Five Questions with Vitaly Friedman

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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You probably recognize his name, but if you don’t, you certainly recognize his work. Smashing Magazine is a juggernaut in the design and development web publishing world, and soon to cross over into traditional publishing as well. Vitaly is the most public figure behind Smashing Magazine, and I got the chance to ask him some questions I have always wanted to. Read on for my questions about naming posts, the strange meta nature of our work, and even the server power behind SM!

Chris: I like to rip on “list posts” and “roundups” in the design writing community sometimes, because I feel it’s a cheap ploy for traffic without any effort or voice. Smashing Magazine though, is one of the exceptions to the rule since your authors articles, even when roundups, are typically very comprehensive and full of original writing.

Vitaly: Yes, Chris, I see where your question is coming from. Indeed, at the moment we do see a huge problem with the content on the Web. Lists certainly dominate the scene and are used extensively to generate traffic, but in most cases they don’t deliver valuable, high-quality content that would let the blog / magazine grow and build a community around it.

We haven’t invented the lists back in 2006, but we did take this “lists” format to a new, more usable, advanced level. Over the last months we’ve been trying to focus on a solid mix of very different kinds of articles – advices, case studies, tutorials, insights from practice, original ideas and resources.

We strongly believe that the time of pure lists is now (finally) gone; pure link lists aren’t interesting any more, because popular design blogs invest a lot of time in research, preparation, writing and presentation of such articles. Lists are important, because they help to structure the Web, making it possible for users to keep in touch with recent developments and find useful information out there. This information needs to be sorted, edited, presented – and that’s exactly what most “good” lists manage to do.

Besides, lists still work and if you have some treasures that you are willing to share with your readers, it’s only right to do so, but you always need to strive for unique content, not just produce compilations for the sake of it. The more unique your content is, the more respect you’ll gain from your readers. That’s what it’s all about; sites that produce a list after list are doomed to vanish from the blogs landscape very soon.

Chris: I’d like to hear how you feel on the subject. For example, take these two fake post titles: “15 Amazing WordPress Admin Hacks!” or “Customizing the WordPress Admin Area” which could be for the exact same article. Which would be more successful?

Vitaly: Of course, the first one would attract more attention from a random user – no question about that. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be more successful, too. It depends on your ultimate goal – for instance, we have a major problem that many discussions on Smashing Magazine’s comments are quite disappointing, because we have many users from social media who aren’t really interested in our posts, but still check it out – either because the story made it to Digg’s front page or for any other reason.

If you want to strengthen your community and provide a nice place to discuss ideas presented in the post, it’s better to use titles like “Customizing the WordPress Admin Area” which would attract people that are truly interested in the topic. Also from the SEO point of view, that title is better. So essentially it depends on the context and your goals.

Chris: You have a book coming out, which looks like it’s going to be loaded with good stuff. Much like the website itself, many of the chapters are outsourced to other writers. How has that experience been? If this first book is successful, is traditional publishing something you are going to continue with (e.g. more books)?

Vitaly: the production of the book was a very intense process and a very exciting project. The Smashing Book is a result of the cooperation of creative and talented designers, writers and readers across the globe, making the Smashing Book a unique and very special book for designers and developers. We had some problems, but overall it was truly amazing to help all the little pieces come together, improve it over and over again, to end up with a solid, useful result. We hope that we did at least some things right.

In fact, it seems that we have experienced almost every single problem that can happen to a publisher when preparing a book: missed deadlines, chapters that were delivered after deadlines and still didn’t meet our quality guidelines and therefore were rejected and re-written by us, problems with the layouter and many many other things. It took much more time than we expected and caused much more problems that we were anticipating. Last three months were very hectic, but we have never given up and stubbornly worked through it.

We are very excited about the feedback from the readers and their opinions about the result of our little project. We tried our best to create a useful, interesting and exciting book for designers and web developers, but it’s up to users to decide if we did a good job or not. Traditional publishing is definitely an option, but we want to see how our first book will go first.

Chris: I’m curious if you face difficulty in growth or reader engagement at this stage in Smashing Magazine’s life. I can imagine viewers feeling like “I would comment…. but it will just be lost in an ocean of comments.” or “I don’t even need to bookmark SM posts in Delicious anymore, since I’d be pretty much bookmarking every single article.” Are these issues you face?

Vitaly: Yes, we do face similar issues at the moment. As a publisher, we always happy about professional discussions that are taking place in our comments section, but often it’s hardly possible, because there are too many comments. Still, we encourage our readers to participate and we also offered them a nice community forum where discussions indeed take place. In fact, we are planning some changes in our comments section very soon, so we hope to have tackled this issue in September – October.

However, we do not face the problem with social media. From the very beginning we’ve tried to do our best to provide users with useful high-quality content and it seems that our users respect that and forward links to our articles via social media – be it Delicious, StumbleUpon or Twitter. We appreciate every single bookmark, vote and tweet and I think that since we try to publish articles on a wide variety of design-related topics, it is hardly likely that many users will bookmark every single article on SM.

Chris: Writing about web design and development I find strangely meta some days. For example, publishing an article about web form usability and then seeing that some of your own forms don’t follow the tips. Or publishing an article about CSS sprites but noticing that on your own site you aren’t taking advantage of this everywhere you probably should be. Do you find this comes up a lot for you? Do you end up using stuff posted on Smashing Magazine right on the Smashing Magazine website itself?

Vitaly: Absolutely. When updating the site or discussing some front-end / back-end issues with my colleagues or friends, I always refer to Smashing Magazine as my first source. Since we have a very strong quality control, only manually hand-picked resources are presented in our posts which makes it plausible to search there for answers to problems related to design and web-development.

Of course, as web designers, we need to learn every single day and improve our skills by observing what other professionals do and, more importantly, how they do it. In fact, that’s exactly what the main purpose of Smashing Magazine is – a large platform where ideas can be exchanged and shared and where best design and programming practices are presented. We also learn from our articles and the articles in the Web design community every single day and if we find problems with our own site, we try to solve them in order to improve overall usability and user experience of the site.

Chris: I imagine your bandwidth usage is pretty huge. What kind of technology do you have in place to keep Smashing Magazine up and running and snappy, anything fancy?

Vitaly: We have a customized server cluster solution which has been installed, configured and is being monitored by our administrator Rene Schmidt. Overall, we have 7 servers now and we probably will have to purchase even more servers next year.