Better customer support for CivicSpace

I propose an improved model of software support based on community participation and an integrated support interface.

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CivicSpace IconI had a thought this morning while talking to my roommates about the meager help system in CivicSpace. It so happened that we weren’t even talking about CivicSpace, but after the FLOSS Sprint this past weekend, my mind has been circling around ways for making web interfaces not only more usable but simultaneously more helpful.

More specifically, the standard help menu in any software, at least for me, is fairly worthless. It requires a massive investment on the part of the user in terms of time spent searching and reading. And generally, help ROI is quite low, meaning that for the amount of effort I put in to searching, reading and forum-browsing, I rarely get out in support what I put in.

Help is hard

Why is this? Because help is hard.

Help is both hard to write from the developer perspective and it’s hard to know what you’re looking for as a user. Terminology gets in the way as do the various mental models that people use to understand what software is or what it can do.

Therefore, in order for help to be truly helpful, help should not only be presented in a sensible, digestible format, but it should be timely, accurate, contextual and convenient and accommodate the different ways that people might conceptualize the support that they need.

To that particular end, I think that support systems should become more social in nature, providing direct access to communities and networks that can understand and cope with vague, non-descriptive or otherwise unclear assessments of someone’s needs. I propose that CivicSpace adopt a social model of support that increasing reliance on and participation in the greater CivicSpace community. Gmail seems to get this, although they’ve minimized its presence on the help page:

Gmail Groups Help

Support by RSS

So in addition to encouraging more community interaction for support, I also suggest that we tie actual help requests or bug reports into a CivicSpace user’s remote account in order to bring the history of support inquiries into a familiar and convenient environment. As it is now, the Help menu that CivicSpace ships with is all but completely useless for most of our users. You get a handbook for the installed modules and a glossary of terms… ok, not worthless, but certainly not helpful. What would be better, I think, is a menu like this:

New Help Menu

Granted, this is just a quick mockup, I think that it begins to bring the support process more in line with user needs and provides it in situ rather than externally, like bugzilla or the current CivicSpace Issue Tracker. With this kind of system, I imagine that clicking on the main Help menu would return a page with a special search field along with RSS feeds of your recent support tickets, of community support requests and updates of any support communications you’ve recently made.

So now that I’ve outlined this big idea, I wonder if anyone has any additional suggestions or comments on how my thinking could be improved or made to be more in line with your support needs?

Standalone IE7 destined for WinXP+ only

It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

IE7?It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

From a web development standpoint, this seems to be the primary argument against tying your browser to your operating system. Think about it: when IE7 hits, all of web developers are going to have learn all the new bugs that are sure to come with the updated version. As it is, we have a good dozen or more browsers to deal with. Add to that having to code for Windows 2000 and WinXP+ and Longhorn separately and you can see the size of the problem.

So it is rather significant news that Microsoft has decided to decouple IE7 from Longhorn and release it for WinXP. This cuts down the number of different operating systems to design for by one, and suggests that Firefox is indeed affecting the 800-lb gorilla’s strategy.

Because Longhorn is to WinXP what OS X was to OS 9, the upgrade process is going to be painful for more than just old Windows 2000 users. It’s also going to hurt for web developers who have become savvy to IE6’s standards support shortcomings and learned how to get around them. Adding a new browser to the mix is going to create a slew of new challenges; and just when you thought the world was getting safer for web design, Microsoft has decided to go and bust up our party.

Time to brush up on the new box models hacks. <Sigh>

The death of a software developer

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of a very excellent person and software developer… someone who I had never even met but with whom I had exchanged a few brief emails about regarding his iTunes software project, which he called Sofa.

Sofa ImageIt was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of a very excellent person and software developer… someone who I had never even met but with whom I had exchanged a few brief emails about regarding his iTunes software project, which he called Sofa.

What strikes me as so unfortunate and sad about this passing is… well I don’t know really. I guess that this is the first time I’ve ever experienced an “internet death” I guess. I mean, I knew Cédric through his work, through interacting with him on his forums… talking about his project, beta testing his software. I didn’t know him “offline”. I didn’t know what he looked like, how he talked — I only knew he spoke French.

But yet, when I received the mass email from his family, I was really taken aback. In broken English, they informed the huge community that knew Cédric that he had taken his life:

the Cédric Menard’s family and their friends have the terrible dirty of informing you that Cédric has left our world. He gave death to himself on sunday the 13th of february 2005 at 6:30 a.m Please, have a friendly thought to him………..

And because it was so raw and terse… so unexpected and yet so authentic — I couldn’t help but feel instantly involved, like a part of a great extended family to whom Cédric’s passing is indeed a tragedy. And indeed it is…

Au revoir, Cédric Menard, et adieu.

Civil libertarians should get hip to personal data harvesting

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

In context:

There are several jokes and cartoons out there that play on the idea of the “anonymous” Web, an Internet where you can be whatever and whoever you want. Most mainstream computer users willingly buy into this concept, deceived by the ability to adopt cryptic usernames and e-mail addresses.

Anonymous Internet usage is an appealing concept to many people, but whether it’s actually possible is a different matter. Generally speaking, it’s relatively simple to intercept–and at the least, monitor–the transmission of digital information.

Every time you transmit data from a computer to or from somewhere else using the Internet, literally dozens of places can exist that are monitoring the transmission. Clear-text protocols offer no built-in protection from eavesdropping. In addition, the transmission leaves traces of “evidence” on your computer–regardless of if you use data encryption or one of those software “evidence eliminator” packages.

An anonymous Internet, if such a thing existed, would be immune to eavesdropping entirely, and it would have no record of a communication ever existing. Anonymous Internet usage is like a “cash” form of communication: It would leave no traceable evidence.

In certain countries, the government restricts and/or controls Internet use. For example, China has one of the most extensive Web proxy server and monitoring capabilities in the world, aptly dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

The Chinese government controls, monitors, and censors Internet access at will. Dissidents and those opposed to the Chinese government, including other governments, constantly try to bypass the censors, but the Great Firewall soon discovers and blocks these noncensored “anonymous” proxy servers.

So it’s understandable why some people see the benefits in leaving no traces of any communication, especially when there’s a fear of reprisal from a government or other organizations. It would be as if the transmission never happened. There’s no record of it ever occurring, and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But, however appealing this concept may be to some, the fact remains that it isn’t realistic. Companies and individuals alike need to be aware that there really is no such thing as anonymous Internet usage. If someone wants to determine what a computer is doing on the Internet, there’s always a trail to follow.

Computer users leave traces of information with almost every data transmission. In fact, an entire computer subindustry has evolved to deal with removing these traces of information, but these companies can only remove what’s on a computer. There are so many other points that can record the “digital footprints” of Internet activity that it’s impossible to completely guarantee anonymity.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

If we take the author’s premise as a given (that anonymous internet usage will never ever exist), then the important discussion to have is what information should be collected about you, and if collected, who has control over it and what can you, as the source of that information, do to control its use, administration and distribution?

If one persists with a blanket notion that personal information collected about one’s behavior on the internet is bad, the future will be very difficult to cope with. The fact is that more and more companies, big and small, are amassing huge databases of information about people. Frankly, if you’re really concerned about this kind of thing, you should stop using your ATM and credit cards because as it is now, it’s easier to track your behavior through your purchases than through your web browser.

But that is going to change. And the dangers are such that, unless a cogent counter-argument is made that fairly deals with the benefits that come with the harvesting of this data, it will be increasingly difficult to take back control or change corporate policies once they’re instated (as with a civil liberty lost is nearly impossible to get back).

So what am I driving at? Well, I think that a more realistic and proactive attitude is needed from the civil libertarian camp that shows its understanding of the value in this kind of data. I also think that a more nuanced attitude towards privacy is desperately needed because all or nothing is not going to cut it as technology gets simpler and better at collecting information about you. I also believe that civil libertarians can benefit from this kind of data collection in ways that I don’t think have been realized. Once we start to see data collection as a strategic tool rather than as an invasion of our private space, we may indeed become powerful enough to take back control over our data.

Flickr built my hotrod

It strikes me that my late entry into the written blogosphere has to do with two primary issues:

  • First, that I’ve been hyper-sensitive to my potential audience (which, I admit, will probably only ever hover around one or two lost souls per month).
  • And second, which is actually of more interest to me: that I haven’t felt confident with any of the blogging tools that have been available… thus far.

My Flickr HotrodAnd I’m not talking about WordPress (though the 1.5 nightly I’m running is admittedly the best blogging tool I’ve seen so far). Rather, I’m talking about Flickr.

Flickr is a phenomenon of the highest order. Its popularity, reputation and user dedication surely make other photo sharing sites drool. But while that’s interesting as well, what’s most significant about my use of Flickr is that it’s responsible for getting me to start this blog!

How’s that you ask? Well, it’s simple. I would posit that my Flickr page served as my first real blog; this site is merely a supplement to it, like directors’ interviews on DVDs.

Though that may change over time, I felt compelled to get this blog up to explain in greater detail the ideas, images and concepts that I’ve been posting on Flickr! There may be fewer words, for all intents and purposes, my first entry into “visual blogging” took place on Flickr.

That it is so simple to post to Flickr (using drag n’ drop tools like 1001) encouraged me to be very free with expressing my ideas at various stages of refinement. So despite the fact that I’ve dreamed of writing a blog for a long time, I’ve not done so for fear of publishing incomplete ideas… to my relief, my experience with Flickr changes all that!

Now all I need to do is get better at expressing myself in words as well and as efficiently as I do in images! <<sigh>>

Chris Messina meets WordPress

It’s somehow fitting that my first personal public blog post would not only be made using WordPress software, but would also be about WordPress!

Indeed, I’ve taken the WordPress plunge, which is significant not just because I’ve been meaning to get a blog going for ages, but because I work for a competitor… of sorts.

I do hope though, as I join the community of bloggers, it will become clear both why I’m using WordPress and why I don’t really think that it’s a problem that I’m not using CivicSpace for my personal blog. In fact, I think that CivicSpace and Drupal are a little too powerful for this kind of thing, so I’m following my own advice by steering clear of the 800 pound gorilla when all I need is a spunky monkey.

…or something like that.