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Web stars speak

/ Interview with Andy Budd

Andy Budd is a user experience designer and web standards developer living and working in Brighton, England. As the creative director of web design consultancy Clearleft, he enjoys building attractive, accessible and standards compliant websites. His online home can be found on his blog, where he writes about modern web design practices.

Andy is a regular speaker at international design conferences, workshops and training events, as well as organizing the UK’s first web 2.0 conference. Passionate about the quality of education in the industry, Andy runs SkillSwap, a free community training and networking project. Andy also helped set up The Web Standards Awards, a project that aims to recognize websites for their use of web standards.

Andy is the author of CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions where he outlines modern web design best practice. He is also co-author of Blog Design Solution where he describes how to set-up, design and install your first weblog. Both of these books will be available in spring.

When he’s not building websites, Andy is a keen travel photographer. Never happier than when he’s diving some remote tropical atoll, Andy is also a qualified PADI dive instructor and retired shark wrangler.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

I first started using the Internet in 1996 while traveling around Asia. A service called Hotmail had just launched which allowed you to contact other people using this thing called e-mail without needing an ISP.

Prior to this, if you wanted to contact home you’d either have to place an expensive long distance call, or send a letter that would take weeks, and possibly months to arrive. Keeping in touch with other travelers was even more difficult, and usually involved leaving messages on guesthouse notice boards or at Poste Restante.

I remember a fellow backpacker taking me to one the many cyber-cafes springing up, and showing me how to sign-up for a Hotmail account. After that, whenever you’d meet somebody, you’d exchange your hotmail address, and could arrange to meet up further down the line, be that Singapore, Bali or Sydney.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

My first impression of the Internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, was shaped by WebCrawler. For those of you too young to remember, WebCrawler was one of the first big search engines, before the likes of Google appeared.

Back then I didn’t really understand the Web and actually thought WebCrawler was the Internet! And yes, there was a time when I used to visit WebCrawler and type in in order to visit that site.

Oh the shame!

/ You are an *user experience expert*, what exactly does it mean?

In relation to the Web, a user experience designer is somebody who designs the user’s entire experience, rather than just the visual aspect. So this includes designing the site structure, navigation, and user interaction as well as the visual design.

It’s basically the combination of information architecture, interaction design, usability engineering, and graphic design.

In many ways it’s similar to being an architect. You draw up the blueprints, plan how the building will be used, create the visual style, and ensure everything works correctly.

/ What was your initial profession?

Well I studied Aeronautical engineering at University, but the less said about that the better. When I graduated I bummed around the world for a bit teaching scuba diving, before settling back down in the UK as a web designer.

So I guess technically speaking web design has been my only true profession.

/ What is your current profession?

I currently run a small user experience consultancy called Clearleft with my friends and colleagues, Jeremy Keith and Richard Rutter.

/ You are a geek head and a writer. When did your love for code & technology started?

My interest in computers started from an early age, and I was the first person in school with their own home computer, albeit a Sinclair Spectrum . Very soon I was able to print my name over and over again on screen, learning the joys of the infinite loop. More importantly I kicked ass at Gauntlet, possibly the best game ever written.

/ What makes for a good web site?

The most important thing is useful or interesting content. Sadly this is the one area that most people neglect, choosing instead to re-purpose existing material or leaving it to the office junior to write. Content creation goes hand-in-hand with building sites with the user - their needs and their goals - in mind.

Sadly this too is often neglected, and instead most sites are built with the commissioning company in mind.

/ How did you first get involved with web standards?

I learnt web design by reading sites like Webmonkey and Ask Dr Web. I remember first hearing about CSS through an article on Webmonkey entitled Mulder’s Stylesheet Tutorial; and was hooked. Rather than messing around with font tags and other annoying presentational elements, you could control it all from a single, site wide file. This had the potential to make life so much easier for web designers, so I wanted to learn as much as I could.

Sadly there wasn’t much information out there. Luckily, when Dr Web hung up his HTML stethoscope, he started a new site called A List Apart which became the focal point for the web standards movement.

/ How do web standards relate to a designer's day-to-day activities?

After the initial learning curve, standards really do make your life as a web designer a lot easier. I won’t go into the details as we’ll be here all day, so you’ll just have to take my word on that one.

/ How did you first get involved in content publishing?

While searching for CSS sites I came across a site called Adactio. I noticed the owner was also from Brighton so we got chatting about web standards. The site was a new type of personal site called a “blog” and the site’s owner, one Jeremy Keith, encouraged me to set up my own. I installed MovableType, created a CSS based layout, and posted it to CSS discuss for feedback.

Jeffrey Zeldman picked up the site and I was suddenly flooded with visitors. Not knowing what to do I started writing about web design and web standards, and have been blogging ever since.

/ How and why did you get about writing a book?

With its simple syntax and logical naming convention, CSS is a relatively easy language to learn. The difficulty lies not with the language itself – although there are a few complicated concepts to grapple with – but with the vast number of tips and techniques floating around. Most of this information is distributed across the web in blog posts and other articles.

However if you don’t follow the CSS blogs, it is extremely difficult for new developers to learn this information. I wanted to write a book that drew together everything I’d learnt over the past five years to make it easier for people to really get to grips with CSS.

/ What makes for a good web team?

A good mix of skills and experience make for a well-rounded team. However while expertise in a particular language or technique is important, these things can be learnt. What’s more important are softer skills like good communication and the ability to write well. It’s also important to make sure you have a friendly and supportive environment where people feel trusted and valued.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*?

It’s that aha moment when an idea seems to come out of nowhere and present itself to you.

/ Describe how you sell 'standards' to a client?

The simple answer is that I don’t. Standards aren’t an optional extra you have to convince clients about. All of our sites are built using web standards, so we don’t do it any other way. Furthermore, unless the client is tech savvy and already has an interest in standards, I don’t believe the issue should even come up.

Most clients aren’t interested in the underlying technology used, just as most homeowners don’t care about the type of concrete used for the foundation of their house. If you hire a professional you expect them to take care of all these technical issues and make the best possible choices on your behalf.

The truth is, only other web developers care about this stuff, and that’s the way it should be. Clients are much more interested in their sites achieving the desired objectives, and as professionals, this is what we should focus on during client discussions.

Where the issue of standards does crop up is when you are trying to convince other members of your internal team to adopt web standards, and this is where you can cite all of the benefits such as bandwidth savings, improved workflow, and developer independence.

/ Is this why you got involved in founding the The Web Standards Awards?

When I first got into web standards, there weren’t many examples of good design around. Most enthusiasts were coders rather than designers, so CSS had a reputation of being boxy and dull. I started keeping a list of all the well-designed sites I could find, which I still keep to this day. I wanted to turn this into some kind of showcase, but never had the time. Then I was approached by a really nice guy called Johan Edlund who shared his idea of a showcase site with me.

This was in the days before sites like the CSS Vault so there was nothing of its kind around. I thought this was a fantastic idea so kept bugging Johan to finish the site so I could blog about it. However Johan was really busy so myself and Cameron Adams offered to help him finish. By the time we’d got everything together the CSS Vault had already launched, but we still have the distinction of being the second big CSS design showcase on the web.

The Web Standards Awards was extremely successful project and still attracts a lot of traffic. Sadly, due to other commitments, the site has fallen into neglect. As such, we recently took the decision to close the doors for a while and give the site a rest.

/ You have been invited to many web related events. Can you tell us why?

You mean conferences and stuff? Well I hope it’s because I’m an interesting and enthusiastic speaker, but you’d need to speak to the conference organizers or attendees about that one. What I can say is that I really love the opportunity of speaking at conferences and hope I continue to be invited. It’s a great way to spread the word of user-experience design and web standards, as well as an excellent way to meet other designers and developers.

/ Recently, you do workshops (Skillswap). Why are you passionate about the quality of education in the industry?

Well I’ve actually been running SkillSwap for over two years, and we’ve recently re-launched the site to allow people to set-up and run their own regional events. The idea came from watching how people on my local web design mailing list would go out of their way to help other developers. I decided to set up a local peer-to-peer training network where the local community could help train itself for free.

Around every 6 weeks, somebody will give a talk on a subject that interests them. We’ve had presentations ranging from an introduction to Flash, to hard-core object oriented programming. We’ve had all kinds of people talk, from first time speakers through to international stars such as Dave Shea and Molly Holzschag. These events are a great way to share knowledge and build a community, so if any of your readers fancy setting something up themselves, please visit the site. It takes hard work and dedication to organize these events, but it pays dividends.

On top of the community work, we also do a lot of professional training. Theses can range from public workshops on Ajax and CSS, through to bespoke courses for in-house teams. We also run a conference in the UK called d.Construct that focuses on web application development. Last years inaugural event was a huge success, with tickets selling out in less than 30 minutes.

We had some fantastic speakers from organizations like Yahoo!, the BBC and the EFF, podcasts of which are still available online. We are just in the process of organizing this year’s event, which will be even bigger and better than the last. Unlike many other web 2.0 conferences, we want to make the event affordable to companies and freelancers alike.

To help keep ticket prices down, if any of your readers work for organizations that would like to sponsor the event, please get in touch.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Clearleft?

It was a number of pub conversations over the course of a year, often after one SkillSwap event or another. Jeremy, Richard and I realized that we all had a similar outlook on the web as well as a complimentary set of skills. Setting up Clearleft seemed like the logical step, and we’ve not looked back since.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

One word. Communication.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed.

Perseverance, perseverance and…

…oh, sod it, I can’t be bothered

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

The best quality you can have in this industry is curiosity.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

My biggest single achievement is probably my book. It was extremely hard work, and I went through a lot of battles to get it finished, some that I won and some that I lost. However I’m very proud of the result and overjoyed with people’s response.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

Ask me again in 12 months ;-)

/ What is missing most in our industry?

In all honesty it’s business skills. People get into the industry because they love design or development. However to run a successful company you need more than just talent. You also need to understand how to market yourself, price your work, sell your services and manage your business.

Sadly this is an area that programmers and creative have little experience of, so many businesses struggle.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

The coming together of things.

Seriously though, people have been talking about convergence for years. It’s one of those buzzwords that marketing departments love but has little meaning to anybody else.

/ Is the www an international network?

The web is definitely an international network, with English as the de facto language. However this strength is also its weakness, as it provides a barrier for entry and causes ghettoisation. For instance, you can probably name a string of American or English bloggers, but how many German or Japanese bloggers do you know? Probably not that many.

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

That really depends on whether companies like Microsoft get their way. My personal feeling is the web probably won’t change that much in the next 10 years. The development of XHTML and CSS has stalled, or slowed down to a crawl, and while some browsers are innovating, it’s not widespread enough to make a difference.

I think we will end up reaching a plateau – if we haven’t already done so – and future innovation will be incremental at best.

However if Windows Presentation Foundation takes off, we could start to see a blurring of the distinction between desktop and web based applications. This in turn could lead one step closer to the web becoming a true application platform. It’s a fascinating proposition, but like many, I don’t want a single company owning the building blocks of the web.

I hope I’m wrong, but I do worry that the standards community have been so focused on the immediate fight, they may not have noticed the 800 pound gorilla in the room. However lets hope that, like most Microsoft innovations, it actually turns out to be a dwarf in a monkey suite.