James Dowen

How to make your website more accessible

From a users point of view, accessibility is one of the most important aspects of a modern website. An accessible website means that users who have learning difficulties, or may be impaired in a particular way, are still able to consume and enjoy the contents of the websites they visit. These users often use screen readers and other devices to digest the contents of a website.

Not only that, but accessibility is also a good marketing and business move. Google and other search engines use accessibility as a key ranking factor for websites today.

A professional web designer will consider this when crafting a website, so I’ve put together some tips below for achieving this:

The Language Attribute:

Set a lang attribute to the language your website is presented in on the opening <html> tag. For example, <html lang=”en”>.

Alternative Image Content:

It’s important that all images have alt attributes set on the <img> tag. This helps to describe, in text, what the image is – especially useful for those who can’t see images, or if an image doesn’t load.

Allow Zooming:

Especially on mobile devices, don’t set [user-scalable=”no”] on the meta viewport tag. It’s good practice to let a user have control over the web page, and they may want to zoom into a specific element they cannot see properly.

Use ARIA Attributes:

Elements such as aria-label=”What this button does” come in handy for elements that do not have a clear text meaning behind them, such as a <button> that only contains an icon.

Avoid Low Contrast Text:

Text on a background which causes it to have a low contrast is troublesome for some groups of disabilities and makes text hard or near impossible to read.

Use Tables Only For Data:

Luckily, the days of using HTML tables for layouts are long gone. But it’s best to make sure you’re still only using HTML tables for actual tabular data, and nothing else.

Crafting a leading eLearning platform for Scholar Hub

One of my longer term client web design/development projects has seen great growth since the beginning of our relationship. Originally tasked with creating an eLearning platform that allows students to learn about religion online, Scholar Hub quickly grew into a platform that allowed students of all ages to learn about any subject. My continued relationship with them has allowed Scholar Hub to offer:

  • Easy and intelligent search to find the right educator
  • A streamlined booking process for both the student andeducator
  • Quick communication via on-platform messaging
  • One-click future session bookings and payments
  • Instant AI-powered ID verification for educators
  • Advanced technological security
  • Secure card handling
  • Social feeds
  • A comprehensive learning space, allowing students/educators to video call, share screen, use an interactive shared whiteboard, message, and send files – all in one online platform.

Scholar Hub is still in its early days, but I’m excited to see where they go and support them on that journey.

If you’re looking to learn something new, or would like your children to learn something extra outside of school, then head on over to https://www.scholarhub.co.uk/.

Are you looking to have your own platform developed? Contact me to find out more today!

How to work remotely as Coronavirus strikes…

So COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is now a super real thing, and looks like it will have detrimental effects to our way of life, the economy, health, and so much more. In light of recent events, a lot of employers are looking at how their employees can work remotely. It’s a big change for a lot of them, but it’s something that should be embraced and comes with numerous benefits. As a remote worker, you:

  • Don’t have to spend time commuting, which could be 2 hours (or even more) for some people every single day
  • This means you save money on travel (fuel, trains, etc)
  • It also means you have more personal time. If you start work at 9am, and your commute doesn’t exist because you’re working from home, then guess what – you have plenty of free time up until 9am. It also means when 5pm arrives (or whenever you finish for the day), you don’t have to spend more time getting home – you’re already there
  • Can generally focus more and not get involved in office politics, and other pointless office tasks

I’ve worked remotely for at least 6+ years as a web designer/developer, and luckily I’ve being busy for every day of that so I’ve had no time to slack off. But below are my tips for working effectively from home, and creating that streamlined environment to get your work done.

Time management

If you’re new to working from home, then this is especially difficult. It’s extremely tempting to do some washing up, watch a film, not get out of bed, and so on. Unfortunately, do enough of that during working hours and your team will soon know about it through the volume of work you’re producing.

Be strict with yourself, and make sure you only do work between your allocated hours. However, you can always make the most of being at home during your lunch break (and any other breaks).

This is partly related to creating a good working environment…

A distraction free working environment

Yes, there are numerous distractions while working at home. Whether it’s the house work that needs doing, or that great new series you’re hooked on. In order to stop these distractions and temptations, it’s ideal to create a working environment to separate you from your private life.

I always stick to working in my home office. It creates separation from my personal life, and only includes work related equipment. This way, I can’t be tempted to switch on the TV or walk over to the dishwasher and empty it. However, not everyone has the luxury of a home office – but it doesn’t mean you can’t create your own separate work environment. Whether that’s a desk in the corner of the living room, or a dining table – as long as you’re not slumped on the sofa or in bed on your laptop, then it’s better than nothing.

This also helps with switching off, you can leave your working environment when the day is complete and spend time with your family.

Reliable technology

There’s nothing worse than working from home with a sub-standard WiFi connection or a really old computer. It slows your down and makes your work process unbearable. You will need the ability to take calls over the internet, upload files, send emails, all without your internet losing connection half way through.

This related to the distraction point above, but it’s always ideal to purchase a pair of noise cancelling headphones. It can block out the surrounding environment if others are at home with you, and also allows you to focus more in your own little bubble. I personally use the AirPods Pro – great piece of kit!

Depending on the type of work you do, a second or external monitor is a great way to make use of screen real estate. With more working space on your screen, you can have multiple windows open at the same time – thus boosting productivity in some cases.

Communication

If your team are used to seeing you face to face, then all of a sudden remote working can be a small shock to the system. Luckily, there are numerous solutions out there to keep you in touch with your team, such as Skype, Slack, Zoom and Google Hangouts.

It’s important that communication is maintained so everyone is aware of progress, and so that help/support can be given to you (or from you) where possible. This keeps all teams engaged.


Overall, to just remember to stay healthy and look after yourself as working remotely can also be a fast tracked way to becoming a couch potato!

On another note, I have a job that allows me to work from anywhere. If you’re looking for a web designer, web developer, or online software developer, then visit my main website to read more about me and get in touch!

Designing & developing my new website for 2020

It’s been at least a year since I even touched the design of my site, and with how fast the web moves forward in terms of both design and development – I thought the start of the year would be a good time to address the situation (go check it out at https://jamesdowen.com/).

My site currently ranks well for specific keywords, so the main challenge was maintaining those crucial rankings. One of the most important SEO ranking factors today is pagespeed, and with my old site scoring 99/100, this was pretty hard to match, let alone beat. This alone involved taking great care during the programming stage, and ensuring every asset was appropriately compressed and served, but not to the point where the assets lose too much quality and begin to look blurry.

The other is content. My site has always being a one page site since its inception, so I’ve kept that same structure and same content throughout (apart from changing a few words). This means the design refresh uses pretty much the exact same content as before.

Old version of jamesdowen.com

Another key concept was to include animated elements, fitting in with a modern web trend of creating engaging content. On desktop, we feature an animated particle blob effect that the user can control with their mouse. This is a quirky feature to help boost interaction. This isn’t present on tablet or mobile devices though due to performance issues.

Animated particle blob

As well as that, we have certain user controlled elements that are binded to scrolling events. The example below shows the / (forward slash) rotating with the speed that the user scrolls.

Rotating element on scroll

Further down, we have the services bubble, which essentially lays out my skillset surrounding a picture of desk/office space. Rather than it be displayed as a static image, I wanted to bring some life to this section. The background features a forever looping bubbling effect, creates with pure CSS, and each skill floating gently with a slight overlay.

Services bubble

Last, but not least, we have the menu and the start project/contact section. The particle explosion that takes place when opening and closing the start project area is something cool that I’m happy we adopted and managed to fit in.

Menu and contact sections

If you’re looking for a new website, then head to my very own new website at jamesdowen.com and I’ll be happy to help you. I’m a freelance web designer and developer, and I’m available to work on websites, web-apps and online systems.

My thoughts on the 2019 16 Inch MacBook Pro

Since 2017, pretty much all of my work was produced from the then-new 2016 15 inch MacBook Pro with the touch bar. I never switched right away, as I was a stubborn Windows user at the time and sworn by it, but after some temptation (well, peer pressure), I made the switch and bought the 16GB RAM model off Amazon at a slightly reduced price.

I never looked back, and my Windows tower PC has been locked away in the garage ever since. I’m not even sure it turns on now.

Anyway, fast forward to 2019 and I’m in love with the MacBook experience. So in love that I ploughed nearly £4,000 on a more specced our 16 inch MacBook Pro in November just gone.

The specification I ordered.

I’ve now used the 2019 model for just over a month, and it fulfills every one of my needs and brings some much welcomes improvements on the 2016 model, including;

  • The new scissor switch keyboard, which hopefully means I won’t have to take this laptop to Apple 3 times
  • The return of the escape key, which is so much more developer friendly
  • The 16 inch screen, of course. That extra screen space actually makes a huge difference
  • The extra power with the much higher spec configuration

The MacBook is perfect for me because it allows for portability within seconds, but also allows me to use in “desktop mode” while connected to my ultrawide external monitor (which is 90% of the time).

How to make the most of the dark mode craze using CSS

This is just a short post, but I had a question through my inbox recently about devices using dark mode. There’s a large rise in dark mode users across systems like iOS and MacOS especially, but how are websites reacting to this?

Well luckily for developers out there, there’s an option to run certain CSS when dark mode is detected on a users device.

So now we can start inverting our website colours and fitting in with the dark mode craze.

Bringing PTW Sports to the leading edge

Through a mutual connection in the USA, Gary Cohn of PTW Sports contacted me regarding building a new internal and external system to increase the efficiency of his business and to boost conversions – leading to more sales.

PTW Sports’ investment included a system that allowed for the following to happen:

  • Internal staff to design and create forms for the events that they run across the US, and the consulting services that they offer
  • These forms can then be published directly, allowing customers to view and fill out the forms
  • Form data is collected in the system, and processed so that it can easily be used for registers, imported into external software, and so on
  • Based on the data customers have entered, they will then be prompted to pay their fee. Depending on the option, this will be a one off fee, or the system allows them to create a custom tailored plan, paid over their choice of monthly term

After deployment of the system, which seen an instant success by bringing benefits to the company that they never even knew existed, Gary wanted to invest in the company website. The website is a key selling point for PTW Sports, as it’s a point of reference for all upcoming events, company information, FAQ’s, and also acts as a strong lead generation platform for the company. His old website was not performing, and looked even more outdated than it already did when the new system was deployed.

A wise move was made to move forward with the redesign and rebuild of this website, which is now live at https://ptwsports.com

Gary is really impressed with the look and feel of the website and the system, as well as all of the functionality that the system offers. He had the following to say about the service I provided:

“We have contracted with James on several critical projects for Play to Win. He developed programs and a site for us that made our company relevant, leading edge, and focused. Our site is clean and direct and our ability to be proactive with clients and prospects has never been better. We are so thankful and appreciative of everything he has done for us and we look forward to our next project.”

Blogging from a mile high…

Well technically, it’s 37,000 feet according to the screen above my head right now – with 1190km to go to my destination. But that’s nothing compared to the time I’ll be spending on a plane throughout March with the various planned business trips (and maybe partly leisure) I have coming up – including other parts of Europe, and a trip to India.

My problem is that I hate wasting time, and I find the time in the air to be dead time. There’s still no WiFi option on a lot of flights, and if there is it barely works, or if you’re in economy, then the leg room just doesn’t warrant using a laptop (unless you want neck ache for the remainder of your trip). I sometimes pick up .NET magazine, but I’m not one for reading books or magazines – so I soon get bored of that.

However, with no internet, an iPad Pro and an imagination that I struggle to switch off – I see it as a chance to catch up on some blog posts. I’ve so far written one, with this being the second, and I plan on writing at least one more after this. I can schedule these to publish through the upcoming weeks, so Google can at least think my blog is active when indexing. 

On another note, I’ve taken on some interesting clients recently – and I can’t wait to share the work I produce for them. These new clients include a large London based investment firm, as well as a project for a popular gaming YouTuber with a subscriber count of about 3,000,000. Oh, and there’s also a personal business project I’m working on with a partner – so I’m really looking forward to progressing on that and releasing that to the public.

A new website for Certes IT Recruitment

Certes approached me with the vision of bringing their current website at the time up to a more modern and sleek design, that better reflects the industry that they serve – IT recruitment. In a competitive market like this, it’s important that well established agencies like Certes maintain their high profile web presence with an update to date website to stay current. Below is how their website looked prior to design and development work:

As well as providing a new design, we also worked on eliminating many unnecessary pages, especially after they were advised of how easy it is to lose a users attention, and how simple navigation is vital to creating a positive user journey on any website.

The job searching process is more streamlined than before, allowing users to easily search for jobs through various filters. Following that, the simple application process is made simpler if the user has an account, allowing them to easily apply to jobs without having to fill in their information or upload their CV every time.

We developed an API alongside their job software provider to connect the two systems together, meaning when jobs are posted on their internal systems, they are also pushed to their main website. This works both ways; as when a user applies to a job, this application gets automatically sent to their internal software.

Content pages are also much easier to digest, with a reduction in lengthy text and the introduction of more relevant imagery.

Overall, Certes is well deserving of their long overdue redesigned and redeveloped website. Visit their new website at https://certes.co.uk/

Why you need a bespoke web design in 2019

There are numerous web designers and so called web designers out there today offering template or theme based websites to their clients. Of course there’s no problem with this if they’re up front about it, and if the client is willing to do this because of a limited budget or even a limited timeframe. But where possible, I’d always advise a client to go for a bespoke website design over using an out of the box template or theme.

Even if the designer is using a system like WordPress, a bespoke design can still be created and developed as a theme; it doesn’t just have to be a custom system that this service is offered with. Below are some points explaining why I always recommend a bespoke design to clients:

It’s unique:

By using an out of the box template, your website will essentially look the same as thousands of other websites using that same template. This includes any templates purchased from sites such as Themeforest for $60, such as the one below. The below template has over 400,000+ sales.

A bespoke design is completely tailored to your brand, which is carried across through every page and area of your website. It gives the designer true flexibility to really push the boundaries of your new website. Limitations on design will not exist with a bespoke option.

It’s optimised for speed:

Page speed is an ultimate ranking factor for modern search engine algorithms, so it’s extremely important that it’s addressed on all websites. Google and other major search engines constantly check how long a website takes to load on both desktop and mobile, and ranks it accordingly in results. This is great for the user as they get a fast web browsing experience.

Because a bespoke design doesn’t include any unnecessary code or resources once the website is built, this means that loading times can often be cut in half. Google’s own Pagespeed Insights tool is very useful for assessing the page speed of a website; it also gives tips on how to improve. As an example, check out the score of my own website below:

It’s future proof:

With an innovative bespoke website design that incorporates numerous modern design elements, it boosts its potential lifespan to over five years, as compared to around 2 years for a template based design based on their sluggish features.

It’s search engine optimised:

When a developer is working on the frontend of a bespoke design, they aren’t dealing with “code bloat” – making it easier for them to implement the necessary markup to help with on-page SEO. Not to mention the above page speed benefits that this also has, which ties in strongly with SEO.

It’s cost effective:

Although it may cost more than a template based website, it doesn’t mean its the wrong solution. When taking in the longer term benefits of SEO, the potential lifespan and everything else, it’s bound to be a greater return on investment for you and your business.

Remember, some web designers aren’t transparent and may be charging a hefty fee for your website despite only creating it based on a template.

If you have any questions or need help creating a bespoke website for your business, then get in touch with me.

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