Archive for ‘July, 2010’

Email Security

We have now migrated all our hosted messaging services to Websense Hosted Messaging Security.

Traditionally we have run our own systems and a hosted third party screening platform.  Whilst this worked well, we often found that the system maintenance was a high burden and the product itself, developed by a third party was often buggy leading to availability issues. 

We had the infrastructure to support, but if the application crashed sporadically during the evening a firefight would ensue.

After a long think, we decided to switch applications to a different vendor, choosing Websense.   We then had another decision……do we host ourselves, or do we outsource….. ?

We have an outstanding hosting setup, located across 2 high quality ISO accredited disparate Tier 2 Datacentres, but we felt best that Websense have the facilities, setup and knowledge to host their own product.  This was also cost decision, weighing up the options it was more cost effective to outsource to a SaaS solution rather than using our own time, resources and equipment. 

Generally this is the direction of IT at present, cloud computing, elasticity and SaaS solutions arent just buzz words, they make real sense.

So what do we now do ?

We will manage and administrate the solution from start to finish, without having the burden of a buggy application and a server farm to stabliise ! 

Well, we are now a Websense channel partner and you can purchase any of the Websense range from us at a  considerable discount from RRP.

We will also consult and manage the transistion from your existing Email Security Solution to Websense Hosted Messaging.

Once setup, we will be happy to administrate the solution, implementing policies, settings filters etc and customising the environment to suit your needs as a business. Spam is a fine art, we have been dealing with it for years! Whilst the threats change and evolve, we still need to know how to stop it and that we are confident of.

If you would like any further information regarding Websense Hosted Messaging, and what we can do to help,  please feel free to get in touch, g.schofield@conduce.net .

 

Virtually Successful

Our client faced an immediate problem of a company structure change, which required a radical and quick move to a multi organisation financial system.  The upgrade would have been costly, and the hardware the current system on was dated, failing and couldn’t take much more. 

We resolved this immediate problem installing a Hyper-V virtualisation host and performed a P2V (physical to virtual) migration against the NT4 server platform that had been running legacy applications. 

This virtualisation proved to be a cost effective solution for this client, deferring the costly accounts software upgrade for a year, but stabilising the current platform and ensuring the smooth transition to a multi-company change.   The short term security, stability and flexibility of the data was the largest drive in choosing a virtualised platform.

Conduce were instrumental in this change and performed all works much to the clients satusifaction.

TV Licensing Follow Up

This morning, as part of my usual daily routine I checked out the Google Analytic stats for the Conduce website and there was a noticeable spike in traffic to the blog yesterday. This was particularly strange…. You normally would see such peaks in visitor numbers on and around days when we have posted a successful blog entry or news item, but never on a day like yesterday. We were busy at the Farnborough airshow and working on a number of external projects – so there was no new content on our website at all this week.

A bit of delving of visitor details, referring sites and content stats soon provided some clues. By far the most popular page yesterday was the blog item I posted last week about the TV Licensing website. In my inbox I also had a reply back from the TV Licensing website itself from the query I submitted at the time of posting my blog item. I wanted to commend the people behind the TV License website and make them aware of my thoughts.

TV LICENSING

BRISTOL

BS98 1TL

Email:    enquiries@TVLicensing.co.uk

Our Ref:               TVL19275135

20/07/2010        

Dear Mr Saunders

The “web development team” are very pleased with the feedback.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

TV Licensing


We had a significant amount of traffic from the Newcastle area yesterday and a number of referrals from Think.eu. So a quick peruse of the Think.eu website and I had my answer. These guys were indeed behind the TV Licensing site, are based in Newcastle and it seems had my commendation passed on to them.  Back when they launched the TV Licensing site in May they wrote a news article themselves here: http://www.think.eu/latest/posts/redesigned-tv-licensing-website.aspx

So what does this teach us? Well, if you didn’t know it already, Google Analytics is a fantastic tool that, if you have the right detective skills, can tell you all kinds of things about who’s been looking at your website. Also, if you write something nice about someone or something it’s worth making the effort to let them know about it.

How to Make Simpler MRO Software: Part 3

This is the third part of a series of suggestions about what can be done to start making software for the aerospace MRO industry simpler. So far I have discussed being more open and the importance of User Experience (UX). Today I want to discuss how MRO software developers interact with their customers and in particular saying “no”.

Part 3: Learn to say “No”
I have spent my entire working life dealing with customers in one way or another. I’d like to think I’m quite customer focussed. Even whilst working in internally facing IT departments I always have treated those to whom I am providing a service as a client and it has usually served me well over the years. I think this comes from my teenage jobs in the retail industry… specifically selling Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG)… that’s being a barman in layman’s terms.

I was always taught that the “the customer is king” and of course that “the customer is always right”…. Those two rules along with the fact that you should never discuss politics or religion with customers and “first impressions last” are business rules that I learnt as an impressionable 18 year old that I have never, ever questioned… until recently.

This year I picked up a book called Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson and in there was a chapter entitled “Say No by Default”. The chapter begins with a quote by Henry Ford:

“If I’d listened to customers I’d have given them a faster horse”

They go on to discuss the integrity of your product and that customers should not be allowed to interfere with your vision. They provide examples where this has proved commercially successful or where it is downright obvious… like chefs for example. You wouldn’t expect a chef to change their lasagne recipe just because one or two pernickety patrons said it needed more bananas.

Although I squirmed a bit at first this message started to make sense… especially when there was a tech product involved. As I looked around I noticed more and more tech evangelists and successful creative types advocating a similar philosophy.

It got me thinking about all those times that I had argued with a client about a software feature but eventually graciously backed down, because they were the customer and had to be right…. No!! I was right all along, they were wrong! What do they know about software?? Idiots!! I’ve been brainwashed all these years….

Ok, maybe calling them idiots is taking it too far… there’s no need to be confrontational. I have learnt that bowing to every customer request is bad in so many ways.

Adding features adds complexity

Pretty obvious really: You make software simpler by removing, hiding or shrinking features. Therefore it follows that by adding features you are making it less simple. You run into the argument that it is only one additional field, one line of code etc etc what difference does it make? But as one Product Manager I know used to complain – “it’s just the thin end of the wedge”… where do you stop?

Quite right too…. I hereby apologise to any product owners and managers that used to despair when I rolled my eyes on hearing those words. Please know that I am deeply sorry: I have changed!!

In a recent discussion on the LinkedIn Aircraft Lifecycle Wikinomics Discussion board related to this thread my colleague Wayne Enis stated:

Most MRO software vendors don’t have a huge pot of gold to design, develop & deploy a solution without a customer, nor should they. So a customer will play a significant role in the initial design process, the lead customer often ends up with an almost bespoke solution. Now, we talk about the MRO process, but whilst the start and end of the process may be the same across MRO’s, the bit in the middle, where 99% of the work is done, can vary wildly between organisations. So, the second customer comes along and wants just a few changes to support their current processes and so on… For the MRO software vendor of today, this is marketed as a selling point, the fact that a new customer will benefit from ‘industry best practice’ of over 50 (or 60 or 70) other MRO’s. In reality the software ends up bloated with features and functions that are only used by a few customers but end up being a distraction and confusion to all of the customers. It’s at some point along this path that the software vendor thinks up the concept of ‘switches’ that can dictate how the system undertakes certain processes. Not just 1 or 2 switches that might dictate the use of process A or process B, or dictate using UI layout A or B; but 500+ switches that define much of the minutiae of how the system works under the hood. Whilst that sounds a perfect solution, nobody ever knows what the switches really do under the hood, and it becomes impossible to determine which switches can be used together (or which ones will cause problems if used together). From a QA perspective, it becomes impossible to test the system in all possible permutations. It is this level of complexity that makes the operation and usage of such systems so onerous.

There is a belief that designing software in this way is a customer focused design paradigm, incorporating the customer’s requirements into the software model. But is that really the case? The customer may get what they want at the outset, i.e. a new field on the screen, or a new function in the system, but when that customer takes an upgrade in 12 months’ time and they get another 10 fields on the screen that other customers have asked for, and their new function works differently, how customer focused is that?

Manage Customer Expectations
So, you’ve decided that it’s a bad idea to cave in to every customer request and you’ve empowered your staff to say no, it is now vital that your customers are educated as to the reasons why you are refusing what to them seems like a perfectly logical and reasonable request. People can be surprisingly understanding about this way of working if you take time to explain to them your point of view and show willing to help the customer achieve a suitable way forward. This might mean a change of customer’s process; the development of an external tool (providing your software is open in the first place – see Part 1); or it could be that they take their problem elsewhere. You might even win them over to your way of thinking. In the end it is better for everyone that your product is not spoilt for the rest of your users by changing it for one customer.

Next week in the last part in this series I will be discussing Introspection in the MRO software industry.

Related Posts:
How to make Simpler MRO Software: Part 2
How to make Simpler MRO Software: Part 1
Why MRO Software isn’t Simpler
Why isn’t MRO Software Simpler?
 

Great UX – TV Licensing

This week Wayne, our CIO and resident Arjen Robben look-a-like moved house so needed to update his TV License.
      
This morning he was raving about the TV License website and urged me to take a look. I have to agree that this is probably the best governmental website I have come across.


It has all the classic elements of simplicity and user experience. There’s loads of space, clear calls to action and redundant content has either been removed, hidden or shrunk. I’m a big fan of the design in that it is slick and modern, but degrades nicely across browsers. The two tone buttons, hashed backgrounds and comment shaped title bars seem to be a bit of a vogue lately. My only criticism of the landing page is that I detest stock images with people in them… so lose the lady in her show home bedroom and you’ve got 10 out of 10 from me.

When you get on to renewing or purchasing a license the interface is really neat. There are some nice little touches which make the user experience border on delightful especially for such an uninspiring product. I really like how most forms are pre-populated as much as possible. Most people buying a license will not be sight impared, over 75 or registered students, so these are the default options….

The microcopy is really clear and concise compared to most governmental sites and you can tell this site has had quite a lot of usability testing. One great touch is if you submit a form with empty mandatory fields. The feedback is really helpful – especially bearing in mind the type of users they might get visiting and using the site. As well as getting the missing fields flagged, you get a description of the problem at the top of the form container…..

The site definitely passes the “can my Mother use it” benchmark
I didn’t test the payment section although I’m told it is equally as polished. I couldn’t quite figure out who developed the site, but it appears to be the BBC web team…. In any case, bravo I’m really impressed. A great example of simplicity and surprisingly good UX.

How to make Simpler MRO Software: Part 2

This is the second part of a series of suggestions about what can be done to start making software for the aerospace MRO industry simpler. In my last post I suggested that MRO software vendors should open up their code to third party developers. Today I am looking at the importance of User Experience.

Part 2: Outside-In Design
Aerospace MRO is a complex industry – I’m not debating that. I mean it’s not rocket science or brain surgery, but I’m told by those in the MRO software industry that its really really really complex. “Complex Cubed.” So it should follow that the tools utilised in MRO are also complex and to try and make them simpler would be…. well it would be just too simplistic.

Designers and developers of MRO software tools have no end of insurmountable problems to overcome. They can’t possibly be expected to worry about the user’s problems before their own. Therefore they often don’t worry about that. They expose the inner complexity of their software to the user and boast about how mind-blowingly complex it is… After all complexity adds value.

Of course I don’t actually believe those previous statements, hopefully I am exposing just how daft I would sound if I did believe what I’ve been told.
If Google had been made by a significant majority of MRO software vendors instead of being posed with a text entry field and a go button, you’d be given a map of its servers and asked how you’d like to load balance the search you’re about to perform; whether you want to filter results, include adverts, search nationally or internationally, include foreign languages, whether you want to be included in the various control or experimental testing groups, etc etc etc…. but it doesn’t work like that and this partly explains Google’s success.
 
Google conducts a series of simultaneous calculations in only a fraction of a second 300 million times a day. But you as a user don’t see any of that, and you probably don’t even begin to understand how Google works.


 
You just want to type in your search criteria and find the page you’re looking for. It just works – you don’t even need to think about it. If only MRO software could be like that.

Google takes a fantastically complex process and renders it simple for the average user by designing the interface from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out. The IT industry and other technology industries are littered with countless examples of successful outside-in design where a simple and delightful user experience has proven to be the best way of working, but still we are stricken by an MRO software industry that is obsessed with designing applications and interfaces from the inside-out.

“You are not designing for you, but designing for your users.”

MRO software often has a really sophisticated user interface, but I don’t know any that provides an awesome user experience. Mainstream enterprise level software users are surrounded by software. They use social media, they download apps to their phones, they use software and applications at home, on their PCs, their consoles and on devices in their home or car… they know what software they like and will consume software in the same way that they consume media. They will return to a particular application time and time again and build brand loyalty based on user experience. Equally they know what they don’t like and if they don’t have the patience or ability to articulate what the problem is they will give up or go elsewhere. Vendors of enterprise level software should pay attention to this fact and improve the user experience of their products.

If your software is bland, difficult to use and frustrates rather than delights then this will have detrimental effects on the software’s success. When users like software, they will use it more efficiently and more effectively, increasing productivity thus promoting a better return on investment, etc etc etc…. leading to future sales of your software…. ultimately leading to safer, more compliant aircraft and so on….

I’m not going to drill down into the details and theory of user experience design… this stuff is well documented with empirical evidence everywhere. If you want to know exactly what shade of green a button needs to be to register an improvement on click rates then that stuff is out there. Here are just a couple of general issues to consider.

Invest in Usability
Changing a company from one that is hostile to usability to one where user-centric design is integrated to everything the company does is a major step. Changing from purely functional design to usability design and from quality testing to usability testing requires new skills, new ways of working and new personnel. As with values such as quality and compliance usability can only be integrated into a product if the company invests time and resources across the whole organisation. Incorporating user experience strategies into your business strategies is the way to put your product on a path towards simplicity. Make space, time and money available for usability improvement or else it simply won’t happen.

Human Factors
From comments I have seen on the various discussion groups, on blogs and from evidence I have experienced first-hand as a software selector, as a software user, as a software installer and most importantly as a software designer and vendor I believe that the human factors in aircraft MRO have been overlooked when it comes to improving MRO software. We ensure that we don’t create trip hazards by trailing network cables across hangar walkways. We ensure that engineers don’t get repetitive strain injuries or go blind from entering data all day long… but other than customising one or two screens, or fitting RFID tags to ground equipment what has been done to the actual MRO software to help make user’s jobs as efficient as possible? Where are the field studies, where are the usability tests, how much attention is paid to usability data?

MRO software isn’t focussed to the user’s requirements. MRO software isn’t ergonomic. MRO software is cumbersome. MRO software can be made simpler by examining the human factors involved in using the software and developing software from the outside-in.

MRO software vendors think they are already doing all they need to do by holding annual user forums and software advisory board meetings – but this is chaff. Who attends these meetings? CIOs, CFOs, Technical Directors? Sys admins at the very best. None of these people represent any serious amount of system utilisation or expertise in the nitty-gritty of the software. All these get-togethers serve to do is limit the development of software to “design by committee”…

Designing by Committee


Collaboration is great. Finding out the answer to a technical issue by talking to an expert is fine. But designing simple software by committee is nigh on impossible. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, recently wrote:

There’s a saying I love: “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” A variation is “a Volvo is a Porsche designed by committee.” Some of the best product advice I’ve ever heard goes something like “damn what the users want, charge towards your dream.” All of these statements are, of course, saying the same thing. When there are too many cooks in the kitchen all you get is a mess. And when too many people have product input, you’ve got lots of features but no soul……

Product should be a dictatorship, not consensus-driven. There are casualties, hurt feelings, angry users. But all of those things are necessary if you’re going to create something unique. The iPhone is clearly a vision of a single core team, or maybe even one man. It happened to be a good dream, and that device now dominates mobile culture. But it’s extremely unlikely Apple would have ever built it if they conducted lots of focus groups and customer outreach first. No keyboard? Please.

Layout
Consider the layout of software elements and how they will be used. Most people will enter data into a screen from the top left to bottom right. Yet it amazes me that most software shifts the users attention back up to the top left again to save the data they have entered. Surely the control to advance should be in the bottom right? Right?

 

If there are several steps required to carry out a complex transaction then group them together into a logical order on the screen or menu. Even better, join them together in a wizard type interface. Users hate having to scout around modules looking for the next step in their process. Users shouldn’t have to think…. It should just work.

Microcopy Writing
In most MRO software I have seen the copy writing is atrocious. Most developers assume that copy writing only belongs in the marketing and sales content…. Well guess what? Users have to read the content of software so it really is something developers should think about. The interaction wording that surrounds the user interface of a software product is often known as “microcopy” and can add incredible value to the product, or at least bad microcopy can have a massively detrimental effect on software usability.

As with all elements of user experience theory the devil is in the detail. Feedback cycles that acknowledge and confirm software actions or problems whilst appearing to be trivial have a major impact on how users regard software. Put some effort in. Don’t just leave it to the developers to decide what an error message should say. They don’t think like users. They understand what “invalid text entry field” means… my Dad doesn’t and he might be your user.

Get your microcopy written by someone who didn’t drop English at school at the first available opportunity, preferably by someone with English as their native language. That isn’t a derogatory statement about your offshore development team – they’ll probably thank you for employing a copy writer. Would you get them to write the content of your sales brochure? So why get them to write content for your product?

Removing Stuff

One of the key principles in improving User Experience is to remove elements from an application. This can only practically be done at a design stage, because once a feature is in the wild, only the foolhardy would attempt to remove a field or a feature. There is one quote that I return to again and again as a mantra which comes from Antoine de Sainte-Expury the author of “The Little Prince”. The quote has nothing to do with software, but is unbelievably relevant to user experience.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Without a change of culture, this suggestion is incredibly difficult…. In my next post on this subject I will focus on providing some assistance here by “Learning to say No”.

Related Posts:
How to make Simpler MRO Software: Part 1
Why MRO Software isn’t Simpler
Why isn’t MRO Software Simpler?

Windows 2000 Server Support Ending July 13th 2010

It had to come to an end……………

Windows 2000 server support from Microsoft has now ceased as of today, July 13th 2010. 

Windows 2000 was seen as a massive leap from its predecessors, NT4, and Windows 3.x eeek !, oh and lets not forget the DOS range, doesn’t it all still run on dos ? 😉

Microsoft were under an enormous amount of pressure in 1998 to release “Microsoft Windows NT 5.0”, so it was rushed to market, some of the new features in Windows 2000 were half finished, but it was stable.  A lot of the features that were originally planned were left out, and were later released in bit form across service packs or in the next general release. 

Likewise some of the features that did make it in, such as Active Directory, didn’t work very well !  Active Directory (this isn’t something that has been there from day one) was Microsoft’s first directory offering to the market place in 1998, oh, but Novell and other vendors were there first.

So the BDC’s, and the PDC’s (the real PDC’s, not the cheap imitations that we are now used to) had come to an end, and Microsoft’s Windows 2000 was launched to much, well disappointment!  (thats the community for you!)

I certified in Windows 2000 immediately, and could see its benefits, and its shortfalls.  Ive been happily supporting it ever since, and will continue to do so “Rambo” style, on my own, without the support of Microsoft going forward.   I will of course try and migrate and upgrade where possible to Microsoft newest operating system, Windows Server 2008 R2, which in my opinion is their best so far.  Come to think of it, Windows Server 2003 is a very close second!

So all hail Windows 2000, its been nice knowing and working with you for all these years.  If you are still using it, from today onwards, if you run into a problem, cross your fingers and call us, we might be able to help!

To view more info regarding this please visit http://support.microsoft.com/ph/1131#tab0

MyTechLog.net Production Blog Part 4

CSS
Development of the MyTechLog.net web app and iPhone app has been rattling along nicely. It was always our intention that our development team would do all the programming donkey work and that I would design the UI with a bit of help on individual elements from Ella our pucker Graphic Designer. With that in mind, our actual code has very little in the way of CSS in it with a view to get a CSS expert to do the final skinning… however I recently made an executive decision to do the CSS myself.

This isn’t too radical a concept and nobody freaked out at the thought of it as I’ve done a little bit of CSS in the past and after all, how hard could it be?

What is CSS?
For those not in the know CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet and is the bit of code that is used to control the look and format of web sites and web applications.

It took me about a day to get into the groove, suss out the application code which has been written in C# and find out where everything needed to go from a programming point of view. The basic CSS files had already been created, so it was just a case of appending additional classes and making things look and feel how I wanted. It’s taken me longer to get stuff done than someone with proper CSS skillz (as they say in the business) but there have been several benefits of me doing it.

1.    The total elapsed time is probably less as I can make instant decisions and see the results straight away.
2.    I feel more attached to the project now having invested even more time and effort.
3.    I’ve learnt a cool new skill.
4.    There’s a definite sense of satisfaction writing a bit of code and seeing the results instantly.



Admittedly we’ve had a few problems: The biggest being cross browser compatibility, but nothing that either Google doesn’t answer or that we can’t make a compromise over. However we will be getting someone to cast an eye over the results and tidy up any areas where I have deviated from best practise.

Read on if you’re feeling geeky
Still here?
OK, so I’ve been doing everything in CSS3 and have decided to do as much as possible in pure CSS without the use of external images. This means that things look a bit ropey but passable in internet explorer, but never mind, IE9 will be out soon enough.
Here’s a screen shot of the work in progress current state of play of one of the application screens. Please excuse the dodgy test data
 

I’m currently working on changing the Boolean table values and Delete|Edit links into nice little icons, but am just waiting on the designs for those to come through. Also I’ve been toying with how the pagination looks…. I’m open to suggestions there. I’m quite pleased with the buttons, although the colour schemes aren’t finalised yet. We are planning to use links throughout the application as we realised that links, buttons and submits are rendered slightly differently by the browser.

If anyone is interested (and at the risk of having my CSS skillz really scrutinised) here is the CSS used for the back button link in the bottom left of the screen shot.

A.Back
{   
/*Back button ;*/
   background: #099bd7;
   background: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#8dc4eb), to(#099bd7));
   background: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #8dc4eb, #099bd7);
   -webkit-border-radius: 9px;
   -moz-border-radius: 9px;
   border-radius: 9px;
   -webkit-box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px;
   -moz-box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px;
   box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px;
   color: white;
   font-weight:bold;
   font-family:Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif;
   padding:3px 24px 3px 24px;
   vertical-align:baseline;
   text-decoration:none;
}
A.Back:hover
{
   /*Back button hover state;*/
   background: #8dc4eb;
}
A.Back:active
{
   /*Back active state;*/
   background: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#ff0000), to(#fc6b7a));
   background: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #099bd7, #8dc4eb);
   -webkit-box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px inset;
   -moz-box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px inset;
   box-shadow: rgba(0,0,0,0.4) 0px 1px 2px inset;
   position:relative;
   top:1px;
}

The more observant of you will notice that I have used an :active pseudo class which has the effect of reversing the gradient and box shadow as well as dropping the position by 1 pixel when the link is clicked. This makes a basic hyperlink look and feel much more “buttony”.

The current plan for development is to release for beta testing in the beginning of August with a view to fully launch by October. So best I stop writing and get these table icons sussed.

Click here to read Part 3 of the MyTechLog.net Production Blog: Wire Frames

Near Perfect Foresight

On the 11th of June at the beginning of the World Cup I posted the following tweet.

my tip for the #WorldCup. Spain to win, the Dutch as my dark horse outside bet, with England getting to the semis ~PSFri Jun 11 11:37:40 via webconduce
conduce



Aside from the mis-guided England loyalties that wasn’t a bad prediction was it?