Web usability and the search for the perfect blog template

In addition to exploring the nature of mastery itself, this blog is a way for me to continue my own pursuit of mastery in the technology and techniques of blogging (believe me, I’m still learning). When I decided to make the switch to WordPress, I realized that even though I had learned a lot about the technology behind blogging while using Blogger, in many ways I was going to be starting over. Not the least of my concerns was the selection of the right template.

I first got involved in web design in 1997. Of all reading and researching I did when I was first learning, the lessons that stuck with me most were from Jakob Nielsen and his website useit.com. Nielsen’s guidelines appealed to me because of their minimalist nature, with an emphasis on the content and easy navigation over flashy graphics and complicated sites. This was due partly to the audience I was designing for – technophobes who were not overly happy about having to use the web at all – and partly to my own personal preferences. To this day, I still subscribe to Nielsen’s Alertbox newsletter and have his book Designing Web Usability readily available on my desk (right next to George Leonard‘s Way of Aikido and Bruce Schneier‘s Beyond Fear).

One of the key lessons I remember is that of making the pages somewhat screen-resolution independent. Or, in Nielsen’s words:

Fighting frozen layouts seems a lost battle, but it’s worth repeating: different users have different monitor sizes. People with big monitors want to be able to resize their browsers to view multiple windows simultaneously. You can’t assume that everyone’s window width is 800 pixels: it’s too much for some users and too little for others.

Nielsen updated that guideline in today’s Alertbox:

One of the most frequently asked questions in my Web usability course is “What screen resolution should we design for?” The full answer is a bit tricky, but the basic advice is clear:

  • Do not design solely for a specific monitor size because screen sizes vary among users. Window size variability is even greater, since users don’t always maximize their browsers (especially if they have large screens).
  • Use a liquid layout that stretches to the current user’s window size (that is, avoid frozen layouts that are always the same size).
  • Optimize for 1024×768, which is currently the most widely used screen size. Of course, the general guideline is to optimize for your target audience’s most common resolution, so the size will change in the future. It might even be a different size now, if, say, you’re designing an intranet for a company that gives all employees big monitors.

Currently, about 60% of all monitors are set at 1024×768 pixels. In comparison, only about 17% use 800×600 so it’s obviously less important to aim at perfection for these small-display users. What’s equally obvious, however, is that you can’t simply ignore 17% of your customer segment by providing a frozen layout that requires more screen space than they have available.

When looking for a WordPress template, I kept many of these things in mind. After a quick search, I came across Scott Wallick’s “experiment out of control” plaintxt.org. I was originally planning to use his PlainTxtBlog template, which is nice, but was actually looking for something even more minimalist. As I was finally getting this site up and running, I saw that Scott had released the Minimalist Sandbox and knew that I’d found what I was looking for. In fact, I fit quite well Scott’s stated audience:

This theme is for (a) those who want a truly minimalist theme, and (b) those who want a simple theme with varying layouts to play with while developing something new.

I realize that this level of ‘simplicity’ in a theme isn’t for everyone, and in fact I’m not sure you can call it a ‘theme’ at all. For other projects I will not be so minimalist. To be perfectly honest, I’m not really expecting (or hoping) for a lot of visitors to the site itself but rather am hoping to get people to use RSS or e-mail feeds to keep up to date. Maybe that’s not the best way to set it up, but it is an experiment I’m interested in seeing the outcome from.

Soulard Idea Market details

Catching up on blogs and e-mail, I saw that Matt Homann has posted details on the upcoming meeting of the Soulard Idea Market on 8 August here in St. Louis. It looks to be an enjoyable, and very interesting evening with the following on the ‘agenda’:

  • Initial Brainstorming
  • Idea Speed Dating (the one I’m most looking forward too)
  • Open Space Problem Solving
  • Open Space Idea Sharing
  • Unreasonable Request Time (which promises to be on of the more interesting parts of the evening, if only because it is new and different from the norm)
  • Cocktails

Of course, if this is anything like BlawgThink last October, the ‘agenda’ will serve merely as a guide, with the group determining where we actually end up.

Storms over St. Louis

Last night, St. Louis experienced perhaps the worst storm in its history. Strong winds blew down trees and buildings, and even knocked 3 tractor-trailer trucks on their sides while crossing the Chain of Rocks bridge across the Mississippi River. An estimated 500,000 people in the St. Louis area are without power.

The storm was so bad, in fact, that it made national news. Mayor Francis Slay was interviewed on NPR‘s All Things Considered, which I heard this afternoon while driving home. You can hear what he had to say in St. Louis Crippled by Widespread Blackouts.

I got the following pictures of the lightning show from my front porch (after the sirens had stopped and we came out of the basement, that is!)

IMG_2466 IMG_2482 IMG_2464

Mastery at work – Trampoline and Tumbling

Over the past two weeks, USA Gymnastics held the Junior Olympics National Championships in Trampoline and Tumbling. Competition ranged from young beginners to experienced elite level athletes and everything in between, with corresponding levels of mastery displayed along the way. As the proud parent of a competitor – my younger son Ian – I’ve seen firsthand the process of mastery as he learns new elements and then how to put those elements together into a routine. And that’s where the real work begins.

Ian on DMTAt the lower levels, each competitor performs one routine that consists of ten elements. Each element is judged, as is the overall performance (things like staying centered on the trampoline). It is the little things that cause deductions from the overall score – bending your arms or legs, coming out of a flip too soon/late, etc.

Ian - TrainingThat is where the process of mastery, life on the plateau, is so important. Repetition, repetition, repetition, to get it just right. You are then prepared for that one, 20 second time to shine and show the judges what you’ve got. (Did I mention that if you fail to complete an element in the routine, judging for the routine stops at that point? That adds just a bit more pressure.)

As I said, I am very proud of Ian for his accomplishments. Not just his performance at Nationals – he placed 9th on trampoline and 12th on the double-mini tramp (missing top ten by only 0.4) – but his dedication to learning and improving throughout the season.

I must also give credit to Ian’s coaches – Gene Kohler, Eric Miller, and Kevin Scott– from St. Louis Elite Tramp and Tumble. When we moved to St. Louis last summer, we were very fortunate to find them and the team at Gateway Kids World in Hazelwood. If you live in St. Louis and are interested in a Tramp and Tumble or other gymnastics for your kids, give them a call.

Some initial thoughts on mastery

Before beginning a discussion on mastery, or any topic, it is useful to explain exactly what it is you want to talk about. Sometimes, this is much easier said than done. (Anyone with experience in the field of Knowledge Management knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

It was the following definition of mastery from George Leonard that started me down this path:

What we call “mastery” can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.

My goal here is to help remove some of the mystery from the process by shining light on good examples of mastery in practice, from many areas of human endeavor from the mundane to the extreme. I’m also interested in how organizations, both for-profit and non-profits, can apply this process to achieve mastery of their chosen domain.

A key challenge to achieving mastery in the current age of immediate gratification is that true mastery is not on the minds of many individuals or organizations. A quick success, a quick profit – those are the things that most people and organizations are interested in.

Mastery, on the other hand, requires long term committment and the realization that you may never complete the journey, as noted in these excerpts from Leonard’s writings:

Most learning occurs while we are on the plateau, when it seems we are making no progress at all. The spurt upward towards mastery merely marks the moment when the results of your training “clicks in.”

To learn anything significant…you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau. [T]o join the on the path of mastery, it’s best to love the plateau, to take delight in regular practice not just for the extrinsic rewards it brings, but for its own sake.

Leonard’s Way of Aikido, written in 1999, offers some good insights into mastery as applied to Aikido. For a more general discussion of mastery, I highly recommend his 1991 book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fullfillment. Both of these books will serve as constant references for me as I explore these ideas further.

No Straight Lines (new and improved!!)

Welcome to my new blog, G. Brett Miller – No Straight Lines. At first glance, it may seem that this is simply a move (from Blogspot to my own domain) and redesign (from Blogger to WordPress) of my now defunct blog …no straight lines…. However, about the only thing I’ve really held over is the name (which I’ve always been fond of).

I’ve been contemplating moving onto my own domain for some time, but couldn’t really justify it to myself in the state the blog was in. The biggest problem was a lack of focus or direction – though ostensibly about knowledge management and organizational behavior, the blog wandered far and wide. Over the past several months, while involved in blogging on other topics (most notably autism), I’ve given quite a bit of thought to what it is I’m really interested in, and what I’d really like to write about here. I’ve realized that what I’ve always been interested in is mastery and the process of mastery, understanding how some people and organizations achieve this heightened level of achievement and, more importantly, how every one and every organization can achieve it.

Even my involvement in knowledge management derives from this interest in mastery. In fact, my understanding of what this blog should be about came from notes and mind maps I’ve been working on for a post / paper entitled Knowledge Management and the Pursuit of Organizational Mastery. Hopefully, I’ll have pieces of that ready to post soon.

Though I will focus on the topic of mastery, I am also looking forward blogging more about my original and recently new home town of St. Louis, MO. This is a great town with great people, and I hope to be able to spread the good word about about we have to offer here.