BrainBlog

BrainBlog is the Brains4All weblog. Established 2004 in The Netherlands. Brains have been working in IT since 1983, working on the internet since 1993, and using their own agile development process for design and application development since 2003. We talk about about design and usability, the industry of software and web development, web applications and simplicity, beautiful and spectacular things.

9 rules

March 30, 2006 |
marko

I ran across the 9rules blog network. "A community of the best weblogs in the world on a variety of topics." as they describe themselves. I love their 9 rules:

1. Love what you do.
2. Never stop learning.
3. Form works with function.
4. Simple is beautiful.
5. Work hard, play hard.
6. You get what you pay for.
7. When you talk, we listen.
8. Must constantly improve.
9. Respect your inspiration.

  



Beatrice

March 29, 2006 |
marko

beatrice.jpg

The Royal Dutch Library is publishing a remarkably beautiful early 13th century document online next Thursday. The manuscript is also on display up to April 30th.

The medieval handwriting that has been part of the collection for over 200 years is the only one in which the story of Beatrice survives. The Royal Library has digitized the handwriting and plans to publish it integrally on a special website.

The poem tells the story of a nun who leaves the monastery with here lover. During 7 years they live happily and have two children. Then bad times arrive and Beatrice's lover leaves her. She is forced to prostitute herself to provide for herself and her children. Another 7 years go by in sin and bitter poverty, but she stays close to her calling and prays regularly.
Finally he repents and decides to return to the monastery. To her surprise no one has missed her. It appears Maria herself had taken it upon herself to tend to here duties for 14 years.
The Beatrice website will include a digital scan of the manuscript, a transcript of the medieval text as well as a translation into modern Dutch and background information.

I am just inspired by the beautiful handwriting and artwork in the Manuscript.

  



EU Warns Microsoft Over Vista

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marko

Microsoft cannot sell Windows Vista in Europe, says European commissary of Antitrust, Kroes, if it includes all kinds of other products by Microsoft. This warning was send to Microsoft CEO Ballmer by the European committee last week. According to this article.

The European commission has been struggling with Microsoft for years. According to Kroes's spokesman this warning does not concern an official inquiry. "We assume Microsoft will cooperate to overcome our objections, since it is in the company’s best interest to understand it is not wise to face another Anti trust ruling."

The commission is afraid that with the development of Vista there also will be too little information available for competitors, resulting in an attack on the free European market for operating systems or software that runs on Windows.

Microsoft is selling software products like Media Player along with its OS. That way it sidelines competitors that also deliver media player software. The commission has outlawed the Media Player construction. The European court in Luxembourg has yet to rule on that matter though.

Kroes has warned Microsoft not to engage in the linked sale of operating systems and other software as well. It is not unlikely that Microsoft is planning to do so. Microsoft has designed its search engine to rival Google. Anti virus vendors are afraid the next Windows will already contain virus scanning software. (Microsoft bought RAV some time ago). Also Microsoft is constantly claiming how well it would integrate RSS right into Vista. That could really harm blog reading software and aggregation websites.

The letter from Kroes is not the first set back for Microsoft in Vista development. Earlier the corporation announced it had to delay the introduction by several months because of large software rewrites.

  



Buzz

March 25, 2006 |
marko

There has been a lot of buzz for 14dayz around the net since we started our beta. Check it out, the good, the bad and the ugly. We have no secrets.

zibb.giferwinBlomGraph.gifblueAce.gifemerce.gif
eHub.gifhigherLevel.gifMoMB.gifsaulWeiner.gif
internetnoNet.gifpythoneer.gifwwwhatsNew.gifuzy.gif
softalk.giftechcrunch.gifrevu.gifvnunet.gif

This one is the greatest compliments one could ever get.

Thank you all for mentioning us. Even the critics. We learn the most from you.

  



14Dayz Update

March 24, 2006 |
marko

clock.gif

We've about wrapped up the first week of 14Dayz beta testing. First of all let me again show my appreciation to the dedication with which some of you have worked to help us.

Stuff we've addressed this week at your request:
- Drastically improved navigation, it's live now. Go check it out on your own account. If you don't see the menu straight away, reload the page or clear your browser cache. Some browsers are stubborn with .css and .js updates.
- Increased ease of use for the time sheet. Now you don't have to leave the time sheet to enter a new category. Bart has created a excellent light box for that. Press the '+' key in the Categories select box to bring it up or select New category....
- Fixed international character set support. Thanks Serge from http://internetno.net for helping us with that.
- Serge fixed the dead links above this blog ;)
- Reports, excel export. When a team member detail was selected and a project detail also, there would be an empty column in the spreadsheet.
- A single link was still in Dutch. So now you know that vorige means previous. :)
- There was a short issue with the license page that was sorted out quickly. Thanks to Rodrigo Franco for bringing it up.
- Increased usability because of JavaScript fall-back form submit buttons that were being displayed at the bottom of every page. They are now disabled when there is nothing to save.
- Other smaller issues fixed.

- We've talked to Christian Heidel and he had some interesting points. Accept from a small oddity in the Projects chapter, Christian says 14Dayz works great on IE7 too.

- I've been talking to Patrick Akua about using 14Dayz for projections. While we didn't plan for this to happen, it turns out to be quite feasible in 14dayz as it is.

- We've discussed the need to send a password in an email to you or your team members when you invite them. Do you have a need to have a clickable link to login to the service fast? We appreciate your views. What do you like more? Security or ease of use?

All in all we are looking back on what we feel is an extremely successful week of 14Dayz beta testing, except for the outage earlier today. (The server was fine, I checked) We are all looking forward to next week. I’d like to say a word of appreciation to my colleagues, Serge, Bart and Jan and to all the beta testers who have joined us, writing, commenting or silently testing. We do so much love to hear from you, bad or good. I do hope to talk to more testers over the weekend and next week.

  



Outage

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marko

"Apologies to all customers for the 20-minute outage to our network just now. This was caused by a core router suffering a kernel panic during a routine reconfiguration and swallowing all our network traffic. This took a little while to sort due to a crucial password being inaccessible. We will be upgrading our routers and reviewing our emergency access procedures to minimise the chances of such an outage repeating itself."

At least that is what our hosting partner tells us. Well nothing was lost (accept connectivity:) and everything is back up again. Carry on.

  



Navigate

March 21, 2006 |
marko

Interest in 14Dayz has been booming beyond our wildest beliefs. We felt there was a market for an easy to use get out of my face time tracker, but this is insane. Over a thousand people have signed up to be informed or to help with beta testing inside of just a few days. Thank you for your interest. Beta testers, please be patient. We're sending out invitations all the time.

There has been some unexpected coverage in the Dutch press as well. Emerce, BlueAce and Nieuwe Revu picking up on it, thanks. The Dutch will be pleased to know a Dutch version is also in the works. Other languages will follow later.
In the mean time we are still trying to get some work done. A big “thank you” to our testers for being so constructive and participating. To us that means we can address your feedback quickly and efficiently.

Most beta testers made a point about (the lack of) navigation. Point well taken. I have posted the new concept for you to look over at the top of this post. Click on it to see it in full. Please tell us what you think.

Other feedback has resulted in the inclusion of the possibility to add categories from within' the time sheet. Press '+' in the categories select box or select "New Category". For you that means you don't have to leave the time sheet to add a new category. Please let us know if this has improved usability of the time sheets.

Thanks again for joining us in the beta test and thanks for being such a productive feedback team. We hope to show you that we take your feedback seriously.

  



Update

March 19, 2006 |
marko

forteenDayz.gif
14Dayz has only been in private beta testing for one weekend and already feedback is finding its way to fill up my mailbox. :) Thank you, thank you and thank you. I cannot say how much value this provides for us. Tomorrow we start addressing the first issues beta testers have brought up. So keep that feedback flowing. It means we can give you better software.
Nice stuff is: Zero bug reports and zero known bugs at release. That is something we strive for, and good to see effectuated.
Most of you say navigation definitely needs improvement so that will be the first thing we address on Monday.
A quick shout out to Michael Arrington for featuring his experiences on Techcrunch. I love this quote: “It does one thing, and well: time tracking.” That is what matters most to us, because it was our goal as we set out. The other issues you and others have brought up can and will be resolved. Thanks Mike. Thanks also to people who have made valuable comments on that post.
There is still room in the private beta, and I would note that beta testers providing us with constructive feedback, like Mike, are eligible for a 50% discount for life*. We value your opinions highly and we feel beta testers’ work should be rewarded.

* more information, pricing and terms on your invitation. so get yourself invited already.

  



Silent Launch

March 17, 2006 |
marko

Today we have silently begun sending off the first invitations to beta testers. We were all very excited upon delivering a product that we all have a very good feeling about in such a short amount of time (guess where the name comes from). We'll be sending off more in the next couple of days. Don’t worry if you are not invited yet. You’re next!

Serge remarked brilliantly that "in the old days" we had a rule not to release on Fridays. Why did we have that rule? Many applications were breaking down over the weekend. Serge made me see how far we've come in those past few years. By adopting change as a constant, by focusing on simplicity, by excelling every day and feeling good about it we are now so confident that we just look at each other and release it. It'll hold.

All ready we've had some valuable feedback from some of our beta testers. Serge wrote up from Russia "one of the Russian leading bloggers for web 2.0 services." he had some excellent tips to make 14Dayz even more user friendly. Saul Weiner wrote this raving review on his blog. Thanks for your feedback!

  



Warning Event Notification

March 16, 2006 |
marko

warningEventNotification.png

Excuse me? I was working on some issues with Daniel from Medical Media when we were both flabbergasted by the sudden and unexplained appearance of this popup. "What?"

Now when you hear me ranting about software being too complex, this is what I am talking about. That is un-usability that is. I can’t even go into everything that is wrong with that.

If you are ever in a discussion, advocating simple software; Show 'em this screen.

I rest my case.

  



More copy paste web on Ajaxian

March 15, 2006 |
marko

I was playing with some new blog stats I found at http://performancing.com/ the other day. When I noticed Ajaxian picked up on the Copy-Paste-Web post from last week. Thanks to Chris Cornutt for the write up. Metapundit remarks that there is prior art, well conceptual art anyway on the lesscode.org blog from October 2005. Now why do I like that name? In the lesscode discussion I found some other links to similar activities. Amongst them is Bogle's Blog who refers to unAPI. "unAPI is a tiny HTTP API for the few basic operations necessary to copy discrete, identified content from any kind of web application."

I've been meaning to get some copy-paste demo pages up myself to interact with Ozzies demo, and we still need to put some content behind those great looking buttons Serge has designed for our new website. (Thanks for pointing out the dead links, linb.) :) But we've been too busy with the upcoming launch on 14Dayz online time tracking, which we are all really excited about... Maybe when the dust settles next week I'll whip something up.

  



Time sheet

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marko

I have stated before that the core technology for 14Dayz online time tracking was developed to help lawyers comply with recent Dutch legislation for time tracking in bankruptcies. During development lawyers and their secretaries were closely involved in perfecting the system.

One of our biggest challenges in convincing lawyers and their secretaries was asserting that a web based application like 14Dayz can work as fast as a stand alone application installed on their computer. We realized that to satisfy these customers we not only had to prove logging hours can be made just as fast as a traditional system, or a spread sheet for that matter. We had to prove online time tracking could actually be a whole lot faster.

We’ve studied to our customers’ experiences and worked with them again and again to squeeze out every single burst of data entry speed, whilst keeping the user interface clean, easy and simple. And we were successful: Every secretary and lawyer that now uses this system is convinced logging hours online is just as fast as or faster than traditional time tracking in stand alone software.

Functionalities introduced at our clients request:
• Automatically save each time sheet entry when it is completed.
• Be able to log hours in whole hours and fractions (1.5) and in hours and minutes (1:30 or even :90).

How simple is it?
Select the team member you want to log the hours for. Your own name is always selected first. Select the date by using the calendar control. The current date is always selected.

You see the time sheet for this team member for this particular date. Select the project, category or sub category you want to log these hours on, enter a short description and enter the time. Now enter the next line, you can see the line you entered being saved in the background.

What makes it different?
First of all the 14Dayz time sheet is closer to a real-world paper time sheet than it is to a web form. Like its paper predecessor once you’ve written something down, it stays written down. No need to re-enter forms again ever. If it’s okay, it’s saved. If not, you’ll know right away. Stop loosing data and valuable time.
All of the application has minimized the number of screens. There are no pop-ups anywhere and nothing opens in a new window. For logging hours all you really need is the time sheet screen.

Research tools like systems thinking and mind maps have helped to discover the best way to present the time sheet in the user interface that is instantly recognizable and intuitive to grasp.

Suggestions:
• For achieving secretary like hour logging speed, learn how to navigate the time sheet by using the keyboard;
• Select the first project select box with the mouse. Choose the project by pressing the first letter of the project name on the keyboard. Of you have multiple projects with the same name, press the first letter multiple times, or use the up and down arrow keys to navigate through the projects.
• Use the [TAB] key to move to the next field.
• Choose categories in the same way as projects and [TAB]. Enter a short description, [TAB], enter hours and press [TAB] again to save the line and continue in the project select box of the next line.
• If you run out of lines, the system will automatically add empty lines for you, without reloading the page. And your data entry is saved as soon as you complete a line.

Short cuts, how to enter time:
This works!
• :5 - 5 minutes
• :15 - 15 minutes
• :30 - 30 minutes
• :60 - 1 hour
• :90 - one and a half hour
This works too!
• 0.1 - 6 minutes
• 0.25 - 15 minutes
• 0.5 - 30 minutes
• 1 - 1 hour
• 1.5 - one and a half hour

  



Project

March 9, 2006 |
marko

Lets talk some more about our vision on time tracking. I've detailed the design and usability decisions that went into the design and layout of the Main Menu in a previous post. Serge Nijsten has designed the screen and user interface. Click on the image above to see the full image.

What we offer is a simple web based time tracking tool for groups of loosely connected professionals that collaborate on a professional basis. Finally distributed teams can also have simple and easy to use time tracking software that does what you need and then leaves you alone.

We are drivers in the movement for better software. Too many features make software complex and tedious to use, install or maintain. That is why we believe in simple but well crafted solutions. Traditional time tracking software is bothersome because there are so many features you do not need getting in the way of what you need to do:

Log hours. Create specifications. Get paid.

What functionality is there then?
Today I'll show you the project screen and explain how 14Dayz helps you organize your work into projects. I will add some other screens during the upcoming week and comment upon them as well. Feel free to partake in this discussion.

To enable easy-to-use time tracking effectively there are only a few things you need to actually do:
- Organize your work.
- Invite your team.
- Track time.
- Report hours.

In 14Dayz work is organized by using Projects, Categories and Sub categories. This setup is simple and flexible. It allows you the freedom to organize your work so that it matches your style and preferences closely. For example you can choose to setup your clients as projects. You can have a single 14Dayz project for each contract you do. That way you have multiple projects for the same client in 14Dayz. You could choose to set up releases or iterations as a Project.

In 14Dayz this chapter is called Projects, which is just a name. We called it Projects because that is the natural way to use 14Dayz. There is no need for you to do the same. You can have projects that are files, folders, clients, releases, sites, locations, events, contracts or products. It's up to you.

I use 14Dayz daily to keep track of the time spend on all projects at Brains4All. Coming from a project manager background I know how hectic things can get. Most project managers need to manage multiple projects concurrently. There are always dynamics. A project that's hot can end up in the fridge for a long time and then all of a sudden live up again.

To accommodate these dynamics in your projects you can activate or deactivate them at will. When you deactivate a project team members can no longer log hours to this project and a deactivated project doesn't count towards your plan. The plan you choose defines the number of projects you can have active at one time.

Most of the information that you can enter for a project is optional. All you need is a name for your project and a project lead or administrator. This is the team member responsible for this project. When I have a prospect or a new request for proposal I enter a new project in 14Dayz. That way I can start logging hours from even before the project starts. This allows me to see the complete amount of time taken up by acquisition as well as a total number of hours spend on the project as a whole, including acquisition.

I assign a project number and a project lead. Then I enter the project name and maybe add a short description. Saving is done in the background using AJAX technologies excellently provided by prototype and scriptaculous. There is no need to wait for a page reload. You can enter series of projects one after another quickly.

I have organized my work into projects for all our products and contracts. I use some overhead projects as well. I have projects for events we help organize and there's even a Gold card project for self-development of team members where they can log their hours spend on researching new technologies (like Comet) they find interesting or contributing to communities they love.

Here's a part of my active project list:

- 14Dayz - Online time tracking
- Camping de Brem
- Liftal lifting technologies: PDF / Rentals
- Overhead - Brains4All
- Time tracking for the curator
- Gold card

Jan, my partner and co-founder of Brains4All has come up with an all together different setup for his projects. Jan has optimized his project list for speed in the time sheet data entry. I'll talk to him about posting his list here as well. It will be interesting to see how others have organized their work in 14Dayz as its setup is very flexible. Share and Enjoy!

To summarize: 14Dayz projects' feature is simple and therefore flexible. All you really need is a name for your project and your home free. Projects can be activated or deactivated at will by the project lead. You don't want to spend a long time creating projects, you've got hours to log!

Brains4All products apply the "simplest thing that could possibly work" routine. No annoying features that you'll find in other time tracking software and get in your way. Instead, use only the options you really need.

  



Copy-Paste-Web

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marko

liveClipboard.png

Ray Ozzie whose Groovenet Networks was acquired by Microsoft about a year ago, also know as "The Creator of Lotus Notes" has demoed an interesting concept at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this week.

Ozzies' idea is to have Copy And Paste JavaScript powered XML allowing users to copy and paste XML meta data from site to site from site to pc or vice versa. The idea is simple enough, use JavaScript to trigger events as XML data is read from or posted to the clipboard. Ozzie is calling it Live Clipboard to coincide with Microsoft Live efforts. I'd like to call it CAPJAPOX :).
The implementation is browser independent. Independent as in works on Firefox too. The prototype Ozzie demoed is released under a shared commons license. There is an actual working demo page and there are some videos on line. The videos deal with mock-ups, so I doubt if there is any working technology behind them. Still as an idea its concept is interesting. There is also Ozzies’ own lengthy blog entry about the concept, wiring the web.
The excitement of linking two web pages by copy and paste is in my point of view somewhat of an illusion. Live Clipboard is only the user interface for this. It leaves the trouble of standardization and interfacing out of the loop. Services have to implement the details of the live clipboard themselves (or probably they have to buy an expensive Microsoft development tool that does automate this task under the hood). The fun bit is yes, you can actually copy calendar appointments from one social calendar to another if they both implement the clipboard and have compatible interfaces.
So we will see how Microsoft is going to support this concept of Ozzie, for now it still leaves the standards and protocol issue in the middle while I would dearly see a simple solution to copy and paste web data between web applications. But the work has to be done in the trenches and we have to connect API to API ourselves for quite some time. There is a detailed write up about the session here on O'Reilly Radar.

  



Comet

March 5, 2006 |
marko

Comet.png

Alex Russell, from dojotoolkit, has found time in his busy schedule to dedicate an article to explaining about Server side push Ajax and has finally put a name on it: Comet. Alex hopes that analogous to AJAX, the technique will finally take off big-time when it is easier to communicate about by calling it by its name.

In short, Comet is the technique of continuously updating the browser screen by using server side pushed events instead of polling or pull events by the browser. In many ways the technique is similar or can be viewed as an extension to AJAX if you will. Alex describes possible scenarios for application as well. Not every web application is going to need it or even profit from it. "Comet improves application responsiveness for collaborative, multi-user applications..." A few obstacles are there to overcome, since each client browser has to maintain an open (if idle) connection to the server. Handling that amount of connections requires new techniques on the server side as well. Luckily for us, the discussion in the comments exposed an already flowering community and some server side techniques already implemented. Twisted seems to be a well cooked candidate, written in python. There's even an O'Reilly book out. What a formidable coincidence.

For more in-depth information check out: Alex Russells' blog entry. Ajaxpatterns on HTTPStreaming.

For those of you familiar with JotSpot live it is an example of a web 2.0 application using this technique.

An excellent introduction to twisted by Ken Kinder, Event-Driven Programming with Twisted and Python

  



Saul Weiners' web 2.0 blog

March 4, 2006 |
marko

Saul Weiner, who by the way runs a great blog about web 2.0 which I think you should check out, writes a short entry where he is comparing our upcoming product 14Dayz to Tadalist. Well.., in some ways 14Dayz is not like tadalist.

First of all 14Dayz is not a completely free product. It sports an always free plan for personal use and allows for free trials of each of the commercial plans. Second; 14Dayz is not a todo list, nor does it have one. Tadalist is about the future, stuff you are planning to get to eventually. 14Dayz is about "what really happened while you were making other plans." Sure, you can click the box and have that satisfied feeling of fulfillment of getting things done. However plans change (if they're good ones) and I always have to prioritize what I need to do over what I want to do over what would be nice to do. Also I find that I always end up doing stuff I hadn't planned on doing at all! Stuff that wasn't in my to do list. Still I write that up in 14Dayz. That allows me to review what I've done and how I spend my time. It also enables me to get paid, which allows me to pay for all the other things I need to do, like fixing our house.

In other ways 14Dayz is a lot like Tadalist and that is perhaps what Saul is referring to. 14Dayz is a simple web application. 14Dayz is easy to use. Why? How?

The core technology of 14Dayz has been built to help lawyers comply to recent Dutch legislation for time tracking in bankruptcies. So it is not a new app. It's a mesh up :). During development we have been working closely with lawyers (as in sitting next to...) and their secretaries to perfect the system. Because of the target audience, which was not very technical, we had to keep the application as simple as possible. And because secretaries often log the lawyers hours, data entry had to be fast. So we've worked with the secretaries to make it fast. We've worked with the lawyers and examined the way lawyers enter data and made it easy. After launch we've had a steady flow of requests to implement time tracking for other applications and wider fields of use as well. 14Dayz is that product. And that is why we believe 14Dayz is going to be easy, fast and fun to use web based time tracking for everyone.

Of course you get to decide that for yourself in 14dayz if you join our beta testing effort.

Saul, thanks for a great blog and thanks for the write up.

  



Main menu

|
marko

I know we have been scarce with information. That is why I am currently writing up all the stuff that was in our brains when we built it. Take for example this fragment of the 14Dayz Main Menu. Its design was driven by the actual expected use of the product that we researched at start up. Then in small incremental iterations, working closely with the customers, we evolved and improved upon it.

14DayzMainMenuFragment.jpg

The main menu is like the city central of an application. It's job is to get you where you need to be fast. However not every task is as important as any other task. Not every task is as frequently executed as others. You have to show that in your design otherwise users will get lost and frustrated. Furthermore the UI design has to connect with the flow of the actual tasks being executed. We call that aligned with the customer. It is the designers' job to get that right with the layout. It is the programmers' job to get that right with the behaviour.

In the example of the 14Dayz main menu what is the most important and most used task executed? Right; Logging hours into the time sheet. So that is the most prominent in the UI design. It gets your attention right away. Pick a name of the list, press the Go button and you're on your way. Another important function is Reports. Because it is slightly less used compared to the time sheet it is smaller in size and in a less prominent position. However the main menu allows you to interface with the most used filter functions in the reports section. You don't have to go to reports first and wait for a general report to be made. Then adjust the filters and wait for the report you want. Just bring up the project or team member you want to get a report for and again press the Go button. The report you want is shown instantly.

But please, let us know what you think of the user interface design. Your comments are most welcome.

  



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