Meetings: Define the Problem, Don't Solve It

Posted by Dave Tufts on August 30, 2006.

Last week, I attended a fairly large meeting with Nils, Rob, the client, the client's team, and the client's consultants. This three and a half hour meeting was probably semi-productive for some of the people in the room.

Wait, did I say three and half hour meeting? Since there were 10 of us in the room, that really makes it a 35-hour meeting.

Thirty minutes (or 5 man-hours) into the meeting we were still vigorously debating the project's first feature. There was lots of brainstorming and whiteboard note taking, but we were still on point number one of a ten-point agenda. That's when the heavens opened, a non-florescent light of hope shone down through the suspended fiberglass ceiling and our client professed the following:

"If this is a good start, then maybe that's where we should stop."

Pure Genius!

Everyone who's ever designed, programmed, built, or authored anything should consider that advise. Write some ideas down, get off to a good start, and move on to the next thing.

Even if we spent 2 hours completely solving feature number one, features two through ten would have some impact requiring us to circle back to the beginning.

Unfortunately the client's brilliant advice was largely ignored. Instead of stopping, and moving on to another feature, we felt compelled to fully "solve" the first issue. With ten people that would prove nearly impossible.

Short meetings that present problems, not solve problems, are the most productive. In 5 minutes, the problem could have been presented to all 10 people in the room. All 10 of us would have heard, first hand, exactly what needed solving. On our own time, we all would have thought about solutions. Then, through quick emails, mock-ups, a Wiki page, or in smaller sub-committees, we could have solved the problem.

The final solution will most likely be better and more innovative if one or two people come up with the idea on their own. With a large group bickering about the final product, the lowest common denominator probably wins.

The key to a successful large meeting is that all the people involved hear and agree on exactly what the problem is. Solve the problem later. That's what attending a meeting should be about.

The cognitive origins of The Grid

Posted by Robert Mohns on August 25, 2006.

The grid is more than a theory of design. It is a way of thinking.

A (perhaps the) fundamental trait of the human mind is to identify, categorize and analyze: We identify elements of our environment; then We categorize them according to our previous experience, or create new categories; then We analyze them according to past experience, known relationships, and anticipated future experiences, finding patterns and identifying the greater context.

Which neatly brings us back around to step 1: identify. The cycle repeats in ever-widening circles.

The grid method of design facilitates understanding by creating a framework that aids in identification and categorization of content. Each item exists in a self-documenting, self-reinforcing structure which becomes an aid to rapid identification, categorization and analysis of additional content. The reader's comprehension improves geometrically. Thus: the grid is a human-centric design methodology.

The grid is a concept, of course, not a methodology. The grid doesn't have to be designed from squares or columns; it can be just as effectively based on hexagonal tiles, isometric overviews — any pattern which we can recognize and use to organize information. (See also: Grid Systems in Graphic Design)

iMarc Launches Five Sites In August

Posted by Nils Menten on August 25, 2006.

It's officially the busy season. iMarc launched five sites in the past few weeks: - a global full-service financial training firm; - a flat-fee acquisition and divestiture ("A&D") firm; - a developer and manufacturer of sub-systems, components, and advanced materials; - a manufacturer of portable test kits and instruments; and - a veterinary oncology facility.

Wall Street Prep

The new Wall Street Prep site was updated to provide a more secure, extendable infrastructure that can support more programs and options. Wall Street Prep administrators can add and edit training courses and materials, post news updates, manage their members, and track their site usage easier, safer and more reliably than ever.

Gaston Scout

Gaston Scout is a private company creating a new process and market for middle-market mergers and acquisitions. The firm needed a web presence to market it's self to investors, buyers, and sellers. iMarc created a clean site that allows Gaston Scout to manage their firm news and publicity, and attract clients.

Materials Systems Inc.

Materials Systems Incorporated manufactures advanced materials for defense and commercial systems customers. iMarc updated MSI's site to reflect their current identity and business strategy, and express more compelling calls to action for visitors. Through the iMarc SiteManager, MSI can author, maintain and publish product documentation, post employment opportunities, manage news items, and offer the latest information on their tradeshow and expo participation.


Dexsil is a manufacturer of portable test kits and instruments for the detection and quantification of contaminants in soil, water and oil. iMarc updated their site with valid XHTML and CSS, and created a new design to replace their outdated web presence. Dexsil needed a way to make their expansive product documentation easily accessible to their customers, reducing some of the load on their customer service department. Through dynamic tools created by iMarc, Dexsil can now manage an extensive database of FAQs, MSDS information and product manuals all through a single, online tool. Shopping cart functionality drives the commercial site, where Dexsil now offers it's full line of products online.


NEVOG (the New England Veterinary Oncology Group, LLP) is the only private referral veterinary oncology care center in New England. Their state-of-the-art facility was designed exclusively to serve the needs of veterinary oncology patients.

Lunchroom Banter (Volume IV)

Posted by Dave Tufts on August 11, 2006.

Three quick things:

  1. Christian: What's that smell?
  2. Dave: Lamb stew.
  3. Christian: Mmmmmm.... It doesn't smell baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

Say hello to our new Director of Sales and Marketing, Karin Klapak.

A couple of days ago Fred sent around a link to the best song ever. I can't get it out of my head and, quite frankly, I'm glad.

iMarc welcomes Karin Klapak

Posted by Nils Menten on July 24, 2006.

NEWBURYPORT -- iMarc L.L.C. is pleased to announce the addition of Karin Klapak to the staff. Karin will be working with the sales and business development team to help grow iMarc's business. Karin was a Palm Ambassador at Palm Inc, developing grass roots buzz and working in all aspects of the company's marketing efforts. Karin later joined Amesbury, Masschusetts-based startup MAGPiX, bringing innovative new digital imaging products to market. We're excited to welcome her to the team! iMarc is a full-service web development and hosting firm in Newburyport, MA. iMarc takes a user-focused multidisciplinary approach to web and online application design. iMarc's applications and web sites provide high levels of interactivity and engagement for the user, with more functionality and ease of maintenance for the administrator. iMarc's customers include Cubist Pharmaceuticals, EMC, Starwood Hotels, Springfield Museums, Upromise, and PCNomad, among others. For more information, contact iMarc at 978-462-8848 or visit and view our portfolio.

Highlighting: A Neat Idea

Posted by Fred LeBlanc on July 10, 2006.

I was doing a bit of research today around Google, and I came across a site that has a pretty cool feature: they highlighted my search terms from Google on their site so I could find them easier.

Essentially all that happened was:
  1. the site grabbed the referring URL
  2. saw "Google"
  3. parsed the query string
From there, it's simple to run through the content highlighting my words.

Try This On Your Own

Look up "SOAP Tutorial" and find TopXML in the search results. Click through and check out the highlighting. Hit back and add on a couple words you saw on the page and they'll be highlighted too.

A simple idea and decent implementation. The only thing I wish the page did was provide a "clear highlights" link for when it does show highlights (because the colors they used at TopXML were a little annoying and overpowering to read through the article).

List Items: The Tables of Web 2.0?

Posted by Dave Tufts on June 20, 2006.

This week's A List Apart is one of the best yet. Three great articles, includeing one by a guy who plays the bouzouki. Nice job guys.

But wait a minute... in Pretty Accessible Forms, did the author just freak out about puting form data in tables because forms aren't tabular data?

We used to use tables, which worked well in this scenario - but forms don't constitute tabular data, so it's a semantic faux pas.

Then why lay a form out using a list? I'm for schematic layout as much as the next guy, but if form data is not table data, what makes it list data? One could argue that forms are lists of fields and labels. One could also argue that forms are columns and rows made up of fields and labels.

After 200 lines of CSS and Javascript, the author presents a really nice looking tableless form

I can use each list item (li) as a container for each row in the form, which is handy for styling.

"container for each row"? Remind me, what does the "r" in stand for?

I'm actually half kidding. It's a neat solution that I'll probably try tomorrow or the next day. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if , in three years, the next generation of web designers will be on a crusade to remove non-list data from list items

One Key We Use Way Too Much

Posted by Fred LeBlanc on June 14, 2006.

Hi, I'm Fred L., and I... am a backspace-aholic.
(All: Hi Fred.)

For someone in this line of work, I have a somewhat odd affliction: I can't stand the sound of people typing. It drives me up the wall.

I've tried my best to try and live life under the protective cover of headphones, but socially that really isn't healthy. When my headphones aren't hiding me, I can hear the typing; the clickity-clackity sounds rattling all around me. Every key produces a different noise, like a tiny piano of crackling cacophony.

I can pick out your space bar, I can pick our your "enter" key, but more often than not, I can pick out your backspace key.

And that's when it occurred to me that I too am in the same boat. We're all backspace reliant.

One of my favorite books, Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think, talks of the ways that most users surf the web. He uses the word "satisficing," which is when users don't necessarily take the best option available, but take the first reasonable plan and go from there.

There's not much of a penalty for guessing wrong... [the] penalty for guessing wrong on a Web site is usually only a click or two of the Back button, making satisficing an effective strategy.

This approach seems to be the same way we all approach typing. When I actually thought about it and studied it, it turned out that I hit the backspace key an average of five times per line. This figure probably seems a bit off, but there are times when I'll change entire words, and there are times when (in development) when a line will only consist of a couple characters. Either way that's a lot of erasing.

And I'm not the only one. The second-most common noise that I hear echoing through my inner ear (second to the loose slap of the space bar) is the higher-pitched crinkle of the backspace key. We safisfice too much.

After finding the problem, I thought about the reasons of why it's happening. The answer isn't completely that the penalty is minor, the other half of things is that we're in too much of a hurry. I make many more mistakes when the pressure is on and I'm trying to get things done as quickly as possible. This is another drawback because while I'm hitting the backspace key probably twice as often as normal, the typos I don't catch on the first pass are going to need correcting later on: either after viewing what I've done right after typing, or for less severe errors when site-testing comes around. This just means more time fixing silly mistakes that shouldn't have happened to begin with.

The hopeful solution: slow things down a bit.

Instead of thrashing through the forest wildly with a machete in one hand and backspace-Band-aids in the other, I'm going to try and think about the keys I need to hit when I'm not positive as to where my fingers should go. This will force things to slow down at first, with the hope that eventually the thinking will decrease along with the mistakes (which in turn increases speed).

As that old saying goes: it's best to learn from your mistakes. Making an average of five per line means I've got plenty of opportunities to do so.

And from the sound of it, so do you.

The Servicemark (SM) and the Web

Posted by Will Bond on May 18, 2006.

One of my least favorite challenges is getting the servicemark to display on a web site. The servicemark is "A word, phrase, logo, symbol, color, sound or smell used by a business to identify a service and distinguish it from those of its competitors." ( So pretty much if you name a service you provide, you'll want to throw a servicemark after the name to prevent other people from using the same name.

With a little Googling, you are sure to find that the servicemark is the unicode character U+2120. So logically you would think, "Hey, there must be an html entity for that!" Right you are! The servicemark can be displayed as ℠ or ℠. However, there is very poor support for this character. I am sure part of it has to do with the fact that not every font has that glyph defined, but it goes beyond that. For instance, with Verdana, the servicemark will show properly in Firefox, but not in the HTML title. In IE 6 on the PC, it shows up as a broken character (empty box) in both the HTML title and the body of the page. Since 80% of the world views the web through IE 6 on a PC, you pretty much can't use the html entities.

Ok, so we are going to have to another way to do this. The <sup> tag comes to mind as a way to produce the superscript needed for SM. So you go ahead and create the SM like <sup>SM</sup>.

Cool. But now we view that in a browser – SM –  The font is still the same size as the rest of the text. Ok, so we redefine our sup tag to be a smaller font size. This poses a few problems. If you are using a font size around 11 - 12px, the SM should probably be around 7px. Unfortunately we are working with a pixel font, so the rendering looks kinda crappy, whatever. But then you look at it in IE, and the superscript nature of the text is altered by changing the size. Now IE shows SM as a tiny font, vertically aligned in the middle of the regular text. That just looks terrible.

In the end, we pretty much only have the option to have a big huge superscript SM, or to put the SM inline, like this: My Service(SM). Looks like it is a lose-lose situation. If only there was a win-win-win scenario! Where is the outrage, web community?