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Stuart Brown of Modern Life

Sunday, 4 February 2007 interview modern life

Today I got the opportunity to talk to Stuart Brown, a professional web developer and blogger. We cover his site: Modern Life, single-column layouts, the never-ending ASP.NET/PHP/Other platform decisions, homebrew content management systems, social media, effort-to-success blogging ratios and cute animals.

Oli: For those few who don't recognise you Stuart, from Modern Life fame, please tell us who you are, what you do professionally and what you're working on personally.

Stuart: My name is Stuart Brown, I'm 24, and I'm a British web developer and blogger currently living in Manchester, UK. By day I work for a company called Expansys as a .NET Developer, and by night I run the popular weblog, Modern Life.

I spend most of my personal time researching and writing for Modern Life, but I run a few other blogs and sites as well, including new music weblog Fuzznut, and tech news aggregator teXpy (pronounced tech-spy). Modern Life manages to soak up most of my time, however.

Oli: Modern Life has a beautiful layout. The older layout had a lot more information on it so did you have any moments when you thought going for the single-column-layout was a bad idea or wouldn't work? If so, how did you convince yourself to stick with it?

Stuart: Switching to single-column saved a lot of headaches from a design point of view – it allows for much cleaner visual impact. Everything from the double-column layout is still there – it's just been moved down to the bottom of the page. 2 or 3 column layouts do work great for some sites – they help increase the amount of time people stick around by presenting them with more options 'above the fold'.

In the 2007 redesign I wanted to drastically simplify the layout and remove anything that wasn't absolutely necessary – gradients and rounded corners included. This also let me implement one of the coolest things about the design – it's not immediately obvious, but since everything is built out of transparent PNGs I was able to script the CSS to rotate the colour scheme. The site will look different depending on the time of year – from cold blues and greys in the winter to vivid greens and oranges in the summer, all changing automatically.

Oli: In a recently post, you shot down .NET and I rebuked. I do respect that different platforms suit different development styles and also what they're going to be used for. How do you chose what you're going to use for your own projects? Are you now "limited" to Linux-based languages and frameworks (PHP, Rails, et al) because you've bought into the that platform?

Stuart: I'd certainly agree with the sentiment that different platforms suit different development environments and situations – but I'm hardly limited to one specific platform. In my professional web development I code exclusively in C#/ASP.NET on Windows systems – on personal projects, it's principally PHP on Linux.

While I'm certainly no Linux fanboy, I do favour PHP for its speed benefits. IIS with .NET is a powerful platform, but the sheer simplicity of Apache and PHP really does leave ASP standing when performance is an issue. I prefer the hacking/scripting approach to development with PHP, as well – I don't like waiting for stuff to compile.

On the other hand, this sort of development would cause problems where there's more than one developer working on a project – in this case, the object-oriented, more structured approach works well. I imagine programmer types are a lot more comfortable in Visual Studio, too – and, I have to confess, it's a great IDE.

There's no simple answer to choosing development platforms – usually each project is different, and depending on who you're working with, it's best to choose whatever you're most comfortable working with.

Oli: You've taken the brave step of making your own content platform in PHP for Modern Life. I've noticed several people talking about the absence of comment system so I specifically wondered if that was on its way or if you've opted for silent review by design. Is development on the current version "finished" or are you planning to add more features to bring it more in-line with other platforms?

Stuart: The blogging platform I've developed is far from complete – but I like it that way. It's very malleable, and as such I've got complete control over the smallest aspect. Development is far from over on the system – it's continually evolving as my requirements develop. I hope one day to get it to 'release' standard, with all the edges polished off – then I may make it public.

The absence of comments is by design – although I may test the addition of comments in the future, they present a number of issues that may be better left undisturbed – spam, principally – comment moderation, flames, and to be honest I prefer direct email communication to public commentary. It's more personal. I find Digg and the rest of the social bookmarking sites offer plenty of scope for public discussion, in any case.

Oli: With Modern Life, are you at that fabled stage where you no longer have to work at plugging your newest articles? You are extremely successful on Digg with some of your more mainstream articles. For example, "The Demographics of Digg" was sucked up and did very well. Do you sometimes find yourself tempted to write articles targeted at a particular audience just for the exposure or would you say that example was made purely out of interest and research? How do you choose what to write about in general? Stunning pie charts, by the way =)

Stuart: Cheers! There's been a lot of talk about how a 'Digg culture' can help with site promotion, and a lot of my fans found my site through Digg, so I will often find stuff gets submitted there. As far as targeting content is concerned, I think it helps – but it's hard to write anything without having at least some idea of who your audience will be.

I will occasionally publish Digg-bait with at least a passing hope of being Dugg, but find the articles that are most successful are those where I write something that genuinely interests myself, and that which can be presented well. Digg is all rather short-term: less-targeted, more persistently interesting content can be a great source of traffic, links, and readers in the long term.

Oli: Using the same example, do you find the number of hours you put into the article directly correspond to its success or are topic-interest and exposure always going to get more people's attention?

Stuart: Absolutely not! Some of the articles I write for the site take days of data collection, analysis, and production – others are put together very quickly. I've had articles that have taken days to write achieve no links and very little attention, and some articles that I wrote in minutes that have got thousands of Diggs. It can go either way.

Overall though, I suppose it's the better-produced, illustrated and researched articles that do perform better – but sometimes it's the short posts with immediate impact (such as the hastily-assembled but zeitgeisty Web 2.0 Colour Palette I compiled back in August) that gain popularity.

Oli: Something fun to finish on: fluffy kittens or cute puppies and why?

Stuart: Fluffy kittens. Puppies have more of a tendency to make a mess, and I suspect I may be a cat person anyway. Dogs require far too much attention – walkies, fetch, etc – so I'd probably never find the time to blog!

Oli: Superb answer. My cat, Suzie, approves of this choice. Thank you for taking the time to give me your views over this wide spread of topics and I wish you the very best of luck with Modern Life and your other projects.