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Digital Love

Digital Love

The trouble with being dead busy and heads-down-cracking-on is you get a bit inward-facing... which is great for the here and now, but means you can lose sight a bit of what's happening out there in the big wide world of Web. So yesterday was a great opportunity for me to raise my head up, and spend the day at a conference in Bristol City Centre - On The Edge Digital. It was a really inspiring event - the speakers covered a range of topics, some of which we know, some we think we know and some we can learn a lot from!

The subjects included:

  • Content - matching it to your sales process, and your target audience
  • Localised SEO (search Engine Optimisation) and Searches - what does it mean to be Local?
  • Email Marketing - some easy methods to try to get improved results
  • PPC (Pay Per Click) - quick wins and Google's new Enhanced campaigns
  • Social Media - strategy, common mistakes and what channels to use
  • RWD (Responsive Web Design) - understanding more about why, and when to make the change to give the best user experience
  • Social Networking for B2B - making it the right fit; and fitting it in!

And I do love the Digital World. It's inspiring and jaw-dropping and infuriating and exciting and keeps on changing ALL THE TIME. I love learning about latest developments and trends and news and views, forming opinions, putting them into practice, and then applying new developments and trends and news and views to make ongoing improvements... and so it goes on.

If you think it's about time to review your website or digital marketing strategy, please do get in touch. There's some exciting new developments happening right now, and it's all fresh in my mind - so let's have a chat and see what we can do to get you a bit of Digital Love too :-)

Is Everything The Fault of Microsoft Excel?

Is Everything The Fault of Microsoft Excel?

I saw this article recently on CNN, implicating Microsoft Excel in the financial crisis, Europe's growth problems, the US' weak economic recovery, and the like:

It's an entertaining read, but of course blaming Excel isn't fair here - these are "people" errors, and they happened to have used Excel whilst making their errors.

It's no different to a calculator; if I type "10 + 100" when I meant "100 + 100", is that the calculator's fault? Of course not; so, if I type the wrong thing into an Excel spreadsheet, that's not really Excel's fault either.

But, having said that, there is the case of using the right tool for the job, and if tasked with monitoring (and limiting potential losses of) billions of dollars worth of trading, I can't help but think that a series of Excel spreadsheets that require data copying between them is not going to be the right tool for the job.

A system specifically written to do that task could have tests written against it, validation in place against unusual data, and alerts if things start to look...unusual.

Requiring a manual element to a process like this is always going to have the chance of the occasional human error.

Do you still update your website by manually copying data around? Drop us a line, and we'll see if we can help you automate the process - reducing both manual labour and human errors!

Neil Smith

Created on Wednesday April 24 2013 01:12 PM


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Abandon all hope that enter here....

Or rather less dramatically, why is online shopping littered with abandoned baskets and trolleys like a barren car park?

The answer, according to a survey from Liveperson, is chiefly:

  • unexpected delivery costs appearing from nowhere within the checkout, with 77% of shoppers saying that would cause them to run.
  • a lack of information about products, service or delivery caused 60% to leave their baskets behind.
  • 58% cited 'navigation difficulties' (which could be resolved with an isolated checkout).
  • 47% wanted to ask a question but couldn't find the answer.
  • and finally 33% wanted more help with their transaction.

Some food for thought over Easter for store owners....

Simon Newing

Created on Wednesday March 27 2013 02:46 PM

Tags: e-commerce

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Passwords - Part Two

Passwords - Part Two

In Part One, I dealt with what makes a good (or bad) password.

In Part Two, I'll talk a little about how passwords should be held behind the scenes. It's the most techie part of the series, but it sets us up nicely for Part Three, so please bear with me!

Most people don't give much thought to what Facebook/The Bank/Bob's Website do to store our passwords behind the scenes. We trust them to do a good job, but what does that mean?

Good websites (such as all ours at Focus, of course!) will never store a password in plain text. Even if my password was "password" - an exceptionally bad choice! - we'd never store in the database:

user: neil
password: password

Instead, we store the password with something sometimes called "one way encryption". In simple terms, it means it's really easy to take "password" and turn it into a seemingly random string like "5e884898da28047151d0e56f8dc6292773603d0d6aabbdd62a11ef721d1542d8" - but it's just about impossible to get from that string back to the original phrase "password". (*)

Then, if a hacker does manage to obtain somehow a list of usernames and passwords from the database, they don't see the password in plain text, but instead see this messy string - and there's no way to get the string back to "password" again.

When you login to the site, we (roughly speaking) take the string you've entered, use one-way-encryption to turn it into the messy string, and see if that matches what's in the database - if it does, then we've verified your password is correct without needing to ever store your password. (Clever!)

So, back to our example, say a hacker does obtain a list of encrypted passwords. We know they can't turn them back into password - BUT - if they know the method we're using to turn passwords into encrypted ones, they can try guessing passwords one at a time, encrypting them, and seeing if they match what's in the database. If it does, they've guessed your password.

This is a good reason you shouldn't use a common password; a hacker can (if they obtain one of the lists above), run a dictionary of common passwords through this method, and probably find some passwords quite quickly.

If your password is a good secure password, they will have to use "brute force", which is the password equivalent of trying to open a combination padlock by trying 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, etc. If your password is long, the hope is that it will take an incredibly long amount of time to break it.

If your password is upper and lower case letters, numbers and common symbols, and 8 characters long, it could take up to 23 years for a computer to "brute force" it, working 24x7x365 (**). Hopefully, you'll have changed it by then!

Now we know a little bit about how passwords are stored, in Part Three, we can draw some conclusions, spot bad websites, and learn why you shouldn't use the same password on different sites.

(*) Note for extreme techies: that's a SHA256 hash of password, which is simpler than I'd recommend using in real life.

(**) Source:

Neil Smith

Created on Friday March 01 2013 01:57 PM

Tags: passwords

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Abigails Tale

For the first time, Focus has chosen an 'official charity' for 2013, and I'm not ashamed to say it's one that's very close to my heart (at the risk of offending charities that we currently work with!)

Our daughter Abigail was born in July 2012, very premature and weighing only 2lb 12oz. She had a further complication that meant she couldn't breathe without mechanical support.

For three months, our hopes and lives were all in the hands of the neonatal team at Evelina Childrens Hospital at St Thomas in London, who were amazing and took much care of Abigail (and at times, her parents!) and Abigail couldn't have been anywhere better. The team deal with all sorts of conditions and situations with expertise and reassurance and endless patience.

Abigail has had three surgical procedures since but we have a final visit to London lined up in March and we hope she'll be signed off, back into local care. She's now a healthy 13lb and has been at home since October, causing all sorts of havoc.

The Evelina is an inspiring place, designed and built with children in heart and mind, and the staff are so positive and encouraging for all their young patients - it's an amazing place to go and sample a slice of life you don't usually see.

So throughout 2013 Focus will be making a monthly donation to St Thomas's Together We Can campaign - a small thank you from Abigails parents and the team at Focus to show our gratitude.

Simon Newing

Created on Monday February 25 2013 12:47 PM


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eCommerce pointers for 2013

Retail analysis from Capgemini has revealed that online retail has got off to a fast start in 2013 - with 16% growth on the same period last year. This against a background of traditional retail and the high street continuing to struggle in tough economic times.

The same report is predicting overall growth in online sales of 12%.

So what are the big trends and changes that online shop owners should be keeping an eye on for the coming year, to ensure they take advantage of this growing sector?

1. Mobile / Responsive Design

2012 was the year of responsive web design - and the stats show that retailers need to stay on top of their mobile offering during 2013. The same Capgemini report states sales through mobile devices were up 193% in January 2013 compared to same period 2012. "Mobile commerce is here to stay", it states. "No longer are customers shopping from their sofas at home, but instead spotting products in store and choosing to purchase online instead on the grounds of cost or convenience."

The goal of responsive design is to give shoppers the same user experience independent on what device they are using to access online stores: a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone or 55 inch TV screen. A responsive eCommerce store adapts itself to be viewed in an ideal manner on any screen size. Combined with Google's new Enhanced AdWords, targeting users with specific devices with pay-per-click ads has never been easier.

There's so much that goes into mobile commerce (M-Commerce) that it deserves a blog post of it's own - so that'll be coming soon.

2. Product Images and Videos

Customers are faced with massive choice; a store that can show them clear, fast loading images of their desired products stands better chance of conversion than using small, ineffective product photographs that reveal no detail.

Videos are increasingly important in helping customers decide that a product and a shop are for them. This is especially relevant where complex products are being sold, or products where it's difficult for a customer to view it 'in situ'. A demonstration video of a product working can be very useful. Videos also lend themselves for use in social media campaigns and platforms such as YouTube and Twitter - helping drive more genuinely interested traffic to your store.

3. Content, Content, Content

Keep it short - attention spans seem to be getting less and less all the time. Content should be benefit led, highly readable, SEO friendly -  yet concise so that it appeals to visitors - tricky stuff!

But an effective content strategy that's followed throughout the entire store can really make the difference in conversion rates. Don't forgot to apply these principles to information pages - such as delivery details and how customers return items.

4. Personalisation

Collecting personal information has always been a sensitive topic - never more than during the rather strange implementation of new cookie laws in 2012 - but I'm not sure the average user is too worried about giving personal data in return for a more enjoyable and personalised online experience.

2013 will see agencies like Focus continue to see how personalised content can be implemented and presented - using the wealth of information gained from analytics, browsing and order history, user behavior and user preferences. Today, users have 'Amazon like' expectations from eCommerce stores, and advances in technology mean this functionality no longer out of reach for online retailers.

5. Conversion Rate Optimisation

CRO is nothing new - but in 2013 with competition never more intense, it's crucial that store owners don't waste traffic once it's arrived.

Made up of trends already mentioned - such as content strategy, mobile and personalisation - CRO adds the need to stay on top of technical developments and user expectations. For example: isolated checkouts have shown to have beneficial effects on conversion rate. Simple changes can make dramatic differences.

A/B testing and external user testing are more accessible as ever - store owners need to make an ongoing commitment to CRO, too much money is spent on acquiring new customers, only to lose them when they arrive at a store that doesn't work for them.

Simon Newing

Created on Monday February 25 2013 11:13 AM

Tags: e-commerce shopping web-development

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Passwords - Part One

Passwords - Part One

Passwords are everywhere. You need a password for your email. For Facebook. For your bank. For the iTunes store. For your favourite forum. And probably for a few tens of passwords for other miscellaneous sites too.

In this first part of a multi-part series, I'll be dealing with ways to choose a good password - or, perhaps, ways to choose a bad one.

So, what do you pick for your password? Hopefully you'll be aware that picking a word in the dictionary ("password" is still the most popular password, according to reports), or a person's name is a bad idea.

However, the old standby of adding a number is so well-known now that passwords like "Password1" (the most popular business password, owing to its use of a capital letter and a number, thereby satisfying most password rules) and "abc123" now show up amongst the most used passwords - and hence in the hackers' lists of the most obvious passwords to try.

In addition, all the people trying to guess passwords figured out long ago that swapping a letter O for a number 0 (and its obvious I/1, E/5 friends) are pretty obvious, so "passw0rd" isn't much more secure than the plain version.

Very well known, and hence obvious, are patterns of letters and numbers - "qwerty", "12345678" and "abc123" all show up in popular lists and are best avoided.

Kids/Spouses/Pets/Sport Club names and years are also fairly common, so if I know (or take a stab statistically) that you have a girl that's about six, "grace07" or "Grace07" or "Grace2007" - the most popular girl's name of that year - isn't going to last long against a determined hacker either.

Finally, clever little phrases - "trustno1" and "letmein" are so popular as to be not recommended, and, appropriately for a post on Valentine's day, "iloveyou" also shows up on most popular lists. Sweet, but insecure. Sorry.

So how to choose a better one that you'll remember?

Song lyrics or film quotes are an oft-cited idea - if you're a Hotel California fan, you could compress "Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends" down to its initial letters - "HmiTtsgtMb" - and if Tiffany makes you think of money and the Mercedes logo looks a bit like an asterisk, how about "Hmi$tsgt*b" - that is starting to look like a much more decent password.

Of course, the problem here is that you want to stay away from obvious songs (like Hotel California!) and obvious films. Favour that odd 1973 foreign film over Austin Powers quotes, please.

The very best password, however, is long and random. If your password is "GsH:oM6I0d!xMukI", the hackers are going to be guessing for a very long time indeed. Of course, the problem is: how on Earth are you going to remember that?

A password manager can be a good choice here - one that keeps your horrendously long passwords safe on your computer, and protects them with another password that you can remember.

Whilst in one way, that just moves the problem a little, it's still a good idea - it means that you're never telling anyone/any website (apart from your password manager) the key you need to unlock the very complex password that you actually give to Facebook.

It also means the hacker needs physical access to your password manager (probably on your computer itself) rather than being able to try to get into your Facebook account directly, which ups the difficulty considerably over what they need to achieve.

However, the real advantage of a password manager is that you don't need to use the same passwords for all websites. To know why this is a good idea, we need to know a little about how passwords are stored, and we'll cover that in Passwords - Part Two!

Neil Smith

Created on Thursday February 14 2013 09:19 AM

Tags: passwords

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Information Architecture as part of a user centred design process

Information Architecture as part of a user centred design process

Recently at a focus knowledge share I talked to the team about Information Architecture and its role within the user centred design process. I also talked through best practice methods and techniques that could be used within a digital project. I like to think of Information Architecture or IA as the art of organising websites or software to support usability. IA can be used outside of digital projects but this is what I focused upon.

Information Architecture can identify the goals of your website and help you to create a digital blueprint or wireframe of your potential users' process through your website. It is an important part of the strategy and solution design process right at the start of a web project. You can use it to eventually group up and define the taxonomy of all of the website's contents, products and features in a user driven way.

IA is just one part of the user centred design process, analysing your users needs and assessing the journey they want to complete on your website. It is using key usability principles such as visibility, accessibility and consistency to create the basis for what will become your final deliverable. The user centred design process as a whole incorporates a lot of real world testing to ensure no assumptions are made during the design process. IA starts off this real world testing at a very early stage, ensuring first of all you know the correct audience to test! Designers and developers must be experts in our fields, however we do not know often the intricacies of the end user and need to form our opinions on a basis of research to then take back to the client.

There is always a different amount of research required with every project. The methodology, processes and opinions of IA I am talking about just refer to common approaches rather than quoting from an exact guide to IA.

At the very beginning of any size IA process it is important to ask yourselves, your users and your client questions. What are the short term goals of the website? Why would people come to the website? We need at this stage to establish an audience, this is going to be very important as we will base the majority of our research gathering from this audience. At this point we have to really think through what different elements that make up a website's audience and how they will use the website differently from each other. You can create scenarios of them coming to the website, what their goals are and what difficulties they might have. From here we can gauge our competitors and start to address gaps in functionality in the market for the audience. This is only the start of your UX and IA journey, next you can start to define core content and the functional requirements of your website, this will lead you down a path of wireframes and lo-fi designs until you have your perfect blueprint for the website of your user's dreams!

Some of the core methods and techniques of IA were the reason I enjoyed it so much in university. Card sorting and content discussions with your peers either as part of the user group or as a facilitator is always fascinating and insightful. It helps to outline potential issues and golden points to your website that you have not thought of yet.

Creating sitemaps, wireframes and discussing the user flow throughout a website will help your designers. When they open the graphics tool of their choice they are equipped not only with their expert knowledge of the web but a knowledge of what the user needs and what goals have to be achieved by their design. Personas can often really bring a website to life, when you are discussing how best Jimmy the iPhone fanatic will achieve his goals of buying your client's products you can start to feel the website being out in the real world before it is fully created.

A full user centred design process is not always what the client has in mind when they bring a project to you, it is often the case that there is not a budget to go out and spend weeks creating personas and testing how the website flow using paper based designs. However small bits of IA and the user centred design process will always fall into a web-creative's design process, we want to create the dream websites for our users and the only people who know exactly what the dream is, is the users themselves.

Steve Fenn

Created on Thursday February 07 2013 03:38 PM

Tags: accessibility userexperience ux usability

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What's to come in 2013? Design predictions..

What's to come in 2013? Design predictions..

As a web designer, I owe my career to the internet and it's popularity but if I don't keep up with the ever growing market it holds then there could be trouble. It's down to me to ensure I stay ahead of the game by continually updating and streamlining my work to keep it relevant.
To do this I have to consider how web design might change. What may be popular in the future? which novelties are fading out?

A lot has changed in terms of web design over the past few years and as we wave goodbye to January (yes, already!) and delve deeper in to 2013 this growth is almost certain to continue.

Reasons behind change are varied but it is safe to say that developments in technology are one of them. WIth this in mind, here are just a few things that I think may remain or become popular in this new year..

Responsive design
O.K, so that was an obvious one but it has been said that just after next year over 50% of web traffic will come from a mobile device. It is becoming as important to please your mobile visitors as it is to please traditional web browsers.

Clean and efficient design doesn't look set to be disappearing anytime soon. People can't seem to get enough of the clarity it brings.

Big buttons
Expect large buttons now that touch screen has pretty much taken over, well, for commercial users at least. I know I'm not the only one using my mobile device to catch up on social networking on the way to work!

Larger images
Mobile devices are getting far better at loading big sites quickly so the web will no doubt see more and more large and high definition images. Also, resolutions continue to increase so smaller images simply don't look as good as they used to.

Engaging visitors
Social media and creating discussion are both becoming even more important. In order to keep up their profiles businesses are embracing various techniques across design, SEO, email marketing and social media.

I don't have a crystal ball but it's good to gather an idea on what lies ahead if we want to improve user experience. Just one year can bring a lot of change, especially in technology. So, it's important to us to always keep on top of it as it can shape the way we design, test and market our websites.

Jordana Jeffrey

Created on Monday February 04 2013 09:30 AM

Tags: web-design internet responsive

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Ticketing Systems

Ticketing Systems

We've recently launched a new ticketing system for our friends at Barriers Direct (, and it contains some interesting features, and some close integration with the rest of the back office systems, that I'll briefly outline here.

For those that don't know, a ticketing system is a little like a to-do list that can be shared amongst people, and records status as things change. For instance, if a client enquiry comes in, we can assign it to the most relevant person to deal with it. Perhaps they have to query something with accounts before responding to the client, so they can assign the query there. Accounts respond, and assign it back again -- and so on until the ticket is finally completed and marked as closed.

Every action is time stamped with who said what and when. Unlike email, the entire thread of activity is available to all relevant people at all times - it's not hidden away in people's Inboxes and Sent Items. For instance, there's no more thinking that you sent this task to Bob yesterday, but he's off today, and wondering if he did anything with it - you can check the ticket, and see that Bob forwarded it to accounts. Now, someone else can follow up in his absence.

As people do tend to check email very regularly, however, the ticketing system sends various emails to let them know there are things waiting for them - it emails people when tickets are assigned to them, and emails daily summaries of outstanding tickets, for instance.

The team at Barriers Direct use extensive reporting facilities within Quantum to keep track of their business, and tickets mean they can produce reports of how many requests come in, what the different types of requests are, and how long it takes to respond to them -- and how that all changes over time.

The ticket system is integrated right into Focus's Quantum website administration system, which manages the order system too, and that allows us some tight integration that wouldn't be possible with a 3rd party ticketing solution; lists of orders highlight those with tickets associated with them, for instance, and vice versa, from the ticket you can get to the full details of the order in just one click.

If you're interested in knowing more about a ticketing system, either for an existing or new website - please do give us a ring, or drop us an email and we'd be very happy to talk to you!

Photo copyright Andres Rueda, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Neil Smith

Created on Thursday January 31 2013 10:18 AM

Tags: website e-commerce web-development

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