In this post, I’m going to run through how a couple of tools can be a great source of UX and editorial inspiration.
What they enable anyone to do is to quickly get inspiration from other sites.
It is easy of course to browse other sites and have a look round, but if you’re anything like me you tend to head to the same old sites. Once you’ve done that it’s common to waste time wondering which sites to look at next, or Googling lists of ‘best news sites’ or ‘best website designs’. These lists are often pretty rubbish.
What I wanted to find was fairly random examples from which I could take inspiration, to stumble across stuff serendipitously. I want to see sites not necessarily on their best day, but just trying to get an audience on a random day.
What I Wanted
My aim was to somehow generate an ability to head to a random site within a certain niche and then to easily capture anything of interest on that page, make notes, categories and save for future reference.
I also know enough about myself to realise that the final system has to be quick and simple to use as otherwise I will put a tonne of effort into creating something I then never actually use.
I think I’ve achieved it. On topics of personal interest, I can now get quick inspiration from hundreds of relevant sites. Equally, it would work for big projects such as site relaunches or trying to inspire an editorial team who are used to doing stuff the same old way.
Typically, on any day, I head to between five and 10 random sites and if there is anything of interest I take a note. I then have it to refer back to at any stage.
Here’s how I’ve set this up.
How To Get Great ‘Random’ Inspiration
There are a few steps to follow – these boiling down to.
- Create the list of sites you want the random selection to be drawn from
- Find a way to randomise from within these sites (potentially hundreds or even thousands of them)
- And find a suitable note-taking system that is quick and efficient.
The List of Sites
This part is easy.
Avoiding my tendency to waffle, all you need to do is bookmark relevant sites in Chrome – ideally within a suitable folder system.
I have top level folders for ‘Sport’ and ‘Dad stuff’ – the former then contains sub folders for football, tennis etc. The ‘dad stuff’ is just a list of blogs on the subject of parenthood and being a dad and contains no sub folders.
My sport folders contain about 500 sites, these including major sport news providers, official bodies, clubs and teams and smaller, niche sites. Occasionally, I feel inspired to add another load of sites (I added every NBA side’s website recently), these all under a new sub folder called NBA teams within sport > US Sports.
I stumbled across a useful Chrome extension called the Random Bookmark From Folder. I reckon you can guess what it does.
This extension, visible via a little dice icon in your extensions bar, allows you to roll the dice on your bookmarks.
You can choose a top level folder which will then draw from anything contained in that folder and every sub folder, or head to a specific folder.
There are also a few easily customisable options – I have mine so that it opens the bookmark in the same tab, I also want it to pick from a folder and its subfolders, but you can set it so that it only picks from the folder itself.
You can also pin folders you regularly spin the dice on.
As simple as this all is, I love the randomising.
This morning, I would never have randomly decided to head to tennis.com or the teamgb.com website. however, by doing so I was able to make two notes from their content ideas.
The tennis site has made great use of historical on this day footage to showcase Serena Williams 25 years on from her pro debut in a qualifying event.
The TeamGb site is fascinating design wise as it has very little content visible – perhaps a sign that they have a few bits of quality content they want to promote. They also need to work on their onward journeys from content.
At first, it can seem that there is something of interest on every site. Once you’ve made this randomising a habit for a week or two you quickly begin to spot what’s of interest.
A quick note: I bookmark the index pages – from there, if a specific piece of content catches my eye I will click through to explore further.
The Note Taking
For the first time since GCSE IT, I found myself actively trying to learn about databases.
Google searches told me databases are now easier than ever – and then directed me to resources where I could learn SQL.
Yeah, that’s not happening.
Luckily, I then found AirTable, an online database every bit as easy to use as the GCSE project I made for categorising my CD collection (artist, genre, rating, album name, peak chart position).
AirTable has a very good free option, this more than adequate for setting up a database with a large number of records. That said, I did opt for the paid option as I want to be able to have many thousands of records.
The tool is straightforward to use and you can start with a template. I’m rubbish at these things and I had a fully working database inside 10 minutes.
However, the best feature is that it also has a Chrome extension of its own and this allows me to take grabs from sites I’m on, record notes, categorise and save into the relevant database.
In Chrome, add the extension and link it to your AirTable account, then in AirTable, once in a database, enable the web clipper tool via the apps menu item (see below)
Within the AirTable site you can set which fields you want the web clipper to be able to update – this might be things like site, sport, content type ‘notes’ and site image.
Then, when browsing sites, the process works like this.
- Using the random bookmark tool, you head to a site
- Let’s say something on the index catches your eye and is noteworthy. You hit the web clipper extension tool
- In the pop up, you enter the details relevant to that site – some may well be auto-filled.
- In the pop up you can hit the attachments option and then upload a grab of the whole page or chose the option to select a portion of the page and have this added as an attachment. You can add multiple images this way
- I have a notes field so that I can record why this grab is of interest – obviously without this they all blend into one over time
- Hit add record and then, once the attachments have been uploaded, this record will be visible in the overall database.
In this way, you can get grabs and make records of multiple sites very, very quickly.
By switching views, you can see all the records in more of a graphical format and you can also hone in on an individual record.
Dashboards can be created and views can be shared. As an example, if you wanted to send just examples of football sites to the football editorial team, you could filter in this way, hit ‘gallery view’ and then select ‘share this view’.
You then have a dynamic slideshow to send where viewers can view but cannot make edits.
I’m not going to provide tutorials on how to do this sharing or view changing as I’ve only scratched the surface myself – there may well be better ways, there are certainly options I have yet to explore.
What I know for certain is that this is a superb way to capture editorial and UX ideas very quickly in a way that makes them easy to use in future.