Month: September 2009

All is not me

Having my iPhone not quite working properly over the past few days made me realise just how hooked into the ‘online world’ I am. I think I have a good balance though, it’s not like I spend all day staring at screens of information, cherry-picking things I’m interested in, things I might find useful in the future, or things that I think others might want to read.

Because if I did that, then I’d probably (knowing myself as well as I do) have to have a system or two in place to cope with that “information overload”.

So, for example, I might use Instapaper to track blog posts that I want to read later (either from the website or using the iPhone app), or articles that might feature in the ISTC newsletter column I write. I would probably be monitoring RSS feeds to find the articles or blog posts, checking for things for either personal perusal or professional pondering, or perhaps I’d be using a Twitter client on my iPhone that supported Instapaper to capture some of the links that people post there.

I could use del.icio.us to store links to useful bits and bobs that I might want to refer to later on, and I may even use Tumblr (which I could also use on my iPhone) as a means to capture those items of digital detritus that zip past me every day.

Of course it wouldn’t ALL be about consuming information, I do produce some things myself and if I wanted I could use Flickr to host my photos (and maybe use the excellent Flickit app for my iPhone to upload photos as well), not mention the not inconsiderable amount of waffle I’ve posted to a couple of the blogs I’ve setup over the years (I don’t just blog, I write, and tell tales).

Speaking of waffle, if I really wanted to have an outlet for the randomness that all of this information prompts in my head, I guess Twitter would be the place for that, and just because I like to be organised I’d probably set up a separate Twitter account for my professional ramblings as well.

And to make sure I’m properly organised I would need a calendar and a way to track my tasks (both at work and at home).

I’d probably use Google Calendar for appointments and as Remember the Milk have an excellent iPhone app, I guess it would make sense to use that service to track my tasks. Similarly I’d probably look to Simplenote to provide a central place to store snippets of useful information, and they too have an excellent iPhone app which, considering I have my iPhone on me at all times, would be very useful.

Of course that would all be just too much hassle to deal with and make me look like I’m some kind of geek that spends his life connected to the internet, whereas I actually spend most of my time sleeping, eating, reading books and partying.

Honest.

Tell the truth

In direct contrast to my recent experience with Royal Mail, I’ve also had some issues with my iPhone and had to deal with the Geniuses at the Apple store in Glasgow.

Genius might be over-egging it a bit but suffice to say the experience was far far more positive and is an excellent example in how to get customer service right.

So, my old iPhone (just over a year old) had, over time, developed a crack on the back of the case, running a 1cm up the phone from where the cable dock is located. Not something I noticed as I have a case which covers that area.

A quick Google suggested that I should take it back to the store as they would likely just replace it. I was sceptical as it was past the year warranty but thought that if they wouldn’t replace it they might be able to suggest a way to fix it, or at least stop the crack getting any worse.

So I made an appointment at the Genius Bar and after managing to get there without purchasing any new shiny Apple products (I deliberately left my credit card at home, yes I am THAT weak willed), I handed over my iPhone. A quick inspection confirmed that it was something that wasn’t fixable, they’d have to replace the handset.

A quick check of my details confirmed that, yes, I’d had the handset for 13 months, one month past the warranty but hey, they’d still replace it (granted this is the older model of iPhone, so they are probably happy to get the stock moving out of storage!). A quick signature and the new handset was mine. In and out in 10 minutes, and a nice smile on my face.

Alas that is not the end of this story. Yes, there is more. Sorry about that, but thanks for reading this far, seriously, I do appreciate it, I know I can waffle on a bit at times so I do appreciate you wasti spending your precious time reading this. I do. Thank you.

Where was I?

The next day, out and about with my new handset in my pocket it started to vibrate like I had an incoming call. I pulled the phone out of my pocket and… nothing. No call, no message, nothing. Odd. Put the phone back in my pocket and.. *buzzzz* and yet, still nothing.

And so it continued to the point where I could leave the handset on the table, and watch it randomly mute and unmute itself, triggering the vibration each time.

Back to the Genius Bar this morning where, after showing what the handset was doing it was, once again, replaced. In and out in 10 minutes, with an apology for the “Genius” and with a big smile on my face.

Lesson to learn? I know that not everything works all the time, things break, or aren’t properly made, such is life. It’s how you, as an organisation, deal with me at that point that makes or breaks my relationship with you.

So yes, having to get a replacement handset replaced isn’t ideal, but a quick acknowledgement, an apology, and some sort of corrective action is all it took to keep me happy. Case in point, if they’d said my original phone, with the crack in the case, couldn’t have been replaced but had suggested a way to fix it, that would’ve been ok as well.

So, well done to the Genius Bar in the Apple store in Glasgow, you’ve restored some of my faith that some organisations do know how to treat customers properly. Thanks (and ta for the shiny new handset!).

Author-it Web Help Configuration Wizard

For version 5.3, Author-it released new web help templates and having played with them a bit I have to say I like them. However I was struggling to see how to enable some of the options that you can see in the example Author-it provide, so off into the HTML and CSS files I headed to see if I could see anything useful in there.

And there is, several of the options are commented out in the HTML code and with a little bit of poking and prodding I got some of them to work. Pretty straightforward, if you know HTML and CSS that is.

But what if you don’t?

Well the good news is that the ever productive Hamish Blunck has created an Author-it Web Help Configuration Wizard which, in a few simple steps, will produce you a custom Web Help template. It really is very simple and works like a charm, it also uncovered a few options I hadn’t spotted in the code.

Thanks to Hamish for providing this to the Author-it community (he also hosts a search engine that polls the old Yahoo Group). Great stuff this, go and give it a shot.

Manchester bound

All of a sudden, from being weeks, nay months!, away my trip to Manchester to see Elbow finish out their live performances of The Seldom Seen Kid is almost upon me. Friday I travel down to sunny Manc land, go for a wander (must remember my camera), head to the gig, and then back to the hotel. Another wander before jumping on the train back to Glasgow.

I’m getting quite excited about the thought. I’ve only been in Manchester once, many many years ago for a family wedding and even then it was on the outskirts. No idea what I’m gonna do whilst I’m there but I’m sure I’ll manage to fill the time.

And, of course, the Elbow gig that evening which should be, as it usually is, a belter. I’m hoping as it is in their home town that there will be a lower number of tossers there but I’m not holding out much hope to be honest (seriously, why pay all that money to stand and have a conversation with your mates? The man HAS THE VOICE OF AN ANGEL, so shut up and LISTEN, already!).

I’m also quite looking forward to catching the support act, the Fiery Furnaces. I’ve given their album another listen and think it could transfer quite well to a live setting but time will tell.

Regardless, I know I’ll fill up listening to “… Tower Crane Driver” because it’s such a wonderfully sad ballad, I’ll have a lump in my throat during Station Approach for reasons I don’t fully understand (it’s the line “coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walk by”) and when Mirrorball starts I’ll likely close my eyes and bathe in the sumptuous melody and smile with each line of the song.

Yup, it’s fair to say I can’t wait.

Is it Friday yet??

ISTC West of Scotland Group

The ISTC West of Scotland area group will meet on Thursday 22nd October from 7.30 p.m. onwards at the Waxy O’Connors pub, 44 West George Street, Glasgow, G2 1DH. Please make your way to McTurk’s Room on the middle level.

The evening will start with a discussion of “Conferences and how we benefit from them”, followed by an opportunity to network and chat with your peers (and hey, the bar will be open too!).

You don’t need to be an ISTC member to attend, and the more the merrier. Mine’s a Guinness!

Thanks to Katja McLaughlin for organising this. See you there.

Strange season

Walking through Glasgow yesterday, my eye was drawn to a few window boxes. Dashes of scarlet red and vibrant yellow were glowing in the early morning sun, people were walking about in short sleeves, sunglasses hiding their eyes.

As I walked on, a burnt orange leaf helter skeltered towards the ground then, as the chilled breeze picked up, more and more leaves fell to the ground. So summer is over, and autumn is already knocking on the door.

But, is it just me or do the seasons seem to be overlapping more and more?

Flowers are still in bloom whilst the trees take on their autumn rust.

The only reason I ask is that autumn is my favourite season, especially these days as we no longer really get a summer, so I’m always on the lookout for that change in the seasons.

Which means this weird merging of the seasons is really throwing me out of whack. Is it still summer? Or is it autumn? How do I know?

Please don't lie

This post is prompted entirely by my recent interactions with Royal Mail, but the hold true for many organisations.

Life, as we all know, has times when it just seems to be ganging up on you. Nothing seems to go right, nothing happens the way you expect and you are left in an uncomfortable place and without enough, or some times any, knowledge or information you quickly become frustrated as you are not sure what to do next.

So when, as a customer, I reach that place the last thing I want to hear are lies. They may be lies offered in good faith, but they are blatant and completely without excuse.

The most common lie I’ve heard is the lie of affirmation. Being told that I matter, or that the organisation is very keen to improve their service and help solve my problem, and other such positive affirmation is not useful and likely to only irk me further.

Apologise by all means but please mean it, and please make sure it is immediately followed up with an offer of help.

And when you have really stuffed up and I, the customer, point this out, have the good grace to agree, rather than look for excuses that I, the customer, have no control over. I’m sure that crucial system was down for a short while and that is the root of all evil in the world, but hey, it’s not my problem.

Lastly, and this is sometimes the worst of all, please please PLEASE do not send me out a questionnaire after the event. Remember, I’ve been angry and frustrated, lost in the midst of YOUR processes and systems and most likely I’ve been the one trying to peace together information from email A, website B and phonecalls C, D and E as, for no good reason (trust me, my company builds this stuff, there is no reason why you can’t have all your systems talking to each other).

That questionnaire is usually a stock affair with a nice welcoming “ohhh we are good people and not only that we are trying to be better!” waffle at the start, and is constructed in such a way as to make REAL feedback almost impossible.

People like me really don’t want to write letters of complaint, and you know what, when things go bad that’s ok. Just don’t lie to us. Tells us you know something has gone wrong, share the information with us, talk to us and be human. We don’t expect everything to work all the time, but the way you handle things when they go wrong makes far more of a difference than you seem to realise.

Measurements and Metrics

It’s funny how these things come together sometimes, when two separate discussions, one here in the office and the other in the Author-it Forums, nicely lead me to a conclusion on something I’ve been pondering recently. How to measure what we produce?

The first discussion was with a new guy in our team, who was voicing concerns about the amount of information he was producing. He stated that, when describing some of the concepts our product uses, he would spend a lot of time figuring them out, talking to people about them and understanding them, but that usually translated into “not a lot being produced”.

I pointed out that, as far as I’m concerned, the more concise and effective the information, the better. Some things do require a lot of content, others don’t. There are additional benefits when you consider the single source aspect as well, it’s much easier to re-use a tightly focussed topic than one which tries to cover too much information.

The second discussion, in the Author-it forums, was someone asking if there was a way to track the number of words each writer was producing, apparently as a way to track productivity.

Don’t worry, plenty of people pointed out the fallacy of that line of thinking; it’s very easy to pad out a document or topic with additional words even though they might not add any value and may lead to ambiguity.

However I’m not really thinking along the lines of productivity, nor measuring the individual, I’m more concerned with measuring what we produce.

But how?

The obvious answer is to engage with our audience and get their feedback about the documentation. There are various ways of doing this, and depending on your audience some might not be available.

Arranging time to sit down with the people who use the product, and your documentation, is best and can be run as a product focussed session. If your company runs customer forums or workshops then it should be easy enough to schedule time into the agenda (your company understands how important documentation is, right?), but even if you can’t get direct access you could try a questionnaire, allowing customers to ‘score’ the documentation.

Ultimately you need to get feedback from the people who use your documentation, find out whether they can find the information they need, once they’ve found it do they understand it, is it clear, accurate, unambiguous? It’s not easy to quantify what we do at every level but using a questionnaire which includes an indication of a score can give you a way to start further discussions. The score itself isn’t the important bit, it’s what you do with the feedback that matters.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried other ways of measuring your documentation, and I’m not alone. In the current economic climate there is more pressure to justify what we do, so making sure we have some good weapons up our sleeves will benefit us all.

Music Futures

Prompted by some questions about Spotify on Twitter, questions which sparked a heated debate that is still raging*, I thought I’d revisit my own music purchasing and usage habits and see where I sit in the consumer spectrum.

First things first then, I do purchase music mostly, these days, through iTunes. Mostly because it’s handy and I’m a total Apple fanboy (yeah, Windows SUCK!!). That last bit is a lie, of course, as my home PC runs Windows and I’m really enjoying using Windows 7 (something else I’ll be purchasing soon).

I digress.

I spent a long time digitally converting my CDs, and as they now reside in boxes in the loft I don’t see the need to purchase anything on physical media. I have bought a couple in the past few months, mainly band specific special releases though, so they aren’t available through iTunes. I’m sure there are other ways I could purchase music but for what I listen my system works for me.

Do I miss the act of going into a music shop, flipping through the stacks? Yes I do, but not so much that I’m losing sleep over it, although it’s easy to say that since my current office is miles from anywhere, whereas working in the city centre made access to places like Fopp an always entertaining lunchtime visit.

As for listening to music, well that mostly happens either at work (when time/task allow) or at home when I’m sitting at the PC or just generally faffing about upstairs. More recently I have started taking my iPod Shuffle to the gym.

So where does Spotify fit in all this? Well it should fit perfectly, at home at least (I’ve not tried but guessing company firewall restrictions would rule it out there). I do have it, I have an account yet, for some reason, I don’t use it. To be honest I’ve only used it a couple of times, and I do like the idea of sharing playlists with others but what about all that music that I have?

I LIKE all the music I have, well most of it**, except when it’s on shuffle of course, and whilst I am open to hearing new artists I only tend to use work as a backdrop so I’m not usually actively listening. With that in mind, it largely doesn’t matter where the music comes from, but I’m far more likely to put on something I know so I don’t HAVE to listen to it.

You know what I mean, right?

Perhaps I just need to give Spotify more of a try, perhaps I’m missing something fundamental but I really don’t see it as a game changer. Yet.

But then I said that about blogging, and Twitter so hey, what do I know?

* or perhaps just one or two polite replies, poetic license, innit
** the joys of a shared library of music and Last.fm listing tracks from Louise’s iPod, for the record I did not listen to Girls Aloud AT ALL that week

Small differences

Tomorrow morning I’ll be at Glasgow Green to cheer on Louise’s cousin Sharon as she completes the 10K that is organised as part of the Great Scottish Run.

I don’t care how heavy the rain is, nor how hard the wind may blow because I owe her a few cheers.

Roll back the clock to June 2007 and having hauled myself round 9K of the 10K course I enter the final kilometre, I’m going slower than I had hoped and I’m a bit disheartened, yet determined to finish. That last kilometre was dominated by those two thoughts, disappointment and determination.

For those of you who haven’t gone jogging, it’s a very good way to focus the mind, I used to do some of my best thinking when I was out for a run.

I remember glancing at my watch just as it ticked over the hour mark, and another huge surge of disappointment washes over me. I’d hoped to finish in under an hour (I know now that I underestimated the effect of the large hill at the start of the race) but that was gone now. Then the 500m marker rolled into view and I realised that, if nothing else, I was gonna finish it!

The last 100m or so and, like everyone else, the adrenalin kicked in, I picked up the pace and tried to fight off that nagging feeling of disappointment. Then, as I turned the final corner and the finishing line was ahead of me I suddenly heard my name being shouted.

I glanced up to see Sharon and her sister AnnMarie, hanging over the balcony and cheering me on and suddenly all those nagging feelings disappeared. No matter what the time was, or the position I came in the race, I felt like a million bucks. I was a winner! People were cheering my name!

So, tomorrow I get to pay her back. I’m preparing to shout myself hoarse.