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An Open Letter to Business Software Developers

©Jerry Stern 2004, All Rights Reserved. As seen in ASPects, December 2004

Does your software sell to businesses? Could your software sell to businesses? Business users, especially small businesses with a few workers or a few dozen, need better software, but getting anyone in a networked office to look at new products requires that you make the product easy for business users and system administrators to use, and remembering that those users and administrators are different people.

Every industry, and every office, has one program that everyone loves to hate, and that is absolutely essential to the operation of the office. These are vertical-market products that typically were very expensive, difficult to install to a network, and painful to keep running. That said, the pain level involved with replacing these monsters is pretty much intolerable. As I write this in 2004, my clients have gradually gotten rid of most of the MS-DOS programs in this category. Most. Not all.

If you want to create a highly-lucrative vertical-market product, go visit offices with a system consultant, and ask what program they can't live without, but would really love to dump. You won't hear answers you recognize. In floor covering stores, you'll hear "RFMS." In insurance offices, "Choices." In appraisal work it's "Real-Easy." For property management, it may be "Magic" or "Skyline." These aren't all current products, but they won't go away, because the old data is in the software, and no one has gone to these offices and offered a new program that will import the history.

Most of these creatures from the pits of character-mode screens are databases, and are based on products that you've heard of, like FileMaker Pro and Clipper. Some are specialized form-fillers. Yes, fill-in-the-blank forms. Paperless offices are still a myth. For example, in the vehicle insurance industry, applications are still filled out on forms, provided by the insurance company as downloadable TIF files or sent by fax. A few send PDF files, and the agent offices are left on their own to convert all these forms, or not, to electronic files that can be typed in.

Here are some starting guidelines to writing software that is actually usable for networked offices:

1. Install desktop shortcuts, menu shortcuts, and system settings to the ‘All Users' folders and ‘All Users' registry areas by default. System administrators don't appreciate or encourage the use of software that has to be installed as an Administrator, and then won't run as any other user. Don't ask the sysadmin to try to manually copy your shortcuts from c:\Documents and Settings\Administrator.Domain\Start Menu\Programs to c:\Documents and Settings\Workstation Zebra\Start Menu\Programs.

2. Don't auto-install anything that autoruns. Always get permission. You're writing software applications, not hardware drivers, so there is no possible convenience feature that is worth slowing a computer down for. To automatically install any autorun program, for any good reason or bad, will result in a recommendation from the system administrator to buy something else.

3. Program registration on a client workstation is pointless. Newsletter signup makes no sense. Forcing a user name into the workstation settings is just plain silly. There is no way that a system administrator is going to type a user's name into a registration screen, forced or not. On a notebook PC used by an officer, maybe. For an hourly employee, never. Don't make me type "Secretarial 0451" into your software as the user's name. If you must have some sort of product registration, tie it to a choice of either the company name or the user name, but never both.

4. Store program data anywhere the user needs it, and provide an easy way to remember that location, but never place data in the same folder as the software or a subfolder beneath it. The program is probably installed under c:\Program Files\YourCompany\YourProduct, and ordinary users on a client/server network can't write or change files under the ‘Program Files' hierarchy. This includes program settings–write nothing at all to the program files folders during software operation. Don't assume that the local documents folder is yours to play in–it isn't.

5. The office system administrator won't run your product. Your business users won't install your product. Don't confuse them; they're different people. If your product has extensive sets of settings that reflect how your product is used, ask your user on first program startup to specify settings for data operations, and allow for an ‘Ask next time program is run' option. Don't ask those questions during Setup; the system administrator will have to stop working, and ask. We frequently build multiple workstations at once, and pre-install a dozen programs; leave operations questions for operators.

6. Printers are on the network. Plural. They may be shared, or they may be using a TCP/IP port. Don't assume that printouts go to the local default printer–allow a choice, and remember it.

7. Assume old hardware and old employees. Businesses always have quite a range of ages of hardware and staff. Data-entry applications should be runnable at 800 x 600 resolution, and still have all the buttons and data areas visible and usable. Offices with 21" monitors and 20-something staffers will appreciate having the higher-resolution settings available, but for most professional offices, the decision-maker wears reading glasses.

8. Make life easy for the system administrator. Some of us are outside consultants, and we never run software, except to install it or patch it or try to figure out why it won't print. Make sure the software will run for the type of client-server user that will have to run it. For data-entry products, that's an ordinary user. For file management, probably a power user. For data recovery, an administrator. Test it, on-site, at a target office.

9. Recognize that spyware is, for now, where the venture capital is. It's not called that by those who publish it; it has some other label, like ‘targeted topic-based marketing software' or other double-speak, but the label doesn't change that system administrators and office managers are taking steps to stop users from installing software–all software. That includes shareware trials, but applies especially to freeware and peer-to-peer products. At the business level, they're watching licenses for warning flags, and they're seeing plenty from major software publishers. They want to get away from known bad players, but they're even more determined to not become reliant on any new programs from hell. Behaving professionally is key; businesses like to do businesses with companies similar to their own, in behavior, in style, and in size.

10. Finally, help the businesses to act like businesses. I offer the computer policy below to my clients as a starting point, and suggest having the final product signed by every employee, and reviewed occasionally. Those who actually follow-through have fewer spyware and worm cleanup bills, and get more work done. If your products act like they belong in a business, by making it easy for employees to comply with common policies, and easy for system administrators to find and fix exceptions, you can close more office network sales.

Steps Toward an Office Computer Policy, 1.0

For anyone running an office network, the time when you could trust your office staff not to do anything dangerous on their computers is long past. Every office should have a corporate policy, letting staffers know what they may and may not do on your computers. Yes, yours. Not theirs. The business that bought the computers owns them, and has to pay for repairs and system cleanups, and so has to set clear guidelines. What follows should only be the starting point for your own office computer policy.

Some items should be added to this policy, including 1) a printing policy for personal use of the office printers, describing reasonable personal use, 2) what kinds of information may or may not be sent out of the office by email, on CD, or by any other means, 3) what kinds of information are considered to be financial assets or competitive information that must be protected, and 4) where to store business data and electronic documents of various types.

Computer Policy–Our Office

The rules below help control the cost of providing a computer for your work, by allowing a system administrator to know when a computer has been updated, and when it needs a new backup created, and when it is in need of a repair. Problems caused by employees ignoring these rules cost money, and that comes out of the computer budget, which will mean that upgrades to faster and better equipment are less likely to happen. Violations of these rules may result in disciplinary action, including termination. If in doubt, ask.

1. Computers provided in the office are paid for by the company, and provided for company work. They are intended for no other purpose. While the company can be reasonably understanding if an employee needs to research information for personal use during lunch, absolutely no installation of software or changes in system settings will be tolerated for any use. This includes, but is not limited to: screensavers, games, utility programs, and all other products, especially free products, that require installation.

2. If you need additional software installed that is already available on other workstations in the office, ask your system administrator if the software can be added to your workstation. If you need software that is not already in the office, but for which you already have the software license and CD, ask your system administrator to approve the license and install the software. If in doubt, see rule #1.

3. Do not use your corporate email address for personal use. When you leave us, we will not forward your mail, but will arbitrarily decide to read or trash what arrives. All mail on company computers is the property of the company, and there is no expectation of privacy, and mail may be read or deleted at any time by management or technicians or coworkers working temporarily with your clients or contacts.

4. Employees who need to access personal email from work may use web mail. All internet providers have web mail capabilities now, and these allow you to log into a web page to read and reply to email without installing email software, and without storing email on company computers. For help, contact your own internet access provider.

For America Online users, go to, and log into your account from there–no software is required.

5. Changing system security settings to allow online games or any other online system to run is not allowed. If necessary for a business purpose, ask your system administrator. The computers were set up as they are for good reasons, and they were backed up after being set up. If you make a change, it can and will be wiped out arbitrarily by the system administrator during normal maintenance; don't expect anyone to inventory your changes to the system, or maintain them, or to back up data from unapproved software.

6. Don't open attachments to email that you did not specifically request from a known business contact. Viruses and worms and other damaging malware generally arrive with false return addresses, stolen from an infected computer, one which usually uses some other email address than those that appear on the email. Never trust email to be safe, even if it appears to come from someone you know. Don't rely on antivirus software to work–it can take several days for the antivirus software running on your workstation to be updated to include the newest dangerous software, and worms will frequently spread faster than the updates to the antivirus software. Again, never trust email.

7. While visiting internet sites, note that many, many common misspellings of popular web sites have been set up by unscrupulous companies trying to get business, mostly for advertising, and these sites will attempt to install software on your workstation. Do not allow the installation to proceed. Always read the prompt carefully: some may say "Do you want to install ..." and others may say "Do you want to stop installing..." The answers that mean "STOP" are not the same. When in doubt, ask for help. Like email, web pages and any software associated with them must never be trusted unless you know the source, either personally, or by reference from a known and trusted reviewer or certification group.

8. Passwords and logins for programs must not be available to visitors at your desk. That means no sticky notes on your monitor listing user names, no scribbles on the desk pad or bulletin board, and no handy list in your top desk drawer. Passwords must be kept secure. Unauthorized use of passwords will result in accounts being turned off.

9. Read your screen before calling for help. Most software messages have a help button. Click on it, and read about what you're doing before deciding that you're unable to cope with an error message.

10. Store office data where you've been shown it belongs. That is on the network, by project or by topic. It's not on your desktop, not in the ‘my docs' folder on your workstation, or in any other creative location. The network data drive is properly backed up on a schedule. Your workstation is backed up infrequently, and that's just to save labor in case of a hardware failure.

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