Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Laws, sausages and websites

Most people will be familiar with the famous quote, usually attributed to the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, about the making of laws and sausages. You'll hear many variations, but they all boil down to, "Laws are like sausages. You should never see either being made."

I've been working on a major update for the 360Data website for a number of months now, in concert with my partners-in-crime at Avenir Design, and it's been a very interesting process up to now. Communication for the project has been conducted largely using the wonderful online collaboration tool Basecamp (which I also use for many of my customer projects). This means that the entire conversation and all our thoughts and ideas can be followed from the first germs of inspiration through to the soon-to-be-completed end product. I'm tempted to post it all online...but then I think of laws and sausages.

When we first created the existing website, I had no history as an independent professional, so the focus then was on presenting all the possibilities, the services I could offer businesses. That's almost three-and-a-half years ago by now, and I've been busy during that time with all sorts of interesting and innovative projects, but that's not  reflected in the present site. It would, of course, be easy to add a few pages to the site with these details, but they'd just get lost in the present setup.

Another problem is that it's impersonal. Professional, certainly, but with this new iteration we wanted to make it clear that 360Data is a one-man-band, with all the advantages that offers of direct, personal contact and attention for clients.

That turned out to be the trickiest part of the entire design process. How to communicate the correct balance of professionalism and personality? We also felt that there was a lot to like about the existing brand, the logo, the colours and so forth, and we didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start with a complete blank sheet. I'm a database professional; content and data are sacred, but I believe that design and presentation convey a crucial message about one's work and work mentality. Function comes first, but clarity and communication should never be an afterthought.

To do this, we spent months, on and off, batting ideas back and forth. Sketches, links to inspirational websites we'd come across, that sort of thing. A lot of talk about what ideas I wanted to present. I looked at how other independent techies were presenting themselves on the web. With all respect, and with honourable exceptions, they are (for the most part) uninspiring at best. Sites from designers proved much more fruitful. There are innumerable examples of independent designers with strong, clear websites (if they can't do it, who can?). The best of them place "who am I and what do I do" front and centre with all other content being secondary, and this became our approach for the new site too.

The next problem we faced was imagery for the home page. We didn't feel that there were any stock photos that conveyed our message, so we decided to make our own in keeping with the new, personal approach. Easier said than done, naturally. You'll have to wait a little longer to see the end product, but suffice it to say that there was a distinctly non-technological resort to coloured card, scissors and glue, as well as a lot of folding (and, to be honest, some swearing and complaining).

Integrating the final images in the redesigned home page was the last headache, and we added another few thousand words to our voluminous correspondence discussing such weighty matters as the look and feel of call-to-action buttons, slogans and so forth.

You might expect after so much effort that the final design would be so over-worked and over-designed, but I'm really pleased with the way it's shaped up. It's fresh and clean, and I'm confident that it presents my work in the best possible light.

I'm very much looking forward to letting you see it.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Crystal Ball

Firstly, a happy new year to everyone. I'm really looking forward to getting to grips with this year's work and challenges, and I hope that you can say something similar.

There's a major new release of SQL Server in the pipeline, for starters. The preview release has been available for some months now, and it already seems like being the most significant product version since the landmark 2005 release. (It's no accident that SQL Server 2005 is still by far the most popular rendition of the Microsoft DBMS that I come across at customer sites to this day). SSIS functionality gets a long-overdue update in 2011 that introduces important new capabilities to the suite, as well as major updates to the DB engine querying capabilities, spatial data, high availability among other features.

Something to look forward to, then. 2010 was a quiet year on the MS database front. There's certainly been a large push on from Microsoft in the direction of the cloud, with SQL Azure making huge strides in a short time as regards functionality and ease-of-use. While cloud database services have the possibility to completely change the way we develop and interact with database architecture, it remains to be seen whether businesses (in the short-to-medium term) will want to surrender their data to an external entity. Regardless of your point of view on the morality or legality of the WikiLeaks affair, Amazon's actions in closing infrastructure access to the organisation highlights one of the inherent weaknesses of cloud computing; your business is dependent not only on the professionalism and technical foundations of external parties, but also on the goodwill of external governments and other agencies. Would you host your online bookstore database on Amazon Web Services? Your online presentation app with Microsoft Azure? Your mapping technology with Google? The technical barriers to cloud application and data delivery have practically disappeared already, but questions regarding ownership, permissions, entitlements and responsibilities arise that were never an issue in a world of applications and data hosted on private data centres.

It promises to be an interesting year.

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