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Matt Griffin on How We Work: Being Profitable

A List Apart - 13 hours 5 min ago

When I recently read Geoff Dimasi’s excellent article I thought: this is great—values-based business decisions in an efficient fashion. But I had another thought, too: where, in that equation, is the money?

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve always felt that on some level it’s wrong to be profitable. That making money on top of your costs somehow equates to bilking your clients. I know, awesome trait for a business owner, right?

Because here’s the thing: a business can’t last forever skating on the edge of viability. And that’s what not being profitable means. This is a lesson I had to learn with Bearded the hard way. Several times. Shall we have a little bit of story time? “Yes, Matt Griffin,” you say, “let’s!” Well OK, then.

At Bearded, our philosophy from the beginning was to focus on doing great web work for clients we believed in. The hope was that all the sweat and care we put into those projects and relationships would show, and that profit would naturally follow quality. For four years we worked our tails off on project after project, and as we did so, we lived pretty much hand-to-mouth. On several occasions we were within weeks and a couple of thousand bucks from going out of business. I would wake up in the night in a panic, and start calculating when bills went out and checks would come in, down to the day. I loved the work and clients, but the other parts of the business were frankly pretty miserable.

Then one day, I went to the other partners at Bearded and told them I’d had it. In the immortal words of Lethal Weapon’s Sergeant Murtaugh, I was getting too old for this shit. I told them I could put in one more year, and if we weren’t profitable by the end of it I was out, and we should all go get well-paid jobs somewhere else. They agreed.

That decision lit a fire under us to pay attention to the money side of things, change our process, and effectively do whatever it took to save the best jobs we’ve ever had. By the end of the next quarter, we had three months of overhead in the bank and were on our way to the first profitable year of our business, with a 50 percent growth in revenue over the previous year and raises for everyone. All without compromising our values or changing the kinds of projects we were doing.

This did not happen on its own. It happened because we started designing the money side of our business the way we design everything else we care about. We stopped neglecting our business, and started taking care.

“So specifically,” you ask, “what did you do to turn things around? I am interested in these things!” you say. Very good, then, let’s take a look.

Now it’s time for a breakdown

Besides my arguably weird natural aversion to profit, there are plenty of other motivations not to examine the books. Perhaps math and numbers are scary to you. Maybe finances just seem really boring (they’re no CSS pseudo-selectors, amiright?). Or maybe it’s that when we don’t pay attention to a thing, it’s easier to pretend that it’s not there. But in most cases, the unknown is far scarier than fact.

When it comes down to it, your businesses finances are made up of two things: money in and money out. Money in is revenue. Money out is overhead. And the difference? That’s profit (or lack thereof). Let’s take a look at the two major components of that equation.

Overhead Overheels

First let’s roll up our sleeves and calculate your overhead. Overhead includes loads of stuff like:

  • Staff salaries
  • Health insurance
  • Rent
  • Utilities
  • Equipment costs
  • Office supplies
  • Snacks, meals, and beverages
  • Service fees (hosting, web services, etc.)

In other words: it’s all the money you pay out to do your work. You can assess these items over whatever period makes sense to you: daily, weekly, annually, or even by project.

For Bearded, we asked our bookkeeper to generate a monthly budget in Quicken based on an average of the last six months of actual costs that we have, broken down by type. This was super helpful in seeing where our money goes. Not surprisingly, most of it was paying staff and covering their benefits.

Once we had that number it was easy to derive whatever variations were useful to us. The most commonly used number in our arsenal is weekly overhead. Knowing that variable is very helpful for us to know how much we cost every week, and how much average revenue needs to come in each week before we break even.

Everything old is revenue again

So how do we bring in that money? You may be using pricing structures that are fixed-fee, hourly, weekly, monthly, or value-based. But at the end of the day you can always divide the revenue gained by the time you spent, and arrive at a period-based rate for the project (whether monthly, weekly, hourly, or project length). This number is crucial in determining profitability, because it lines up so well with the overhead number we already determined.

Remember: money in minus money out is profit. And that’s the number we need to get to a point where it safely sustains the business.

If we wanted to express this idea mathematically, it might look something like this:

(Rate × Time spent × Number of People) - (Salaries + Expenses) = Profit

Here’s an example:

Let’s say that our ten-person business costs $25,000 a week to run. That means each person, on average, needs to do work that earns $2,500 per week for us to break even. If our hourly rate is $100 per hour, that means each person needs to bill 25 hours per week just to maintain the business. If everyone works 30 billable hours per week, the business brings in $30,000—a profit of 20 percent of that week’s overhead. In other words, it takes five good weeks to get one extra week of overhead in the bank.

That’s not a super great system, is it? How many quality billable hours can a person really do in a week—30? Maybe 36? And is it likely that all ten people will be able to do that many billable hours each week? After all, there are plenty of non-billable tasks involved in running a business. Not only that, but there will be dry periods in the work cycle—gaps between projects, not to mention vacations! We won’t all be able to work full time every week of the year. Seems like this particular scenario has us pretty well breaking even, if we’re lucky.

So what can we do to get the balance a little more sustainable? Well, everyone could just work more hours. Doing 60-hour weeks every week would certainly take care of things. But how long can real human beings keep that up?

We can lower our overhead by cutting costs. But seeing as most of our costs are paying salaries, that seems like an unlikely place to make a big impact. To truly be more profitable, the business needs to bring in more revenue per hour of effort expended by staff. That means higher rates. Let’s look at a new example:

Our ten-person business still costs $25,000 a week. Our break-even is still at $2,500 per week per person. Now let’s set our hourly rate at $150 per hour. This means that each person has to work just under 17 billable hours per week for the business to break even. If everyone bills 30 hours in a week, the business will now bring in $45,000—or $20,000 in profit. That’s 80 percent of a week’s overhead.

That scenario seems a whole lot more sustainable—a good week now pays for itself, and brings in 80 percent of the next week’s overhead. With that kind of ratio we could, like a hungry bear before hibernation, start saving up to protect ourselves from less prosperous times in the future.

Nature metaphors aside, once we know how these parts work, we can figure out any one component by setting the others and running the numbers. In other words, we don’t just have to see how a specific hourly rate changes profit. We can go the other way, too.

Working for a living or living to work

One way to determine your system is to start with desired salaries and reasonable work hours for your culture, and work backwards to your hourly rate. Then you can start thinking about pricing systems (yes, even fixed price or value-based systems) that let you achieve that effective rate.

Maybe time is the most important factor for you. How much can everyone work? How much does everyone want to work? How much must you then charge for that time to end up with salaries you can be content with?

This is, in part, a lifestyle question. At Bearded, we sat down not too long ago and did an exercise adapted from an IA exercise we learned from Kevin M. Hoffman. We all contributed potential qualities that were important to our business—things like “high quality of life,” “high quality of work,” “profitable,” “flexible,” “clients who do good in the world,” “efficient,” and “collaborative.” As a group we ordered those qualities by importance, and decided we’d let those priorities guide us for the next year, at which point we’d reassess.

That exercise really helped us make decisions about things like what rate we needed to charge, how many hours a week we wanted to work, as well as more squishy topics like what kinds of clients we wanted to work for and what kind of work we wanted to do. Though finances can seem like purely quantitative math, that sort of qualitative exercise ended up significantly informing how we plugged numbers into the profit equation.

Pricing: Where the rubber meets the road

Figuring out the basics of overhead, revenue, and profit, is instrumental in giving you an understanding of the mechanics of your business. It lets you plan knowledgeably for your future. It allows you to make plans and set goals for the growth and maintenance of your business.

But once you know what you want to charge there’s another question—how do you charge it?

There are plenty of different pricing methods out there (time unit-based, deliverable-based, time period-based, value-based, and combinations of these). They all have their own potential pros and cons for profitability. They also create different motivations for clients and vendors, which in turn greatly affect your working process, day-to-day interactions, and project outcomes.

But that, my friends, is a topic for our next column. Stay tuned for part two of my little series on the money side of running a web business: pricing!

Categories: Mobile learning

#Phd update: interest for older employees learning research niche

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 13:58
'The quest to provide research based evidence to upgrade or at least hold on to older employees, and build a rationale to keep them in corporations based on their expertise and knowledge. It is a marginal option that I can chose to work on after my PhD is finalized (yes, still a lot to do, but. reflection is a nice pastime). And I like it.

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Categories: Mobile learning

Ten CSS One-Liners to Replace Native Apps

A List Apart - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 12:30

Håkon Wium Lie is the father of CSS, the CTO of Opera, and a pioneer advocate for web standards. Earlier this year, we published his blog post, “CSS Regions Considered Harmful.” When Håkon speaks, whether we always agree or not, we listen. Today, Håkon introduces CSS Figures and argues their case.

Tablets and mobile devices require us to rethink web design. Moused scrollbars will be replaced by paged gestures, and figures will float in multi-column layouts. Can this be expressed in CSS?

Paged designs, floating figures, and multi-column layout are widely used on mobile devices today. For some examples, see Flipboard, the Our Choice ebook, or Facebook Paper. These are all native apps. If we want the web to win on these devices (we do), it’s vital that designers can build these kinds of presentations using web standards. If web standards cannot express this, authors will be justified in making native apps.

Over the past years, I’ve been editing two specifications that, when combined, provide this kind of functionality: CSS Multi-column Layout and CSS Figures. I believe they are important to make sure the web remains a compelling environment for content providers.

In this article, I will demonstrate how simple it is to write CSS code with these specs. I will do so through 10 one-liners. Real stylesheets will be slightly longer, but still compact, readable, and reusable. Here are some screenshots to give you a visual indication of what we are aiming for:

Building a page

The starting point for my code examples is an article with a title, text, and some images. In a traditional browser, the article will be shown in one column, with a scrollbar on the right. Using CSS Multi-column Layout, you can give the article two columns instead of one:

article { columns: 2 }

That’s a powerful one-liner, but we can do better; we can make the number of columns depend on the available space, so that a narrow screen will have one column, a wider screen will have two columns, etc. This is all it takes to specify that the optimal line length is 15em and for the number of columns to be calculated accordingly:

article { columns: 15em }

To me, this is where CSS code morphs into poetry: one succinct line of code scales from the narrowest phone to the widest TV, from the small print to text for the visually impaired. There is no JavaScript, media queries, or expensive authoring tool involved. There is simply one highly responsive line of code. That line is used to great effect to produce the screenshots above. And it works in current browsers (which is not yet the case for the following examples).

The screenshots above show paged presentations, as opposed to scrolled presentations. This is easily expressed with:

article { overflow: paged-x }

The above code says that the article should be laid out as pages, stacked along the x-axis (which, in English, is toward the right). Browsers that support this feature must provide an interface for navigating in these pages. For example, the user may reach the next page by making a swiping gesture or tilting the device. A visual indication of which page you are reading may also be provided, just like scrollbars provide a visual indication in scrolled environments. On a tablet or mobile phone, swiping to the next page or document will be easier than scrolling.

Images

Adding images to the article creates some challenges. Lines of text can easily be poured into several columns, but if figures are interspersed with text, the result will be uneven; because images are unbreakable, they will cause unused whitespace if they appear at a column break. To avoid this, traditional paper-based layouts place images at the top or bottom of columns, thereby allowing other text to fill the whitespace. This can naturally be expressed in CSS by adding top and bottom to the float property. For example:

img { float: bottom }

The bluish harbor images in the screenshots above have been floated to the bottom of the page with this one-liner. CSS is used to express something that HTML cannot say; it is impossible to know how much textual content will fit on a screen in advance of formatting. Therefore, an author cannot know where to insert the image in the source code in order for it to appear at the bottom of the column. Being able to float figures to the top and bottom (in addition to the already existing left and right) is a natural extension to the float property.

Spanning columns

Another trick from traditional layout is for figures to span several columns. Consider this newspaper clipping:

Used with permission from the Bristol Observer

In the newspaper article, the image on the left spans two columns and is floated to the bottom of the columns. The code to achieve this in CSS is simple:

figure { float: bottom; column-span: 2 }

HTML5’s figure element is perfect for holding both an image and the caption underneath it:

<figure> <img src=cats.jpg> <figcaption>Isabel loves the fluffy felines</figcaption> </figure>

The newspaper article also has a figure that spans three columns, and is floated to the top right corner. In a previous version of the CSS Figures specification, this was achieved by setting float: top-corner. However, after discussions with implementers, it became clear that they were able to float content to more places than just corners. Therefore, CSS Figures introduces new properties to express that content should be deferred to a later column, page, or line.

Deferring figures

To represent that the cat picture in the newspaper clipping should be placed at the top of the last column, spanning three columns, this code can be used:

figure { float: top; float-defer-column: last; column-span: 3 }

This code is slightly less intuitive (compared to the abandoned top-corner keyword), but it opens up a range of options. For example, you can float an element to the second column:

.byline { float: top; float-defer-column: 1 }

The above code defers the byline, “By Collette Jackson”, by one. That is, if the byline would naturally appear in the first column, it will instead appear in the second column (as is the case in the newspaper clipping). For this to work with HTML code, it is necessary for the byline to appear early in the article. For example, like this:

<article> <h1>New rescue center pampers Persians</h1> <p class=byline>By Collette Jackson</p> ... </article> Deferring ads

Advertisements are another type of content which is best declared early in the source code and deferred for later presentation. Here’s some sample HTML code:

<article> <aside id=ad1 src=ad1.png> <aside id=ad2 src=ad2.png> <h1>New rescue center pampers Persians</h1> </article>

And here is the corresponding CSS code, with a one-liner for each advertisement:

#ad1 { float-defer-page: 1 } #ad2 { float-defer-page: 3 }

As a result of this code, the ads would appear on page two and four. Again, this is impossible to achieve by placing ads inside the text flow, because page breaks will appear in different places on different devices.

I think both readers and advertisers will like a more page-oriented web. In paper magazines, ads rarely bother anyone. Likewise, I think ads will be less intrusive in paged, rather than scrolled, media.

Deferring pull quotes

The final example of content that can be deferred is pull quotes. A pull quote is a quote lifted from the article, and presented in larger type at some predetermined place on the page. In this example, the pull quote is shown midway down the second column:

Here’s the CSS code to express this in CSS:

.pullquote#first { float-defer-line: 50% }

Other types of content can also be positioned by deferring lines. For example, a photograph may be put above the fold of a newspaper by deferring a number of lines. This will also work on the foldable screens of the future.

Pull quotes, however, are an interesting use case that deserve some discussion. A pull quote has two functions. First, it presents to the reader an interesting line of text to gain attention. Second, the presentation of the article becomes visually more varied when the body text is broken up by the larger type. Typically, you want one pull quote on every page. On paper, where you know how many pages an article will take up, it is easy to supply the right number of pull quotes. On the web, however, content will be reformatted for all sorts of screens; some readers will see many small pages, other will see fewer larger pages. To ensure that each page has a pull quote, authors must provide a generous supply of pull quotes. Rather than showing the extraneous quotes at the end of the article (which would be a web browser’s instinct), they should be discarded; the content will anyway appear in the main article. This can be achieved with a one-liner:

.pullquote { float-policy: drop-tail }

In prose, the code reads: if the pull quote is at the tail-end of the article, it should not be displayed. The same one-liner would be used to extraneous images at the end of the article; authors will often want to have one image per page, but not more than one.

Exercises

The studious reader may want to consult the CSS Multi-column Layout and CSS Figures specifications. They have more use cases and more knobs to allow designers to describe the ideal presentation of figures on the web.

The easiest way to play with CSS Figures is to download Opera 12.16 and point it to this document, which generated the screenshots in Figure 1. Based on implementation experience, the specifications have changed and not all one-liners presented in this article will work. Also, Prince and AntennaHouse have partial support for CSS Figures—these are batch formatters that output PDF documents.

I’d love to hear from those who like the approach taken in this article, and those who don’t. Do you want this added to browsers? Let me know below, or request if from your favorite browser (Firefox, Chrome, Opera, IE). If you don’t like the features, how would you express the use cases that have been discussed?

Pages and columns have been basic building blocks in typography since the Romans started cutting scrolls into pages. This is not why browsers should support them. We should do so because they help us make better, more beautiful, user experiences on mobile devices.

Categories: Mobile learning

Linking #k12 to #mLearning, networked learning, cloud computing

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 10:18
'As the New Media Consortium report is out looking at the upcoming trends for k12 and online learning , I was pleasantly surprised by the emerging combinations which clearly embrace new educational technologies and student-centered focus. The almost 50 pages report is a source of interest for any teacher, school, or elearning expert. BYOD. !

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Categories: Mobile learning

Introducing the Redesigned Mobile Commons

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 18:02
'We are excited to announce our newly redesigned Mobile Commons website, platform, and help center! Mobile Commons has seen a number of transformations over the past few years, from expanding our client base to new industries to broadening our product offerings on our platform. Features : Browse through our platform features.

Brought to you by: Mobile Learning
Categories: Mobile learning

Introducing the Redesigned Mobile Commons

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 18:02
'We are excited to announce our newly redesigned Mobile Commons website, platform, and help center! Mobile Commons has seen a number of transformations over the past few years, from expanding our client base to new industries to broadening our product offerings on our platform. Features : Browse through our platform features.

Brought to you by: Mobile Learning
Categories: Mobile learning

Searching experienced #MOOC people: academics & corporate #eMOOC2015

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 15:03
'In the next couple of weeks I want to gather the next #eMOOC2015 group of MOOC colleagues (in the broad sense) that will help me and my fellow chair Nathalie Schiffino in assembling the committee for the eMOOC2015 experience track. How many people will be in the experience track committee? Between 8 and 10 people. What is eMOOC2015? No, it is not.

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Categories: Mobile learning

How SMS Chat Saves Time, Money and Peace of Mind

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 15:12
'Mobile technology has lent a big hand in changing the healthcare industry’s landscape. SMS chat, specifically, allows more and more individuals to making informed and proactive decisions about their health with instantaneous, private, and direct communication. How Does it Work? In some parts of the country, it is even now possible to text 911 !

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Categories: Mobile learning

This week's sponsor: Bigstock

A List Apart - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 17:00

Bigstock is now offering a 7-day free trial. Get 35 free hi-res, royalty-free images. Download now!

Categories: Mobile learning

#PhD journey: preparing main study #MOOC

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 12:53
'The next big step in my PhD journey is coming up: the main study. Once September comes, I will hopefully get massive amounts of data coming my way (well, lets say massive yet controllable data would be ideal, not BIG data, rather meaningful data in manageable abundance). It is organized by The Open University , and lead by Hazel Rymer.

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Categories: Mobile learning

#PhD journey: preparing main study #MOOC

Mlearnopedia - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 12:53
Rolling out a main study is more difficult than organizing the pilot study for multiple reasons: personal knowledge (by knowing more, additional reflections come to mind when planning an follow-up), getting more people to agree that I come and gather a flock of research participants, making sure all questions will lead to meaningful research.

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Categories: Mobile learning

Laura Kalbag on Freelance Design: I Don&#8217;t Like It

A List Apart - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 12:30

“I don’t like it”—The most dreaded of all design feedback from your client/boss/co-worker. This isn’t so much a matter of your ego being damaged, it’s just not useful or constructive criticism.

In order to do better we need feedback grounded in understanding of user needs. And we need to be sure it’s not coming from solely the client’s aesthetic preferences, which may be impeccable but may not be effective for the product.

Aesthetics are a matter of taste. Design is not just aesthetics. I’m always saying it, but it’s worth repeating: there are aesthetic decisions in design, but they are meant to contribute to the design as a whole. The design as a whole is created for an audience, and with goals in mind, so objectivity is required and should be encouraged.

Is the client offering an opinion based on her own taste, trying to reflect the taste of the intended audience, or trying to solve a perceived problem for the user? Don’t take “I don’t like it” at face value and try to respond to it without more communication.

How do we elicit better feedback?

To elicit the type of feedback we want from clients, we should encourage open-ended critiques that explain the reasons behind the negative feedback, critiques that make good use of conjunctions like “because.” “I don’t like it because…” is already becoming more valuable feedback.

Designer: Why don’t you like the new contact form design?

Client: I don’t like it because the text is too big.

Whether that audience can achieve their goals with our product is the primary factor in its success. We need clients to understand that they may not be the target audience. Sometimes this can be hard for anyone close to a product to understand. We may be one of the users of the products we’re designing, but the product is probably not being designed solely for users like us. The product has a specific audience, with specific goals. Once we’ve re-established the importance of the end user, we can then reframe the feedback by asking the question, “how might the users respond?”

Designer: Do you think the users will find the text too big?

Client: Yes. They’d rather see everything without having to scroll.

Designer: The text will have to be very small if we try to fit it all into the top of the page. It might be hard to read.

Client: That’s fine. All of our users are young people, so their eyesight is good.

Throughout the design process, we need to check our hidden assumptions about our users. We should also ensure any feedback we get isn’t based upon an unfounded assumption. If the client says the users won’t like it, ask why. Uncover the assumption—maybe it’s worth testing with real users?

Designer: Can we be certain that all your users are young people? And that all young people have good eyesight? We might risk losing potential customers unless the site is easy for everyone to read.

How do we best separate out assumptions from actual knowledge? Any sweeping generalizations about users, particularly those that assume users all share common traits, are likely to need testing. A thorough base of user research, with evidence to fall back on, will give you a much better chance at spotting these assumptions.

The design conversation

As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback. I’ve written before on how we can pre-empt problems by explaining our design decisions when we share our work, but it’s impossible to cover every minute detail and the relationships between them. If a client can’t articulate why they don’t like the design as a whole, break the design into components and try to narrow down which part isn’t working for them.

Designer: Which bit of text looks particularly big to you?

Client: The form labels.

When you’ve zeroed in on a component, elicit some possible reasons that it might not be effective.

Designer: Is it because the size of the form labels leaves less space for the other elements, forcing the users to scroll more?

Client: Yes. We need to make the text smaller.

Reining it in

Aesthetics are very much subject to taste. You know what colors you like to wear, and the people you find attractive, and you don’t expect everyone else to share those same tastes. Nishant wrote a fantastic column about how Good Taste Doesn’t Matter and summarized it best when he said:

good and virtuous taste, by its very nature, is exclusionary; it only exists relative to shallow, dull…tastes. And if good design is about finding the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand, you don’t want to start out with a solution set that has already excluded a majority of the possibilities compliments of the unicorn that is good taste. Taste’s great

Designer: But if we make the text smaller, we’ll make it harder to read. Most web pages require scrolling, so that shouldn’t be a problem for the user. Do you think the form is too long, and that it might put users off from filling it in?

Client: Yes, I want people to find it easy to contact us.

Designer: How about we take out all the form fields, except the email address and the message fields, as that’s all the information we really need?

Client: Yes, that’ll make the form much shorter.

If you’re making suggestions, don’t let a client say yes to your first one. These suggestions aren’t meant as an easy-out, allowing them to quickly get something changed to fit their taste. This is an opportunity to brainstorm potential alternatives on the spot. Working collaboratively is the important part here, so don’t just go away to work out the first alternative by yourself.

If you can work out between you which solution is most likely to be successful, the client will be more committed to the iteration. You’ll both have ownership, and you’ll both understand why you’ve decided to make it that way.

Categories: Mobile learning

How Mobile and Social Media Change the Rules of Selling

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 01:13
'Consumers are much more informed than before because of the incredible amount of information available online. If you are a salesperson that hasn’t started with mobile and social yet, it’s time to dive into this new world. Mobile Strategy sales enablement

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Categories: Mobile learning

Kids 4–6: &#8220;The Muddy Middle&#8221;

A List Apart - Tue, 07/15/2014 - 13:58

I call kids between ages 4 and 6 the “muddy middle,” because they’re stuck right in between the cute, cuddly preschool children and the savvy, sophisticated elementary-schoolers. They’re too old for games designed for toddlers, but they can’t quite read yet, so they struggle with sites and apps geared toward older kids. Unfortunately, you rarely see a digital product designed specifically for this age group, because they’re hard to pin down, but these little guys are full of ideas, knowledge, creativity, and charisma.

Like the 2–4s, these children are still in the preoperational stage, but they present their own set of design challenges based on where they are cognitively, physically, and emotionally.

Who are they?

Table 5.1 shows some key characteristics that shape the behavior and attitudes of 4–6-year-olds and how these might impact your design decisions.

You’ll find that 4–6-year-olds have learned “the rules” for how to behave, how to communicate, and how to play. Now they’re looking for ways to bend and break these rules. They understand limitations—angry parents, broken toys, and sad friends have taught them well—but they still take every opportunity to test these limitations. Digital environments provide a perfect place for these active kids to challenge the status quo and learn more about the world around them.

4–6 year-olds… This means that… You’ll want to… Are empathetic. They’re beginning to see things from other perspectives. Make interactions feel more “social,” even if the kids aren’t actually communicating with others. Have an intense curiosity about the world. They’re very interested in learning new ideas, activities, and skills, but may become frustrated when that learning takes longer than they would like. Set attainable goals for the tasks and activities you create. Provide context-based help and support so kids have an easier time processing information. Are easily sidetracked. They sometimes have trouble following through on a task or activity. Keep activities simple, short, and rewarding. Provide feedback and encouragement after milestones. Have wild imaginations. They prefer to create on their own rather than following strict instructions or step-by- step directions. Make “rules” for play/engagement as basic as possible and allow for a lot of invention, self-expression, and storytelling. Are developing increased memory function. Can recall complex sequences of events just by watching someone perform them. Include multi-step activities and games, with more than one main goal (for example, touch the red stars and green apples to get points of different values).   Table 5.1: Considerations for 4–6-year-olds Make it social

When you think of social design for adults, you may think of experiences that let users communicate and interact with others. The same is true of social design for kids, but in this case, “others” doesn’t have to mean other kids or even other humans. It means that kids need to feel like part of the experience, and they need to be able to observe and understand the interactions of characters in the experience, as players and contributors. Kids at this age understand that individual differences, feelings, and ideas are important and exciting. Showcasing these differences within the experience and directly communicating with users allows this social aspect to come through and provide additional depth and context to interactions.

Sometimes, making something feel social is as easy as presenting it in the first person. When characters, elements, and instructions speak directly to kids, it makes it easier for them to empathize and immerse themselves in the experience.

Let’s take a look at an example from Seussville. The designers of this highly engaging site keep the uniqueness of Dr. Seuss’s characters vibrantly alive in their lovely character chooser. Every character (and I do mean every) from every Dr. Seuss book glides by on whimsical conveyor belts, letting the user pick one to play with (see Figure 5.1).

This character chooser provides a strong social experience for kids, because it allows them to “meet” and build relationships with the individual characters. Kids can control the viewer, from a first-person perspective, to see the visual differences among the characters, as well as personality details that make the characters unique, much like how they’d go about meeting people in real life (without the conveyor belt, of course).

When users choose a character, they are shown a quote, a book list, and details about the character on the pull-down screen to the right. On the left side of the screen, a list of games and activities featuring the character magically appears.

FIGURE 5.1: Seussville presents a first-person perspective to kids. FIGURE 5.2: Seussville feels social, even though kids don’t interact with other humans.

This social experience is carried through across most of the games on the site. For example, when users pick the “Horton Hears a Tune” game from Horton the elephant’s list of activities, they can compose their own melody on the groovy organ-like instrument under the supportive eyes of Horton himself. Then, in true social fashion, they can save their tune and share it with family and friends.

FIGURE 5.3: “Horton Hears a Tune” lets kids compose music and share it. Make learning part of the game

As a designer, you know that providing help when and where your users need it works better than forcing them to leave the task they’re trying to complete to get help. This is especially true for 4–6-year-olds, who have a strong curiosity for why things are the way they are and want to know everything right away. Unlike the “school stinks” mentality of earlier generations, today’s kids are fascinated with learning and want to soak up as much information as possible.

This new attitude could be because learning is more dynamic, more hands-on, and more inventive than it’s been in the past, or because computers, tablets, and other digital teaching tools make learning fun. However, younger kids still lack patience when learning takes longer than they’d like. You’ll want to provide short, manageable instructions to make learning fast, easy, and pleasurable, and to incorporate learning into the experience itself.

The Dinosaur Chess app does a great job with structured teaching, as well as on-the-spot assistance to help kids learn how to play chess (see Figure 5.4). Upon launching the app, children get to choose what they want to do. The great thing about Dinosaur Chess is that it’s not just all about chess—kids can take lessons, check their overall progress, and even participate in a “dino fight!”

One perk is how the app links the activities via a treasure-hunt-style map on the menu screen. It gently recommends a progression through the activities (which older kids will follow), but is subtle enough to allow exploration. This feature is great for kids who like to break the rules, because it establishes a flow, yet invites users to deviate from it in a subtle yet effective way.

FIGURE 5.4: Dinosaur Chess offers many opportunities for learning.

When users select the “learn” option, they are taken to a screen where an avuncular dinosaur (who, for some reason, is Scottish) talks kids through the mechanics of chess in a non-intimidating way. Since these kids are still learning to read, the designers used voice-overs instead of text, which works really well here.

The lessons are broken up into short, manageable chunks—essential for learning via listening—which let the 4–6s learn a little at a time and progress when they are ready. The children can also try out various moves after learning them, which is particularly effective with younger users who learn by seeing and doing (see Figure 5.5).

If this app were designed for an adult audience, the lessons would be a little longer and would probably include text explanations in addition to the audio, since a combination of listening and reading works best for grown-ups. However, the brief audio segments coupled with animated examples are perfect for younger users’ short attention spans and desire to learn as much as quickly as possible.

FIGURE 5.5: Dinosaur Chess teaches kids how to play chess in short, informational chunks.

My favorite aspect of Dinosaur Chess is its guided playing. At any point during the game, kids can press the “?” button for help. Instead of popping a layer, which many sites and apps do (even those designed for a younger audience), Dinosaur Chess uses subtle animation and voice-overs to show the users what their next moves should be, as shown in Figure 5.6.

FIGURE 5.6: Dinosaur Chess uses animation and voice-overs to provide contextual help. Give feedback and reinforcement

As anyone knows who has dealt with this age group, 4–6-year-olds have short attention spans. This is particularly true of the younger ones, because kids ages 6 and up are able to pay attention for longer periods of time and absorb more information in a single session. What’s interesting (and challenging) about these younger ones is that they get frustrated at themselves for not being able to focus, and then they channel that frustration onto the experience.

A common response to this from designers is: “Well, I’ll make my app/game/site super fun and interesting so that kids will want to play longer.” That’s not going to happen. A better approach is to identify opportunities within the experience to provide feedback, in order to encourage kids to continue.

Here are some ways to keep children focused on a particular activity:

  • Limit distractions. With a child audience, designers tend to want to make everything on the screen do something, but if you want your 4–6s to complete a task (for example, finish a puzzle or play a game), then remove extra functionality.
  • Break it up. As when you’re designing for 2–4s, it’s best to break activities for 4–6s into manageable components. The components can be a bit bigger than ones you might design for a younger audience, but many clear, simple steps are better than fewer, longer ones. While adult users prefer to complete as few steps as possible, and scroll down to finish a task on a screen, 4–6s like finishing a step and moving to a new screen.
  • Make it rewarding. Provide feedback after each piece of an activity is completed, which will help your users stay motivated to continue. If you have the time and budget, use a combination of feedback mechanisms, to keep an element of surprise and discovery in the task-completion process.
Keep it free-form

The 4–6-age bracket gravitates toward activities that are open and free-form, with simple, basic rules (and lots of opportunities to deviate from the rules). This changes pretty dramatically when kids hit age 7 or so. At that point, they become quite focused on staying within boundaries and need a certain level of structure in order to feel comfortable. However, these younger kids like to break the rules and test limits, and digital environments are the perfect places to do this.

Zoopz.com has a great mosaic-maker tool, which lets kids enhance existing mosaic designs or create their own from scratch (see Figures 5.7 and 5.8).

FIGURE 5.7: An existing mosaic design from Zoopz.com, which lets kids experiment and test limits. FIGURE 5.8: Zoopz.com mosaic-creator enables kids to create their own cool designs.

The nice thing about Zoopz is that it requires little to no explanation in order to make mosaics—kids can jump right in and start playing. This feature is important, as younger ones will get frustrated if they need to listen to detailed instructions before getting started and will likely move on to something else before the instructions are complete. Typically, 4- and 5-year-olds will leave websites and close apps that they can’t immediately figure out. Older kids will hang around and pay attention to directions if the perceived reward is high enough, but young ones abandon the site right away. So if your game allows for free exploration, make sure that it’s really free and doesn’t require lots of information in order to play.

An important thing to note about open exploration/creation: If you’re designing something with a “takeaway,” as Zoopz is, make sure that kids can either print or save their creations. The only thing kids like better than playing by their own rules is showing their work to others. Zoopz misses an opportunity here, because it doesn’t offer the ability for kids to share their work, or print it out to show to friends and family. This feature becomes even more important as kids get older. We’ll talk at length about sharing, saving, and storing in Chapter 6, “Kids 6–8: The Big Kids.”

Keep it challenging

The worst insult from a child between the ages of 4 and 5 is to call something “babyish.” They’re part of the big-kid crowd now, and the last thing they want is to feel like they’re using a site or playing a game that’s meant for younger kids. Unfortunately, it’s hard to pin down exactly what “babyish” means, because the definition changes from kid to kid, but in my experience, children call something “babyish” when it’s not difficult or challenging enough for them. Since kids show increased memory function (and more sophisticated motor skills) starting at around age 4, adding multiple steps to games and activities helps keep them on their toes.

As designers, we instinctively want to make stuff that users can master immediately. If you’re designing for elementary-school kids, you’ll want to move away from that mindset. While it’s true that children need to be able to easily figure out the objectives of a game or app right away, they don’t necessarily have to do it perfectly the first time. Instead, build in easier layers early on so that kids can complete them quickly, but throw in some extras that might be a little harder for them. For example, if you’re designing a game where kids have to shoot at flying objects, send in a super-fast projectile they have to catch to win extra points or add a harder “bonus round.” Kids will be less likely to call something “babyish” if it takes them several tries to master. And they’ll appreciate the vote of confidence you’re giving to their memory and agility.

Parents are users, too

When adding complexity to your game or app, you’ll still need to make the basic premise simple and clear. A little parental intervention is sometimes necessary, in order to explain rules and demonstrate interactions, but when parents or siblings have to become very involved in game mechanics, it’s frustrating for all parties.

Try not to place too much emphasis on “winning” and keep the perceived “rewards” small and unexciting, if you have them at all. Kids tend to ask parents to step in and help with the trickier parts if the reward for winning is really high. While I believe that a parent should be in the room when kids are online and should check on kids frequently when they’re using a device, too much involvement takes away some autonomy from the kids and prevents them from learning as much as they could and should.

Chapter checklist


Here’s a checklist for designing for 4–6-year-olds.

Does your design cover the following areas?

  • Feel “social”?
  • Break up instructions and progression into manageable chunks?
  • Provide immediate positive feedback after each small milestone?
  • Allow for invention and self-expression?
  • Include multi-step activities to leverage improved memory function?
Categories: Mobile learning

A Text Message a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 18:11
'  Medication non-adherence is an overwhelmingly pervasive issue in the healthcare industry. Nearly Nearly 75% of adults are non-adherent in one or more ways, costing the healthcare industry $300 billion annually. Non-adherence’s reasons are as far reaching as its consequences. Fortunately, there is a solution. How and why does it work so well?

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This week's sponsor: Applause

A List Apart - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 17:15

Applause ensures your web and mobile apps work every time, everywhere, for every user! Learn how we can help.

Applause has a free ebook for our readers that covers:

Overcoming Common QA Challenges: Avoid the frequent hang-ups of functionality, design and more
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Categories: Mobile learning

Serious game play for learning analytics

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Thu, 07/10/2014 - 21:47
'The Department of Design, a collaboration between the Netherlands and South Africa, recently held a  Serious Gaming Festival  to explore how this field can impact planning, idea generation and collaboration. The concept of taking a holistic view of a student as she progresses along a learning path is certainly not new.

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Fabulous ideas: economics, innovation, #education

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Thu, 07/10/2014 - 10:50
'The past 50 minutes I have been blown out of my mind with this 74 pages slide deck "Personal learning in a Networked world " symbolizing the synopsis of a keynote Stephen Downes gave at the London School of Economics yesterday. Really. from these slides I got so much information I am only capable of saying: read it!

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Categories: Mobile learning

How to Craft the Perfect Text Message

Mobile learning from MLearnopedia - Wed, 07/09/2014 - 17:10
'Text messaging may be the most effective way to communicate, but do you know how to compose your texts to drive the most action? We’ve compiled a list of text messaging basics to help you keep your mobile users engaged and interested in what you have to say. Make it Personal. Nobody likes to get lost in the crowd. Don’t Use “Text Speak”.

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Categories: Mobile learning

Longform Content with Craft Matrix

A List Apart - Wed, 07/09/2014 - 13:30

Jason Santa Maria recently shared some thoughts about pacing content, and my developer brain couldn’t help but think about how I’d go about building the examples he talked about.

The one fool-proof way to achieve heavily art-directed layouts like those is to write the HTML by hand. The problem is that content managers are not always developers, and the code can get complex pretty quickly. That’s why we use content management systems—to give content managers easier and more powerful control over content.

There’s a constant tension between that type of longform, art-directed content and content management systems, though. It’s tough to wrangle such unique layouts and styles into a standardized CMS that scales over time.

For a while, the best we could do was a series of custom fields and a big WYSIWYG editor for the body copy. While great for content entry, WYSIWYG editors lack the control developers need to output the semantic and clean HTML that make the great experiences and beautiful layouts we’re tasked with building.

This tension leaves developers like myself looking for different ways to manage content. My attention recently has been focused on Craft, a new CMS that is just over a year old.

Craft’s solution for longform content is the Matrix field. With Matrix, developers have the flexibility to provide custom fields to be used for content entry, and can write custom templates (using Twig, in Craft’s case) to be used to render that content.

A Matrix field is made up of blocks, and each block type is made up of fields—anything from text inputs, to rich text, dropdowns, images, tables, and more. Here’s what a typical Matrix setup looks like:

Instead of fighting with a WYSIWYG editor, content managers choose block types to add to the longform content area, fill out the provided fields, and the content is rendered beautifully using the handcrafted HTML written by developers. I use the Matrix field to drive longform content on my own site, and you can see how much flexibility it gives me to create interesting layouts filled with images with captions, quotes with citations, and more.

To pull back the curtain a bit, here’s how my blog post Unsung Success is entered into the Matrix field:

Three block types are used in the post seen above—an image block, a quote block, and a text block. Notice that the text block is using a WYSIWYG editor for text formatting—they’re still good for some things!

The Matrix field is endlessly customizable, and provides the level of flexibility, control, and power that is needed to achieve well-paced, art-directed longform content like the examples Jason shared. This is a huge first step beyond WYSIWYG editors and custom fields, and as we see more beautifully designed longform pieces, our tools will only get better.

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