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.

Project canceled after 30 months - € 87M down the tube...

marko

A massive project to revamp the UWV social security offices' computer system has flopped, costing the state €87m, reports DutchNews.

An investigation is currently under way into the failure of the project and should be completed at the end of this year.

The project was being carried out by in-house staff and computer services firm Logica and was canceled in June after 30 months of work.

Don't tell me nobody saw that coming.

It reminds me of a story about an IT project gone wrong for the NHS that Clarke Ching once used to illustrate what issues any software development project faces.

noChange.gif

© Clarke Ching 2005

The National Audit Office has identified changes to specifications after the award of IT contracts as a key reason for regular delays and overspends on government projects.

That's from 2005, I wonder what different conclusions turn up this time around?

In short, the best way to down a software or web development project can be accomplished by any organization in three simple steps:

  • Think of everything in advance

  • Fight change vehemently

  • Then lie about the consequences and blame everyone else

What other software or web development projects do you know of that have gone horribly wrong?

  



That Old Time Software, the end of an Era

marko

KhoiVinh.jpg
Khoi Vinh is the Design Director of the New York Times. He blogs about Design over at Subtraction and he's one of my favourite reads. He's observant, perceptive and a highly talented and entertaining writer and designer.

He writes in a recent post about That Old Time Software that he's had it with complex software:

I also think that we’re at a stage now where software interfaces just have to be more immediately intuitive than ever before, have to tell a story with extreme compactness and on first pass. There’s still a long way to go in raising the bar for good interfaces, but it’s much higher now even than where it sat at the end of the last century. In the intervening years, there have been too many good interfaces — still not enough in general, but enough to show us that software design can accomplish much more with much less.

He goes on to signify the end of an era.

Web applications have tremendously abridged the opportunity window for all new software, whether it resides on the desktop or the network.
Much of this is not news to many readers, I’m sure. But sometimes, in the midst of change, it’s easy to overlook the fact that we’ve moved from one era to another. Maybe two years ago it would still have been passable to ship an application like that. Today, it’s puzzlingly anachronistic. In a few more years, it’ll just be completely unacceptable.

Of course I agree with Khoi's vision. It is totally unacceptable to produce and ship customer hostile web applications or software.

However I keep seeing complex feature loaded unusable web applications come to the market only to frustrate users and waste clients' valuable time and money.

What customer hostile web applications have you run into lately? Link it up!

  



Our concern for privacy

marko

One question we get from our customers is; “We need to be assured that the information we have on the system will not be shared to others. Do you have a confidentiality agreement for your service?”

I've pasted some paragraphs from our privacy policy, I hope those provide the answer you need;

Brains4All is committed to protecting the privacy of visitors to our website, as well as our account holders and clients. In general Brains4All treats your contact information as private and confidential. Brains4All will not give, sell, rent, exchange or otherwise provide your information with anyone else without your prior consent (except when compelled by law — see below).

Compelled Disclosure

If we are required by law to disclose any information that you have provided us, we will attempt to give you notice (unless we are prohibited) that a request for your information has been made, in order to give you an opportunity to object. We will attempt to provide this notice by email, if you have given us an email address or by postal mail if you have entered a postal address. If you do not challenge the disclosure request, we may be legally required to turn over your information.

What that means in short is that we will not disclose any information in our customers' account without a court order or subpoena, issued under valid Dutch or European law and try to inform you of the fact as well.

Please be advised that in order to ensure the privacy of your data your team needs to connect to the service by secure https encrypted connections.

We understand your concern for privacy and I hope our policy demonstrates our commitment to that. Please write in with any further questions you might have, we're glad to help.

  



Warning: PayPal will cancel your subscriptions

marko

escalationsAgent.gif

If you need to change your credit card soon, please read below to prevent the loss of your PayPal paid subscriptions.

Did you know PayPal has an Escalations Agent? An Executive Escalations Agent? They'll need one, I'm sure.

es-ca-late [es-kuh-leyt] –verb (used with object), verb (used without object), -lat-ed, -lat-ing.
1. to increase in intensity, magnitude, etc.: to escalate a war; a time when prices escalate.

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Retrieved November 03, 2006, from Dictionary.com website.

So generally to escalate is to make things worse than they already are, and not by a small bit. Interresting customer service strategy. Interresting way to perceive your clients as well.

As a Design and Usability firm we consult with corporations how to Design websites and web applications for clarity, transparency and ease of use. The user-interface needs to radiate its function, its meaning. The more that interface succeeds in making clear what you can expect to happen when you interact with it (and then if exactly that same thing happens) the more that interface will be perceived as friendly by your customers.

On the other hand, if say, you just want to change your credit card, which you have to do once every few years, and you find that after you've done that all your subscriptions have been canceled is generally not experienced by any customer as friendly. It is a completely hostile move that has complete disrespect for a payment services' merchants and it's customers.

Especially if this happens completely without warning.

PayPal users take note!

According to PayPal (translated from a Dutch reply to my raising the issue):

To change the fund source for a subscription log into your account and click "history". Now try to find the subscription you want to change the payment source for. If you want to use a new credit card as a payment source for this subscription you first have to add it through your profile into your PayPal account!

Hey, if I translate it back to English word by word, it makes perfect sense again. There's more, but I don't really understand that bit, I think it is trying to say the same thing, but it goes on about having to search account information over two years in the past...

I think what PayPal is trying to say is if you want to change the credit card that you use for paying subscriptions (like your month-to-month Plan for 14Dayz time registration) you need to:

  • First Add your new card
  • Find your existing subscriptions
  • Change the funding source on your existing subscriptions to the new card
  • Then it is safe to remove the old card

Some simple instructions or a warning message if you have any subscriptions and you're trying to remove your card would be sufficient to address this issue.

For example:

You are about to remove a credit card that you use to pay for the following subscriptions:
If you remove this card, the above subscriptions will be cancelled by PayPal automatically without your consent (or knowledge). If this is what you want press the button below called: "Yes delete this credit card and all related subscriptions!". If however, you want to change your credit card please add a new one first by clicking add credit card here before deleting the old one. Thank you.

On the other hand, when your credit card expires, PayPal maintains a certain "grace period" in which they allow you to take steps to amend the situation. You have between 5 to 9 days to correct the payment source before your subscription is cancelled. It would be best to treat the removal of a credit card in the same way.

  • When you remove a credit card, you keep your subscriptions.
  • If after a day or so you have not provided alternate means of payment you get a warning email.
  • If this situation continues, vendors also receive a warning mail.
  • If at the end of the grace period no new payment source is provided, subscriptions can be cancelled, if only as a final measure.

This describes exactly the same process PayPal uses for expiring credit cards (or bounced cheques). If PayPal continues to treat their loyal customers the way they do now, I feel they are punishing those customers who are trustworthy enough to change their credit card well before they expire, while they're being very lenient to those that write uncovered cheques, use maxed-out credit cards or are too lazy or undisciplined to change their credit card when it expires. To me that makes no sense.

Anyway, we apologise on behalf of our payment provider and hope you can forgive their ignorance. We've got quite a lot of complaints about this in the past week so if this has happened to you for your payment source of 14Dayz please contact us at support@14dayz.com and our executive vice-president of de-escalations, that's me ;), will do his very best to help you remedy the situation as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

UPDATE: When you transfer some funds into your paypal account before canceling your old card this will carry you over the time PayPal needs to approve your new card. Thanks Olaf!

  



Sales day

marko

Today is sales day. No particular reason. There never is :)

I was talking to some of our friends in Philadelphia. Nick Bertolino and his team are hard at work on a web based application that can help you manage your sales process. I’ve been helping them out with usability consulting. While I’ve spend only a small amount of time on the project, Nick and his team were able to make great progress in the past three weeks. As always it is important to focus on simplicity; the way your application will be used and by whom. What I like about their application is how they’ve targeted a wide market with a niche product. Nick and his team say they could use some help with beta testing so head over to PipelineDeals.com and click Sign Up.

As Nick and myself both have backgrounds in sales, it was fun talking shop together. While we were talking I came across Eric Wolfram's Writing, How To Sell -- Converting Leads from your Sales Pipeline.

Eric has some great tips to help you qualify your sales pipeline. While most of his sales books taught him to not close over the phone or through email and always meet in person, he’s had so much success; he’s reluctant to change that.

Still he sends out a lot of proposals and between 30% and 50% of them close. What a waste of time on those unclosed proposals! So to help qualify active leads and reduce effort on writing proposals Eric has started asking for meetings with his leads. He’s found that 95% of the leads that are willing to meet him, willing to make an effort close by the end of the meeting.

A similar technique that works well is called “Bargain for access to power”.

All prospective companies will at some point in your sales cycle want you to write a proposal. Writing proposals costs you time and effort. If you agree to write a proposal say that you feel it is fair that if you invest time and effort on writing a proposal, it would only be fair to receive something in return for your efforts. 99% of prospects will answer this question with:

“That sounds fair. What are you thinking of?”

Ask for an opportunity to talk to the person(s) in power, someone in the organisation that is empowered to make a buying decision, like the CEO. If you put in the time and effort to write the proposal they want, do you think it is fair you get a chance to present it to senior management?

Most prospects agree to have you see the “Big Boss”. This keeps you in control of the sales process, as opposed to sitting idly by the phone as they are giving your proposal “serious consideration”.

Using this technique, you get to stand by the prospective buyer to pitch his idea to senior management. All clients are apprehensive of this. It means you’re not trying to sell them.

You’re helping them buy.

Hey, you can be a buying consultant!

Ps. For more sales tips checkout the Think Pipeline Blog where Nick has some wonderful sales tips for you.

  



The New Web part 4

marko

In an internet population of over one billion users there is only a small portion involved in its evolutionary centre. Of this centre, not all are progressive forces. Over fifty percent of them are leeches. Leeches are parasites, living of the blood of other organic beings.

Leeches don’t care whose blood they suck. Leeches are the ones arguing when they encountered the first human beings walking on two feet: “Look, this is silly; you have to wade through this water on all fours. Everyone else is doing it and has been doing it for years. Because you wade in this water with only two limbs, I and my relatives have a reduced chance of fifty percent of ending up on one of them. Get back in here and even those chances.” Are leeches threatened? Not in a bit. There will be other four legged animals wading into the pool. And while humans have only two limbs in the water, the leeches still suck their blood none the less when they get the chance.

Leeches have their own way to deal with inevitable change and make sure they eat their evolutionary food too. Another small group is rubbing up the evolutionaries hoping to find some breadcrumbs of the benefits and advantages. They observe other’s success and will follow were they go, to live of the leftovers or to die hungry, in vain pursuit. Trust me, evolution is not a pretty sight.

Only a small portion of people is driving the internet evolution. And they are not unified, or even aware of each other. They, by the very nature of the web are distributed as well. Distributed geographically, which is less of a handicap than it used to be. But they are also distributed by interests, language, process and culture.

To find them you must search for small clusters of shared vision, small clusters of loosely collaborating individuals with strong and converging new ideas that work. Look for small group with differentiating opinions, addressing similar or related problems.

  



The New Web part 3

marko

-- continued from The New Web part 2

The current state of the web is not chaotic, it is evolutionary in essence, though it may seem chaotic from several perspectives. It is not static. It is, and will remain a highly dynamic environment. Because of the sheer amount of people on-line it is not knowable; because you can never be sure someone will not invent a $100 pc that will allow people to share each other’s wifi connections ad hoc, creating a whole new set of possibilities. ;)

So the web is a complex place, just as the world and its social, cultural, biological and political entities upon it are. Its interactions are knotted, intertwined and heavily distributed without a single center of control or regulation. It behaves in an unpredictable way and often acts hypocritical and unpredictable. The key to define the web or even the new web is to research it.

This research, by its very essence of its subject, needs to be iterative. The results, and more importantly its goals, need to be fine tuned and re-adjusted every time and again. The nature of the subject is changing in mid-research. It is not a static entity. The web is changing as you research it.

So in researching the web it is important to set goals, and track goals. Track their validity; is this still what we need? In web projects this could relate to; do we still need to address the problem we are addressing, or have we learned that we have exposed other more pressing problems, or that the problem has gone away by itself?

If the goals are constantly shifting, you better adjust your aim as well. A lot of research might go into what the actual goal, or problem actually is.

When you are tracking your goal, you must also find a way to measure your effectiveness, your progress if you will, towards pertaining it. Simple tools that allow you to monitor: Are we getting nearer to our goal? What was the situation were we left off? Did we make any progress? How are we doing? What do we need to do next?

Organizations that are implementing these research-like development methods as a production philosophy on the web are now slowly surfacing on the web as successful. Organizations that are finding the ability to interface with the web, that care to listen to its voices, its feelings and its opinions are in the evolutionary stage of higher chances to survive then those who don’t.

That does not mean the adaptables have conquered the world. No. It is a long time before that. But agile companies are emerging from within the web, software development and production and they can become successful very quickly. In addition, the research subject itself is also helping to distribute its findings and important data. Artifacts are being distributed around the world at light speed. The very essence the internet was used for. Research papers can be common knowledge in a week or two or less.

A lot of the intermediate results are there for you to examine and a lot of the resulting conclusions can be drawn pretty quickly. Successful behavior can be copied, or mimicked, and in a knowable system, this can lead to success too.

But in a complex system like the internet, which is also intertwined with modern society, you have to verify goals. Are they still the same, or have they shifted? Is what we copied working for us, for our clients? Is this behavior bringing us closer to our goals? Are we solving the problem that really matters?

How do you know which ones to copy anyway? How do you recognize the centers of evolution at work? The evolutionary successes of tomorrow are not the large numbers of today. If you hang with the masses, you have a pretty good chance of surviving today. But the epicenters of evolution are not marked by high signals. They are small, relatively insulated pockets of change giving off weak signals. How can we locate and identify those pockets?

-- to be continued

  



The New Web part 2

marko

-- continued from The New Web part 1

So yes, the web is changing, and changing in an almost natural way. What is happening with Web 2.0 is that with the combination of heightened pressure on our society’s productivity, and the response of agility production and development process there of, with the upcoming of social networks, and with the rising mental state of humanity to constantly reflect upon itself there can be a trend deciphered.

Finally entrepreneurs on the web were looking back on that first gold rush of the late nineties. Who survived? Why did they survive and not the other one, which had the better chances? Questions are being asked like: What do people really need? How can we help them solve their real problem? These are not just manifestations that are unique to the web. They are forces present in economic movements as well.

Still, by its very nature the internet as a communications medium is catalyzing the uptake of these ideas. Bright new ideas may spread throughout the on-line society quickly, and are now often leading instead of following conventional media. Conventional media are dreading the deflation of their assets.

Still, bright new ideas, or bright old ideas for that matter, however high their uptake, must at one time present their proof of effect. Even these ideas and the progression and uptake have become evolutionary in nature. Either they will take hold, and society will embrace them or adapt to accommodate them, or they will eventually dissipate without so much as even a whisper.

When we start looking back on the history of the web, what do we find? How do we know that it is right, and that it will stay right? The answer is with simple, almost academic research.

--continued in The New Web Part 3

  



The New Web part 1

marko

A little while ago, though it seems like ages now, just after we’ve been hit by the TechCrunch effect I was called on the phone by a reporter from a Dutch E-Commerce magazine. When he asked how I felt about all the hype around Web 2.0 I answered naively; “There is no web 2.0. Sure, because of the social aspects inherent now in the web, like blogging and community sites like MySpace, some web services are able to become a success quickly, even before they show any working software. Still you cannot be all hype and live. In the end, you’ve got to have a great service too. Okay, so now we have a good review by Michael Arrington of TechCrunch. I’ve talked to him. He just really likes our product.”

Now, I’ve had some time for reflection on this issue. I’ve been listening to others, reading blogs, and someone here finally bought a copy of “Getting Real” and printed it up for me. (Okay I’m old-fashioned about my books. Books are paper to me.) Perhaps now it is time for a less brash, more founded opinion.

Don’t forget, the web was only build over the past 15 years or so. It just exploded into existence. The sky was the limit. Its growth was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. The possibilities were endless. And everyone jumped on the band wagon. Because it was new, no-one knew what would work and what wouldn’t. Some things did work, and some things didn’t. Some things worked for a while, and then were replaced by some other things, that were just doing things better or different or at least more successful. Then those things were replaced by other things as well.

If you examine the history of the web, it is an evolutionary growth. The web sprouts a diversity of ideas, websites, concepts, business models, content and communities. The diversity spreads and then the laws of evolution take over. The ones best able to sustain themselves flourish. The ones which are able to adapt flourish too. The rest die out. There is a simple Darwinian process at work.

Some die out because of lack of funds or lack of energy. Others die out because they get bought up, taken over or die in legal disputes. This is just the Mother Nature of today’s Human society. Social and economic forces are at work, and disasters strike, just like meteors.

Brains4All is an adaptive entity too. We started off thinking we would do one on one client work. Now we are transformed to deliver products mainly. We started out thinking we would be a regional shop, providing to businesses close to us and clients that we had known for years. Now we have clients in over 86 countries world wide, and add to that each and every day.

-- continued in The New Web part 2

  



BuzzShout vs NeoBinaries

marko

buzzShoutLogo.gif

I'd like to say hi to James from BuzzShout and commend him on his excelent user service. BuzzShout is community based buzz for web 2.0 applications and web sites. There was a long and dire need for this kind of service and James has jumped in it with both feet. While there are still a few things to iron out, the design looks good. And it is a brilliant (edit: though not so unique) idea. I hope James is prepared to handle the load that this will generate.

So please head over to BuzzShout and while you are there, we'd appreciate it if you would leave a nice review about 14Dayz.

neoBinariesLogo.gif

Then while I was writing this, another site that has almost exactly the same service was brought to my attention: Neo Binaries. To my pleasant surprise, 14Dayz is already listed (not by me) and is in the top 5 of viewed apps. Even though it doesn't have a review yet. We'd like it if you put in a good word there too... :)

  



Japanese bank to embrace Mac

marko

tiger.jpg

The Wall Street Journal reports that Japanese bank Aozora has announced it will make the unusual step to move from desktop PCs to Apple Mac. This concerns about 90 percent of a total of 2300 computers. About a third of the staff al ready owns an apple shaped logo. According to the head of technology, OS X was the business driver in this remarkable turnover. Apparently OS X would provide the necessary functionality and stability for their banking needs.

  



9 rules

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.

  



EU Warns Microsoft Over Vista

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.

  



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