles align with HAMLs stated objectives:

  • Markup should be beautiful
  • Markup should be DRY
  • Markup should be well indented
  • HTML structure should be clear

Cinema 4D: Experimenting with Sound Effectors

Since I've been learning After Effects and been following Andrew Kramer's Videocopilot, my interest has been peaked towards 3D visualisation and animation. As Videocopilot's Element 3D plugin (which I love) has been a signal of the importance of 3D within After Affects compositing going forward, I have kind of followed like a little lost sheep.

I'm no stranger to 3D, having worked during my Retail Design years with some top 3D designers and visualisers. People like Matt Tipping, Creative Director @double-europe, James Cutler @mintviz, Joe Wright @spudcreative, Florent Beaujot @Artform - but they were the one's creating the magic, not me. I just won the business.

So, armed with Maxon Cinema 4D, some tutorials from Lynda.com, Greyscale Gorilla and others, I've been learning and playing.

A couple of months ago, the guys from KiteRight - a charity which uses KiteSports to improve the lives of people who normally wouldn't be able to access the sport - posted a visual on their Facebook page, with an idea to turn it into KiteRight branded globes which would animate to music.

 Kite Right balls inspiration

Kite Right balls inspiration

So, initially I had a play with it in Adobe After Effects, using the Element 3D plugin. This was pretty basic and only took a few minutes, to generate a bunch of colourised spheres, with a texture map containing the Kiteright logo. I then animated some basic rotational parameters of the balls and a camera to do a quick sample render. This is it...

From there, and coming back to the initial topic, I decided to have a play with it in true 3D space using cinema4D and toy around with Sound Effectors, using the MoGraph suite of tools. 

I'd been playing around with syncing animation with audio keyframes in After Effects previously, so made for a good set of features to test here. I found a really excellent tutorial by GreyScale Gorilla on the subject.

I picked a song that I'd bought from Audio Jungle, called "Live My Life" by MetroLightMusic, which is nice and uplifting and quite apt for the cause.

Here's the initial result, which I abruptly cut short because a) it's just an initial draft and b) I was using my crappy laptop which takes ages to render out the .tif sequence and I couldn't wait around.

The great thing about this technique is that you can basically swap out the audio in C4D for any track and get a completely different animation effect thanks to the combination of Dynamics engine and the audio-based animation.

I think you'll agree it's a pretty awesome little effect.

Finally, I took it into After Effects for a bit of colour correction, added some composited elements, vignettes etc.

Be kind, I'm learning...

Creating an Explainer Video: Taking a Shortcut

Time is of the essence, I need something and I need it now.

So one option is to cheat and use a template. There are more and more resources available to use as the basis for your explainer video. Since a good explainer follows a particular model and is made up of a number of components it's safe to assume you could bottle that process, apply a theme and just change the content.

Yes and no.

It's always going to be a compromise. So much of what makes a great explainer is about the personality and the narrative, it's not always possible to take some pre-existing template and have it instil the same message you would get from a custom made fully owned video.

But, you can get something done quick and inexpensively and that's in and of itself, part of the challenge. So here's what I did.

I really like the Envato marketplaces and a particular favourite is the VideoHive site. Predominantly, these are Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4d templates with some stock footage and motion graphics resources. 

There seems to have been a surge in explainer type templates, so worth checking out what's available., but also great for logo stings, openers, video slideshows and lots of others things.

I found a template which fit my style - bright, colourful, clear text placeholders, optional use of screencasts and I also liked the default music which I had to buy separately via AudioJungle.

Here's the video I chose http://videohive.net/item/explainer-promo/2512991 and here's the result.

The key to these templates is that they need to be put together properly and this one was, so it's easy to dig in and change the easy things like colours, logos, text.

I wanted to customise mine  bit further, so I tweaked the timing to kind of fit the voiceover, added additional compositions and effects. This is where hacking away at a pre-existing template starts to get messy - because it flies in the face of best practise. 

1. You're trying to fit the voiceover to the video until that sounds too false, so then reverse engineering the video to fit the butchered audio... and so on...

2. Depending on how the originator structured the compositions, applied effects and used the original assets, it's difficult to manage since you didn't create it, so your knowledge of where everything is maybe counter intuitive.

So, if you're going to use a template, my advice is spend time finding one that's as close as dammit to what you want and avoid over customising. Any customising you do, make sure it's key to what you're trying to get across or because you're having fun practising playing with someone elses project.

Take that understanding and move on to perfecting your own process and make the video of your dreams from scratch, which is what I'm now doing but safe in the knowledge I have a half decent fall back in the meantime which cost me £20 and half a day of buggering about with it (and a lot longer rendering it).

Creating an Explainer Video: Outsourcing to Professional VoiceOver Artists

Because you hate your voice so much, there may be no alternative!

Look, I don't really dislike my voice that much, more objectively, as an amateur, it's more the realisation that I could benefit from some guidance. It just doesn't feel right at this point in time and it's causing me a bit of a mental hurdle from continuing this process. If I'm not confident in the script and less confident in the voiceover, how can I possibly commit to the illustration and animation, which should take the bulk of the time?

So, I came across (thanks to Miguel @ Grumo Media - cheers dude!) Voices.com - a marketplace for VoiceOver talent.

 Voices.com Homepage

Voices.com Homepage

This service is actually very impressive, as it turns out. I think that in some ways, the fact that I'd taken the time to take the process seriously and create a documented project brief (more on that in an upcoming post), I created a free account and posted my requirements on Voices.com.

You can apply all sorts of relevancy filters to your project, such as language and regional variations, styles, like conversational, humourous, friendly (I'm intrigued to know what dark and menacing would sound like) and some other parameters, including budget.

My script is around 1 minute long, and I entered a budget range of $100 - $250, Voices.com suggested that based on my parameters, I should expect 93 responses. Cool.

Every new project is vetted by Voices.com and this I think is important in determining what happens next. By ensuring, on behalf of the VO talent, that projects are genuine and reputable, the VO talent is more inclined to actually invest in their response - and this is what really impressed me.

Within 1 hour of the project being approved, I had 20 responses. Within a few hours I had 40 responses.

So, with reference to a couple of paragraphs ago, the investment the respondents make is massively important - the personal message and the REAL recording of YOUR SCRIPT, which you can listen to via the Voices.com audio player. Some record a small portion, some record the whole thing. To hear your script interpreted and produced in this way is really great and a lot of fun to go through listening to them all.

Some just upload their demo reel, and I have to admit, I just skipped those. The many that had  gone the extra mile had set the bar high, and those who didn't take the time to record at least a bit of the script failed to make the first cut, regardless of their voice.

 Voices.com responses list

Voices.com responses list

The bids submitted ranged from $100 up to $350. The responses, even though I selected a non-gender specific bias in the filters, were 99% male. The one female, was really good and also the most expensive, so I'm seeing a correlation here - are there many female VO's out there? if so, maybe there's an opportunity for you....

So, I encourage you to check out Voices.com, gets my recommendation.

Creating an Explainer Video: Voiceover Recording

Why I hate my own voice and you will hate yours too.

That's just the way it is, you have to be Craig David (who was reportedly pulled over by police and was listening to his own music) not to shudder at the sound of your own voice. So, when deciding to go about recording your script as a voiceover, on a tight budget that doesn't stretch to expensive studio and professional VO artist time, I can really see why people get stuck here.

For the MySpareBrain explainer, of course, I wanted to persevere with the process on my own - warts and all, you might say. So, as a first step at least, I was planning to record my own voice speaking the script I mentioned in my last post.

Once you get into the audio part of the project, you realise that's a whole other world of jargon, tools, technologies, processes, effects and skills. I did some reading and collected some useful resources, which I've added to the Explainer Video Research chart on MySpareBrain.

Ultimately, this was an exercise in getting stuck in and seeing what I could cobble together, what worked, what didn't and frankly, just trying to make the best of it.

I started by recording the voiceover just using my iPhone voice recorder app. It was a method used by Authntk and talked about on their blog. They seemed to a really good job with it, so I thought, why not?

Here's a sample:

Actually, the result was surprisingly OK, considering. The main issue was actually getting the files into a format that I could use easily. By default, the iphone records the audio files into an .m4a format (read more about m4a and MPEG-4 here). I found that to get the files onto my computer without an active iTunes account setup and synced (I'd just got a new PC), the only way is to use the direct sharing options - email or SMS, which is a bit of a pain.

Then, for some reason, I couldn't seem to get Adobe After Effects to import the raw .m4a  files into the Project Panel. I didn't look into it too closely and maybe completely wrong, actually, come to think of it, it may not have even been an After Effects issue, but anyway, the point I want to make is that felt I should convert the files to a different format, so I chose .mp3 - Audio guys please do let me know what I should / could have done via the comments below.

So, I used this very nifty little audio converter app to do that.

When I put this audio into After Effects with a rough cut and placement to the animation, it really wasn't working. If I'm going to cringe at my own voice, I at least want a better quality recording to cringe at.

Since I was going to need to do a fair bit more voice recording, and eventually get over the fear of hearing my own voice, I decided it would be a good idea to invest a little bit in a half decent microphone setup. When I say half decent, that is raising my standards from the £4.99 Argos special that I also had in my armoury (and preferred the iPhone recording results).

After doing some more research, I called the guys at Sound Exposure, who I found had some great reviews. The sales guy there was really helpful and enjoyed chatting about what I was up to. I settled on a Sennheiser E835, a Tascam US-122 MkII Audio Interface, and a Konig and Mayer 23200 desk stand.

It took a little while to get it setup, mainly because the audio interface drivers were a little outdated in their support of operating systems past windows XP. The experience was all a little clunky, but eventually got it working and figured out what th knobs and dials were for on the unit.

So I set about this time, recording in the free open source audio software Audacity.

Now Audacity is actually really easy to use and it's very flexible and quite intuitive. It's not the sexiest looking piece of software, but it's free and it works. The only problem was, I still wasn't happy with the end result. Now, it's most likely that the problem is totally down to me, operator error, but I didn't have time to dig in more thoroughly and figure it out.

Instead, I dug into the Creative Suite a bit further and took a look at Adobe Soundbooth. To get acquainted, again, I did a bit of research for the usual blogs on the why's and wherefore's. I also did this Soundbooth CS4 course on Lynda.com which I thought was very well constructed, sufficiently in depth but not too technical or boring.

Initially, I imported the audio from the Audacity project into Soundbooth and it was OK, I found working with Soundbooth (as a result of the Lynda.com course and my recent surge of interest in other CS applications) really easy - possibly more so than Audacity, since I was already used to many Adobe conventions and UI elements.

The first thing I tried to fix was the persistent hum in the background of the Audacity audio, when played back in Soundbooth and other software, which was the predominant cause for my dissatisfaction with the result. Soundbooth has a toolkit for this, in the Tasks panel, under the "Clean Up Audio" heading. Using the Noise reduction filters, I found that I could reduce it, but I still wasn't happy with the result as the amount I needed to apply started to audibly distort the voice audio.

So I tried a do a direct record, again, using the Sennheiser mic setup, direct into Soundbooth. This cleared up the humming noise completely and I was much more happy with the result (bearing in mind personal prejudices). 

In the course, I learned about compression, reverb, EQ and other effects (of which there are many) and the temptation was to go crazy, but for now, I've decided not to apply anything and keep it as is. The danger is I'll go crazy and completely lose the point of using my voice, which is to be a raw, natural, passionate explanation of what we're upto at MySpareBrain, from the voice of the CEO.

Tools I Use - SocialOomph

Here's the first of a new topic theme I've decided to start running. As my online career develops, I find that I am trying out and using more and more online tools to improve my productivity, efficiency and effectiveness in social media, content generation and ways of reaching my target target audience.

The first tool I've decided to review is something that has become part of my core Twitter strategy. The tool is called SocialOomph.

Social Oomph is an incredibly sophisticated toolkit of features and functionality that help you to manage your Twitter (and other social media containers) activity. The site is free to join and the basic features are free. There is a "professional" upgrade that is $29.97 per month.

So, I'll start with the basic account, which actually contains an unbelievable amount of functionality and for general Twitter users wanting to improve the frequency and volume of their tweets, this is the perfect way to start.

You can access multiple Twitter accounts through the basic dashboard, to configure an auto-response DM to new followers, decide if you want to auto follow people who follow you, you can choose to vet new followers and auto-unfollow people who choose not to follow you back. You can also request a periodic digest of all the @replies you get, so you don't have to keep looking.

One of the best features of this system is the ability to pre-compose and schedule tweets. Now, it is a subject that is bound to rouse the sceptics, but in my opinion when used alongside organic and spontaneous personal tweets, this is very powerful. 

It is important when using twitter or most other social platforms to be regular and consistent to get the most from them. When you're time limited, it can be very difficult to do this. Scheduling tweets is a great way to get over this problem and ensure a round the clock supply of short communication from you to your followers. But, now for a WARNING and some Tips.

Warning - don't abuse this system. If you schedule a load of recurring tweets of the same junk content, not only will people stop following you, you'll also get a big slap from our friends at Twitter. Big NO NO!

It is important that if you are scheduling tweets you put in the same amount of time and consideration to the value of what you are putting out there and have a solid idea of what you are trying to achieve through your tweets before you even start.

Nail that, and you're off to a flying start. Your scheduled tweets need to be written and quality controlled by you in the same way you do when tweeting normally, you just do it in one go. Maybe spend 30 minutes to and hour per day do this and you'll have followers beating down the door to connect with you.

The "Professional Upgrade" package introduces other platforms and integration, such as posting to Facebook Accounts, posting and scheduling blog accounts and more in depth rummaging through twitter lists and Twitter users with "Influence". All great stuff, but I'm convinced you'll find the basic package enough to get your juices flowing initially with bags of features thrown in.

Social Oomph - power Twitter tool

Bit.Ly for link shortening - it's fascinating stuff!

I've been somewhat sceptical about the usefulness and security of URL shortening sites. Firstly, while I was still getting my head around Twitter, URL shortening just seemed like a pain in arse thing I had to do to fit something into that damn 140 character limit. How naive!  Without the shortened URL presentation, most twitter posts and now, any other microblogging posts which is becoming massively popular, would be a mess. It would make the task of data sorting and searching exponentially more arduous.

The other thing which I LOVE is the tracking of click through's on shortened URL's, and for me, Bit.ly is the best I've seen. It really is interesting to test and see which topics, trends or formats get the most clicks. 

The final main point was security. What happens if one of the thousand of URL shrinking companies goes out of business? I have heard this chewed over by Leo Laporte, Jason Calacanis, Gina Trippani and others many a time, and rightly so. I think the fact that Twitter has pretty much picked Bit.Ly as its golden child of URL shortening partners makes this not only the most enjoyable choice, but also the safest too, in my opinion.

Give it a try...

Social Media tools for your Business - Part 1 - Facebook

Choosing Social Media tools for you or your business, it's a real minefield. there are many right ways and there are many wrong ways. The fun bit, is that while one thing may be right for one person or company, that may not apply to another person. Hmmmm. So where to start? We certainly can't tell where to finish - wow what a minefield of hypotheses that would be (maybe another post there, I think...). Let's look at my online presence as an example....

OK, so you've got me here, on Blogger {note: now squarespace}. This is where my main blog is hosted. But as you'll come to learn, successful social media strategy does not rely on an "all eggs in one basket" approach. In fact, quite the opposite and the key is ensuring that your profile is being seen by the right mix of volume and relevance. No, that's not the name of a new drum 'n bass setup, but I mean the difference between 'generic mass market' and 'targeted niches'.

For instance, and I'll use these examples a fair bit because they're the talk of the town at the moment, you will undoubtedly invest in a Facebook and a Twitter profile. Why? Because they get the most hits, they are the most talked about and they are sooo easy to use. But as everyone else is doing the same thing, it will take some considerable time and/or money and/or luck to make it pay - in the traditional sense. I'm not saying you shouldn't invest that time and money, but you should do it wisely and with a wider strategic Social Media plan in mind.

So, I have these pages;

Facebook
Twitter

I mainly use Facebook as a personal page, to keep in contact with old and current friends. I have a Fan Page and a Group page for Fidgetstick/ here too;

Fidgetstick/ on Facebook - Fan page, Group page

To be honest, because I mainly use Facebook for personal reasons, I haven't spent much time using it to promote my business. Sometimes there's a fine line between business and personal use that's hard to distinguish. And that's important. In my opinion, that's something that makes Facebook a very difficult nut to crack in terms promoting your business as most of the sites users are simply there to talk about what they're doing at the weekend, where they went at the weekend, and whether they are drunk or sober or a bit of both.

However, you can get it right and your message can reverberate like wildfire within the Facebook community. There have been some great case studies of how Facebook can be used - this is a nice article by Callan Green on the website www.mashable.com, which looks at 5 good examples of Facebook fan page use, from Pringles, Coca Cola, Starbucks, Adidas and Red Bull.

Now, obviously all of these guys are big name household brands. Arguably, they have just got to create a Fan Page to automatically get a hundred thousand "Fans". Your small, medium or even large sized business isn't so fortunate. The difference here, and what Callan rightly points out, is that it's not so much the fact they have a page - but it's what they do with it that makes them ultimately successful in their own right, and oddly enough, each in slightly different ways.

For instance, the Pringles fan page stands out because of it's interesting video media content. People love a good video or photos or music and that's something you can learn from as it's so accessible by all, with sites like vimeo & youtube, affordable hardwear such as camera phones, helmet cams, waterproof cams, handheld HDD cams - you don't have any excuses and you can capture some amazing footage from your own personal experiences. As a result, my last count showed Pringles had over 2 million followers, and once they've popped, they just can't stop. I'm sorry. I couldn't help it.

The Red Bull fan page is also interesting, as Callan points out. Being quite close to home for me, this is a particularly interesting case study of how a brand who knows its target audience can maximise the effectiveness of social media to take user engagement to the next level. And in such a simple manner, it's beauty is in it's clean and relaxed but humorous approach, not taking itself too seriously in the process. And that's important too.

Another lesson to learn from Red Bull is how stepping outside of the vanilla "one size fits all" template that Facebook provides can really generate interest. One example that Callan highlights is the Twitter integration that, in itself is not uncommon, but Red Bull have gone a few miles further and brought in the twitter feeds of some of their popular riders, snow and skateboarders - such as Shaun White and Ryan Sheckler. So not only are Red Bull trying to get yuo to visit their page, they actively want you to leave and find something else that you'll find interesting and engaging.

And that's the point, your task doesn't stop with getting any old Tom, Dick or Harry to find you. You want Tom - who rides DH in the summer, frequents the board parks of Avoriaz in the winter and loves copying SW's latest tricks and fashion trends. Harry, his brother, surf's Biarritz in between backpacking trips around the States and Thailand. He's been bungee jumping and does spear fishing. He loves buying kit and has a shed full of it back home.

You don't want Dick. He's just not interested. He plays chess. But the fact is, any of these people can find you on Facebook and unless you are relevant and specific to your target audience, you may just find yourself with a Dick, so to speak. And more than that, 100,000 Dicks are useless. OK, this is running away with me now, but you get the point.

So by all means create a Facebook page, at the very least you should capture your businesses URL. Be prepared to invest considerable time and effort into consistently building relevant content that your target audience would find interesting, funny and useful.

Next blog, we'll take a look at the other main example I mentioned earlier - Twitter