Sunday, September 13, 2009

When is a nickname just a pain...

When it's a Microsoft Outlook nickname, that's when.

Outlook tries to be helpful. One of the ways it tries is by keeping track of the email addresses that it has seen. These are called 'nicknames' and they pop up when you're typing in an address so that you don't have to remember/type the whole thing. This can be very nice.

However, it doesn't work so well when you get an old email address in there and can't get it out. Then you may actually keep sending to the wrong email address repeatedly. That can be very un-nice.

This happened to me and there are three solution options that I've found: two of them not so nice and one quite nice.

The first two are from Microsoft:

1. You can select the unwanted nickname and delete it by pressing the {DEL} key.  Unfortunately, even though I did this multiple times, it kept coming back like the unwanted guest.
2. You can completely delete the nickname file (see this Microsoft Knowledge Base article). It works, but it's like bulldozing your house to get rid of a cockroach. I did find a reference to a Microsoft nickname utility file, but it only went through Outlook 2000, which is pretty old now.

The last option is from a software company called NirSoft.

3. Here you can download a neat little nickname utility program. Works like a champ and you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater like Microsoft's solution. NirSoft has a bunch of other very nice utilities - check them out! For example, they have a little command line utility - nircmd - to perform many little small tasks, including an option to empty the Recycle Bin: very handy when I do my backups.

Makes you wonder how these features get added without adequate support. Seems to me if you're going to add a feature, you should make the assumption that it may not work at some point and give the user a built-in, supported solution to remedy the problem.

All in all, I spent quite a bit of time trying to solve this problem, which it should have been an easy fix.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What just happened...? Part 2

Earlier, I reported that my scanner had gone haywire and I had to "fiddle" [technical term meaning "non-productive activity" -- see "fritter"] with the settings to get things to work.

Well... it's still acting strangely and I haven't (knowingly) changed anything -- not even the magical Windows elixir called Re-Boot).  Today when I went to scan a one page photograph (still using the Windows WIA driver), it kept scanning the same page over and over and over until I cancelled the scan. Yet, scanning as a document it worked just fine.

On a hunch, I went back and tried the TWAIN scanner and -- even more strangely -- it now works just fine.

Hey, Microsoft (and other product companies, as well): I don't want all those fancy new bloatware features of Windows or Office: I just want what is there to work reliably so that I can get my job done without having to "fiddle" my time away.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sign of the (computer) times...

Computer systems change... who knew?

This morning I went to my Starbucks for my usual morning wake-up.  When I presented my card for payment, the gal behind the register scanned the screen for a moment then called the barrista over asking: "Where did they put the new Gold Card button?"

Now for those of you who may not know, Starbucks has a Gold Card which gives you a 10% discount on all purchases (I'm a charter member due to the fact that I get many  lattes from Starbucks). The Gold Card has been out for roughly one year and it has always taken two swipes of the card to properly handle payment: the first swipe is to register the fact that you purchased something using the card and the second swipe is to actually collect payment, assuming that you've put money on the card. Ever since the Gold Card came out, there's been this little "dance" that we do: They swipe the first time and then ask me if there's money on the card to which I respond "yes" and then they swipe it a second time. I've gotten in the habit of handing them my card with the statement: "Yes and No", meaning "Yes there's money on the card and no receipt." Most everyone in any Starbucks store gets it pretty quickly and has some funny comment to make about how I must do this a lot -- part of the great ambiance that I like about Starbucks.

Anyway, I've always wondered why the two swipes and when they would change the system to fix this. Apparently they've now done this, because that's what her question was about. Together they look over the screen, touch a few buttons and can't immediately find what they're looking for. Comments like: "I think I heard that they fixed this..." Pretty soon they ring things up, and I walk out the door a happy camper... until I look at my receipt which shows no 10% discount.

This reminds me of countless such experiences I've had over the years. As a long-time manager/developer of business systems and processes, I cringe when the people who actually have to use the system aren't told about changes. A few years back, my local Lenscrafters went through such a change, and it was even more challenging than this one. Over the weekend, the store I went to had been upgraded from an old "green-screen" DOS-style application to a modern windows application. I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in to the store: it was usually organized and efficient with a small number of people waiting. This time there were a large number of obviously impatient people waiting around and clerks were huddled around the screens trying to get customers checked in. In one case, a sales assistant and the manager were trying to enter some data on a screen and getting error messages back -- they were unable to enter the basic parameters that they were taking for the customer's glasses.

Rather than being a "15-minute and out" process as was usually the case, it seemed to take 20,  30 minutes or more to get a single customer taken care of, thus the long frustrated lines.

When it was my turn, I asked about this. They showed me the screen: obviously some designer had decided to use all the Windows GUI (Graphical User Interface) widgets available and collect everything that they could possibly want -- the screen was filled to bursting with input fields, drop-downs, and even a slider or two as I recall. As I think back, the data checking was quite strong, as several inter-dependent fields had to be entered correctly (a good thing). However, as the employees told me, they had come in Monday morning and the old system had been swapped out and the new one installed -- with no warning or documentation or training (a bad thing).

They were apologetic, polite and supportive (good customer service to the extent that they could give it), but they were hamstrung by the new system and their lack of knowledge about it.

Which brings me back to this morning. When I walk back in and show them the receipt, they both go back to the register screen and start looking through the menus/options. While this is going on, one of them says: "They never tell us when they change things. Sometimes they'll change the entire layout on us."

On the one hand, as an IT professional, I'm rather critical of this: besides the customer impact, the employees are the ones who take the brunt of these sea changes: they don't have the right tools to do the job and they have to deal with angry/upset customers. And my gut-level response is to say: "How can they do this... This ain't no way to run a business."

On the other hand, as a business consultant/coach, I understand some of the tradeoffs that are a necessary part of business...
  1. How many people have to be trained?
  2. With a large temporary work-force, where do you most effectively spend your time, money, attention?
  3. How much time does it take to prepare adequate training, must less deliver it in the field?
  4. What's the cost of all this?
  5. When is "good enough" really Good Enough?
  6. How hard should the IT folks fight for what's "right"?
  7. How do we know what's "right" anyway?
The real question is: was this a planned-out strategy or a knee-jerk reaction; hopefully the former.

And above all, my hat's off to all those employees that have to deal with these situations.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Signup Catch-22 - Finis...

Well... that was more like it!  The reset password email arrived promptly, I entered my new password, and was finally able to login. Whew!

Now let's see if the actual service improves on the Signup process...

Signup Catch-22 - Part 3...

The saga continues: I'm getting the impression that SugarSync doesn't want me to sign up and start using their service.

I clicked on the "Activate your email address" and was taken to the proper page where they requested that I type in my password (set during the sign up process). I did so - several times. Each time there was about a 10-second delay (what's that all about?) and then they rejected it as an "invalid password". Now I know I typed it in correctly because I keep my passwords on 4MyPasswords [Disclosure: this is a site that I built and maintain] so it's not about forgetting my password.

What to do now? Well, they offer to reset your password... and of course they get you the new password by... you guessed it... emailing you a new one!

I wonder how long this email will take...

Signup Catch-22 - Part 2...

Well...something finally started happening.

Sunday morning (9/6) I received a solicitous message from SugarSync that started with: "We noticed you have not yet downloaded the SugarSync Manager..." and ended with: "If you have any questions, please contact us at" Nice but totally useless under the circumstances. Obviously some automated system message.

Much more helpful would have been a message saying: "We noticed you have not yet activated your SugarSync account..." but I guess they assumed that part would work fine.

Also interesting were the time stamps: their message says it was sent "Sun 9/6/2009 7:17 AM" whereas my system shows it was received "Tue 9/8/2009 10:21 PM". There's obviously something going on with their email system because that's a huge discrepancy and one I haven't seen with all my other email.

Needless to say, I just noted and then ignored the message.

This morning at "Tue 9/9/2009 1:49AM"  I received my activation email -- it was sent on "Thu 9/3/2009 6:52 PM"(?!)  Wow! I could have gotten snail mail way quicker than that.

Furthermore, it was apparently a "canned" activation message -- almost certainly the one I had hoped to receive immediately after signing up... and I have yet to hear back from my email to Customer Support. Maybe I'll hear something in another few days after their email system grinds along.

Reminds me of some email fiascos companies experienced in the late 80's and early 90's when large-scale, high-volume email systems were just being deployed. But it's certainly not something that any company -- particularly a new generation, Web 2.0 company -- should be experiencing today.

More as and when their email system turns...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What just happened...?

Computers do the strangest things... I was working this morning and scanning some documents when I decided to make some adjustments to the scan settings: I just upped the resolution from 200 DPI to 240 DPI to get a little more clarity. Shouldn't be a problem, right? Wrong.  After that, my scanning application (PaperPort V10) stopped working and just complained with an "Unable to communicate with the device" error message.

I ran thru the tests and it worked just fine, but whenever I tried to make a scan for real, it failed.  There were a couple of settings that I was able to get working, but the original setting failed and most every other option just stopped working.

A reboot didn't help (the Windows sometimes miracle cure); stopping/restarting the scanner didn't help.  I was about ready to uninstall/reinstall the FAX/Printer driver when I looked at the scan driver options: there were two. One was for a TWAIN driver and one was for a WIA (Windows Image Acquisition) driver. When I switched to the WIA driver, everything was back to normal.

Total loss of productivity: roughly 30 minutes trouble-shooting... and it really isn't "fixed". I just lucked into a work-around.

We'll see what happens next, as I don't trust lucky fixes. At least Windows provided the solution in this case.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Signup Catch-22...

OR: How not to implement website sign-up.

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a large file. Rather than trying to do it via email, he used a new service -- SugarSync -- to forward the file to me. This is one of several "store and forward" file services, designed for people who want to exchange large files securely and don't have their own public-facing ftp or alternative download sites. Some of the alternative services that I've already used include Pando, and YouSendIt. They all seem to offer similar services: free accounts with low transfer rates; paid accounts with higher transfer rates; and free receipt of files.  They all require that you sign-up for the account: free or paid. Notification is often done via email, although Pando installs a small program that monitors your account.

I received the SugarSync notification email, clicked on the link, and signed up following their requirements. It was all pretty standard: you sign up, they send you a confirmation email, you click on the link embedded in the email to confirm that you actually requested this account, and you're good to go. Until you click on the link in the confirmation email, you've got an account but you can't use it.

All that went according to plan, but then I didn't receive the confirmation email. I went back to the site and they make it very easy to request another confirmation email and also suggest that you check your spam folders just in case. I did all that (several times, actualy) and still no confirmation email. After checking and re-checking that I had entered my email address correctly, I went to their website to get some help... and here's where the Catch-22 fired.
  1. I tried Support, but you must be an approved user to use the Support pages!
  2. I couldn't find an email address that I could use for requesting help; I tried and am still waiting for a response.
  3. I tried to follow the instructions associated with their entry about not receiving a confirmation email (see In this post, they instruct you to "Submit a Ticket" but, of course, you have to be logged in to perform this action, as they immediately re-route you to a login screen.
  4. I thought I would try their Discussion Forum (not something I usually like to do because of often poor response in these types of forums) and then found this complaint about lack of support, posted on August 25, 2009, and still with no 'official' response.
  5. And there's no phone number on the site.
Doesn't look too promising.

Unfortunately, I've seen this pattern in the past: someone gets a good idea and implements it on the web. They put up a nice app, reasonable functionality, positioned properly, and they start to get some traction. Unfortunately, they just don't have the right level of support to make it work. ALL software has bugs, no matter how good your developers are, or how good your testing is, or what development framework you use: there are ALWAYS bugs.

It's a huge mistake to either assume that there won't be many/any bugs or to not plan to actively support your users and fix those bugs.

Too bad... this is one service that I'm definitely writing off my list.