Ben Allen Blog – one year on

by Ben Allen on January 30, 2011

At the start of 2010 I setup this blog to start a discussion on topics I have a passion for and to learn more about blogging, writing and the web in general. I feel it’s appropriate to look back on 2010 and ask “what have I learnt?”.

It’s a long post so feel free to jump to the bits you’re interested in:

  1. The WordPress ecosystem
  2. Writing process
  3. Discussion & comments
  4. Analytics
  5. Discovering new Mac tools which help tell the story
  6. Conclusion

1. The WordPress ecosystem

Since I decided to host my own blog, by necessity, I’ve had to learn about the WordPress ecosystem. When setting up the blog I wasn’t really aware of the alternatives to WordPress. The blogging platform was so widely used & discussed by friends and colleagues that I didn’t stop to think about my options.

I knew there was hype about WordPress but I also knew that WordPress was more than just software. The community surrounding WordPress, in my opinion, was and still is the biggest asset to the entire platform. Why?

  • WordPress is “extensible”. Developers get excited about this word. The only thing developers love more than getting functionality for free is building something cool on top of something cooler. The truth is, just because something is “extensible” does not mean it’s useful to the end user. The developers need to be utilising the extensibility – building software that’s useful and well supported. WordPress has a massive & active developer community and this is huge news for the end user. I can easily add cool functionality to my blog through WordPress plug-ins & widgets or I could completely change the look & feel of my blog by using themes. All this is about 3 clicks or so away within my admin dashbaord.
  • WordPress is “learnable”. There is nothing more frustrating than using software that does not have a facility to learn more about that software. Perhaps you want to learn about advanced usage, perhaps you want to look under the hood and attack the details, perhaps you just want to hear about what’s hot or what the pros do. With WordPress you have access to all the above. Blogs, podcasts and books provide a huge resource. There is so much knowledge to tap into.

There is barely a learning curve to WordPress if all you want to do is setup a basic blog. I though wanted to get “good” at WordPress and I knew that would require work. I’ve viewed that work more as an opportunity to learn something exciting, something that could help friends or perhaps even earn money.

In just 1 year I’d describe my WordPress knowledge as “intermediate”. I’ve been able to help friends on their WordPress projects and, in my day job, I’m in the process of launching my first WordPress site (which will be using the very cool Carrington Build). There is no way I would have had the confidence to pitch for that work if it had not been for this blog.

A couple of resources have really helped me learn:

  • The WordPress community podcast – great resource to work out what’s hot in WordPress land. I like listening to the “pro point of view” and I love the theme and plugin reviews.
  • WP Candy – get your daily WordPress news
  • Digging into WordPress book – I read this book just recently and its great for the beginner and intermediate WordPress user. The book takes a comprehensive look at everything from developing themes to WordPress security
  • Yoast – the host of the WordPress community podcast and top SEO specialist. Joost de Valk’s blog is full of tips, tricks and thought provoking articles

2. Writing process

The process of creating good content is hard. The process of creating good, original content is even harder. Like most bloggers I started out thinking I wanted to write like somebody else. In my case I enjoyed the long form, thought provoking & highly actionable style of Avinash Kaushik. I quickly realised that producing that style of content was a massive effort. An effort which would require a substantial amount of time. I could only give up this much time every 2 weeks, hence my posting frequency. I aim for a post every 2 weeks but as you can tell from my “monthly posts sidebar” my consistency has been poor.

My writing process goes something like this:

  1. Lightbulb moment! This is when I think of a good idea for a post. Ideas generally come from discussions at work, discussions at events I attend, through reading other articles online or by listening to different podcasts. I keep track of post ideas using WordPress drafts or by using Evernote.
  2. Write a rough plan. This usually incorporates an introduction, a list of points I want to make or a line of argument, a conclusion and a list of links I know I will use. This usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes.
  3. Write the post in full using MarsEdit. Review & edit, review & edit, review & edit. I try to be brutal when editing. If the content is not focused or feels waffly I try my best to kill it. This process usually takes at least 4 hours. It can take up to 6 six hours. The Chicago Restaurant Guide was a monster effort!
  4. Check the code generated by MarsEdit using TextWrangler. I used to be a developer. I cannot abide bad markup. MarsEdit usually does a great job but I do like to check!
  5. Upload to WordPress & check look and feel. Tweak if necessary.
  6. Publish to live and get feedback from friends.

When it comes to my writing style I still think there is plenty of room for improvement. I truly wish I had been taught more English grammar at school (or perhaps I should have paid more attention). I’ve been reading The Elements of Style (slowly) and I hope this improves things.

My writing process needs loads of work too. I think some areas for improvement are:

  • Ideation – the process of creating ideas. I can always read more, attend more events and read more stuff outside of my focus in the pursuit of research & the creative spark
  • Using images in my posts. Images help break up content and maintain visual interest
  • Optimising my posts for RSS feeds. Plenty of geeks & common folk love RSS readers like Google Reader or NetNewsWire. I think its important to make sure my content looks good wherever my readers consume it
  • Cross linking to other posts I’ve already written. Good for readers, good for SEO
  • Make my subheadings links so it’s easier for others to link back to content of interest
  • Experiment with different forms of content. I’m particularly excited about using video on the blog
  • Discipline, focus, consistency! I’m sometimes horrible at maintaining focus and I’m worse at sticking to my 2 week schedule. Must do better!

It may look like I’m hard on myself but the thing to remember here is that 1 year ago I didn’t have a writing process. I didn’t know about or use half the tools I’ve just mentioned. I didn’t have aspirations for becoming a better writer. I had no reason to go outside of my comfort zone for the sake of research. Blogging has opened my eyes to a hugely creative experience. While it takes effort the reward is exceptional. Writing challenges my own views and forces me to make my argument clearer.

There is nothing better than reading an old post that I’ve written and then thinking “wow – did I write that? Its pretty good!”.

3. Discussion & comments

I’ve not been able to foster much discussion on this blog. 13 posts & 17 comments are not great numbers! I really like hearing an alternative point of view and reviewing reader feedback so it’s a shame there is not more comments. That said, I’m not surprised. Here are some things I think I need to do better in order to generate more discussion:

  • Improve the customer experience
    • Speed & availability. I don’t think my host did a great job last year. I’ve taken action this year and changed hosts. My new host has 24 by 7 support and I got a great deal on a much snappier hosting package
    • Enable “subscribe to comments”. This will let readers receive a notification when comments have been added to a post. I think this will help foster more discussion
    • Post more consistently!
  • Increase “reach” (the number of people who know about the blog)
    • Comment more on blogs owned by others
    • Hang out in forums and contribute to discussions (likely to be time intensive so might be difficult)
    • Post more links to the blog through Facebook, Twitter and get friends to link to my blog from their sites

If you have more ideas, please share in the comments below!

4. Analytics

I’m super interested in analytics. I love reading about the topic and I often advise on analytics within my job. For this blog however my approach to analytics has been pretty poor. My excuse? Time. I just don’t have time to review the numbers and work out the actionable insights. In this area then, I think I’ve improved the least.

It is comforting to know that when I do get time to play with analytics I have a case study I can mess with. I hope the day comes where I can have a really good play with analytics and regularly derive insights because I find the topic fascinating and I have plenty to learn.

5. Discovering new Mac tools which help tell the story

I’ve come across several problems while authoring this blog and these problems are often solved with great software. I define great software as software with the following attributes:

  • solves my problem
  • is easy to learn
  • has a good user interface
  • affordable! All the software I use is under $100 and usually under $50

Its great when you find a tool which does exactly what you want it to do. Here are the tools I’ve been using for this blog and a few more tools which I have installed and will be utilised on the blog in the future.

  • WordPress desktop editor: MarsEdit. Ridiculously simple & awesome
  • Keeping track of notes: Evernote. Good for tracking notes, ideas, research (using web clippings)
  • RSS reader (for research): NetNewsWire. I also use Google Reader for Android
  • FTP program: Transmit. Does everything well – FTP, SFTP, Amazon S3
  • Text editor for checking code: TextWrangler. I just bought TextMate too. Loads of good reviews. I’ll experiment and report back.
  • Image editor: Acorn. All the good bits of Photoshop without the learning curve!
  • Wireframe tool: Balsamiq. Awesome for sketching ideas. I hope to post a few sketches this year
  • Video screen capture tool: Screenflow. I hope to include some screen capture video in the future. I think it will be useful for walking through ideas
  • Local test environment: MAMP. If I’m doing anything which I think could crash the blog I try it out locally first. Particularly awesome if you’re moving between hosts and want to be sure the transition goes smoothly!

Using all these apps for the purpose of the blog has been a great learning experience. I’ve become a more competent Mac user and I’ve developed my skills beyond the corporate mix i.e., expensive Adobe products like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

Conclusion

A year’s worth of blogging has been a tremendous learning experience. I’ve developed my existing skills and created interests I never knew I had. Simply learning WordPress has given me another sellable skill.

I’m better at my job because of this blog and I feel I have more credibility as a web professional. It’s a bit like the saying “never trust a skinny chef”. Can you really trust someone offering advice on your digital strategy if they don’t have a good site themselves?

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Managing email – Outlook tips for an empty inbox

by Ben Allen on November 23, 2010

Email is as awesome as it is frustrating. Everyone knows email is an amazing tool until you get too much of it.

I offer 5 tips for managing email and recommend a couple of great tools to help Microsoft Outlook users. This is the process I use every day and I’ve managed to get my once bloated inbox down to a manageable daily amount of 30 or less.

Cutting to the punch line then, here are my 5 tips for email management:

  1. Group your email as “conversations”
  2. Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list
  3. File email quickly and easily with SimplyFile
  4. Check email infrequently
  5. When you do check your email – check it properly

Tip 1 – group your email as conversations

If you use Gmail this will be a familiar solution to you. For everyone else… picture the scene. You send an email to 5 people asking for feedback, you get a reply from 3 over a period of time. 1 friend might get back to you in the same day, another a week later and so on. Your 3 replies though are dotted throughout your email as your respondents did not “reply all”. To answer all the feedback you have to spend time searching & retrieving your email in order to maintain the thread of the conversation.

This overhead can be eliminated by using a conversation view. In Outlook this is easy to achieve by creating a “custom view”. Within your inbox, or any folder full of email, go to View – Current View – Customize Current View. You’ll get the following screen:

Custom view dialog box shown within Microsoft Outlook

Click on “Group By” and select “Conversation” and “Ascending”. You’ll end up with this:

Group by dialog box within Custom View options

Click on “Sort” and select “Received” and “Descending”. You’ll end up with this:

Sort view within Custom View

If this all works your email should look something like this:

Conversation view within Microsoft Outlook

Tip 2 – don’t use your inbox as a to-do list

A common objection to a well managed inbox is:

“I don’t want to forget anything I have to do. My inbox reminds me of the things I have to do.”

If this argument sounds familiar it’s likely you have an inbox overload problem! Email is not designed to be a to-do list. You need to use the right tool for the job. A good to-do list has the following properties:

  • Easy to prioritise
  • Easy to categorise
  • Easy to assign a completion date

“Standard email” does none of these things well. If you cannot prioritise your inbox, when it’s masquerading as your to-do list, how can you be expected to prioritise your work? Lots of people I know get bogged down in email because they believe the last email they received is the most important. This is a slow, painful way of getting no important work done.

I suggest you use a good to-do list which has the above properties. Outlook has a good solution built right in. It’s called “tasks” and it can be viewed along side your email inbox.

Oulook window with email, event and task areas marked. Tasks are in the bottom right of the image

Next time you get an email, work out if it’s important and needs a reply or action from you. If it does then add a task to your to-do list and file the email (getting it out of your inbox). Prioritise your to-do list accordingly.

Tip 3 – use SimplyFile to become an email ninja!

SimplyFile is an Outlook plugin and it has been a life-changing tool for me. You can use SimplyFile for many things but there are 3 things in particular that I love.

“File message”

I like filing my email in folders. It helps me keep my inbox clear but it also helps me retrieve my email at a later date. SimplyFile does an awesome job of filing email quickly. Not only does it have a cool “predictive search” feature – making it super easy to figure out where you usually put your email – it also “learns” where you put your email. If it guesses right, filing your email is a one-click job. Sweet!

The screen shot below shows the SimplyFile toolbar in an open email. In this case SimplyFile thinks this email belongs to my “Knowledge base” folder. If I click that button the email will be filed in this folder. Take note of the other buttons. They are mentioned later!

Outlook email with SimplyFile toolbar

“Quick find”

Once you’ve filed email, you need a good way of getting back to those folders. SimplyFile does an awesome job here too. You can pull up a list of your folders and just start typing. The search feature finds that keyword within your folder hierarchy and gets you to your email quickly.

“Task it”

This is like the icing on the cake! If you’re making use of tasks/to-do list within Outlook there is no better way of creating tasks from email messages than the “task it” feature of SimplyFile. It goes like this:

  • Read an email, decide it’s worthy of your to-do list
  • Click “Task it”
  • A task is created in your to-do list, description all filled in, and email embedded into the to-do item!

Is that awesome or is that awesome?

Tip 4 – check email infrequently

Easiest advice to give but perhaps the hardest medicine to take. The urge to check email, if it’s already a habit to check every 5 minutes, is so strong. I’m a believer in working in 60-90 minute slots, without interruption. I recommend checking your email between these slots.

Tip 5 - when you do check your email – check it properly

Instead of dipping in and out of email get your head into your email and do the job right. Delete emails that are not relevant to your workflow, read all email thoroughly, create to-do items, reassess your priorities, make any replies you have to. DONE! The point here is that if you make a real task of managing your email rather than making fleeting and nervous glances every 5 minutes you can get so much more work done and feel in control of your email.

Commitment to improve

I hope these tips are useful and help you get more “real work” done. I’m always looking to improve my own workflow so please leave your own tips in the comments.

Happy email management thoughts projected to everyone!

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