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ross | Itomic Web Design Perth & Melbourne September 13, 2017

Help Me Help You. What makes a great software bug report

By Ross Gerring

At Itomic we love helping our customers.

Tom Cruise saying "Help Me Help You"

We know that they love the convenience of being able to send an email to our support email address. This action automatically creates a support ticket for them. Thereafter, they can choose to continue the support conversation 100% via email. And/or they can choose to login to our support ticket system to view and manage all current and historical tickets.

But there’s a problem.

By allowing emails to be sent as support requests – instead of forcing clients to fill in structured online forms – the helpfulness of the information initially provided can vary a lot. Often our first (human) response is to ask them to provide all the missing information that will help us to help them better and faster. Anyone who’s ever been the recipient of tech support requests via email will know what we’re talking about.

What’s the solution?

Education. Helping our clients to help us to help them, by letting them know what a great software bug report looks like.

But we can’t expect clients to remember this all the time, to keep a bug report checklist pinned to their monitors.

So this is what we’ve done: each time a new support request is received by email, the auto-response received by the sender contains a brief list of what makes a great software bug report. Sure, it might be too late for the support request they’ve just made.  But we reckon that, over time, this information can only produce better and better results – for everyone.

And what does this checklist look like? Here it is:

  1. Does you website appear to be down (offline)? Is so, use this excellent tool to see if it’s down for the rest of the world, or just you:
  2. A screenshot is worth 1,000 words.
  3. Impact? Is this a mission critical showstopper, or more of an annoyance?
  4. When was the issue first spotted, approximately?
  5. If you’re seeing an error message, please tell us exactly what it says (if the screenshot doesn’t).
  6. Steps to reproduce the issue? If someone else reported this to you, can you reproduce yourself? If we (Itomic) can’t reproduce it, then the issue is *probably* localised to a single PC or your local area network, and you may need to contact your local PC/network support person for additional support.
  7. Is the issue intermittent or permanent?
  8. URL (website address) where the problem is occurring?
  9. Do you have to be logged-in to see the issue? If so, which account are you logged in as (typically an email address)?
  10. Can you think of anything that’s happened recently to your site that might have triggered this issue? Major content edits? Users being added/deleted? New add-ons installed?

Suggestions for improvement always welcome!

ross | Itomic Web Design Perth & Melbourne March 27, 2013

Getting great website service and support from Itomic the pre-paid way

By Ross Gerring

I wrote this article about Itomic pre-paid service contracts nearly 3.5 years ago, and it’s still good today! But we still feel a timely reminder/update is in order.

There’s no such thing as a finished website. There’s always more you could do. What’s more, sometimes websites “break” all by themselves. Put all that together and it means that you’re highly likely to need some degree of ongoing service and support for your website after it goes live. And the best way to get it from Itomic? Easy: pre-paid service contracts. Clients who stay in credit with Itomic by pre-paying for their website service and support enjoy the following benefits:

  1. Lower hourly rates (up to 15% discount).
  2. No 30 minute minimum charge.
  3. Up to 1 year “insurance” against future rate rises.
  4. Reduced admin time/fees (yours and ours) because we’re raising less invoices.

Why wouldn’t you?!

ross | Itomic Web Design Perth & Melbourne February 11, 2013

Top 10 Brutal Website Truths from the Trenches

By Ross Gerring

Building and owning a website can and should be a positive and rewarding experience. But just like starting a new business, it’s tempting to focus on the easy and positive aspects of the new venture, and to ignore the hard (or even negative) parts!

Here’s our top 10 list of the “hard parts” that existing website owners know about, but new ones might not. Forewarned is forearmed!

  1. A website is never finished.
  2. Testing and bug fixing is a normal and necessary phase of your website. It will take longer than you expect.
  3. There’s no such thing as a bug-free website.
  4. There’s no such thing as an unhackable website, even when your site is fully updated with the latest security patches.
  5. Ensure your website is fully updated with the latest security patches. Either DIY (if you have the time and skills) or pay a professional to do it for you.
  6. Estimating (software development) is difficult. It’s not an exact science, even when your project is clearly defined.
  7. Even when your project is clearly defined, you will almost certainly want to change the scope during the project lifecycle.
  8. 100% future-proofing your site is impossible given the extreme pace of change of technology.
  9. Your site will likely have a lifespan of about 3-7 years before a major upgrade or rebuild is appropriate.
  10. If your website needs lots of people to visit your site to be successful, it will most likely require a marketing investment that is substantially greater than the initial cost to design and build it.

ross | Itomic Web Design Perth & Melbourne November 14, 2012

Why do websites break all by themselves?

By Ross Gerring

One of the most frustrating aspects of owning a website is that sometimes they “break”. One day something was working just fine, the next day not.

So for example, one day your ‘Contact Us’ form is successfully sending emails to your sales team, and the next day it’s not. Or yesterday customers could successfully complete a purchase on your e-commerce store, but today they can’t. Or today a link on your website to another website works just fine, but tomorrow it shows as a broken link. Annoying!

It can be time consuming and therefore expensive to fix a broken site. Cause and effect is, on occasions, far from obvious. For example, sometimes a coding change in one part of a site can have an undesirable knock-on effect in an apparently unrelated part of the site. Or perhaps a problem is being reported by one or more of your customers, but you’re struggling to reproduce the error yourself.

Particularly aggravating is where, apparently, no-one actually did anything to the site itself. It appeared to break all by itself. How is this possible?

The bottom line is that websites and related public-facing technologies operate in an extremely dynamic (some would say ‘hostile’!) environment. There are lots and lots of things going on around a website that can cause things to break, temporarily (yes, some issues appear to fix themselves!) or permanently, until a web developer or other IT professional is able to fix things up.

Here are a few reasons how and why websites sometimes appear to break all by themselves:

  1. Browser changes/versions, i.e. changes to the software that people use to view and interact with your website. A website can only be future-proofed to a degree. So your website might work just great on Internet Explorer 9, but a subtle difference when you upgrade to Internet Explorer 10 causes your site to misbehave. But don’t forget that there are multiple browsers (e.g. IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari), multiple versions of those browsers, multiple operating systems and versions upon which these browser run (Windows, Mac, Linux), and multiple hardware platforms that run all this software (PCs, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Changes in *any* of these have a tiny but real potential to impact how a website behaves.
  2. Software updates, e.g. security patches. These can, and typically need to, occur directly to your site, and/or the software environment around them (e.g. to the web server, operating system, database, or programming language used by your site). Apparently innocent and well-intentioned updates to any of these components has the slight but real potential to break your site to some degree or another.
  3. User error. Today’s Content Management Systems (e.g. WordPress, Drupal) are powerful things! They can give potentially inexperienced users the ability to manipulate websites in a multitude of ways, i.e. far more than just managing text content. Despite the best of intentions, a CMS user might make a change to a site, unaware that it has unintended consequences for other parts (e.g. functionality) of a site. And sometimes it can be very challenging for a support person to trace the problem back to the actions of the CMS user.  Too many administrative users opens up the potential for errors on the site.  We suggest limiting the roles and permissions to one or two key people, with more ‘basic’ roles allocated to staff who only need to edit content etc.
  4. Changes/updates to 3rd party systems or software. Perhaps that ‘Contact Us’ form on your site is working just fine, but the mail server that receives and stores your email is misbehaving. Or maybe your site integrates with Twitter or Facebook, but Twitter or Facebook just made a fundamental change to the rules by which sites are allowed to integrate with them. Or maybe the 3rd party service that processes credit card payments on your site is experiencing technical difficulties. Or that page on another website that you were linking from your site is broken because the other site just had a major update with lots of renamed pages.
  5. Hardware failure, e.g. errors on a hard drive causing intermittent glitches.
  6. Computer viruses. A computer virus on a PC can make a web site do very strange things.
  7. Pop-up blockers, or other software specific to the IT environment of the website visitor. So things like anti-virus or parental control software (e.g. Net Nanny) can cause apparent problems on a website – such as making it appear completely unavailable  – but without the computer user understanding why.
  8. Firewalls. Some organisations – typically government – have very “locked down” IT environments. A website operates perfectly when viewed outside the organisation, but misbehaves when viewed inside the organisation.

What’s the solution? In the first instance it’s about education so that people have a better understanding of the challenges. After that it’s all about the speed and efficiency with which issues are identified, reported and, ultimately, resolved. And ideally, whatever is learned from each experience, should be used to build more robust systems in the future.

ross | Itomic Web Design Perth & Melbourne August 23, 2011

On Websites and Business Success

By Ross Gerring

Here at Itomic we love helping people and companies achieve new or improved business success. It’s a given in business these days that good looking, highly functional, integrated, and well-marketed websites and associated services are key – if not critical – business success enablers.

Most websites we provide consultancy, design, development and hosting services for are in support of existing ‘bricks and mortar’ businesses. Sometimes we provide services for new, fully online (‘virtual’) businesses. They might be original ideas, or they might be copy-cat versions, or variations, of existing websites.

What if we think your idea isn’t commercially viable*?

(*My septuagenarian Dad just read this article and didn’t approve of the work “sucks”, so I changed it to “commercially viable”. Thanks Dad!)

Is it our ethical or moral obligation to advise you of this – and if so, how forcibly, and when? Should we decline to work on your project because we don’t think it’ll be a success? If a big, overweight bloke goes into a top mountaineering supplies store and announces “I want to climb Everest, and I want you guys to kit me out with the best gear for the job”, should they refuse to serve him because you think his chances of summiting are low to zero?

Or perhaps what we think about the commercial viability of your project is irrelevant? Our #1 responsibility is always to do everything we can, using the skills and experiences we have available, to give your project the very best chance of success, irrespective of our own personal evaluation of commercial viability. So if we truly believe that we are a great service provider (we do!), then surely it’s better that we give it our very best shot at helping you achieve business success, than throwing in the towel and encouraging you to choose a potentially less capable, less experienced provider of web services?

Here’s a supporting argument in favour of the second approach: unless explicitly stated and (better still!) suitably qualified, website consultants/designers/developers are not business advisers/consultants. Neither are we angel investors who would comprehensively evaluate your idea before risking their investment dollars. In short, your website developer is not qualified to give you a truly holistic assessment of the likelihood of the success of your online venture, and it’s a healthy sign when they recognise this in themselves!

It’s our opinion and recommendation that all owners/shareholders of online business ventures recognise that *they* are the primary entrepreneurs / risk takers in their ventures, and not the persons or companies who provide services towards (hopefully!) making their ventures a great success. By all means ask the opinions of multiple service providers in terms of the commercial viability of your venture. But it’s essential that you give appropriate weight to the opinions you receive based on the skills, experience, specialities, track record – and biases – of those giving it. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the euphoria of entrepreneurship and opportunity, thereby losing commercial perspective. At the end of the day, the decision on whether or not to “screw it, let’s do it” (in the words of Richard Branson!) is yours to make. You wear the costs, you reap the rewards.

To this end, we’re very happy to share our clause on this issue in our standard terms and conditions document. Feel free to use in yours:

Itomic builds websites with a view to maximising the likelihood of successful outcomes.  However we make no predictions or guarantees about the commercial viability of a website venture. Success is the result of multiple factors, a great website being one of them. In the event that our opinion on the commercial viability of a website venture is asked for, then our opinion should be obtained in written form and authorised by a company representative. This opinion should be weighed against advice from other expert consultants such as accountants, business advisers, entrepreneurs, marketing firms, etc.

Final thought: whenever I catch myself “judging” the commercial viability of project pitched to me, I always remind myself that when I first saw Google, I thought to myself “No chance! Too little, too late.”. Need I say more?

P.s. I just read on Wikipedia that “early in 1999, while still graduate student, [Larry] Page and [Sergey] Brin decided that the search engine they had developed [Google] was taking up too much of their time from academic pursuits. They went to Excite CEO George Bell and offered to sell it to him for $1 million. He rejected the offer“. That makes me feel much better!