Saturday, 26 April 2008

Facebook - bringing back the village shop

Leaving aside the 'serious' side of social networking for the moment - journalism, marketing, education, research and all that stuff - I've been thinking around what social networking is doing to/for people in general.

And it's replacing the village shop.

Now there's well publicised research and academic stuff which suggests that humans are evolved to live in relatively small groups, a couple of hundred individuals or so, and it's a pretty convincing story.

It's not a big jump to suggest that our mobile society, in which friends move away and become less easily accessible, creates significant psychological stress as we try to deal with people we are emotionally attached to but never see. I know it stresses me. Because every contact, rather than being an informal two minutes as our paths cross in a common environment, becomes an event, which has to be got right, and I don't know what's going on with them right now, and maybe I'll have a think and do it tomorrow.

And facebook (and bebo and myspace, I'm sure, but I don't go there) is bringing it back. I have some idea what they're up to, so long as they do the status update thing. I know that they have similar info about me. And they seem less distant. Facebook is the new village shopkeeper, who tells you that Norma was in last week, and one of her kids has had chicken pox, and you tell him that you've been busy with your new hobby...

Now I'm not suggesting social networking will fix everything, nor that it doesn't bring new problems. But it's here, it's staying, and it's a way to live our hectic diconnected modern lives that we're not really eveolved to cope with.

Or maybe I should lay off the barley wine for a bit.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

MS Access - the best of apps, the worst of apps.

Microsoft Access. It's possibly the most painful application our users run. It does some fundamentally stupid things:

If your default printer is set to automatically select a paper tray, Access will fail with a deeply cryptic error when you try to preview a report. In fact, once you know what's going on, it sorta makes sense.

The problem is that if Access is going to print preview a report, it needs to know what size of paper it's going to print on, what the printable area is, and probably other stuff. And so it checks to see what the default printer is set up to use. And if the printer is set to select the tray dependent on the paper size requested, then Access can't find out. As I say, it sorta makes sense. But surely

'Your default printer is set to select an output tray automatically, and so Access doesn't know what size to print this report. Please select a paper size....'
wouldn't be that hard?

There's others, but that's the one that bit us AGAIN today. I'd happily advise my colleagues 'this MS Access? Yeah, it looks nice, but to be honest it's a piece of crap. Don't bother with it.'

But I can't. Why not? Because there's nothing else that does the same job. It's easy to build a moderately complex and sophisticated database application, with integrated reporting and stuff. And when I say easy, I mean easy for actual humans, who do actual jobs.

The truth is, for all that it's buggy as hell, and doesn't scale well, and uses perversely tweaked SQL syntax, and on and on, Access is the killer application, competing in a field of one.

There's nothing else out there which does 'desktop database application' well enough most of the time to compete. Show me I'm wrong.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Selected photos from a trip to Glasgow

Mist rising from a hillside
A 3d map on a pedestal 
View by day 
View by night 
Nice lines 
Power and wealth

Blogged with the Flock Browser

If you can fake sincerity.. more IT Support philosophy stuff

I'd like you, my reader, to imagine yourself a user of IT Services. You're having trouble sending email to a particular institution, and there's a deadline approaching. So you pop into IT Services to see if anyone can help.

Scenario 1
There are three technicians sitting at their desks. You can see one of their screens, and he seems to be shopping. The technicians ignore you. You wait. Eventually one of them turns away from the screen. You explain your problem. The technician replies "We can't do anything about that, you'll have to put a job on the system, and the email team will have a look at it". You leave.

Scenario 2
There are three technicians sitting at their desks. They all look up as soon as you walk in, and one asks if they can help you. You explain the problem, and the technician replies "I'm sorry, that's something the email team will need to look at. I'll help you put a job on our job system now. Have you used the job system before? Don't worry, I'll show you what to do. Here's a job reference number. You 've got a deadline? Don't worry, I'll call one of the email team now and ask them to treat it as urgent". You leave.

Now I'll not insult your intelligence. Scenario 2 is the good one. Scenario 1 happens all too often. That's obvious, and it's not really the point.

The point is that in neither scenario did your problem get solved. The people you approached couldn't help you themselves. But in scenario 2, I'll wager you'd feel confident that someone would help, and probably in good time. And you'd be more likely to come back for help again. And less likely to moan about IT Support.

Customer Service is a lot about serving the customer, and a lot about making the customer feel served. And it's easy and costs nothing to do the latter. And they'll love you for it.

Disclaimer: This is a hypothetical scenario, and in no way represents any situation that has actually happened, nor anyone who actually exists. Honest.