Commuting in London

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Commuting in big cities can be really troublesome. As someone who has recently moved to London, I find its public transport fun: as long as I am not late or spending hours stuck on the wrong train, I enjoy discovering different parts of town and different transport options. No doubt there would be much more reason for stress if I wasn’t relying on modern technologies – GPS and phone apps that help me plan my journey from start to end point. Now, I have tried several, but found one worth keeping – Citymapper.

Functionality review

Citymapper is an iPhone and Android app that offers a large number of options, all of which have a common ultimate aim: to get you where you want to go. Unlike many other apps, it combines means of transport (buses, bicycles, taxis, etc), showing the shortest, cheapest, driest or most energy-consuming routes from which to choose. It also displays the weather, allows the user to set up the planned arrival time, and notifies of possible disruptions on the relevant lines. Favourite locations and routes can be saved, providing access to the information even when you’re underground (or London below, as some might call it) and have no access to internet.

Information about your neighbourhood, like ‘Boris bike’ docks, bus stops or train stations, is just a tap-of-the-finger away.

What more could you ask for in a commuter app?

Live departure times? Yes, it has them all: buses, trains and the tube. Predicted weekend disruptions? Of course, they are a good topic for a weekend chat with friends. Offline tube and train maps? Yes, there is no danger of getting lost underground. Possibility to report a problem? You never thought, about it, did you? It is one of the important features of a commuter app – it’s what helps it get better over time, and this app has it.

Design review

Apart from green not being my absolute favourite, I have no other objections. They have their own explanation of why green: it’s cool, healthy, natural… and everyone else is using blue. However, it is true that green and blue are calming colours, a very useful property in cases when you’re waiting for a delayed train for more than 30 minutes. The info section is orange – again, not my first choice. But forget the colour, those are personal preferences. There seem to be no faults in the UI/UX design: everything is clean and easy, navigation is intuitive, and icons have obvious meanings, making this app useful even for non-English-speaking travellers.

The unusual thing about this app is a dose a humor used in the design: a ‘take me home’ button should help you in case you get stuck, or drunk, in an unfamiliar part of town; when planning a route, there is always a catapult, jetpack or teleporter option suggested, including the time it will take you if you use that as your commuting choice and a little animation of how it works; and if you send them a good tip, they turn it into a cartoon and share it in the info section!

A special touch is the little man picture, visible only if you ‘overscroll’ to the bottom – it’s actually located under the app, in the empty space that’s not supposed to be scrollable.

Tech review

There is a lot going on behind this app: it needs to display information in real time from several different sources (Transport for London, OpenStreetMaps, Foursquare, Google, Apple, Cyclestreets, and others), so some slowness might be expected. However, it was not slower than other apps of this type. The app uses your phone’s GPS, so you don’t need to position yourself on the start point when setting up a route. To allow live bus tracking and the possibility to notify you on where to get off it, however, the app doesn’t use the GPS chip (according to their own explanation) but rather ‘geofencing’, which uses up less battery.

The app is available for London and NewYork, and the city can be changed within the app. The route algorithms are based on data the developers gather from different sources, and their own drive routing!

You can try the app online on their website:

You may notice that the map used is Google. This is not the case in the iPhone app, which uses Apple’s map. However, until now I haven’t had a problem with it. Yet.

The app gets a 5 star score from me, and a recommendation. Try it, it’s free.

P.S. All screenshots were taken on the web version of the app.

Outsourcing! Near-shore!

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There are several reasons for outsourcing services, including, among others, a lack of expertise within your company in a certain field. However, the main reason companies decide to go off-shore is, of course, money. Many off-shore companies, especially in Asia, are able to provide services for a much lower price than anything you could find in Europe or America, but – as you might expect – here are certain downsides to going for that solution.near-shore-outsourcing

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the outsourcing question, and every company thinking about it should be well aware of the difficulties and problems that may arise in specific cases. If the only requirement is a low price, then, sure, go far east and find the cheapest option. But if the product you need developed is somewhat sensitive to cultural or language barriers, I suggest you explore another option: near-shore outsourcing.

What is near-shore outsourcing

It is often defined as outsourcing to a nearby country, most often a neighbouring country to your own. Some would say that near-shore countries are those that are less than 3.5 hours flight away, or that you mustn’t cross the ocean to stay near-shore. Others would argue that time zones are what limits “near-shoring”. The definitions may vary, and be more or less strict, but the idea remains the same: outsourcing to a country with lower market prices, but without cultural, linguistic or business differences.

What’s good in near-shore outsourcing

Time zones

Have you ever worked with people from a different time zone? If the difference is just an hour or two, working hours are adjustable to the project’s needs. However, if your partners are further, and the difference is more than 3 hours, there may be a problem with the two companies’ working days not coinciding. You will often find that by the time you see results and require changes, the off-shore company’s working day is over. Every time this happens, it potentially sets your project back a full day.

Staying within a reasonable time zone span is good for project efficiency.


Cultural differences are subjective and hard to quantify. As a rule though, they tend to increase with geographical distance. In particular, European countries generally have much more in common with each other than, for example, with cultures in Asia. For that matter, even North America can feel like a different world to Europeans, despite common languages and historical ties. Depending on the kind of project you’re working on this might be quite an important point to think about.


Have you tried learning Chinese or Hindi? Did you find it difficult? I speak 3 languages fluently, and can understand many more – but they are all European. I tried to learn a few sentences in Japanese and could not make out any logic in what I had been told. The grammar and syntax was just too different, not to mention the script. I admire the level of English that people in many Asian countries often learn, but there is frequently still room for misunderstanding and mistakes. Across most of Europe, meanwhile, fluency in English is fast becoming ubiquitous.


Distance works both ways: if it’s easy for you to travel to the country to which you’re outsourcing your project, it is also easier for the managers and developers who are working on your project to come to you in case of need for a meeting.

Often the near-shore company has an onshore representative (in the case of Omnicom, that would be me ;) ), which makes life easier for both parties: face-to-face meetings are known to be much more productive and to give better results than Skype or phone conferences.


Asia has a well-established reputation for providing IT services at competitive prices. These kinds of prices can’t be expected in any of the European countries. However, rapid improvements in wages and working conditions in places like India and China are fast absorbing the difference between Asian and Eastern European rates.

So, the bottom line is…

If you want to lower the cost of your projects while still retaining good control, a high degree of responsiveness in case of changes, and a development team that understands your market, you should be thinking about near-shore outsourcing.

Day-to-day Scrum activities

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In my previous post I wrote a little bit about the basics of Scrum – the agile development framework. I discussed the Roles and the setting up of a Sprint. However, it’s day-to-day activities that contribute the most to the success of a Sprint, and of the entire Scrum, and all parties involved should do their best to keep the pace of work at its maximum throughout the project. To do that, they need to know enough about Scrum and its methods, and it’s the Scrum Master’s job to present the Development Team with all the benefits of agile development and to provide tips and guidance for successful Sprints.

Daily Meeting

Also called the Daily Stand-up meeting or 15-minute meeting, it is the crucial part of every working day. This meeting should be attended by the Scrum Master and the Development Team, and it is strongly encouraged that the Product Owner attends it too, at least for the initial period of a Sprint. The scope of the 15-minute daily meeting is to assess and correct the progression of a Sprint. Each Team Member should answer 3 questions:

  1. What have you achieved yesterday?
  2. What will you finish today?
  3. Are there any blocks or impediments that are slowing you down or stopping your advancement?

A good additional question ishow confident are you that you will achieve what you claim? This question might bring up obstacles that were hidden or not reported because of apparent low importance, but could speed up the development if removed. Remember, the Scrum Master is not there to listen to reports – the Team should talk among themselves, while the Scrum Master should only direct the talk, keep track of impediments, suggest ways of solving them (or take on the responsibility to solve what he can) and limit the chit-chat that might occur. Those 15 minutes should be spent efficiently, so all activities and other work should stop, and all unrelated (or vaguely related) talk should be left for the 16th minute.

It is useful to remember several points that will help everyone get the most out of the Daily Meeting.

  • The Daily Meeting is the most important part of every working day in a Sprint. That’s why it’s usually done in the morning, when the ability to focus and resolve problems is at its best.
  • Starting on time and sticking to the set time frame will underline the importance of the meeting to the whole Team. If someone is late, they won’t attend, and that might have a negative impact on the Team’s work. It’s up to the developers to solve such problems among themselves.
  • Stopping all other activities and standing up (preferably around the task board) will make this Meeting more dynamic and productive.
  • In a Daily Meeting, Team Members should talk to each other. If you’re a Scrum Master, and you notice repetitiveness and dry reports, stop attending. Your mission, as a Scrum Master, is to ensure that all Team members are involved in the meeting. In every Team there is a quiet one, who would rather listen and learn, so their contribution to the Team’s work should be encouraged.
  • It’s important to let the Team make mistakes. We all learn better from our errors, than from our successes.
  • The Scrum Master should focus on trying to detect impediments, offer and discuss solutions. Sometimes the Scrum Master will remove obstacles on his own, other times he will support the Team members in doing so. The long-term goal is to enable the Development Team to overcome impediments in the shortest possible time, and hence improve their productivity.
  • Suggesting a bad solution is not a bad idea – Team members should recognise the challenge and offer a better solution to a problem.


After the initial setup of a Sprint, the main focus should be on identifying and removing impediments.

These can be divided into those that slow progress and those that completely block advancement. To deal with such obstacles more successfully, it’s important to detect them and display them for all to see. If there is a Development Team board, dedicate a corner of it to sticky notes which will represent the most urgent impediments. For easier prioritisation, limit the space/number of impediments displayed.

It is not always easy to spot impediments – Team members might not consider them to be problematic, or they might  just think they can deal with them alone. It is, therefore, crucial that the Scrum Master should actively search for impediments. There are three cases in which the Scrum Master should make an effort to find out more:

  1. If the progress of tasks is stalling for more than a day.
  2. When there are more open tasks then there are Developers.
  3. When no impediments are reported.

The last one does not necessarily mean that there is a problem – it might also mean that you found Utopia. However, in most cases, impediments of low priority will be omitted by Developers during the Daily Meeting, even though their resolution would visibly speed up the Team’s productivity.

To boost confidence of Team members, use the Daily Meeting to mention all resolved impediments. In fact, removing them from the board in front of everyone will have a good effect on both their productivity and their confidence in reporting future problems. If an unresolved impediment arises during the Meeting, put it down on the board, and use the 16th minute to discuss possible solutions.

One of the great ways to improve the quality of the code and success in finding solutions is pair coding. If a sequence of a task is turning out to be more problematic then expected, suggesting pair coding might be the way to go.

Sprint Retrospective

Even though the Sprint Retrospective is not done every day, it plays an important role in the Team’s learning and improvement. At the end of each Sprint, a Review and Retrospective can be carried out. The Review analyses the product, while the Retrospective focuses on the processes of the Sprint.

Despite the ever-present need for efficiency and speed, the Scrum Master must also create the environment for learning – only Teams which learn will thrive, and their productivity will be improved in the longer run.

classic Retrospective is intended to answer two questions related to the recent Sprint:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?

…but can also take into consideration:

  • What did we learn?
  • What still puzzles us?

Anything affecting the Team’s process of coding can be referred to by these questions and discussed. This includes communication, habits, tools, office environment, etc. When it comes to encouraging Team members to share their opinions and ideas, similar tips apply as for the Daily Meeting. However, the Retrospective meeting allows more time, and some might want to use it to detect communication problems within the team. Checking the level of safety that Team members feel (anonymously), with or without management present (i.e. the Product Owner or Scrum Master) can be easily done by asking the Developers to write down whether they think their ideas would be accepted, discussed, rejected or not heard at all, if presented on a meeting. Try to alleviate the consequences of the unease that the Team members are feeling, by dividing the Team into smaller groups or hiring an external facilitator.

Another way of doing the Retrospective is the Timeline Retrospective. By placing sticky notes on a visual timeline, Team members can easily spot the key moments in the Sprint, where a misunderstanding, discussion or disagreement occurred. These are the moments they should be focusing on, to make sure that everyone learned something and the right decision was made.


And, at the end, don’t forget to say “Thank you“. You wouldn’t believe how much these two words can change the mood and relationships within a team.

How about – Scrum?

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Is agile development the right solution for your project?

Sometimes, when you’re dealing with a really big project, you lose all hope that one day it will get done. Even if the project deadline is far away, or if the milestones are all reached in time, the continuous work on the same project can make you lose touch with reality, make you feel dull and repetitive. In these cases, the perfect development method to embrace is Scrum – the agile development framework. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I suggest reading this article – it’s short and sweet, and tells you everything you need to know if you’re a beginner at Scrum.

Scrum was first developed to allow a more flexible approach to changes during the course of a project. If, during the development, the client changes their mind or gets new ideas, this can be handled more easily within an agile framework than within the traditional waterfall software development methodology . That’s what “agile” stands for. However, even when everything goes according to plan from the beginning to the end, Scrum can offer the Development Team the possibility to improve, search for the best ways to solve problems and overcome impediments, and overall, boost their creativity. Another good thing about Scrum is that every two weeks (or however long you set your Sprint to last) you can see results – an increment of the product is produced. This way, there is no feeling of stalling, and the overall atmosphere within the team is much more positive. If applied properly and transparently, Scrum also allows everyone to clearly follow the accuracy of predictions, expectations met and corrections made.

When it comes to implementing it, there are obstacles to overcome . I have been witness to it, and I will try to write down some points that are crucial for the framework to – work. In this post, and the next one, you will read about Roles in Scrum, Sprint Backlog, Daily Meeting and ways to overcome impediments.


Scrum must be implemented properly. Don’t try to have a project manager instead of Scrum Master, or senior and junior programmers and designers. In Scrum, the only recognised roles are: Product Owner, Scrum Master and Development Team. Or, as Master Yoda would say:

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

The Product Owner owns the Scrum Backlog. This means that he defines the product, usually from the point of view of the user. These descriptions are called User Stories. He also decides on the priorities, and prepares User Stories for each individual Sprint. He must be able to present work for 1.25 worth of Sprint – just in case the work goes better than expected. It’s best if the Product Owner attends the daily stand-up meetings: he will easily spot diversions from the desired course or misunderstanding in the Definition of Done, and suggest corrections early on in the Sprint.

The Scrum Master holds the key to facilitating the work of the Team and improving Team efficiency. He does not assign tasks – he assigns a User Story. It’s up to the team to decide how best to go about it. It is important to accept that the role of the Scrum Master is that of a servant leader. He is not there to guide, but to remove impediments, distractions and blockades from Team’s success. The Scrum Master should also practice what he preaches: he needs to make sure everyone in the Team knows what the benefits of Scrum are, and apply them in his everyday actions. If your company is trying to implement the Scrum methodology to a pre-existing project, it’s worth thinking about hiring an experienced Scrum Coach for the Scrum Master position. A Scrum Coach will review the performance of the Team and highlight when there is regression back to the old system.

The Development Team is represented by programmers, designers, testers, and everyone else involved in the project. Scrum doesn’t recognise junior and senior programmers, every member of the Development Team is a developer. Also, even thought that’s not always easy, designers should be part of the Team and not do work separately. The Team must be able to work as a whole – it must be multi-disciplinary, self-sufficient and self-directed. They also must be located in the same room, relatively close together, and obviously separated from other teams and employees. This way, they will be not only allowed, but encouraged to discuss the project, Sprint Backlog, possible solutions, and progress. They should be allowed to post sticky notes and be given a white board to visually present their work and sketch impediments. Other employees should know: the Development Team is allowed and encouraged to be noisy, if that will help them get the job done faster.

Sprint and Sprint Backlog

Sprint is a period of two to four weeks in which an increment of the Product is produced. As I mentioned before, the Product Owner prepares the necessary work for a Sprint (actually, for 1.25 Sprints) and in the Sprint Planning Session the Product Owner, Scrum Master and Development Team discuss it and create the Sprint Backlog. It’s crucial that all members of the Team have a say in the creation of the Sprint Backlog and crystallization of the Definition of Done (the acceptance criteria for User Stories and Product delivery).  I found this article to have very good tips on Sprint Backlog creation.

The Sprint Planning Session should last about 10% of the Sprint time, and it is best if the meeting is time limited – this highly improves the productivity on the meeting and encourages participants to focus on the subject.

When identifying tasks needed to complete a Sprint, it’s important to keep in mind that not all tasks are just coding: some time is spent on research, learning new skills, testing, database imports, etc. Every task should fit in a day. If a task doesn’t, split it into smaller ones. In the article mentioned above I read a tip: not to estimate the time needed to complete tasks. This might be an interesting experiment to undertake, but I am not sure how much I agree with the idea, before trying it. If you have tried it, please leave a comment with your experience.

The Sprint Backlog is allowed to evolve during the course of a Sprint. It’s best if Daily Meetings are used to evaluate and improve the Backlog to give better results. Also, inspection and adaptation should be done seamlessly –  they should not, by any means, interfere with the development, but should be able to review and correct the course if the development, if needed.

There are tools to follow and estimate the success and development of a Sprint. Sprint Burndown Chart is especially designed to show how much more work is left till the end of the Sprint (tasks/time), but also allows estimation of the Sprint’s success. The Sprint is doing fine, when estimates are within 15% tolerance threshold. You can also use Sprint Burndown Charts to forecast future work on the list of products in the Scrum Backlog.

Scrum Burndown Chart should be displayed for all to see. That way improvements will be made within a Team to correct or compensate for a slower period.


If you would like to know more about Scrum, this article has a list of resources that can help you. Or you can bear with us, and read more about the Daily Stand-up Meeting and the ways to overcome impediments in my next post.

Call-to-action: MAKE IT WORK!

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My guess is that you all know the Oatmeal’s “How a web design goes straight to hell” comic. Even if you haven’t read it, you know about the battle of  “designer against client” which often happens, usually at later stages of the design process. The truth is: we all want our design to “pop”, we just have different visions of the way it should be done. The trick of being a successful web designer often is not in a special talent or hard work, but in the ability to understand the client’s needs better than he/she is able to explain them. (Also, being able to present the solution in a way that it will be taken as not just acceptable, but the best.)

What every site needs is a planned funnel that will lead customers towards an action, or several, they should take. This is usually achieved by placing cleverly designed call-to-action buttons in key places of the site. One of the main problems in web design is making call-to-action buttons satisfy the designers need for beauty, the client’s need for prominence, and the site visitors’ (consumers’) hunger. Part of this is the client’s job (like the decision on the priorities and types of action visitors should take), but part lies with the designer, who should improve the effectiveness of CTAs by tweaking their looks and position.

There are several features of the CTA buttons that make them convert better or worse, but no universal solution to what you should do to get the best results. My suggestion is to start with your preferred design, and then experiment with other options in simple A/B testing. What works best for a coffee shop, might not be the ideal solution for a bank. However, having all the points presented in a simple and well-explained list, will make it easier to assess, and get ideas for adjusting and testing your buttons, thus improving your conversion results. Here it is.

1. Position of call-to-action buttons on page

The general rule: put the CTAs in the most prominent location. This can be either in the center of the page, or in a nice big clean space anywhere. Sites, most often, have more than one CTA, therefore prioritising is of great importance, as is combining buttons with primary and secondary actions (e.g. BUY NOW and TRY IT FOR FREE buttons next to each other).

a) Expected locations

Being different is interesting, but sometimes makes it hard to be understood. Being predictable is not such a bad thing, when it comes to websites: if people are used to certain buttons being in certain places, they will search for them there. Take social buttons as an example. Where do you search for them? I usually look in the top right corner. (They are not there on this site, I know, they are in the bottom right corner. And have you clicked on them? NO.)
Think about the place you would look for a certain feature of the site. Then place the feature there.

b) First scroll rule vs. relevancy

I was always taught that everything that is important should be located above the fold. However, times have changed and users’ habits too. There are huge differences in screen sizes and proportions, which makes it impossible to know where the fold is. Also, new site layouts often use scrolling as the main way of navigating through the site. In these cases, each scroll is formatted as a separate page, so your CTA could be located anywhere. My suggestion is: put it where it’s most relevant. If you have a long description of the product, put a BUY NOW button at the end of that text.

c) Repeating

I read somewhere that there are two types of consumers: impulsive buyers and thinkers. Try to address them both by making two CTAs: one on your landing page in a prominent place, and the other one after you allowed the user to explore the options and benefits of the action.

d) Parts of the page that get most attention

Different eye-tracking studies have been performed with similar conclusions: we tend to read the websites in an F-shaped pattern. We start from the top left corner, move to the right (examine the options, menus), then down the left side (probably menus, again, plus a quick check of the titles/subtitles in the text), and then around 1/3 of the height of the page, we move our focus onto the right again. This might (or might not) be useful for positioning your CTAs, but I’ll tell you what certainly is. People seem to focus on faces, if there are any on the page. Furthermore, they focus on whatever the person in the picture is looking at. There’s a trick for you to use to your benefit!

e) Layers of content (z-index) and floating

Calls-to-action are sometimes positioned in such a way that they seem to be above the rest of the site, closer to the site visitor. In some cases, they are the floating elements that keep the position even if you scroll. Both of these features make the CTA-s more prominent.

2. Design of the CTA button

This is the part where breaking norms is encouraged. You usually want to make links on your page visible. What you want even more, is to make your calls-to-action… “pop”. Remember: more and more people have “natural ad-block” – they simply don’t notice the ads on web pages. Therefore, don’t make your button look like an ad!

a) Size matters

Sometimes the buttons are just too small to be noticed by the site user: try making them bigger. However, it’s not always just the simple size – the value of CTA text should follow closely. Read a few points about the copy underneath.

b) Shape

People like pressing buttons that look like buttons. Also, your CTA can easily stand out from the rest of the design by having an unusual shape, or simply curves on a site design dominated by squares.

 c) Movement and dynamics

There is no need for  the button to blink or jump, but a simple hover action is always a good sign that something is happening.

d) Colour

Studies have been conducted to make a link between colours and psychological reaction of consumersI’ve stumbled across an article related to USA studies, but different colours have different meanings depending on the culture, hence there is no general rule. However, it’s important to pick a colour that’s in high contrast to the background, and not often repeated on the web page. Specialists also suggest that warm colours (red, orange) have better effect than cold ones (blue, gray), but that’s upto you to find out with trial and error. Keep in mind that colourblindness affects a significant percentage of the world population, especially when placing your red button on a green surface.

3. How to put emphasis on CTA

There are many ways of getting people to look at a certain element on the site. One of the tricks was mentioned above, with the faces in the pictures actually looking at your button. Or you could put big red flashing arrows pointing at it from all sides. But, don’t do that.

a) White space (dead space)

Make enough room for the button to “breathe”. The further away it is from the rest of the content, the better the chances of getting noticed. Also, make sure that it is close enough to the explanation of the action, for the logical connection between the two.

b) Overkill-to-action

Don’t stuff your site with CTA buttons. Prioritising is the first step to a clear and frictionless path for site visitors to follow. If at every step of their way through the site they get offered several more actions to make, they might start many but finish none.

4. Call-to-action’s copy is crucial

The copy should state in a few words exactly what action is expected from the user. Make sure that there are no typing or grammar mistakes. Would you give your pesronal data to a site that can’t spell personal right? Trustworthiness is built with two tools: user friendly design, and good, reassuring copy.
Check out this article listing 31 case studies – you might get a few A/B testing ideas of your own. One of the conclusions was a significant increase in conversion with a change of just one word: from OPEN YOUR ACCOUNT to OPEN MY ACCOUNT.
Here are a few general rules related to call-to-action’s copy.

a) Use verbs.

If your CTA doesn’t contain verbs, it’s not a call-to-action: it’s just a button. Start with verbs, expand and make it clear what the visitor should do.

b) Wording closer to the consumer/client

Often companies and clients use different expressions for the same things. In a bank, you will never hear “open an account”, but “apply for an account”. It is important that the copy of the CTA addresses the target group in their own language.

c) Urgent or casual

You will often see buttons that are ordering visitors to do something straight away, or they’ll miss the chance of their life. Creating the sense of urgency can work well in many cases, but be careful not to overdo it: you might scare visitors off. On the other hand, sometimes the action offered to the visitor is a low commitment action: leaving a comment, reading more about the product, getting a quote. In these cases, copy on the button can be softer and not imperative.

d) Benefits

…or “what’s in it for me?”
This is maybe the most important part of creating successful converting CTAs. Visitors/clients/potential customers will NOT click on your CTA, unless you offer them a good deal. Make sure that what you offer is stated big and clear. It might be just a single word added to the usual copy (writing DOWNLOAD FREE PDF instead of DOWNLOAD PDF might make a difference), or maybe you’ll need a whole sentence. In some cases, this part will be written somewhere on the side, under or above the button. Wherever it’s located, it has to have an obvious connection to the button and be a straight and direct statement of what the visitor gains by clicking.


That’s roughly it. The important thing is to do your own research and testing. Not all sites give the same results.  If you’re looking for a free testing ground, you can find support for conversion experiments in Google Analytics. Also, make sure that call-to-action buttons always lead to a well-designed and formatted page, that your forms don’t contain mistakes and that you don’t bother the client/customer by asking too many irrelevant questions. Conversion is not just about clicking on the CTA, it’s about going all the way through the predefined funnel.

I will write about conversion forms on some later occasion.
All the best in your CTA designing and testing!

Shades of grey in CMS: open source vs proprietary

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Website is to be modern – CMS is for life.

Well, not really for life; who knows what technologies the future brings? But the truth is: once you have a good, stable, secure and user friendly Content Management System, you can easily redesign the site several times to follow current trends, while keeping the back-end unchanged, or slightly altered. When you put it like that, it’s easy to conclude that a good CMS is a worthy investment. But, do you really need to pay for it?

Having worked for 7 years in Omnicom, whose proprietary CMS, Omnicom Content Platform (OCP), plays a very important role in its business model, I should write a strongly opinionated article about how good proprietary software is. However, not everything is as black or white as some people might want you to think. The articles and blog posts that I stumbled across in my little research, often held one side without even dignifying the other of a proper analysis. Even worse, they often stated bad characteristics of either open source or proprietary software that are not or are just partly true. Misinformation on the internet travels fast.

So, what are these shades of grey that both open source and proprietary CMS have?

First of all, I don’t understand the talk about “open source” or “proprietary” in general, with no distinction between good or bad programming, UI design, and many other factors. It is not possible to just make two baskets and mark them “open source” and “proprietary”, and then choose the better one. I could, on the other hand, analyse all, find the best of both worlds, and state my preferences. Unfortunately, we are just short-lived humans and could not, if we tried, manage to test all the solutions that currently exist on the market. This is the reason I will talk about what I know and have used. Until now, I have extensively used: Joomla, WordPress and Textpattern (in the OS sector), and OCP, Sitecore and Microsoft Sharepoint Portal (among the proprietary).

Open source CMS: “Why should I pay if it is free?”

Open source Content Management Systems (or OS software, for that matter) are freely available on the internet for everyone to see the source code and join in the development. Their programming is done mostly by enthusiasts, experts or hobbyists, who want to make this world a better place. Or who are building up their own CV and experience. Either case, these people put a lot of effort into something that is not paid, but instead of thanking them, many fans of proprietary software would point at that as the main fault: “would you trust someone to do a good job if they are not paid for it?”. I would. There is, usually, a body, company, organisation, in charge of unifying this work and making the whole thing work. Also, would you do a better job if you knew that your code will be subject to potential criticism from fellow developers from around the world, or if you just needed to make it work in the shortest possible time and then hide the code from curious eyes?

The usual argument against open source CMS is security. If everyone can see the code, that surely means that everyone can find the holes in its security. The good side of it is that there are probably as many people (if not more) working on fixing these holes, as there are people trying to exploit them. This proportion usually favours the exploiting side in cases of proprietary CMS, even though peeking into the code there is much more difficult.

Now we come to the part everyone likes: open source CMS is free. Yes, it is, in its simplest form. Any of the ones that I mentioned above could be downloaded from the internet and installed on a server without additional costs, apart from the hosting itself. Many hosts even offer a ready-to-go installation of WordPress or Joomla. But that’s not all you need.

Who will do your design? What functionality will your site need? Who will do the maintenance and regular updating of the software? Even if you plan on doing all the work in-house, there is still a question of whether that is really “free”, or could that time be better spent working for clients.

When it comes to development of complex websites, it might just be possible to finish everything with free plugins for open source CMS-s. However, you have to be aware of a few downsides of that approach:

  • Plugins come and go. You can easily end up not having support for the plugin you need. Or it can stop working with new versions of the CMS. It can become commercial or you will find out that it’s commercial just for what you need, while free for basic usage.
  • If your site needs many plugins, they will, eventually, start making problems to each other. They can also become very heavy, and slow down the site altogether. That’s bad for the end user experience, and for that reason Google has starting paying a lot of attention to site loading speed. Here’s how it goes: if you made a plugin that does what you want, it would contain a short code that does exactly that. If, on the other hand, you download a pre-made plugin that can be customized to do what you want, be aware that there is a big chunk of unused code in it, which allows it to be customized to other people’s needs too. Multiply that by the number of installed plugins, and you’ll see that it’s a lot of unnecessary weight that can get damage your site’s ranking in search results.

It’s often a better choice to pay for the right plugin or to someone to develop the perfect plugin for you, then to have a long term consequence for trying to save money in the short term.

Bear in mind that free Content Management Systems are often more user friendly for day-to-day site updating, but there is less support in case of particular problems that may arise in the course of using it. In fact: the whole world is your support, but you are no-one’s priority. There are companies that offer support for open source software for a charge, and if you choose open source – that might be the way to go.

However, among the CMS-s I’ve tried, I found that WordPress is the most versatile, most complete and most user friendly. Some programmers might hate it, some might like it, but no-one can deny that it’s currently taking over the free CMS-s world. Some smaller ones have disappeared, but I can’t see that happening to WordPress any time soon.

Proprietary CMS: do you always get what you pay for?

In an ideal world: yes. In real life: you should carefully choose your partners and do a good research of their references and experience. Many Content Management Systems were developed and then abandoned by their creators, leaving the clients dissatisfied and with no other solution but to invest in their web presentation once more.

The good thing about a CMS developed especially for your needs and according to your specifications is that you get a turnkey product. You will never hire a company to develop a CMS, unless you want website development too. It most often goes together with web design, so you don’t need to think of that as a separate cost. When it comes to maintenance and updating, they depend on the contract you have with your web development company. However, no company can deny bug fixing in the shortest possible time and for no charge at all, which you will rarely (or more likely: never) get from developers around the world who supplied you with free solutions. If you happen to have a problem, it’s always reassuring to know who to blame.

You will also, in most cases, be trained in using the software after the development is finished, if you will be the one updating your own site. This is not the case with free or open source solutions.

People often state that “mobility” or more accurately possibility to change the web development company while keeping the same CMS is doable with open source, while usually impossible with proprietary. This is not strictly true. Try taking a code made by one programmer to another programmer in the same company. They would surely have many comments and changes, and, if the two are on good terms, will probably try not to be rude about the code they are looking at. That’s just within a company. If you tried to get your site, developed by company X, updated by Y, you will probably be offered to have the entire site redone, whichever CMS it was on in the beginning.

According to what I’ve seen until now, there seems to be no good open source solution for big multi-lingual sites. This is especially true in cases where the big company wishes to have the same design throughout the world, but wants to have different companies in different countries as web administrators. These companies, then, need full permissions for site administration, but only for their own country version.

These are just my thoughts and experiences. If you happen to have different opinions, join the debate in comments.

P.S. Depending on your site’s needs, Omnicom can offer you a web solution on either our proprietary Omnicom Content Platform (OCP) or on an open source CMS (WordPress or Joomla).

0 reasons not to care about SEO

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Of course there are 0 reasons. If you are using the internet to write just for yourself, then you might as well just save a file on your computer. Believe me: if you don’t optimise your site for search engines, it will be seen by few more people than if it was locally stored on your machine. I know it, I’ve tried. So whether you’re an artist trying to reach out, small or big business looking for customers, or freelancer presenting your portfolio, don’t waste your time and money for a web presentation if you don’t intend to do it right.

What is SEO?

I guess all of you know the answer to this question. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and represents all the efforts you put into making your site rank higher in search engine results. Since Google’s market share is 90% worldwide (source), it’s natural to think “Google” whenever a search engine is mentioned. Search engines keep their algorithms secret, but they do give away tips from time to time. That’s how SEO became both science and profession.

In the beginning…

…there was a web page. Then, suddenly, there were many, and people started looking for the one containing the info they needed. Trying to classify the content in the most democratic way, where the people themselves decide which pages were more useful to them, Google’s founders wrote the algorithm that takes two parameters in account: page title and link popularity (source). This meant that for the same page title, the page which had more other sites linking to it (and more popular sites, for that matter) would win the search result ranking game.

The SEO hats

I mentioned that search engines do their best to keep their algorithms secret, and for a good reason. The moment a certain aspect of the algorithm leaks into public, new ways of exploiting it start being made. What do you think happened with the simple link popularity method? It seemed like a very good method that would take human interests into account, and therefore return the best results for a certain topic. However, some people realised that if they exchanged links even without a good reason, their ranks got higher. A whole network of blog groups, forums and link building sites was created and started taking over the first pages of every search. These are called link schemes. It was then that Google began selecting and filtering good and bad practices: use and misuse of search engine optimisation. The terms previously used for hackers now started describing SEO techniques: white hat SEO, black hat SEO and grey hat SEO. As long as you’re doing everything to rules, you’re under a white hat. If you’re using black hat techniques (that Google specifically told you not to), you’re likely to get penalised and blacklisted from Google ranking for unethical SEO. But many people just prefer to live on the edge, and to use questionable methods that were never mentioned to be bad, as such, by search engine giants. Many of these people call themselves experts, and offer to get your site “to the first page of Google” in no time at all, but their grey hat methods might do your ranking more damage in the long term. This is especially true since Google (and other search engines too) is constantly improving it’s algorithms to fight exactly this behaviour, and will penalise you with no warning when the time comes.

Penguin and Panda

Two important updates to Google algorithms were applied since 2011.

The first one was Panda, which aimed to improve the ranking of high quality websites. It actually took into account the loading speed, design, trustworthiness and user satisfaction (measured by whether or not they are likely to return to the site): i.e. the overall quality of the website. The AI was in charge of comparing the sites for which data was available to other sites on the web, and presenting the search results accordingly. Many mistakes were spotted at first (e.g. scrapers getting better rankings than originals), but Google improved the algorithm several times since then, and it is doing its job very well now.

The second important recent update of Google’s algorithm was Penguin. It was designed to penalise the use of black hat SEO techniques, like keyword stuffing, duplicate content and many others. Google keeps the updates to Penguin publicly available, to make it clear what kind of behaviour is not acceptable.

Enough talk, let’s do business

Ok, I am done with the history and introduction. You’re probably here because you’re interested in how to improve your site’s search engine ranking. I will give you a few pieces of advice, and I am sure you will be able to find many more on the web. Even though I am working in an IT company, I prefer a more human approach to SEO. That means that you are optimising your site’s content for the visitor, and just tweaking it up with technical knowledge and programming, to allow search engines to “understand” your site like a user would. If your article is about dogs, you can’t trick search engines that it talks about cats, but you can easily make the mistake of omitting the word “dogs” in the key places in your HTML structure, and get a very low ranking in a search for “dogs”.

There are two very important things to bear in mind when planning your SEO work and budget:

1. SEO is a continuous process, not a one time job

You will see later, when I start listing specific points and techniques, that many of them require constant work. You can plan to do them on your own, and thus save money, or to pay someone to do it, and save time. Your choice. Be aware that saving both money and time is very unlikely.

2. SEO requires patience

If you are doing everything right, you will see the results. The results will often come incredibly slowly, and you will be disappointed and ready to give up. But they will come. A solid SEO strategy is based on technical optimisation and optimisation of the content, with a high influence of the social factor. How does one become popular in the neighbourhood? If it is not for bad deeds or crazy behaviour – very slowly. And that’s just the neighbourhood we’re talking about. The web is much bigger than that.

And now, to the point: SEO strategy

1. Page title: very important. Wisely choose the words that will represent your article. The same title comes up in search results, so you clearly want it to be catchy for the visitor, while highly relevant to the topic on the page. Keep in mind that it’s a big world out there. Most probably, there are many websites that write about the same things as you. Do a little research about search terms and detect the relevant “longtail” keywords that are often searched, but have fewer results. That way, you will have less competition for the specific term, will get better ranking for it and get to a smaller fraction of the audience (but that will more likely turn into leads, fans, customers, whatever you’re aiming for).

2. Meta description: if you don’t type it in, Google will take the text it wants from your page, and you might not want that. Apart from being an important factor in ranking, it also often decides whether a search engine user will become your site’s visitor or not. Be careful of the grammar and typos: would you read an article written by someone who can’t even get the description right?

3. Meta keywords: not so important. Many search engine companies announced a long time ago that they are not taking into account meta keywords any more. However, some still do, and since you’re defining your page’s keywords anyway while creating quality content, relevant title and description, you might as well just type them in the appropriate meta field.

4. Design: very important. It is not only the visual identity and colours of the site that appeal to the user, it is also the usability, readability, menu hierarchy, text formatting, and much more than that. By making a responsive site, rather then a mobile and web version (the percentage of smart-phone users is not negligible any more), you will have one, rather then two URLs for the same content – which is highly advisable by search engines, and in many cases good for visitors too.

5. Content: crucial! If you want long term success, then creating great content, often, is the way to go. Get familiar with advice about keyword density and positioning, about the formatting and correct use of headers, about alternate texts and titles for pictures… There is some good advice in this article, but I would say that it is impossible to write for search engines and make it “sound natural”. My preferred way is to write for people, and then tweak for search engines in the end. Regular website updating, regular blog posting and responding to comments is a good way to keep visitors coming, and keep search engine bots crawling more often.

6. Google Webmaster Tools: they are your friends. Register your site, research the options, submit a sitemap and follow instructions. You can’t go wrong with that.

7. Link building: highly important but very delicate. Create profiles on social media – that’s a minor addition to your ranking, but it still is an addition. Share your content to get to wider public. If your content is good, people will re-share it. If it gets to the right people, it will be linked from other sites and blogs. Be careful when guest-blogging and exchanging links: you might get penalised for artificial link building or for blogging on irrelevant websites (source).

That’s it. But why ask me? Ask all the people writing articles that are much better ranked than mine.

Predicting SEO industry trends for 2014

Not me, I would not dare. I recently read this article and it all made sense. If you’re not in the mood for reading it after this lengthy post of mine, let me just outline the most interesting points.

“Author authority matters”

Google has already started with “Google Authorship” tool. All the posts on a personal and corporate blog, and all the guest blog-posts will be linked to the author’s name, if the author registers his account in Google Authorship. That means that it will be easy to check what the main subjects are and what the author is qualified to talk about.

“Mobile performance and compatibility matter”

Mobile versions or responsive design are becoming the new minimum threshold. Besides, site speed will also have a bigger impact on site ranking algorithms.

“Diversifying link text is ongoing”

Google has found a way to identify active link building, by assessing their optimisation. If anchor text was optimal and identical in more than 30% of the cases… you have surely been active.

I would gladly write more about the topic, but I suppose that very few of you who came to this point think that something might have been left unsaid. If you have something to add, feel free! Comments are welcome.

Design: pictures vs words

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When you think about design, you think about pictures. You plan positions, shapes and colours for the best possible effect. You plan fonts and spacing for the best readability. And then you leave the words to someone else.

Among many communities and social networks that I use, there are two sites that I would like to write to you about. Both very minimalist, both very well designed. But in their core, so different.


A pin-board of pictures, Pinterest allows you to make your own themed collection of pictures, browse through other users’ collections and pin and like their pictures. Using a very simple fluid-grid design and JavaScript code that calculates and repositions pictures on screen, Pinterest looks its best on every device. Besides, apps for both iPhone and iPad have been developed soon after site launch.

It’s focus is on the ease-of-using: just one click and you’ve started. Whether used for business or private purposes, Pinterest is a good place to gather ideas, display your work, or just pass time. Many people have found their interest there: it was one of the fastest growing networks of all time. The site has about 70 million users worldwide.

What’s so great about it?

Simplicity. What you see on your screen is no more than pictures with captions. That’s exactly why more and more sites look like Pinterest. If your business is selling images – perfect design. If your business is displaying random or newest information to the visitor – works quite well. You have a web shop – why not? After all, jQuery plug-ins that will help you make your site look very similar, are freely available online.

But is it all about pictures?

I read this article recently and it made me think. Have we lost sense of what is important? Are we trying to make up for the nonsense we are writing on our websites by wrapping it in nice colours and patterns? That’s why discovering Medium was a revelation.


From their own description: “Medium is a beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else.”

With a surprisingly minimalist design, and very low (almost none) possibility of customisation, Medium displays stories written by its users, edited by its users and commented on by its users. The designer found a perfect solution to commenting: an unintrusive option to leave a comment on any line or any word of the text. Comments appear on the side, easily readable by site visitors. Similar to Pinterest, Medium allows you to place what you see into collections.

What is quite different about Medium, compared to other blogging platforms, is a simplified text editor. It really encourages you to focus on words, rather then looks of the text.

Medium is displayed nicely on all screens, but there is not yet support for writing on mobile devices.

I can’t find data about the growth of Medium community, and I know it’s a young site (launched about a year ago), but I can imagine that its user base will not expand nearly as quickly as that of Pinterest.

The truth is: pictures are faster. In the fast world we live in, fewer people have time and/or attention span to focus and read an article from the beginning to the end. It can a beautiful article, or a useful one, or maybe something funny, but many people will give up if there is more than two mouse scrolls of text. That’s why even Medium, a platform made exclusively for reading and writing, displays estimated reading time for each article together with its excerpt in the list.

That’s roughly it. When making websites for clients, we advise them not to make their copy too long, and to break paragraphs with pictures to keep the visitor engaged. Of course, we never tell them: “Try to write a beautiful story. Keep your site visitors interested.” We take that as given – if they are on your site, they are surely interested in what you have to say.

Few people actually focus on words as one of the big elements of design. I’ll finish with the quote from the article I mentioned earlier.

At its heart, web design should be about words. Words don’t come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.

Start with words.

Native, HTML5 or hybrid apps?

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In my previous post, I mentioned the necessity of mobile presence. No company can afford to limit their presentation compatibility to personal computers, when the use of tablets and smartphones is growing so fast that in no time it will overtake PC usage. If you can’t see profit in it yet, look at it from the user’s point of view: I want to get information wherever I am; if it is displayed in a non-mobile manner then I might search for alternatives – you lost me as a visitor/customer/fan. (A similar thing in different situation happens every time I want to buy something online and the only method of payment is via PayPal…)

We all agree that mobile is not the future, but the present, right? But do you know what kind of mobile application you need? In this text, I’ll sum up all the pros and cons of each of them: native, HTML5 and hybrid apps.

Native apps

Each mobile operating system has its own platform for making apps. The main ones are, of course, Android and iOS, but Windows mobile is doing it’s best to catch up. These three are not the only ones. When you’re calculating the budget for development, keep in mind that developing for different platforms is not just copy/pasting. The coding starts from zero each time, the development needs different software, and performance testing and debugging is done on different devices. Most likely, apps for different platforms will be developed by different teams.

Looking just at the cost of production, it might seem that there are no advantages to making an app native. However, the performance of such an app is much better than that of HTML5 or hybrid, and it’s UI is often more sophisticated and user friendly. Native apps can use the full potential of the phone you have, and have stronger security features. For this reason, many companies have recently switched to native, including LinkedIn. Even though their development is more expensive, and the process of approval on different app stores is often lengthy, once they are approved they can be a certain source of profit (or at least return of investment). It is much easier to make a native app commercial.

Still, you will have to know the market shares before deciding on the platforms for which your app will be developed. No doubt Android and iOS are a must, but do you or do you not decide to develop for Windows, Blackberry, Symbian or others? This is exactly what Nokia’s vice president, Bryan Biniak, talked about in his recent interview for IB Times: the lack of apps makes users choose another platform, but the lack of users makes companies choose not to develop apps for that platform.

HTML5 apps

Easy to develop as an addition to a website, these apps are favourites of many web developers. HTML5 technology is free and developed by a global non-profit consortium, W3C. The combination with JavaScript is enough to make an app look and feel close to a native one. Apps developed in HTML5 use the phone’s browser to display, which means that there is little room for non-compatibility with different phones. Of course, there is always the problem of inter-compatibility within browsers, but most of the main ones support the vast majority of HTML5 features.

Since the code is developed only once and then reused, this is the least expensive option. Also, the app will look the same on all devices, with no differences related to development platform.

Even though apps’ icons can be placed on your screen, these apps are not usable without internet access. That is also the reason why their updates don’t need to be installed separately, but are already available when the app is opened. Since they are not developed specifically for a certain device, HTML5 apps can’t use all of your phone’s features, and therefore their UI is slightly inferior to native apps.

Hybrid apps

Hybrid apps are HTML5 apps wrapped in a “container” to make them feel “more native”. This allows them to be distributed and sold through app stores, while still keeping the development costs reasonable. Online services like PhoneGapTitanium SDK and others, allow this to be performed without additional budget.

The apps run slower than native, but for simple apps this does not make much difference in user experience. PhoneGap bridges the gap between web based applications and different native apps.

Many companies choose to develop a native app only for one platform, while making hybrid apps for all others.

Mobile web

Now that you know the pros and cons of each of these types of apps, it will be easy for you to decide what the best option for your company (or your client) is. However, bear in mind that native and hybrid apps exist only in app stores. They are inaccessible via search engines, and are therefore not a good solution for companies who still need to be discovered and popularised. HTML5 apps can be directly linked to your website.

Even though smartphone users prefer apps to browsers, consider having a mobile version of your site first, so you can assess the number of visitors with smartphones before starting to think about mobile applications.

And when you decide, get in touch with us. We can do it for you.

How mobile are we?

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“Mobility means more than just staying connected; it means staying fully informed.”

John Chaney

We live fast. We work fast. Always and everywhere.

Mobile phones are not just devices used to phone a family member to help you get the shopping out of the car any more. They are our pagers, phones, computers, calendars, music players, cameras. We have them with us at all times and rely on them even in the most important situations of our lives.

Do you do work on your phone?

How much work you can do on your mobile device depends mainly on the type of work you do, but also of your affinities and the type of phone you have. Whether you will use your phone for basic purposes, such as communicating with clients even when you’re out of office, or you will go as far as to use it to update your website or product database, is just a matter of choice. And speed of living.

Smartphones have become a standard. About 50% of the UK population uses smartphones.

But as much as they help us make the most of our office hours, they often present a solid barrier to getting anything done.

I once attended a life-hacker lecture/workshop where we were talking about things that could help you improve productivity. Most people who joined in the discussion agreed that turning off email notifications helps them concentrate and finish difficult tasks more easily. I was among the few who begged to differ: not only would I never turn off email notifications on my computer, but I would never go back to the time before push notifications on my phone! Reassessing the priorities and changing the schedule as I go is one of the main components of my working day. That’s what being responsive is all about.

Recently, Facebook sponsored research on smartphone usage, and some of the results are slightly surprising.

Even though smartphones help us feel (and be) connected, most of the communication (84%) is done via text messages, email and social networks, while just 16% is represented by phone calls. Nearly 80% of all users reach for their phone as soon as they wake up.

The 10 most used apps are:

  1. Email (78%)
  2. Web browsing (73%)
  3. Facebook (70%)
  4. Maps/directions (64%)
  5. Games (60%)
  6. General search (57%)
  7. Share/post photos (53%)
  8. Read news, sports (46%)
  9. Local search (44%)
  10. Watch TV/video (37%)

The research was done in the US, with an online survey involving more than 7000 people. Being Facebook-sponsored, it is mostly focused on leisure and usage of smartphones for social activities. However, the percentage of users who are browsing the web on their phones is far from negligible.

That means that there are no more excuses. Your web presence has to be adapted for every device. Whether you have a web shop, a small or big company, news website or blog, there is no excuse for not making it responsive, like everything nowadays should be.

Keep in mind that the most powerful app on your phone is most likely the browser. Many smartphone apps use it as engine. Knowing that, it’s up to you to decide whether an app (and therefore additional investment) for your business is necessary, or whether a well-designed responsive website will do the job.

Next time I’ll give you a few points of advice on how to make your site touch-screen friendly. It is easy. Just bear with us.