This week, Stockholm!

In praise of Norwegian, a budget airline company who flew me to Stockholm and back this weekend.

The whole experience was great compared with other budgets carriers, in the general sense that they didn’t actively obstruct every part of my journey with overzealous process, demands for money, or both. They were just, you know, nice and pleasant. Respectful rather than implying things would be a whole lot smoother if I wasn’t there at all. You all know who I mean – and there is more than one of the them – and have enjoyed many hours in their capable hands, I am sure.

Anyway, Norwegian, as well as being decent people also had on-board WiFi. Maybe this is a thing on proper long-distance international flights but I’d not come across it before. So I took great pleasure in telling Twitter and Tumblr that I was 10,000 metres high and IN THE FUTURE.

And not only was there WiFi, but it worked. And by worked I mean it didn’t do any of the following:
– require me to register, or fill in any personal details, at all;
– take minutes to load a single page;
– cap me in any meaningful sense.

All of which are common features of free WiFi on the ground.

OK, there were a couple of issues. It struggled a bit with some https sites because the authentication process got disrupted. Email worked, twitter website struggled but the app worked. And, naturally, it blocks streaming sites like iPlayer but I expect that on a volatile signal. It also blocked Victoria Coren’s website – was it the gambling or the pr0n that triggered it, I wonder? – but let’s be honest, that’s hardly crucial mid-flight viewing, even for me.

On the way home I wanted to see if it kept the same standards. It did. The signal was a little flaky. It probably worked about 75% of the time, but I can’t begrudge them that, being in the clouds and all. (I wonder if it was connecting via the cloud, ho ho ho shut up.)

I also spent more time on their web portal and that’s when it went from a pretty good experience to impressive. It’s the little things. In some situations having a machine follow you across the north sea might be considered a touch intrusive. But when you’re in a metal cupboard in the sky (that description © John Finnemore) and ultimately desiring little more than to be back on the ground, then it’s rather sweet.

Here’s where I am on my journey:

And here’s my specific flight status. 45 minutes to go before we arrive in a rainy London. Although, that weather report could just be static text. Either way, the tiny considerations like that were what made it.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s not just that they had working WiFi, it’s that the whole experience was thoughtful. They could have really hashed this up and I would have still used it, in a grump, bemoaning the fact I was supposed to be on holiday but even though I’m 10,000 metres in the air I still can’t stop swearing at computers. But it wasn’t like that. The whole experience was so gentle and intuitive, it made me want to tell everyone about it.

One final point. See the bottom half of that second screenshot? That’s a video on demand service. It’s early days; there are very few programmes and it’s just on a trial basis, but – it is the future, isn’t it?

Between desire and reality

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a slight change in the wallpaper. For many a happy year the top few pixels of my beloved weblog were emblazoned with the somewhat opaque Fact & Breakfast the supposed title to all the musings that lay within.

Underneath sat a P.G. Wodehouse quote: No good can come of any association with anything labelled Kathryn just so the reader was sure they’d arrived at the right place, given the only other mention of my name is in the url itself.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I could just show you:

But now, alas, no more.

I picked the name back in 2009 when I needed ‘proper’ website (I use the term lightly). It comes from the usual dated obscurity I thrive on: the opening title to A Bit of Fry & Laurie series four.

I’ve long admired their mix of stupidity and sarcasm. Between fact and breakfast madness lies was full of brusied language and mangled semantics and its shortened version summed up my content perfectly: the occasional ‘proper’ article mixed with all manner of nonsense I needed to get out of my head. And between the two there surely is madness.

It’s served me in good stead. It’s proved as incomprehensible as much of the content that sits beneath it. And yet… the darling site needed an overhaul because it broke several IA rules (101: let the user know where they are. 208: Use clear, understandable language., 305: don’t expect everyone to live their lives via comedy quotes from the 1990s.), it didn’t look right in IE9 and… you know what? I’m looking for a job and I didn’t want to put people off. There you go: your favourite left-wing slapstick lover is MERCENARY AT HEART. Damnit, John, we’re not in Uxbridge anymore.

So, it’s gone. But it’s still all over the site. Partly as tribute, party because I’m not going to edit out every reference to it. If anything the stupidity lives on its Tumblr sister site. But for now we’re boring old Kathryn Hegarty. Some comfort at least that if nothing else you finally know my name.

It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right.

So Vincent Flanders’, author of Web Pages That Suck (an educational tour around some complete car-crashes of websites), has said that from a design perspective, there’s little point in looking at good websites, as they are unlikely to inspire.

Now I love ripping sucky websites to shreds as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t dream of developing my designs purely on a what-not-to-do basis. Good websites are exactly the sort of sites I want to look at because they encourage me to raise my game in a creative, non-prescriptive way.

Whenever I get involved in a website redesign, I’ll look at websites that fall roughly into two categories:
1. Great site, simple as, for any number of reasons e.g. design, navigation, cross-channel integration
2. Sites that might be viewed as ‘competitors’ to my site because they operate in the same business arena, have similar content, or are actually companies in direct competition.

I’ll look at these sites to understand what’s being done well, across the internet as whole, as well as more contextually. Apple might have a beautiful site, but doesn’t sit next to a government quango in terms of business space. So to balance out, I’ll also see if any other government quangos have a really inspired way of using social media, for instance. (This is an area where government can often go wrong, by trying to appear too ‘with it’, which Apple gives the appearance of doing effortlessly). Some principles of good web design are global, some are contextual.

Looking at these sites does not put me off or dishearten me, but drives me to be as good as them. My thoughts are about what can I learn and how I can apply it, positive aspirations. If I were to look at only bad websites, I would quickly feel angry, depressed, and unchallenged. If I’m unchallenged I won’t put in proper effort, I won’t be striving for anything, because I know I can do better than the sites featured on Vince’s site.

That’s not to say that rules aren’t needed. I think part of the reason I disagree with Vince over the value of looking at bad sites is because I’m already well aware of the fatal mistakes websites can make and what should be done to avoid making them in the first place. It’s my job to know. So maybe I’m not the audience he’s trying to reach with this.

But I would say to anyone who’s interested in web design at all that learning from others’ successes is just as important as learning from others’ failures. After all, no one learned to write by reading Dan Brown.*

*yeah, it’s a needless pay off, but I really don’t want to read anything he writes, ever again. It hurts.