4 Tools to organize your life

modern-working-desk-2

Very few people manage to establish a fundamentalist separation between their work spaces and their homes. Normally our work follows us home; our shores chase us to work and they both follow us outside.

How many times – for instance– have we arrived at the office only to find that the file we worked on all night was left on the computer at home? How many times have we asked ourselves where’s that little paper where we wrote down that address?  And what about those times when we’re outside and need to send or deliver a copy of some ID document?

Has this happened to you? Do you want to fix it?

1. Access another computer remotely

Imagine you’ve just left an important file at home or that you want to check from a distance an old email you’ve got at the office.

Today, you don’t need to be in front of a machine to access it. You can simply install LogMeIn on the computer you’ll be needing access to and then, by using a password protected account, you can control it from any other computer using a browser.

I use LogMeIn all the time to provide technical support to my family and reply in just three minutes questions like “how do I set double space in Word?” or “I received an email and can’t open it”.

LogMeIn

2. Store your documents in the cloud

What do you do when you need to take a file with you to keep working on it? Do you send it via email? Do you copy it on a pen drive? What if you forget to send or copy the last version?

Dropbox is a free service to store and share documents between several devices, in real time. You get 2GB for free and you can get more for free if you invite your friends!

You only need to install a small application in the computers you regularly use. This application creates a special folder in your hard drive. Everything you copy there is automatically copied through the internet and then back to all the computers in which you’ve installed Dropbox. Do you need to take a file or a photo? You can copy it in the folder and you’re all set.

Or better yet, you keep it on that folder all the time and each modification is automatically updated in every one of your machines.

It’s worth noting that after sync up, you can access the Dropbox content even without being online.

Would you like to access your folder in a different machine, for instance, at a cyber café or another person’s computer without installing the application? No problem. You can log in to your account from the Dropbox website and load and upload files.

I have all my personal documents in a password protected Dropbox folder: driver’s license, ID card, passport, copies of my credit cards, plane tickets, hotel reservations. If I lose something, I know I’ve got access to a copy from any place with an internet connection.

Dropbox also allows you to share a subfolder with other Dropbox users. I use these shared folders all the time to manage work projects with other people. At the office we have a shared folder for each client and in it we add and edit files together and we always have the latest version. No confusion and no problems of misplaced files.
Dropbox

3. Centralize your notes and check them anywhere

Do you have post-its on your desk, notes on a pad or spread around your laptop and mobile? I used to have a notebook where I kept all my work notes, but always left it somewhere. Afterwards, I started taking notes on my phone, but the process of passing those notes to the laptop or converting those notes into an email, was a hassle. Until I discovered  Evernote.

The magic of Evernote is that no matter where you take these notes, they sync up in all the devices where you’ve installed Evernote. Whether it’s a Mac, PC, Palm, Blackberry, iPhone, Android or Windows Mobile or even, if the machine is not yours, you can create and check your notes on a browser.

I use it constantly, not only to take notes, but to work on current documents, write and edit posts like this one that I might have started on using a laptop and am now completing in my phone, underground (and once I have signal again, the note will sync up automagically).

Evernote also allows you to upload photos, voice notes or websites. The free version provides you with 40MB for monthly uploads, which is about 2000 notes, 400 cellphone pictures or 40 audio clips a month, which is more than enough.
Evernote

4. Keep a universal to-do list

For a long time, I carried a long to-do list in the notebook I previously mentioned. But every time I forgot the notebook, I’d find myself doing irrelevant tasks at the worst times. So I decided to find a tool that would allow me to manage a to-do list that was accessible anywhere, and that’s how I discovered Toodledo.

Toodledo is a web application that allows you to input activities, assign them a project, a context (where you’ll be performing them), a ranking and an execution date. This way, you can truly empty your brain of all your to-do’s and focus on what needs to be done each day while providing some structure to your life.

By being a web app, the list can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. If you have an iPhone, you can even manage your to-do list offline and the tasks will sync up once you go online.

The service offers a free version and two others where you have to pay. But the paying ones are ridiculously inexpensive ($30/year is the most expensive one). I recommend you start with the free version and see how that goes.

The main problem with to-do lists is that we need something on those to-do lists that reminds us to check our to-do list. It’s a matter of discipline. Having a list of things we need to do and knowing how to manage it are one of the key concepts to a healthy life and if you don’t stop me, I could go on for hours on things like GTD, MIT and other techniques.

Toodledo
Another alternative:

Since early 2011, Wunderlist is the darling of personal organizers. This web application is a multiplatform and allows the lists that you create in the computer to automatically sync up with the ones you carry on your mobile and vice versa. Its super easy to use and a delight for your sight.

Wunderlist.

Stop punishing your users and learn some design fundamentals

usability_testing

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how bad in-house enterprise applications look and behave: clashing color combinations, buttons that don’t respond to clicks, messy forms, elements that look like links but aren’t, inconsistent non-standard controls, no user feedback whatsoever, ugly reports, you know the drill. It’s even more incredible how the poor users find the courage and patience to put up with those monstrosities.

Commercial applications are not exempt from this, although in lesser degrees, because they’re usually tested by real users. Master of all this is SAP, whose interface and user experience appears to have the sole purpose of making us feel miserable at our jobs. Even their Business Intelligence product, whose intention should be to provide a decent way for looking at data, empowers users to create notoriously ugly and unusable charts:

fig9_sapbwenbo

This doesn’t exclude industry darlings like Apple. They also have done their own missteps.

The reason behind all this is that most applications are done solely by engineers. Hey! Don’t get me wrong, I’m an engineer myself. But I also know –somewhat– the limits of my expertise.

With the massive adoption of smartphones and the fierce competition in the different app stores, now we have very well designed applications in the hands of millions. Beauties like Paper, Partly Cloudy, Clear, Instagram or even the mundane mobile Google Maps. Applications who manage the difficult task of being useful and beautiful at the same time.

Also web apps, like twitter, asana, wunderlist, Gmail and even Facebook are becoming more and more versed in good practices of user interface design. So, as an application developer you have more pressure by the users, or at least some kind of responsibility to create pleasant and usable applications.

 

Nothing beats an engaged user that loves an application which solves a problem for her and it’s a dream to use at the same time. You’ll have better bug reports, better testing and better rapport to top management. If your app doesn’t get someone excited about what it looks like, then you’re doing something wrong.

 

Ok, I’m a software developer. How do I stop punishing my users?

Use a framework

If you’re developing a web application, user Interface frameworks abound. I particularly like the all-inclusive Dojo and Ext JS. But you can use other standard ones like jQuery UI or yui. Frameworks make your life easier because usually someone who really knows about design has pre-thought things for you. That doesn’t mean that these libraries doesn’t have ux and ui failures (I’m looking at you, Ext JS grid), but still you’re better off using them than boldly deciding to develop your own.

If you’re not keen on using a full blown javascript library for user interface, at least get some help on the static side of things. I –and everyone else– am using twitter bootstrap at the moment.

 

Hire a designer

In 2005 I started incorporating designers in all of our development projects. We gave them the specs, the intended audience and our general usability idea. They provided the magic. From that moment onwards, people started telling us that our applications where much easier to use, and even beautiful. They went from “Meh” to “Wow! I love this!” in weeks. The change was absolutely amazing.

 

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel

Get some ideas from the best practices around. Sites like UI-Patterns will give you pointers on how to design login screen, error notifications and even forms. Copy the best practices and then innovate.

If you’re designing a Windows client application, you can take ideas from Quince. And please, oh please, at least take a look at the Windows User Experience Guidelines. No, you don’t know everything. You really need to read this.

 

If you cant’ afford a professional usability test, do the “mom” test

Put someone in your family to use your application. You’ll see how some incredible questions and suggestions emerge from these “regular users” sessions.

 

Learn some design sensibility

This is the toughest part. It will be very hard to convince yourself that you don’t have any design skills. But believe me, there are reasons why you ended up as a software developer and not in design school.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book changed my way of approaching design and opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of bad design on the web. An easy to follow book that teaches us engineers the basics about typography, alignment and general good design principles.

Also, I read an entire book on forms and it was a life-changer. If you’re doing some kind of enterprise application it will surely have a lot of forms. Forms that Work will teach you a couple or a dozen things you never knew or thought about designing usable forms.

I also keep a tab on Jakob Nielsen’s usability articles. It’s a great free resource of user experience commentary and the product of years of research on good design principles.

 

 

 

4 Tools for Working Remotely

Or how to telecommute without disappearing

This article belongs to the telecommuting and geographical independence series.

Empty desk with laptop in modern office

If there’s an aspect of the digital revolution that I’m passionate about, is the possibility we have to be omnipresent through technology. Thanks to mobile computing and the drop in telecommunication costs, everyday there’re fewer reasons to work in an unpleasant office, set in a particular location.

Surely, not all jobs can be performed remotely, but it’s also true that most of the times your job is the result of a personal decision.

Regardless whether you decide to work from home, or go to the other side of world, the key is to create the feeling that you are still there in the office, just as available.

So, let’s say that you decided to try this working remotely thing and you convinced your boss to let you do it. In order to virtualize yourself, you need to rely on certain technologies that you’re already familiar with; but I want to invite you to explore the possibility of optimizing their use:

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The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well

Rolf Potts, author of the essential Vagabonding, offers some pointers to release yourself from the endless production-consumption cycle and get the time to roam the world.

This notion — that material investment is somehow more important to life than personal investment — is exactly what leads so many of us to believe we could never afford to go vagabonding. The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget that there’s a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way to play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we’ll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.

Fortunately, the world need not be a consumer product. As with environmental integrity, long-term travel isn’t something you buy into: it’s something you give to yourself.

Continue reading The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well.

How to create effective presentations

my name is Bill Gates and I have something important to tell you

Aaaand off to a bad start… Most people that lead a professional life need to do presentations on a regular basis. Which is why it never seizes to amaze me that, consistently, almost all of the presentations that I see, suck.

Leaving halfway through the presentation really doesn’t solve anything. I mean, this evil energy will continue to exist even if I try to ignore it. Truth is I haven’t learned the right way to make suggestions to a presenter without having her break into tears. So, the only thing I can think of in this crusade against unproductivity is to write a post about it. I have no intention whatsoever to point out how to do a proper Power Point presentation. My goal is –as everything else here– to vent a little.

Surely, I’m not alone. Dozens of advocates of productivity porn have written about this in ways that i’ll never be able to. So let’s say that this is, at best, a summary of what I’ve read:

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