Windows Live has just announced something new for Hotmail: Interactive e-mail.

The e-mail giant is allowing developers to embed and run JavaScript from within e-mails; this is the natural next step in e-mail’s evolution from plain text to HTML and beyond.

What this means for the average e-mail recipient is that more of the messages they receive will be increasingly up-to-date, and content will be interactive. If the developer sending the e-mail is hip to Hotmail’s changes, you’ll be able to take actions from within the e-mail itself without having to navigate to a slew of other web pages. Basically, the new Hotmail e-mails will look, feel and behave like a web page running within an e-mail.

It’s a cool update, and it also has the potential to keep Hotmail more competitive with Google’s Gmail, which offers users previews of content from Flickr and YouTube within e-mails.

The problem with running JavaScript in e-mails, of course, is security: How can Hotmail protect users from malicious code? Windows Live Active Views is a product aimed at answering this question.

While we’d love to know more about what exactly Active Views is and how it does what it does, all Microsoft has told us so far is that Active Views uses “technology that allows senders to run code securely in their email messages.” That’s a pretty vague statement about a pretty cool feature; we’ll let you know when we learn more.

Orbitz and Monster.com will be the first two companies to use the new interactive e-mail platform from Hotmail, with LinkedIn and Netflix jumping on the bandwagon soon. Here’s a quick demo of the product:



Reviews: Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube

More About: active views, e-mail, email, hotmail, javascript, Windows Live

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David Kadavy’s upcoming book concerns a topic of great interest to us and to many of our developer and entrepreneur friends: design for hackers.

His blog posts geared for folks building quick-and-dirty web apps have been hits with the Hacker News community; he dispenses sound advice for technically minded designers who need to do a good job and do it quickly.

He spoke with us via e-mail this week about the needs and pain points of would-be (or must-be) designers in the world of web development. Keep an eye on his blog for updates about his book, Design for Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty, to be published by John Wiley & Sons.

What’s one fundamental principle of design that you think most hackers are wont to overlook?

I think many people, when consciously attempting to create a design, will worry too much about certain details that don’t matter that much.

For example, some people worry an awful lot about font choice, when really, you can get a wide variety of moods and feelings from just a few fonts. The fact that there are so many fonts available just confuses and distracts them.

The hard — and more important — part is differentiating chunks of information into a clear hierarchy, and mastering the use of proximity, size, and font weight in establishing this hierarchy is far more challenging and impactful than figuring out the exact font to use.

Do you think it’s more necessary now than it was 5 or 10 years ago for hackers to know about and be able to do their own design work?

Absolutely, and I think that’s why there seems to be an explosion of interest in design within the hacker community.

Hackers are becoming more business savvy and recognizing that good design is an important part of running a successful business. …Many hackers are finding that teams as small as one can start a startup. Everything goes faster, with less friction and with more clear vision if different skills can be consolidated into one individual.

Design is a critical tool in getting customers to trust your business, but when you’re starting with little or no money, you need to get decent design for next to nothing. So what are you to do?

Good designers are hard to find, expensive and one more person in your development process is just added friction. If you’re a single founder/hacker, you’ve taught yourself everything else about running your business, so why not learn how to design and take care of that until you can afford someone more specialized?

The problem with that is you can’t solve design issues with a couple of Google searches like you can with programming issues.

I strongly believe that the overarching trend is toward everyone learning how to design… Now that everyone can publish, everyone needs to learn to design in order to communicate clearly.

What’s one example of great hacker-created design — perhaps something that works better than its maker intended?

The first thing that comes to mind is Craigslist. It has been cleaned up a small amount, but in many ways it’s really hideous. It’s been wildly successful because it addresses a huge pain point. Additionally, the unpolished aesthetic expresses the fact that its a community-driven site that’s extremely modest, commercially.

I think many designers overlook the economics of design: that perfect design just isn’t economically feasible or necessary in every situation. I know when I was in design school, myself and my fellow self-righteous design students would rip on the poor design of something as simple as a lost dog poster, without even thinking about the economics of it. It all depends upon where the product lies within its landscape.

With Craigslist, the power of the democratization of information transfer superceded the need for beautiful design. As design savvy spreads throughout the population, however, the standard will be raised.

Is there anything that you like or that you find refreshing or amusing about how the typical hacker approaches design?

The thing I like most about working with technically minded people is that they understand the medium of the web: the whole concept of structured information, the practical limitations of CSS-based layout, SEO best-practices, etc.

The lack of this knowledge always frustrated me when working in advertising or the print design world. You still see it today, designers who were trained on print, trying to cram their design vision without regard for the spirit of the medium.

Design is — and always will be — about the transfer of information, and I haven’t met many designers whom that really excites: the fact that if you design something in harmony with the medium and use SEO best practices, your message will reach more of the people who are looking for it. Aldus Manutius rolls over in his grave every time a designer throws up a web page straight from Photoshop’s “Save for Web….”

Another thing I like about working with hackers is that they tend not to obsess over inconsequential details… If you’re just launching a product and don’t have huge distribution, it won’t make any difference to your business whether that photograph is half an inch to the left or not. You have bigger, more mission-critical things to worry about.

What’s a common mistake hackers make when throwing together UIs for their applications?

The biggest oversight I see amongst hackers and designers alike is lack of consideration for the relationship between the chunks of information and the white space around it.

If I have a header that is 16px, and below it is a subhead that is 9px, there should be some rationality to the amount of white space I have between them — maybe there should be 9px since that’s the height of the subhead. There should also be some rationality in the margin to the left of that information.

A lot of times, information is just haphazardly set on the page — lots of things that are just too close together, and it just doesn’t look right. As a result, people start using crutches like color shifts and ornamentation (such as a horizontal rule) when consideration for geometric relationships between elements and white space can go a long way in making things look nice and clean.


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Image courtesy of Flickr, localcelebrity.


Reviews: Craigslist, Flickr, Google, Hacker News

More About: david kadavy, design, design for hackers, developers, hacker news, hackers, web design, Web Development, web development series

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Facebook is known for its hackathons — all-night coding sessions designed to help create new products or improve others. Now the company has announced its first Hacker Cup.

Facebook says it’s “bring[ing] engineers from around the world together to compete in a multi-round programming competition.” The Hacker Cup is very similar to Google’s popular Google Code Jam.

Contestants will be challenged with solving algorithmic-based problem statements. Those who successfully solve the problems in the allotted period of time will advance to the next round.

Registration opens on December 20 and the 72-hour qualification round will start on January 7, 2011.

This round will consist of three problems. Only the competitors that can correctly solve at least one problem will advance to the first online round.

The first online round will consist of three sub-rounds that each last three hours. The top-scoring 1,000 participants from each of these sub-rounds will advance the the second online round.

The 25 competitors who score the highest in the second online round will advance to the finals, which will be held at Facebook’s campus in Palo Alto. Facebook will fly the 25 participants in and pay for their expenses.

At the in-person final round, a winner will be crowned and not only given the title of “world champion,” but also $5,000 in cash.

If you want to brush up on your skills before the competition starts, you can visit Facebook’s puzzles page.


Reviews: Facebook, Google

More About: code competitions, faceebook, hackathons, hacker cup

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