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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Membership Management Software and CRM

What is the difference between CRM and Membership Management? Isn't the latter just CRM for a member-based organization? This is the kind of discussion you hear over Italian cold-cuts on a ciabatta at our office.

The answer is: not really. Membership is where CRM meets Business Process Management. Typically we find that Membership is the part of our system that needs to be customized most intensively for an organization, to meet the complex business rules in place governing the membership plans.

We have found that the business rules governing membership tend to be more complex and less easy to generalize than in other areas of non-profit operations. It wasn't rocket science, for example, to create a structure that allows users to set up virtually any sort of discount scheme for their order entry and sales operations. It's way harder to generalize membership logic.

There are three sorts of business processes users want to incorporate into a Membership module:
  • Dues Amount Calculation
  • Dues Billing and Accounting
  • Membership Application Process.
Because of the centrality of these processes to the life of a membership organization, they tend to vary widely between organizations, to grow in complexity as time goes on, and to change relatively frequently as the board debates better ways to attract, retain, and serve members. Indeed, membership business process rules can reach what I consider the breaking point of complexity: where users are confounded by the behavior of the system because the rules are too complex to keep in mind. When this starts to occur, it is time to simplify.

Simplification can occur in two ways.

One is simplification the business process. Minimize the number of different member types. Use a uniform billing process across all your members. Simplify the algorithm for computing dues. Eliminate programs that support tiny numbers of members.

The other is simplification of the software. Don't require the system to handle cases that are really exceptions affecting very few members. For example, allowing the dues amounts in special cases to be entered by hand may eliminate a number of formulae for dues calculations that are used only in a few cases each. The tendency -- if the budget is available -- is to try to automate the full complexity of the board's mandated membership process. You may make everyone's life easier if you just say no.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Organic Non-profit SEO

SEO - Search Engine Optimization - has been a consulting hotspot for years. Everyone wants their website to come up near the top of the first page on major search engines. How is this magic done? A few years back, SEO professionals emphasized keywords... words hidden in the page that would match likely search terms. And knowing that engines like Google rank pages by "authority" -- by how many pages link to them - site owners were engaging in link exchanges and other less honest games to increase this statistic.

Organic SEO. Nowadays I'm seeing more emphasis on "organic SEO" -- using the actual semantics of the page, rather than arcane techniques, to increase page ranking. The fact that Google has backed away from keyword ranking is a major part of this. Organic SEO emphasizes correct titling, identifying each page as a landing for specific terms, and so on. And in terms of linking, this approach stresses the importance of social networking tools as well as Search. This posting by Daniel Riviong explores some of these social networking issues.

Many writers have emphasized the importance of blogging to SEO. The daily posts to your blog increase your site's "cross section" and thus the likelihood that a search will hit one of your entries. Then you just have to hope the reader will be pulled further into your organization's site by bait in your sidebars and headings. And of course, a well marketed blog can generate links. Wendy Boswell offers several tips along this line in her article on blogs and SEO.

Unintended SEO. But blogging also generates a great deal of what I call "unintended SEO." These are pages that rank highly on subjects only marginally -- or perhaps not at all -- related to your central focus. Some of the most highly read pages on this blog are found because of their high ranking on unlikely searches. Such hits make your page load count look good. But they do not get you donors, or customers, or regular readers -- whatever it is you are looking for.

I've been able to isolate "clever" titling as the real culprit here. Since the title is weighed heavily in searches, use of simile or metaphor in your title pulls lots of lost souls into your site. For example, I have a very high ranking for Bricklaying Technology. Great. I also get hit daily by people trying to learn the meaning of the English idiom "Like Pulling Teeth." They don't stick around either. It's painful to lower your literary standards to please some stupid spider that could give a damn about your subtle use of irony. But if your goal is to pull in readers who will support your organization, not masons, or dentists studying English as a Second Language - it pays to use straightforward titles.

Unintended SEO can also arise when you write an article on a popular subject somewhat removed from your usual subject matter. For example, I wrote a piece a while back on how to embed a YouTube video in blogger. Through the vagaries of search patterns, this always ranks very near the top of a very common Google search and accounts for about 25 percent of my page loads every day. But it is only remotely connected to my central focus on CRM and CMS for non-profits. So stay on topic.

Unless of course, you just want the gratification of seeing your numerical stats soar. Then by all means, mention Twitter and Paris Hilton in every post. It works.

[Update] Whoa. I just noticed there is other talk about blog headlines lately... more from the human than machine angle. CopyBlogger has a long discussion of choosing headlines to pull the reader in. (Thanks, Kivi)

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Users, Causes, and Technolgy

This bite-sized movie by videoblogger Raymond Kristiansen doesn't answer any questions - but it does shine a bright light on a lot of the questions that come up in our work, discussing technology with non-profit organizations. Stylish and intense. Maybe I will have to start video-blogging... this stuff is really cool!

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Twitter update

Just came across this much more positive view of Twitter from Chris Brogan posted on LifeHack.
It's worth reading, as he discusses five specific uses of Twitter.

And Rafe Needleman has written a nice "Newbie's Guide to Twitter" to speed you evaluation of this latest craze.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Twitter is all the rage.

Twitter is all the rage, it seems. This year-old site -- sort of a world-wide chat room -- seems to be really taking off. Social-media maven Ross Mayfield, in his Many-to-Many blog, shows a page-load chart of Twitter over the last year that demonstrates its recent near-exponential growth.

What do you do on Twitter? Some people refer to it as MicroBlogging. With the emphasis on Micro. You can exchange information... but you only have 140 characters. You can flirt... but the whole world is watching. You can chat with your friends... but your boss might be online. You can meet new folks... but the profile bio is also a mere 140 characters long.

Since this new networking site is so popular, you'd think it would be easy to find people explaining just how valuable it is. But instead, the general tone is "This is SO COOL. But kind of annoying. And I'm not sure it's of any value".

So Charlene Li can say in one breath:
Here's our take: Twitter is going to be overused, overloaded people, who will then get turned off. There is just simply too much noise and not enough valuable "signal" to be worthwhile. I run into a case of TMI - too much information -- in that I don't really need to know that you're heading to the bathroom, etc.
and in the next
Intrigued? I certainly am. I still take the current Twitter-mania with a huge grain of salt, mostly because in its current state Twitter is going appeal only to a small subset of people who enjoy publicly sharing what they are doing. But watch out -- I think that like IM, blogging, and social networking, services like Twitter will evolve with new features and functionality to actually become useful communication and information tools. Want more examples? Check out the Twitter Wiki for the latest.
The same dichotomy is evident in Beth Kanter's post where she ponders whether Twitter is of any value to the Non-profit sector. She's got links to quite a few interesting posts about the site, by the way.

My experience? Well, forget the IM or phone updates - I don't want to be beeped at every few minutes. I've written here before about how I detest the current fondness for "constant partial attention" -- meaning incessant interruption. And anyhow, my attempt to get it working with my phone failed miserably. But in the two days since I've set up my account, I've already met a few interesting new people, been pointed to a couple useful websites, and reconnected with a few folks I haven't talked to for a year. Give it a try... set up an account at, and connect to me: my username is michaelatmo.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Navigating complexity

Maybe I'm just thinking out loud here. In the last post I mused about the complexity of striving for simplicity in design. For every effort to simplify, you discover you have made another user's life more complicated.

Usability means several things.Tasks should be easy to learn, quick to complete, and hard to screw up. Data displays should be complete, uncluttered, and easy to comprehend. But even these straightforward goals can work against each other. Do we show less information on a page to make it easier to read, or do we show more, so users do not need to click or scroll? The jury is always out on this one - we once recieved an email asking us to use a larger font, allow more white space, and add several columns of information to a particular display.

At the heart of the problem are the complex business requirements that organizations create. I've written before about the importance of weeding out needless complexity. But non-profit staff can only go so far in eliminating requirements from government, insurers, the board, and the ultimately the nature of their work itself. So the software designer's task is to mask or conceal this complexity.

Here are some of the trade-offs I've run into as we work with our users to make software more usable.

Design Approach
It's simple because
It's not simple because
Context sensitivity: only show inputs and options when they apply.
The user does not find herself clicking buttons only to get a message like "You cannot Place a Hat on this Zebra" . In situations where zebra's do not wear hats, the button is hidden. For sessions where transporation is unavailable, the transportation link is hidden.

Users are never sure when a menu choice or option will appear. "There used to be a button for Putting a hat on the Zebra", they report.
The WIZARD Approach: have users perform tasks through a series of simple forms that step them linearly through the process.
Little or no training is required. The stripped down dialogs on each page come with instructions and are not threatening to the user.
Getting through the process requires many clicks. Worse, making a mistake requires the the user to click BACK repeatedly to find the page where the correction can be made. So work is taking twice as long.

NOVICE and EXPERT forms: Have stripped down pages for users performing simpler tasks and more complex pages for the advanced users.
Everyone wins. The simplified pages require no training, and allow less skilled users to perform a majority of possible tasks. The Expert pages provide access to all capabilities.

Everyone prefers the simplified pages but are constantly frustrated that the one other capability they need is not there.
User configuration: Let users configure the capabilities and elements available on their view of complex forms.
This is even better. Each user gets exactly what they need and no more.
This is even worse. Users need to learn how to configure the pages. Users remove items from their page they actually need. Support staff find their life has been complicated because each user is looking at a different page.

Strict Enforcement. Make it virtually impossible for the user to make a mistake by building in rules to enforce all data entry and setup requirements. If each customer MUST have a date of birth, for example, require it to be filled in for the form to be saved.
Users do not need to know all the decisions of management about data requirements. The system will enforce the rules and pop up messages to tell you what you need. It's what computers are for!
No one can get their work done. The system is constantly complaining that they cannot use this membertype or you must enter an employer. People are entering 01/01/2000 for everyone's birthday. The data is in terrible shape because people are forced to work around the system.

It seems no design idea is a panacea. Each must be employed judiciously as users and developers navigate the seas of complexity.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

'Tis the gift to be simple...

There is a lot of discussion of "usability" in software design circles. Everyone knows usability has a lot to do with simplicity - but as the old Shaker song tells us, it can be tricky to hone in on what true simplicity is.

For example, I've been thinking about a piece of our YMCA program that has been through a lot of evolution over the last decade. Back in 1997, a group of users at one of our Ys requested that we create a simplified process - a Wizard - for front-desk staff to register people for YMCA activities. They wanted a process that ignored most of the only occasionally used "special options" and provided a slimmed-down and streamlined way to handle most sign-ups. More advanced users could go to administrative screens in the relatively few cases where the Wizard did not suffice.

Let's make it SIMPLE! said the users. For example, it's great that Members Only lets us record unlimited addresses and phones on each person. But to enter a new registrant, we just need their home address and phone. And let's make it like a public web app - each screen should tell our users exactly what to do on that page, so no training will be needed. You don't need training to buy a book on Amazon, after all.

We were sold. We held tons of design meetings with the users, and unveiled the express registration to great oohing and ahhing.

Of course, as people started to use it, some design problems were found. One address and phone number were really not enough, for example. So we allowed both home and work. And special scholarships and discounts couldn't be left to the administrative pages after all: everyone needed to be able to add them as they took a registration. And for those special classes where YMCA buses were used, there should be a way to assign the participants to buses on the express reg. Going to the admin pages for bus route assignment was inconvenient.

You know where this is going. Users felt that the slimmed down pages had turned out to make registration more complicated - because users had to go elsewhere for all kinds of special cases. Over the years we've had to allow unlimited addresses and phones on the express registration - two was not enough either. We've had to allow the selection of specific days and weeks for people who cannot attend the entire session. We've had to let users override the system-determined pricing for a host of special cases.

What was really sad is that along the way, we we agreed to a request to remove the instructional text on the pages, because it was taking up valuable real-estate that could be filled with the buttons and links that give access to a host of special functions. They didn't want them hidden in menus where the were hard to find. They wanted them right on the page where it would be SIMPLE to find them.

Only now users are asking again why the Express Registration is so complicated. I'm looking forward to another round of simplifying this process - but this time I know that simplicity is not so easily attained!

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Patent Office goes Webby

The non-profit community has had a special romance with a variety of collaborative tools that have often been lumped together under the rubric of Web 2.0. This includes wiki-style collaborative posting, social bookmarking and "voting" on the importance of article or comments alla Digg. Now this sort of public participatory use of the web is going mainstream in an experimental program by the U.S. patent office to involve the public in the approval or rejection of patent applications. Here's the story from this morning's Washington Post. Most interesting, I thought are the comments on "reputation management" and the role it plays in opening up a process like this.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Reach for the common denominator

Problem solving, how to get better at it, and how to teach it, remains a concern with me.

In looking at problem solving heuristics in IT the other day, I mentioned that one important rule for me is that when several problems start up at once, odds are they are related. So one of my approaches is to investigate the most transparent of the problems, and see if that leads to a general solution. But I realized while helping a client solve a problem the other day that there is a second approach I use all the time that also stems from this rule. When several problems crop up at once, look for possible common denominators and test those possibilities.

The real life scenario: At one of our YMCA clients, things seemed to be going from bad to worse over a period of several weeks. Problem one: the serial-to-ethernet converters that let all the door access-controls communicate with the server kept crashing, and would have to be reset frequently. Since this system is slated for replacement, no one worried about it too much.

A few weeks later, the web site started periodically loosing its connection to the database. Some calls were placed to the hosting to service to see what was up. No real results came of this.

Then a third problem started: The credit card software was timing out on a regular basis. So the users started looking into upgrading that to the latest version of that program.

Three problems, three attempted solutions. What if the problems had a common cause? What might it be? Well, all of these diverse processes are driven by services on one central box - these things could all happen if the server was periodically loosing its network connection. We checked the event log on the network, and indeed found that the door-control software was reporting frequent loss of network connectivity. Our hypothesis looked even better.

But here I fell victim to the bias of "availability". All of the tools my company developed are resident on that one server - so I assumed that problem was located there -- it's the box I'm most familiar with at that site. So we checked the obvious things - the cable and the port on the switch-- and the less obvious, looking for a rougue process running on the box, but everything seemed fine. It's a network problem, in my mind, became synonymous with "This server is messed up," even though we could not find anything wrong with it.

To the rescue came their network guy, who took a broader view of the network. He spent some time looking at their network traffic and found the firewall was being swamped by messages from a random PC that had been possibly taken over by a virus or bot-net scam. That machine was removed from the net, and all the problems went away.

So here's another rule of thumb - it really does help to get additional minds on the problem -- someone else will see past your blind spots.

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Some Africa Links

Those of you who have been following me for a while have noticed that I've become interested in West Africa. Here are a few blogs I've been reading since my return...

SocioLingo's Africa Blog: Written by an Englishwoman living in Mali, this blog's frequent posts - many times a day - cover all of Africa and point out articles and reports on linguistic, cultural, archeological, economic, and political developments on the continent. Malilady, as she calls herself, has created a great resource here. And her Flickr photostream is well worth perusing.

SocioLingo's Mali Blog. Covering all of Africa isn't enough for this prolific writer. The Mali blog brings a much sharper focus to Malilady's everyday life in Bamako. Even the occasional recipe shows up here.

Timbuktu Chronicles
. This blog, written by New Your City entrepreneur Emeka Okafur, focuses on privately held enterprises on the African continent. Sometimes he writes about innovative appropriate technology projects, but often it's a more typical industry he discusses - a successful iron foundry in Nigeria, for example. When I came back from Mali this winter, my friends would ask - yes, but what kinds of businesses COULD they start? This blog helps us see the answer to that.

AfricaBeat. Global Voices blogger Jennifer Brea has her own Afri-focused blog here. Like many other writers, Jennifer focuses on political and economic development. One of her special interests is the impact of non-Western powers on African development, such as China and India. Certainly when we were in Mali, the evidence of Chinese investment was everywhere.

IRIN News Africa. This is the Africa desk of IRIN, the news site of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I've found it the most frequent source of news on the current crisis in Guinea.