Monthly Archives: November 2007

Wiki’d User Manual

Early last year I realised that I have a problem with the way I behave. In my heart I know that doing people favours is a good karma, however I also know that people value my input much more when there is a dollar cost involved. And the higher the dollars, the higher they value my input

Knowing this, I once again surprised myself by offering to setup an online shop for free for my father at http://shop.greypath.com (Actually having a look at the logs I started this project in February, so it was probably fair that he hassled me for delivery last week). Anyway, whilst hassling me about delivery, he mentioned that “he wants a user manual” on how to operate it.

Feeling guilty, I setup the shop last week and over the weekend. I didn’t bring my laptop home and used the home desktop. So switching computers whilst doing the job meant I needed to store the draft user manual, somewhere that I could access it, no matter whether I was at work or at home. I realised that I should take my own advice and a Wiki was the way to go.

Wikipedia is the best known example of a Wiki. Wiki’s are websites that allow pages to be created and edited by users. For my small sites, I favour a product called dokuwiki, which can be found here. http://wiki.splitbrain.org/wiki:dokuwiki

On the weekend I setup a new website (no charge by my hosting service) with the subdomain name webnotes.greypath.com and created some password protection so only I and my father can see it. I then downloaded and installed the free dokuwiki software (free and easy to install as it doesn’t use a database, only text files). I then dumped everything I was doing into the wiki, including setting up a number of pages that were yet to be populated, plus a page for my to-do list. There was a whole lot of bugs I had to address, mostly around connecting the shop to a payment gateway, so I had to keep a copy of all the code changes I had made as well.

On Tuesday I went over to my Dad’s office, walked him through operation of the new website, and handed over the manual/wiki.

Dad, said “but why did you set this manual up as a wiki? Are you just trying to show off? The answer was of course, “Nope, I’m just lazy”.

There are two outstanding reasons for setting up a user manual as a wiki:
Cost – Its free
Risk – The software is open source, and has gone through many versions and is now very robust as every one in the user community has been reporting bugs.

There are a whole lot of other good reasons as well:
Collaboration – All users can update the user manual, rather than one person owning it and everyone else pretty much ignoring it.
Licensing – The Wiki I used is open source so I will never have to pay a licence fee.
Accessibility – Any where I have a web browser and internet connection I can read or edit it. I don’t need to licence multiple copies of word.
Backup – Its automatically backed up as part of my website plan.
Version Control – No more worrying about version control. I am always viewing the latest version and I can review or rollback to any old version of a page.
Secure – Because there is only one copy of the manual, I only have to provide security in one place.
Power – The software is powerful, I can use page templates, format them how I like, add images and hyperlinks, search the wiki, and roll back or discuss page changes with other users.

Although I’d have to say that the real reason is that anytime I alter something, I don’t have to chase down the manual to update it. I just log into the wiki and add the notes. Even if its two AM and I am sitting in my lounge room wearing only a pair of shorts. But you probably didn’t need to know that.

Haven’t been thanked yet though, but I’m prepared to wait.

Testing, Testing

So after promising 11 months ago to set up an online ecommerce site for my father , I have finally been hassled to deliver. I think that’s bitterly unfair as my brothers can get away with boasting about what they can do but never seem to have to live up to the expectations they set. This is the probably the wrong forum for that whinge though, but it leads me to the point of this blog.

Anyway while trying to setup the website, I noticed that the email notifications weren’t working, so I set about changing the configurations and testing each option to see which one would make the emails work properly.

This process of make one change, test, make one change, test, is a fairly standard approach. By making only one change at a time, you get to know the exact impact of your change (especially when its not clear). Its also easy to roll back the change, when you don’t have to remember very much.

However when doing things that involve generating emails, I have noticed that sometimes there can be a reasonable delay between requesting an email to be generated and it actually happening. This happens a lot when I set up an account on a web based email system. So I have a technique that I thought I might share.

Rather than send an email with the subject “test”, I give each email a different subject, “test 1”, “test 2″, test 3” etc. What this means is that rather than getting a number of identical emails coming in and not being totally sure whets happened, I get a unique set of email’s coming in that lets me know when the email started working. Obviously the subject name can also be along the lines on “Option A on” or “Option B off”.

I know this solution sounds really simple, but I’m shocked how much time I pissed away, thinking something wasn’t working, only to find the email server was just a tad slow.

So I thought I’d share. Tiny, simple and useful.

My Mum is Cross with Me

Last weekend I tried to ring my Mum and the phone was engaged. I tried again a couple of times and each time she was still engaged. Bloody retirees having a life I thought.

During the week I got an email from her, explaining that the phone was on the blink again and if I needed to call her, please ring her on the mobile. It turned out that they had decided to switch ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) but at the same time decided to go for a new phone deal. Only the deal turned out to be that their landline worked for ADSL Internet service, but their telephone number kept getting switched off. Apparently it was going to take the technician a week to investigate.

Mum was cross, but also cross with me that I hadn’t recommended her a better provider.

I reminded Mum that I don’t recommend service providers. My experience is that they are all bad, but everyone has a different experience and opinion. If you ask around there are people that will swear by Telstra, others will swear at Telstra. The same goes for Optus, Virgin, Vodaphone, AAAPT etc and the hundreds of other Telecommunication companies and ISPs.

The problem is that everyone’s recommendation is biased to their own experience, not the experience of the market at large. So the question is, “How do you pick a great service provider?”. A question that I have avoided dealing with for the last 10 years or so.

But this week I came up with an answer.

I got in the mail a newsletter from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. In it they talked about how they were making good use of spending tax payer’s moneys etc but amongst the notes I saw it mentioned a summary of their complaints statistics for the year. So I went to their website, and there it was in all its glory. At the TIO Annual Report 2006/2007 . Part 6 of the report listed a summary of all complaints against members.

Now sure the report only covers members of the scheme, but then again who would use someone that’s not a member? And its not standardised so you can compare Companies pro-rated on size. Also it only covers the numbers on complaints and not the number of issues included in the complaint, but it makes for fascinating reading and makes the recommendation process easier.

Eg. Complaints about the bigger Telecommunications Carriers (approx.) AAPT 6,000 Hutchison 11,000 Optus 23,000 Telstra 38,000 Vodaphone 5,000

It also has some really nice drilling down on the types of complaints, categorising them by lines such as Billing, Faults, Privacy etc.

All in all a nice resource for the intelligent buyer. Now I still won’t make any recommendations, but I will say to people, when you find a deal you find attractive, why don’t you look at the TIO site and see how that company compares to its competitors. Helping you with the Caveat (Beware) part of the “Caveat emptor”

Mum’s still cross with me though.