Friday, 27 April 2012

To program or not to program ...

... that is a question that is getting an increasing airing these days, especially when it comes to schools. Following hot on the subroutines of the BBC Micro anniversary the Sinclair Spectrum celebrated its 30th birthday this week. More on this via the Register. Now the Raspberry Pi is finally reaching its market and the low price and included easy and not-so-easy programming languages [including Scratch, Python, Java and C/C++] would make it an ideal schools machine. ICT is not synonymous with spreadsheets and data-prep after all.

I read about the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones's description of attending a coding course recently. The story is on the BBC web site. This appeared to be mostly to do with HTML and CSS with some JavaScript for good measure and certainly exercised some Register readers (and their ever-readable ringmaster Andrew Orlowski) as to what the value of this was, and even whether using HTML and CSS was even coding. Probably not ... but I continue to be frustrated on a regular basis by the lack of logic that seems to permeate CSS which might even make it anti-code! But enough of my problems.

I've long held the view that to manage a process you should know something of how it works. Up until the latest version of Managing Interactive Media we included a number of technical backgrounders on the component parts of multi/interactive media – such as audio, graphics and programming – to help this process. The final versions of these, from the third edition, are available free on the web as PDFs. If you read the testimonials from the course RCJ attended you will see that many of the executives who attend such things (run by a company called Decoded ... of whom I must say I have no direct experience) are of the same view.
When we have a better-than-skin-deep understanding of technology, two things happen: we have better ideas and we also treat our internal and external partners in a considerably more effective manner.
Says Mel Exon of BBH Labs. I couldn't agree more.

I would add that in my experience the technical people you work with will appreciate you more if you have a little experience of their expertise. At the very least you'll have more vocabulary in common.

[Bootnote: Should have invited RCJ on our course!]

Friday, 20 April 2012

Clients and commissioning iMedia

Just as we moan about clients, they moan about us too. It's best we listen so that we can address their concerns because satisfied clients mean return business. Also, someone else's dissatisfied clients may mean business for us.

Many problems that are thrown up in iMedia development can be avoided if some steps are followed at the beginning of the project. It goes back to the questions you ask your clients prior to beginning work. Maybe they will be experienced enough to already formulate a good brief for you, but it is just as well to have your sets of questions and mentally tick off the answers from the clients brief. Then you’ll just need to raise the outstanding issues you have left.

Digital Mosaic, What clients need to consider when commissioning a web site, have their own version of a project scoping questionnaire that covers General, Branding, Technical, and Design issues they feel are needed to set a project on track. Does it ring true for you? Have you a similar set of queries? The MRG Blog from 23rd March, How to approach Commissioning a Website or Web project, addresses client's concerns in a broader brush way and rather than questions, they highlight a client's attitude and general approaches to defining what is needed from the web site.

But there is a more common set of problems that arise because of interdependencies between agencies and web developers. The agencies have clients they are already working with for other media requirements and need developers to help out with the iMedia requirements; those that haven't their own in-house teams, that is. It seems that this relationship teases out quite a few gremlins as stated in Caroline's Blog for White Label Development on Outsourcing Web Development. This makes interesting reading and points to the classic tensions of creativity versus technology versus user-friendliness and so on. Usually these are hidden facets in in-house teams where front and back end developers clash. Ah! The pivotal role of the project manager becomes crucial in this set of circumstances.

And let's not forget those building apps. Because they are small and neat, usually tight in functionality by nature of their application, their development can be almost bundled in with other iMedia requirements. But, their development shares a lot with web development issues when you look at the pleas from Rob Borley's 15th March blog for In-traction, The two most common questions asked of apps developers. These are by the way, How much does it cost? and how long does it take? Seems apps developers need their own set of scoping questions before starting any work. What do you do?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Get your cookies while they're red hot

The European Union told us last year that we needed to get explicit permission to set a cookie in a visitor's bowser. The old technique of having a 'we use cookies and this is how you disable them' message on a privacy page was no longer enough and after a year's grace, May 26th 2012 is the date. After this time the UK Information Commissioner's Office could be on your case if you, (make that we), don't conform.

There's a nice developer feature in Chrome that makes it easy to see what cookies are set when you go to a site. Using this on the ATSF site shows that our hosting company sets a cookie and Google Analytics sets some cookies. I don't program any cookies into the site directly.

Despite the year's grace period, the situation is still potentially complex. A couple of useful places to go for more information are a PDF on the web site of the UK International Chamber of Commerce called the UK ICC Cookie Guide, and a piece on the ever useful Register site: A month to go on Cookie Law: Will Google Analytics get a free pass? which looks in more detail at the question of analytics cookies (with a lower-case A as well as an upper-case one).

One category of cookie needs no consent. As the guide says:
These cookies are essential in order to enable you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these, cookies services you have asked for, like shopping baskets or e-billing, cannot be provided.
This is a Category 1 Strictly Necessary Cookie.These quotes, by the way, are suggested text with which you can inform your users about what is going on with cookies on your site.

The next category is the Performance Cookie.
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information that identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works.
The final two categories are Functionality Cookies, which track preferences, and Targeting/Advertising Cookies, which tailor advertising to your habits and often pass information between web sites.

The Register reporter managed to get a quote from the Information Commissioners Office which suggests that they won't be loosing too much sleep chasing uninformed performance cookies and will be providing more guidance on this sometime soon.

The ICO web site helps us see one tactic for dealing with all this (and has done for some time). When you first visit it, on any page, there will be a message,as below, across the top of the page:
The ICO would like to place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better. To find out more about the cookies, see our privacy notice.
With a check-box and a button. When you check the box and click the button the page reloads, the message is no longer there, and a cookie called 'ICOCookiesAccepted', with a year's lifetime, is set along with the four Google Analytics cookies. If you don't check the box and agree then every page you visit will have the message at the top.

The logic is as follows:
Check whether an AcceptCookies cookie is set. If it is not set then add the cookie form at the top of the page. If the cookie is set then don't add the form.

Accepting cookies using the form activates an 'invisible' page which records the referring page, sets the cookie and returns the visitor to the referring page.

For any web site with a cookie-tracked 'private' area, using cookie category 1, then you don't need explicit permission. However, consider the case where there is a login form on every page ... just a small one at the top probably. A common approach for such a site is to open a session for each page and then check the session cookies and if the user is already logged in you show slightly different content; even if that is just a 'Log Out' button. It is doubtful whether setting a cookie designed to manage a secure area is essential on non-secure pages or for non-secure visitors, so in future such pages will need to check for a 'private area' cookie before opening a session on such a page.

The Google Analytics cookie question is a bit more complex (and similarly for any cookie-based analytics system). If your visitors have to explicitly ask for such cookies to be set then they will be under-reported and the value of the analytics data is greatly reduced. (The ICO have admitted that only 10% of their visitors click this box.) Old fashioned web server logs will not be affected of course, and it would be interesting to see just how many, or how few, visitors do agree to cookies.

Your clients, particularly smaller ones, may not be aware of what is supposed to happen at the end of May. Now is the time to discuss this, even if the analytics cookie question is still a little open.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

RACI Matrix benefits revisited

The RACI Matrix is the tool you can use to map the stakeholders in your projects to recognise their needs for communication and decision-making against the listing of tasks that the project has to address. We covered it in our book Chapter 4, Stakeholders and their influence.

Remember what this acronym stands for? Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. There has always been some confusion about the difference between Responsible and Accountable but this should now become easier if you apply the adage the buck stops here to Accountable. Responsible means the doer, the person or people who carry out the task. So the ranking RACI is not hierarchical as the person accountable often lies higher up the management chain.

Why use RACI? It is a well recognised tool in general project management processes now and it will help your professionalism as well as your credibility if your clients already employ the tool in their own companies. But beyond that, it has many tangible benefits for iMedia project management.
  • You can use it to assess the workload needed in your own team and across the client's involvement.
  • It will help you identify if you have enough manpower for each task and whether the client has recognised who and when should be involved for their side of the project to run smoothly and successfully. There’s nothing worse than hanging around waiting for input from the client, is there?
  • Then, although we don’t like admitting it, both ourselves and the client have staff turnover. So if and when this happens, you can quickly establish the roles and responsibilities of new staff in your project if they are taking over from someone you have identified in the RACI process.
  • Work assignment can get knocked sideways in iMedia for many reasons. But if you have the RACI matrix for your project handy, all can see when and how many staff had been allocated to the project so it becomes harder for others to influence work reassignment even if they are senior in the organisation. Note we don’t say it guarantees this won’t happen, but it does make it harder!
  • One of the good points from a RACI Matrix is that it shows exactly what and where your responsibilities are for the project and what and where line managers have the responsibility. They find it harder to wriggle out of their responsibility when it has been documented. This touches on another benefit from a RACI Matrix, conflict resolution.
  • Yes, when it is clear who is responsible and accountable for each stage, quite a few of those stressful internal political wranglings might go away too.
Many are convinced that the RACI Matrix is a change management tool for an organisation and it can certainly have that sort of impact. After all, understanding roles and responsibilities, whether they change over time and their need to be reassessed, is change management. For more along these lines see: Change Management Consultant, and Bruce McGraw, The New Face of Strategic Planning : Bridging it with Project Management is the Key to Success (March 2009), where he advocates strategic management combining the skills of strategic planning with the more coal-face, task-oriented project management.

Finally, it is important to review your projects and pass on any lessons learnt - and this should include any lessons you learn from implementing a RACI Matrix. Could it have been better? How? What other benefits could it have? If it was successful you need to pass that information on too indicating the benefits it brought. The Tips for Capturing Lessons Learnt best practice template, should prove useful for you generally.