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<The Vision Thing>
By Daniel Will-Harris

February 15, 1999 - If you’re a regular reader of this column, you might have been wondering where I’ve been. For the past year and a half, I’ve written two columns a month for the Wire, but I didn’t write any in December and here it is the beginning of February and I’m only now writing another one. So I need to make up for lost time, and let you know what’s been going on, and, in the process, hopefully help you learn what goes on behind the scenes of a complex new site.

fuse-wireSince August I’ve been creating a new site called eFuse. I did this to solve a basic problem: Everyone and their dog needs to build a web site these days. But even with the best software there’s all sorts of stuff a mammal has to understand before it can create a truly useful site. Finding accurate and reliable info on the web today can be difficult, and when you do find it, it’s usually so technical it can make your head explode.

I wanted a solution, so I created www.eFuse.com, the friendly place to learn how to build a better web site (so the world will beat a path to your home page). eFuse offers information, inspiration and assistance, written in plain English, by professional writers and designers (such as myself, Roger Parker, Lynda Weinman, Gary Priester, Gary David Bouton and that ever popular “many more”), so it’s easy to understand and use.

Other sites are for technology professionals. eFuse.com is for professionals who use technology.

efuse-home 

eFuse is about providing solutions to people’s most common web-site problems. One reader wrote: “It seems as though you've figured out the major mistakes people make, and then written information that helps them overcome or avoid those mistakes.” That's exactly what we try to do.

>Behind the screens

I created this site for two reasons: first, I’d been wanting to write a book about creating better web sites (there’s an awful lot of misinformation out there, and it annoys me to read it!). The problem was that I always use the technology I write about (I wrote the first book about DTP on the PC in 1986, and did it using DTP technology), so I knew it really had to be a web site, not a book.

I’ve been a fan of NetObjects software since version 1.0 when I was one of the first reviewers for c|net.com and I wrote the first review of NetObjects Fusion. If you’ve read my previous columns, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Fusion; I think it’s the best web authoring program on the market, and it’s what I use myself for all my design work, and this site, too.

I regularly send a lot of comments and suggestions to NetObjects (and other software companies) about how I think they can improve their products. I suggest that you do the same with any program you like—because while no company will take all your suggestions, good software companies pay close attention to what their customers ask for, so your comments count.

Well, one day someone from NetObjects called me and asked me to go to lunch. I’m a sucker for lunch, especially at the Ritz Carlton Terrace in San Francisco, arguably the best restaurant (and the best kept secret—don’t tell anyone!) in town.

>It started over crab cakes

Anyway, I went to lunch armed with a lot of ideas for what I thought should be on the web, and how I thought NetObjects could help the web community in general, as well as their customers and potential customers in particular. I didn’t do this fishing for a job, I did this because I like doing this. Sometimes I think of myself as a kind of techno-bee, bringing ideas and people and companies together.

I ordered the crab cakes, because they make incredible crab cakes and because while I feel bad about eating crabs (I classify them as “cute animals”), they taste really good, so I eat them anyway.

The VP of products asked me what I could do, personally. And my answer was simple: I said I wanted to build a site about building better sites. It would be a site that helped anyone wanting to build a web site, NetObjects customers, potential customers, and even people who used other products, because no matter what software you use, there are still a lot of things you need to know to build an effective web site.

The site would also subtly help non-NetObjects customers learn about Fusion, why it's not just different but really better, and then possibly buy it. You may think it’s odd that I think it’s important for people to buy and use the “best” product, but I really do think it’s important, even when I have no financial stake in it. My real bottom line is helping people communicate more effectively, and if they use a better program, like NetObjects Fusion (and CorelXara), they can communicate more easily and effectively.

>Go ahead, make my site

So they gave me the go ahead. They said, “Do what you think is best,” which is a remarkable thing for a big company to do, and I did it.

The first step was to distill my ideas into a simple statement. I created a paragraph about the problem:

    Sites about building sites are too technical (and often had misinformation).

Then a paragraph about the solution:

    eFuse.com will be a friendly site written in plain English that assumed nothing. A virtual primer for creating good web sites. An on-line, always growing book, written in a friendly, conversational way that makes it an understandable, valuable reference today and every day.

And I came up with two statements that really summed it up. One was, Our voice is our value.Because there already is a ton of information about web site building on the web, so it wasn’t likely that we could present someone with a topic not available elsewhere, but it was not only possible but likely that we could present that information in a new way that was easier to understand, and therefore, more useful and valuable to readers.

The second became the tagline for the site, “Making the web work for you,” because that’s really the point, not just to build a site, but to make that site work for you.

>Vapor to Concrete

Now I had to assemble all my ideas into one place. I had a lot of ideas, and I keep a lot of notes. So I went through those notes and started to try to organize them into a shape that would make sense to readers.

I did what I do in cases like this, I create one giant file in Microsoft Word, using heading styles so that I can easily collapse it down to an outline and move it around. At last count that file is 82 pages long, and that doesn’t include the text of the site, just one-paragraph ideas about what should be in the site!

You don’t have to be a genius to come up with something like this, you just need to write down every idea you have. Don’t worry that it’s not a great idea, just write it down, then sift through it and pull out what you like best.

I went through several different ways to visualize and organize the site (for more background, click here). And I finally decided to use the best steps to follow when building a site: Plan, Design, Build, and Promote. I also added a section called “Start Here” for people who were just starting out and needed to know all the basics in one place.

I also had some strong opinions about how information on the web should be presented. I’ve learned some through trial and error, some by designing a lot of sites, and some by reading the opinions of others. One thing I knew (and have had confirmed by readers of the new site) is that pages don’t have to be short (see my Wire piece about myths), that if people are interested they do read long pieces, and that pieces had to be in-depth, not shallow. What’s the point of presenting shallow information on a medium where you literally have all the space in the world to provide details?

>Finding contributors

Then I had to figure out who was going to write all this. I would write some of it myself, but I wanted to present a wide range of writers and designers, some established, some new. I knew a number of writers personally, sometimes in person, sometimes through e-mail. I e-mailed them, explained what I was doing, and asked them to be involved. Some agreed. Some were too busy, or not interested. That’s fine, I only wanted people who had both the time and the inclination.

I made sure I had the budget to pay writers fairly. As a long-time freelancer myself, I was sick and tired of seeing writers paid less and less over time. I don’t know why, but 10 years ago writers actually got paid more than they get paid now. It’s not a lucrative profession, but good writers should be able to expect to be paid fairly so they can earn a living. Yet I’ve seen even big publishing companies pay less and less for their magazine and web articles, and I wasn’t going to do that.

Those who agreed who you’ve heard of include Roger Parker, Lynda Weinman, Gary Priester, Gary David Bouton, and Daniel Janal. I also visited countless of web sites, and asked people to write articles based on the quality of their own sites (I’m also encouraging new writers, so if you have ideas about an article you’d like to write, e-mail me).

I wrote a detailed “Writer’s Guide” explaining what I wanted, in terms of style. It’s hard to write for a new publication because you can’t read it and get an idea of what they’re looking for, so I explained it. The guide is very thorough as to what I need in terms of content, style, and even technical requirements—how to deliver articles and illustrations to me. This must have worked, because literally all the articles I received were written just the way I wanted (of course, it helped that all the writers I hired were good writers!).

>Editing, Designing

Because I started out as a writer, I made sure that I didn’t rewrite any of these pieces. I edited them, and I found an excellent copy editor (if you’re looking for one, visit our contacts page and she was able to make things “right” without changing the tone of the pieces—something few copy editors are able to do.

Designing the site went through many revisions, concepts, and a lot of feedback. To read more about these steps, and how you can learn from them, visit my article, “This site from scratch.”

>Standing up for your beliefs

Throughout all this, one of the things I didn’t so much learn but relearn was how important it is to stand up for what you believe to be right. Everybody has an opinion, and most people think they are right. But not everybody is.

If you are honestly sure you are, if you have the experience and know-how, or even just an unwavering passion, then you have to make that known. You have to be flexible. You do have to listen to other people’s opinions. And you should want to incorporate any good idea someone gives you, no matter who gives it to you. If it makes your project better, use it.

But you also have to be prepared to defend yourself, your project, your methods, your approach, your style, your attitude, your ideas. There’s a difference between being defensive and defending your project, and you want to try to avoid being defensive.

>Working with others

Because I didn’t have a “staff” at my disposal, I was in the position that most people building sites are in. I had limited time and resources and had get help where I could. There were some things I couldn’t manage myself, and one of them was mailings. I knew we would have a regular e-mail newsletter (called the FuseLetter), and I needed to find a place that could handle large regular mailings.

Because I had a relationship with i-us, I asked Chris Dickman and Arlen Bartsch if they could help in return for placing an ad for i-us in each e-mailing. They agreed, and it’s a good win-win situation. This is a good example of using your contacts—and creating deals that everyone benefits from.

I also approached Bitstream to supply free fonts for visitors who signed up for the FuseLetter, and ArtParts and David Curry to provide free web art samples. I’m a firm believer in freebies (as long as they’re useful), so if you sign up, you get some really useful stuff, and each FuseLetter will also point you to more useful, free stuff. So sign up!

>Listen to your readers

The site opened December 7th , a day that will live in, well, you know. And traffic was immediately (and at least to me, unexpectedly) huge. So much so that we overloaded our ISP and they shut us down. Fun, huh? I kept arranging for more and more “traffic” bandwidth, and eventually traffic was so high we decided to buy a server for the site.

Right off the bat, I started by asking readers questions. What did they like and dislike. What would they like to see in future issues. The feedback is extremely helpful because it tells me where my focus is right (and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive), where it can be improved, and what direction readers would like to see. If you´ve hesitated because you have trouble with forms on the web, go to www.response-o-matic.com and see their easy, CGI-less system for handling forms. It´s fast, easy, and it really works.

>Somewhat of a surprise

Despite the fact that there are millions of sites on the web, and that if someone had the time and could figure out how they could probably already find the information they needed on the web, people still find it easier to go to one single source for “like” information.

What I mean is, if they want to learn more about cars, they’d rather go to one site than to 200. It’s great to be able to go to 200, and you’d like that one site to link to the other 199 just in case they might have information that this first site doesn’t, but it’s just plain easier and more efficient to know there’s one place you can get to get all the info you need. It also helps if that one site is consistent in design, organization and approach, so that you, for example, know that all the articles on eFuse.com are going to be friendly and easy to read.

So come and visit. We add new information twice and month. We look forward to seeing you—and hearing from you.

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

Visit eFuse, the friendly place to learn how to build a better web site

Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved