How do you design a site?

I’ve been considering ways that I can up the design of my site, now that I’m back to blogging a bit. I’m not much of a designer myself, and while I appreciate a good minimal layout, somehow it’s harder to pull off something that looks good with fewer elements on the page.

When I’m working with clients we normally have someone come in specifically to handle design. I have played around with wireframing apps before, and can sometimes sketch out basic ideas, but I admit to being clueless when it comes to anything between basic ideation and coding it up.

Usually I end up looking at other sites for inspiration, like Awwwards blog sites. I can see what people who review sites every day view as good designs, and try to get an idea of what makes them stand above the rest. I then try to remove the things that I consider too gimmicky, like some of the scroll driven sites that move content around. I always get the feeling that people scroll for the animations more than they care about any of the content on the site.

This is an issue that plagues me with my business sites too. I know that there are things that I could do with design to help improve the UX, but I don’t really have the skillset. I should find ways to improve on this, without taking too much time away from the technical learning that is constantly growing before me.

People like Steve Schoger make the process of refactoring UI look like wizardry. I don’t intend on working up to that level of mastery, but having someone walk through the process is a huge help for clarifying their thinking.

Seriously, check out his videos if you are interested in UI

Do you have any tips for how you work out new site designs? What about any layout decisions?

The Value of a Newsletter

Through the past two weeks, the combination of swapping over email addresses and GDPR have given me a ton of reminders of the random places that have my email addresses, including services that I used once years ago and services that I don’t want to use anymore.

No Bandsintown, you’re not being clever, even if I have to email you to delete an account. I’m stubborn enough to take that effort.

But I’ve also gotten plenty of newsletters that I do enjoy. The ones that keep me in the loop on topics that I’m interested in. The ones that give me an overview of the day’s news. The ones that entertain with lighter fare.

For a year I ran a now-defunct newsletter called This Week in Web. Each Friday I would share some of the news stories related to privacy, technology, security, and random occurrences around the web. I would attempt to put variety in sources, and give a short impression of whatever I was sharing to give my opinion as well as make it easier to determine whether to read the full article or not.

That said, newsletters have been making a comeback. Email is still the killer app when it comes to reaching people most broadly, and if you’re like me, a lot of your consumption comes to your inbox as opposed to a notification feed.

While I’m on day 25 of my month-long challenge of daily blogging, I haven’t yet restarted a newsletter. I worry that it won’t be focused enough to attract regular interest, or that I will make it too focused for most people.

I don’t know which of those two options is the better outcome in my case, and I’m regularly concerned that by placing a newsletter on my personal site I will be tying subscribers to myself as opposed to a brand or business that could grow beyond myself.

But that’s probably thinking too far ahead. Instead why don’t I do the same thing that I’ve done with the blog: write about whatever it is that is interesting to me that day, and try to gauge where reader interest leads the content.

To that end I’m opening up subscriptions for a new newsletter. I’ll put out the first email next week, and I’ll start with a commitment to sending once per week. What that newsletter will have is yet to be seen, but I want to shake up the layouts that I’d used in the past.

Sign up below if you want to keep up with whatever random things I’m doing or thinking about, and get some links to cool things, gifs that I’m liking, or I guess links to my posts if you really want those.

Subscribe to my Newsletter

If you do subscribe, I want to treat it like a two way communication street. Email me back with stuff that you’ve seen recently that you liked!

Breaking Servers and Learning By Trial

I mentioned in the past that I run my own mastodon instance. You can find it at tech.lgbt, where I’m ostensibly creating a community for LGBTQIA+ folks who are interested in technology.

I chose to wait until this morning to update Mastodon to v2.4.0 on the server that I host this instance at, thinking that I would be able to complete it in a half hour at most based on some of the last few updates.

What followed was a multi-hour ordeal; something that took up far more of my non-work time than I would care to admit. At the end of the day it turns out that I had missed running one command early on in the upgrade process that led to a cascade of failures later on.

My general ineptitude with Ruby, bundlers, and Docker were my downfall, in which I wasn’t sure of the commands that I should run to diagnose issues, and I wasn’t sure where the errors that I received should leave me, beyond the suggestions in the terminal that were trying to save me from myself.

With a break, far more patience (or foolhardiness) than I expected to have, and plenty of help from Chris Wiegman, I ended up finding the source of my woes and updated the server and software properly.

Recounting this is partly an excuse for writing something so short so late, but it’s also a reminder of something that I said earlier in the month: despite the additional tools, libraries, tutorials, and packages, the difficulty level of becoming a web developer is Growing.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

I can’t rightly assume what things that I do every day should be a standard for building on the web, considering how trivial some of the problems that I grapple with must seem to others. I’m glad to always have something new to learn, but at times it can be quite exhausting.

Boostnote – The Note Taking App That I’m Currently Using

I’ve used a lot of note taking apps over the years. I like to keep my notes available on multiple devices, and ensure that they are backed up in multiple places so that I don’t lose them. I try to type everything that I post on any of my websites in a separate program first, and to copy and manage them when I’m ready to post.

One of the problems that I’ve found with most apps on the market is that they are made only for Mac and Apple products. While I use a Mac as my main computer, I use Android for phone, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll always stick with this platform. Note taking apps like Bear and Ulysses look nice, but I’m hesitant to buy an app that isn’t future proofed a bit knowing how fickle I am with technology.

Evernote used to be my main solution for this, but the price increase, controversial privacy policy updates, and inability to support some of the features that I want natively have ruled it out as my day to day note app.

Honestly though, it’s still top of my list for all but a few features. I greatly enjoyed the OCR feature, which allowed me to scan and save lots of old useful documents and to be able to search them when needed. Being able to pull up an invoice from a few months prior while talking to an unhelpful mechanic was an opportunity for me to realize how useful it would be to have all of my documents available to search and display at any time. Eventually I want to set something up with a document scanner and a tool like Paperless, but right now that requires more setup and management than I want to put into it right now.

Markdown is the main reason that I stopped regularly using Evernote. I could survive without it as it’s not a requirement for me, but the high support across a variety of platforms, including WordPress where I post most of my content, makes it useful. Evernote doesn’t work with code snippets, and while there are alternative Evernote clients like Alternote and Marxico, I still need to set them up through Evernote, and they’re not always well supported. Plus, I lose the ability to use them on my phone.

While hunting around a few months ago, I found Boostnote, an open source, markdown driven note taking app that promises to “Boost Happiness, Productivity, and Creativity”.

Boostnote Interface
I currently use Boostnote to write all of my posts for this site

Cool Features

The cloud syncing is useful, but the mobile app only has preference for Dropbox for now. Basically since you can set where your notes are saved, selecting a folder in a synced service lets you keep them backed up safely.

You can also choose keyboard shortcuts based on vim or emacs if you are used to using either of those command line editors.

Importing text and markdown files is as easy as dragging them into the app. You can even import from Evernote with ever2boost, though it’s a command line tool that requires a bit of setup. Notes can be printed to PDFs if you want to share them in that format. They can also be exported as text, markdown, or HTML files.

Speaking of HTML, there is a setting to control the level of sanitization for HTML, which is nice to keep from accidentally breaking documents with pasted code or content.

The main plus for me is the code snippet feature. I can create shareable code snippets in their own files with a high level of syntax highlighting support. I can also toss bits of code into normal markdown notes, which will translate to display properly when I paste into WordPress. Considering how often I like to do that, it’s probably the first feature that is missing from Evernote that I’d want to start using that again.

Creating a Markdown Note or Code Snippet

Drawbacks

The app is not perfect. Like every note app, there are features that another app has that I wish that it had, and there are features that it has that if I could transport into another app I might start using that one.

An example is storage methods on the mobile app. Since you can set up a folder in a cloud sync service to allow you to access the same notes on mobile, I’d like to be able to set that as my default and have it cache data, so that I don’t need to reload all notes every time I want to use it on mobile, or not accidentally forget to switch and have it stored in mobile only.

Whenever I open the mobile app I’m greeted with a sad, empty screen.

There is no spellcheck in Boostnote. Coupled with a bug that currently exists in Gutenberg where spellcheck does not run on pasted content, I have to manually move through all of my content to ensure that it is not misspelled.

One thing that Evernote and Marxico have are the ability to work via a web interface. This would necessarily be more difficult in a self-hosted app like Boostnote, but it’d be a nice feature for someone wanting to manage a secure hosted environment, so I could access and edit notes on devices that I don’t have synced with my data.

There are some quirks to Boostnote that I’m hoping will get updated soon, like the ability to use keyboard shortcuts to jump to the beginning of the line that you are typing on as opposed to the start of the row. I can’t say I would have a workaround for this without line breaks or carriage returns, but I can hold out hope. When you copy a link into Boostnote it grabs the meta title for that link and creates markdown for you, but then it doesn’t update the cursor position.

I will again point out that this is an open source project, and I am lucky to get so much for free already. I just like the idea that I could submit issues on Github and potentially have someone who knows more about this than I do work up a solution.

Where I’m Ending Up

The thing is, there are so many different note taking apps. In addition to the ones that I mentioned above, here’s just a quick sampling that I found while writing this:

If Evernote handled code better, I’d probably pay to switch back. If Marxico had desktop (and preferably mobile as well) apps, likewise. Right now Boostnote isn’t perfect, but it’s the place that I get most of my writing done.

I’m going to check out some of the new apps that I found while writing this post. Do you have a note taking app that you swear by? What features should I be looking for?

What I’ve Learned Hosting the WordPress Orlando Meetup For Almost Seven Years

I’ve been organizing the WordPress Orlando Meetup since near the start, all the way back in late 2011. For me that was my first introduction to the idea of a community around WordPress, and that led to my involvement in my first WordCamp in 2012. Since then I’ve traveled to dozens of WordCamps, speaking, volunteering, organizing, and even occasionally attending without having all of that extra pressure ????

WordPress Orlando Organizers and Matt Mullenweg
Having Matt Mullenweg stop by your Meetup is ????????????

There are a few things that I’ve learned about hosting recurring events for people that you don’t always see outside of that community. Some of these were taught to me by others locally, some were shared from the supportive network of the Make WordPress Community, and some were those harder learned lessons, where I had to experience firsthand when things don’t always go according to plan.

I can’t say that these are the most important lessons of all, but since I’m prepping for our WordPress QA Meetup tonight, I thought I could jot down a few of the things that I find important for a Meetup.

It Doesn’t Matter Where You Are

I mean you should try to choose a place that is quiet enough to hold conversations, but not so quiet that you’re intruding on it. Ideally select a location where you won’t be a disturbance to others nearby, and they won’t be a disturbance to your group.

Libraries have been good for us for this, as well as private office spaces generously donated by supportive businesses. These are places that you can generally have a multi-hour meeting without disturbing anyone else, and if you look hard enough you can find people willing to give you space for free. We generally choose companies that are in the web and marketing space, since they would have a natural overlap with our group.

Coffeeshops and other public venues can also be used if they fit what you’re looking to do. We host a monthly coffee Meetup at a local coffeeshop near my house. I chose that location because they make the best coffee around Orlando, they are locally owned and get a business boost by us being there, and they have faster internet than I have at home. The casual environment is a good setup for our conversational Meetups, where we naturally form small groups to chat, help each other with websites, and meet new people.

WordPress Orlando User Workshop
Hands-on Workshops are a huge hit for our group.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Do

Again, have some guidelines, and certainly let people know in advance what you want to do at the Meetup so they can determine if it’s good for them to attend. You can do a variety of Meetup styles, and they don’t all have to be lectures or be the same from event to event.

We’ve hosted events that are standard lectures, deep dives on one topic, several short talks with a general theme, QA sessions, hands-on workshops, and the aforementioned coffee chats. We even hosts parties and social events, like the WordPress 15th Anniversary Party that we’re holding next week.

A group you’d love to party with

I’ve found that having different topics each month, as well as giving an idea of the level of familiarity that you should have with that topic before attending helps.

We’ve had people mention that they thought the group would be too technical for them, so we do our best to make everyone feel welcome. Indeed, our makeup of events skews heavily toward business owners and bloggers, the people that make up the largest portion of the WordPress user base by far. It’s our job and my pleasure to make sure they get something valuable out of attending an event.

It Doesn’t Matter How Many People Attend

Orlando is lucky to be situated to have one of the largest WordPress Meetups in the world. We’ve got a passionate base of attendees that show up to most events, and a healthy cycling of new members each month.

Though a crowd is always nice when you’ve got a stage!

That said, we’ve noticed attendance dipping. Not always that we have fewer people attend, although that’s sometimes the case, but that we have higher RSVPs and a higher number of no-shows. Sometimes this can be upsetting when I provide food for the Meetup that goes uneaten, but it’s worst when we’re in a venue that we have to limit RSVPs and I know that there are people who didn’t make it because someone took a seat and didn’t show up.

We’ve hosted individual events that had a handful of attendees all the way up to 100+ people who are passionate about WordPress. The size of the event doesn’t matter as long as some time can be made to let everyone know what they can do, who is welcome, and that whatever reason they chose to come will be heard.

Irina Blumenfeld, Chris Edwards, David Wolfpaw, and Adam Soucie answering WordPress Questions

Sometimes those smaller Meetups can be even more fun, since they take less planning and can have more intimate conversations. I get to learn a lot from a wide group of people who know lots about something that I know nothing about, and they can hopefully learn something about WordPress from me.

General Notes

Just a few things that didn’t fit into the above sections:

  • Maintaining some sort of online presence is useful to keep people connected outside of events. Our website, Facebook group, Youtube, and Slack team, are resources for all members with notes from our previous Meetups and new discussion.
  • Having some way to remind people how they can reach you is important. We have a banner that we bring to each event, so that someone can snap a picture of it to remind themselves of our URLs later. I shortened them with redirects from our main website to make them even easier to type in.
  • Having a Code of Conduct is super important. We haven’t had too many issues where we had to enforce ours, but they’ve happened. Having some sort of guiding document is a good start to ensure discussions flow around inappropriate behavior.
  • Having a few organizers helps to stop burnout. Each event involves booking a venue, setting dates, getting refreshments, arranging speakers, and ensuring all of the little things around those go off without a hitch, like say ensuring the venue isn’t locked (happened multiple times), that people have the right date and address (same), and that speakers aren’t stuck without the right laptop adapter (yup)
  • Have fun with it! This is a volunteer group with all volunteer driven events. I try not to let it consume all of my time, and try not to go overboard on fancy venues and food when it’s coming out of pocket. Survey after survey have shown us that people come for the content and community, and that everything else is secondary.

If you want to start a Meetup in your area or get involved in an existing one, do it! It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and energy to get started, and the Make WordPress Community can provide additional resources, including funding for venues.

WordPress US Contributor Day
Seriously, these people are amazing!