January 03, 2008

Work resolutions 2008

Follow-up to More work resolutions from Autology: John Dale's blog

For three years now (2005, 2006, 2007) I’ve written a little bit about what kind of work and process I predict for the coming year. Last year, my predictions were relatively modest; I predicted that we might do more stuff outside of Java – perhaps Flash, perhaps Ruby. This has turned out to be right on a small scale; we use Flash for video and audio playback, and soon, recording, and we use pre-bought Flash widgets for tasks such as slideshows, charting, and so on. Steve Carpenter has been seconded to the web team for a while to help integrate some Flash technology into our Java applications. So I’d say that prediction was broadly right. We’ve also done small bits and pieces in Ruby, but we’re still debating whether to take the plunge with a bigger application in 2008.

So what else might we be doing or trying in 2008? My predictions:-

  • I’m increasingly interested in the question of finding ways to integrate with non-web applications that people use a lot. In particular, I’m thinking about email. Many people run their whole work life through their email application, and I wonder if we could do more to take advantage of that. Right now, we send quite a lot of emails to people from our applications – this SiteBuilder page has changed, that blog entry has a comment, this forum has a new message – but we don’t do very much in terms of letting people email to our applications. Given that people are generally very comfortable with email, might it be useful to let people create a blog entry, or modify a SiteBuilder page, or do other tasks, by sending email messages? Maybe.
  • We have two challenges which are to some extent dichotomous; firstly, we need to be careful about adding too many new applications to the set we currently offer. We run the risk that we make it hard for people to know what to choose when they want to do something on the web; a SiteBuilder page? a blog? a forum? a Files.Warwick space? If we added a stand-alone wiki application, say, or a document management application, we would make the challenge of deciding which platform to use even greater. But then the second challenge is that as we expand the range of features which SiteBuilder, in particular, offers, it starts to take on Microsoft Office-like levels of functional richness, and this can make it intimidating to get started with, and hard for even regular users to discover whether or how SiteBuilder could help with a particular task. I predict, therefore, that in 2008 we’ll look for ways to (a) extend our existing tools to do new things, rather than adding new platforms, and (b) we’ll look for ways to try and guide people as to how to do the tasks they’re interested in using our tools, as well as showing them the mechanics of how to “drive” the tools.
  • One particular area where I think we could do something which would help people a lot without increasing the number or complexity of our applications is that of desktop synchronisation. People spend a significant proportion of their time in SiteBuilder and Files.Warwick uploading and downloading files. If you want to edit a Word document that’s on your web site, then you have to save the file to your local hard disk if you don’t already have it there, open it, edit it, save it, then re-upload it. As much as we might want to persuade people that they could avoid this tedious process by abandoning their Word documents and just editing web pages directly, we have to accept that people are comfortable using Office and other desktop applications, and they don’t want to give them up. So, as with email in my first bullet point, perhaps we can find ways to fit better with the tools and ways of working that people already use and like, by making it quick and easy to get files created or edited on the desktop into (and out of) our systems.

Back in January ‘09 to see if I’m right.

- 3 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Mike Willis

    Modifying a SiteBuilder page via email sounds interesting but I can see the syntax of the email becoming rather complicated if it’s to do more than append/prepend/trash-and-replace page content.

    To your list of SiteBuilder page? a blog? a forum? a Files.Warwick space? I’ll add, a mailing list? I’ve seen blog entries that have made me think the whole blog would have been better implemented as mailing list.

    03 Jan 2008, 20:33

  2. John Dale

    Mailing lists? Really? I guess I view mailing lists rather like I view newsgroups; a little bit last century, no longer something which offers any distinct advantages to justify its use. I can’t think of a single situation in which I’d use a mailing list over a web forum; perhaps this is just a reflection of my ignorance of things mailing lists can do.

    04 Jan 2008, 09:44

  3. Mike Willis

    Well admittedly mailing lists don’t really ‘do’ much and are very low tech, but I think they’re still a relevant tool for one to many communication, where many is a relatively small number, a couple hundred max rather than potentially everyone with an Internet connection. Specifically for disseminating information to only the relatively small group of people to whom it is relevant, that isn’t going to generate discussion and is only of use for a limited period.

    One feature of a mailing list which I think is potentially quite valuable is that it reduces the amount of effort required on behalf of the target audience to see the information to virtually nil. They don’t have to remember to check a webpage somewhere, which the less traffic there is the less likely they are to do so, the info just appears in their inbox which they (probably) frequently check anyway. People can of course choose to be notified of new posts in forums or blogs but each member of the target audience has to make the effort to chose that option.

    My previous comment about blogs that might be better as mailing lists was made ignoring the fact that blog entries can, should be author so desire and is aware of the facility, be set to be only viewed by a specific group of people. The entries I referred to were visible to anyone and as the result show up in the new entries pages where most people would (IMHO) just consider them clutter to be scrolled past.(*) I seem to recall some comments a while back on a post about the declining use of Warwick Blogs regarding how some may be discouraged from reading Warwick Blogs due to the presence of such entries. Perhaps an anti-favourite feature where you can specify blogs to not show up when you browse new entries might be useful. (Perhaps it could be done with Greasemonkey…) My comment was also made without any attempt having been made to investigate whether the blog was being used for something more than just one-to-very-specific-audience communication that a quick skim of the entry suggested.

    (*) Add your own comments about how many blog entries, or indeed rambling comments, constitute clutter to be scrolled past ;)

    06 Jan 2008, 13:08

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