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Thursday, February 25, 2010


Just in time for this web mailer, my latest website has gone live: is a classical example for a simple html/css based business web site, with some PHP interactivity thrown in, in the shape of a contact form to obtain a quote.

Top Notch Construction is based in Eastbourne, just out of Wellington. They design and build quality residential homes, do shop fitouts, landscaping, alterations and additions, and they also offer project management for larger building sites. They're a small boutique business focused on offering quality, and the website aims to reflect that.

This project has been in the making for quite a little while. The first version of the website went online nearly a year ago, but there was still some information missing. I think for while, being busy, the website just moved way down their priorities list.

Just after Christmas Thomas, one of the business owners, contacted me again, we got together for a quick chat to make sure we were all on the same page, he supplied the information that had still been missing, and a few weeks later the site is now complete in all its new and shiny glory.

The design idea is quite simple and obvious, really. The logo and images were provided by the client, and I based my design around them. The brick wall navigation bar was quite a bit of a fiddle to write in css, but turned out neat in the end I think. The page navigation and sections are really quite straightforward - I made a couple of suggestions regarding navigability and SEO, which they were quite happy with, and I also planned and designed their contact form. Mostly this job has been pretty smooth sailing. :knocks on wood: In the end they also decided that I should sort out their web hosting as well.

Here's what Thomas had to say about it: "Looking great. Love the form! Has turned out really well. Awesome thanks Astrid is looking really good and am stoked with how have laid out the opening page."

Today, I had a call from a potential new client to whom they have recommended me. Yeah, just had to boast a bit. :-)

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Introduction to Web Technologies: part 4

One of the most basic interactive technologies on websites are forms. As in, forms that a user can fill in and submit. These can be as simple as submitting an email enquiry - forms are preferable to an email link, because they will protect your email address from robots who farm them for nefarious use. Or they can be as complex as a full fledged market research survey. Popular uses, in a business context, are enquiry forms that prompt your prospective customer to enter some of the information you need to know about their project, or forms that return an instant quote, based on the information the customer enters.

There are various ways to set up forms, but again, PHP is now widely used for them. The code allows various functionality, such as sending an email to your address, entering customer information directly into your database, spam filters, controls that make sure all required fields are filled in, and sticky fields that remember what the customer has previously entered, even if there was an error submitting the form.

Form fields can be simple text fields that your visitors can type into, they can be radio buttons that allow them to choose one of several options, drop down menus, or multiple choise buttons that allow more than one choice.

When designing a form, it pays to take care not to overwhelm your visitors with forms that are too long, or questions that are too complex. A well designed form can save you a lot of work extracting information from your client in order to come up with an accurate quote, or gathering feedback, or even automating things like subscriptions to your mailing lists and newsletters.

They can also save your prospective customers time, by being able to check availabilities and prices online - and even streamline them directly into your online shop, as you can see on most airline or hotel booking sites.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design :: ::

Thursday, February 4, 2010

An Introduction to Web Technologies - part 3

In my blog post on 11 November, I introduced the web coding language PHP, and some of the things it is used for. Today I will look a little more closely at one of the most important applications of PHP coding: Login systems, sessions, and cookies (yum).

PHP does not only pull information *from* a database - for instance, to automate the building of product catalogues or image galleries - it also allows you to store user input *into* your database. One of the most common applications of this are page registration systems, or login systems.

Surely you have come across sites that ask you to register with a username and password. Most commonly, you will also be asked for a valid email address, and perhaps some other information such as age, gender, place of residence, occupation, etc. etc. Often, the site, or certain sections on the site, can only be accessed after user registration. Even more commonly, users can only leave feedback - on message boards, forums or blogs - after they have registered and logged in to the site.

As well as providing a measure of security and protection from spam robots, from the site owner's point of view, collecting this information is an easy and efficient way to do market research. It helps to build a database of people who are potentially interested in what the site owner has to offer. If people are interested enough in accessing the information on your site, to take the time to register themselves, then perhaps they will also be interested in receiving, say, a newsletter - and in eventually buying from you. Of course, anti spam legislation has to be respected: often the site registration form will give users the ability to opt in or out of receiving emails or additional information in the future.

A more advanced use of this technology is to provide users with personalized information. This can be very simple - for instance, greeting people by their name when they log in. An application of this I am working on at the moment, is to offer one of my clients the ability to provide their clients with personalized updates about their building projects. Instead of being sent an update by email each week, the idea is that clients will be able to log into the site and check on their project's progress at any time.

Some of these applications can be quite complex. Amazon's customer recommendations are an example of that - the site will recommend books based on what you have previously bought there, as well as on what other customers who have ordered the same items have also bought.

The time between an user logging into a site, and logging out again, is called a session. For the duration of the session, the site remembers who the user is and what previous information they have entered. This is usually achieved with a little piece of code, called a "cookie", which is stored on the user's computer. A cookie permanently stored on the user's computer enables a website to recognize a previously registered user, the next time they log in. Cookies can also be used to track user's browsing habits - Amazon's recommendations would not be possible without this tracking.

Most cookies are quite harmless, and are really only there to streamline your online experience and make everything go smooth. Tracking cookies, in particular, can be used for malicious ends though - be wary of accepting cookies from sites that look a bit dodgy!

Besides, the idea that someone might be able to track every website that an individual person clicks on does not sit comfortably with many people, including myself. And that's not because I visit a lot of porn sites, but simply because I am wary of the uses this can potentially be put to by, say, governments, or other institutions of power.

Even Amazon's elaborate recommendation system tends to leave a stale taste in my mouth. I prefer to make my buying choices myself. Not to mention, that they are usually completely off. Being presented with a selection of cooking and knitting magazines, on account of the information I have volunteered about my age and gender, does not sit well with this web and multimedia designer!

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::