Gear: Cans, Man (Headphones)

Ah, gear and gadgets. Possibly my favorite topic. Combine that with music…mmm.

I spend a lot of time with some form-factor of headphones on/in my ears. I like music and being “close” enough to hear as many details as my untrained ear can pick up.

Stan Kenton: A Time for Love

[Side-note] By way of genetics, I should be much more musically talented: my aunt, Lisa Hittle, took a hiatus from her undergrad days at Kansas State University to tour with the Stan Kenton orchestra on his final tour in 1978. You can hear her on sax on Kenton’s live album: A Time for Love.

I also travel a lot, work in public places and need to converse with others over mobile phone/GTalk/Skype. All situations that benefit form good headphones. As someone that likes to listen to music as I work, headphones are great at blocking distractions and helping me focus – a constant challenge.

But headphones are one of those areas where folks have strong personal preferences and opinions. Style, tone, form-factor, feature sets. There’s a lot to consider – especially when reading reviews from hardcore audiophiles! (The ones who will spend thousands on their cans.) Reading online reviews can actually make the choice harder!

My advice: attempt to determine each reviewer’s perspective (e.g. novice, casual user, music industry professional) and give the most weight to those aligned with your intended use of the gear. I’m also happy to share my opinion, just get in touch!

Large audio-only cans (no inline mic/controls)

Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Studio Monitor Headphones - Buy at amazonDue to a recent birthday I became the owner of a pair of cans I’ve wanted for a quite awhile now: Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50 Studio Monitor Headphones. I read a lot of reviews and tried out many different pairs in this headphone category and these seemed a good fit for me. Just got them today and am rocking them as I write. I love ’em so far, but like most any gadget what really matters is how far you get down the road with them. And apparently you’re supposed to burn-in your cans for a few hundred hours before judging their true sound. I’ll be sure to update you. Shouldn’t take me long to get there – they’re amazingly comfortable on my jug. Oh, and I dig the coiled cord. You have an option of coiled or straight with the ATH-M50’s. Just make sure you know which cord you are ordering. The model number is the same for both.

Here are the other headphones that I sport on a regular basis:

In-ear with mic

Scosche Noise Isolation Earbuds with tapLINE II Remote & Mic - Buy from amazon

Scosche Noise Isolation Earbuds with tapLINE II Remote & Mic

These don’t have amazing sound quality but they block out alot of sound, have a long cord and feedback a bit of your voice back into the headphones like a standard telephone so you don’t scream at the person on the other end. (A feature missing from most noise isolating headphone/mics its seems.) I also appreciate inline volume control when the iPhone is in a pocket. Plus, I got ’em free with another pair of cans I used to own.

Medium cans with mic

UrbanEars Plattan Headphones – Mocca

I’ll admit that my love for these might be more aesthetic than function, but they sound good, block lots of noise and have a mic + call/track controls in-line (no volume, unfortunately). You can also share your beat because they have an 1/8″ jack under the right can for a buddy to plug into. Nice. I call these types of headphones “medium cans” because they are not as large as studio monitors (e.g. Audio Technica’s ATH-M50’s above) so they are easier to carry with you, but they are not as small as ear buds. They are available in an array of sweet colors. I initially wanted standard black, but the Austin-favorite Waterloo Records didn’t have any in-stock. Since I’m impatient and didn’t want to wait, I chose Mocca (dark brown) and ended up glad that I had to go for something other than boring electronic black. My only complaints: no volume controls and after a few hours they start to hurt my ears because they fit very snug. Granted, my ears stick out further than most…

Wireless multi-source (unified communications headset)

Plantronics B230-M Voyager Pro UC V2 - Buy from amazon
Plantronics B230-M Voyager Pro UC V2

There needs to be a standard/better name for this category because the concept is fantastic: you want to listen to audio and make VoIP calls (Google talk, Skype, etc.) without being tied to your computer but also need to take calls from your bluetooth mobile phone. Normally answering a mobile phone call requires you to remove your computer headset and put on a separate bluetooth headset which has been paired to your mobile. This category of gear attempts to “unify” those various sources into one wireless device. No headset juggling required.

This Plantronics model seems awesome and is on order, but is currently backordered across all online vendors I found. (Let me know if you know of a source.)

I’m excited to try the Plantronics headset out and will, of course, post a review as soon as I have it in hand (on ear?). Heads up: beware that most of the product listings online do a poor job of distinguishing between version 1 and version 2.

[Side-note] Plantronics has long made excellent headsets for office phones. Eventually they ventured into bluetooth headsets. On the other end of the manufacturing spectrum the traditional audio vendors like Bose and Sennheiser are now producing mic-equipped headsets. Its interesting to watch vendors move beyond their expertise and work on converged technology.

Hope you’re having a rockin’ good weekend.

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User Guide: Tracking shipments with PackageTrackr

Are you buried in tracking codes? PackageTrackr can help

As I mentioned yesterday, its staff orientation time for us. Besides learning about User Tech Principles, another of our IT Orientation objectives is to introduce users to the universe of web apps that can help them navigate today’s digital world. I plan to share our list on this blog as it evolves with the web.

Earlier this year I came across the free shipment tracking service PackageTrackr and immediately knew I wanted to add it our list of recommended web apps to share with staff. This service allows you to store all of your tracking shipments in one web-accesible spot with cool features like maps, email forward (to submit new tracking numbers) and RSS/iCal feeds (for tracking arrival dates).

In my experience, giving staff a list of links isn’t enough to encourage use of these fantastic services. Instead show them the problem it solves and how to get started. A clear list of numbered action steps dramatically increases the chances users will sign up and use the service. When you don’t require users to “figure it out” you decrease much of the initial resistance most of us have when trying something new.

User guides are a great way to accomplish this task. Here’s the guide I just created for PackageTrackr.

Our PackageTrackr User Guide (v1.0) is available in two versions:

Please let me know if you see any errors or things that could be more clear by dropping a comment below. Are there other services out there like PackageTrackr? What are other web apps do you recommend to users?

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User Tech Principle: The 10-minute Rule

One of the topics I’d like to explore on this blog is staff training: what really works (and doesn’t). And by explore I mean discuss with you, my fellow geeks. Acknowledging that every environment is different, I still have (want) to believe there exists a set of universal principles we can all apply to maximize technology’s impact for our users.

Next week I will be facilitating IT orientation for brand new members of our team. That always forces me to ponder the overall “tech philosophies” we want our staff to operate by every day. We call these User Tech Principles.

The first Principle I’ll throw out is our helpdesk Golden Rule, specifically The 10-minute Rule. Like all User Tech Principles, it has to be simple:

When you run into a tech hiccup, take 10 minutes to use self-service resources, google and colleagues before contacting the helpdesk.

This is one of the first Principles that I cover during tech orientation because it has a huge impact on our operation (and I want staff to remember it). A simple math equation is all the convincing most need.

40 staffers * 1 helpdesk question/week * 10 minutes = 400 minutes (6.67 hours)

We have a large staff, but (until recently) just one IT support staff (me!). If each staffer can save one question from reaching the helpdesk (which would otherwise take 10 minutes of helpdesk response time), it affords IT almost an entire day every week to instead roll-out new projects, enhance existing technology and create more self-service resources.

I’d like to do a future post on user responsibility, but this is a practical way for users to directly contribute to a functional technology environment. With this simple awareness, enlightened users…

  1. Begin developing the habit of self-reliance in troubled tech waters
  2. Learn about non-helpdesk resources (e.g. internal knowledge-bases, Internet search, coworkers) that can solve problems – often quicker than a backlogged helpdesk
  3. Create less support burden on the helpdesk, freeing up scarce IT resources for higher-level tasks
  4. Contribute to a virtuous cycle whereby IT creates increasing amounts of self-service training and usability enhancements instead of answering low-level questions

Our users have responded to our helpdesk Golden Rule extremely well and I consider it anecdotally successful. Staffers pride themselves on being technically literate and on a desire to continually improve their tech chops. I wish I had the pre-implementation data to quantify the gain, but being able to say I never spend time answering questions about opening documents is all I need to wholeheartedly recommend implementing this User Principle into almost any environment.

Cavet: users will be usually know when a technical hurdle is out of their control and only resolvable by IT (e.g. server offline). In these cases I still encourage users to wait 10 minutes. If IT is on top of its game, our monitoring systems will have already alerted us and this 10-minute buffer allows us time to resolve the issue and/or send staff-wide communication on the issue instead of field calls and tickets from multiple users.

Remember: every time the helpdesk answers a question that could be answered by the user him/herself, it is forfeiting a higher-level task! (While there are few nonprofits with dedicated helpdesk staff which only do user support, it still applies to that situation. The helpdesk could be creating/enhancing self-serve resources, analyzing tickets for patterns and recommending changes.)

Do you do something similar? What was the user reaction? Have you measured the improvement?

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Central Texas Atlassian User Group (CTXAUG)

Central Texas Atlassian User Group!

I recently (as in last week) became co-organizer of Austin’s new Atlassian User Group (abbreviated CTXAUG for “Central Texas”)!

Atlassian makes great enterprise wiki (Confluence) and ticket/project tracking (Jira) software along with a few other applications. I’ve always been surprised by the passion of Atlassian users – that kind of thing is normally reserved for Apple fans. I am only getting started with Confluence in our environment, but its already apparent why they are so devoted. And the best part? Many nonprofits qualify for free Atlassian licenses – a tremendous deal!

So, if you’re already a dedicated Atlassian or want to check out the buzz by visiting with real users (highly recommended before committing to any platform), RSVP for our next meetup (July 20, 6-8pm). Also make sure and Like our facebook group so you receive notifications of all events and can participate in our online conversations.

Not only am I new to the Atlassian world, but this is the first user group I’ve helped organize. Thanks in advance to everyone for their guidance and support on this new adventure! It’s going to be fun!

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Hello world!

It’s Memorial Day and I’m finally getting around to building this here digital homestead. I’ve long thought about it, but only recently felt motivation and the pull. That seems promising. So, besides thanking American service men and women and their families for their sacrifice on this day, I should talk a little about what I hope to accomplish here at the ranch.

Considering the odds of keeping up a blog are squarely stacked against most of us, I’m attempting to keep things as lightweight as possible. But you see, that’s gonna be tough for me because…I’m a tweaker. And a fiddler. (Not that kind of fiddler, though that’d be sweet.) And a recovering perfectionist. Sometimes accused of idealism. And I love to try and squeeze every ounce of friction and inefficiency out of a process. Hopefully I can control my urges and mainly just write.

My initial approach to content will be to describe challenges and solutions involving a wide spectrum of information technology from my professional and personal life. Since 1987 I’ve been helping the worlds of nonprofit, higher education and small business leverage technology. During the first half of the 2000’s I was also at a giant telecom where I worked with over a hundred companies (of all sizes) trying to better communicate, collaborate and serve their customers. I’m a gadget geek and love discussing the web, workflow, productivity, tips and tricks. I believe in using great tools and the right one for the job at hand. Not afraid to admit it: technology gets me excited!

While I may experiment with the wallpaper and drapes, my main design goal is clean and simple, focusing on, yup, the content. Hopefully most of you are using the fantastic Reeder (or another RSS client) and arrive here only by link or search so you’ll rarely see the site’s design. There’s no doubt, though, that design plays a central role in usability and one cannot ignore it.

Of course, evolution can take things in unexpected directions, so I will be open and “trust the process.” Here’s to an interesting and useful journey! Hope you will join me for all or part of the ride.

Happy trails…

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