Month: February 2009

Groups app for iPhone

I’ve had issues managing my contacts for many years now and, finally, I have a solution. The Address Book software provided as part of OSX is somewhat basic and, oddly, a little clunky to use and my recent debacle with Google Sync only heightened my frustration. Surely things should be better than this?

Enter Groups for the iPhone, by Guided Ways.

From their website, with Groups you can:

  1. Create, rename, delete and navigate contact groups – all in a single view!
  2. Drag & Drop contacts into groups. Tap and hold on a Contact to start dragging.
  3. Send Mass Email to any Group. Tap and hold on a Group name to see available options.
  4. Dial, SMS, Email and visit URL/Map Locations of individual contacts by tapping on their name for quick dialing (i.e. use it as a mini-dialer)
  5. Use 5 built-in ready to use and helpful ‘Smart Groups’ to help categorize and manage your contacts the way you wish. These automatically filter on contacts that 1) aren’t part of any group, 2) have No Name set, 3) have No Email, 4) have No Phone or 5) have No Image.
  6. Trash (and preserve) contacts by dragging them to the ‘Trash’ Group. This would delete the contact permanently from the iPhone/iPod touch and then from your Computer when Synced or Pushed but will allow you to drag these back to normal groups, and thus restore them at a later point, unless you empty the Trash.

Your address book, too, deserves respect.

Similarly to the App Store application that runs on the iPhone, which I prefer using to iTunes when browsing the App Store, Groups makes managing contacts much easier and adds a rich layer of functionality as well, all hidden behind a very smart and slick interface.

Of all the applications I’ve downloaded it’s probably the one that makes the best use of the touch interface, dragging and dropping contacts into group tabs, press and hold on a contact for options, press and hold on a group for options, drag up and down to scroll, it’s got it all but none of it seems superfluous.

Not bad for £1.19!

Groups is the application that Apple could’ve developed, that’s for sure, and for me it indicates another good reason why the App Store (despite the number of dross applications in there) is such a good idea. The Apple iPhone platform is now being extended by 3rd party developers in exciting ways and, hopefully

iPhone Contacts

These days, with so many different ways to keep track of people, managing your list of contacts can be a bit of a chore. Doubly so if, like me, you’ve tried various ways of synchronising your contact list between your phone and a PIM (Personal Information Manager), or even just between any mobile device and any of the myriad of online ‘contact manager’ web-based applications.

When I first switched from a standard mobile phone to a ‘smartphone‘ (about 7 years ago), one of the advantages for someone with as poor a memory as mine, was the fact that I no longer had to remember all the details for someone. I could store them in one single contact and include useful notes to make sure I didn’t get their kids names wrong, not that I’ve EVER done that. Seriously, I haven’t. I may have gotten the sex of their kids wrong but that’s completely different…

A couple of years back I switched back to a standard mobile phone, ditching internet access and other frivolous items, presuming that, by then, management of contact details would be much easier. Ohh how wrong I was. Trying to synchronise Outlook Contacts with my Samsung mobile phone was a world of painful duplicate and triplicate entries, lost information and generally left my contacts FUBAR‘d.

As I neared the end of my contract I looked, again, towards smartphones and as luck would have it, the 2nd generation iPhone was due out mere weeks after my contract finished. I’d already bought a MacBook, was loving it and thought it would solve my problems.

And it did! After a lot of tidying up I managed to get my Address Book (on my MacBook) nicely organised and synchronised with my iPhone. Finally. All sorted.

Then (to cut a long story short) along came Google’s latest ‘Sync’ offering which would let me synchronise my calendars between work and my personal Google calendar (useful when planning physio and dentist appointments!). I was thrilled as this was the last of my PIM issues finally being sorted.

So my calendar is now synchronised and my contacts… yeah they are back to being FUBAR’d as, for some reaason, you can’t get around the first time SYNC ALL option. Google presume that you use their contact management functionality, offered as part of Google Mail. Except I don’t, cos it sucks.

So for the past couple of nights I’ve been deleting duplicate entries, renaming email only entries as Google Mail creates a ‘contact’ everytime you send to a new email address, meaning I have (after a purge) 38 ’email only’ contacts in my Address Book.

This has pissed me off no end. I like order, I like things to be neat and ‘just so’ and the one area of my personal information, information that *I* should be able to control and manage how *I* want for fecksake, has been nothing but a source of irritation.

Until last night that is, when I downloaded a new app for my iPhone which has helped soothe and calm me and get my contacts sorted out, for once and for all.

And, tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about it.

Slowly Moving On

In at the deep end. Best foot forward. No time like the present. Life goes on. Such are the cliched thoughts that have been running through my head recently, obviously.

But, before I continue, I would like to thank everyone who as commented here, sent me a DM on Twitter, or emailed me direct. Your thoughts and kindness do help. I’ve been on the other side of such events and whilst it may seem like a small, even trivial, matter to send a quick note of condolence they DO help. Thank you.

Not quite reading to move on yet mind you, the funeral on Monday will bring that around I’m sure, until then I’m pottering away keeping myself busy, but not too busy. All in all, whilst it is hard to think my Gran is no longer with us, it had been expected for a couple of weeks so I’ve had some time to prepare myself.

Writing posts for this blog has always helped me in the past and that’s one reason why I’m posting this today, to keep in the habit, to keep myself from hiding away. My Gran certainly wouldn’t have approved of that!

Planning your deliverables

I don’t like making presumptions, something that I learned early on in my technical writing career, but I am going to presume that anyone who reads this knows that they should be planning what content they produce before they start writing. You do, right?

A basic information plan will include knowledge about the audience, the main areas of the information that need to be covered for the project/release, as well as outlining the purpose of the documentation and any media and design considerations. Finally you’ll most likely provide a definitive list of deliverables, be they printed documents, PDFs or online help.

It’s this last area that I’m currently working on.

Our product has undergone some exciting changes, and the previous set of documentation was both very document-centric and , in my opinion, badly structured. We are shifting more towards a ‘traditional’ SDK approach and as such a lot of the existing documentation needs to be adapted accordingly.

Thankfully it’s largely an exercise in restructuring the documentation rather than completely rewriting anything, but it still warrants discussion with the audience as to how best to present the information they require. In that respect I’m lucky to have direct access to a representative portion of the intended audience as the bulk of the audience will be our own staff.

The functionality available in our development kit is broken into sections, with the documentation split along similar lines, and as such whilst the information in the current documentation is fine, it no longer makes sense to have it structured that way. Breaking down all of the documentation into smaller, more manageable chunks, before deciding how best to piece them back together is the current focus.

Thankfully, in preparation for our move towards single source, we had already audited our content and so, if nothing else, I have all the discrete sections of each of the current documents already list in a ‘management friendly’ spreadsheet.

So, with a bit of manipulation I can easily mockup a sample set of information topics, and then figure out how best to present them to the audience, be it PDF, online help, or via the web.

Once we’ve got a good idea of our final deliverables, I’ll run them past a sample of the intended audience to make sure they are both what is required and to set the expectation of what we are, and aren’t, delivering. Hopefully, gaining buy-in to our plan as early as possible will mean the information we provided is better received and may even start further discusssions around future improvements.

I remember

The car has barely stopped before I’ve got the door open and I’m sprinting through the gate and bounding up to the front door. With a twist of the big brass door knob I push the it open and announce our arrival with a cheery “Coooeeeee”. I can still remember the smell of the house, that old house smell, a hint of damp mixed with stale cigarettes and boiled vegetables.

The corridor is in to parts, the first takes you to the bottom of the stairs before it dog-legs to the right and continues on towards the back of the house. But before all that I veer right into the front room and head for the sweetie tin. It is where it always is, on the bottom shelf of the side table next to the TV, right under the old servant bell (which still works). I yank open the tin, a celebration from the Jubilee, and delve in. Sometimes Oddfellows, sometimes Eclairs, but always, always sweeties.

By the time I’ve stuffed one in my mouth my parents have made it into the house and I race ahead of them again towards the back of the house, pausing at the end of the corridor to consider the dark scary stairwell down to the basement, before turning right and into the living room.

At the far end of the room, taking up almost the entire wall, stands a huge old wooden sideboard that must’ve been constructed in the room for it certainly didn’t come in through the door nor the window that overlooks the back garden. The back of the house is three levels to accomodate the hill, so we are now on the first floor.

On the far side of the room the fireplace is the dominant feature where my Grandpa sits in his large, leather chair in pride of place facing away from the window towards the fire. A smaller, fabric covered chair opposite him where my Gran would sit. The wall to my right has the dining table, already laid in preparation for dinner and to my left is the entrance to the kitchen. I take the three small steps down and there she is, my Gran, spooning boiled potatoes into a dish already full of mince.

With a hug and a kiss I ask her what’s for dinner, knowing the answer already. Silverside beef, potatoes and veg, with mince and potatoes just for me. I reach up into a cupboard for a glass, choosing the black and white domino cup over the pink and white (ugh, for girls!) and pop open a can of Lilt.

As my Mum and Dad enter the living room all the fuss turns to my baby sister so I leave them to it, heading back out to the corridor and, deciding to brave the darkness I start down to the basement. At the foot of the stairs is the door to the coal cellar, a truly black place to be avoided and I skip past it as quickly as possible, before taking the next door on my right into the snooker room, bedecked with pictures left by my Uncle. Soft focussed, big haired ladies in various states of risque undress (70s style) look down on me as I rack them up.

I can still remember the noises as the balls clacked and clunked their way around the old snooker table, bent as it was through the damp and so allowing easy shots to the bottom right pocket (hit it gently into that area and the balls would veer magically towards the pocket, you really, literally, couldn’t miss).

I can remember the smell down there too, dusty and dank, scary noises imagined in my head.

I can remember the shout from upstairs that dinner was ready and frantic scrabble to get back upstairs. I did love my Grans mince and tatties.

I can remember summers playing in the back garden, lying in the grass making daisy chains or blowing up Action Man figures, racing cars down the sloping path, or battering an inflatable football against the big concrete supports that held the garden in place.

I can remember the cold black and white bathroom, the big cosy bed upstairs and the polystyrene tiles on the ceiling. I can remember the remnants of my Uncle, none of my Mum, that still dotted about upstairs, the model Harrier hanging from the ceiling in the small bedroom.

I can remember exploring every inch of the house, chasing balloons up and down the corridor, the pine needles strewn by the Christmas tree, the ornaments in the front room, and the cigarette burned armchairs.

I remember weekends spent with my Gran, wandering down to the shops, the sneaky ice creams and “don’t tell your Mother” toys. I can remember guessing the colour theme of the shop window merchandise as we turned the corner into her street (“Yellow!”… “Blue!”).

I can remember the digestives and milk, mushed in a cup for breakfast, the corned beef sandwiches, the salt and vinegar square crisps. I can remember the Abba record, and the smell of her hairspray. I can remember a million and one things about that house and my time spent in it, I remember being happy and safe there. Me and my Gran.

And now they are all I have as my dear beloved Gran has passed away. She spent the last few days sleeping and slowly ebbing away towards a soft, gentle end.

There is so much more I could say, but nothing more I can type.

I’ll be back in a few of days.

Writers' Bloc

It is somewhat timely that, as Post of the Week has died a death (lack of interest, unfortunately), another website that focusses on good writing has been born, Writers’ Bloc.

It’s still new and shiny, but like most of these things it will live and die by the likes of you and I, and your friends, visiting and contributing. On that note the submission guidelines are nice and friendly:

With a title like Writers’ Bloc – even though it’s a dreadful pun on suffering from a lack of inspiration – it would be mean-spirited to insist that your work should not have been appeared anywhere else online or in print before it reaches us. We don’t care about that, and in fact we tend to loathe that rule of literary magazines, especially if they’re all about ‘discovering the best new writing’. All we ask is that you retained the original copyright, since we don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes.

So go and have a look and, if you have ever written something that you feel deserved (demanded!) a wider audience then perhaps consider submitting it, what harm can it do?

A petition arrives!

It begins “Dear Sir/Madam,” and, being the former, I read on.

Objection to proposed Mobile Phone Base Station (Aqua Court/Nature Trail, O2 Cell Site: 040762)

I pause at this point. I have an O2 mobile phone, it has a crappy signal in my house, the new cell site would be up the hill a bit, off to the side of the road (not a particularly nice site either, ignore the bit about ‘nature trail’ it’s a path between two housing estates).

YES! FINALLY a better mobile phone signal. BRILLIANT!!

Then I remember that I live in a community and, perhaps, there are good reasons as to why someone would object to having a good mobile phone signal in their house. I pause and despite some serious thinking whilst I watch an episode of Scrubs (the one where they all drift in and out of a medieval fantasy, hilarious!) I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I can only surmise that, with it being 2009, if you don’t have a mobile phone you must be ‘of an age’ that views those that carry them as suspicious, communist-card toting luddites. Or hippies. Or, god forbid, a Liberal Democrat.

So I return to the missive and read on. And on. And on. I’m less than half way through the first few sentences when I give up.

I know who has put this through my door and I’m sure he means well but I’m hungry and can’t really be bothered reading it all. However I vow to read the rest of the missive later, noting that the return address is included, figuring that once I’ve done some of my OWN research I may (or may not) sign in agreement and post it off.

I do note that there is no option to disagree with the stated objection, thereby agreeing that the erection (waahey!) of the base station should go ahead, but decide to cross that bridge later.

My troubles behind me (for such things do trouble me, dear reader) I turn my attention to more timely and important matters, namely unlocking Everlong by the Foo Fighters in Guitar Hero World Tour on the Wii. I’m midway through one of the songs in the setlist (Sweet Home Alabama by Lynnrd Skynnrd if you must know) when the doorbell chimes.

I pause the song, annoyed, and stomp to the front door. Lo and behold the very man who pushed said missive through our letterbox today is back to “collect my signed copy”.

Now, I’m a reasonable man but there are a few things that irk me greatly and one is people who make assumptions on my behalf. That just makes an ass of you and an umption of me, and there is nothing I hate more than being an umption, let me tell you!

“Ahh I’ve not signed it, not sure I will to be honest”, says I, confident that’ll put the wind up the cheeky sod.

“Ok, no problem, cheers”, he says, all too cheerful. How very dare he! Not only has he made me an umption of me, but he has the gall and sheer affrontery to be cheery about it!

I am irked, possibly even miffed, by this and am left with no other option.

I reach out and grab him by the throat and, whilst squeezing his windpipe and cutting off his air supply, I reiterate my dislike of being an umption and, just when he’s approaching his final breath, I let go. He drops to the ground and I stand over him for a moment to make sure I haven’t killed the old bugger (he’s 70 if he’s a day) and, satisfied he isn’t going to die whilst on my property, consider the matter closed.

I turn and close the door firmly, but not before he’s choked out a final “sorry to have bothered you…”.

So, dear reader, I’m sure you feel my pain. It seems I shall remain adrift in a calm sea, with no mobile signal to billow my sails.

Bugger.

When users don’t want help

For a while now I’ve been watching video presentations from the likes of the TED and GEL sessions. Largely these are delivered by people who are at the forefront of their field or who challenge common perceptions with some unique thinking.

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) sessions can be a bit random but they are always entertaining as they are delivered by people with a real passion for what they do, to an accomodating audience, by experienced presenters. It’s a good combination.

The GEL (Good Experience Live) conference is, as the name suggests, focussed on good experience. Which begs the question “What is good experience?” but there are others far better versed in giving an answer to that question so I’ll leave them to it (you may find some answers on the conference website).

It was on the latter website that I recently watched a presentation by the head of OXO (Note for UK readers: this is an American housewares company, not the makers of gravy cubes). Alex Lee, President of OXO, delivered a presentation featuring some of their products and outlined some of the guiding principles they follow, one of which he stated as:

“Helping people without the stigma of being helped”

Sound familiar? Have you heard something similar when discussing why “no-one reads the documentation”?

I think the first person who I heard mention this was Matthew Ellison at one of the Digitext Help Conferences. It was early in my career and did strike me as quite fundamental and a little bit hard to fathom. As a Technical Writer my main goal is to make the life of the user better (to give them a good experience when using the software by aiding them through those process), so to hear that there was an issue like this that blocked someone from accessing the documentation I was so carefully crafting was quite a shock.

So how do we, as technical communicators, deal with this issue? How can we help our users get past that stigma?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this, I have a couple of ideas in mind but nothing firm. Is this something you try and cater for in your product information? Do you have any way to influence this in other areas of the product? What techniques have you deployed that help get users ‘into’ the documentation? Is there much of anything that we CAN do??

I’m off to dig about for any research into this area, feel free to leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, or email me direct.

Grumpy Young Man

At some point, over the festive period just past, I found myself watching a TV series called “Grumpy Old Men” in which several personalities (they’d probably baulk at being called celebrities) rant and rave about the myriad of little things that annoy them; The people who talk loudly on their mobile phones, the fact that these gentlemen are quite happy to sit in silence and consider it time well spent, and how baffled these grumpy men are with an entire raft of youth culture issues.

I laughed along with a lot of the comments, heartily at first then, as the program progressed, with a slight tinge of dread for, it appears, I too am a Grumpy Old Man.

It’s not that I think I’m old (I’m 35 and quite happy with that) but I do seem to be quite a grumpy bugger.

Perhaps this isn’t a blog post I should be writing first thing in the morning, before I’ve had caffeine but … ohh actually there’s a thing. How hard is it to leave a kitchen area in a reasonable state? How selfish – or perhaps arrogant? – do you have to be to assume that it is acceptable to leave the remnants of your lunch, crumbs, tomato seeds or whatever?

Ohhh dear. I’m doing it again, aren’t I.

As you were.

Shortly written

The act of writing fiction, of considering the flow and cadence of certain words, the structure and pace of a sentence, the building of a paragraph, laying the foundations for something bigger is something with which I flirt. Most of my flirtations make their way here in the form of odd and completely random blog posts.

A few people have said to me that I should consider writing something longer, bigger in scale but my attention span doesn’t really lend it to such a venture. I’ve made my peace with that as I think I’d have to quit my day job to have anything approaching a chance of writing a novel, but it’s only just occurred to me (yesterday morning) that I might be able to tackle a short story.

Now, at the risk of getting my Mother all excited (she’s my biggest fan, obv), the idea has a lot of appeal. It’s not something I’ll be able to tackle at the moment but I might do some background research anyway…

I should point out that I have the beginnings of a short story already in place, something I’ve dipped in and out of for a long time but I never really (weirdly) considered it a short story as such, more just a consistent place to enjoy the process of writing.

And no, I’m NOT going to publish that little piece of nonsense.

I know a few of you have written short stories (and a few of you have books, gasp!) so if you have any tips or advice I’d welcome them. I’m not overly bothered about getting published (modesty suggests I’m not that good) but I would like to take a proper stab at it… if I do it at all, I fear this may be another flash in the pan idea but, whilst the iron is hot.. no wait, which metaphor am I using??