Awesometoast.com

Fixing stuff and maybe other things.

Iz can’t brain today. I haz the dumb.

hazthedumb

There’s another version of this floating around the interwebz, but it didn’t quite do today justice so I made my own.

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Tactical Facepalm

Sometimes a regular facepalm just doesn’t cut it.

Sometimes a regular facepalm just doesn't cut it.

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Ripped-off!

Oooh! This has us mildly steamed:

http://indylaw.indiana.edu/programs/simulation/info.htm

So they totally ripped-off our annual counter-terrorism simulation. No big deal. Frankly, IndyLaw, we’re flattered. Even if you pretty much copied us on everything from your fake CNN site right down to what you named your live video feed.

But hey, it’s cool—until you allude that yours might be the first counter-terrorism simulation of its kind.

Not cool, IndyLaw. Not cool.

In any case, the real first-of-its-kind simulation (started in 2007) is coming again in 2010, and it’s going to be excellent.

And here’s a little documentary about it:

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What is Web Design?

Though it can be easy to think otherwise, web design is much more than just putting content on a site and calling it a day. And, because people interact differently with the web than with printed materials, it’s also not just another way to distribute your printed stuff.

Unlike other forms of media (such as print), web design focuses on three things:

The Look

This is the part that most people think of when they think about web design, but it’s not the whole thing. The Look is about more than just making a site pretty—it’s about making it appropriately pretty. In order to be effective, the design should match the message of the site.

Part of making this happen is ensuring that your site as a modern, professional look. Now, this doesn’t mean it needs to be winning any awards for its incredible eye-candy, but it does mean you want to avoid obvious errors such as broken images, typos, and a look that makes people think they’ve somehow traveled back in time to the 90s. (Or that they’re browsing this site.)

The look of your site affects the message you’re trying to convey. If your site is ridden with obvious errors or feels outdated, people are going to think that your message will suffer from the same problems. Think about it, if you were given a choice between shopping at two mattress stores, and one had immaculate landscaping and a clean exterior while the other didn’t, which one would you be more likely to trust? Whether you’re selling something or not, your website is your digital storefront. Make sure that you keep your proverbial windows clean and your sidewalk swept.

The Interface

Because the Web is so vast, it would do us well to remember Jakob’s Law of the Internet: “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” What this means is that users expect your website to work and behave in a similar way to the ones they already know.

Let me illustrate this point with a corporeal example: Imagine you borrow your friend’s car. You climb in, try to put in the key, and find that the ignition is not where you expect it to be. Instead of going in to the right of the steering wheel, you eventually discover that the key goes on the right side. You get the key in, and it doesn’t turn. After a minute of fiddling with it, you find out that it doesn’t turn clockwise, but counterclockwise—and you have to push on it first.

Well this is all pretty irritating, now isn’t it? And we’re only getting started! It turns out that the turn signal isn’t a lever on the left of the wheel, but a button on the wheel itself. The radio volume is controlled with a button on the floor by the pedals, and the windshield wipers are turned on an off from where the radio volume is supposed to be.

This is one aggravating car, isn’t it? Who designed this thing, anyway?

Someone who hasn’t driven many cars, apparently. You see, car designers might think the key would work better in a different place, but they never move it because no one would buy their annoying, hard-to-use cars if they did.

Though not quite to the same extent, websites are similar. Think about the sites you’ve visited recently. I’d be willing to bet that the site’s logo was in the top left corner, and if there was a search box, that it was somewhere near the top, or around the upper-right corner. And I’ll bet colored words were almost exclusively links. I don’t even have to know what sites you go to to guess that, because websites, like cars, have developed certain trends. Like it or hate it, if your search box is on the left side of the page at the bottom of the screen, a lot of people won’t even know you have one, and they’ll wonder why you don’t.

Now imagine that your friend’s weird car is just one of millions you could be driving instead. (You’re famous, because everyone in the state wants to lend you their car.) Do you think you’d spend more than a few seconds in that one, or would you be in another, more familiar one in seconds? Like you and your millions of cars, web users have millions of websites they could be at instead of yours, and they won’t stand much in the way of confusing or frustrating layouts.

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t be creative. You can. You have a lot more flexibility than the car above—the Internet isn’t that fixed in its ways. But you want to make sure that your site isn’t confusing or hard to use. Look at other sites with similar messages to yours, and see what they do. Are there any patterns or trends?

The Information

One of the biggest, but most important challenges of web design is to organize your information in the best possible way—you can’t just put it on the screen and assume your visitors will know what to do with it.

For instance, studies show that the majority of web users don’t stop to read every word on the screen. They read hard and fast, skimming more than anything. Therefore, if you want people to actually digest your information, you need to make it as easy to read and as well organized as possible.

Images should also be chosen carefully. Images do not typically, by themselves, convey meaning—at least, not the meaning you’re trying to get across. I once dealt with a client who insisted that the website I was creating for his event be dominated by two pictures: a handful of bullets on a book, and a globe painted on someone’s hand. I had to explain to him, that although these pictures were nice to look at—they didn’t say a single thing about what the event was, or why people should care about it enough to bother attending. It was the words that communicated our message, and the images were the garnish. You don’t go to a restaurant to enjoy the parsley with a small side of entree.

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On the Internet, looks can be everything.

Your mother probably told you not to judge a book by its cover. While this is certainly sound advice, it turns out it just isn’t practical—at least not when it comes to the Internet. While many web designers, developers, and content managers have heard the expression that substance trumps presentation, research done at Stanford University suggests that a website’s appearance may have a bigger impact on user impressions than one might think. What this suggests is that, while content remains king, web users really do judge websites by the design.

One way that users judge a website’s design depends on how tailored—or not—it seems to be to its target audience. The research linked to above found that websites properly tailored to their audiences were more credible, and therefore more effective. For example, if you are a music producer and you want to appeal to a young female demographic, it is critical that your design reflect the interests of this group. Your site would need appropriate colors and graphics. Displaying a site that is primarily grey and has no links to other popular interests for the target demographic would be less than ideal. Remember, “Quality in web design is the degree of fulfillment of the user’s expectations.” -Anders Toxboe of UI-Patterns.com. I recommend reading the article it comes from, which you can find here.

Thinkgeek.com is appropriately designed for its audience.
ThinkGeek.com, an online store for “geeks” is appropriately themed for its audience.

Once your visitors are hooked on your design, other factors come into play, such as the quality of your content, number of errors, rate of updates, ease of use and trustworthiness of your authors. Although useful content is of the utmost importance, we can’t forget how much our links, graphics, ads, promotions and such contribute to visitors’ perceptions of our sites.

A 2006 study performed by researchers at Pace University discovered a significant connection between website design and visitors’ attitudes toward those sites. A site may contain information that a user is seeking, but if that information is difficult to find, or presented in an amateurish or unprofessional layout, users are likely to form a negative impression of that site. (Read the study here: PDF)

Webpagesthatsuck.com showcases sites with unprofessional, amateurish, and generally bad design. The goal is to learn what not to do by seeing some of the best of the worst.

The same study concluded that visually attractive websites have been shown to produce a “halo effect” that forms a positive impression in users’ minds. Users see a visually appealing site and assume that the organization behind the site is just what they are looking for and can provide the services they need.

Although there are many things that can be done to foster trust, a professionally designed website, appropriate to your target audiences, is a critical component to creating a positive first impression with an audience. Website design cannot be ignored as a key component of any successful enterprise. Think about it, if you were given a choice between shopping at two mattress stores, and one had immaculate landscaping and a clean exterior while the other didn’t, which one would you be more likely to trust? Whether you’re selling something or not, your website is your digital storefront. Make sure that you make it someplace your customers will want to shop.

For more on building trust, check out Stanford’s Web Credibility Project.

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Video Cables Demystified!

Let’s face it—there are way too many different types of cables. I get asked fairly often what they’re all for, and do we even need them all? It’s really not as complicated as it seems—sort of. Anyway, let’s get to work and untangle that mess behind your TV!

Before we get too deep into it, we need to define the terms digital and analog.

Digital? Analog? Huh?
You’re probably already pretty familiar with these, even if you might not be familiar with the terms. Digital is the language of computers, everything is transmitted in ones and zeros. When it comes to certain applications like video, digital allows us to get much higher quality than the alternative.

Analog is different from digital in that it is a wave form, a steady flow of signal. The way the signals or waves change as they move dictates what happens on our screens or comes out of our radios.

Digital and analog signals

Though it might seem like it, analog is not necessarily inferior to digital. Each has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. But when it comes to video, digital is king!

On to the cables!
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, check out this chart. It shows the most common video cables and ranks them by the quality of video you’ll get by using them.
Chart ranking cables by picture quality

In addition to those, there’s a couple more that don’t quite fit into a set place on the Scale of Awesomeness:
Computer cables

Now, there’s something else you should know. Some people/retailers will try to convince you that you need to spend a great deal on “high quality” cables. While it is true that you want good ones, they should never cost you an arm and a leg. A great place to get cables at actually reasonable prices is www.monoprice.com.

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Get rid of annoying “Open File Security Warning” on Windows and Mac OSX

Okay, so the thing about downloading a file is that you usually know that you downloaded it. Because you did that. You downloaded it. Intentionally. On purpose. And now, when you open it, Windows or OSX feels that it needs to remind you that you downloaded it.

Goodness, I find that annoying–especially when it’s my own file or script that I created, or it’s a Microsoft program that Windows is telling you to be careful of, because who knows where a file like that could have come from?

Alright, enough ranting. Let’s get rid of those messages.

Windows

This should work in XP, but I’ve only tested it in Vista and Windows 7.

1. Open the Control Panel, and choose Internet Options

2. Under the Security tab, click the button labeled Custom Level. In the box that appears, scroll down until you find a section called Miscellaneous

3. Find Launching applications and unsafe files and set it to Enable (not secure)

Windows and Internet Explorer will now freak out as if you’ve just agreed to download every virus ever created. Let’s fix that, too.

4. In the system tray (bottom right corner of screen) click on Open the Action Center. There will be a box about security issues and a link about not giving you warnings. Click that link.

5. Now go to Start, Run, and type in gpedit.msc

6. Under the Computer Configuration list, choose the Administrative Templates folder, then Windows Components, and Internet Explorer

7. Search through the list and find Turn off the Security Settings Check. Set that to Enabled.

 

Mac OSX:

I’ve tested this on Snow Leopard, Lion, and Mountain Lion. And it’s super easy. Open Terminal and paste this:

defaults write com.apple.LaunchServices LSQuarantine -bool false

Done. Nice ‘n easy.

 

Let me finish by saying that I understand the theoretical merits of these warnings. And I’m sure they’re useful for some people. What I see happening where I work is a whole bunch of people desensitized to warning messages in general because they’re exposed to so many of them. I myself have reflexively clicked right through several actually important message boxes because I’ve been trained to see any little box in the middle of the screen as a waste of my time. By disabling these file warnings on all of my computers, I hope to un-train myself to think that, and actually pay attention to the ones I still get.

Posted under: Fixing Stuff | 2 Comments »

Displaying WordPress Pages Like Posts

Sometimes, you just wish you could list your WP pages more like posts. I wanted not just a list of them, but with some kind of excerpt. Here’s how I did it:
[code lang=”php”]
get_results(“SELECT * FROM $wpdb->posts WHERE post_type = ‘page’ ORDER BY menu_order”, ‘OBJECT’);

if ( $thePages ) : foreach ( $thePages as $pageData ) : setup_postdata( $pageData );
?>

post_title”; ?>

post_content”; ?>


[/code]

Naturally, this custom loop is showing the whole page content, and not just a traditional excerpt. I wasn’t able to get excerpts to work, but the full content was just fine for what I was working on. It would not be terribly difficult to use the PHP strlen(); function to limit the post content and simulate an excerpt.

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Fixing “Cannot connect to printer error 0x0000007e”

Recently, we had some problems setting up some network printers on computers running 64-bit Vista. We could connect to the print server, but making connections to the individual printers gave us this error. Good times.

The workaround was to add the printer manually, as a local printer. To do this: Go to Control Panel > Printers > Add Printer. Then add a new local printer, using a local port. (Not TCP/IP.) For the name, put in the whole path. This will be something like: \\YourPrintServer\ThePrintersName

Now it will ask you about drivers. (Make sure you have downloaded the 64-bit drivers for your printer.) Choose Have Disk…, and browse to where you saved them. With luck, it will now ask you for what you want to call the printer on your local computer, and you’re done!

This fix worked for every computer we ran into this error for. Good luck!

Posted under: Fixing Stuff | 40 Comments »

Best. Blog. Comment. Ever.

Not only is the story funny, the 2nd comment down may have changed my life forever. Check it out here:
ChefStack Automatic Pancake Machine Celebrates Gluttony

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