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Rachel McCollin Interview

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Rachel McCollin (@rachelmccollin) is a writer and web developer specializing in responsive and mobile WordPress development. She runs a web design agency, Compass Design, and has worked for a variety of clients in the UK and internationally. She has had two WordPress books published: WordPress Mobile Web Development Beginner’s Guide and WordPress Theme Development Beginner’s Guide, both aimed at relative newcomers to WordPress. Her third book, WordPress: Pushing the Limits, for advanced and professional WordPress developers, is due to be published in June 2013. She’s a regular contributor to Smashing Magazine, wptutsplus and dev.opera.com and an active member of brumgirlgeeks in Birmingham, UK.

How did you first get into web development, and at what point did WordPress enter the picture?

I first got into web development in 2001 when I was working for the Labour Party — I was asked to join the editing team for their general election site and I took the opportunity to learn some HTML while I was at it. A while after this I designed websites for learners when working in management development, which prompted me to consider going into web design and development full time. I set myself up as a sole trader in February 2010 and formed my company, Compass Design, in September of that year. By then I was starting to develop more and more sites in WordPress for clients who wanted to be able to update and manage their own site. By 2011, I was working exclusively with WordPress.

As the head of Compass Design, you’ve chosen to specialize in mobile and responsive WordPress design. Where did the idea come from to focus on this area specifically, and has specializing helped set Compass Design apart from the pack in terms of positioning and winning clients?

To be honest I can’t really remember! I know I had a client in 2010 who wanted a mobile version of their site — this was before responsive design had taken off, so we used a plugin. After that I started taking an interest in mobile design and development because I was increasingly using my own phone to access the internet. I gave my first talk on the topic at WordCampUK in July 2011 after which it seemed to make sense to develop this area and focus on building responsive sites for clients. I was lucky that this new technique was emerging as my business was growing, as everyone was in the same boat and the more established agencies didn’t have any more experience in responsive design than I did — in fact, not having years of doing things another way gave me a bit of an advantage in some ways.

I think it has given me a slight edge, as I’ve definitely picked up clients who’ve seen my writing and that gives them confidence in my ability before they even speak to me. But as with any business, what wins me clients (exclusively referrals, these days) is providing a great service and taking time to understand what my clients’ real needs are.

How do you typically convince would-be clients that they need to bring their site into the mobile age, and do you ever encounter any resistance to the idea?

It helps that I don’t charge extra for making a site responsive, I see it as part of my offer, so it’s included. I find that if I ask a client to hand me their phone and point the browser at a responsive site I’ve developed, that convinces them pretty fast. Many clients don’t think they need a responsive site until they see it, and if they’re ambivalent at first, when they hold their own site in their hand, there’s always a ‘wow’ moment. So I’ve been lucky not to encounter any resistance!

Where do you see designer-developers going wrong most often in their approach or implementation of responsive design, and what pitfalls should they be most mindful of avoiding?

I don’t think that there are examples of people ‘going wrong’ as such, but I do think that the way responsive design is approached is evolving and designers and developers need to keep up with that. For example, when we started writing media queries, they were always based on the iPhone’s dimensions, and after a while that expanded to accommodate iPads and other large tablets. But now there are so many devices of different sizes that the breakpoints for media queries should be set at the screen width where the design breaks, not at the width of one specific device.

However I do think there’s one area where designers of mobile-specific sites (as against responsive sites) get it wrong, and that’s when they don’t make all of the desktop content available to mobile users. Some big brands still make that mistake and it drives me nuts.

You’re the author of WordPress Mobile Development Beginner’s Guide, WordPress Theme Development Beginner’s Guide, the forthcoming WordPress: Pushing the Limits, and also have a novel on the back burner. What part has writing played in your life, and how has it dovetailed with the knowledge and experience you’ve built through your design-development work?

I’ve always loved writing. At school I loved writing stories and mini-novels and I’ve planned and started quite a few novels in my time; this is the first one I’ve actually finished, and someday I hope to see it published. In just about every job I’ve ever held, I’ve spent a lot of time writing, partly because colleagues have recognized that it’s something I do well. Now I’ve had two WordPress books published, another due out in June and have written articles for a variety of online journals. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to combine my work designing and developing websites with writing, and can only thank Packt for approaching me with the proposal for my mobile WordPress book which kicked it all off.

Tell us a bit more about your Mobile Development book, and who would benefit from reading it.

The book is aimed at people who’ve got some experience using WordPress to build websites, know their way around the admin and can maybe write a simple theme, but have little or no experience of mobile development. It takes them through the process of making a desktop site mobile-friendly, looking at plugins, media queries, and web apps, and has content that’s relevant for developers who don’t work in WordPress but want to learn about responsive design.

Are there any cases where a designer-developer shouldn’t be putting responsive design best practices to use in 2013?

There are some scenarios where a site’s users have very different needs on different platforms, in which case I would develop separate themes for mobile and desktop. But this should be based on mobile/desktop users having a defined need to complete different processes, not on the needs of the site owner to speed the site up, save money or avoid the complexities of making an existing site responsive. In 90% or more of cases, responsive design is the way to go, in my humble opinion!

Where would you point a reasonably new WordPress designer-developer looking to get up to speed with responsive and mobile friendly design, and are there any essential shortcuts, plugins, or other helping hands they should keep in mind?

The default WordPress theme, Twenty Twelve, is responsive, and picking that apart can help developers understand how a responsive theme works. However I think the basics of responsive design are independent of any CMS so I would encourage theme developers to read Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte, which will show them how to write media queries and create a fluid layout. Another great but not so well-known book is Stunning CSS3 by Zoe Mickley Gillenwater, which I read before Ethan’s book and which taught me a lot about responsive design.

As far as essential plugins are concerned, the three I use the most are Responsive Select Menus, which turns navigation menus into select boxes, Mobble, which lets you send different content to different devices using conditional tags, and WP Responsive Images, a really clever plugin that automatically sends smaller image files to mobile devices without relying on user agent sniffing.

You’ve also presented on the case for creating WordPress-powered web apps. What makes WordPress a good basis for a web app, and are there any key tweaks or streamlining measures a designer-developer should keep in mind when adapting WordPress to web app scenarios?

The main reason I would recommend WordPress for web apps (or many other CMSes, for that matter), is the fact that you can use a separate theme for your web app while still having all of your content in one place in the database. This means that any overlapping content between the main site and the web app doesn’t need to be duplicated. It also makes it easy to let users switch to the ‘main’ site on mobile devices and see a responsive site as against a shrunken version of the desktop site. In addition to this, there are loads of WordPress plugins out there providing the kind of functionality web apps require: ecommerce, mapping, forms, events management, and much more.

How well does WordPress work out of the box as a mobile/multi-device platform, and are there any improvements you’d like to see in future versions to better solve the challenges that the mobile web presents?

WordPress is pretty good as a multi-device platform, given that it comes with a default theme that’s fully responsive. For the front end, I think the main area for improvement is around image management. While there are plugins that deliver smaller image files to mobile devices, I’d like to see WordPress’ media management integrate with the proposed new picture element to give finer control over the way images are used and displayed. This is a way off yet, and is reliant on the W3C developing the proposed element further.

For the admin system, I’d like to see it being easier to manage a WordPress site on an iPad. There’s a great WordPress app for smaller mobile devices, but on the iPad I tend to use the browser to interact with WordPress and there are some aspects of that that don’t play nicely. I know that the community of WordPress core developers are working on these though, which is great news.

Finally, you’ve recently written two books that focus on users at two polar extremes of familiarity with WordPress. What challenges were there in communicating about WordPress for beginners versus seasoned veterans looking to push the envelope of what’s possible with WordPress?

Working on these two books at the same time has been a real challenge. One day I’m writing guidance for novice WordPress developers to help them build their first theme, and the next I’m delving into PHP to find ways advanced users can push WordPress further for complex client projects. The first has been enjoyable because it allowed me to recap my own theme development skills and ensure they were up to date, while the second has been a great learning experience for me experimenting with aspects of WordPress and investigating techniques developers are using to push WordPress way beyond its original function as a blogging platform. This book, WordPress: Pushing the Limits, has been my greatest professional challenge to date (not least because of the tight writing deadlines) but also one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done and it’s inspired me to push further with the work I do for clients.

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I'm an independent writer, designer & content producer. Currently pummelling a book into submission.

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