Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Filtering Thoughts on My Web Brain

At the start of this month I announced a new feature in My Web Brain that allowed users to filter their actions by context or topic on the Actions Screen. I've just added a similar feature to the Thoughts Screen, which allows you to filter your thoughts by whether they are processed (or not) or marked Priority (or not).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not a Fan of Date-picker Controls!

I am not a fan of the typical 'date-picker' approach to entering dates in web applications. I believe in many situations date-pickers slow down interaction with an interface, and that even if providing a date-picker is a good option to provide, it should not necessarily be the only or even primary approach to entering dates on a web form. Rather, I prefer using a text input for more efficient and usable date collection.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Announcing He3-AppEngine-Lib

I recently built a simple Paging module for Google App Engine, and in the process I created a Google Code site named He3-AppEngine-Lib to host this and any other App Engine code I wish to share. All the code on the site is available under the Apache 2.0 licence. Feel free to take a look!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sorting through your Actions in My Web Brain

My Web Brain now has additional options for filtering through your actions on the Actions screen, and a new 'cancelled' state has been added for actions you choose not to complete.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Improving Intranet Search with Starring

At the start of March Google added the ability to star search results. I think this interesting idea may have applications for intranets, allowing faster, better searches and improved content discovery through social bookmarking.  These are all good things for improving the value of the intranet.

For those unfamiliar with how his feature works, when you launch a Google Search you now see unfilled stars next to each result:
Google search results now include the option to star results
If you click one of these unfilled stars, you 'star' the result, which means that when you repeat the same or a similar query, you see starred results at the top of the page:
Starred results appear at the top of the results page. I am not sure why my starred result is duplicated here. Google?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Intranet Search is Overrated

You should not rely on your intranet's search capabilities to ensure your users find the tools, content and collaboration that they need. Many intranets appear to cede the battle of providing proper and useful organisation and navigation under the premise that their search capability can quickly find the content their users can or should find value in. I believe that intranet search has value but is inherently limited, both functionally and technologically. Search can be improved, but is only one of many solutions for connecting your users with content, tools and collaboration opportunities that form the basis of intranet business value.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Litmus Test for Intranets: Do your users use Bookmarks?

I have a working hypothesis about intranets. If your employees and users create and maintain bookmarks to revisit portions of it, your intranet is not working to it's potential. It is likely difficult to navigate and because of this you may be missing out on the intangible but valuable benefits of the intranet enabled enterprise.

Recently I was working on a job at a large organisation and I had over the course of a few months the opportunity to work with their Microsoft SharePoint-driven intranet. This was a large intranet, stuffed full of content, documents, team pages, project sites and links through to other tools and web applications. I would have been completely lost, but a helpful coworker shared their Internet Explorer favorites (bookmarks) folder structure, and I knew at least what parts of the intranet were important to her and the team.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Web Brain: Create a new context while processing your thoughts

After some valuable prodding from a helpful user (again, thanks Adam!), I have brought forward some changes to My Web Brain, my Getting Things Done application,  that allow users to create a new context as they process a thought or edit an action.

Normally when a user processes a thought into an action, the only contexts available to select are those that have already been defined.

The new version of the Create Action /Edit Action/Process Thought into action form includes a link to 'Create a new context' which allows the process to occur inline without disrupting the thought processing or action editing workflow. This is a definite improvement, especially for new users who may not have a definitive list of contexts defined.

Let us know how this new features works for you. Feedback or other ideas about how My Web Brain can be improved are gratefully accepted at the My Web Brain Google Group.

My Web Brain now supports Unicode (sorry for the oversight)

Last week I received some excellent feedback from a user (thanks Adam) who let me know that there were some problems in the way My Web Brain handled non-roman character sets. Over the weekend I rolled forward some changes that make My Web Brain compatible to all character sets in the Unicode standard. This is a common courtesy for any English-web application that seeks an international audience, and one I wished I understood more clearly prior to this.

Internationalization is an important design requirement for My Web Brain. If you come across similar issues of any sort, please bring them to my attention by commenting on the My Web Brain Google Group.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Put Full Text in your Feeds

If your organisation, group or blog has a news feed, think long and hard before deciding not to provide a full text copy of each entry.

News feeds syndicated with RSS are a powerful tool for any organisation or service with timely news to share. But when an organisation choses to truncate or poorly summarise the content in the feed, they erect a barrier between their news and their users' consumption of it. Users like syndicated news feeds because they allow news from a hundred or more different sources to be aggregated within one environment - their feed reader - and rapidly browsed and consumed with little friction. 

Asking users to leave this experience by not providing the full text of an entry makes the bet that your story is compelling enough for the user to actively seek out more information, and that you have communicated this to your audience. I believe many users simply pass on the story, or find another comparable news source with no such restriction. This is an opportunity lost.

You can imagine advertising supported websites wanting to draw traffic to their site for their advertising revenue. It is difficult to say for an outsider to say how effective this is, but some blogs (such as Google Operating System) have started sending advert inventory in the feeds themselves, along with the full text of the story. 

In many cases though is hard to understand why an organisation wants to drive traffic to their sites, when they most probably do really want is simple engagement with the people who subscribe to their news. 

The two examples that are currently bothering me are:
  • The Australian Government Media Releases feed, which shows only the first 100 words or more for each Media release. Unfortunately this is most often boilerplate text for each ministry, so it does nothing to provide any additional information beyond that provided in the story title. As this news feed is in fact a government service, there is no reason to not put the full text of the entry in the news feed.  It is public information.
  • The SOE Everquest II news feed. Gamers who like to adventure in dynamic worlds want to keep up with changes in the game, such as new items, events, adventuring zones and quests. The dynamic nature of the game is one of the core attractions that keep gamers paying money every month. The Everquest II team post monthly updates to their feed with boilerplate entry titles and text, rendering a subscription to their news less valuable. Is the SOE Everquest II team trying to drive traffic to the game site, or increase engagement with the game? It is hard to see how the news feed works for them. 
If you want your blog post, product news or branding message to reach people who will be interested, you should include the full text of the entry. Driving website traffic in most cases is not, and should not be, the primary objective. A full text news feed creates engagement; A truncated or poorly summarized news feed is often ineffective and sometimes, simply annoying. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Someday / Maybe Item Tickle feature added to My Web Brain

Across the last week I have implemented Someday/Maybe item reminders in my GTD application, My Web Brain. Previously, Someday Maybe items had a title, information and a tickle date. They did not have a way to remind you when the tickle date came around.

Now when you define a tickle date for a specific Someday / maybe item, the item will appear in your unprocessed thoughts on the tickle date for you to reconsider. You then have the normal options to create a reference item, new action or someday /maybe item. The original tickle date on the someday maybe item is removed.

I hope you find this feature useful. I expect the operation of the Someday / Maybe item reminders to mature in the future, so watch this space.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Changes to My Web Brain: RSS Feeds, GTD Help and Changes to Today Screen

Hello everyone. Just before Christmas last year (2009) I rolled forward the latest changes to My Web Brain. Apologies for not getting this notice of changes out sooner.


  • The interface for changing your current context on the Today screen has changed. Instead of a drop-down box, your contexts appear are links with the count of pending next actions after them. To change to a context, simply click on its link. This change makes it easier to see at a glance the status of all of your contexts.
  • I added a help page about Getting Things Done / GTD. This provides a simple and short description of the GTD process and why it is useful. See it at the About GTD page .
  • You can now access your pending next actions as a RSS 0.90 news feed. You can use this feed in most news clients (I use Google's Reader). You need to enable your next actions feed for each context. These settings can found in a new Feed Settings subsection in the (surprise) Settings area. 
  • The appearance of the Welcome screen was tweaked. I am not sure it is for the better, but it is a change so I thought I would list it. 
  • I have added some additional navigational links to the Settings area to make navigation slightly more intuitive. 
  • The Thoughts screen received some love with a slightly improved listing that allows you to forget one or more thoughts without visit the detail page for each.


  • Due to an indexing problem reversing through a list of Actions, Thoughts, References or Someday Maybe items could occasionally cause an error. This has been resolved. 
  • The Action list could sometimes render incorrectly in Internet Explorer 6. This has been fixed.

Known Issues:

  • There is still a bug with the timezone implementation. On the Today and Actions screen, Next Actions will be highlighted as overdue according to UTC / GMT time, not your local time.

Development has slowed on the web application since I am now working full time with a client (and will be for a couple more months). However, I will still push ahead with enhancements to My Web Brain to the best of my ability.

As always, if you would like to leave feedback or comments about the web application at the My Web  Brain Google Group please go right ahead.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking back at 2009

My (micro) company Helium 3 IT Solutions was formed at the beginning of 2008, but 2009 was the first full year of company activity. I thought it would be useful to look back at the year just passed and reflect on what the year meant for me and my professional interests.

ERPs and Solutions Architecture

From January through to June of 2009 my company and I were employed to perform solutions architecture and systems analysis work for an ERP project in a major mining company's operations in Australia. I got the role through my good friends at CGTS and it represented something very different to my previous experience. At the time my background was software and software development. This role very broadly covered communications, infrastructure, interfacing with the ERP vendor as well as some data analysis. Getting things done was an exercise in communication, coordination, and frequently, compromise.

This role very much broadened my experience. I learnt something about mining operations, about how individual operations once acquired need to be unified, about how a single piece of software - the ERP itself - can be both a critical tool and a critical risk to business. I appreciated the exposure to the role of IT infrastructure including  virtualisation platforms, Citrix and network (LAN and WAN) links. My manager at the time, John Tebbitt from Jet Communications, is a real IT professional who is both a master of traditional project management and has forgotten more about network and server management than most infrastructure teams collectively know.Working with John was tremendously educational and always interesting.

I left the ERP project and my Solutions Architect / Systems analyst role at end of June for the radically different world of independent projects. The ERP project had a large and exciting scope change since my departure, and my replacement, a friend and previous co-worker, now has far more scope and duties than I ever did. I have conflicting feelings of jealousy and relief.

Independent Projects and My Web Brain

I left the ERP project for a number of reasons. One of them was a desire to get my hands on with projects I could make a visible difference in. I wanted to reconnect with the open internet and the leading edge of technology. I wanted to create and develop software once more.

From July to September I worked on independent projects, the biggest of which my GTD project My Web Brain. My Web Brain is still 'in development' but has been open to users from the first version in July. The development has been very open, and hopefully transparent, as the service has developed from its crude beginnings to its current less-crude state. There is still more work to be done. There has been little interest from the outside world in the project, but having said that I have put little effort into marketing the service. Monetisation seems a long way off.

The transparency in the development of My Web Brain runs counter to the Hollywood Launch model used by many web startups these days. These other projects have very formalised launch events and seek to capture 'buzz' through invitation only periods and strict information control. This works for many cases, and might have improved My Web Brain's chances. I am on the fence; I prefer strongly in transparency and openness and this approach does not sit easily with me. Maybe next time!

Learning Opportunities

My Web Brain was built on Google App Engine using Python. This was my first foray into either App Engine or Python, so I had a lot of (enjoyable) learning to do. I enjoy furthering my technical skills, and to share some of my learning I created another blog, Learning Technical Stuff, where I could talk about specific technical topics of interest.

Other technical topics which have been of interest to me this year include the wider Google-verse of services, especially Google Apps and the transformative possibilities of cloud computing. I have enjoyed learning about collective intelligence, Enterprise 2.0 and all web technologies. Lately I have been trying to improve my aesthetic skills in web design, which historically have not been a strong point. With my Lynda.com online training account and piles of yet unread technical books I am more than passingly aware of how much there is to know in both established and emerging technical lore.

On a broader, less technical note, I have been keeping up with technology news and developments a lot more actively. During the year I read both What Would Google Do? and The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual which have had a strong impact on the way that I see the internet and the transformation it has on culture, business and society.

North American Holidays

During October I took a month out to go on holidays to the west coast of Canada and the Unitied States. I got engaged to be married while I was over there and had a great time. Absolutely no work was done (there were however, many pictures taken).

Back to Reality (and Paid Development)

I knew before I went aware on holiday that on my return I would need to find a paying contract when I returned, both to re-engage with the local professional community and to (more pragmatically) keep food on the table. I attended to the first CF.Objective(ANZ) conference in Melbourne in November and there got a lead on a short-term ColdFusion low-level developer position at a major Australian financial services provider.

One of the attractions to this particular job is the institutional use of agile development methodologies. I have read a lot about agile development techniques in the past years but this was my first chance to see them implemented on a project. It is gratifying to work in a more structured development environment than I have previous experience in, even if it is not perfect. I am still learning, after all.

Looking ahead

I will remain on this short-term contract into the first two months of the new year. During my free time I am mostly devoting my effort to learning. Afterwards my company may take another paid contract or return to independent projects.

My Web Brain has not have been overwhelmingly successful (yet) but nonetheless I am looking forward to more independent projects in the future - I have many ideas for services for the public and for companies that I am excited about putting together. How this desire for independent (and uncertain) projects will fit in to a future of houses and possibly family is unknown, but I will take what chances I get.

My overwhelming impression is that I learnt and experienced a lot in 2009, and I am looking forward to more of the same in 2010. Happy new year!