Sunday, October 13, 2013

Five tips for working backwards in project managment

Illustration from everydaypants
Project management is a tricky job. There are countless variables that need to be anticipated, and many that cannot be controlled. But when you're planning your next project, I've found it's best to think of things in reverse.

Many people start their project at the beginning and map the path they will take to their final result. This method worked well for the linear board games of our childhood, but often we need to push back from the deadline and critically look at the potential pitfalls along the way.

Once thing to note is that when you physically walk backwards, there is a tendency to lean in either direction (forwards or further backwards) and look over your shoulder. You watch each step and carefully place your foot, swinging your arms awkwardly. In the project management scenario, you want to setup a situation where you do not need to lean forwards or backwards and where you are confidently meeting shoe to ground along both smooth and rough terrain.

Here are five tried-and-true tips to working backwards on your next big project:
  1. Count, literally. Working backwards is all about counting the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes. Experience will teach you exactly how this should be executed in your company. The more people and stakeholders involved, the trickier this will get. If you are a visual person, map it visually. But don't forget to setup an automated online tracking system that acts as a personal assistant to the individual project. I've never regretted the small annoyance of a consistent reminder.
  2. Consolidate your meetings. One of the biggest issues every project manager faces is other people's schedules. We often take for granted how little project participants have in common when it comes to schedule - especially when you're talking internationally. The best thing you can do is identify the layers of stakeholders at the beginning: Who needs to be involved in what for the project to move forward? And, what is the open-source contingency plan (one everyone agree on) if an important stakeholder is unable to attend a meeting? Get everyone on the same page at the beginning and you'll find there is greater flexibility when a clash of schedules does occur. I also recommend having a consistent platform for your meetings that records and/or screen captures all discussions. This not only helps for decision-making references for your internal team, but it also gives you a way to share meeting content with people that are unable to participate, yet need to feel included in every step.
  3. Know your people. Is one of your teammate's wife about to have a baby? Is there a vacation on the horizon for your lead designer? Will one of your stakeholders become M.I.A. when attending a three-day conference in Las Vegas? You need to know your team (really well) or you risk delaying the project. I'm not saying you need to make your relationship extend beyond the professional environment, but help your team realize potential "hold ups" before they happen. People are some of the biggest variables that you encounter during your project timeline. You can clutch your deliverables happily and check your calendar with wistful joy all you want, but if you can't connect with every core team member on some level, then you are in a project management danger zone.
  4. Prepare well for scope creep. Again, like #1, this takes experience. At my company I know that core team members deal with daily functions and out-of-the-blue requests, which leaves limited time for project development. Again, break this down to the hour: How many hours per week will this person have? How does that compare to the time it will take to prepare their project deliverables? Are there any red flags that need to be dealt with now (like limited staff hours)?
  5. Have many plans. Contingency plans are always a good idea for failure and success. We learn this in business 101. But it gets complicated when you are faced with many types of potential contingencies - from budget to resources to time. Don't overdo your planning, but at least have your top "cascading contingency" project plans in place. This way you can activate your "Plan of Action" once the contingency indicators (or red flags) start falling into place. 
It is exciting to start a project and look towards the deadline like a glorious trophy. But most of the time it's best to envision the end (which isn't always only completion of the project, but that's a topic for another day) and work backwards from there.

It may be an unsteady journey at first, but when you get the hang of it, you'll find yourself on the right pace for success (and you'll have great project management hamstrings).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Get Your First 1,000 Users: Messaging and User Acquisition For Startups | Betamore Class

Image from
Starting a business is hard, especially if you've decided to go without the "brick and mortar" and launch your business completely online.

But as a web-based service your competition for consumer attention increases exponentially. So how do you get the user-acquisition ball rolling and keep it rolling?

For this question, I turned to another class at the co-working space, Betamore. The class "Get Your First 1,000 Users: Messaging and User Acquisition for Startups" sounded like a good place to start.

With his suit and minimal PowerPoint, Len Markidan (Marketing Consultant and Copywriter extraordinaire) was ready to bestow his knowledge onto a diverse classroom of nine students.

With only a couple small slip ups, Len eventually found his rhythm as a presenter. You could see people in the class shift from the leaned-back-and-crossed-arms position the leaned-forward-and-tell-me-more position in a matter of two slides.

Len did a great job getting specific. He spoke about actual methods he himself uses when copywriting in a pinch or helping a budget-conscious client get email subscribers. Kudos to Len!

Below are my notes from the class. But first, some key takeaways!

Leah's Top 3 Takeaways

1) Don't re-invent the web wheel.
We've all heard this before, but do we really consider it when planning for our own online business? Len suggested piggybacking onto the research of successful companies/competitors.

Learn from their website interface design decisions and then move on. Choose to focus on research that will directly impact your business, not just your color choices. Ditch the "which button color?" experiment and focus on a question like, "Is my offer right for my target audience?"

2) is a copywriting tool.
No, we're not buying a book off of to teach us how to write. We are actually searching out the top selling books that are related to our business and reading consumer reviews. So a company that sells tax software to small businesses would search for the top-selling tax books for small businesses on

Once you've found your top-rated books, read the user reviews to see what your target audience is saying. What do they like best about these books? Why did they rate these books 4-5 stars? Also, be sure to make note of the words they are using. In other words, use their words in your copywriting.

Make sure to also check out the bad reviews. These will help you anticipate the reservations consumers will have about your own product.

3) Research is cheap.
OK, not all research is cheap, but there are ways to do it on a budget. Make a simple survey (three questions max) that collects the valuable information for your business (we'll talk more about this below) and learn things that challenge your assumptions. 

Send this survey to 40-50 people in your target audience and see what you get. There are cheap and free online survey tools that make it easy. The small amount of time and money spent on research can save you tons of time and money in the long run. I've listed some survey tools at the end of this post.

Now for some class notes:

Do your research
Len started the presentation with some points on researching your target audience. Basically, you won't know how to market your business unless you know your target market (Hint: your target market is not "everyone").

Len cited the example of They had a list of competitors that provided online money management services, but through research they found, "their biggest competitor was apathy" and a close second was Microsoft Excel.

Surveys are a great way to get this research done efficiently and cheaply. So how do you build a good online survey?

Crafting a good online survey
Of course we can all agree that "good questions" are a key component to any online survey. But can you identify a good question? To start, it needs to:

1) Be non-leading
2) Require more than a "yes" or "no" answer
3) Compel the participant to speak freely

Len suggested three questions for an ideal survey. Wow that is short! But you have to understand that you are asking for someone's time. And the more questions you ask, the less survey responses you get.

I once took a survey from an airline that will remain unnamed, and it was the most awful and drawn-out survey experience I have ever had. Page after page of mindless rating scales, and I got nothing for it in the end.

Getting back to the good survey example. Here are some questions that Len suggested:

1) Tell us about your experiences with __________.
2) What have you tried and failed at?
3) What is your biggest frustration with _________?

You will need to craft these questions to relate to your product or service, but be sure not to lead the participant. These questions allow the consumer to speak freely and the third question compels them to answer with an emotionally charged word like frustrated. "People are willing to pay to eliminate frustration," stated Len.

In-Class Question
Question: But what about measurable data? There is no way to sort the data if it's all open-ended.
Len's Answer: This survey is only for about 40-50 people. We want to look for trends in the responses. We aren't necessarily looking for measurable data as much as we are looking for practical insight.

Also, don't forget to introduce the survey! Tell your participants why you are conducting this survey and how they can help by providing feedback. Ideally, your product or service looks to improve something in their lives. It's a "help me help you" scenario.

Bad survey questions 
Len also provided bad survey questions, he stated that "they do not provide real/practical insight":

1) Anything that starts with "On a scale of 1 to 10..."
"People suck at grading things," and they all have their own opinion of what each number on the scale means. Focus on the real responses from your target audience.

2) If I told you that you could get ________, would you want that?
This is leading and doesn't really provide an unbiased opinion. You may also not get the answer you anticipated and end up questioning your product/service all together.

3) How much would you pay for ________?
If anyone tells you how much they are willing to pay for something, they are lying. This will not help you find out what you should get paid for your product.

Build an Email List
Set it up. Build it now. Yes, NOW!

Your email list will be one of your most valuable assets. Even if you do not have a website, there are easy ways to build landing pages for your emails subscription form or surveys.

Mail Chimp is a great place to start if you are on a budget. This email marketing program is user-friendly and robust. And your account is free up to 2,000 subscribers! Pretty sweet.

If you're looking to build landing pages "pre-website launch" you can also try a service called Unbounce.

Use Facebook to help build your list

"I love Facebook Ads"
Len loves Facebook ads. Why? Because you can:
  • Target based on interest
  • Target based on location
  • Target people that are fans of your competitors
  • Target customers that read specific trade publications
"I recommend Facebook to all start-ups," shared Len. He believes that Facebook is the easiest to use and test, especially if you cannot afford an advertising manager.

Getting Traffic.
There are many methods you can use to get traffic to your website. Here are Len's top three:

1) Follow your (successful) competitors.
If they are successful, they probably spent money on research. Look at where they are advertising, where they are speaking, where they are visible... Piggyback on the research of other successful companies.

2) Facebook Ads (again)
Great for generating traffic.

In-Class Question: 
Question: What is the right Facebook budget?
Len's Answer: It depends on your target audience. Start with what's comfortable and test it. It all comes down to statistical significance - are you seeing a return on your investment or not?

3) Partner up.
Sometimes there is a mutually beneficial relationship that can be established with a business who shares your audience (not your direct competitors).

But be careful! When considering a partnership, you need to think of long term value, not short term sales. Len wouldn't offer something to his audience that isn't going to improve their lives significantly.

What can you offer/barter to your partner?
Often this may include something free, discounted or a maybe a seasonal offer. The great thing about a partnership is that they (your partner) will successfully sell your product for you because their audience already trusts them.

Content (is king).
Content is great because it builds your audience through the sharing of focused, value-driven information. This type of strategy is a great way to build trust with your consumers. "You are already giving them value before they make the decision to buy from you, and that makes it that much easier to buy from you (when the time comes)," shared Len.

This content can be shared with your email subscribers along with your website visitors.

Len presented an example of creating and testing email content. The tech startup Groove came to Len with a need to increase subscriptions. So they started to strategically test emails that would encourage subscriptions. They tested different content in their emails and looked at the analytics to see what was shared. By the time launch day came around, their list was 15,000 strong. A good percentage of these subscribers became conversions and many of them provided referrals.

Again, testing is key. Try different subject lines or types of content - see what is shared and what is effective.

In-Class Question:
Questions: How much content should I post?
Len's Answer: Targeted content shouldn't take more than a few hours a week.

Here is a great example of value-driven content for an online business:
This blog also provides additional advice for your business! Boom. Two-for-one.

Convert Traffic (Wahoo)
Targeted Landing pages are essential to your online business. Again, services like Unbounce make it easy to build custom landing pages.

"People are going to tell you a lot of best practices, but there is only way to do it right. You need to create something, test it and optimize it" Len shared with the class.

Avoid looking at design that "looks cool". Instead, look at websites that have spent a lot of money on landing pages that convert.

What is the number one mistake that a lot of start-ups make? 
Spending time and money testing things like font sizes or button colors. These type of tests may get you a 2%-10% increase, but leave those kind of tests to Test things like your product offer. This is more likely to give you 40%-200% increases in your conversions if done correctly.

Speaking of conversions...
When you are looking to convert, you have to go deeper than just stating the features of your service.

Here are the three elements that give you the biggest wins (in order of importance):

1) Your offer
What are you promising to people?
Is it interesting to them? Is it compelling?
"They don't care about your app, they can about how you are going to solve their problem(s)."

2) The Headline
Don't make it too abstract. You want this to state your objective clearly. Sometimes we can get too abstract about the mission of our business. An example: "A hassle-free desktop solution"

3) Copy
Len openly stated that he might value copy this more than others with his background as a copywriter, but regardless he wants to know, "Are you using the words that your customers use?"

When writing, Len will print out his copy and ask someone (in the intended target audience) to read front of him. Yes, it sounds weird, but it's important to watch them. Are they nodding? Smiling? Are they furrowing their brow?

Long copy vs. short copy
It's trendy now to have minimal copy and a lot of white space. Len would absolutely recommend testing long copy. Long copy in this context simply means going into detail and being descriptive. You can break it up with headlines and bullets, but what it provides is that extra nudge to those that don't already know everything about your product. These types of customers will read everything before they decide to buy your product.

Are you testing testimonials in your copy?
P90X has a good examples of testimonials. When you go to the "stories" section of the website, you'll see that they have based all of their testimonials on their consumer personas. They use these personas to create relatable experiences and address any doubts that each of these personas may have about the product.

After the conversion.
Engage your users! Buyer's remorse is natural. We all feel it right after a purchase. Did I make the right decision? Could I have spent my money more wisely? Maybe I shouldn't have ordered that after my third glass of wine? 

To help solidify the idea of a "good buy", make contact quickly and thank your customer. Make them aware of things like support options. Go beyond just sending them a copy of their receipt.

Here is an example. Bugsnag is a bug-tracking software. 10 minutes after signing up for a Bugsnag account, a user gets this email:

Hey ___,

I'm James, CEO of Bugsnag....[ENTER CEO's MSG HERE].



This email receives a 22% response rate. As a business owner, you get great insight (with people responding with their issues or comments) in addition to reassuring your customers of their purchase.

With this simple automated email, Bugsnag customers now feel that they have a direct connection to the CEO of the company and they gain confidence in their purchase.

One of the biggest conversion tools for a company is referrals. If people are referred by someone they trust, they are more likely to convert. Try offering an incentive for both parties.

One of the most well-known referral offers comes from Dropbox. Their referral campaign offers 200MB of free storage for every referred user that creates a Dropbox account. After launching, their referrals went up 60%. They also make it very obvious in the sign-up process that users can refer their friends to get more space.

Get Great Referrals.
This is the only time Len would recommend an yes-or-no survey question. Just ask the question: Would you recommend this product/service to a friend or a colleague? And then provide them the opportunity to refer.

That's it for my notes! Thank you again to Len Markidan and Betamore for this highly informative class. This blog was just based on notes, so be sure to look up Len for his next teaching appearance. He provides a detailed handout of his presentation after his classes. So helpful!

Looking forward to applying these strategies as I build my new business (more to come on that...)

Len Markidan - Follow him on Twitter @LenMarkidan!
Survey programs: Survey Monkey, Google Forms (available in Google Drive)
A great blog for more business info:
Email Marketing: Mail Chimp
Build custom landing pages: Unbounce

Friday, May 24, 2013

Usability Testing Class at Betamore

Coffeepot for Masochists
"No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly," stated Amy Rubino at the start of her class, Usability Testing for Everyone. She was referring to the fear that designers and decision makers sometimes have when it comes to usability testing. 

My four classmates and I attended Amy's insightful three-hour lecture at the co-working space, Betamore. Her goal was simple: show us that usability testing is easy and necessary. With only five people in attendance, the class format was perfect for conversation - questions and stories flowed freely between the participants and Amy.

Below are some of my notes and takeaways from this fantastic class.

What makes something usable?
"When a product or service is truly usable, the user can do what he or she wants to do the way he or she expects to be able to do it - without hinderance, hesitation or questions" - Jeffery Rubin

Amy taught us that there are many considerations when it comes to deeming something "usable":
  • Learnability
  • Efficiency
  • Memorability
  • Errors
  • Satisfaction (because even if it's usable, it still needs to enjoyable or else people won't come back)

How can we make a usable website?
Test it with your real users. These users should:
  • Use your website
  • Be part of your target audience
  • Not be directly affiliated with your company

Through this type of testing, you are creating a user-focused design that is built from observed data, not the likes or dislikes of stakeholders. Amy let us know that in an ideal world, you would involve users throughout the design process - working iteratively by creating, testing and then repeating this process again and again. As designers and creators, we can choose to make this part of our creation culture - until it becomes second nature.

If you want to know the general principles for usability in interactive design, read Jakob Nielson's 10 Usability Heuristics and get the jist. In order to push beyond these basic principles, we need to make usability testing more tangible. One way of doing this is by creating personas. Who is your user, really? What does he or she need? What are her or his challenges? What technology is she or he using?

"Leverage any opportunity you can to listen to your users," stated Amy when advocating for guerrilla testing methods that she has found to be effective. As an example, she cited a project where her team visited with high schoolers during a job fair. There, she asked students to perform tasks on their readily available devices and had conversations with these real users "in the wild". Some of the results were eye opening. After testing, Amy and her team considered the fact that maybe teenagers aren't as tech savvy as we had assumed.

Common question: When can you test?
Answer: Anytime
  • Early in development - Exploratory testing with paper prototypes or wireframes.
  • Mid-way in development - Check points of usability.
  • Late in development - Verification test before final execution.
Prototyping tools to try out

Categories of User Testing
In-Person Testing
Pros: Record conversation and click path, see users' reactions, involve your stakeholders and team
Cons: Users have to travel to meet, limits access to users who live outside of your region

Remote Testing
Use screen sharing software to watch uses complete tasks)
Pros: No travel, learn from people outside of your region, record conversations and click paths, involve your stakeholders
Cons: You can't see their faces/expressions

Unmoderated Testing
Use a service that allows users to complete the tasks on their own time without you moderating)
Pros: Users complete sessions when it's convenient for them, reach people outside your area
Cons: Can't ask followup questions, limited ability to hear the user or see reactions, need to watch videos for deeper analysis

Guerilla Testing
Go to a public space and ask customers to complete a task.)
Pros: See and hear the users' reactions, view the website on different devices
Cons: Might need managers approval, customers might not be your audience, difficult to involve your stakeholders, difficult to record conversation and click path.

Putting us to the test
During the class, Amy had us create a preliminary test plan and lead a one-on-one usability testing session with a partner.

We took what Amy called a "streamlined approach". Here is the breakdown of our process:

1) Develop a test plan - this is your road map and structures your testing.
  1. What is your goal or purpose?
  2. Who are you targeting?
  3. Create a test screener for users
  4. What methodology will you use? Why?
  5. What are your metrics? 
What are your goals?
Determine your objectives for reviewing this site. And be specific. For example:
  • "Identify the obstacles in applying for a job" 
  • "Determine how quickly users can sign up for emails on the site"
Make sure you don't set people up for failure. Do a dry run with a colleague, and don't test major problems that will only cause frustration.

What are you performance metrics?
Goals example: Determine how quickly users can sign up for emails on the site.
Metrics example: Measure if users are able to sign up for emails within 2 minutes.

Other metrics include task completion rates (how many users are able to complete each task), time on task, page views, errors and measurement of satisfaction.

2) Prepare Test Materials
Script - This is what you will read to the participant before starting the testing. It will help to explain that you are not testing them, you're testing the website.

Tasks - Based on your goals, decide what activities your users should complete. These tasks must have an endpoint, but may also have multiple routes or "click paths". Be sure to ask, "Please let me know when you feel you have completed the task." Also, Amy says it's best to start with an easy task to build your participant's confidence. 

Write each task as a clear statement in the user's language. Do not lead the participant with you questions. For example, if you want them to look for film studies courses on an educational site (and there is a button called "film studies"), simply state that they are someone interested in movies (not films) and they want to find related classes. That way the user is focused on the task - not the word "films".

Click Path - There should be at least one click path or route through the website for completing each task. Click path example: Home > Academics > Majors > Film Studies

Tips for Moderating
I loved this example she cited regarding careful and considerate moderating:
A participant had stated, "I would open Goggle and search for the website." In this test, Amy said that the moderator continued to call Google Goggle for the rest of the task in order to avoid correcting the user and disrupting their confidence. As a moderator, you're an anthropologist, not their buddy. But you also don't want to correct the user or react to much to their statements. Also, be aware that people want your approval, so they may hold back comments. This is where follow up questions can really work their magic.

Follow Up Questions
Ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation. 
Bad: "Do you like the button?"
Good: "What are your thoughts on the button?"
  • Stay neutral in your words
  • Hold on answering the user's questions until the end of the session
  • Don't take the feedback personally

Tips for Note taking
  • Record whether the user completed a task successfully.
  • What paths do they take?
  • Where do they stumble?
  • Do they understand what they are doing?
  • "What's missing" "What would you change"
Focus on the user's behavior and comments. Write down direct quotes. Make sure to come up with a note taking strategy so that your notes are decipherable in post-test analysis.

Usability test example:

Common question: How many people do I need to test?
Answer: It depends, but 5 will usually do the trick

"The best results come from testing no more than five users and running as many small tests as you can afford" - Jakob Nielsen

For example, test with groups of five at six different points in the process. According to Steve Krug, five users will find 80% of your problems and three users find 65% of usability issues.

Try doing things in bite-sized portions. Test one thing a month. Slowly work on different sections of the website each time.

Common question: How do I recruit users?
Answers: Any way you can! Just make sure they are the right users.
There are services that can provide you with a target audience based on demographics - they basically pull from a pool of people connected with their services. But these people my be biased because of their previous experience with user testing. Also, friends and family always work great  in a pinch!

Analyzing Data
  1. Review notes, audio and video and draw conclusions on the direction the project should take.
  2. Just because user said it, doesn't mean you should do it.

  • Adapt usability - Start small, just plain start!
  • Involve your stakeholders
  • Test with a few people is better than no testing
"If you want to know whether your website... is easy enough to use, watch some people while they try to use it and note where they run into trouble - then fix it and test it again" Steve Krug from the book Don't Make Me Think

Usability Testing Tools
Screen sharing
Usability testing software
Eye tracking software
Unmoderated services

After the class ended, I felt motivated to weave usability testing into all aspects of my creative process. Not just for projects in my department, or for my freelance clients, but for any online interface that touches our users.

Amy, you may have created a test monster.

Convince Your Boss Tip: For every dollar you spend fixing issues in development, it costs $100 to fix the same problem after launch.

Recommended Books
Don't Make Me Think - Steve Krug
Handbook of Usability Testing - Jeffrey Rubin and Dana Chisnell

Monday, September 3, 2012

Wordpress SEO | How and Why

Recently I attended a Wordpress Meet-up in Columbia, Maryland to learn more about how Wordpress allows users to implement, maintain and analyze SEO for their websites. Here are some of my notes for you to review. Keep in mind that these are notes!

Speaker: Web Mechanix (co-founder), Arsham Mirsha

Need a Textbook Definition of SEO?
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) vs. SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

Why does Wordpress work for SEO?
1) There is less source code "between" the search engine and the keywords - it's very easy for spiders to navigate your website.
2) Again, easy to read - clean and organized
3) Ease of managing SEO through well-built plugins
4) Versatility

How does Google look at your website?
1) Nav bar is one of the first things that google looks at - by using <div id="nav"> and other content-relevant code makes the website easy to crawl.
2) Number of links to the interior pages can effect how a website is crawled (e.g. home page has 100 links, sub page has 20 link, this other page has 6)
3) Sitemap Data provides a specific path for the robots to crawl along
3) PageRank or the number of links to your content from external websites. This is interpreted as a measurement of your content's quality, which is the new emphasis behind Google's search algorithm.

Google Search Algorithm is affected by a lot of things, some of these thing include:
Permalinks, "quality" content, URLs, Metatags, Title Tag, Sitemap, Internal Links, Page Load Speed, Keyword Density etc.

Wordpress Posts vs. Pages
One of the differences, from a search engine's perspective, is that posts have time stamps and dates, and pages do not. Google sitemap has more priority/seniority than your pages. 
  • Sometimes you are penalized for having numbers in posts (is this true?)
  • Hierarchical data vs. chronological
  • There are usually many ways to get to your post - typical page is one shot straight in
  • Yoast SEO plugin lets you rewrite your slug. (yay)
Google Webmaster Tools
Works great with Google Sitemap. Where are my errors? What can I do to improve my pages?
Need to be using this tool - Google wants to see that your care and are updating and improving your website frequently. What can you see? Broken links, server errors, people that link to you. Important: FIX YOUR BROKEN LINKS - that is one of the first steps to a better Google ranking.

Wordpress Plugin for Broken Links?
Will identify all the broken links on your website. Search "Broken link check".

Google hates iFrames?
Well it doesn't hate iFrames, but iFrames aren't doing you any favors since the content within the iFrame is not indexed or considered valuable content.

Links back to your website
When you post to "Public" on Facebook, Google can index your Facebook posts that link back to your website. Something to consider - you still need quality content that people want to view and link to.

Yoast is Your SEO Boyee
He can explain how great his tool is better than I can - so read up!

Google Alert
Track your content. Setup a Google Alert and see how long it takes for you to get indexed.

What about if you have a long standing html/css website with great SEO that wants to switch to Wordpress? How do you preserve this website?
There are plugins for that even add the .html extension in order to avoid redirects.
You want the permalinks to be very similar if not the same if you have good ranking.

Meta in Your Images
You can program Wordpress to pre-populate information, associated within photoshop, into the required image fields after an image is uploaded. It will need to be coded into the development of the theme to push out to the frontend based on the meta information in the image. Which is great because Google looks at your Alt tags and this can streamline your content load.

A Suggested Paid Service:
Developers licenses to install on many sites - $27/month. Similar to Yoast..but...
Why is it paid? It helps you with keyword research. Uses API's to hook into keyword research tool. Does more in-depth analysis - know what your keyword is and put it near the top.

Another service:

Yoast - actually has incorporated keyword analysis and research into their plugin.

Some Neat Upcoming Events

Some Cool People/Companies

Monday, June 18, 2012

June 2012 Issue of Baltimore Magazine

This month's Baltimore Magazine issue features the photo shoot I assisted with several months ago. Yes, it's finally time to talk about beaches, bikes and being free more (couldn't have said it better myself).

As I stated in an earlier post, Baltimore photographer Cory Donovan did an amazing job coordinating the shoot and everyone involved had an super time making memories at this editorial film photography photo shoot.

What you don't see in the photograph:
  • The small group of kids that sat on the dock to the left to watch our lovely model in front of the camera (they would later request an autograph).
  • My steel grip on the reflector to the right..."fill those shadows!"
  • Walking briskly and carefully with photo equipment in a race to beat the sunset
  • The ladies from Alpha Studio standing by with comb, hair spray and make-up brush
The unseen luxuries/non-luxuries of the shoot:
  • The fancy spa/salon we used for proper hair styling at the nearby hotel/golf resort
  • The hot, playground-side bathrooms for outfit changes
  • The scenic drive through Maryland
  • New friends and friendly faces
  • The empty gas tank
  • My name in the magazine (with an added "u" for pizazz)

Leah Voguely - Close enough!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Making Your Own Green Screen | A Creative Alliance Workshop in Baltimore

My summer education adventures have consisted exclusively of Creative Alliance workshops in Baltimore. The Film, Video and Digital department at the Creative Alliance is truly an amazing resource that grants people of all levels of experience to learn, experiment and participate in the dialogue of film making in Baltimore.

On May 26, 2012 I attended the workshop Green Screen Basics with Craig Herron. With several tubes of PVC pipe, green fleece and the right lighting, we assembled a pretty nifty DIY green screen. Along the way he explained both the high- and low-end options for construction and lighting and the specific corners that could be cut.

As we lit and tested our green screen, Herron emphasized the importance of strong, even light that did not overwhelm or overexpose the screen. He made technical adjustments to his camera, like lowering the ISO to reduce noise, and steadied his shot with a tripod. Lighting your screen and subject separately is important and makes a huge difference once you move your footage into the editing stage.

Once in Adobe After Effects, we learned about the finer details that are often overlooked and how to not settle for "that looks pretty good". As a test subject, I was transported to the Bahamas and layered into a Maryland barn still (video below).

I had never considered the green screen to be such an art or even a real "replacement" for realism. But with the right amount of technical expertise, studio and equipment (DIY or professional), you can accomplish a great deal. Herron himself is working on a film set in the Bahamas - except he is bringing the scenery to his actors in Maryland via several cruises with his wife and the trusty green screen.

Herron will be working on the set of a new indie western film to be shot in Maryland this summer. This film is written and directed by Wayne Shipley and I've been told they are looking for volunteers to be townspeople, help build sets and even audition for some main roles. Herron, in charge of special effects, will be green screening a steam engine from the 1890s into a train station set. Follow the production on Facebook or check out Shipley's other movie Come Hell or High Water on Netflix.

Over these past few weeks, each workshop I have attended has been hosted by a knowledgeable, experienced and generous instructor. These educational opportunities are held in a small classroom and allow you to easily ask questions and interact with your classmates. Take some time to view current workshops online and sign up to support this dynamic Baltimore institution.

PVC Setup

Parts assembled
Hanging the screen (or green fleece).
A light made from PVC, an extension cord,
sockets and an ice cube tray.

Yes, an ice cube tray.

Energy saving light bulbs lower the heat generated,
wattage used and help prevent burns and blown fuses.
Five bulb light for the key light.
Flagpole base.
A critical look at his creation.
PVC tripod - assembly required.
Lighting the screen.
Camera settings.
Clamps are a screen's best friend
(get out of here wrinkles).
Keying out the green in Adobe After Effects.
Tutorial on rotoscoping
(for those with patience).
How did we get into that barn?

Some Resources:

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Baltimore Magazine Cover Shoot on the Boardwalk with Photographer Cory Donovan

I agreed to assist with another Baltimore Magazine cover shoot with the local Baltimore photographer, Cory Donovan. The day of, I picked-up model-for-a-day, Kara, and headed over to meet with Cory Donovan and the other assistant, Talia Scher. 

Amazingly enough, Anthea Thurston and Aimee Lin from Alpha Studio had graciously agreed to be the hair and make-up stylists for the shoot. 

We all gathered at the Baltimore Magazine headquarters for a pre-photo shoot meeting. 

With directions to Cambridge, Maryland we carpooled to the amazing Hyatt Regency resort - they had generously provided space in their spa for us to prepare for the shoot. 

While Anthea and Aimee styled the model - Cory, Talia and I scoped out the nearby Sailwinds Park. There, we discovered the perfect view; an old boardwalk bordered by rocks and water.

As the day moved closer to shoot time, the sun peeked through the clouds to create a beautifully diffused light. Cory shot in both film and digital; this versatility allowed him to get varied exposures of light and really capture the shot, literally, through a different lens.

As the sun threatened to disappear, we moved quickly to get the three required outfit changes and two locations into the day.

Once the sun fell beyond the horizon we packed-up for the day with a real sense of accomplishment. 

Overall, it was an amazing experience with some really talented people. Look out for the July 2012 issue of Baltimore Magazine for the final shot!

Cory Donovan and Talia Scher on location

Can you tell they also model?

The boardwalk

Checking out the view.

Leaving the Hyatt with the model.

Classic Schwinn bike for photo shoot.

Anthea Thurston (right) and Aimee Lin (left) from Alpha Studio

Cory in action!

Test shot with film.


Reloading film.

Giving direction.

Make-up touch up.