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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

GREAT BOOK — dealing with Jerks and Difficult People


This one of the most practical books I’ve read in a long time. While written from a Christian perspective, most of the practical issues can be applied by people of any religious persuasion.

Here are some snippets from Chapter 1.

“In its simplest form, being a jerk means “being selfish.”

"The root cause of jerkiness is a sense of selfish “entitlement” that is both inborn and learned.”Entitlement” simply says, I deserve to act, be or have what I want."

"Roughly speaking, we see the general population breaking down this way:
• 40 percent First-Degree Jerks
• 40 percent Second-Degree Jerks
• 10 percent Nth-Degree Jerks.
…you will see that that adds up to only 90 percent…Somewhere out there are people who have conquered all their jerky tendencies. We call these people Mature Adults."

"Contrary to popular opinion, men (as a group) are not more jerky than women…according to records kept on the MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory] the millions of males and millions of females who have taken the test have scored equally."

"In our clinics, we have observed the enormous grief and human suffering that have occurred due to the tragic emotional fallout of the Me Generation."

"In the following chapters I want to show you:
• How to recover from jerk abuse
• How to strongly prevent or at least curtail abuse from jerks
• How to deal with your masochistic tendencies and their roots such as false guilt, and a sense of pervading shame that you probably aren’t even aware of, but it all sets you up for jerk abuse, just the same."

Below are extracts from the tables listing the characteristics of the 3 different degrees of jerks followed by an extract from the Maturity test. Note that these are only part of each table.


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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back to the beginning

This past month I've had the opportunity to meet up again with Jim Groark, the man who was influential in getting me where I am today in business. In the photo below, I'm on the left and Jim is on the right.


Background
In the late 1970's I worked for Ampol Petroleum, a large Australian oil company, as Procedures Analysis Executive. (Procedures Analysis was the Ampol name for what was generally referred to at the time as "Organisation and Methods".) I'll have more to say about Ampol in a separate post. Our team was responsible for all the manual systems and human aspects of computer systems throughout the company. Most of the effort was spent on systems analysis, procedure manuals and form design.

One of the staff who worked for me had been trying to talk me into leaving Ampol and to go into business with him as a consultant, but I had been rejecting the idea as a daunting prospect. Then in January 1979, I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as the Managing Director of a large international consulting firm. This was a big enough surprise, but his next words were even more stunning. He said:
"I'd like you to quit your job at Ampol and come and work for us". I decided to talk more and hear what he had to say.

The result was that I took his advice and entered into a partnership with my other work colleague and we subcontracted to the consultant. I need to point out that this is not the person I met this past month.

The project
The project was with the South Australian Police. They were developing a new computer system to handle firearms licensing and gun registration—a highly controversial topic at that time, just as it is now.

They had hired two specialist computer people who were experienced in such systems but had no one on the team with experience in the human side of the system—an issue that was very important given the emotive nature of the subject in South Australia. Jim Groark was one of these specialists. They also planned to use microfilm as an integral part of the system and had also hired Australia's top micrographics expert for the team.

They showed me the systems specifications and procedures that the Police had drawn up and it didn't take very long to realise that what they were trying to do was not going to work with the procedures they had written. I was able to convince them that the procedures needed to change. Fortunately, nothing had been done to develop the computer system at that stage other than some rough specifications.

So I rewrote the specifications and procedures in a radically different manner, handed them to the computer consultants to see if it would work for them. They agreed that the new specs were workable and I went ahead and wrote the manual procedures and designed the computer data entry forms that the public would have to fill in to register their guns or get a firearms licence—
ALL THIS BEFORE ANY COMPUTER PROGRAMS WERE WRITTEN. This was a radically different approach to anything I had ever worked on at either AMPOL or at Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd (AWA), my previous employer. I was also on the executive of the Australian Institute of Systems Analysts (later to become its Federal President) and I'd never heard of anything like it there either.

One of the issues we faced was that because of the highly controversial nature of the legislation, the forms had to sit in Parliament for a number of weeks to be approved by the politicians. The new State Government had decreed that all forms had to be in black and white. They didn't want anything that reminded them of the colorful activities of the previous State Premier. On top of that the State Emblem was a black and white "Piping Shrike" (a local name for a magpie), but we decided to design the forms in colour anyway and let them sit in parliament. The new colored forms were accepted.

To cut a long story short, the procedures worked—the forms worked—and the system was implemented with barely a hitch.

Below are examples of four of the forms we designed. If we did them today they'd be a lot different as we still had a lot to learn about good form design, but at the time they were a radical departure from what was normally available. The aim was to make them not only usable, but as attractive as possible to overcome resistance. Applicants were going to have to go into a police station to fill out the forms, pass a licensing test as well as to take their guns in for registration.


The keys to success
The major key to the success of the system was something that I've tried to get systems and computer people to do ever since—that is, to get the procedures and manual systems working BEFORE attempting to write the programs. But it seems that computer people generally think they know best and then they wonder why so many computer systems fail. And many computer systems DO FAIL because the human side is forgotten. Keith London wrote a superb book on this many years ago called
"The People Side of Systems". It is technically out of date, but well worth reading if you can find a copy second hand.

Another key to success was the use of white data entry spaces on a colored background. Today this is common practice, but back then it was pioneering design. I don't recall ever seeing this practice up to that point. In fact, it was very rare to even see color on forms. I am aware that some designers in Canada and the UK were experimenting with the same basic approach around the same time. One US company (Moore Business Forms) came up with a different technique some time later where they had coloured data entry boxes on a white background, which they patented and named "Keytrack". The use of colored boxes hinders legibility whereas white boxes improve it.

The Project Team
Another key to success was the project team. When I look back over the past 30 years that I've been a consultant, this was by far the most successful project I've worked on. As stated above, much of the success was getting things done in the right sequence and making sure people came before technology. But another important key was the project team.

Below is a photograph of some of the surviving members of that team as they are today.


Left to right: Consultant Jim Groark — Chief Inspector Brett Woollacott (Seargent at time of project) — Seargent Michael Grant — Chief Inspector Bob Jolly (Seargent at time of project). All three police officers have retired from the Department.

The head of the team was Laurie McEvoy who was the driving force behind the project and one of the best team leaders I've ever worked for. Laurie retired as a Chief Superintendent in 1989 and passed away in 2002.


My most memorable recollection is that they were truly a team and an extremely happy team at that. Working with them was a real delight.

POSTSCRIPT
Well it was a great day to meet up again with my old colleague Jim and his family. I had been able to visit with them in Arizona on a couple of visits to the USA, but it was good to have them visit us back in Australia and for them to catch up with most of the old team we had worked with in South Australia. It was this project that got me started as a consultant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why don’t form owners listen to experts?

One of the biggest problems I have had over the years has been end users of forms and systems not accepting expert advice. It particularly applies to form and system owners in government departments, although it is also prevalent in large corporations.

The “owners” or “sponsors” think that because they deal with end users on a regular basis that they know what’s best. Usability testing and other research shows that they generally don’t know—the trouble is that they don’t know that they don’t know. They end up ignoring the advice and wonder later why things go wrong with their system. If people make errors filling in the forms, they blame the form fillers rather than themselves.

Yesterday I came across an excellent article by Jakob Nielsen on the subject. While it deals specifically with web design, the issues he raises are just as applicable to any system, paper or electronic and to any form.

The article is called “Building Respect for Usability Expertise” and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Being open-minded

Came across an excellent article on being open-minded when seeking solutions to ideas and problems. It was written by Steve Portigal and appeared in Johnny Holland Magazine on June 19 2009. Title is "Let's Embrace Open-Mindedness.".

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dilbert on User Experience

Came across these on Harry Brignull's 90 percent of everything web site and found them so funny and true, that they are worth repeating.

Check out Harry's site for more interesting material on usabiity and related subjects.








Monday, June 8, 2009

Australian Government forms review video

In April, Region 8 of the Business Forms Management Association had a live webinar at which I made a presentation on the work we've been doing with the Australian Government. Centrelink, the agency that handles all Australian social security payments, is conducting a corporate-wide forms review and we've been part of the project.

The webinar covered a summary of the lessons we learned about the way people use public- use forms and the form design guidelines we set up to deal with the issues.

Although the webinar wasn't recorded, we've now produced a video of the slides with a professional commentary overlaid.

There are two versions, which are both large files. Version 1 is in QuickTime format that will run on both Windows and Mac if you have QuickTime Player. The other is a much better quality standalone player that runs on Mac only and doesn't require any other software to run.

The slides were produced using Apple Keynote, a part of iWork, which I prefer to Powerpoint as it is much easier to use. The movie was produced with Boinx FotoMagico, a great Macintosh application. It is also very easy to use and amazingly versatile.

The movies can be downloaded from the following URLs.

QUICKTIME (30 MB):
http://www.RBAinformationdesign.com.au/downloads/CWFR.zip

STANDALONE MAC PLAYER (96 MB):
http://www.RBAinformationdesign.com.au/downloads/CWFRP.zip

Australian Usability Conference and Workshops

UX Australia is to hold a three-day conference and workshops in Canberra, the National Capital, from 26 to 28 August 2009.
Details are available from this link at UX Australia.

UX Magazine — Special Forms Edition

The latest edition of UX magazine is a special edition devoted to the usability of business forms. UX is the magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association.

I strongly recommend joining UPA for all forms professionals. Given the extensive usability problems associated with both paper and web forms, it is worth the cost of membership.

A video that covers my article on Centrelink is also available from our web site. See previous blog entry for details.

For Australian forms people (and those who would like to visit our beautiful national capital) there is a three day conference in Canberra in August.

Contents of this issue
  • Forms and Usability: Editor's Note. By Aaron Marcus
  • A Fascination with Forms: By Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney
  • Thoughts as Art. By Tema Frank
  • Making Forms Accessible: Accessible Forms Help all Users — deals with the design of a form for a handicapped student. By Gian Wild, Monash University
  • What do you mean? How to write good questions. By Jessica Enders
  • Redesigning Centrelink Forms: A Case Study of Government Forms. By Robert Barnett
  • Forms on the Go: Usable Forms for the Mobile Web. By Ben Green
  • Forms Management: What Forms Managers Think About — deals with the management of electronic forms. By Ray Killam
  • The ELMER Experience: A Standard for Government Forms [Norway]. By Tor Nygaard
  • Formally Speaking: Two guidebooks about Designing Forms. By Aaron Marcus
  • Ballot Forms. By David Kimball and Martha Kropf

Monday, May 18, 2009

Forms ballot box text alignment

This has been one of the most controversial form design issues for at least the past 20 years. No matter how often professional forms analysts advise placing the text to the left of the boxes, form owners still disagree because they want to base their decision on tradition rather than the practical issues for the form fillers.

Only this past week we had a form owner asks us to change the design of a new form and put the boxes to the left of the caption text.

Here are two examples of where to place the ballot boxes and text.

In the first example above, the vertical list has the text right aligned. Contrary to popular opinion and non-conformity with tradition, it is faster to read and causes no problems for the form filler. However, we do recommend that each caption begins with a capital initial. Remember, people read from left to right, so it is logical to read the caption and then mark the box rather than working backwards.


The second example above shows the value in a questionnaire form where there is follow-on information after the box is checked. Again, this is because the form filler reads from left to right.


Exceptions do occur.


The main exception to the above is where a form has its data preprinted and the ballot box is there solely for the use of the person READING then form since it is a machine that enters the data. In this case it would be logical to palce the box before the caption since that's the reading order.


It really gets down to whether you consider ease of use for the form filler has priority.


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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Focus groups and recollection of the past

I've often commented about the problems with focus groups for "testing" forms and especially the reliance on memory of past events. Here is a link to an article by Jessica Enders on a different subject that also deals with the problem of recollection and is worth reading.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Major changes to Pantone PMS color system

Pantone® has made major changes to the Pantone Matching System (PMS) in recent years that have both positive and negative implications for designers.

1—Additional solid color range
Since the start of the system the use of the terms "coated" (with a "C" suffix) and "uncoated" (with a "U" suffix) have been misleading as they really referred to "gloss" and "matte" and it is possible to get "matt" coated paper.

In addition to the various video colors, they have also introduced a set of "Matte" (with an "M" suffix) colors. The main difference between the "U" and "M" range is that the samples for "M" are printed on heavier paper. Matte is printed on 100 lb (148 gsm) paper whereas Uncoated is printed on 90 lb (133 gsm) paper.
The positive side of this is that the numbering is more realistic. I can't see any negative issues here.

2—New numbering system
This is the most significant change. The new system is called the Goe (pronounced "go") system. For the time being the old system remains in place and they are running both, but designers need to be aware of the change. For more information visit the Pantone web site.

The new system is better suited to modern graphic design and has 2,058 colors c,pared to the 1,114 colors in the PMS system. I suspect that there will be confusion for a time till people find out that the Goe system exists. It was introduced in 2007 and, to date, we have not had any of our customers refer to it.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making forms work

All forms are designed for a purpose and that is generally to collect data that, hopefully, will provide useful information for the organisation. If that data is incorrect or incomplete in any way, then the form hasn't worked. Likewise, if you are providing data to someone else such as on a customer's bank statement or a report about an incident then that data needs to be understood by the recipient. If the recipient of the form doesn't understand the content or misinterprets it then the form hasn't worked. Of course, that may be a problem with the recipient's knowledge, but nevertheless the form still hasn't worked as intended.
It is possible to guarantee successful forms. This doesn’t mean that all forms will be
100% accurate, but error rates should come down to as low as 5% with one or more errors.

To achieve success, at least two things are necessary and a third is recommednded.

Best practice: forms should be designed according to ‘best practice’.
Go back thirty years and our knowledge of what made a good form was severely limited. But today there has been a large amount of research and we know how to design good public-use forms.

This is a big subject and can't be covered in a short post here, but you will find a lot of information on this in my book
Forms For People and in Caroline Jarrett’s book Forms That Work. There are also a number of free papers on form design on our company’s web site and also on Rob's Perspective.
Usability testing: the next step is usability testing, which I’ve covered in more detail below as well as in Forms For People.
Traditional methods of ‘testing’ include opinion surveys, pilot studies, readability scores and focus groups. But for the most part, they don’t TEST forms, they only provide opinions or inaccurate recollections. They often concentrate on treating people as machines and ignore the mind.

One of the most useless techniques is readability scores such as the
Flesch Reading Ease Scale method. We have an excellent paper on this downloadable from our company’s web site.

Another useless method is focus groups. Many people place a lot of ‘faith’ in focus groups, but they provide little useful information for forms usability. Again, I have a lot more to say about this in
Forms For People.

Modern research methods show the form in action and show us WHY people make mistakes. Most of the methods mentioned above don’t TEST forms to find out whether or not they are actually working. They concentrate on treating people as machines but ignore their minds and the complexities of their social interactions.

To produce quality forms we need a different approach—one that lets us see the forms in action and work out in advance if the form is going to work. We need a method that give us empirical evidence about their form filling behaviour—why users make mistakes, why they don’t carry out what was expected of them and the problems they face.

For our purposes, behaviour includes:
  • The way in which the person carries out the task
  • Physical things such as turning pages or moving through the document
  • Facial expression and other mannerisms that might indicate problems, frustration, lack of understanding and confusion
  • What the person says
  • Most important of all: finding out as much as possible about how the person understands the document. What is the cause of any misunderstanding? Do they give answers to form questions that the processors correctly understand? Do they carry out instructions or do what is expected with the information given?
Observational studies are a method whereby you can find out why people are going wrong—where you can highlight specific user problems and fine tune the design to get rid of them.

Using structured observational studies we watch users filling in or using the forms and, with appropriate questions, we can learn why they make mistakes. We learn about their real requirements, what they really need and want, and we collect information about their behaviour when using the form. The aim is to study the document in action in an environment as close as possible to the real world. We don’t just want to know what people think of the form or how they think we should ask the questions. We want to know about their behaviour—what really happens when they fill out the form.

One of the most valuable aspects of observational studies is that you can actually SEE the form improving through the testing stages. They also provide a great amount of fine detail and yet they are relatively inexpensive.

While each round of testing uses only a few people—perhaps 6 to 10—over the course of the study these can add up to a large group.
Error analysis: In most cases we also recommend error analysis of existing forms to determine where the problems are.
Error analysis involves examing a hundred or more completed forms  and determining where errors occur. It won't necessarily show WHY they are occurring and it won't show you all errors, but at least you will find out the number of errors that are detectable and where the form needs to be improved in the first instance. It also provides you with a useful benchmark for further evaluation after redesign.

In most cases errors will fall into the following categories.
  • Missing data
  • Data entered that wasn't required
  • Mistakes—data entered that is incorrect
Conclusion

It is possible to have good forms and to collect accurate information from form fillers. This in turn leads to much more accurate information for the organisation.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Convincing management of value of business forms

Recent discussions with leaders in the Business Forms world have again highlighted the need for a better approach to management in general about why forms are important.

There has been a tendency to overlook the real problem and just say that it is hard to get people interested. But I still believe strongly that the main reason forms consulting companies often have difficulties getting work is that the people designing the forms—and in particular their decision makers—don't really understand the importance of forms. They want to design the forms as cheaply as possible and low cost designs win out time and time again.

For example, many forms are created by people with a graphic design background. It isn't unusual to find that forms are designed by printing companies, advertising agencies, low cost freelance graphic designers or even internal staff who are trained in graphic design. I've come across a number of "specialist" form design companies that are staffed with graphic designers who know now to make forms LOOK really great. They create forms that management accepts because the appearance is very attractive and their customers like the forms. The problem is, that when examined in the light of accurate data, they often fail miserably. The result is that the organisation simply blames the "functionally illiterate" public. My claim for a number of years has been that it is the form designers who are "functionally illiterate" because they don't know how to design forms that fulfil their true function. The problem is that even the designers themselves don't understand the real issues and don't even know that their attractive designs are not working. They have a blind faith in following the so-called "rules" of graphic design. In some cases they may even follow the "rules" of "Plain Language", but still then forms don't work.

So why are forms important?

Put simply:
  • Forms are where the organisation usually gets it's data, so it is important that it collects ACCURATE data.
  • Bad data often means that the customer (or even the staff member filling out an internal form such as an HR form) doesn't get what they need. A good example is an insurance form that collects wrong information and the applicant finds that when they make a claim it is rejected because the form was wrongly filled out.
  • Badly designed forms often result in the use of expensive help desks to advise people on how to fill out the form when it would have been cheaper and easier to design the forms correctly in the first place. We're finding that with good design, such help desks can be cut right back to minimal staff levels.
  • There is a great deal of emphasis these days on "knowledge management" but do the KM people realise that a key ingredient of KM is getting the correct knowledge into the organisation in the first place?
  • Computer systems invariably rely on accurate data entry, yet most IT people (and web designers in particular) fail to see that good form design is important to the success of the computer system. There has been a tendency in recent years for IT people and web designers to try to grab the form design "turf" in the mistaken belief that they are the experts, when reality is showing that they know very little about it.  I'll have more to say on this issue in another post.
All this seems very simple, but my experience over the past twenty years or so has been that these are the most important issues.

Management must come to see that their forms are vitally important and that they take experts in INFORMATION DESIGN to make them work well.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Mac Slim keyboard

Just bought a new keyboard for my Mac. What an improvement.

Apart from being very light weight and much thinner it is so much easier to use. The keys are far easier to type on and don't have to be pressed so far down. They are also larger and I'm finding I'm making far less mistakes in typing.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Knowledge Management

I've added a new paper to Rob's Perspective on the importance of good form design to effective Knowledge Management.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

VISION Journal — Winter 2009

We received the latest Vision Journal this week.

Vision used to be very academic in tone and often difficult to read for people without a university background, but  I must say this is the most readable edition I've received and well worth getting. See the LINKS listing at the right of this blog for web URL.

The three articles on communication are particularly relevant to an earlier post on this blog.

All in all it's a great read and there is no subscription price, although I'm sure the producers wouldn't reject a donation if you like it. You can also read the articles on line.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The value of saving emails and old files

I often clean out useless emails to save space, but I learned a long time ago not to remove genuine business emails.

We recently had two situations where this has proved of extreme value to our business.

1) We were asked to provide information about a difficult situation to a supplier. We were able to go back through the emails and provide a paper trail going over a number of months.

2) Today we were asked to provide a copy of a purchase order from 1979. Now it happens that our history files are all stored on a ZIP disk. Problem is that the only ZIP drive we have is a SCSI drive that doesn't fit any of our current computers. So we are unable to access the files. Fortunately our email files go back that far and while we couldn't provide the original document we could at least provide emails that referenced it and gave all the correct details.

SO DON'T DISCARD THOSE EMAIL FILES !!! You never know when you'll need them. And being email they are easily moved from one system to another as you update your computer. Even small businesses like ours need to have this type of backup in place.

That brings up another matter. The rapid changes in technology mean that you need to be aware of being able to access old files.

So when you update your computers you need to make sure that the files on your old computer are still accessible. Ant that applies to software as well. We actually have old data files that we can no longer access because the software we used doesn't work on the current operating system. The safest way seems to be to save old files as PDF. We even have very old word processor documents that can't be read, although we could extract some information from them. Even worse are old graphics files that were done in software that is no longer available.

The moral of the story is that you need to think of the future every time you update hardware or software.

Turn off Mac startup sound

Ever been bothered by the startup chime on a Macintosh? It can be a real problem if you're in a room full of people such as a class or conference and you need to start your computer as it is annoying to others.

Well you can turn it off. CLICK HERE to download a prefPane that does the job for you. All you have to do is go into System Preference to set it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We've come a long way with form design

Take a look at the following book cover. It's typical of the technology when I first started to design forms.

I've recently been archiving a lot of old books in my business library and it's been interesting to see how far we've come in my lifetime.

What I found surprising is that while the technological emphasis was on the use of the typewriter, some of the design philosophy was sound and are still ignored by many systems and IT people. Take this quote for example;
"It will be observed that the forms designer must apply a wide knowledge of the many requirements which go into the functional design of a form. Furthermore, form design is usually one part of the total result of skillful application of the principles of work simplification to clerical operations. Only in the simplest applications may one safely disregard the services of the experienced designer."
Elsewhere the book says:
"The techniques of designing efficient business records are of such breadth and complexity as to require several years of specialized training before they are mastered."
Something which still applies today if the forms analyst is to be fully equipped for the task.

Usability book of essays

Interested in finding out more about usability? The Usability Professionals' Association has a great introductory book called "Essays on Usability" edited by Russell J. Branaghan.


I found it very informative. It contains various important essays that UPA has published since 1991 when the Association started, including an introductory essay by Janice James, the founder of UPA. Not that it contains a lot of new information for us—but I took a lot of comfort in that it backs up things we were doing at the Communication Research Institute of Australia as early as 1985 and still do today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mac Favourite Notepad Widget

To date my favourite and most used widget has been Notepad as it stores all the bits of info I need to access regularly.

Unfortunately, it became corrupt and new versions are no longer available. But it did save all the text in separate text files.

The good news is that I found a couple of new notepad widgets. Both have their good and bad points.

The best one for me is SecretNotePadPlus. It allows for extensive editing and has a large window if needed. It can also lock the notepad with a password as shown in the bottom screen shot below.



The other one has a fixed window which is much smaller. Although it doesn't have the same edit capabilities, it does have the facility to enter a category if you use multiple windows and also a page title. Both of these are lacking in SecretNotePadPlus.

Below are a couple of other screen shots.


Toxic emissions from laser printers

I've often said in forms training courses that we need to be careful in our use of such things as recycled paper and laser printing.

Here is further proof. The following is from the 16 April 2009 issue of PrintGraphic News.
RESEARCHERS at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and the Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz Institute, Germany, have used HPLC and GC/MS analysis to better understand the environmental dangers of laser printer emission.

Laser printers emit volatile compounds (VOCs) including Ozone aldehydes, especially formaldehyde, and the benzene derivatives toluene, ethylbenzene, m- and p-xylene and styrene. Emissions also tend to be higher from laser printers than from inkjet printers.

CLICK HERE to see the full article in PrintGraphic News.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading between the lines – a bad communication practice

I've often said that human communication is one of the most difficult subjects we have to deal with and this past week was no exception.

Last night my wife and I went to a restaurant for a meal with some friends. If you've read earlier posts in this blog you would know that I have tonsil cancer that has moved to my throat, so I can only eat pureed food. Trish had checked with the restaurant ahead of time that they would be able to puree the meal and they were only too happy to do so. The owner was delighted to be able to help.

Well, here is where the fun started.

First, the soup arrived, full of pieces of vegetable and chicken. They were only small but still caused me to choke on them, so we asked for the soup to be pureed. They were happy to oblige. About 15 minutes later the soup came back—a little colder and in another dish, but still the same soup and still with pieces of vegetable and chicken. So I put it aside and said nothing as I didn't want to create a scene in the restaurant. After all, someone else was paying.

Then came the main course—specially prepared for me. But this time it was pureed, only it turned out to be very thick. That wasn't their fault. I don't think we specified that it should be about the consistency of whipped cream. I just can't swallow thick food, so we asked for a cup of BOILING water (so that I could soften it). Again we waited over 15 minutes for the cup of BOILING water. By this time the dinner was cold and a cup arrived, with HOT DRINKABLE water, nowhere near BOILING. Since I didn't want to create any disturbance I mashed it with the food and got it soft enough to eat.

We discovered later that the owner "READ BETWEEN THE LINES" and assumed that when we said "pureed", we really meant "mixed" and when we said "boiling" we really meant "hot". She was very apologetic and admitted that she hadn't realised how bad my condition was, so made assumptions—a dangerous practice in communication that is all too common.

The point I'm making is that all the person had to do was provide EXACTLY what we asked for and all would have been well, but she chose to interpret what we said as if we weren't using the right words.

How often do we do this?

I was commenting to my brother today that this was a regular problem for our company when we were communicating with business people in the USA and Canada. (Now I should point out at this stage that Australians tend to say what they mean—they don't beat about the bush and try to be overly polite.) So I rarely got back answers to questions we asked in emails.

It seems that American and Canadian readers of the emails assumed that when we asked a question, we really meant something other than what we asked. My brother, who works regularly with American companies, said that his experience was the same. He has recently been working on a major project with a large American organisation and in almost every case he got back answers to questions that were not what he had asked for. I found that I had to spell out my question in detailed numbered points to make sure that the person at the other end actually gave me what I wanted to know. Of course, this becomes very frustrating and wastes a lot of time because the questions have to be asked again. When the wrong answers were pointed out, the person invariably said that they had misunderstood the question, when all they really had to do was read it and not "read between the lines", assuming that I had not meant what I said.

I've yet to find out why this is such a big problem for Americans and Canadians. It wasn't a rare occurrence, but happened almost daily when dealing with a range of different people on a regular basis. So it wasn't just a few isolated cases. It occasionally happens in Australia, but much less frequently.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Some thoughts on leadership—are leaders born or made?

Leadership is a subject that has interested me for many years and I have numerous books on it, especially those by John Maxwell and Bill Hybels.

I'd been discussing the need for leadership training within organisations with a close friend who has had much experience in the business world. The discussion turned to whether or not leaders are born or whether they can, in reality, be trained. My friend was of the view that leaders are born with leadership talent and therfeore cannot be made into leaders.

As our discussion progressed and we talked about what others were saying it became obvious to me that we needed to clarify what we meant by the word "leader". We had been thinking primarily in terms of the person who is able to lead by setting the direction others are to follow—the person who can give directions with others being able to follow in confidence, knowing that the leader's approach is sound. Is this a natural talent or can people be trained to lead in this way? I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that such people are born with this talent and that there is little training that can make anyone into such a leader.

So the next step for me was to find out what some of the dictionaries defined as "leadership". Much to my surprise, various dictionaries provided little insight into the usage of "leadership" or the word "leader". My Australian Concise Macquarie Dictionary defined "leader" as the "guiding or directing head", but it didn't even have an entry for "leadership". The American Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary provided little additional information on "leader" although it did have a small entry for "leadership", defining it as "1. The office or position of a leader; 2. Capacity to lead". The Concise Oxford Dictionary also failed to provide a definition of "leadership". So using dictionaries wasn't a suitable source of information.

However, as we discussed the issue further it became obvious to me that the word "leader" had two totally different meanings in common usage. The first was what we had been discussing—the person who has the capacity to set the direction for others in such a way that they naturally follow and succeed. The second is far more common in today's society and refers to the position a person has, whether they actually lead or not. It refers to the person in charge, the boss, the supervisor, the political party head, the Prime Minister or President of a country.

As for the second group, these are the people who often do need training, especially in business.

I find it a sad commentary on today's society that so many "leaders" are just figureheads. Take modern-day work practices. There was a time when organisations employed managers or supervisors. But in a desire to give everyone a "say" in the running of the organisation, they are more likely to be called "team leaders". It could be a very sound management concept, but from my experience, these people rarely lead in the real world—their primary tasks seem to be to chair meetings and possibly act as spokesmen for the team. I have no problem with the overall concept of letting people have their input into the running of things but from my experience, if there isn't sound leadership the team becomes ineffective.

As for the first group, I believe anyone can improve their leadership ability, but I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that REAL leaders are born that way.

Two of the best leadership books that I've read are The 360° Leader and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. The first book deals with how the natural leader can lead a whole organisation from within and doesn't have to be the person at the top of the management hierarchy.

Here is what John Maxwell says in the opening pages of The 360° Leader:
"You do not have to be held hostage to your circumstances or position. You do not have to be the CEO to lead effectively. And you can learn to make ah impact through your leadership even if you report to someone who is not a good leader. What's the secret? You learn to develop your influence from wherever you are in the organization by becoming a 360-Degree Leader, You learn to lead up, lead across, and lead down.
Not everyone understands what it means to influence others in every direction—those you work for, the people who are on the same level with you, and those who work for you. Some people are good at leading the members of their own team, but they seem to alienate tthe leaders in other departments of the organization. Others individuals excel at building a great relationship with their boss, but they have no influence with anyone below them in the organization. A few people can get along within just about anybody, but they never seem to get any work done. On the other hand, some people are productive, but they can't get along with anybody. But 360-Degree Leaders are different. Only 360-Degree Leaders influence people at every level of the organization. By helping others, they help themselves."
He goes on to say:
"If I had to identify the number on misconception people have about leadership, it would be the belief that leadership comes simply from having a position or title. But nothing could be further from the truth. You don't need to possess a position at the top of your group, department, division, or organization in order to lead. If you think you do then you have bought into the position myth."
From The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership, here are some of the quotes I like best from some of his chapter headings:

"To change the direction of the organization, change the leader"

"The True Measure of Leadership Is Influence—Nothing More, Nothing Less"

"Anyone Can Steer the Ship, But It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course"

"When the Real Leader Speaks, People Listen"

"Trust Is the Foundation of Leadership"

"People Naturally Follow Leaders Stronger Than Themselves"

"Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand"

"Only Secure Leaders Give Power to Others"

"People Buy Into the Leader, Then the Vision"

"Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win"

"Leaders Understand That Activity Is Not Necessarily Accomplishment"

Well, this is a giant subject and these are just a few miniscule thoughts that come to mind, but I believe they are working considering if you are in a position of responsibility, or even with no official responsibility but with a natural talent for leadership.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Added two new entries to Rob's Perspective

The following short articles have been added to Rob's Perspective:

1. Failure to Learn - Anthony Hopkins - Lessons for IT and forms management
This paper is based on lessons learned from Anthony Hopkins in his books on gas plant explosions in Australia and Texas and how they apply to IT and forms management.
2. Procedures – Handling choices within a choice
This paper deals with a new Playscript approach to handling complex routing in procedure manuals.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Amazing customs

The Encyclopedia Britannica wrote in its 27th edition, 1959, volume 7, about Easter:

"The English word, 'Easter'... corresponding to the German Ostern, reveals Christianity's indebtedness to the Teutonic tribes of central Europe. Christianity, when it reached the Teutons, incorporated in its celebrations of the great Christian feast many of the heathen rites and customs which accompanied their observance of the spring festival... The customs and symbols associated with the observance of Easter have ancient origins, not only in the Teutonic rites of spring but also far back in antiquity... the conception of the egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who also had the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival... Like the Easter egg, the Easter hare... came to Christianity from antiquity...

"And those families who, by custom, eat ham on Easter Sunday are unwittingly following an old practice of the Roman Catholics of England, who ate a gammon of bacon on Easter to show their contempt for the Jews, to whom pork is forbidden...

"In England... the Puritans... refused to celebrate Easter. Thus at first in the U.S... Easter was not observed. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, that the Protestant churches, other than the Lutheran and the Episcopalian, began to mark this day by special services... The Protestant churches also followed the [pagan] custom of holding sunrise services on Easter morning."

The Reader's Digest Publication, "Why in the World," copyright 1994, states the following about Easter and its customs, on pages 199-201:

"Originally, Easter had nothing to do with the Christian calendar. Our word for the festival comes from Eastre or Ostara, the goddess of spring among Germanic tribes of northern Europe. Pagan tribes rejoiced at the coming of spring, which is why many of our Easter customs, such as the giving of eggs, have pagan not Christian origins...

"Hares are born with their eyes open and are nocturnal. Because of this, the Egyptians made them sacred to the Moon. Later, ancient Britons gave the hare magical powers, using it in rites such as fortune-telling. Some villagers in Ireland refused to kill or eat hares, believing that they carried the souls of their grandparents. Later, Germanic tribes who worshipped Eastre (or Ostara), associated the fecund hare with her, their goddess of life and spring...

"Just as pagan customs figure in our Christmas festival, so too they have become associated inextricably with Easter. Long before the beginnings of Christianity, Egyptians and Romans gave gifts of eggs as symbols of life. Easter was originally a pagan festival to celebrate the coming of spring, which marked the rebirth of life in plants, a time when many birds mated and produced young. The hen's egg, from which new life could spring, was a potent sign of regeneration. Often its shell was decorated with colours representing certain flowers and aimed at encouraging their regrowth...

"Traditionally, hot cross buns are eaten on Good Friday, but their origins, like many Eastertide and Christmas customs, go back to pagan times... The baking of special bread, flavoured with spices, was part of pagan celebrations to greet the spring and worship the sun. The ancient Greeks stamped their festival bread with a horned emblem in honour of Astarte, their goddess of love and fertility. The word 'bun' comes from 'boun,' an ancient word for a sacred ox. Cakes stamped with horns became buns marked with a cross."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hybels Axiom — Getting back to people who call


One of my favourite books on leadership is "AXIOM" by Bill Hybels. While he is writing as the leader of a large church organisation, the book is a collection of short essays that are applicable to any organisation.

One of those essays is called "Sweat the small stuff" and I couldn't agree more with what he says. It has been my practice for many years. In it refers to the failure of many people to respond to enquiries.
Here is part of what he says:

"My peers are often shocked to learn that I send out between fifteen and two dozen handwritten notes a week to follow up with people who have helped us a Willow. Or that I respond to my critics when they take time to write. … These things may seem trivial to some people, but the best leaders I know right-size they amount of small stuff required to do their job well and they tend to those things fastidiously. They return phone calls and acknowledge correspondence."

He goes on to talk about how he requires all of his staff to respond within 24 hours, even if it is just to let someone know that their email has been received and they will get back to them later. We do the same thing in our company, except when people send us email jokes, etc. We occasionally slip up but for the most part it is just good courtesy to let people know their email or phone call has been received.

Bill Hybels book is well worth reading.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Security Block on BLOG sites

I heard today the some government agencies put a security block on BLOG sites. I can't do anything about this BLOG other than suggest that people access it privately.

However, Rob's Perspective also uses BLOG software, so I will most likely recreate it using HTML to work the same way. This may take a while due to other commitments.

In the mean time both will continue as they are.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Paperless Office

I've just about finished reading "The Myth of the Paperless Office" by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper

What a great book! I can highly recommend it.

My thoughts on it are well summed up by two comments on the back of the dust jacket:

"Paper is the old-fashioned technology that refuses to die—and for good reason. As this pioneering study by Sellen and Harper shows, paper supports many needs and work styles better than any other medium. As a result, paper is the perfect complement to electronic documents, superior at many things, inferior at many. Want to know if an organization is working efficiently" Sellen and Harper say to check the wastebaskets—they should be full."

"The authors approach their subject with academic rigour, observing real organisations to find out how people like to work."

It has some amazing revelations about their research into the way people actually work.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Peter Costello Memoirs


When I first head about Peter Costello's Memoirs, a number of journalists predicted that they would be political attacks on colleagues and opponents. But they were way off the track. I eventually read the book and was pleasantly surprised. He was certainly frank about his long term in office as Australia's Treasurer and the issues he faced, but he was just as frank about his ethical position as a practising Christian and how that affected his decision making.

I can highly recommend the book as a valuable insight into the workings of a national government. And now that the change in government has passed, the book can be obtained much cheaper than the original price.

Clean Apple Mac PDF with Graphic Converter

I was faced with a task today that taught me something new that is well worth passing on to any Mac users of Acrobat.

I had a number of old scanned journals that had a series of articles on a particular subject that I wanted to combine as a single PDF file. That part was easy—just a matter of extracting the relevant pages and recombining them as a single PDF document. However, about a third of the pages had other material on them such as parts of other articles, advertising, etc. that I didn't need. But Acrobat had no way of removing the unwanted material. It wold only let me remove whole pages.

The solution was to open the PDF file in that great Mac application "Graphic Converter". It was an easy matter to drag the cursor over anything on the page to be deleted and press the "delete" key. To move to the next page it asked me to save, which I did, and so on through the file. At the finish, saved it back as a PDF and then opened it in Acrobat, set the page size (in this case to Letter Size), added footer page numbers and then used OCR to convert it to searchable text.

A very simple solution that is also useful for removing unwanted marks and blotches in the scanned document.

Using the OCR function has a side benefit—it also correctly orients the page so that the text isn't skewed.

Singing the advantages of Skype

Skype is one of those magnificent free software applications that has many advantages for anyone with a broadband connection.
For example:
1. It's free
2. You can chat at no cost
3. You can send VERY large files to someone else at no cost and without the normal size limitations of email
4. You can make Skype phone calls to other Skype members at no cost
5. You can make ordinary phone calls to non-Skype people at very small cost
6. If you have a video camera as I do on my Apple PowerBook, you can have video phone calls to anyone else who has a camera at no cost.

For example, I have video phone calls with my friend Alex who lives in Paris and it doesn't cost either of us anything. We're also looking at getting my 96-year-old father a new computer with Skype. He is mentally very sound, but lives in a hostel in Sydney and can't get to see us. Because of my current physical condition, it isn't possible for me to go to see him. So the next best thing is to set him up with video phone using Skype and we can talk regularly.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Shana - FileNet - IBM - eForms - Major Decision

When specialised electronic forms software was introduced in the mid 1980’s it was fill and print only. Company’s such as Shana, Delrina, Jetform, Adobe, Apple and BLOC Development Corporation were all developing various types of electronic forms software. It was another five years before workflow-based electronic forms software became available when Canadian company, Shana Corporation, added the functionality to its Informed software. Shana was subsequently acquired by FileNet, which in turn was acquired by IBM with the name changed from Informed to IBM FileNet eForms.

In my opinion, IBM FileNet eForms is the best electronic forms software available. It lacks some of the features of other software, but is so easy to use and has so many built-in functions that it surpasses everything else overall. Shana even created a web-based server known as Forms Manager so that forms created in Informed Designer for their desktop Filler software could be run as HTML forms in a web browser.

Major decision by IBM changes eforms landscape

We’ve recently been notified by IBM that as of January 31 2009 they have decided to discontinue the Forms Manager server and no longer make the Desktop eForms software available to end users as a stand alone product. If you want Desktop eForms you have to purchase FileNet P8 content management software and then pay extra for the eForms software as an add-on feature. The decision doesn’t directly affect existing eForms users who may still be able to obtain support under existing contracts depending on which version of the software they are using. But organisations wanting a LOW-COST and VERY powerful electronic forms solution will have to look elsewhere.

About a year before acquiring FileNet, IBM’s Lotus Team purchased PureEdge, renaming it Workplace Forms and then changing the name again to Lotus Forms.

I've had a chance to look at the latest release and I want to thank the Lotus Team in Canberra for their co-operation. Version 3.5 is a vast improvement over the earlier version. The interface is still not as slick as the FileNet or Adobe products but it is way easier to use. It also has a much stronger array of built in calculations than I'd seen previously and that brings it more into line with the function list of FileNet eForms, which had the most comprehensive set of functions available.

Given that FileNet eForms cannot be purchased without also purchasing P8 Content Management (or other P8 offerings), Lotus Forms is a much more viable solution for organisations wanting only electronic forms.

Lotus Forms also has some great functionality that is lacking in the FileNet product since it uses XML and is able to create dynamic forms. I agree with many forms professionals that "dynamic forms" is often a sales gimmick and has its downside, but I've come across numerous situations where it would have been very useful. So I'm now looking forward to what we can do with it.

Lotus Forms now has a converter for both PDF forms and FileNet ITX templates. I did try converting FileNet eForms into Lotus and it brought over the layouts reasonably well, but at this stage not the calculations and intelligence. Much depends on how much intelligence is built into the FileNet form. I understand that the converter was mainly for converting fill and print forms, not the highly intelligent forms that FileNet can produce. Hopefully that will come in the future. It also brings across boxes that aren't fields as individual lines and these need to be replaced.

As we learn more about the product, I'll update the BLOG with more information. But at this stage I'm far happier with Lotus Forms than I was previously. Lotus also have a low-cost easy-to-use Designer called Lotus Forms Turbo which is a great idea for a small business, but it isn’t suitable for the complex forms that most larger organisations use as it is primarily for simple forms built using wizards.

My hope is that the IBM Lotus Team will step into the picture and do something concrete with Lotus Forms to make it even easier for ALL form designers to use without having to resort to “wizards” and simplistic designs. Combining the functionality and ease of use of FileNet eForms Designer with the XML capabilities of Lotus Forms would make the product FAR AHEAD of anything else available—and DEFINITELY the very best electronic forms software.

As a final word at this stage, I have another comment for the Lotus Team. Since Adobe and Lotus are both built on the Eclipse platform, my hope is that Lotus can make their product just as easy to use as Adobe's.

But is the Lotus Team prepared to do this? I don’t know, but I sure hope they take up the challenge.


Book on web forms

I've just received a copy of the book, Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability, by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney.

What a superb publication! The writing style is exceptional and very easy to understand.

Although it deals specifically with web forms, there is a lot of content that applies equally well to paper forms.

I can highly recommend it.

It can be obtained from www.amazon.com or in Australia from www.fishpond.com.au where Aussies won't have to pay overseas shipping charges.

Rob's Perspective

I decided to put up another website for short articles rather than using this blog for them. It makes it easier for people to find things.
The new site is called "Rob's Perspective" and it can be found at:
http://rba3.putblog.com/  .
The initial papers are the ones that have been on the web site called "A Forms Perspective", but I wanted to be able to put up more than just forms-related articles, so the new site is a simpler solution and easier for readers to get to the content.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Putting a bad system on a computer doesn't necessarily improve it

Over 35 years ago

The first computer system I ever worked on started out as a disaster. The developers had put all their effort into the computer system logic and programming, and in those distant times with programming in machine language and data entry by manually punched cards, errors were expensive to correct. But the developers overlooked the most important factor in their system—the people. But that was not the only computer disaster. As the years wore on, I experienced failure after failure as computer 'professionals' continued to put the machine ahead of people. As unbelievable as it may sound to many modern IT people, I've seen more system failures than successes in a wide range of organisations, both private and government, and the same problem continues as I write.

Am I knocking computers and modern technology and IT people in general? NO! I think modern technology is wonderful and I love what we can do today compared to what was available even five years ago. But there's both GOOD and BAD practice, and unfortunately, my experience over 40 years has been that there's a lot more bad practice than there is good.

In 1976, British author and IT lecturer Keith London, described computer systems in his book The People Side of Systems.

“Programmers often see an organisation in black and white: the nuts and bolts of document flow, clearly defined file data element characteristics, precise logical program branches, rigid computer operations schedules. The very nature of the computer itself requires that a program be specified in precise, formal terms. He is, in his everyday work, seeing only the formalized tip of an iceberg. If such a programmer becomes a systems analyst, he would now investigate and analyse. If he were to maintain his mechanistic perception of a system, his work would be doomed to failure. For he would still see only the tip of the iceberg of the formal procedures and data. The bulk of the iceberg in systems terms is the people, their jobs and their attitudes."

Today!

Even now, over 30 years after Keith London wrote, analysts and system developers still make the same mistakes, failing to consider the people and the way they work with the business system. I wish this was an isolated case, but long and continuing experience has proven otherwise.

An important lesson

When I was being introduced to business systems, I learned a very important lesson—FIX THE BUSINESS PROCESSES FIRST and then add the computer. Michael Hammer and James Champy, in their book Reengineering the Corporation, give the example of IBM Credit who “in trying to automate its operations…managed only to immortalize a bad process by committing it to computer software, making it even more difficult to alter in the future.” You’ll find more about reengineering business forms in a longer paper on our web site.

If you computerise a bad system, all you do is make the problems occur faster.

My first involvement in GOOD computer input form design was in 1979 when I was asked to work with one of our state police departments. Their approach was radically different to what I had previously encountered. Instead of being given an input layout prepared by a programmer and told to get on with the design, I was handed a copy of the draft specifications. The result was that I was able to point out where some of the input requirements were going to cause problems for the users. This led to the development of a new data entry concept for the project followed by the design of the draft forms and procedures before the real programming took place. Once the designs were worked out and checked with potential users, the programming commenced and the system was implemented very smoothly. I'm told that those forms are still in operation today.

The future

As we move further into the 21st Century we need to remember these lessons as more and more of our forms become electronic. If many software developers had their way, paper forms wouldn't exist. Even from administrators, there's an ongoing push to place ALL forms on the Internet, especially from government, but with no thought about whether that's the best way to go; no thought about the limitations of current Internet technology or even whether people are prepared to use forms that way. We're getting an increasing number of reports from government sources that many members of the public are objecting to electronic forms. I'm not suggesting that electronic forms are bad—after all, our company sells electronic forms software—but I am suggesting that we need to use them wisely. We need to put people first, and that includes internal staff as well as the public. We need an holistic approach, taking all factors into consideration—human psychological needs, user literacy, ergonomics, efficiency and corporate productivity, work flow (both paper and electronic), reliability of captured data, information accessibility, and much more.

Many managers throw technology at their problems like a person giving aspirin to someone with a brain tumour. To solve business problems you need to know what the REAL problem is and then find the CAUSE. Then, maybe—just MAYBE—technology might help to provide an optimum solution.

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