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Responsive site design

Hello again,

This is just a quick blog post to say that the Firecrest Computing Services Website is now responsive and so will adjust to the screen size of the device on which you are viewing it. Try to access the site on your mobile, iPad or other device and you will see that the screen size seamlessly adjusts to fit the screen.

Making a site responsive – adjusting to the screen size on which it is being viewed – is becoming vital to the success of any Website. PC sales are declining and more and more people are only viewing the Web on their mobile phones, tablets or other media. Therefore, if you let users struggle to view your site on their mobile it is likely that they will just give up and disappear to another site and you have lost a sale. It also means that you do not need to design different sites for all types of screen size or device – you design one site and that site simply adjusts and changes to make it usable on different screen sizes or devices.

If you have a Website that is not device responsive then you are potentially losing sales. That is why all sites developed by Firecrest are now responsive as standard – if you need a Website and need it to work on all devices (which today is not really an option anymore, it is vitally important), then contact us.

If you have an existing Website that you would like to be made responsive, then we can do that as well. Again, just contact us for a discussion about making your Website responsive.

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Web applications

As well as Web design and Web development, I also design and build Web applications for clients with specific requirements that don’t fit the standard Web design packages that I provide.  These projects tend to be for clients who require ad-hoc software to meet a specific need, with more emphasis on databases, interactivity, and/or security. Some examples of applications that I worked on recently include:

  • An editable, interactive flow chart-based Web application. This application was for a client who needed to visually demonstrate the process of taking an initial research idea through to market. It allows users to click on the boxes to animate the chart, as well as drag and move the charts,  and for certain users to dynamically add processes to the chart. Web application Stoke-on-Trent - Flowchart application
  • A large database site using Drupal and CiviCRM for a non-profit making organisation to securely hold details of their members and to enable them to contact and keep track of payments. This site involved working with other developers on custom Drupal modules and to ensure appropriately high levels of security for data protection purposes.
  • A PHP/MySQL driven Web site for academics to upload, edit, and search articles that have been published on particular topics.

There are many other examples, and many others that I have yet to work on! Basically, whatever a customer requires I will build! The cost of training the customer to use the software is even built into the quote that I provide.

A custom-built application can be tailor-made to your business and can improve your work, help you to keep track of your data, and – importantly – help to increase your profits.

If you like the look of the examples above and need a Web application built for a particular requirement, then contact me and we can make your Web application a reality.

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PC and laptop repair

First of all, apologies as this is only the second post of 2012! I have been very busy with several large web application projects (more on those in a later blog post) and helping many, many people in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and beyond with PC and laptop problems.

There have been so many different computer problems that I have worked on over the past few months that it is impossible to list them all, but here are several examples:

  • Recovering data from accidentally formatted or corrupt hard drives (including some very important student coursework!)
  • Testing and replacing hardware (memory – even in ‘old’ PCs, hard drives, CD/DVD drives)
  • Fixing PCs and laptops (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7…) that will not boot up
  • Virus, spyware and malware removal (including the fake Internet Security 2011/2012 virus and variations)
  •  Installation and configuration of new operating system
  • Help and installation of free and open source equivalents of expensive software (virus protection, office software – even operating systems when I have demonstrated what the GNU/Linux operating systems can do)
  • Speeding up slow computers, laptops and PCs
  • Configuring various software applications on Apple Macs

And all from as little as £15!

If your PC or laptop is having problems, from software problems to not booting at all, then do contact us and we will see what we can do for you. We’ve helped many people who thought their computers were dead, so we will have it up and running again in no time.

Now to work on another desktop PC…


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Pencil and Pastel Portraits – Website launched

We have finished the first new Web site of 2012 – a fully content managed web site, with updatable, dynamic portfolio in HTML5 and PayPal shopping cart – for a local portrait artist.

Pencil and Pastel Portraits by Andy is now live (and Andy is taking orders if you would like to commission him for a unique gift!) so do take a look. If you are starting a business and would like a cost-effective Website, designed exactly to your specifications, to help to promote your business then take a look at our website design portfolio, our range of web design prices and packages, and contact us for a discussion.

Our clients for our computer tutorials in Stoke-on-Trent have now also built up. We have a number of regular clients who we help to get the most from their computers by teaching them how to do whatever they like on their PCs/desktops/laptops in their own home, tailored exactly to what they need. We will be providing some new testimonials for this service soon.

Hope your January 2012 has gone well – things are moving very quickly!


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Computer Tutorials in Stoke-on-Trent

Firstly, Happy Christmas to all of our customers and readers! We are working on a number of web sites and applications at the moment so in the new year there will be news about those.

A quick update to announce that we are now offering computer tutorials, tailored to your exact needs, on your own computer, in your own home. Whether you want to learn to use your PC more effectively, or you want to learn something specific – from general Internet security to spreadsheets or databases – Firecrest Computing Services can help. We will come to your house and teach you on your own computer. There are many tutorial services around, but most require you to visit a shop or library and use the computers there. Firecrest will come to your house and teach you exactly what you want to know on your own computer. This service is offered at only £20 an hour.

If you are interested in our tutorial service, then just contact us. We will contact you to discuss your needs and arrange a time to visit and get you using your computer more effectively!

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New websites launched and web design portfolio

Just a quick update as we have finished a few web sites lately:

Newcastle Players – a content management system based site with a fully  custom designed template for the Newcastle Players amateur dramatics society based in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. This site allows members of the society to update regularly and easily with details of their new plays and talks, as well as link to Youtube clips etc.

WG Builders – A custom designed brochure website for a building contractor based in Wrexham, including contact form and image gallery.

Blueprint Architectural Services – The client required Search Engine Optimisation for the site, as well as regular maintenance and updating for the site. The site is now on the front page of organic Google search results for their chosen keywords.

All of our recent websites can be viewed on our website design portfolio page. If you like the look of any of the sites and would like either a new site yourself, your existing site updated, or would like it to perform better in the search engines, then contact us now to discuss your requirements.

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Content Management Systems – The options

A previous post was about my fondness for the WordPress Content Management System (CMS) but said little about CMSs in general, so I have made that the focus of this post. I know the majority of people know about content management systems, and many use them, but there are still a lot of people who misunderstand exactly what a CMS can do and when to use them and hopefully this will help (as well as saying what Firecrest can do for you and where we can help of course!).

The first thing to point out is that even now, there are still a lot of people who automatically associate CMSs with blogs. People have said to me when enquiring about Web sites that as they do not want or need to blog, they do not need a CMS. I always explain, and show, to clients that a CMS is a lot more than just a blogging tool (as well as pointing out the benefits of blogging!). A CMS allows you, the client, to maintain almost all of the Web site yourself, without having to know about any of the code of the site. You can update whole web pages as well as blog posts, you can add, delete, and move images as well as text, and you can do it with the ease of a word processor. If you want to update the site yourself in the future and you want to update frequently, or you want to have several different people editing the site content, then you would definitely benefit from a CMS-based Web site. You get so much more than just a content editor with most CMSs too, you get access to a whole range of features and services for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), security, and version control.

Once you have decided that a CMS would be a good option for your site, the next question is: which one? There are many, many CMSs available, both free and paid, and if you have a Web developer on board, they will probably do the deciding (or at least recommending) for you. At Firecrest, I only use free, open source, widely-used CMSs, particularly WordPress and Drupal but also use others and work to what my clients need. The choice of CMS depends mainly on what you want to do with the site, for example, will the blog be the focus of the site or the pages?

Firecrest do not have our own in-house CMS, and this is a very deliberate decision. If you use a Web design company’s own in-house CMS, the issue is that as a client you are then to some extent tied to that particular CMS. CMS technology is constantly changing and by using a widely used, open source CMS, you are helping to future proof your site. There is always the risk that you will lose touch with your web designer/developer, or want to switch designers, and it can make it more difficult to get a new web developer on board if you have used a CMS that was designed, developed and only used by your previous design company. By using a proprietary CMS you are risking being stuck with an outdated, slow system. Using one of the free, open source, standards-based CMSs, you can guarantee that should anything happen with your designer, you will easily be able to find another with experience of the particular CMS. It also keeps costs down, there should always be support available, and the underlying framework of the CMS will be continually updated.

As well as deciding upon the particular CMS, another choice is whether you pay for your own web hosting and have the CMS software installed on the server or whether you go for a hosted option (for example, http://www.wordpress.com). Again, this is something that your designer/developer will go through with you – in many cases, the best option is to host the CMS on your own web hosting, and the developer will go through all of this with you (and will deal with all of it – Firecrest certainly do, we don’t expect you to have to worry about databases or whether a Web host supports PHP (or even what PHP is!), we will deal with all of that). Having your own hosted version provides the developer with much more flexibility to design a completely customised site for you, as well as allowing you to get the most out of the power and services providing by a CMS (Search engine optimisation, links to your social networking sites, interactivity, etc).

A hosted solution however, such as at WordPress.com, is very simple and allows you to choose from a range of design templates and to get up and running very quickly. You can even, for a small fee, have your own domain name (e.g. www.yourname.co.uk instead of yourname.wordpress.com). If you are looking for a cheap, simple, but still very effective way to get a Web site up and running quickly, that you will be able to edit from a web browser and are happy to choose from a ready designed template, then a hosted solution might be the best option. You can create a hosted site yourself, but a web developer can help you to get the site up and running very, very quickly, as well as explaining and training you to use the system. If you are looking for a site with a blog, don’t mind choosing from a standard design template and having your site hosted elsewhere, but don’t want to have to spend the time wrestling with setting up a system, then contact us. We will get you up and running within a day, and can sort out a domain name for you. You will have less flexibility in how the site looks and fewer features, but as a result it costs less than our complete web development packages. This is what we have done for Shaun Hamilton, a horror fiction author, and the hosted site is available at: http://shaunhamilton.wordpress.com

If a CMS sounds like just what you need for your Web site, either a complete solution or a hosted site, then contact Firecrest and we will discuss with you the best option for your particular site. We will also train you to use and edit the site effectively after it is complete and will always be on hand to perform any required updates.

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Interface design and prototyping

One thing that we make a priority, on any web or software project on which we are working, is to prototype the website and interface. This ensures that the client is a part of the whole process and allows them to see, and use, a version of the site or software at a very early stage in the development process. It is easier, and better for everyone, if any errors or required changes are discovered early in the project. It is even better if the site is right as soon as the actual development starts, and prototyping helps this a great deal.

How we start the prototyping process obviously depends upon the project. The key thing is to allow the client to see something of the design as early as possible. However, we always start by discussing with the client about their business strategy, their aims for the site/software, the potential audience, an analysis of their competitors, the design and content requirements, and so on. Depending on the size of the project, we also develop and run through user scenarios with the client – ensuring that before anything starts, we all have an idea of how and when the users will use the site and what they will use it for. We will work with a client for as long as is required to ensure they, and us, have confidence that we understand the overall aims of the site/software.

Once we have this, we can actually start prototyping. We are not Luddites (well, not in terms of software development anyway!), but we usually start with good old pencil, paper, and post it notes. Sketching a rough design of the site is very, very useful and can even be discussed with the client. For the content of the site, particularly for larger sites, we use wireframes. Wireframe sketches are perfect for working out the information flow of the site, the navigation structure, and the functions. For each page, we also provide a short description including details such as where the navigation will point to, what a form will do, and how it will change if the site includes dynamic content. It is important though that the client knows that this is not what the site will actually look like! Wireframes are simply used to start the design process for us and the discussion process with the client. It helps everyone if something is down on paper, even if it is a long way from what the finished software will look like. One thing we are very careful to do is to avoid jargon in the words that are used on the prototypes and in discussions. This only ends up confusing the client or user before we have even started!

The next stage for us is to create an actual interactive prototype that the client can see and use on the computer. This allows the client to see and actually use and click links on the design. For this we have used all sorts of tools depending on the size of the project and the client’s needs, ranging from IPlotz (an online tool) to Microsoft Powerpoint or OpenOffice Impress (you may be surprised by how useful a Powerpoint presentation with click-able hyperlinks included is!). As well as the client we like, where possible, to actually test the prototype with actual users of the site. This allows us to test the behavioural aspects of the site and is particularly important for software application projects.

Overall, the whole process is about communication. Communication between myself as a developer and the designer(s), between us and the client(s), and between us and the potential users.

In a later post we’ll talk about the following stages that we go through in a website or software project. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss a project with us and experience it for yourself as a client, then do contact us.

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No blogging from Firecrest for a while due to a very heavy workload over the last month. I haven’t even had the time to do any birding so my year list has stalled as well as my blogging! While finishing off the last project and before starting off a couple of new software projects (more details in the next blog post), I have been thinking about WordPress (as well as listening to Richard Skelton, This Heat and Rinse.fm podcasts of course).

I have used WordPress for many sites and really like it. I’ve found it easy to use for development and also, importantly, for clients. In fact, I love it so much I’m probably going to be heading down to the WordCamp conference in mid July. It will be good to get out and about and meet other developers and users. Some of the sessions do look very interesting, in particular Advanced SEO with WordPress and Create a Unique Theme in just 1 hour. Firecrest have a lot of experience in WordPress theme creation so if you are are already using WordPress with an installed theme and want it changed to fit in with the look and feel of your site or logo/design then we can help – just contact us and we will be glad to help and quote for any work.

If you are using WordPress, it is advisable to go beyond the 5-minute install and make sure your site is at least a little more secure. Again, we at Firecrest can help you so do contact us for any help in setting up a WordPress site. However, if you are new to WordPress then the following article – secure your WordPress blog in 5 minutes – is very useful for the basics.


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Is your wi-fi network secure?

How secure is your home wireless network? According to The Register, 2 out of every 5 home users don’t have a clue how to change the security settings on their home wireless network: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/16/wi_fi_security_puzzles_consumers/

The perils of leaving your wireless network unsecured and open to anyone are many, including this cautionary tale from the USA: Raid underscores Wi-Fi privacy risks

There are many tips for securing your wireless network, including:
– Your wireless router will usually require an administrator password to access and therefore change the security settings for your network. Make sure that you set an admin password if one is not set and, if one is set, change it from the default password.
– Turn on WPA2 or, if not possible then WPA, encryption.
– Change the default network name/SSID and, where possible, don’t broadcast the SSID at all. Broadcasting the default name (which is usually the router manufacturer’s name) provides information about your network that it is safer if people do not know (and if you have not changed your other default settings you are just making things easier).
– Enable MAC address filtering so that only the MAC addresses of your home devices are allowed access.
– Think about where you position your router to minimise where and how far the signal is broadcast.
– When you are not using your wireless network, simply turn it off.

There are many more wireless security tips and these are just some of the basics that should help you if you are setting up a new network. If you are setting up a wireless network and need some help, then just contact us and Firecrest Computing Services can help you.

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