Category Archives: Technology

Markup rules

texteditterminalI like to use plain text when I can. Plain text is just text without any formatting, which you edit with an app called a text editor, like Notepad on Windows or TextWrangler on a Mac. It’s pretty much a universal format – it can be opened and edited on pretty much any system or hardware you can think of.

One of the things that makes a simple plain text file useful is the ability to ‘mark up’ text within the document.

Markup languages have been around a long time. Perhaps the most famous one is HTML, one of the foundations of the web. An HTML file in reality is just plain text, with the use of HTML tags to mark up how bits of the document should behave – such as formatting and linking to other pages, for example.

Another example and one I use a lot is Markdown, a simple markup language for use in creating documents of all kinds. By simply using characters such as the hash sign (#), asterisks (*) and so on, a document can be made to include italic and bold text, headings at various sizes and bulleted lists, for example.

The key thing is that the document format can be used on pretty much any device and in any application. It’s just plain text, after all. The use of the markup language however enables that document to do more interesting things.

What’s more, you don’t have to be a developer or anything to start your own markup based project. You just need to define a few rules, and get going.

todotxt-apps_lrgI’ve just started playing with another great example of this. It’s called todo.txt and is a way of managing a todo list in a plain text file.

The rules are straightforward. Each task exists on a single line of text. Markup in that line can add information about the task, so for instance a word following a + sign is the name of the project that task belongs to (allowing you to group tasks by project, for example). You can also add a context to a task by following the @ sign with a word. Priorities can be added to tasks by using (A), (B) and so on to the beginning of the line.

Here’s an example of what a todo list looks like:

(A) Call Mom @Phone +Family
(A) Schedule annual checkup +Health
(B) Outline chapter 5 +Novel @Computer
(C) Add cover sheets @Office +TPSReports
Plan backyard herb garden @Home
Pick up milk @GroceryStore
Research self-publishing services +Novel @Computer
x Download Todo.txt mobile app @Phone

You could just manage your list in the plain text file using an editor – and many people do. However, because of the open nature of the format, other options are possible.

First, saving your todo list text file in a service like Dropbox makes it available across the web, so you can pick it up and edit it across many devices, which is helpful.

Even better, there are apps for mobile devices to help you manage your todo list. These present your todo list as a more traditional task management app would – but all the time they are just updating the text file using the markup rules.

This means all your tasks aren’t locked up in some database you’ll never get access to. You can take your text file todo list away any time you like and manage it in a different way.

As well as being a neat hack, todo.txt makes me wonder what other applications could be based on the simplicity of a plain text file and a few markup rules.

Any suggestions?

Writing apps – the software I use to get words on a page

writingI probably think about this sort of thing far more than I should – after all, doesn’t everyone just use Word? – but I like playing with different tools for writing.

After all, for me, typing words into a computer makes up probably 75% of my job. That’s a lot of typing and so it’s worth making it as little of a painful experience as I can.

So here is a list of the different tools I use to write text with.

Byword

Byword is a ‘distraction free’ writing application which works on my Mac and iPad, syncing through Apple’s iCloud service. It’s a very simple editor, that pretty much just lets you type in text in plain text format. You can do some formatting with Markdown, which you can then export, but I tend to use it when I just want to bash some words down, without thinking too much about how it looks.

Find out more about Byword

MarsEdit

MarsEdit is the app I use to write my blog posts. It’s a bit of desktop software that lets me bash in the content for my posts offline, using a very simple plain text editor. I’m able to add tags and categories to my posts, which I then send up to my blog in draft, ready for a final check, adding images and hitting publish.

I don’t know why, but I just find writing posts in MarsEdit more comfortable than using the WordPress editor – hence why I class WordPress as a publishing tool rather than a writing one. A big part of it is probably down to the keyboard shortcuts I use to quickly enter and mark up content in MarsEdit, rather than having to constantly switch to the mouse to select icons.

Find out more about MarsEdit

Apple Mail

An awful lot of the words I write are emails, and so my email client has to feature in this list. I use Apple Mail mostly by default nowadays – previously I have used Gmail’s web based interface, but I do find using a desktop client helps me pace myself a bit and be a little more thoughtful. It’s basically ok – I have no complaints but then I’m not exactly a huge fan either. It works.

Find out more about Apple Mail

OmniOutliner

This is a seriously good outlining tool, which I mostly use for drafting pieces of writing or presentations. Outliners let you build up bullet style lists of content, indented at various levels of a hierarchy, which you can then drag around and reorder. It allow you to structure a document really well in the planning stage – to figure out your ideas and how they slot together.

Find out more about OmniOutliner

Google Docs

When I need to collaborate in the early stages of preparing a document, I usually turn to Google Docs. Due to the fact that it is online, it does tend to stress me out a bit – I prefer desktop apps with local copies of files when possible – but Docs is the best solution to working on something with others, particularly at the same time.

Find out more about Google Docs

Scrivener

I occasionally work on longer pieces of writing, although they almost never get published anywhere. Scrivener lets you write chunks of content for a larger work, which you can then reorder, drag around and so on. It also lets you save research notes in the same place as your draft document, which can be helpful. At the end, Scrivener spits out a rich text file that sticks all your chunks together, for a final edit, or formatting exercise in a word processor.

Find out more about Scrivener

Evernote

The writing I do in Evernote differs wildly, from meeting notes to pasting in web addressees to check out later, to

Find out more about Evernote

Pages

Pages is Apple’s own word processor, which I use occasionally for more graphical documents. It just has a more creative, desktop publishing type feel to me, which makes it ideal for that kind of work. It’s really easy to use, and I find it the best tool to work with when a document has a lot of graphical elements.

Find out more about Pages

Vesper

A super iPhone text editor. It does one thing very well, and that is writing short notes on my phone. It has a beautiful design and is incredibly easy to use and for when I just need to quickly write something without worrying about it syncing up anywhere else, Vesper is perfect.

Find out more about Vesper

Simplenote

Yet another cloud-syncing text editor. I use this to quickly get text onto my phone from another device. It’s fairly niche, but stuff like when I look up an address for a meeting on my laptop and want to get it to my phone – I’ll usually use Simplenote rather than creating something in Evernote.

Find out more about Simplenote

Word

OK, so I do use Word. Quite a lot, actually, in its various incarnations – Mac, Windows, online (via Office 365) and now, of course, on the iPad. When it comes to needing to share a document with others in a format they are likely to be able to edit, its still the best option.

Find out more about Word (really?)

What are your favourite writing tools? Do you use as many, or even more, than I do?

Dropbox launches a swathe of new features

Some interesting developments from Dropbox – everyone’s (well, most people’s) favourite cloud storage/backup/sharing tool.

Firstly, a new app called Carousel, which is a photo gallery app. According to the blurb, it

…combines the photos in your Dropbox with the photos on your phone, and automatically backs up new ones as you take them. Carousel sorts all these memories by event so you can easily travel back in time to any photo from any date. And unlike other mobile galleries, the size of your Carousel isn’t constrained by the space on your phone, which means you can finally have your entire life’s memories in one place.

Sounds good. Note that this is a separate app rather than a new feature in the existing Dropbox app. Further evidence that the native app space is all around doing one thing well rather than cramming as much functionality into one app as possible (for another example see Facebook moving messaging out of the main FB app and forcing users into the dedicated messaging app).

Here’s a video with the details.

Carousel: Your entire life at your fingertips from Dropbox on Vimeo.

Next is an update to Mailbox, which was an iOS only email client. It’s now on Android too, and had introduced a new feature that learns from your use of it which emails you are likely to immediately archive, for example, so that in future it can automate that task for you.

An email client that deletes emails on your behalf? That’s one way to inbox zero!

The other updates relate to Dropbox for Business, rather than the consumer version that most people use (for free). One is that now users will have two Dropbox folders – one for personal stuff and one for work. The work one will be in the control of the employer, who will be able to remotely wipe files from ex-employees, or for other security reasons.

A second new feature is account transfer, which allows employers to move an account to another employee, due to promotions or other movements. Thirdly, a sharing audit function will enable an organisation to track who has seen what files.

These are important updates for Dropbox to be seen as a serious contender in the cloud storage and sharing space, particularly in bigger organisations. However the real game changer has only been hinted at, and that is Project Harmony, which will bring collaboration to Dropbox documents.

Dropbox say that Harmony will

let you see who’s editing a file, have a conversation with other editors, and keep copies in sync — all right inside the apps you already use

So it won’t matter if one person is editing a file in Word on a Mac and another using a different version of Word on Windows – real time collaboration will still be a possibility.

These are really interesting developments from Dropbox, and the cloud storage space is hotting up at the moment, with price drops from Google, and new feature announcements from the likes of Box too.

Which storage service is your current favourite and what are the features that matter most to you?

Asana – smart group task management

I’ve just got into using Asana to manage my projects, thanks to a tip from Simon Booth-Lucking at Claremont Communications.

It’s a great web-based task manager. What I really like about it is that it work on two levels – you can build a very simple task list very quickly, or you can do some much more sophisticated project management if that’s what you require.

It’s also great value. You can have as many projects as you like, shared with up to 15 people, all for free. Only if you go above the 15 person limit do you need to start paying.

Here’s a video introducing Asana. If you want to see some more demos of what it is capable of, then the YouTube channel is the place to go.

A GDS approach to internal systems? Please?

it-fed-upThe Government Digital Service is the UK government’s solution to the issue of ensuring that government services are accessible and usable for citizens online. Quite rightly they have received plaudits for their approach to service design and delivery.

This is set out in the service standard, a list of 26 criteria that digital services should meet. It’s a great list.

Having worked at pretty much every level of government there is, I certainly appreciate the need for citizen facing services to be of high quality. But that experience also makes me wonder just how much could be achieved if a similarly robust standard were taken to the design of systems used internally by government departments, councils, and so on.

Actually, make that all large organisations, regardless of sector.

After all, how much in cashable savings could be achieved if it took a minute rather than half an hour to log a leave request, or book some travel?

Or how about the design of some of the big applications that people use to do their work – big lumbering databases with godawful user interfaces which give everybody their dim view of technology and what it can do in the workplace?

I was chatting to Meg Pickard about this yesterday and she confirmed the vital importance of the end user need. Part of the issue here, Meg felt, was that internal systems such as the ones we were talking about were invisible to the public, and so demonstrating value to citizens is difficult – it could be perceived by some negatively, as civil servants spending time and money designing pretty tools for themselves.

There is also a potential danger that this discussion – venturing into areas marked by signed saying “Danger! ERP!” – could be seen as ocean boiling territory.

However, how hard would it be for a simple, usable travel or leave booking system to be built as an agile prototype and shared amongst organisations, just to prove it could be done?

After all, the app-ification of IT demonstrates that having single use applications tends to work pretty well for most people, rather than vast monolithic systems that try and use the same process to achieve different tasks.

What’s on your tablet, Matt China?

mattcMatt China previously worked in local government, where he championed new ways of working in his authority. Due to recent senior management restructure he is now looking for a new job, preferably with a more ‘agile’ organisation.

All offers can be sent to Matt via Twitter.

Which tablet do you use most?

Nexus 7

What do you use your tablet for most?

  • Email
  • Web browsing
  • Social networking
  • Note taking
  • E-reading

What are your favourite apps?

What add ons do you use with your tablet?

Poetic SLIMLINE Portfolio Case

What does your tablet not do that you really wish it could?

I wish I’d bought a 3g version so I am not reliant on WiFi connectivity (can tether to phone but this is very expensive).

What’s on your tablet? is a regular series of posts about how WorkSmart readers use their tablets. You can take part too – just fill in the survey.

Hipchat – neat group instant messaging app

Hipchat looks a neat tool for those teams with remote workers in particular.

Group chat is a fantastic tool for a distributed team because of its persistence. You keep your chat window open all the time, dropping in and out when required. It reminds you that you’re part of a team and that there are people out there you can chat to when you need to.

Hipchat seems a really nice implementation of this idea. It’s web based but also has desktop and mobile apps for all the major platforms.

Key features include a searchable archive of conversations, secure access, file sharing and the ability to spin up quick video chats when required.

What’s really nice is that is it free for teams of up to five – meaningful that for a small group, it’s perfect.

Here’s a video that explains more.

Fixing email : inbox zero

merlinmannSo I posed a fair few questions in my last post about email. How about some solutions?

Here’s one – inbox zero.

Inbox zero is… what? A methodology? A process? A mindset? Who knows. What we do know is that it is the brainchild of Merlin Mann, a productivity expert from the US.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Email’s just a medium
  • One place for anything
  • Process to zero
  • Convert to actions

Here’s the video from a few years ago whee Mann discussed the topic in detail.

If you don’t have time to watch that, here’s the quick version:

For every email you read, you should do one of the following things: delete it forever, archive it for reference, delegate it to someone else, respond immediately, or turn it into an action that you will execute at a later time or date.

In other words, move emails on fast. Get them out of your inbox and into the trash, in your archive, forward it on, reply, or make it an action.

People often make emails into actionable items by leaving them in their inbox, but this is bad. Instead, create a task in your todo list and then delete or archive the email. At the very least, have a folder in your email system called ‘Actions’ and drop it into there.

The keys to inbox zero are: first, that you recognise that actually you only receive a handful of emails every day that are worth more than a very cursory amount of your time. Second, your email software is good for receiving and sending email and that’s it. Third, get those worthwhile emails out of your inbox and into a more appropriate tool as quick as you can.

Have you tried inbox zero? How did you get on?

Why email often sucks

inboxOf all the systems we use at work, we probably spend more time in our email than anything else. I’d honestly say that at least 50% of my work is spent reading and responding to email. I’d wager that for some of you that percentage is even higher.

So, we spend a lot of time emailing, and this depresses people. Reading and writing email doesn’t feel like proper work – it ought to be a tool to let us do our work!

So why does email suck so much?

1) There is too much of it

This can’t be put down to just filter failure. There is too much email. The curse of the carbon copy is part of the issue here – for a number of reasons many people feel the need to copy all and sundry in on emails – often as a way to cover their own backs.

At the same time, most people working in big organisations have tiny mailboxes available to them. Regular users of services like Google Apps, with its vast 40GB mailbox size might be surprised to learn that some people in big organisations are only able to store 10MB of email at any one time.

The constant mithering about deleting email and reducing inbox size doesn’t help and only adds to the frustration.

2) People use it to do the wrong things

Here are a few examples:

  • Sending a short note to just one person? Maybe it would be better to send an instant message.
  • Can you see the person you’re emailing? If so, why not go and talk to them instead?
  • Sending a file round to lots of people to have a look at? Maybe it would be better to use a file sharing service like Dropbox.
  • Emailing a bunch of people to arrange a meeting? Maybe a scheduler like Doodle would be more effective.
  • Keeping an email because it has an important file attached to it? Save that file somewhere accessible where you can easily find it again
  • Emailing a group to have a discussion about a topic? Why not use a system that properly threads a conversation, so it’s much easier to see who is saying what to whom?
  • Hanging onto an email to remind you to do something? Use a task manager instead

…etc

3) Email software is often a bit rubbish

Big corporate email systems often don’t work terribly well, and sometimes encourage bad email behaviour.

One of the major problems is with search – hunting down a particular email is often very difficult. How many times have you seen an email covering previously agreed ground, because the email in which the original decision chain appeared in can’t be found?

A lot of modern email applications are seriously complicated too. Outlook for example has its fans as well as detractors, but nobody could suggest it features an uncluttered interface.

Given how much time we spend in these applications, it’s a real problem that they aren’t that bit more intuitive to use.

4) Lack of context

Once you get past one or two replies to a conversation, email conversations lose their thread pretty quickly, especially when different people get added halfway through.

One of the innovations in the last few years to help tackle this problem is conversation threading, where all the messages relating to a specific thread are kept together. However this is usually implemented – as far as I can see – using the subject line as the key for the thread, which means that unrelated emails that use the same subject line get caught up in the net.

Also – how many people do you know who just hit reply to an irrelevant email to send one on another topic, without bothering to edit the subject line?

5) Vague etiquette

While nobody would ever admit to not knowing how to use email, there are some vague areas where it’s pretty hard to be sure what you should do.

How about:

  • if you are cc’d (or even bcc’d) on an email, does that mean you should reply, or are you included just for info?
  • Is top posting allowed these days, or ought every reply be inline?
  • Is it acceptable for someone replying to an email to add people to the distribution, or even take them off?
  • When should you reply all, and when not?

Fundamentally…

…there’s nothing wrong with email itself. It remains a tremendously helpful way of sending information from one place to another in a speedy way, where an instant response isn’t required.

Often it is just poorly used, and that’s probably because the right tools for the job just aren’t available. More on that in another post.

Simple private mobile communities with Glassboard

gbGlassboard is a neat cross platform (iOS, Android, Web) app that helps people to communicate within teams while on the move.

You download the app – or use the web version – and create a ‘board’ which is where you post messages and files. Then you invite people to join that board, and only they and you have access to what is posted there.

Even better, you can choose to have people join by using an invite code rather than receiving a specific invite. This means that, for example, you could create a board for all the members of an email newsletter to join to be able to chat. Just include the invite code in the email, and all those who you want to have access can do so.

It works really nicely on smartphones – the web interface is a bit clunky, but then, it’s made for mobile I think. It also is a nice, more lightweight alternative to a Yammer network, which can sometimes feel like taking a sledgehammer to a nut, I find, when all you want to do is have a quick chat now and again with a group.

Glassboard is free for 3 boards. For unlimited boards and a few other features, you can go premium for a very reasonable $5 per month.