Some Interesting Things Coming for Workforce Software

November 28, 2014

Empowering Users vs Industrial Software

Software designed to empower workers rather than forcing workers to use software (I’m looking at you, SAP) isn’t exactly a new principle, but software developers have gotten good enough at providing functionality that they can now focus on new levels of usability. This is exciting, and will see things like…

The Gamification of, Well, Everything!

Read to the bottom to unlock level 2.

Gamification is making its way into so many aspects of modern life that it’s an absolute certainty it will find its way into the workplace. While still being explored, the application of game mechanics to drive cravings for greater status, achievement, and progression has shown a real impact on consumers. Users have rewarded these techniques with loyal behavior and billions of dollars in profit. The gaming industry is exploding as more and more people realize they love playing games. To capture that enjoyment and apply it to a work setting has enormous value. Not to mention that upcoming generations have among the highest response rates to this kind of motivation yet seen, and have so far been difficult to fit into traditional workplace norms. Does this kind of engagement sound like something businesses would be interested in spurring up their employees? Of course.

This might not seem entirely new for a workforce that already rewards accomplishments. Sales are rewarded with commissions and prestige, driving a hunger for even more sales. Working harder and producing results leads to promotion. For many, careers are already gamified, and for others there is no way to improve productivity with gaming. But in the areas that employees interact with enterprise software – for data entry, for onboarding, for content generation and knowledge capture – gamification can enhance engagement, enjoyment, all while boosting productivity. It also contributes to the next looming beast on the horizon…

Data is Taking Over

Corporations today rely on metrics to define performance, so much so that accomplishment that cannot be supported by metrics can at times be valueless. The metrics are built from data primarily driven by hard, old fashioned, business information collecting – production numbers, asset value, profit and loss. But now overall understanding of the power of data is beginning to be realized – now individual behaviors are capturable at unprecedented levels.

Facebook paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, not because its technology is worth anything – chat apps are a dime a dozen – but because of its 600 million users. Their activities and usage patterns can be analyzed to unlock unprecedented, minute details of users lives that Facebook can use to improve its service – $19 billion worth! Monitoring and analysis of data generated by usage of modern technologies reveals vast human behavioral patterns not accessible in a ‘self-reporting’ environment. What people do when they think nobody is looking is capturable now, and it’s finally giving us an honest and accurate picture of people’s lives. A business can utilize this to not only optimize performance of their business, but optimize the conditions for their employees.

If, as an employee, this is a bit more than disconcerting, it shouldn’t be. While this has all the trappings of a big brother, oppressive state written all over it, corporations today realize more than ever that a happy employee is a productive employee. Capturing usage statistics for the tools they provide their workers helps them improve those tools. If a particular tool is showing low usage rates, why might that be, and how can the tool be improved? It’s not about creating robotic workers, data privacy laws still exist (for everyone not called the NSA), it’s about optimally utilizing talented people to seek the best results.

How to Build a Modern User Interface For Intranets and Sites

November 17, 2014

I’ve spent most of my career working for Ad agencies learning everything about customer service, design and ideas. In fact, I would say this is pretty much what we would be expected to deliver every time:

  1. Great ideas
  2. Excellent service
  3. Impeccable design

To me, a technology services company must do exactly the same thing. In fact, to take it one step further, the software that we build has to continually provide you with these principles long after you lock the door behind us!  And so, you ask, how do we go about doing that?   “Call us and find out?” Ha!..or keep reading!

Listen, Watch and Ask the Right Questions: We start with the business problem. The business problem will usually reveal the type of information that you work with, and more importantly how you work with it.  Everything from how people get the data, how they work with it, who needs it and when, and where it ends up after everyone is done with it. This applies to oil and gas wells, documents, workflows, or even corporate performance dashboards. I mean, every little thing we do is about accessing, manipulating and pushing information back into the system.

Mock it Up: Now that you have the whole picture, it is time to design a system that makes sense. I am not even going to mention technology or design principles here, because I expect that a decent architect, visual UX expert and a visual designer bring their best to the table. However, since this little article is about design, I am going to give you some tips:

a. Build a UI to solve the simplest business problem first: When you are dealing with a lot of complex business processes and flows, things can easily start to look like an airplane cockpit. Gross. Take a page out of Staples: users and I want/expect ONE button, called “Easy”. So make the interface easy to use and make it solve one problem.

b. Add more functionality in an iterative fashion: Who ever thought Agile applied to design as well!? Well it does. Keep creating layers and adding more and more functions. Sometimes it even makes sense to solve the second problem in a separate flow and then slowly merge it in with the first one. Now I know, this takes time, and billable hours fly by quick. This is why I recommend to solve the problem in the simplest terms and make the other flows “fit” your original design.

c. Hide the complexity until it is required. I said easy right? OK, good.  Remember back in 1995 when Microsoft Word had like 60 buttons on the screen? Look at it now, even Microsoft realized the stuff was too daunting. One of the most impeccable modern designs I have seen in recent years for a development IDE is MonoDevelop (the screenshots are of version 3. Check out version 4 and 5 and see the huge difference) Genius!

Modern design involves clean lines, no clutter, big bold buttons, vivid colors and a huge emphasis on the main controls. Check out the interior of the Mercedes Benz S-Class vs. something like an Acura or even a BMW. The Benz has a beautifully designed, uncluttered interior where I don’t feel like I poke my head into a Christmas tree! Remember, one button! Now, when the user clicks that button, only the most required buttons appeared. Not disabled buttons, or buttons that, when clicked, give you an error message, just the ones they need to go to the next step.

d.  Let the user drive: It is actually extremely challenging to design interfaces that are simple and empower the user, learn with him or her, and offer complexity only when required. A lot of the time, the simple interfaces force the user to repeat a process over and over, which creates frustration. Or worse yet, the simple UIs also make decisions for the user. Big no no. Make sure to always give the user enough power to take the process down a different track if required.

Build it in Pieces and Involve the Customer: I recommend an iterative approach around the development and involve the customer as much as possible at every stage gate. Avoid the big 1986 black cloth style reveal. Not cool. Work with the customer to evolve the idea at every stage and then tell them it’s their idea and their product — which will actually be true. Watch the relationship blossom too.

User Test It: Finally, let the users pick at it. You will be amazed what happens with your original flows. They will morph and change and grow and shrink to fit exactly what the users need. Oh yeah, note to self: At this stage, check your design and UX ego at the door.

So, you want some good tips, right? All this process but no actual real information to take away to Photoshop. OK..ok. Here is my take on where things are going:

Big FMAs (scrollers with headlines and videos), and little studded WebParts on the home page are nearly done with. This was popular for the last 5 years and it’s slowly giving way to application/desktop style web properties that look more and more like the Android interface than a “webpage”. HTML5 really helps here.

Data visualization is the next big thing! That is, say you are working with a workflow to submit a request form. You could just offer the good old data grid style “fill out your expenses here.”  Again, this approach was cool in the 1990s and somehow even still survived until recently. Nowadays you will present the user with an infographic of what the whole process looks like, with a little blue glowing “Start here” sign, then you offer a neatly spaced out form, wizard style. Then when they submit it, back to the infographic workflow, but now with an indicator around the second step, saying “Awaiting approval.”

Mobility is now standard. Your question should be, “What device don’t you care about” rather than “Should it work on the phone”. Here is another little tip: design it for the tablet first, then extrude the the design to fit the PC and the phone. Trust me, much easier than any other approach.

IE8/9 is almost dead. That’s right, it’s really a question of months before you can dump HTML4 entirely and then its a whole new ballgame, literally. Watch HTML5 make it rain!

Hypercard Revived? Well, perhaps. Before there was Word, and before there was HTML and even before there was an Internet, our favorite innovator Apple came up with the coolest technology ever that gave birth to WYSIWYG.  Never heard of it? Read.  Now take this concept and apply aspects of it to the tools that you build for your customer.   Oh yeah, can you think of a tool that lets you do this today? Nope! Yeah, there is a huge gap/market opportunity for a company who builds a quasi programming/design tool for business that is simple enough for non-developers to use.

There. I hope you found my little scattered article interesting!

Mobile-friendly SharePoint Intranets? Save Your Money, for now.

November 8, 2014

Nearly every one of our customers asks us ‘Will this work on the tablet and my phone?’ Well guess, what, the answer is always ‘Yes, but it will not be optimized for those platforms’. That seems to satisfy most.

Familiar scenario? 🙂

This is actually a giant can of worms and a lot of details are glossed over. In this article, I am going to take the customer’s side and give a few pointers to ask your SharePoint services provider.

Will it Run on the Tablet and The Phone? – The answer is always YES. However, the provider needs to elaborate on the user experience that you can expect on the Tablet and the Phone.  Here is a fact, SharePoint 2010 is actually not exactly mobile friendly. Even 2013 OOTB struggles in this area. The screens go off the page, the pagination bars sometimes fall under the scroll bars, and depending on the implementation, there are entire sections simply missing in Mobile mode. So most implementers (including RefineCo), will simply disable the whole mobile experience and let the tablet render the whole site.  That means, your tablet is simulating a desktop browser. What that really means is you will likely not have a nice experience on a Tablet. And as for the Mobile side of things, its pretty much a write off.

Does SharePoint 2013 Support Mobile? – You may also be a customer who is already running SharePoint 2010 and may have heard that if you upgrade,  SharePoint will support Mobile. This is actually a false statement. SharePoint 2013 OUT-OF-BOX does have partial mobile support (except for the administrative interface). But lets face it, who wants to use SharePoint OOB? Nearly everyone customizes and uses third party web-parts, which will likely reduce, if not entirely eliminate mobile support. So, unless you upgrade your application and explicitly add mobile support along with a responsive web design architecture, you are very likely out of luck.

Can I Add Mobile Support To My SharePoint 2010? – If you are like me, you want to get the maximum value out of almost everything you invest in. To that, if you invested, say $180K 18 months ago on a brand new SharePoint intranet, and now you brought in a few tablets for your employees to play with, and noticed some ‘glitches’ and performance problems, read on.

This is a very difficult question. To make matters worse, there really is no business-friendly way to answer it. There are a few factors you need to consider:

  1. SharePoint 2010 does not support responsive design –  This means you will not be able to use the commonly-accepted CSS tricks to get your mobile / tablet site up. Instead you need a very talented jQuery developer to force the table-soup into a mobile state for different screen sizes. This is truly a complex issue.
  2. Your site design has to be mobile friendly –  If you are running a customized SharPoint 2010 intranet with some complex interfaces, then you automatically don’t qualify. Consider something as simple as a mouse-over. This is not supported on a tablet or a phone! So, if your current interface relies on mouse overs for any function, you need Mobile UX help!
  3. Your SharePoint architecture must be optimized to be fast – The rule of thumb for page load is ~ < 2s. If your site loads > 2s, there are likely factors affecting the speed: one of the biggest common issues with SharePoint is the over-use of WebParts, each of which establishes its own context and individually contacts the DB. The other one is a busy UI. Both of these architecture issues will make for a very poor and sluggish mobile experience. We have a tonne of technical documentation oh how you can fix the speed issue with SharePoint, as this is a large part of our business.

What is Mobile vs. Tablet Support? – Yes, it is very common for those to be mixed up. Then throw in “Responsive” and the confusion is on. Mobile means it works on a phone; Tablet is the obvious one; and Responsive means that the interface will switch between three distinctive types of devices: Mobile, Tablet and PC. These are the most common to date. (Unless Apple unveils the long-anticipated iWatch in 2014).  SharePoint 2010/2013 works very well on the PC, works OK on a tablet, and its basically nearly unusable on a Phone. Overall, SharePoint (all versions) is not a responsive platform when it comes out of box.

Is 2013 better than 2010 for Tablet support? – Yes. Although you have to be careful. SharePoint 2010 uses Tables for all HTML layout, making tablet support extremely difficult; SharePoint 2013 fixes some this by going to a DIV-based Table-less design. However, as soon as the page goes into Edit mode, then whole Table system is back. Also, a lot of the Admin interface still uses Tables in the back-end. The tables do not always scale on the tablet, leaving the user with half a page displaying, and the other half wrapped somewhere off-screen. Furthermore, if you plan on downloading Telerik or Bamboo controls, you may quickly run into issues on either platform.

Should I bother adding Tablet support to my Intranet? – This is the big question! The answer is, not yet. However, this is where the world is going.  Again, some factors to consider:

  • Few people have tablets at work
  • Tablets don’t plug into networks, making them WIFI-only platform and most companies out there have very strict WIFI policies
  • Most users still use a workstation to get their job done as Tablets don’t even run Word or Excel.
  • Most tablets cannot be locked down on a GPO level (Group Policy for AD)
  • Most of your application infrastructure and existing applications do not support Tablets. (Most of these big corporate enterprise systems still need IE8, let alone Tablets!).

So your best bet is to position yourself for added support by selecting SharePoint 2013, and perhaps design Tablet-friendly sections of the site like certain Dashboards and Reports for your execs to quickly access.

Finally, here is the acid test: do the ROI calculation and try and prove to an exec that a 25% increase in development cost to add tablet support is justified. I tried to factor in the cost saving measures for us to have an ROI story to tell around tablets, but I was not successful. If you come up with a formula, we will gladly assist you in building a beautiful, user-friendly and responsive intranet.

Finding a Great Screen Capture Tool

November 6, 2014

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and what better way to describe what you see than with a screen capture. In Quality Assurance, not only is an image a fantastic way to show what you saw, but being able to markup that image saves confusion and time.


One free tool with Windows 7 is the Snipping Tool. It will get one image for you to save, copy, and write with highlighter or a pen. However, unless you can write legibly with the mouse cursor, the text is almost unreadable. If you need to add some legible text, you can copy the snip into Microsoft Paint or Gimp. Also, the Snipping Tool can only have one image at a time, so you will have to save each image or overwrite your last capture.


There are other screen capture tools available, but my favorite right now is PicPick. It combines the Snipping Tool and Gimp, so you can easily markup images. Additionally, the software has some advanced screen capture methods, such as repeat last capture. You can capture a specific region of the screen once and repeat capture for each step during testing without having to select what to capture again. You can also batch save all the unsaved images after testing rather than interrupting your workflow.