Own your bad news

Oops! Sorry!

Photo by MJ Photography (iStock. by Getty Images)

What do you do when something goes wrong; when something goes wrong in an obvious and public way?

Should you tell your users that you’re dealing with it, even if at that point you have no idea what’s causing the problem? Or do you just buckle down and try to fix it as soon as possible, hoping that the outage has affected as few people as possible and that nobody really noticed anyway?

Personally, I’m a fan of getting the bad news out there and owning it. It’s something that was confirmed to me recently, once at work and again while trying to use the internet at home.

Case study #1: me

I started writing this post last week, but I ran out of time and saved it to draft to complete later. This week I was upgrading a few WordPress plugins and themes only to discover that the latest update (v.1.2.1) to the Blackbird theme broke four site homepages.

What to do: fix it in the hope that nobody noticed or publicize my foul-up and let everyone know there was an issue. It was at that point I remembered this post and took my own advice:

Twenty minutes later I tweeted the good news that I’d fixed the issue and a link to the solution in case other people encountered the same thing.

This latter post was retweeted once, by our own IT Service Desk.

Case study #2: BT

A couple of Saturdays ago, while I was sitting at my desk at home, one of my five year old boys popped his head into the study and said “something has happened to the big telly”. I hurried downstairs and was rather relived to discover that he simply meant they couldn’t access Netflix. Panic over.

After a bit of investigation I discovered that while there was a broadband connection, there were certain sites that our smart TV couldn’t access, including Netflix and the manufacturer’s site (to check for a firmware upgrade). I retired to my study to investigate further.

On my PC I discovered that there too I was only able to access certain sites; my mobile phone was doing the same, plus my wife’s tablet. Google was fine, Amazon wasn’t; I could access Facebook, but not Twitter. This was when I began to suspect the issue was to do with DNS, the system that maps domain names to the servers they are stored on (e.g. www.example.com maps to the IP address 93.184.216.119).

I tried to access a few sites directly by their IP address, and I could. Both Amazon and Twitter were available that way, so I simply changed my DNS settings to use Google Public DNS (8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4) and suddenly everything returned.

My internet service provider (ISP) is British Telecom (BT), so I checked their business service status updates page: there was nothing about this. I contacted @BTCare, the support channel that BT runs on Twitter. I heard nothing back.

I searched Twitter and there “BT DNS problem” was all but trending on the social network. So I put a query out on Facebook too and very quickly friends in Devon and East Anglia also reported that they couldn’t connect via BT (but could via their mobile network).

It was beginning to look like a UK-wide incident, but still there was no word from BT about it on any of the channels that I checked. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that I checked the BBC website and read BT apologises for broadband problem.

@BTCare eventually posted an apology too

The feedback was interesting and not altogether unsurprising with many users saying that they had spent an hour or more trying to diagnose the incident, and others simply saying that they wished that BT had let people know sooner that there even was a problem.

37Signals

In their first two books 37Signals (now Basecamp) advise that you own your bad news:

When something goes wrong, someone is going to tell the story. You’ll be better off if it’s you. Otherwise, you create an opportunity for rumours, hearsay, and false information to spread. (Rework, Vermillion, 2010, p.231)

They advocate openness, honesty and transparency. Don’t keep secrets, they say, or hide behind spin. “Customers are usually happy to give you a little bit of breathing room as long as they know you’re being honest with them.”

I think that’s pretty solid advice, to be honest.

New default WordPress theme: Fourteen Eleven

WordPress theme: Fourteen Eleven

WordPress theme: Fourteen Eleven

With the increase in mobile devices accessing the University website, I’ve spent a couple of hours this week working on a St Andrews themed responsive WordPress theme for our central WordPress multi site installation, WordPress @ St Andrews.

Imaginatively titled Fourteen Eleven this is a child theme of one of the default WordPress themes: Twenty Eleven.

This theme is clean, lightweight, and optimised for mobile use. It offers 12 St Andrews-themed headers, which can also be shown randomly if required. Or upload your own.

Twelve St Andrews themed headers. Or upload your own.

Twelve St Andrews themed headers. Or upload your own.

Next week’s task is to rebrand the Fourteen Thirteen (1413) theme as Fourteen Ten (1410) as it is actually a child of the default WordPress theme Twenty Ten, rather than Twenty Thirteen. This should help us keep track of which theme is a child of which.

Designing in the browser

Cover of Implementing Responsive Design by Tim Kadlec

Implementing Responsive Design by Tim Kadlec (New Riders, 2013) ISBN 978-0-321-82168-3

As we begin to transition towards a mobile-friendly design and workflow, I’m thankful that for the last five or six years we’ve been designing primarily in the browser, rather than in graphic editing applications such as Adove Photoshop or Corel PaintShop Pro.

I’m one of these people that usually has numerous books on the go at the same time. One of my current books is this excellent book by Tim Kadlec called Implementing Responsive Design—Building sites for an anywhere, everywhere web (New Riders, 2013) ISBN 978-0-321-82168-3.

The world is changing. We now have more networked devices on the planet than human beings. In the UK people now spend around 16 hours online every week, on a variety of devices (desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, game consoles, etc.). Very shortly there will be more mobile devices accessing the web than desktop and laptop machines.

Therefore, we need to change too. One of the things the web team is currently looking at is our strategy for designing for mobile devices. We’re very much in the early stages.

What is immediately clear, however, is that this will have a profound effect on how we work as a team. Designing for today’s devices and users requires a different kind of workflow than we’ve previously enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable).

Old workflow

When I began in the web team in 2006 we would typically design a website as though it was a brochure. We started with a fixed width (around 950 pixels), and we used desktop publishing, image manipulation, and occasionally presentation software to design our sites.

It was a terribly inefficient way to work. We would first design it as though it was a document, and then have to interpret it for real in HTML and CSS to view in a web browser. It certainly wasn’t a DRY (don’t repeat yourself) process.

And it also gave our clients completely the wrong impressions. Once they had signed off on a design they expected the website to look exactly like the image we’d promised them on paper. In every browser. On all screen resolutions. And of course we couldn’t deliver it. Does anyone else remember, for example, trying to provide smoked-glass effect backgrounds on IE6, which doesn’t support alpha transparent PNG files, and modern browsers, that did?

On one website build we were brought in quite late on in the project to take receipt of a number of site designs and code them up for our content management system. It was one of the most frustrating projects I’ve worked on. We had no say in the design; we were effectively handed a photograph of a website and told “build that!”

As you might expect much of the interactive nature of the web had been ignored and we kept returning to the designers asking them “How did you envision this to work?” “This bit says ‘slider’ but where does the text go? What happens when the image reaches this part, does it slide underneath, over the top?” A lot of these things hadn’t been thought through because the designers had been used to designing for print, which is static.

A different workflow

When we worked on the current incarnation of the website in 2007–2008 I realised that we needed a more efficient workflow, and because I was more familiar with HTML and CSS than I was with the nuances of Adobe Photoshop I started designing everything in the browser.

The reasoning I gave people was very simple: nothing looks more like a website than a website. People understood that.

I found it liberating. It meant that we didn’t need to rework things: we didn’t need to sketch it in a graphics package and then code it later. It meant that we were given immediate feedback, and could see what it looked like in IE6 and deal with it there and then.

And it meant too that clients could get a very real idea of the effort and issues that go into designing a site, the issues with cross-browser compatibility (now that’s not so much of an issue), and they began to realise that not everything needed to be pixel-perfect in every browser.

To be honest, it was a little intimidating at first. If you’ve never sat in front of a client and written code (whether HTML or CSS) you can feel very self-conscious. What if you get it wrong and they lose confidence in you?

The truth is that not every designer or coder gets it right the first time. But that’s the truth whether there is someone sitting with you or not. And I found it helpful for the client to see that. “Oh! That didn’t work,” I’d say. Then I’d sit and talk through the issue out loud until I found a solution. It was helpful for the client to effectively see the working out of these issues, to see the scribbles and the code syntax look ups.

I would often explain that I would sketch it out in code, to make sure the idea worked, then I’d clean up the code later.

While I felt self-conscious, I often found the client was delighted. They could see their ideas taking shape on an actual website in front of their eyes. They could then immediately see what worked and what didn’t. It was a really effective way to work.

A responsive workflow

Now things are changing again. We’re not designing for a best-guess fixed-width site, we now have thousands of mobile devices to take into account.

We do have a lot to learn still, but we are on the right road, and already having a workflow revolves around designing in the browser is a tremendous help.

As Tim Kadlec says:

Until the wonder-tool comes along, it’s important to work toward loosening the grip of your favourite graphic editing program. Don’t remove it entirely, but start moving toward an more agile approach. Create the visuals as you code. Tackle the two hand-in-hand and you’ll be much better equipped to work on the Web. (ibid., p. 173)

Using colour schemes to easily distinguish between live and test installations of WordPress

When the web team took on management of the University’s WordPress multi site installation we actually inherited two instances: live and test.

Working with two almost identical installations I discovered a sense of mild anxiety whenever I had both installations open side by side: which version was I currently working with? Was I just about to do something that could potentially break the live site?

I found the answer in admin colour schemes.

New feature blindness

Having used WordPress since version 0.7.1 in 2003 there are certain aspects that I take for granted and am more or less blind to. One is timezone. It was only when the clocks went forward in the spring that I discovered that there was an option to set the timezone as London, UK which automatically updates when the clocks change. Prior to that, for I don’t know how many versions of WordPress I had been using the default value of UTC+0 and had to manually change it every time the clocks went back or forward.

Admin colour schemes

Another feature that I realised that I was blind to was admin colour schemes. When I first started using WordPress in 2003 it had only one interface colour scheme, in later versions it went up to two, but I always stuck to the default.

It was literally only a couple of weeks ago (about six months after it was introduced) that I realised that as of WordPress 3.8 the software shipped with eight colour schemes:

There are eight admin colour schemes installed by default in WordPress 3.8+

There are eight admin colour schemes installed by default in WordPress 3.8+

As soon as I realised this I updated my user profile on our test installation and changed it from ‘default’ to ‘sunrise’.

This bright red interface (below, right) gives me immediate feedback that I am currently working in the test installation.

WordPress admin interfaces side by side: black on left is live; red on right is test

WordPress live installation (left); WordPress test installation (right)

I certainly recommend that if you are working with multiple installations of WordPress (not just live v test, perhaps but different locations or clients) and you are not already making use of admin colour schemes: do look into it.

Web strategy workshop

Paul Boag with members of the Lean, web, digital communications and project management teams.

Paul Boag with members of the Lean, web, digital communications and project management teams.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that we had the go-ahead from the University’s ICT strategy group to work on a new web strategy. Yesterday we had our first meeting to begin to plan this in more detail.

Round the enormous, post-it note strewn table at Lean Central the web team met with Mark and Fin from the University Lean team, Duncan from the digital communications team, Rob (a business analyst), and external consultant Paul Boag of Headscape.

It was a good day, full of energy and enthusiasm, hope and possibility. There is still much to discuss and to work out but it was a good start.

Mobile visitors

The use of mobile devices to access the University of St Andrews website has increased drammaticaly over the past few years.  Mobile devices now account for 20% of visitor traffic.  That’s 1,200,000 visits in 2013 – a 400% increase in the number of visits compared with 2012.Image

Devices made by a company called Apple account for 80% of visits, followed by Android (19%).

The most popular pages to visit with a mobile device are:

  • Current students 10%
  • Course search 3.7%
  • SaintMail 3%
  • Study at St Andrews 2.4%
  • Current staff 0.8%

That’s 1 in 10 of our students using mobile devices to access the University website.

The number of visits via mobile devices is predicted to continue to grow, so we need to ensure that content can be easily accessed and viewed across all platforms.  This will require re-engineering the website to make this happen.  Exciting times ahead!

 

Isolation

I use the excellent Pocket (on both my Android device and in Google Chrome) to capture articles that I want to read later. The trouble is then finding a suitable later to actually read them. I made a start this lunchtime, however, and second up was this excellent article by Andy Clarke published on Smashing Magazine last month: A modern designer’s canvas.

It’s a really honest and encouraging read, one of the best blog posts I’ve read in a long while, to be honest. It is quite long, but I encourage you to read it. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

This one sentence stuck out for me, however, on yet another day that I’m working in the office on my own:

People can feel isolated, starved of inspiration, even when working alongside others, if the organization’s structure and environment make it hard to keep ideas flowing.

This is definitely something that I know our team struggles with. With such a volume of both support calls and project work we more often work on our own than collaboratively.

And yet, whenever we work together—whether pair programming or designing, or simply in splitting work between us and working on it collegiately—we always say how much we enjoyed it and how much we ought to do it more often.

Last week we got the go-ahead from the University’s ICT strategy group to work on a new web strategy, to review our structures, environment and culture and challenge the ways that we are going about ‘how we do web’.

This thumbs-up has given us a feeling of hope and excitement about the future. Time to be like children again and keep asking ‘why?’ Time to create an environment where people don’t feel isolated, or starved of inspiration, and where the flow of ideas will be encouraged.

I don’t suppose we’ll get it right first time, but the desire is certainly there to make things better for us all: the web team, the wider university, our various audiences and website users.

Now is an exciting time to be in the web team. And remember, we currently have a vacancy for a PHP/JavaScript developer. Come join us.

St Andrews ranked #1 in the world for student satisfaction in IT support

St Andrews is ranked 1/45 internationally, 1/22 in the UK, 1/8 in our rival groups

Support average—IT Services support

i-graduate (often referred to simply as iGrad) is the global benchmark for student experience, implemented by over 1,400 of the world’s best universities, with feedback from over 1.7 million students.

The i-graduate student survey results for the ‘autumn wave 2013′ were released to the University last week.

It was really encouraging to see the University of St Andrews ranked number one in the world for satisfaction regarding IT support.

“Ranked top globally for IT Support (by globally, we mean those institutions that took part in both the international and home versions of the survey).”
—i-graduate representative

Some numbers:

  • 227,519 students were surveyed worldwide.
  • 178 institutions participate across 13 countries.
  • 21% response rate.
  • Our rival group is defined as Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Nottingham, Warwick and York.
  • 94% was the overall satisfaction (across all categories) with the University of St Andrews.

This is a tremendous achievement and coupled with the unit being accredited with 3-star service desk certification from the Service Desk Institute (SDI) shows that we must be doing something right. Well done everyone.

Right, back to support calls…

Mental health in web development

HTML code with mental health class names

Back in November (21–22) 2013 I travelled to Dublin to TerminalFour‘s annual global user conference t44u at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. TerminalFour develop the web content management system that we use here at St Andrews: Site Manager, often simply referred to as T4.

This was the third or fourth event that I’d attended and was by far the most enjoyable for me, not least because we were located in a rugby stadium rather than a brewery. The last few conferences had been hosted at the Guinness storehouse… and I don’t drink alcohol (largely thanks to an inherited kidney disease). I was, however, brought up in the Scottish Borders where we do play rugby. A lot.

It was also, as promised, the most hands-on conference to date. One of the main focuses of the event was about unleashing Site Manager’s potential. You can view the mind maps I created, on Flickr (Thursday and Friday). There were sessions about content strategy; existing, new and future Site Manager features; platform as a service; mobile web and responsive web design; web search; and more than one presentation about novel ways of using Site Manager to edit and manage content, and quickly create new sites.

Christopher Murphy

The session that touched me the most, however, was the keynote talk by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter), an academic, writer and designer based in Belfast; he is one half of the Web Standardistas and now a volunteer with Prompt, an organisation with a remit of starting conversations about mental health in the technology industry.

His talk had me in tears, at one point, to be honest.

Christopher shared with us, at times with a lump in his throat and a pause or two to re-gather his composure, that on 21 May 2013—only six months before—he had found himself waking up in hospital. The day before Christopher had attempted to kill himself.

If I remember correctly, his wife had returned home, found him, called an ambulance and here he was now, lying in a hospital bed, ‘feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed’.

Over the next half an hour Christopher shared with us something of what had brought him to this the lowest point in his life: an unsustainable schedule of demands and responsibilities of writing and talking, teaching and supervising, designing and creating. He felt like life was out of control, and at his lowest ebb he saw only one way out which very nearly killed him.

Filled with remorse, Christopher resolved to do something about it. He began looking into what had led him to this point, he began to explore and understand the mechanics of the mind. Later he also decided to share some of what he had learned with the tech and web communities he was a part of; which is what brought him to be standing before us, laying himself bare and sharing something immensely personal with us.

(You can read Christopher Murphy’s very moving article on 24 ways: Managing a mind.)

Pace of change

Christopher touched on the “relentless pace of change” that we experience in the web development industry. Not that long ago it was enough to have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS, and a smattering of JavaScript and PHP to get you into the industry. But these days you can’t go two months without a new browser version being released, the specifications for HTML5 and CSS3 seem to be in continuous flux (did anyone else implement the <hgroup> tag only then to discover just months later that it had already been deprecated from HTML5?), then there is now Sass, and Less, and Stylus to help us with CSS production, we have Node and NPM, Grunt and Yeoman. All these things to supposedly make our lives easier, and yet somehow at the same time making things increasingly complex at best and unnecessarily anxious at worst. And what about PHP libraries, JavaScript frameworks, text editors, IDEs, new graphics formats like WebP? Where does it stop?

I have a constant gnawing feeling that I’m always behind with my skills. But where do you start? And as <hgroup> has proved, will what you learn already be out of date within the year?

Status anxiety and imposter syndrome

Christopher spent much of his talk speaking about two pressures in particular: status anxiety and imposter syndrome.

Status anxiety is “an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” Imposter syndrome, he said, is far more widespread than you’d imagine. It is defined as “a fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think”. It’s a fear that one day you will be ‘found out’ by them, even though you don’t exactly know who ‘they’ are, or what exactly they will find out.

To be honest, I feel a combination of both these fears almost every time I have to visit the systems team. “They must think that I’m an idiot for not knowing this,” I find myself saying inside my head. But why?! Server configuration and administration aren’t my specialities or responsibilities. I’m going to ask for their expertise and advice to help me complete a particular task. But I still beat myself up a bit about it if I’m not careful.

Mental Ill-health

Why does mental ill-health still carry such a stigma? Clearly there is an element of fear involved, and labels such as ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, and ‘loony’ don’t help, but not every case of mental ill-health is as extreme as psychosis, schizophrenia, or personality disorder. Mental ill-health symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive worries.
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities.
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stresses.
  • Significant tiredness.
  • Sleeping problems.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced some of these symptoms at least once in their life. We don’t give people grief for catching a cold or a tummy bug, or if they break their leg. We don’t blame them in the same way that I’ve heard people with mental ill-health blamed: “Well, it must be his own fault for catching that common cold! He should have prevented it!”

What nonsense! That doesn’t help anyone.

Depression

After my dad died in 1998 I got really depressed. Everyone could see it, apart from me. My GP wanted to put me on anti-depressants; I couldn’t see why, so I refused. But my days were bleak. I couldn’t see a point in anything.

“Why should I do this or that… I’m going to die in the end, so what’s the point?” That was the conversation in my head most of the time.

It was actually getting involved in web development that helped pull me slowly out of that quagmire. It offered me a way to express myself and to be creative. It was something that didn’t require me to work with other people if I didn’t want to, and to collaborate with others when I did. For me it worked. It was a lifeline, and after seven years I moved into web development full-time.

Parenthood

My most recent and sustained experience of what must surely fall under the umbrella of mental ill-health has been parenthood. I have twin boys (5) and a singleton (3). It is getting easier now; and if not easier then it is definitely getting different.

I’ve spent much of the last 4–5 years in a state of constant exhaustion and sleep deprivation. At times I’ve found it difficult to concentrate. There have been days when it has felt as though my thoughts were literally falling out of my head. I had to write everything down and schedule every piece of work in my Outlook calendar so that I could remember—even mid-task—what I was supposed to be working on.

I had a constant headache for four months a few years ago. I thought there was something wrong with me! Well, there was: I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Some nights my boys were awake every 15 minutes. And I only know that because we kept notebooks to record everything that happened, who had been fed/changed/medicated and by whom, otherwise we couldn’t remember from hour to hour.

I’ve not heard many people referring to those first few years of parenthood as a period of mental ill-health, but it definitely is. I experienced every one of those symptoms in the list above. I do feel like a stronger person for having gotten through it, but damn! that was hard, really hard.

And now…?

I was really pleased that Christopher Murphy talked about this whole topic at T44U. I’m glad there are organisations like Prompt and discussion boards like Devpressed that raise these issues within the industry and offer support.

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that stigma and blame don’t help. As a web industry we need to keep talking about this more openly. We need to let people know that it’s okay to talk about it.

People, it’s okay to talk about it!

Just like that.