Friday 22 August 2008

33 changes

We've had a very busy summer - partly as a result of the terrible British weather keeping us at our desks.

We're launching a major set of changes to the Matchpeg suite: improved navigation, even greater ease of use, and some major new functionality such as events (see item 6) and discussion of meeting actions (see items 22 and 23).

Many thanks to all the customers whose feedback prompted these changes, and who helped to design and test them.


General navigation changes

1. New look and feel

Matchpeg has a new, system-wide look and feel. It's a little more slick, and web browsers render it even faster than the old version. (Of course, you can continue to change the colour scheme to your liking using the "Customize" option. With enhanced options - see item 33 below.)


2. One-click access to all modules

In the new design, each module - Meetings, Brainstorming, Workflow - is now never more than one click away.


3. "Meetings" and "Actions" are now separate areas

"Meetings" and "Actions" have been split into separate areas. The Meetings home page continues to show your pending and recent meetings. Your uncompleted actions are now on the Actions page - plus a new list of actions which you've recently completed.


4. Separate "Settings" section

We've taken the various system settings - the user list, payments, customisation, and your personal account details - and put them into their own "Settings" section. This makes them a little easier to access, and a little easier to navigate.


Dashboard and events

5. New dashboard

The dashboard has been slightly redesigned to make it easier to pick out the key information such as the number of pending actions you have.


6. Events

The dashboard now includes a list of "events" - new meetings which you've been added to, new actions which have been assigned to you etc. Events are automatically cleared from the list when you view the record in question (whether by clicking on the item in the event list or via another route). You can also manually delete events from the list if you're no longer interested in them.


7. Events available as an RSS feed

Like everything else in Matchpeg, the new events list is available as an RSS feed. You can subscribe to it using tools such as Google Reader or Bloglines, or you can add it to something like a Google personal home page.


Meetings

8. New meeting states: "actions incomplete" versus "complete"

The system now distinguishes between meetings where the minutes have been published, but some actions have not yet been completed, versus meetings which are truly complete. This new status is reflected in meeting searches, making it easier to list (and analyse) all meetings with uncompleted actions.


9. Easier change of meeting status

It's now even easier to change the status of a meeting, e.g. to tell the system that a meeting has taken place and you're now typing up the minutes. The menu bar of a meeting page shows the current status, and clicking on this displays a drop-down menu of other states which the meeting can be switched to.


10. Tidier agenda/minutes editing

We've made a minor change to the colour scheme on the agenda/minutes editing page, making it a little easier to read.


11. Circulate agenda/minutes to non-participants

The agenda/minutes of a meeting can now be distributed to non-participants (without having to download the agenda/minutes as a PDF, and send it out manually). The revised distribution page simply includes a field where you can enter a list of extra e-mail addresses to send the agenda/minutes to.


12. Choose participants when circulating the agenda/minutes


You can now choose which participants to include when circulating the agenda/minutes, rather than always sending the e-mail to everyone involved in the meeting.


13. Choose which sections of the agenda/minutes to circulate

And also... you can choose to circulate a subset of the agenda/minutes, rather than the entire thing. As well as options for sending only a list of key decisions, or a list of actions, you can also select specific numbered sections of the agenda/minutes to include in the e-mail.


14. Analysing meeting action point progress

A meeting's completed and uncompleted actions can now be analysed separately - the Analyse button at the top of each list displays statistics only on the completed/uncompleted actions.


15. A new "chase" option

Meeting organisers now have a new option when chasing up uncompleted actions: they can choose to create events (see above) as well as or instead of sending e-mails. In other words, this option flags up the action point in the event list on the person's dashboard.


16. File upload has its own tab

File upload has been removed from agenda/minutes editing, and has been given its own tab within a meeting's details.


17. All participants are allowed to upload files

All participants, not just the organiser, are now allowed to upload files into a meeting. The majority of customers were telling us that this easy-going approach was actually more suitable than only allowing the organiser to upload files. (A file can then be deleted either by the person who uploaded it, or by the organiser.)


18. New tab for a series of meetings

The details of a meeting has another new tab: "Series", showing the other meetings in the same series as the meeting you're looking at.


19. Map links when creating meetings

You can now get a preview of the map which will be displayed for the location when you create a meeting, rather than only having the map available once the details have been saved.


20. Easier navigation between meetings

The menu bar within a meeting's details now includes a "Go to..." link which displays a pop-up list of all your pending and recent meetings. Therefore, you can switch from one meeting to another without having to go via the Meetings home page.


21. Easier searching for meetings

There's now an even quicker way of searching for a meeting by name: rather than going to the search page, you can do a simple search using the "Find" menu-bar option on the main Meetings page.


Actions

22. Upload files against action points

It's now possible to upload files against a specific action point from a meeting, as well as uploading a file into the meeting itself. Like the change described above (see 17), all participants in a meeting are allowed to upload a file against an action from that meeting. This provides an easier way for participants to collaborate on getting an action done.


23. Discussion of action points

Participants can also discuss progress on an action point - simply by posting messages to a sort of mini-forum about that particular action.


24. Action point discussion available as an RSS feed

Like everything else in Matchpeg, the discussion of an action point is available as an RSS feed.


25. Easier navigation between actions

As with meetings (see 20), it's now a little easier to navigate between different actions. There's a "Go to..." menu bar link which displays a list of all your pending and recently completed actions, letting you navigate between them without having to go via the main Actions page.


26. Easier searching for actions


There's now an even quicker way of searching for an action based on its text: rather than going to the search page, you can do a simple search using the "Find" menu-bar option on the main Actions page.


Workflow

27. Easier navigation between workflow items

As above, there's easier navigation between workflow items, in the form of a "Go to..." menu bar link.


28. Easier searching for workflow items

And again: you can do a quick search for workflow items with a particular subject using the "Find" menu-bar option on the Workflow home page.


Brainstorming

29. Tabbed layout for brainstorming pages

We've added tabs to the different stages of a brainstorming session, to make it even clearer where you are in the process.


30. Slicker session lobby

We've slightly re-modelled the session lobby, making it a little easier for new users to understand what's going on.


31. Easier searching for brainstorming sessions

As above, you can do a quick search for brainstorming sessions by typing part of a name into the "Find" menu-bar option on the Brainstorming home page, rather than having to use the full search page.


Outlook plug-in

32. New "Create meeting" option

Creating Matchpeg meetings from Outlook is now even easier than before: we've added a new "Create meeting" button to the Matchpeg toolbar in Outlook. You can either highlight a blank space in your calendar, and click on the button to create a new meeting in both Matchpeg and Outlook, or you can highlight an existing appointment in your calendar and click on the button to add that appointment to Matchpeg.


Other

33. New customisation options

The Theme Builder now offers even more control over changing the colour scheme and layout of the system. We're considering offering a prize for the most inventive use of the Theme Builder to alter Matchpeg's look and feel.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Vanishing Advertising Budget

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

The TV series Mad Men has recently finished its run in the UK. As in the States (where it won two Golden Globes), viewing figures have been small but the critical reception has been outstanding - "extraordinary" and "virtuosic" are pretty representative examples from the reviews.

But why is anyone writing, commissioning, buying, or (albeit in small numbers) watching what's effectively a costume drama set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960?

Obviously the main reasons are, er, obvious. It's extremely well-written and beautifully acted. It lacks the solipsism and whimsy of, say, Studio 60 - you wouldn't want to beat each and every one of the characters to death if you met them in real life. Mad Men possesses all the usual virtues of costume dramas, plus a more overt contemporary relevance - it's been fairly described as a prism for looking at recent American history.

However, this being a technology blog, we can draw out something a little more specific than that. Assuming that one has some skills, and therefore doesn't have to fall back on freak shows such as American Idol/Big Brother/Azerbaijan's Got Talent, there are two established routes to fame and fortune in contemporary society for the sort of people who are watching Mad Men: (a) sell your heart for a lump of gold in Wall St/the Square Mile, or (b) make a bazillion dollars out of the internet.

And the internet is all about advertising 1. Everyone's plans for world domination via the internet always involve working for the likes of Facebook, or selling services via something like Facebook, or setting up something similar to Facebook. All these putative business plans consist of building up a large user base, and then having that user base somehow magically deliquesce into cash through the power of advertising 2.

In short: Mad Men has a very specific contemporary relevance. The internet is the biggest thing around; the internet is all about advertising; Mad Men is all about advertising. More significantly, a large portion of Mad Men's audience wants to work in the internet advertising, and Mad Men shows them a saturated-colour dream of what that world can be like: booze, women, and your name in big letters on the side of the building. (Everyone used to know stories of excess such as investment banks filling their radiators with champagne at Christmas parties. Nowadays it's the number of Boeing 757s parked out the back of Google's offices for when Larry and Sergey want to pop down to the shops.)

For any reader who's unsure what Facebook et al have to do with advertising, there's a famous old barb about Ringo Starr: "not even the best drummer in the Beatles". You could argue something similar about Facebook: "not even the best social networking application created at Harvard during 2004". Regardless of its technical merits - and they really are very impressive these days - Facebook has always primarily been about marketing and advertising, not technology. Geeks rave about the elegance of its application architecture - the thing which makes it possible for you to play Scrabulous - but the point of that architecture and the reason why it exists are all to do with multi-level marketing, not technology.

The multi-level marketing brings us to the accusation you occasionally hear that Facebook (and its ilk) are pyramid schemes. This, clearly, is nonsense. However, Facebook et al do share one characteristic with pyramid schemes: you really, really want to think carefully about putting in money if you're near the bottom of the pyramid. Facebook is great if you're Mark Zuckerberg. It's still pretty good if you're providing Facebook-based services, such as the booming market for building Facebook applications to order. But things look much more murky if you're at the bottom of the pyramid: if you're the person who's paying for the advertising or third-party services, in the hope that you'll see a return on your expenditure. Noel Coward once said that "television is for appearing on, not looking at". Similarly, Facebook is for making money out of, not paying money into.

The trouble is that Facebook (and Myspace and Bebo and Flickr etc) are fundamentally different to Google (and Yahoo). The search engines, such as Google, can display advertising which is relevant to what you're searching for. They can serve up advertising based on what you're doing. At best, the likes of Facebook can only provide advertising based on who you are - i.e. based on your profile information. Their advertising is much more passive, and much less reliably targeted. In best Sherlock Holmes style, Facebook may be able to deduce that you are a one-eyed teetotal Albanian sailor, recently returned from a trip to Borneo, sporting a limp, but its advertising still won't be as relevant and effective as Google's.

--

1 except for the bits which are all about naked ladies.
2 UK readers should imagine the fat-babies in the "Partners in Crime" episode of Doctor Who at this point.

Free tools for working with the Flexiscale platform

We've recently written about the fact that Matchpeg has moved its Disaster Recovery servers to Flexiscale's cloud-computing platform.

In the course of trying out Flexiscale we did extensive work with their API to automate various aspects of our DR. We're now making these tools available for free for anyone who's interested:
  • A console application for starting, stopping, querying etc Flexiscale servers from the Windows command line. For example, you can use the tool to start servers automatically from a Windows scheduled task, and/or notify you if there's a problem with a server.
  • An alternative to Flexiscale's own web-based control panel.
You can read more about these tools at http://www.matchpeg.com/brochure/misc/flexiscale.asp - or use the link at the bottom of our main Products page.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Matchpeg has a new Disaster Recovery site

Matchpeg has a new Disaster Recovery site: we have moved over to Flexiscale's cloud-computing platform, largely because it makes our DR superbly eco-friendly.

Like alternatives such as Amazon EC2, Flexiscale makes it possible for us to start the DR servers automatically, transfer the latest customer data onto them, and then shut the servers down again. Instead of consuming electricity 365x24x7, the servers only run for minutes per day.

(Yes, strictly speaking, Flexiscale's very big iron is still running all the time even when our virtual servers aren't, but there's nevertheless a major reduction in energy consumption.)

We obviously hope that we'll never actually have occasion to use these DR servers. However, we're convinced that cloud-computing platforms are the way forwards, and we expect that the Matchpeg live site will also be running on something similar in the not-too-distant future. (Though we can't have both our live and DR servers at Flexiscale - they obviously need to be in separate physical locations).

Friday 4 July 2008

A minor cosmetic enhancement

To celebrate the 821st anniversary of the Battle of Hattin (or, if you prefer, US Independence Day), we've made a couple of minor cosmetic changes to the Matchpeg software: the menu bar now looks a little more slick, and the page border and background have been made slightly easier on the eye.

As ever, you can still change any of the aspects of the user interface which aren't to your liking: from the main Dashboard, just click on the Customise menu-bar link.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Outlook plug-in now available for downloading

Matchpeg's plug-in for Microsoft Outlook has finished its beta period, and is now freely available for download.

You can find further information on the plug-in at http://www.matchpeg.com/brochure/outlook/index.asp

The plug-in seamlessly integrates Matchpeg with Microsoft Outlook:
  • Your meetings in Matchpeg are automatically added to your Outlook calendar.
  • You can also choose to have the minutes of meetings automatically filed against the Outlook appointment in PDF form.
  • Actions from meetings are added to your Outlook task list.
  • Workflow items assigned to you are also added to your task list.
  • You can create meetings in Matchpeg from appointments in your Outlook calendar: in other words, schedule meetings in the usual way using Outlook/Exchange functionality, and then add the meeting to Matchpeg once the attendees are confirmed.
  • You can edit the minutes of a meeting off-line, and then upload the minutes into Matchpeg when an internet connection is available again.
The plug-in is in fact a "suite of off-line tools". The off-line minutes editing is available both within Outlook and as a standalone application. Therefore, it's worth having a look at the tool even if you are not an Outlook user.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

NEW feature - guest access to workflow items

You can now include people outside your firm in workflows - in other words, you can send workflow items to anyone on the internet and have them approve things, add comments, send the item back for further work etc.

When you choose who to assign a workflow item to, the pop-up list of users contains a new option (at the bottom) for entering the e-mail address of a "guest". This new option is available in three contexts:
  • When delegating a workflow item, and choosing who to delegate it to.
  • When moving a workflow item to the next stage, and choosing manually who to assign the item to next.
  • When creating a workflow definition, and choosing who an item gets assigned to at each stage of the workflow. In other words, you can set up workflows where items are always assigned to a particular external person.
When a workflow item is assigned to a guest, a random 6-digit PIN number is generated. The guest is sent an e-mail containing this PIN, plus a URL for logging in to Matchpeg and viewing/modifying the workflow item.

The guest's PIN only gives them access to that one single workflow item (via a special, cut-down version of the usual workflow editing page). If multiple items are assigned to the same guest then they receive multiple e-mails, each with a different PIN.

Once the workflow item moves on to a new owner, the guest's PIN stops working. If the same item is then later re-assigned to the guest user, a new PIN will be generated and a new e-mail will be issued.

N.B. If you are assigning workflow items to guests, please warn them that the e-mail which is sent to them may get classed as spam. Please ask them to check their junk/spam folders, and to "white-list" messages from matchpeg.com so that the spam filter always lets them through.

If the guest doesn't receive the e-mail containing their PIN number, the e-mail can be re-sent using the link at the top of the page about the workflow item. As a last resort, administrative users of Matchpeg can "grab ownership" of workflow items and re-allocate them back from guests to normal users.