Why sometimes you can be too clever.

February 28th, 2013

We are in the process of developing an integration tool to enable dynamic linking of documents held in a SharePoint repository to a CRM system. The software will also need to support repositories such as Laserfiche and the Windows File system itself, to provide a ‘vendor neutral’ solution.

From a development – not to mention Business Automation standpoint, this is very interesting stuff. As with all great ideas, the principle is very simple, enable the user to access information necessary to perform their role in the most efficient manner.

The test we are building utilises MS Outlook as our demonstration platform. When the user receives an email, the integration tool will perform a lookup in the CRM software to display the business name and contact details relating to the email sender. The operator can opt to file the message into the file repository, or review/search for other information or documents for this client. All seamlessly actioned within MS Outlook;  without requiring the user to have knowledge of or launch a separate application (or three).

I was ‘Googling’ products that claim to offer similar functionality and was struck by the rudimentary nature of some offerings. These basically require the operator to manually build a series of links between CRM and documents – claiming this is the pinnacle of automation. After watching one video which was making a big show of adding a Google search to the client record – enabling information ‘from the internet’ relating to the client record to be displayed, I commented to a colleague about how primitive some of these claims were. The response, quite surprisingly was – many users would find that very useful! I argued we have been able to do that for over a decade to which he asked – have you told anyone?

My point? Just because something appears really simple or obvious, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth telling people about!

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Business automation – why bother

November 14th, 2012
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I attended a presentation recently on digital signatures. The subject matter was presented at a fairly high level – obviously to engage the non-techies, and was slanted at efficiencies that could be gained by utilisation of digital signatures. Really clever stuff – especially for organisations forever chasing paper and signatories around.

Shortly after I was chatting with a client (also in attendance) and we were discussing the merits of high speed scanners – with specific reference to a weekly process whereby timesheets needed to be scanned into their system for onward electronic distribution. This small step saved the business hours each week and more than justified the modest investment in a new copier/scanner.

The point I make is that automating your business processes does not necessarily require a wholesale change to your computer systems and work practices. Very often simply stepping back from the process and asking yourself a few questions such as: why do we do this, what is the objective, what is the actual cost – especially recurring cost, what if we didn’t do this, what if we couldn’t do this, what if we could do this differently etcetera – and challenged the entire process and logic behind the process – how many processes would remain, remain as they are, or would we wish to change?

A lot of what we do (as a business) these days is about helping our clients work smarter. ALL businesses acquire wasteful practices – it is a simple reality of life, we have too many things to focus on to avoid this happening. The real danger arises as a business experiences rapid growth – often during periods of transition – from a start-up to a semi-established business etc., these periods of change can create a sense of urgency for management that often take a ‘can do’ approach to fix the problem, throw some money at it and move on to the next ‘problem’. However this can often prove very  costly over the medium/long term, especially when a more considered challenge may highlight an opportunity to re-profile the task to work smarter.

Time constraints tend to be the biggest enemy, either a perceived lack of it, or a workload that doesn’t provide an opportunity to look over the parapet. If you find yourself using time as an excuse not to address some part of your business process, be warned, you probably should be making time to address these part/s of your business process.

The hard part is often the simple realisation ‘there may be a better way’.

Articles, Circle2

Windows 8 ‘Rocks’

September 24th, 2012
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Windows 8 Rocks!.. or at least it appears to work without the problems I would expect from a new OS.
I decided a few weeks ago to install it on my laptop and ignoring the bets that were being placed on how long I would tolerate it before restoring my Windows 7 installation (Vista lasted <30 minutes), I found it instantly appealing.

Windows 8 is the biggest change in the user-interface since the Start button in Windows 95. Faced with tablet platforms such as the iPad and with no viable product to compete with, Microsoft are betting the farm on Windows 8 to make their mark in the new sector of “touch”. The Start menu is gone, replaced with the Start screen. Instead of menu options, you have “live tiles” that showcase a summary view of their content before you choose to activate them.

Windows 8 Start *screen*

There are definitely some experiences that ‘jar’ including hidden menus/commands such as the absence of a close button when viewing a PDF file (you need to be aware of ALT F4 in this situation) or discover the right mouse click. These hidden functions are something I have never cared for. It is just bad design practice! However, I am sure there will be tweaks and revisions in the next service pack.  I was very pleased to establish that all our own CRM software works fine in Windows 8 and, in some aspects, actually works better than in earlier Windows releases.

It is an interesting development. I am not convinced it will be the corporates OS of choice, unless they add a ‘Look like Windows 7’ mode; I am at a loss who within Microsoft thinks a corporate client that has invested years in a Microsoft strategy will simply accept there is ‘a new interface’ in town and switch to the Windows 8 concept. It is a really nice OS and feels solid, however, money talks and I will be interested to see how long it is before Open Source is again being promoted as an alternative to the massive re-training and re-tooling costs associated with a wholesale change to a new way of working.

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Six Peaks Challenge – The Return

July 18th, 2012
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What an experience! Having now undertaken and completed the challenge, I am still buzzing and looking for the next big hill to climb. We started the challenge in the not so sunny village of Laxey, Isle of Man. 1pm Steve Rodan, Speaker of the House of Keys (Manx Parliament) started everyone off with a few words of encouragement, and we were off. Team ‘Cavendish’ our allocated call sign set off at a pace. By the time we reached the top of the Laxey Valley Gardens there was no one in sight behind us and so the pace had been set. We literally burnt up the track to the summit of Snaefell returning to the start line in a respectable 2hrs and 47 minutes. Given the conditions on the hill we thought 7 minutes off last years best time was a none too shabby performance.

The camaraderie and buzz that this challenge generated was amazing, quite apart from the fact that the WaterAid mission is a really noble and meaningful cause providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation for over 3 billion people world wide and yes that number is not a typo! I feel so privileged to have been part of the 1st IOM team to ever take part in this challenge, and grateful to my fellow team members especially the drivers, who made this possible for me.

A fuller account can be found on my walking blog http://walkingmann.wordpress.com
Wateraid donations can be made here: Virgin Giving Money

Six Peaks Challenge

Six Peaks Challenge Update – Scafell Pike Practice Hike

June 27th, 2012
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I decided to take a trip over to walk Scafell Pike. Orienteering one of the routes outside the Isle of Man seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, I chose the one day when torrential rain, high winds, hailstone and floods were in abundance. The news report following my ascent said more rain fell in 24hours on Friday than was normal for the entire month of June.

The walk itself was fantastic, whilst the path was flooded in parts, I found a safe route around the flooding and proceeded to the base of Broad Crag. Here I had to call it a day, the wind was extreme, hail felt like needles in my face, and safety (as team leader) had to be my 1st priority. I am looking forward to climbing it to the top on the 7th July.

On the way back, my path across the ford was swollen and I had to wade across knee deep. The force of the ford was quite strong and signs of worse to come was evident as I made my way down.

Whilst I was unable to make it to the top, the experience was amazing and is certainly food for thought apropos preparation for the main event.

Virgin Giving Money

Six Peaks Challenge

Six Peaks Challenge

June 12th, 2012
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The Six Peaks Challenge is a sponsored mountain walk held annually to raise money for the international charity WaterAid. It is one of the toughest mountain challenges in Great Britain and Ireland, presenting participant teams with significant logistical problems.

I am personally delighted to be part of the first Isle of Man team to participate in this event. My walking colleagues and I are trying to raise £3,000 for the charity WaterAid. Any corporates or individuals interested in sponsoring our team can do so at Virgin Giving Money or by email at: 6peaks@island-webworks.net We will ensure all sponsors are mentioned in a post event newsletter. If you want an opportunity to maximise exposure for your business, there are also opportunities to ‘sponsor a mountain’.

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Change of Focus – Change of office – Change of branding – now a Change of Web Site.

June 6th, 2012
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Why do small changes cascade into major undertakings!  In January we moved office and took the opportunity to re-define our service offering to match our change of business focus. This led to new literature with emphasis placed on our Circle2 brand, and lots of client meetings to tell everyone what we were doing.  Four months later I realise that our ‘new message’ is being obfuscated by a web site that, whilst being a very good web site, is still slanted towards web design.  Today web design represents about 30% of what we do; therefore it is important that clarity is restored.
The next challenge is to take the three sites we have and consolidate them into a single site that clearly reflects what we do.
I look forward to advising when this task has been completed.

Circle2

Office move

February 6th, 2012

During the second half of last year, we started to outgrow our Circular Road office. So, at the end of January, we moved to new offices on the top floor at 4-8 Hope Street. Being just around the corner from our previous office, it’s still conveniently located in the center of Douglas.

The extended floor space allow us to expand our company to offer a wide range of services, notably in the Business Intelligence area under the name Circle2.

The new offices

The new offices

With our new focus on Business Intelligence, our new virtual server environment gives us the flexibility to create development environments on the fly to suit any type of project.

Our presentation area allow us to discuss your project in

Our new meeting area

Our new meeting area

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JavaScript errors: why put up with them?

February 5th, 2012

How many times have you visited a site to be confronted with:

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… or maybe …

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Frustrating, isn’t it?

This error will pop up if you have your default browser settings, which is to display JavaScript errors. You’ll find this message pop up in various forms on many sites, including major sites such as Facebook and Google Mail. It means that the developer of the site has not seen to it to test their code on your browser sufficiently. Once a JavaScript error occurs, you will likely have a reduced experience on the web page. Maybe an update doesn’t quite work, or a widget doesn’t operate correctly. Sometimes, all the scripts on the page will cease to work, significantly degrading your personal experience.

Imagine this happening in Microsoft Word, or Adobe Acrobat. What would you think of the quality of the software if a similar program code failure caused your experience to be negatively affected? I’d imagine you would be frustrated and maybe let out a few specially selected words? You might blame the application, or worse, misunderstand the culprit and blame the operating system (“Windows never works”).

Why should the web be any different? An error in source code is still an error. It highlights lack of care, thought and testing of the application, in this case, the web page. It’s not the case that “The internet never works”.

JavaScript is a simple language which can create some really powerful and immersive experiences. From on-line games (watch out for those JavaScript errors) to social media web pages, if used correctly and sufficiently tested, positive experiences may be had and trends may be set.

As a web developer, I find it challenging using the internet because of these errors. If I turn them off, I have a positive experience using the internet, as the errors are ignored and I may not notice the degraded experience. But having them turned off, I may miss errors in our own code. And I care about the quality of our code. I often find myself navigating the Internet Options of Internet Explorer turning these errors on and off as I switch between frustration and care.

In order to ensure our clients aren’t tarred with the same brush, we have quality assurance processes in place as part of our web site and web application development:

  • By programming defensively, we always expect the worst. That way, if your browser doesn’t support what we need it to do, we’ll gracefully wind down the experience before the browser is able to throw an “Object is undefined” error.
  • We test each and every function manually using documented test scripts. These tests are executed in all the major browsers. In addition we try and pre-empt edge-cases and possible race conditions.
  • We write and execute automated test scripts that are executed when we check code in to our development servers. These automatically re-test our work to ensure that no regression has occurred and we have not inadvertently added errors. This also helps in testing across multiple browsers; a tricky process.

15-12-2011 16-48-08Through this process we aim to ensure that the end user does not experience any of these frustrating errors that has a negative effect and associates your site and brand with poor quality. Just as you wouldn’t stand for a crashing application, why put up with it on the web?

If you’d like to disable these errors in Internet Explorer, by open Internet Options from the Tools menu and click the Advanced tab, find the setting “Display a notification about every script error” and clear the checkbox. But then that’s sort of missing the point …

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EU Cookie compliance put into practice

May 16th, 2011

We’ve written about the upcoming EU’s European e-Privacy directive regarding HTTP cookies once before (http://blog.island-webworks.net/2011/03/the-way-the-cookie-crumbles), and we didn’t exactly come down on the positive side of this upcoming legislation. However, the law is passed and will come into effect later this month, so we thought we’d better find a way to comply without reducing the usability of our web sites.

The challenge set by the e-Privacy directive is that any web site operating within the EU will have to clearly state what cookies they want to set and how they’re to be used. Only after getting explicit consent by the user would a web site be allowed to set any cookies1 on the users machine.

So, in order to use cookies you now really need to set another cookie to store the user’s preferences, which ironically means that if the user denies the use of cookies, you have no legal way of storing that user preference in a cookie and will have to keep nagging those users every time they visit your web site.

Unobtrusive nagging

Taking the above into account, it was clear that an unobtrusive method of alerting the user was required – something that could be displayed on every page without impacting on the user experience. After some thinking we decided to use a discreet info bar appearing at the bottom of the web page.

cookie-compliance-1

An info bar appearing at the bottom of the page to highlight that cookies might be used.

The info bar would state that we wish to set some cookies and ask if the user would be ok with that. By clicking the ‘Tell me more’ link an information window would appear.

cookie-compliance-2

On clicking the information bar's 'Tell me more'-link, a window with detailed information appears and gives the user the option of accepting or denying the use of cookies.

This information window is where the user either accept or deny the use of cookies for this site. The bottom paragraph also points out that if the user don’t accept cookies, we would have to ask them every time they visit.

Since this is a procedure the user will probably only want to go through once, the system is designed to be easily ignored. The info bar can be closed without further ado by clicking the close button, or it can be ignored completely without affecting the usability of the site.

However, the main problem with the new legislation remains: only a very few visitors will ever explicitly approve the use of cookies, which essentially means that the use of tracking technologies like Google Analytics is going to become more or less obsolete in the Eurpoean Union. That’s quite a blow to any organisation trying to improve their web sites to better suit their visitors’ needs!

1) The term “cookies” refer to any kind of file stored on a users computer in order to track that user. As such, this also includes so called Flash cookies.

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