Come in Wingman?

wingman-down

We pulled the plug on Wingman yesterday.

It was an itch.  We scratched it.

We never really got it working to our satisfaction, and as a result we never really got to the point where we were comfortable pushing it harder.

We launched with an incomplete product.  Possibly too incomplete?

I still believe that if you launch and you’re not a little embarrassed you launched too late, but I’m coming around to the school of thought that says you shouldn’t launch at all.

We put a throttle in place to ensure that we were not slammed by too many users before we were ready (a simple “enter your email address and we’ll send you an invite link when we’re ready”).  We got slammed anyway.

I’d probably try and do that differently, given the opportunity.

Lots of people signed-up and used the service, kicked the tyres briefly, but moved on too quickly.

We never really had a product that was compelling or a business model that was obvious.

So, given the futility of flogging dead horses, this was an easy decision.

But, as always seems to be the case when things don’t work out as you hoped they might, there are some positives too:

I enjoyed working with Koz.  I’m fortunate to be involved in other ventures that he is also working on and look forward to working with him again soon.

I got my hands dirty with some code again for the first time in ages.

I feel like I could hold my own now in a discussion about Rails and Git (two tools I hadn’t previously used).  And I know a little about some of the challenges of creating an add-on for Firefox.

I found a great font!

We came up with a great structure for the venture, which is well suited to this sort of prospective product build I think.  I will definitely use this sort of arrangement again in the future.  When I get some more time I’ll write more about this.

We formed a company that will live on in a new guise to fight some future battles (some of which are already brewing!)

And, we spent so little that the venture was almost profitable even without any revenue! :-)

So, we move on …

Validating is like flossing

How often do you floss?

Honestly!

For me it’s one of those things that I know I should do, but which I don’t actually do nearly as often as I could.

Validating HTML is the same.

We web developers all know we should, but so often don’t.

Why?

Is it because we don’t think standards are important?  I know this is true for a small minority, but I don’t think this is the reason for most, because I think smart developers and testers understand how having valid code makes life easier for both them and the people using their sites.

Is it just too hard?

When we were migrating Trade Me to .NET we decided we would take the opportunity to improve the quality of the underlying HTML as we touched each page.  The intention was to validate all pages using the free tools provided by the W3C.

But, as we quickly discovered, this is no trivial undertaking.

It’s fine when you’re working with a mostly static page. But, as soon as you’re working with a dynamic data driven page the number of different variations of the page can quickly become overwhelming.

If you have pages which require authentication (either on the server or in the application), or requires a user to post information into a form, it becomes more or less impossible.  If the validator can’t reach the page directly you have to save a local copy of the HTML and upload this manually to the validator.

Who has time for that?

Even when you do make the effort the results often confuse more than they help.

Validators are (almost by definition) pedantic, and as a result do a generally poor job of differentiating between things that make a real difference to users and things that, while strictly and correctly identified as errors, are not so critical.

And, there is no easy way to keep track of the errors that exist on a page over time.  So, when you’re presented with results it’s difficult to identify those errors which are new or to easily exclude results you’ve seen before.

This is not so bad if you have a page that is normally fully compliant, but a much more common scenario, unfortunately, is working on improving a page that is full of invalid code.  In that case it’s a nightmare.

The tools really don’t make it easy.

So, what do we do? Continue on wishing we could be more diligent, but lacking time and tools?

I think we can do better!

A while back I wrote about an idea I had for solving some of these problems.

I was stoked when one of the smartest developers I know put his hand up.  Over the last couple of months we’ve been working on turning this idea into a real working tool.  And now we have something to show you all…

We’re calling it Wingman.

It’s a Firefox browser plug-in, which automatically sends the exact pages you visit to the server, making it trivial to validate.

And, it’s a website which organises the results, making it easy to identify the errors you’re interested in, and to spot trends so you can fix things as soon as they occur.

Plus, it’s designed to get smarter as more people use it, by aggregating information about what types of errors are commonly ignored across all users.

In time we imagine a system which runs various different types of validation, including potentially hooking into validations services which are hosted outside of Wingman itself.  But, for starters, we have implemented a simple HTML validator, based on the service created by validator.nu.  CSS and Javascript validation are the next obvious candidates, but we’re really interested to hear your ideas for what other things we could include in this mix – for example, a spell checker, a test for basic SEO rules, or an outbound link checker are three ideas that have been suggested to us already.

Today we’re opening up a free invite-only preview of the service, so we can start to see how people might use a tool like this.

If you’d like to have a play please register on the site.  We’ll be sending out the first group of invite codes shortly.

I’ll look forward to hearing what you think!