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.

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.

On your own in the office over the spring break?

Coding FM, the sound of coding

Missing your colleagues, stick this on in the background and pretend they are still there.

The students have now gone on their spring vacation. Soon colleagues too will be slipping away for a break, leaving you alone in the office.

If—like me—that’s going to leave you on your own at your web team HQ to look after the whole of the internet singlehandedly, then why not load up CODING.FM in your browser, pin the tab and pretend that your colleagues are still in the room by listening to the gentle sound of other people coding.

It is actually surprisingly soothing.

Leet service desk calls

Our support calls list shows 13 calls assigned to me, 37 to the whole team. That's so 1337 or leet!

1337

This morning I logged into UniDesk, our IT Service Desk incident management system, and noticed that the calls assigned to me next to the calls assigned to the whole web team read: 1337.

That’s so 1337! (Using leetspeak, an alternative alphabet for the English language, it reads: elite.)

We’ve been making a particular effort to drive down our support calls this week. Here’s how many calls we had at 09:00 each morning this week.

  • Monday: 67
  • Tuesday: 58
  • Wednesday: 55
  • Thursday: 37

We’re doing well. In fact, you could say we’re 1337!

Which browsers do you support?

Five web browsers

Chrome, IE, Opera, Safari and Firefox

I’m currently working on a document of guidelines for our web team and web developers. Something that I’ve been asked to include is to indicate which browsers we support.

Digging around, for example, Yahoo! have their fine Graded Browser Support page which lists specific version numbers of various browsers. Google Apps, on the other hand, supports

“the current and previous major releases of Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari on a rolling basis. Each time a new version is released, [they] begin supporting that version and stop supporting the third most recent version.”

What do you folks do? Do you have browser support guidelines, either written down or not? Where do you draw the line (do you still support IE7, for example)? What are your criteria for what you support and don’t support?

And what about mobile devices?

I’d love to read your thoughts about this.

Vote for the UK Web Focus blog

20111123-ukwebfocus

Our friend Brian Kelly, the UK Web Focus for Higher Education institutions based at UKOLN (“a research organisation that aims to inform practice and influence policy in the areas of: digital libraries, information systems, bibliographic management, and web technologies”) at the University of Bath, has been nominated for a social media award in the Computer Weekly Social Media Awards 2011.

Brian has been put forward for IT Professional blogger of the year, and (I’m pretty sure) is the only blog representing the higher education sector.

Voting closes on Friday 25 November 2011, so please vote now – it will only take you a couple of minutes.