Beta General Convention Presentation: Are You Tech Savvy in 2011?

Today during Beta Theta Pi’s annual General Convention I was asked to present to the brand new Alumni Symposium track. The topic was fairly broad, so I chose to challenge participants to consider how technology was subtly shaping everyday life. And then I added a heaping helping of my favorite “lifestyle apps” that harness technology to automate some of the mundane life-maintenance that otherwise takes time we could spend with our family, friends and hobbies. I hope it gives you some ideas as well!

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I like to do drawings (Digital drawing)

I wonder if the use of simple sketches has decreased since the proliferation of the personal computer. We all know that drawings are great tools for problem solving, creativity and communication. If you’d like some references, see anything by Dan Roam:

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam (Amazon) Unfolding the Napkin by Dan Roam (Amazon)

Or Sunni Brown‘s incredible stuff from right here in Austin.

I’ve always been a sketcher. And being a nerd I can remember getting excited about “digital ink” (before the buzzword even existed) back in the  late 80’s. I wish I could remember the name of the very first drawing program my parents bought me for the PC. (Yup, I’m old.) We even got a digitizer with one of those pucks because we had a farm land mapping application which used it to digitize maps of fields to be planted. (Yup, grew up on a farm.)

DrawingBoard VI™ by CalComp

Before Wacom tablets

All of this was expensive stuff. And I was disappointed every time.

Over twenty years later (who says technology moves quickly??) we finally have decent drawing tools that are beginning to rival a pencil and napkin or Moleskin.

The trick has always been to equal the speed and ease of traditional drawing tools. The arrival of the iPad has ushered in a new era of digital drawing. Once we have useable “digital ink,” it offers exciting advantages over analog tools: instant and multi-level undo/redo, collaboration, portability, minimal storage requirements, green footprint.

Here are some of the digital drawing tools I’m now using to realize my dream of digital visual thinking and communication.

Bamboo Stylus for iPad

Wacom Bamboo Stylus for iPad

Made by Wacom. The only iPad stylus I’ve tried but its gotten good reviews and I have no complaints and am A LOT more precise with it than I with my digit. The weight feels right and it matches my iPad 2’s look perfectly. Do not expect iPad2 to completely “keep up” with your fastest writing speeds, regardless of app or stylus. There will be a bit of a lag. $30.

iPad Drawing Apps

Bamboo Paper

Bamboo Paper (iTunes - App Store)

Speaking of Wacom, this is a fairly limited app (e.g. only one notebook) but looks great and is very smooth/responsive. I’m not sure if it is “custom-tuned” to the Bamboo Stylus, but its great for quick notes and sketches. No Dropbox sync. Free.

Penultimate

Penultimate (iTunes - App Store)

This is a great app that offers a very smooth drawing experience and other features like multiple notebooks, multiple paper types (even more available through in-app purchase) and wrist protection without sacrificing its minimalist focus on note-taking. It seems universally respected in this crowded app space. No Dropbox sync. $1.99.

ShowMe

ShowMe (iTunes - App Store)Here’s where traditional pen and paper start to get left even further behind in the dust. Designed for educators but super-helpful for just about anyone, this app lets you narrate your drawing as you draw it. The process is super-simple: record, upload, get back a link to the video to share. Free.

SketchBook Pro

Sketchbook Pro (iTunes - App Store)By AutoDesk, the makers of AutoCAD, this app has a ton of advanced features like layers and tons of brushes and effects. It is overkill for sketching and notetaking, but is great for more advanced drawing. Dropbox Sync (and many others). $4.99.

Diagramming

Sketches are great for problem solving and brainstorming as a group. However, you often need to step beyond sketching to the more formal diagram. I’m really itching to try out OmniGraffle for Mac and iPad from the makers of the amazing OmniFocus, but haven’t ponied up the money…yet.

LucidChart

For diagrams you will often not only want to share the finished product (e.g. a jpeg graphic file) but you’ll want others to collaborate with you. LucidChart, a web app, really excels when you want to involve others in drawing. No software is needed, just your collaborator’s email address. Recently LucidChart announced iPad compatibility through the built-in web browser. Watch this video. The shape recognition is amazing and where I’ve wanted to see digital drawing go for quite some time now!

What tools do you use?

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Why do users avoid helpdesk ticket systems?

I often wonder why people avoid using ticket systems like they avoid anchovies. Despite IT policy, pleas and great ticket response times users will always prefer to call or send email directly to an IT staffer instead of submit a ticket (via email or form) to a nameless “helpdesk.”

Reasons, reasons, reasons

Here are some reasons users give for not following the IT ticket submission process. I’ve included some thoughts on each one in parenthesis.

  • “I just have a small issue – it doesn’t warrant a full-blown ticket” (Small issues can become big issues if they are handled outside the central ticket system.)
  • “I need help right away” (Even though the response time to tickets is consistently equal to direct calls/emails.)
  • “It’s just easier to email/call you directly” (Our ticket system allows users to email tickets just as they would me directly – the only difference is literally the address in the To: line.)
  • “I forgot.” (If there was no other way to get out of an tech-jam other than submitting a ticket, would the user remember or otherwise figure it out? Yes.)

I hate to be harsh, but all of these have the trappings of excuse-making.

Make sure IT isn’t justifying excuses

First, and of course: make sure that your support process is not giving legitimacy to any user excuses.

Users should be able to create tickets via email. There’s no easier way for office/knowledge workers to communicate their issue (other than face-to-face, which is often not possible given IT staff constraints or geographical location). Users can easily include screenshots, copies of errors and other details that are difficult to submit on a web form. Copy/paste, drag/drop. Sure email doesn’t allow for all kinds of fancy up-front ticket qualification, but this is about making it as friction-free as possible for the user. We use the wonderful zendesk which excels at handling tickets via email. It even tries to guess some of those qualification tags automatically when it receives the email.

Prioritize tickets submitted correctly to the system as opposed to the direct calls and emails. Granted, this is tough, especially when dealing with execs and bosses, but you have to reward those that follow the process, not those who circumvent. If you do not prioritize your tickets you fall into the trap of justifying the second excuse above (“response to tickets is slower”). Do not let your ticket system get this reputation!

Make sure that your expectation that every IT issue be submitted to the ticket system is crystal clear. Users should have no doubt what process to follow to obtain support. Educate users on the benefits of the system from their perspective (nothing falls through the cracks, easier to spot widespread outages, allows multiple IT staff visibility to issues, etc.). Formalize and publicize the IT policy on handling tickets submitted via ticket before direct calls/emails to IT staff.

Still??

Now that you’re sure the helpdesk is not validating any of the excuses listed above, you will probably wonder why users still avoid the sleek and efficient ticket system. I don’t know.

Heck, I’ve even seen IT professionals avoid using vendor ticket systems! (Be a good customer and use the vendor’s ticket system, even if they don’t follow the Rules of a Good Helpdesk above and you have to also send a direct email/call to get movement on an issue.)

My guess is that it is something to do with us being humans, running on relationships and relying on those relationships even more in a time of need. There’s something not quite comforting enough in “[email protected]” when your computer’s down. (Maybe rename your ticket submission email to “[email protected]” and tell your users its a new IT staffer!?)

Stick to your guns!

Whatever the psychological explanation, you will still receive issues via direct email, phone call, IM, txt, driveby, etc. I say stick to your guns!

Redirect as many of those to tickets as you can. (“Yes, I’d love to help, can you do me a favor and submit it as a ticket while I take a look? Would help me out a ton.”) In Outlook on Exchange you can use the Action > Resend feature to redirect an email to your ticket system as if was sent by the user. For calls or drivebys, create the ticket for the user and make sure the user is included so s/he get the solved/closed notification from the ticket system – a gentle reminder that they should have submitted one.

You know that capturing all issues in a ticket system leads to better: end-user support, IT metric reporting, trend analysis, IT staff utilization, etc. Don’t let natural human tendencies sabotage the ticket system and deprive your users of those benefits.

Do you have suggestions to help users consistently use a helpdesk ticket system?

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Quick Tip: iOS’s built-in sleep timer

Many of my favorite streaming iOS apps like Pandora and Instacast use (or can optionally use, in the case of Instacast) the built-in iPod controls. This is great because it let’s you take advantage of an out-of-the-way Timer feature in the Clock app: When Timer Ends, Sleep iPod. This works with Pandora and Instacast, not just your on-device music! I use this feature every night to go to sleep to podcasts and Pandora (hint: the Spa Radio channel is great for sleeping!).

One of my other favorite streaming apps is TuneIn Radio which lets you listen to (and pause/record) just about any radio station (50,000 according to their site). This tip doesn’t work with TuneIn as it does not use the built-in iPod controls, however it has its own built-in sleep timer.

Another bonus of using built-in iPod controls: you can take advantage of AirPlay if the app doesn’t support it natively (e.g. Instacast).

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IBM’s 100 x 100 Video

A mention of IBM today reminded me to share their incredible 100×100 video which celebrates the company’s centennial and provides a sweeping, inspirational look at IT and the impact its had on us, the humans.

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Information Security Policy

Following our IT Orientation sessions last week we determined that it was a good time to review our information security policy for any required updates and to make sure that staff understand and comply. Ideally, our policy should be comprehensive but not so lengthy and complex that it never gets read, let alone followed. The point of the policy is to give employees clear boundaries within which to operate, not just to satisfy an audit or legal requirement. Easier said than done.

If you do a quick web search you will find a lot of really long sample policies. Clearly something that few end-users have time to read, even though they are supposedly held responsible for adhering to it. The most credible guidance I could find recommended an excellent process but one that would take an entire department months (or longer) to work through. And it still depends on the team’s knowledge of the current security landscape. Few non-profits or small business have those kind of resources. Even if they do, is that the most effective use? In other areas (e.g. electrical codes, food safety), the government or industry organizations define very clear policies that organizations can adopt as their own. They don’t spend time figuring out at what temperature to cook the chicken. But we do in IT.

There should be a simple and freely available IT baseline vetted by security experts that any organization is encouraged (eventually required to) adopt. Of course, no policy can account for every unique environment. So on top of the baseline, the organization’s unique attributes would dictate additional policy considerations. Most of these would be in the form of “if your organization uses X technology then adopt Y policy.” As the policy creator you would simply have to check off the technologies currently in use in your environment.

It appears that ISO and other standards-issuing entities have formed very complex and lengthy recommendations or certification checklists. Here again practicality is being sacrificed for completeness. It’s the age-old security paradox: to make something truly secure you have to make it inaccessible even to those who need to accomplish something with it.

Security policy should be primarily influenced by IT security and user behavior researchers who best know how to balance that equation (usability vs security). These are the folks with the greatest expertise in this field, but their crucial knowledge is not readily available to those who could most impact the security of our technology resources most broadly: IT admins, trainers and end-users.

This is an area in which IT is in desperate need of maturity. Electricians don’t wonder whether insulation should or should not be included on electrical wiring for our homes and offices because the UL (or someone) long ago created a standard that is not even questioned today – and we’re all safer for it.

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Refresh Austin: Selling boogers as art

Tonight I attended my second Refresh Austin meetup. According the group’s website:

Refresh Austin is an organization of Web professionals working together to foster new ideas and refresh the creative, technical and professional aspects of their trade.

Sara Summers a User Experience Evangelist from Microsoft presented Don’t Forget to Kick Ass – Sketching & Prototyping for Product Innovation. My primary takeaway:

Build to Think. Use your hands to prototype, ideate and build as an alternative problem solving method. Today we almost always default to clicking, scrolling, dragging and trying to create something in our heads or on the screen instead of in real life. The problem? Those are very noisy environments that actually work against the creative process.

To put this into practice, we participated in a group excercise where we were given an “awesomely bad business idea” and had to quickly turn it into a viable business concept to be pitched to the rest of the audience.

Our group’s assigned bad business idea: “pick your nose – and sell it as art.” We struggled, although there were some exceptionally creative ideas thrown out. Our final concept was a coffee-table book which would feature close-up celebrity boogers, photos of celebs in the act of “gold digging,” autographs and numerous partnerships (e.g. Kleenex) all for the benefit of a charitable cause (say, flu vaccine research).

I volunteered to pitch our group’s concept to the 100+ attendees – apparently one of the biggest Austin Refresh meetups, of course! Not only was presenting to an unfamiliar crowd of really talented, smart people nerve-wracking, but our idea was far from “fully-baked.”

And it was a great experience.

Meetups are not good for just networking and learning about new technologies, workflows and techniques. They can also help push your comfort zone boundaries in unexpected ways too.

Don’t wait to get involved in your local user groups or meetups beyond the role of passive attendee. Volunteer to speak or to help organize the event. You’ll get that much more out of your after-hours investment. And you will be giving something back to our community.

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AT&T Wireless isn’t all bad

AT&T is constantly dinged for its network. If you are in a really large U.S. city or out in “the middle of nowhere” you’re probably going to have to rely on txt messages more than you should. Data and voice in these areas are not network strengths.

For many network quality is where the carrier choice begins and ends – and that makes complete sense. What’s the point of spending $1,000+/year on a communication device if you can’t, you know, communicate with it?

After two and a half years as a small business customer managing a fleet of 25 iPhones (now 33), I feel like I have to give AT&T some credit despite its network woes. Two reasons.

Small Business Key Contact

There’s a good chance you’ve had to setup, change, dispute a charge, upgrade or cancel a mobile phone plan with a carrier. Across the board, this activity ranks up there with going to the dentist. Rarely is it accomplished by a single phone call. It seems like you can do everything online, except what you need to do. Call center agents seem to have never used the carrier’s services. Exhausting. Now take that experience and scale it by 25 or 50 – the number of lines a small business telecom manager must coordinate if the company or organization provides its employees phones. An entire industry has sprung up to help harried IT departments deal with the crazy. Having dealt with multiple-line accounts on several other carriers I can say without hesitation that these services can provide real value.

With AT&T I’ve never needed to resort to this kind of management service. The “Small Business Key Contact Center” with its dedicated number has been able to deftly handle any issue I’ve had in the past 2.5 years. Apparently AT&T values small business customers. Whether dealing with a lost/stolen device, adding new lines, changing user names, upgrading devices or whatever I’ve thrown at them they’ve quickly responded with expert knowledge and reasonable answers. Our mobile devices – all 33 – were easy to setup and are now on auto-pilot. I spend very little time administering them. Exactly what I want to see from any vendor.

iPhone

Hard to believe that, in the U.S., the amazing iPhone was only available on one carrier until Feburary 2011: AT&T. (It is now available from Verizon with rumors of additional carriers coming this fall.) We may never know the terms of the iPhone agreement signed between AT&T and Apple, but we do know it changed the smartphone landscape in a way that was not possible with any mobile phone manufacturer contract to that point. Let’s give AT&T credit for being willing to take a risk. Not something you’d necessarily expect from America’s original phone company, after all.

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Vendor selection: the most crucial IT competency?

Note: I’ve been in Ohio during an intense three days of on-boarding staff and beginning-of-fiscal-year meetings. So I missed a few days of postings. Hope to return to a more regular schedule!

My experiences in IT have shown over and over that vendor selection is critical to any project’s success and IT’s overall ability to provide value. So, of course, I hope to talk about that topic here.

My best stress-reducing advice to any IT manager would be to put as much effort as possible into vendor selection. Whether it is actually contacting references (contacts you make on your own will be more reliable and objective than those provided by vendors) or having the vendor setup a test environment so that you can personally verify the solution will meet your requirements, any extra effort you can put into vendor selection will save you headache in the future. Guaranteed. I’m even willing to spend some money during the selection process to confirm that sales-speak matches technical reality before a contract is signed. While it is probably possible overdo vendor selection, there’s little danger given the tight project timelines most of us face.

So many of the RFP documents and selection processes I’ve considered have been long and complex. While the intention is to be complete the result is that the process often gets skipped entirely. Determine the minimum steps you need to follow and stick to them for any selection. The bigger the project, the more important it is to ensure you’ve completed all due diligence. If your audit firm, executive director, industry regulations or other external factor requires a certain process (great!), make sure to include those steps, but also ensure IT and your specific organization’s needs are being carefully evaluated. To get started check out the excellent and concise recommendations posted yesterday by Andrew Makar: Five tips to a better Request for Proposal. I’m off to update our process document based on his tips and thinking it spurred for me. I may post it here in the future.

It seems that vendor selection is also as much a mindset as it is a process. While the process is a series of steps that attempt to emulate the required mindset, no process can ever account for every situation you may face during the wild, wacky world of vendor selection. I’m going to add Makar’s article (possibly with additions) to the beginning of our process as required reading for all selection team members (even if we’ve read it in the past). My intention is that this step will give us pause and remind us of the mindset we need to adopt while in vendor demos, evaluation meetings, etc. as a selection team.

What tips have worked for you when selecting a vendor?

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About

Most of us don’t like writing about ourselves, but what’s a blog without an “About” page?

In keeping with the downhome style that seems to be emerging here I considering naming it something like “Who in the…” However logic rushed in to save the day and I elected for plain ‘ol “About.” Convention over clever. Isn’t that what you rails folks always say? Or something like that. Readers expect to be able to visit a blog and find an “About” or “About Me” link, probably near the top. It allows you to quickly find out just who you’re dealing with. There’s a time to be creative and a time to consider user needs.

So, I hope you’ll head over to the About page and learn a little more about your safari guide.

Tomorrow I’m getting up at the crack of dawn to travel back to Ohio where our organization is headquartered (I work remotely). Each month or so I spend a few days there. I love our staff culture. We really value regular face-to-face despite the fact our staff is usually travelling or stationed remotely. We will also welcome seven new staff members which is always exciting.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

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