Thursday 7 June 2007

NEW feature - analysis of workflow item progress

We've added a new feature to the analysis of workflow items. In addition to analysing the results of a search by current owner, creator, workflow stage etc. you can also now analyse the progress of the workflow items.

After doing a search for workflow items you simply click on the "Item progress" menu-bar link. This shows how long the items have spent at each stage, and with each person. It's obviously a simple and very quick way of highlighting bottlenecks in your processes - people in your team who are overloaded, processes which are inefficient etc.

Like all such pages within the system, the progress analysis can be saved as a PDF document.

Monday 28 May 2007

BMW functionality

(Part of an occasional series on matters technological. It beats doing real work.)

Before we started Matchpeg, we used to be Terribly Important People. We used to think nothing of donning our superhero garb in the nearest phonebox, and then leaping into a presentation with senior executives to sell them hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros of software and services at a time.

Like everyone else, we built our fair share of BMW functionality - not a reflection on the marque, but a comment on the sort of cars driven by the sort of people we were presenting to.

BMW functionality looks very pretty - albeit in a standardised, Stock-Option Chic kind of way - and it's not totally pointless. (A typical example is a ray-traced pie chart representing three numbers so simple that their relative proportions could be visualised, without graphical aids, by a child of seven.)

You're in a meeting where you're presenting the BMW functionality. You know that no one will ever actually "use" it. Even the users know that they'll never actually use it. But they're not in the room. You're presenting to the company's senior executives, and an 80/20 rule applies: they make 80% of the purchasing decision, but they're going to clock up at most of 20% of the eventual usage of the system.

At best, this is neutral: the BMW functionality is, in effect, part of your marketing (not your software); it helps to sell a fundamentally good system which deserves to do well; and it doesn't have any adverse impact on the quality of the system.

At worst, it's actively harmful: the time spent on the BMW functionality could and should have been spent on making the actual software better; and/or other, useful features are discarded or compromised in order to squeeze in what's effectively your sales pitch which the lowly users then have to live with day-by-day for the next n years.

This is less common on the web, because relatively few web-based applications are sold face-to-face. But there's still pressure to make sure that your software produces a great screenshot, and there's often tension between what produces the best screenshot and what produces the best functionality. (As an innocuous version of the same phenomenon, count the number of web-based applications which are demonstrated using Mac screenshots despite the fact that 97% of their users will be running Windows. Yes, we do this. Everyone does. It's the harmless end of something much more serious.)

What does all this lead up to?

We took a vow when starting Matchpeg: no BMW functionality. Deliver results.

Tuesday 15 May 2007

NEW feature - notes on workflow items owned by someone else

Bowing to very vocal demand, we've added a new feature to the workflow system: the ability to add a note to a workflow item which you don't currently own. (It continues to be the case that the current owner is the only person who can change the workflow item in any way.)

The ability to add these notes is controlled by the workflow definition. This switch is turned off for all existing workflows. If you want to take advantage of this new feature, you need to edit your existing workflow definitions and turn the switch on.

After doing so, anyone who's not the current owner of a workflow item is able to add a note to it using the new box at the bottom of the item overview page.

Sunday 13 May 2007

Project management

(Part of an occasional series on matters technological. It beats doing real work.)

We've been having some internal wrangling here at Matchpeg Towers about project management/software development methodologies (not much wrangling - we're all fugitives from organisations which like signatures in triplicate on everything).

Matchpeg is essentially in the retail software business. We sell tools at low cost, in large quantities, to happy customers who we rarely have any un-automated contact with. We do very little bespoke work. We don't really have "clients".

There's a polarised debate all over the web about the relative merits of waterfall (relatively linear, relatively traditional) software development processes versus more agile methodologies.

Waterfall doesn't work for us. It's not that we're a bunch of laid-back hippies - agile doesn't work for us either.

The problem with both is most concisely represented by the Agile Manifesto. Notice anything about this? (Leaving aside the fact that it reads like a Miss World contestant's pledge to seek out world peace and a cure for cancer.)

The references to customers are both in the singular, not to "customers" plural. We're in the retail software business. We have lots of customers. And they're so diverse that you can't boil them down into a single representative entity called "the customer" (or even "The Customer").

(The same failings can be found in things like the official PRINCE2 material: same assumption of a single customer; same assumption of a single entity paying for the project; same assumption that there's a contract.)

In short, our experience is that no well-known software development process translates at all well to the retail world. They all seem to stem from a founder's experience of in-house development for a large company, or bespoke development for a single (usually large) client. Using a popular term in IT, these methodologies don't "scale" well. They make all sorts of assumptions which stop working when you're dealing with a number of diverse customers, each of whom isn't guaranteeing to pay you anything.

These methodologies are created by consultants in order to perpetrate consultancy. They're for use with "clients", not "customers".


On a related note, we're bemused by the way the debate between waterfall and agile is usually presented: an either/or choice, generally accompanied by comments such as "waterfall is so lame".

Instead, it seems to be about risk/reward profiles. A question such as "Which is better, waterfall or agile?" looks as meaningless as "Which is better, stocks or bonds?" The answer depends on your circumstances and what you're trying to achieve.

As a very general rule - to which there are, yes, countless exceptions - the anecdotal reports on the web tend to indicate that agile methodologies offer the prospect of better returns (faster development) at the risk of greater loss (complete anarchic breakdown of a project into marauding bands of developers).

It's not a coincidence that waterfall methods tend to be preferred by larger, older firms, and agile tends to be preferred by smaller, newer firms.

If you're a small company just starting up, you have to take risks. You gravitate towards agile because you're not going to get anywhere by being dull-but-steady. Older companies - particularly public companies - don't and can't have the same appetite for risk. Everything militates against it: the shareholders want predictable returns, the employees want to keep their well-paid jobs. The potential additional reward doesn't justify the additional risk; the reward is too incremental, and the risk is too absolute.

The really nasty fights start when the incentives and risk-tolerance of the business owners are different to the incentives and risk-tolerance of the people running projects for them. This works both ways: an impetuous CEO who finds that he's hired a pen-pushing dullard of a project manager, or a cautious board which has landed itself with a bunch of mavericks who won't be significantly affected if they cause their project (or even the entire firm) to implode.

Friday 11 May 2007

NEW feature - removing brainstorming suggestions in real-time

We've added a new feature to brainstorming suggestions, particularly designed for use when running sessions in real-time. In addition to the full transcript editor, the organiser of a session can now delete ideas from the session, during the brainstorming stage, by clicking on the new grey cross icon which is displayed to the right of each idea.

This simply deletes the idea from the session. It has exactly the same effect as using the transcript editor to remove the idea. Like the transcript editor, only the session organiser is allowed to do this (and only they get given the icon for doing so.)

Thursday 10 May 2007

NEW feature - user groups

We've finally added a feature which we'd had in mind for a long time, and which several customers then prompted us by asking for...

You can now define a group of users (i.e. a list), and use it as part of a workflow definition. For example, you can define a "Customer Services" team, and have customer enquiries and requests being allocated to that team rather than to a specific individual.

It remains the case that every workflow item is always assigned to one specific person: if the workflow definition says to assign the item to a group, the system picks an individual from the group and assigns the item to them.

The definition of a user group lets you define how work is shared out amongst the group members: simple round-robin allocation of tasks, allocation based on who has the fewest items in their workflow queue etc.

You define user groups from the user list - i.e. click on "User list" from the Dashboard, and then click on "User groups". Only administrators are allowed to change (or delete) groups.

Groups can then be used anywhere within the workflow system where it asks who to assign a workflow item to.

As ever, full information can be found in the help file. We particularly recommend looking at the section entitled "Using groups as aliases".

Monday 7 May 2007

Does Matchpeg support the Opera web browser?

Matchpeg supports Internet Explorer (v6 or later), Safari, and all Gecko-based browsers such as Firefox and Camino.

We don't support Opera.

This is because there's an obscure bug in Opera which affects only Matchpeg and a few other sites. The main effect is that error messages don't get displayed - if an error occurs, we have to display a generic failure message rather than the proper explanation of the error. (See below for the technical reason why.)

So, Matchpeg is more or less usable with Opera, but if an error occurs you won't know what or why.

Yes, we've told Opera about this. No, they haven't done anything about it (or, indeed, even responded).


Tech details:

The problem is in Opera's XmlHttp handling. Opera doesn't follow the de facto standard which all other browsers adhere to. It's arguable that Opera's implementation doesn't even follow RFC 2616 properly.

When Matchpeg's web pages make XmlHttp calls (e.g. in order to log on), there are obviously two possible results: success (and some data), or an error. The XmlHttp pages on the server signal which has occurred using the HTTP status code. The usual code 200 means that the call has succeeded (e.g. logged on successfully), and the XmlHttp responseText member then contains any applicable data. The code 299 is used to mean that an error occurred (e.g. invalid user name or password), and responseText contains a textual error message to display to the user.

This gives the Javascript in the client-side web pages a simple way of checking what's happened. If you look at Matchpeg's Javascript, you'll see lots of code along the lines of the following:

switch (XmlHttp.status) {
case 200:
// Success. Do something with the
// data in XmlHttp.responseText
case 299:
// Error! Display the message to the user.
// Must be a 400+ or 500+ error - i.e. a
// problem with the server configuration.

(We think this is quite elegant.)

The problem is that Opera drops the HTTP response body for all XmlHttp calls where the status code is anything other than 200. Therefore, a blank error message gets displayed.

There are three reasons for considering this a bug in Opera:

  • No other browser behaves this way.
  • There's nothing in RFC 2616 which obviously supports Opera's behaviour.
  • If Opera makes a normal (i.e. non-XmlHttp) request to a page which returns a status code such as 299, then it does display the response body. In other words, Opera's behaviour isn't consistent, and this tends to suggest that the XmlHttp implementation is in breach of RFC 2616.

We could, of course, change Matchpeg to pass back XmlHttp results in a way which works with Opera. But, frankly, it's not worth working round a bug in a browser which about 0.3% of our potential customers use.