Qumana woes

Well, I was going to make this a really cool first post from Qumana, the easy to use desktop blog editor … but I can’t get it to connect to any of my WordPress.com accounts (I currently have nine!).

I get this error:

Error trying to retrieve your blog information.
sun.security.validator.ValidatorException: PKIX path validation failed:

There may be more, but that’s all I can see.

I’ve got it to connect to the other place, which is a stand-alone WordPress.org installation but not to our Web Team blog which is another.

How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.

Finding OpenSearch

Back in July at the IWMW 2008 conference — during those heady three days of summer we experienced in Aberdeen — I was introduced to a specification called OpenSearch, by someone I’d been following on Twitter who introduced himself as Mike Nolan of Edge Hill University, near Ormskirk.

What is OpenSearch?

If you use Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer 7 then you may already have encountered OpenSearch without knowing it. You may be familiar with the built-in search box within Firefox:

Screenshot of the Firefox search box

Well, OpenSearch is the technology that enables folks to provide plugins for that search box so that you can search their website from within the comfort of your browser’s own search box.

In other words, the reason that you can select from Google, Yahoo! Amazon, Creative Commons, eBay.co.uk and Wikipedia from your search box’s drop-down menu is because each of these companies created an OpenSearch description (plugin) file which has been installed within the search box on your browser.

Create your own

OpenSearch allows you to do the same for your own website, and the good news is that it’s fabulously simple. All that is required is:

  1. A short, well-formed XML file, written following the OpenSearch specifications
  2. A link to that file, within the <head> element of your webpage

This week I created three opensearch plugins for the University website. One for searching the whole site, one for searching the Current Students section, and another for the Current Staff section of the site.

If you’re using either Firefox or IE7 then head over to www.st-andrews.ac.uk and you’ll notice that your search box glows a little, indicating the presence of a new OpenSearch plugin. (Check out Edge Hill while you’re at it, they’ve got one too.)

OpenSearch cheat sheet

While I was researching the OpenSearch specification I also took the trouble to create an OpenSearch cheat sheet — it’s spread over 2 x A4 pages, and the type is fabulously small, but it captures just about everything that I discovered was useful for me to successfully create and test the OpenSearch description documents that I created.

Feel free to download it:

  • OpenSearch cheat sheet 1.5 (PDF, 50 KB)

Scottish Web Folk

Tomorrow I’m giving a short presentation at the Scottish Web Folk meeting in Glasgow on OpenSearch, Microformats and adding search box hint text using the jQuery library.

My slides for the talk are embedded at the top of the page, and are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 UK:Scotland Licence.

A very creative year so far …

Right Twin - week 19
Right twin at 19 weeks

In many ways 2008 has been a very odd year for me, for many reasons. Of course it opened with the IVF procedures that led to Jane discovering that she was pregnant, that led to us discovering that she was pregnant with twins.

During the last six months we’ve been filled with delight, trepidation, excitement, nervousness, wonder, a whole spectrum of emotions. And here we are now at week 27.

For those who don’t know, a full-term pregnancy is generally regarded to be 40 weeks. Twins, we’re told, generally make an appearance early, round about weeks 35-37. So we could have another 10 weeks; we could have more, we could have less. We’ll continue to trust God, and wait in quiet expectation.

I was born to reflect and not shine

It’s been a funny year where I’ve blogged a whole lot less, but gone out and done a whole lot more — but then didn’t come back here and share it with you all … sorry about that, but I guess I’ve needed that time to reflect. I’ve felt myself go deeper within myself — go into my ‘cave’, Jane might say — and reflect on where I am, who I am, and what it means to be expecting children: two, at once!

I’m not entirely sure where I am, or what to expect, it’s all a very new experience for me. But one thing I can say with certainty is that I’m really looking forward to meeting the boys now, and I’ll certainly give it my best shot.

I learned a lot of good things from my own dad, hopefully I can pass some of that love and laughter on to my own boys, and make up some weird nonsense of my own to hand on to them!

I just really wish that Dad was still here to meet them too when they arrive. (Again, for those who don’t know: my Dad had a triple brain haemorrhage in 1983, was really quite ill for about 15 years and died shortly after New Year in 1998. Ten years ago: another contribution to the oddness of 2008.)

New design

But 2008 also opened with another creative process: the redesign of the University of St Andrews website, which was launched to the public (having been in what I guess we could call ‘closed beta’ if we wanted to go all Web 2.0 with y’all) last night.

Here’s a screenshot of the external homepage:

Screenshot of University of St Andrews website
Screenshot of the new design for the University of St Andrews website.

“But… didn’t you just launch a new design last year?! Why do you need another new design?” Quite a few folk have asked us that over the course of the last few months, and it’s a good question to ask.

When we did the first relaunch of the University site it was more than just a new visual design, it was a completely new website: new design, new architecture, new way to update and manage the content, new … everything.

We designed and built the site according to the excellent wireframes that had been developed in collaboration with us by Dynamic Diagrams, an information architecture company from the States. They were great, we learned a lot from them, and for me that was one of the most exciting parts of the project.

Listening

But like any design, the then-new design was a “best bet”, it was the closest that we got to what we perceived we would need from the site. So we built it, launched it and let it settle in for six months while all the time listening for where the design wasn’t working properly, where we needed more flexibility, and crucially: what the users were asking for.

We got a little more explicit by inviting both staff and students to feedback sessions over lunch, where we bribed them with food to tell us what they really thought of the site, what they liked about the site, what they felt could be done better, and what was missing.

I went into those sessions expecting to feel very defensive, but came out of all three sessions feeling quite buoyed and encouraged. It felt good to listen to our ‘customers’, and from the feedback from those sessions mixed in with our own collation of ideas from helpdesk calls, as well as our own thoughts and observations we set about redesigning the site. And this time we didn’t touch the structure (much), we looked instead solely at the visual design and its functionality.

New design

We wanted something that was:

  • Clean, fresh and contemporary
  • Not too far from what we already had
  • Easy to maintain, and extend
  • Compatible with the most number of browsers (old and new)

The site itself is built on the Blueprint CSS framework, with a number of tweaks, which helped us address most of these requirements.

What was particularly impressive about Blueprint was how it allowed us to ‘sketch’ designs in code faster than we were able to do it with a graphic design package. And nothing looks more like a web page than a web page!

So for the last seven months or so I’ve been diligently working on the code, often times taking it home to work on in the evenings and at the weekend. I’ve working on it some nights past 01:00, and some mornings before 05:00.

It really has been a labour of love, but then … I believe in the University of St Andrews, and I love my job. St Andrews is where I did my undergraduate degree, I feel an incredible loyalty to the place and sincerely want to do the best for the University.

Launch

So at five pm last night we scheduled the new site to launch … and ran away!

At home we waited with baited breath while the new design for the University of St Andrews website was published to the public web server, and then breathed a sigh of relief that we’d got most of the planning right.

There were a couple of sections (sport, music, UTREC) that we’d overlooked and had published out with the wrong design, but on the whole it went without a hitch.

… until there was a serious power outage in St Andrews during the afternoon today and all our systems (including the web server) went down! You can’t have everything … like a new design and the ability to look at it!

And relax!

Curmudgeons

Seriously?! There’s a group on Facebook called: “1,000,000 AGAINST THE NEW FACEBOOK LAYOUT!

Come on folks … it’s called progress. Everything changes.  Even you.  Are you the same person you were five years ago?  I think not.

Right, I’m off to start a new group called “1,000,000 AGAINST THE NEW UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS WEBSITE LAYOUT”.

Hah! That’ll show those meddling Web managers…!