xScope 2

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Simply put, xScope is a back-pocket, time-saving utility for designers and developers created by designers who understand the nature of working on screen. I haven’t written much about the software I use. But once in a while I come across something that’s so useful, I’m compelled to spread the word a little further. And the latest update of xScope to v2.0 adds some really nice enhancements worth drawing me out of hibernation.

If you haven’t seen or used xScope before, I’d describe it as a simple set of mini tools or widgets that help measure, size, or align anything on-screen. Any of xScope’s little semi-transparent widgets can be invoked individually or in combination. Once visible, they remain on the surface of your screen, floating above any other currently open apps.
Included in xScope’s mini arsenal are rulers, and guides, and loupes, oh my. Rulers help measure stuff (duh), Guides help align stuff, and the Loupe blows stuff up for inspection of every little pixel. There’s even a Screen tool that will overlay available screen real estate of common browsers at different resolutions.

Those tools are all fine and dandy. They’ve been in previous versions of xScope. What piqued my interest was the new Dimensions tool. Dimensions rocks!

In normal (“Beam”) mode, move your cursor around the screen, and Dimensions displays horizontal and vertical measurements of just about anything visible, including gutters, margins, images, buttons, desktop backgrounds, and OS-level controls and UI elements.

Even better, Dimensions has a secondary “Shrink” mode (Command-Shift-5) where you can draw a somewhat sloppy box around anything on screen, such as an icon or a block of text. xScope will shrink the box down to the smallest dimensions, leaving a frame on screen around the object you selected. The frame displays the selected object’s bounding dimensions, and enables a simple screen grab of just that frame.

To see it in action before downloading a trial, IconFactory has a demo movie of the Dimensions tool (5 MB QuickTime .mov) available to view.

The first time I saw Dimensions in action, my wheels were turning. I could imagine immediate uses. All without needing to do a Command-Control-Shift-4 to grab a portion of the screen, create a new Photoshop doc, paste it in, blow it up a few times, then carefully measure or crop it with the marquee tool. That’s at least 4 steps I can save with the dimensions tool.

With any of xScope’s tools, like Guides, I like that I can set a few on screen, then get them pixel-precise by nudging with the arrow keys. I can hide them for a while. When I need them again, enable Guides, and they’re right where I left ’em. Even after quitting and restarting xScope days later.

Also new in 2.0, having the option to enable or disable menu bar icons is a nice touch. The default “toolbar” always felt a bit awkward to keep around. So opting to just have a few xScope icons of choice in the menu bar is an especially welcome feature.

Dimensions, alone, keeps me running xScope in the background much more than I ever did before. It’s a worthwhile set of tools to keep in your back pocket. If your pixel-precision prowess doesn’t have access to xScope, you’re only knitting with one needle.

February 21st 2008 News

Running Firefox in parallel

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Sometimes it would just be great to have multiple instances of Firefox running at the same time. Some web applications just love to eat memory in Firefox, some web pages go crazy if you have JavaScript enabled and sometimes you just want different sets of cookies to let you manage two accounts at the same time.

I’ve been trying to do that for years and did the most exotic things to make it happen. I’ve used four different browsers in parallel and I’ve even used a virtual PC running within my PC (that kind of defeats the desire to use less memory, but it feels neat anyway). In the end, a collegue in the office, who happens to use emacs as his main web browser :D , pointed me into the right direction.

Now I have three completely independant instances of Firefox running at the same time!

3 little Firefoxen, running on a desktop

So what’s the trick?

Firefox has command line options to let you start multiple profiles and specify a certain one. In our case, we’re going to change the command line to:

“C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\firefox.exe” -no-remote -P NewProfileName

To get started, check the name of your current profile. On Windows you can find it in “c:\Documents and Settings\[user-name]\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles”. It will generally have a few characters and numbers, a period and then the profile name (in my case it was something like “36fc232a.default”). Use this to adjust the settings of the icon you use to start up Firefox. On Windows, right-click on the icon and select “Properties”; you can add the options in the field called “Target”:

Firefox profile settings

If you click on that icon now, it should start up Firefox just as before (ok, this is not the neat part yet :D ).

Now make a copy of the icon (I right-click drag it into a folder and select “Copy”) and change the command line options (and file name) again, only this time choose a different profile name. If you want to use a copy of your existing profile (with all cookies, bookmarks, themes and add-ons), you can do that by going into the folder where your profiles are stored (mentioned above) and copying your default profile. Now when you start up Firefox with that icon, it will bring the profile manager since it can’t find that new profile. Create a new profile and use the exact name you used in the options. You will then have a choice of either creating a completely new profile or using an existing profile folder.

Now you have two instances of Firefox running at the same time. They’re completely separate, so if one crashes, the other will continue normally. If one starts using too much memory, you can close it and restart it without impacting the other one. If you have conflicts with add-ons or want to use different cookie sets, just use a separate instance.

Since the various instances will generally look the same and be hard to keep apart, I just applied different themes to them. The “Safari-style” theme is my private one, the blue one is used for all my work-apps and the normal one is used for all kinds of testing.

This trick should work on all platforms with Firefox, not that I tried it out so try it at your own risk :) . Now if only I could migrate my IE profile back to Firefox …

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February 2nd 2008 News

Small Decreases in Viewing Can Decrease the Probability of Being Clicked by More Than 50%

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For a long time, proponents of eye-tracking have said that the amount of viewing a link receives directly effects its likelihood of being clicked.  Well, it turns out that this is particularly true in the case of search results.  Recently, Eyetools and Sendtec released a study showing that decreased viewing on a search results page has a huge impact on click-through conversions. This is true for both paid and organic listings. 

For example, the data shows that if overall viewing of a link falls from 80% to 60%, the initial probability that the user will select the link decreases by over 50%! This helps to explain why even small drops in page position for organic search links has such a significant impact on a site’s conversion rate. 

In addition to emphasizing the need for ads and organic listings to have high page positions, this result also means optimizing link performance is critical since not everyone can be a top organic or adwords listing. 

I’ve included the excerpt below in the hopes that it will open a dialogue about the effect of increased viewing for other kinds of web pages. 

———————– REPORT EXCERPT ————————-


The graph shows an important correlation between increased link viewing and the probability of being clicked. […] The page elements which received the most clicks were those seen by the most users.  As user viewing decreased, so did the number of clicks.  [… Our data shows that] decreases in viewing will have a disproportionately large negative impact on click-through.

A number of other studies have explored various factors which influence a user’s decision to click including link text, description, and perceived link relevance. Our study shows that percent user viewing can be an excellent predictor of user click behavior for online searches.  Our study supports the logic that users must first see a link before they can make selections based on text descriptions or relevance. There are many factors which contribute to whether or not a user decides to select a link, but all things considered, eye tracking data is a reliable and efficient way of understanding why people do and do not click.

It is important to note that this data is specific to search results and should not be used in conversation about standard web pages. Eyetracking has proven to be very helpful in directing redesigns of web pages, landing pages, and emails with great increases in conversion rates, but this data presented here is specific to search result pages and should not be generalized to other pages.

Update, June 2010: Sadly, it seems that we outlived SendTec, our partner on this project. It appears that they closed down in 2009, taking the report down with the rest of their website.

February 2nd 2008 Uncategorized