Darren Paul Azzopardi

Education in Web

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Wouldn’t take you too long to find a reliable tutorial advising you on the best methods of creating a form.

Here are just some (search criteria “creating an accessible form“).

  1. CSS Tricks
  2. Web Usability
  3. The Web Standards Project
  4. Stuff and Nonsense
  5. A List Apart

What I am interested in is how the author codes the users feedback, the interaction part. Whether its for the instant as-you-type notification or after submitting the form.

This isn’t an attack on those authors, its more of, “am I doing this right?”.

I guess I’m looking for reassurance.

A while back I read a tutorial by CSS Wizardy on creating an accessible form. I emailed the author to say thank you, as a self taught web designer I’m very grateful of people who share their knowledge. But I also wanted to understand the reason behind the choice of HTML.

You see, in this tutorial one thing looked odd. Not wrong, just odd. The markup used to notify the users attention of either an incomplete field or a failed submission looked like this;

<span class="alert">Warning!</span>

There’s nothing wrong with that. Its been given semantic meaning by a class named alert. But can we use a more meaningful markup?

The HTML tag used here is <span> and if i can remember its a generic markup that doesn’t really imply any meaning.

Seeing a message appear on screen would make us aware of how important it is. We’ll jump on that and correct it. Visually it all makes sense but what about under the bonnet?

My semantic suggestion

Lets think about it for a second. Failing to complete a form/field is rather important. For the user and the website owner.  To carry this important message we could apply <strong> tag.

So in my forms I would markup an incomplete field notice link this;

<strong>You've forgotten to enter a name silly!</strong>

Nothing too fancy I’m using the <strong> attribute here. I think this offers better semantics and structure, after all we want to convey the meaning of the warning, alert or notice message across to the users and to be understood by all.

So if its an error message I use <strong> and  in some cases use an <em> for as-you-type validation.

Another reason I feel this is important is that screen reader users will be alerted to the importance of the message by the way its read out as the voice and pitch changes when reading text within <strong> or <em> tags.

Would really like to hear thoughts, suggestions and opinions on this subject.


Filed under: Education, Web Accessibility

title attribute in a url

Cartoon by Medi Belortaja

I’ve read numerous web accessibilty books and had the pleasure of hearing a screen reader in action and used properly.

In one night I became baffled about how the title attribute should be used in a url link. From my understanding and I could be wrong but the title attribute should be used to inform the user of what to expect on the forth coming page.

Now some screen readers don’t actually read out the titles so as recommended the link should be self explanatory as possible; none of that click here rubbish but more like  Darren’s hair has reappeared!

Ok back to my question, Looking through an Accessibility portfolio and being rather nosey I checked out the source code, you can always find some coding nuggets there and noticed that the links featured the same title attribute as their destination page or the name of the link or none at all


<a href="travel.html" title="travel">travel</a>

or I would come across one with no title attribure:

<a href="travel.html">travel</a>

I would have done:

<a href="travel.html" title="Create your own perfect package">travel</a>

Now in my example I think I’ve informed the user the travel page if they where to click it, will allow you to create your own package holiday, select dates, destinations, hotels and transport and then book it. Now is that bad? I honestly thought that’s how links should be.

I can see in my example that for users of screen readers long titles can be rather too long and soon become annoying.

Can anyone point me in the right direction, share their thoughts and educate me?

Filed under: Web Accessibility

and your budget is?


Cartoon by alexfalcocartoons

It’s always been hard for me to ask the client what their budget is. I know they want to save or at least keep cost down and I want to know they’re serious.

Back in the day when I was a whore of a web designer I took anything from £90 – £200 for a design. Disregard the variety of prices I would charge (infact I didn’t charge, they would say a sum and I’d agree ) the quality of work wasn’t different.

Whether it was at the high or low end I still spent hours on it. If for some reason two of my clients met and began to discuss prices, again they’d soon realise nothing sets them apart from the price. Every site I designed got the same attention, if it could be improved I’ll do it, I wanted to be proud of it.

With time and experience that changed. It was hard to let pricing dictate the design of the site. I’m not saying you’ll get a poor website if you pay peanuts but no bells and whistles for you is in order. I had to get realistic, I rarely get projects completed within a month. To spend an entire month on a project for £600 is not cost effective, at all.

If a client asks my hourly rate I tell them but that’s usually followed by me explaining the need to understand their project to give a realistic price. I can suggest them a figure to play with but then again when do you ever get a client that knows exactly what they want?

Recently I was working on a very exciting project and the budget was even better, in the thousands. I was able to slot this project in and dedicate my time on this, something that’s rare as I’m always chopping and changing. Everything went well, meetings where fine and they seemed happy. I wrote an email to clarify the budget, infact the budget I suggested was short so they where saving a few bob or two. I was ready to invest my time and with the budget I was offered knew they where serious.

Bamn! that’s how it felt, communication was gone no more emails and no more phone calls. I emailed them several times asking whether it’s still on, postponed or if they didn’t like me or my approach. I was happy to know that maybe they simply pulled out but would have liked to receive some feedback. Was there something I could improve on? I’m left wondering.

Filed under: Education

Running a business, now you need a website

Cartoon by LAP

You’ve been ruthless and you’ve watched over the budget like a hawk justifying every expenditure. No longer in the rat race you’ve made your own path and answer only to yourself-ish.

Months of late nights, early mornings, working like a dog and missing those family occasions. You own your own business. Seems like those sacrifices have been worth it.

Let me just say well done.

One thing bothers me. That ruthless businessman (or woman) attitude seems to go out the window when you take those first steps into having a website . Making your online debut can be messy, tricky or even scary. But it shouldn’t be.

Working as web designer you familiarise yourself with the key-points. It amazes me when these are missed. To be fair that’s not your job so it’s not all your fault, for now.

I would like to speak of some issues that you may seem to be wrestling with when thinking about owning a site. Such as what areas to cover, what to discuss, how to plan and what’s the best way to approach. I want to arm you with the some little golden nuggets that should get you the website you deserve-solid foundation to work from.

They come in no particular order and this is my own advice so take things on board if you like or not.

  • Take your time

    Firstly there’s no rush in getting your site live.*

    All the important stages happen before the launch. My tip here would be to be honest with yourself. You don’t know much about web design, in fact you don’t know zip. When I don’t know something I always try to familiarise myself with the subject matter. I don’t want to become an expert but enough to cover the basics. It’s like giving a speech or a presentation, only rarely can you do it off the top of your head. So make the time to get a better, get some knowledge and get a bit of the background information so you know what it takes to build a site. I recommend 2 books that I find vital in allowing you to fully comprehend the scope of what it takes to build a site.

    * Obviously your working to a deadline, so in a indirect way there is a rush but my point is to prepare, gather notes, ideas or anything, just plan before you make the leap.

    If you can’t read them both (I’m getting mad!!) at least try one (please!). If you’re not a fan of reading then I don’t care- you do want your business to succeed?! What’s 400 pages of self empowerment compared to months of maintaining, stressing and arguing over a website that gives your company a bad impression and bleeds money. Give yourself a fighting chance! I’m trying to tip the scales in your favour so when you do go to a design agency, you know what questions to ask. You’re not sitting there nodding away letting them bamboozle you with technical jargon. You can at least throw a question forward without feeling a little bit sheepish.

    Another reason I’m saying this is so the next time an agency quotes you a figure of £400 – £600 you at least know what to expect. In the world of web, those prices are rather cheap. Understandably not for you, that’s alot of money. No one likes to pay out anything and in return get a dogs muck of a website.

    I’m asked, ‘Darren, you’re a web designer? Can you build me a site? It’s about..[insert what you offer here]…how long will that take?’

    I still get annoyed with myself when I try to give an immediate time frame and pricing. I’ve learnt the hard way. A website can’t be ordered like a fish and chips. Because these fish and chips are bespoke. And I tell you this, when they are offered this way and you fall for it you have yourself to blame. Especially when I’ve asked you to read those books!

    Some might argue that you don’t need to know what it takes to build a site. People still think its a “bish bash bosh” job. Copy and paste some text and your done. It’s not, there are many factors to be considered. If you did read those books maybe you now have respect for the art of website building.

  • Planning

    You have an idea of what you kinda want the website to feature. Get them down on paper. You could start by writing down pages you want to have, contact us, gallery, products, goals, objections, etc.

    Another idea of how you could get started is to play the role of a user. Pretend your using the site and talk out loud, tell yourself what you are doing, what you need or what your looking for. It’s more enjoyable like this, you start to take an interest and consider factors you would have normally overlooked.

    Draw any ideas you may have, but don’t get hung up about it not being a master piece. It’s there to get your thoughts going, to get the ball rolling.

    I could go in depth but risk losing you. I just want you to atleast consider your sites content, rather than saying, “I want a 5 page website”.

  • It’s Business

    It’s a good idea to remember why you’ve chosen to have a web site. It’s not because everyone has one or because you simply can. You’re having a website to communicate and to make money. Never forget this. Everything you do to your site is geared inevitably towards making money. Whether the changes happen behind the site or you’ve re-organised the product page. That change is to help the user find what they want quickly and make a purchase (your goals could be different here)

    Setting out clear goals will help you keep on track and stop you from meandering through a rocky path that is running a website.

  • Your aims

    Simple as it sounds, this main point is never thought about. With a pen and paper write down what you want your customers to do? What service are you offering? What are your products?

    Examples could be;
    • join your mailing list
    • subscribe to your news letter
    • buy your products
    • get technical information

    That’s just a few, no matter how small they seem just write it down. These will become invaluable when building your site.

  • No one cares about you

    Don’t take it personally. Remember your trying to sell your products not your business moto.

    We’re ruthless and specific when we are online, we visit sites for a reason. We get what we want as easily and painless as possible. We don’t want to read about companies history, how great you are, how many awards you’ve won or your years of experience. Leave that self praising rubbish at the door.

    There’s nothing wrong with this type of information, its still important but putting all this on your home page just makes it harder for people to quickly understand what you offer and the benefits of your products.

    You have a small widow of opportunity to tell your customer what you offer-don’t waste it!

  • Get to the point

    You really haven’t got time to spare. Seconds tick. You’ve got an A-level, a degree or whatever’s credible these days in English Literature and you feel it’s time to shine. Honestly, I don’t want my vocabulary stretched, leave that for the novels.

    Use direct language, pin point paragraphs and words that gets your message across. The quicker the customer understands what you offer, greater the chance you have of making a sale.

  • Remember it’s alive

    Launching your site is only step one (sorry).

    Think of your site as a living organism. Silly as it sounds it needs constant attention, feeding, pampering, whatever. Just don’t ignore it!

    Being on the ball, looking at your site, going over it and most importantly listening to your customers will help you plan future changes you may need to stay ahead. Taking the time to look and listen to feedback you get. This will make the changes feel part of a natural progression rather than a chore.

    This method is much better than leaving your site on the digital shelf for years only to have a total redesign later on-then to cock it up, again.

  • SEO – Don’t be scared

    The dreaded abbreviation that sends piss to pants. There’s a certain mystic when it comes to this. Most people aren’t clued up in this field so they assume it’s the work of magicians. Well it’s not. In fact, once you get a basic understanding you’ll love it.

    There’s an absurd amount of information on this subject. And again, SEO takes time. Don’t be fooled by some agencies that bang on about getting you to number one in a week for £45 a month or something.

    SEO is an area all on its own. Some people find it pointless where others jizz in their pants reading and researching new ways of understanding it.

    SEO is the act of fine tuning your website to your target audience. It’s more than few keywords here and there. It’s about being able to identify what you do and make sure the right people know about it and to alert your audience of your products.

    Keep in mind that providing the best content for customers is primary.

  • Pricing

    My best advice would be to contact these guys yourself and arrange a meeting. Yes you could be tempted by a one stop shop offer of £600 but a good agency or designer will look into your brief and ask you the right questions.

    Your website is an investment, take it seriously and be prepared to pay good money.

    Maybe that’s put you off and you fancy building it yourself to save some money. Don’t use a site builder. Yes you’ve saved money and your possibly happy you’ve built your own site. At what cost? I can buy the tools and equipment to make a family dinning table. But that doesn’t make me a carpenter. I lack the all important in-depth knowledge and skill that only time can bring – What type of wood to use? How do I prepare the wood? What’s the best technique? Carpenters still exist even though you can knock up some furniture from IKEA. Its the craftsman ship that sets them apart, the attention to detail.

  • Look at their past projects

    So you like the look of this agency or like the way this freelancer talks. You’re close to signing up and working with them.


    look at their portfolio, even better phone the websites number and find out if they actually built it or are just lying scumbags that rip off other designers work. Phone a few, 3 maybe. Because maybe, the number displayed on that site is re-routed back to their office.

  • Smell them out

    I enjoy looking at a so called web design agency sites and picking them apart. I can see the flaws, more to the point I can smell the bullshit. It’s hard for me to give you pointers, what works for me might not work for you. So what I’m trying to say here is look around, ask questions, have meetings and try to get the feeling of confidence. Does the designer put you at ease? Do you trust them with your audience, and to introduce your site for the first time?

  • Sounds funny, but trust your designer or agency

    I know I’ve been rather negative in this field but when you’ve found one you trust, who knows their stuff. Keep hold of them. I can easily compare this scenario to finding a good mechanic.

    Good web designers know how to plan, understand typography, have copy-writing knowledge, are familiar with information architecture,  findability issues and are aware usability testing. On top of this they have the knowledge to code your site to a standard and make it accessible.

  • Feedback

    This can be acquired at any stage but ideally at the start. Gathering data of this nature is the best foundation you can have. At the start when you don’t even have a site, start quizzing your sales colleague ask them to build list of the most common bit of information being requested, from getting directions to your business to customers asking about particular products. Just be aware of the importance of customer feedback.

    In the early phase as your site is being built, your designer and yourself should be testing it. Making sure your aims are easily understood and access to your products are done easily. Fine tune it, get friends or family and ask them to find something. Watch what they do and take not of what there saying. If possible ask them to think out loud.

  • It’s a product

    At the end of the day your letting your site be used by who ever is surfing the web. Users vary from age, discipline and ability. Your site is going to be used by everyone so why don’t you make the time give it a test run. Ask your designer how he tests your site? Your looking for is at least some sort of testing. Think about it. In what other areas of design (or anything else you can think of) creates a product with no user input from their target audience (or ordinary web users)? Do we know it atleast works, that users find it easy to navigate their way around your site and find what they want?

Thank you for reading.

Filed under: Education

Did you have a mentor?

Cartoon by Mike Dater

A While back, I shared an office space with a web design agency in Hull. The days of staying in and working from home began to get to me. I’ll easily admit I was becoming a recluse. I couldn’t see it personally, but my passion for my job was on a downward spiral and I was contemplating a change in direction. This scared me. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I felt so comfortable but something was getting to me.

I took a chance and placed an ad on gumtree. I was asking for a desk and in return I’d share my knowledge. Wasn’t expecting much.

Months passed since the ad and then out of the blue I got an email. Templar Communications opened their doors and soon I was working from an office in the town centre. The simple act of leaving the house, getting the bus and grabbing a coffee before work was great, my enthusiasm started to come back.

I’ve never looked upto anyone, especially in the world of web. Yes there are designers that I like and books I’ve enjoyed immensely. But never that teacher-pupil, wax-on, wax-off kinda thing.

That soon changed.

His name is Graham Bolton. His talent, his passion and his business mind kept me in continuous awe. I could say this was a man crush. He had ethics. Web design ethics. He stood his ground when he thought a clients request was absurd. He wasn’t rude, didn’t tell them they where stupid, didn’t moan that clients just don’t get it. He explained it. With such clarity. The clients would tell him want they wanted and he would paint a picture, let them see the possible problems. Gradually the client would see it.

He wasn’t one to roll over just because they paid the bills. He was willing to lose a client. He had his reputation to think about. He wasn’t cocky, he was happy with what he knew and he wanted to share it and always looked at the bigger picture. This ingrained on me. I didn’t realise what sort of impact it left.

Too many times, when interviewing a client I would note down what they wanted, happy to tick their boxes.

One thing he said has stuck with me. Whilst sorting out the offices on the weekend he turned and said.

One thing I want you to learn when you leave from here is to ask questions. Never take things at face value.

You can easily use this for life in general. Which I did.

Meeting clients was never something I disliked, but when doing so I still felt like a graduate from uni,  I felt insignificant. I didn’t feel like a professional. I felt I had to earn it, start at the bottom and work myself up. I still feel like this now, everyday I earn my position.

Only recently have I accepted that I’m an expert and that clients look at me to lead the way, not to be a nodding dog. Not to then go home and moan at what they want is  ridiculous. They looked at me for direction. Excepting that position felt like a huge burden. But if I wanted to get there this was something I had to deal with.

Being around someone with such passion opened my eyes to what I’m about.

Thank you Graham Bolton. Friend. Teacher. Mentor.

Oh, I blame him for introducing the devil that is 20 Marlboro red.

As the title asks, did you have a mentor? What advice did they give you?Are you in the position to be such an influence?

Filed under: Education