February 22, 2011
We’re in an era of tool overload. Not only does there seem to be a tool to accomplish every imaginable task, but there are also tools to make these tools easier to use. Some of these tools are great – well-built and feature rich – while others just get in the way, and we as web designers don’t have the time to keep up with them all. So what I’ve done is compile my top seven tools that my business and work thrives from.
Really. I would be lost without these tools.
Okay, we all know what Basecamp is, and we’ve all seen it on lists like these before. But Basecamp really has served me well. 37 Signals, Basecamp’s parent, has helped usher in the whole software as a service concept, but that’s not the real reason why I’m such a big fan. Basecamp has made it easy to manage the communication and file sharing needed for web design projects. The fairly simple interface is a snap for most clients, and the organized approach to messaging has allowed me to drain my email inbox of the many requests that would otherwise get lost.
There are a few things I wish Basecamp would do better, namely project templates and customizable weekly status updates, but as a tool, it does what I need it to do. The companion products, mainly Highrise, are also worth a look, especially with recent interface updates.
Creating contact forms for client projects used to be the biggest pain. I’m sure we’re all familiar with formmail and other scripts, and I’m equally sure we all remember the countless hours we used to spend diagnosing various server errors caused by these scripts. But fortunately those days are over. Wufoo has saved me countless hours in the form generation process. I can login, create a new form, and add fields within seconds. The tons of features for payments, integration, notification, and logic have also gone a long way in helping me to create some pretty advanced data gathering solutions for clients. The storing of data and the numerous export options are also a big plus for when clients lose data on their end.
The drawbacks to Wufoo are price and form organization. I can’t let clients go in and change their own forms, because I’m limited in the number of user accounts, and the next step up is quite hefty in terms of cost. The forms also aren’t organized very well. You can’t group different client forms. The only way to sort through what you’ve created is a very simple keyword filter. To a lesser extent, it’s somewhat irking that you can’t customize the @wufoo.com address that is sent out from the system, but that is an understandably difficult problem to overcome, and truthfully, I’ve never had anyone complain about it.
Time. We all value it. We all claim not to have enough of it. But how many of us truly track what we spend this precious resource on? Harvest is the tool I use to help me track the time spent on different parts of my business from client projects to sales to technical support. The straightforward interface allows for the creation of clients and projects, and within those I can track time and expenses. The reporting tool is also useful in looking back on a project to see how long it took, where time was spent, and who did what.
The ability to operate from multiple locations seamlessly is powerful. With laptops and other mobile devices, we can sit at home or in a coffee shop and knock out design work on the fly. But more than once I’ve needed to access that one file on my office desktop that wasn’t on my laptop. Work would grind to halt as I’d contemplate how to get this file – beyond driving to the office.
LogMeIn is a remote computer application that is one of the best I’ve seen in the field. The features allow for full screen viewing and file sharing, and it all operates from within the browser. The best part: the free version is really all you need for basic remote computing.
It’s official. WordPress is more than a mere blogging platform. It’s a content management system. And it’s one of the easiest I have yet to use while still maintaining the flexibility and power needed to develop intelligent websites.
There are two things that stand out about WordPress which cause me to keep coming back to it project after project. The first is its enormous community of developers. These people work tirelessly to create awesome plugins that extend the versatility of WordPress. The second is the intuitive design of the control panel interface. I’ve had clients tell me what a relief it’s been to move from something like Dreamweaver or FrontPage to a real content management system like WordPress. Never have I had someone confused or angry with its functionality.
Of course there are drawbacks to WordPress, but for small to midrange projects, it will likely be my go-to content management system for the foreseeable future.
For post-project support, website maintenance, and hosting issues, Zendesk is the way to go. Clients simply email their requests to a support address and then Zendesk automatically converts it to a new ticket. The control panel provides numerous ticket views along with the capability of having multiple support people at the helm.
The best part about a tool like Zendesk is that it integrates with Harvest to let me track time spent on specific tickets. This goes a long way when I need to review the details of an issue and to determine what to bill.
Oh no, not the iPad. I’m sure it’s been talked about to death, but it’s an excellent tool for both handling low grade tasks and meeting with clients. I use my iPad to organize all of my tasks related to reading blogs, checking social media, and reviewing other secondary areas of my business. This enables me to de-clutter my primary computer. Most of the apps available can handle these tasks, and it’s nice to be able to toss the iPad out of the way when I need to get real work done. Even more, there’s an app for just about all of the other tools mentioned above.
The iPad is also great for onsite client meetings. Taking notes isn’t as difficult as it may seem at first, and the iPad can serve as a portable showcase if I need to present designs, concepts, or ideas to a client. Furthermore, the iPad makes you look professional. Compare that frayed old notebook to the sleek (and expensive) compactness of the iPad. You get the picture.
But yes – it is expensive for such a simple device.
Tools make our lives — and our businesses — easier to run. I use the seven above on a regular basis to manage and keep track of my web design projects, and while these tools have served a consistent role in my business, it’ll be interesting to see what I’ll add to (or remove from) this list in the months and years to come.
What about you? What tools do you use to get the project done?
Have a question or comment about this post? Drop me a line!