Tools for Higher Productivity

On August 8, 2009, in Good Advice, by Steffen Itterheim

Today i’d like to take a step away from work and let you all know what kept me from posting here. In other words: what made me so productive over the last two weeks. Getting your work organized certainly helps but with the right tools you can switch to the next gear.

The first thing you’ll need if you’re working with a Team of 4+ people and no shared office is a task planning tool. For our purposes it needed to be an Agile tool, moreover it should fit well into the concepts of Scrum. And after we considered and even tried out a couple of web-based tools we just gave up. The tool we wanted didn’t seem to exist. Or it came with a hefty price tag. One tool that was recommended to us was Clocking IT but we ended up not using it. It seems alright but it’s one of those tools that just has too many things in one, instead of doing just one thing and doing it right. Maybe it was seeing the GANTT charts that put us off, like a bad memory of past days when we didn’t know any better.

Picture-5 And that’s where Acunote fell in place. Out of nothing came a tool none of us has ever heard of and it fulfilled almost all of our expectations! It allows you to track time according to Agile Development principles and for up to 5 users it’s free. It lets you organize your tasks in a Backlog and Sprints and tracks all changes with beautifully simple burndown charts. Overall it works fast and elegantly, allowing you to change important aspects of each task inline – it avoids the dreaded web-based app productivity that follows the principle of: click item, load new page, scroll/select, make change, save change, load previous page, re-orient yourself. Instead, you just click on the Task Decription, Priority, Owner, Estimation and so on, make your change, leave the text field and your change is saved automatically. This is so much better than planning tasks with, say, Jira Issue Tracker for example.

Speaking of which … the guys at Atlassian who are making the Jira Issue Tracker are also the developers of the Confluence Wiki. As much as i’m not a big fan of Jira due to it’s complexity, the Confluence Wiki makes up for that big time. Confluence is the tool you want to use for documenting your team efforts. This is the tool you want to use for any collaborative efforts on the Web or Intranet, period. For spreading information, for keeping a record of changes, for writing FAQs and protocols, for collecting notes and news. It looks and feels more like a Content Management System than a Wiki. Yes, there are other Wikis around and yes, i know, those are free and don’t cost $800 like Confluence (UPDATE: Confluence now available for only $10!) and yes, they also have a shitload of features! But let me be straight with you even though you might not agree: free Wikis suck!

Admittedly some more, some less. But most suck so much … well, don’t even get me started on this topic. I’m sorry, i’ve tried my fair share of Wiki systems and they all fall short when it comes to Usability, Extensibility, Ease of Installation and Administration, Linking Content, and a host of other things like encouraging users to contribute – after all that’s what Wikis are made for and that’s where most of them fall short. This is so ridiculous i can’t believe it. Hence my aggravated tone of disappointment and frustration now. Those free Wikis are often downright ugly and have a terrible syntax, even for a Programmer’s mind. They fail to implement WYSIWYG editing – oh, sure, the feature lists want you to believe it’s WYSIWYG editing but their definition of WYSIWYG is that you select some text, click a button, and then it inserts whatever wiki markup is necessary to render the page. You don’t see the text being printed in bold, italic, underlined, headlined, tabular, or whatever until you click save (or preview). That is not WYSIWYG! So don’t even think of seating anyone but programmers and the occassional nerd in front of any of the free Wiki systems. Well, maybe if you do just that you might get along. Personally, i exclusively use the Wiki markup editor in Confluence because i’m an occupational nerd being a programmer and all, plus the syntax is so smooth. Nevertheless it’s always good to know that less technical staff can just stick with the Rich Text Editor – much like in WordPress – to write their texts. Speaking of which: WordPress also has a cool Rich Text Editor – why can’t most of the free Wikis? Again: ridiculous!

Picture 2 I’m sorry if this seems rude and Wiki developers worldwide take offense. I appreciate your efforts. But when it comes to having a Wiki that inspires people to be productive and pro-active then there’s just no way around doling out a couple hundred bucks and buying Confluence. Plus you can even get it cheaper, for example if you’re an Open Source software project you can apply for a free license. Why not try this and spoil your users?

Well, let me tell you this: we thought we could do without spending money on Confluence. We were so wrong! After several hours failing to install Foswiki on my webhost we tried our luck with TikiWiki. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to use it some 5 years ago and god forbid if there was ever something more dreadful and just plain wrong. For example, having the Bold, Italic and Underline icons seperated between several other completely unrelated icons showed to great effect how little the developers understood Usability and user expectations. But TikiWiki seemed to have come a long way since then judging from it’s webpage. And it did, and it actually worked on the web host and everything. Just … no one used it. We ended up having some 5-10 pages or so. Not even i could get myself writing in TikiWiki after i’ve spent hours installing and configuring it. The font is too small, it’s visually cluttered, it keeps logging you out, it keeps losing your draft pages, it takes too much effort to do even the normal tasks and it actually does a good job of hiding your content from viewing it or presenting it in a way that feels engaging. It is still such a far cry from the Confluence Wiki. Click the link in the last sentence and try it yourself. The pagetree on the left is such an amazing and intuitive tool that i can’t believe why this hasn’t become standard on the web. After all, it’s a well-known and perfectly understood element of any modern Desktop Operating System!

So, tell me again … why is it that Wikis by design do not support a tree-like page structure, with new pages automatically becoming the child of the current page? Of course, Wikis are supposed to be interlinked in numerous ways and a tree-like structure would be detrimental. Or would it? We’ve worked this way with files for as long as i can remember, why should it somehow not work in organizing your Wiki pages, especially if your goal is to use them for documentation? After all, you can still link from anywhere to everywhere and have a tree-like page structure. It’s ridiculous. Oh, have i said that already?

Aaaaand by the way … it may sound like it but i have no affiliation with Acunote or Atlassian nor do i sell their products. I just love using them, so call me a fan boy. 😉