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Organize, Socialize and Fantasize

As summer begins to wind down it’s time to look ahead and prepare ourselves for the new season and changes to come. I often call this time in my life “Back to School Mode”. Although it’s been several years since I’ve spent my days at an academic institution,  I still go through a phase every time around this year where I look back at the year so far and mentally get ready for the what lies ahead.

So I’ve decided to focus on three fun areas whilst in my mode, and of COURSE I found websites to help me out in the focus areas and I wanted to share them with you all.

We are going to Organize, Socialize and Fantasize! Continue Reading →

Steve Jobs takes medical leave of absence… now what?

It’s no longer breaking news that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is taking a medical leave of absence.  This is not the first time that Jobs has had to hand over day-to-day operations for medical reasons and, unfortunately, probably won’t be the last.

As with any company, the strength, and in this case, health, of the companies leader plays a vital role in the publics perception of the companies financial strength and viability.  This is clear by Apple’s stock slump following the announcement of Jobs’ leave of absence.  However, Apple has been in the situation before and appears to have plans already in place to make sure that the public feels comfortable that Apple is in good hands.

Continue Reading →

Web-based Project Management Tools

lisaAs a project manager, I am often asked to speak on business management tools. A wealth of web-based, simple, and valuable tools exist that can be used in any type of company size and industry. We use many of these applications in our day-to-day business to manage our projects, teams and ourselves.

It is important to remember that a tool should help you facilitate your work… NOT add more work to your day. You need to understand your work flow and identify where you need help prior to application selection. Tools should:

  • help you create, build, and develop projects
  • lead, direct and advise your teams/sponsors/clients
  • assess, measure, and analyze your progress
  • and most important, be simple to use

Project Management Tools

Basecamp

Basecamp – We use this tool to manage our virtual workforce teams and to easily communicate with our clients. We are able to set milestones, assign to-do tasks according to milestones, upload files, and communicate through the forums.You can build templates and customize the tool to match your brand. This tool eliminates our dependency on email and allows 24X7 access to project status.

Smartsheet – This tool was recommended by a colleague. For you spreadsheet lovers out there this tool may be the one for you. In addition to basic project management capabilities, you can produce summary reports and access the tool from your phone through their mobile application. A very interesting aspect to Smartsheet is their on-demand workforce. If you need resources to help with simple tasks (primarily research oriented tasks) they have a virtual workforce to help you (for an hourly rate of course).

@Task – This is an enterprise level tool and can be integrated with a variety of applications such as Oracle, Peoplesoft and Salesforce.com. This tool has very impressive reporting capabilities that can support the most detailed of managers and the highest level of executives. If you have large and complex programs this tool may be the one for you.

freshid-ning

Ning – A lot of people use Ning for communities, but we’ve been experimenting with it for free project management. It’s not quite as robust as Basecamp, but has some similarities, including the ability to create permission-based groups and invite different people to join them. It’s working pretty well, and it’s customized with our brand, which we consider a big benefit.

Administrative Tools

Echosign – I have to say this is my favorite tool lately. Echosign allows you to improve your sales contract cycle time from weeks to hours by allowing online signatures that are in compliance with the ESIGN act making the online signature as powerful as a hand-written one. Red-lining is supported as well as multiple signatures/initials throughout the document. The client/contractor you are requesting to sign does not need to have signed-up for the application and can provide their signature in a matter of seconds. We have had 15 contracts signed in the last month and have yet had anyone experience any issues or confusion… in fact a few of our clients are now using this tool for their business and every time Kristi tweets it out, a lot of people seem thrilled to learn about it. We’ve set up their tweet bot that announces when we signed something or someone has signed a contract with us to help spread the word.

Freshbooks – Contractors love this tool so we love it too! Freshbooks make invoicing super easy and helps you keep track of what is paid vs. outstanding. Reporting is included and the open API supports integration with Quickbooks and Basecamp. If you are looking to improve your billing cycle time then we suggest you take a look at Freshbooks. You might recognize one of the testimonials on the home page.

Outright- is a companion management tool that we use with Freshbooks to track and manage business expenses. Very helpful for tax-time and reports.

Team Management Tools

Dropbox – A backup server that finally doesn’t require you to load the document twice. This application synchronizes with your hard drive automatically! You get 2G of storage free and automatic notification when any file is loaded or changed. A tool that helps you with your current workload, doesn’t require extra work and is so easy grandma can use it.

BackpackBackpack – Also by 37Signals, Backpack is great for capturing thoughts from brainstorming sessions, creating task lists and keeping track of things to do, and share notes, calendars, files and lists among your team. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and for people who don’t need the full-blown project management of Basecamp, might be a better choice.

Self Management Tools

Skype – Yes, many of us online types have been using Skype for awhile but for those new to the “geek” scene this tool is a nice surprise. This VoIP application allows unlimited free domestic calling, video calling and instant messaging with other Skype users. You can also quickly upload files and send resource links during conference calls. The tool integrates with a multitude of address books and allows calls internationally and to non-Skype users for a premium charge.

Remember the Milk – Built with the “Getting Things Done” philosophy this is a great tool to manage all aspects of your life …personal, school and work. They have a variety of mobile app’s to support an on-the-go lifestyle and include map integration that can track where you are to notify you when you are in the vicinity of getting a to-do done. I personally like the tag cloud capability to help me see where my time is being spent and to highlight where I can get two birds with one stone.

Google – The mother of all tools. In addition to gmail, calendar, and google docs we also use google groups, google voice and google reader to help simplify our daily responsibilities. Yes, you do sometimes have a glitch here and there but the flexibility, accessibility and simplicity outweigh any of the bumps you may experience from time to time. What makes us the most excited?? Google Wave came out September 30th and a lot of folks seem to be loving it.

These really only skim the surface of the cloud-based apps we use everyday… Delicious for bookmarks, Evernote for capturing disparate types of info around the web, Twitterface for monitoring twitter keywords, analyics apps, plus our smartphones which let us access many of these apps while mobile are like an engine powering Fresh ID to run.

We are always looking for new and improved ways to operate our business so if you have a killer tool that we didn’t mention here please leave us a comment and let us know about it!

Cheers!
Lisa

Is Your Agile Software Process Handcuffing the User Experience Design?

I’m running across a new problem with a number of clients and wondering if my user experience colleagues are having similar issues. The advent of web applications has resulted in a change for many software providers in the way they release software today.

Agile software development is a method in which software is designed, examined and delivered to the market swiftly, so that end-users can provide feedback and more feature changes can be made and adjusted within a few months time, rather than once or twice a year. For off-the-shelf software, such as Adobe, Apple or Microsoft products, this is not as practical a method as it is for web-based services. I’m not sure if large corporations have employed any Agile methodologies or not. The Wikipedia entry describes my issue perfectly:

Agile chooses to do things in small increments with minimal planning, rather than long-term planning. Iterations are short time frames (known as ‘timeboxes’) which typically last from one to four weeks.

So here’s the problem: I am often called in to redesign an existing product, that was designed primarily by developers and managers, and not by an interface or interaction designer, or with consultation by a user experience design specialist who could point out workflow and related product issues, as well as design a product brand identity. And that’s great – this is one of my favorite things to do. Redesigning a product is sometimes easier for me than designing one from scratch, because I can see the technology working – it’s like a live prototype to play with. To take an unpolished, but great idea, and make it even better for the users it was built for, is a lot of fun for me.

Historically, I come in, look at a product, talk about the business and marketing goals, and craft a “big picture” plan for the product line identity, interface design, workflow, help systems, etc. and then the big picture gets broken down into phases and tasks. But look at the Agile description again: minimal planning, small changes, releases every 1-2 months. That allows for feature by feature adjustments, not a total redesign of the workflow, layout, navigation systems, etc.

What’s a user experience designer with a great idea of how to make this product in front of her better, to do now? I don’t have an answer to this yet. I think when it comes to restructuring the workflow of a product to make it significantly better, executives need to understand there is a time for Agile, and a time to redesign, and redesign efforts take more in the range of 2-6 months to complete, in my experience. It all depends on how much is “surface” redesign, such as moving things around on the pages and creating a nicer look and feel vs. how much the deeper code has to be modified because features need to work completely differently than the developers designed them.

As is our habit in the software industry, we tend to look inward and not outward when creating processes that are supposed to make our business run better. Do we need the internal motivation of a release every 4-6 weeks to make things happen? Customers don’t necessarily demand a release once a month, they just need bugs fixed and problematic features redesigned so they can perform their tasks better. Can we design an Agile process that is flexible enough to allow for large-scale design changes when they’re needed? Why do we have to release something once a month? 

How are you handling this issue, user experience designers? I’d love to hear your advice and stories on how to combine Agile with big picture design or redesign approaches. A List Apart offers a wonderful article on Agile Design (below) but doesn’t really answer the “how” to make it work that I am struggling with. Is persuading executives to give me the time I need with developers to make the software better, the only answer?

More Agile & User-Centered Design Thoughts…