Posts tagged email

Recently I’ve been looking at some exciting new changes which might be in the pipeline for the IT helpdesk, namely replacing our old and somewhat rickety system with a new, shiny SAAS one.

Aside from the savings of £14 bazillion pounds a month this will make (which I may have exaggerated, but it will save us money) and the fact it’s a simply better service, not to mention the way it’s web based with mobile clients so support techs can use it anywhere, its support of elegant automated workflow processing, better information capture and integration with everything else we use; it’s a very social piece of software.

We’ve currently got it working in such a way so that if you send us a problem over Twitter we can seamlessly pull it into the system, deal with it, and respond. You need never know what’s happening behind the scenes, all you know is that we’re handling your problem. However, what we need to know is more than just your Twitter handle – we need to know your full name, your student ID number, which course you’re on and various other things so that we can actually solve the problem. There’s also the fact that anybody can email the helpdesk from any account which produces this same problem. We know exactly who you are if you use your student email account, but we struggle to know who xx_bubble_princess_xx_28463 is.


A very, very early mockup of My Lincoln

Alex and I were in a meeting today, where it was decided that some form of wizard for guiding people through setting up email accounts would be useful. This then expanded slightly into a wizard for a lot of things.

It turned out to be a perfect candidate for slamming together with My Lincoln into a one-stop shop for just about everything. This basically means a unified website which acts as a springboard for everywhere else, as well as prompting a user when something needs to be done. We’ve not spent any time properly architecting it yet, but it seems that it will come in three parts:


As you know, I love logging in to University services. I love needing to know which combination of my student ID, account ID, account ID with the “NETWORK/” prefix, email address, password and PIN I need to use. Which is why I’m such a big fan of building a reliable login system which just authenticates you once for everything.

This blog post, however, isn’t about a new login system. It’s about the current one being weird, specifically email.

Today I logged in to my email over the web using Chrome, and I shoved in my username (withouth “NETWORK/”, which is only a necessity because Internet Explorer is retarded when it comes to users not being in the domain it’s currently visiting) and password. It let me log in and worked perfectly, until I wanted to visit an external link in one of my emails.

Apparently the bit of OWA which forwards you to external URLs has logins handled differently to simply viewing your emails, and I don’t have permission to access it. No click-through of URLs for me.

Thinking this might be a byproduct of OWA not working properly in anything but Internet Explorer, I perform my ritual dance of protection and ready the talisman to ward off broken box models. I hit the email site, and log in.

Without “NETWORK\”.

It takes me a moment to realise what just happened, but it appears that the combination of IE8 and Windows 7 isn’t as retarded as previous incarnations. As in it doesn’t automatically specify a domain to authenticate against unless you tell it.

Click-through links in email don’t work, but it appears that one of our great enemies as ICT may be on the way out. I look forward to the last time I ever have to say “Just put NETWORK\ in front of it and it’ll work. Because that’s what fixes it.”.

Update regarding the state of emails: I’ve not heard official words from IT on the state of play of the email server, however my account (which was out yesterday) is now back in action. I’m guessing this is a good thing.

Today, along with 1/3 of the other staff and students at Lincoln, I’ve been devoid of emails. This is down to a problem with one of the three email stores at the University, and includes staff accounts beginning with letters A, B, M-O and V-Z along with a third of student accounts (pretty much at random). People are working on fixing it. You can keep up to date with it on Get Satisfaction.

Oddly enough this has let me spend a couple of hours working on stuff without being distracted by people asking silly questions. Instead I’ve been looking at the user interface tweaks necessary to encompass some changes to the student halls network access controller, and thinking more about the dream of a common design and components for web services.

Put simply myself (along with my partner in crime, Alex) have been throwing ideas backwards and forwards for a couple of weeks now on the subject of a single coherent way into all of Lincoln’s web services, inventively dubbed The idea is of a single website which collects and collates everything you might need to know from the myriad of services as well as letting you fine-tune how they work for you.

The current 'gateway' style used by Online Services.
The current ‘gateway’ style used by Online Services.

As a part of this (once I’d beaten another kink out of how Vista behaves with PFMPC1) I began mucking around with some CSS, aiming to throw together a layout based on something Alex mocked up. The old ‘gateway’ style in use in several places is actually quite messy behind the scenes, is extraordinarily narrow, and doesn’t provide much flexibility. You can put buttons at the top, and then a load of text.

There is also a ‘new gateway’ style which I knocked out for PFMPC which fundamentally looks the same (or at least very similar) but which is completely standards compliant with the exception of some little bits of CSS. However, this still has the problems of being narrow, a bit dull, and lacking in anything which makes you go “wow, this is a great, well designed web service”.

Which is why Alex and myself decided a change was needed. Something wider, faster, cleaner, smarter, more flexible, more appealing, ready for Web 2.0, ready for single-sign-on, accessible, standards-compliant and ready for use in every browser we could think of (including Lynx, and even including IE6). We’ve nicknamed it the “Common Web Design” in the vague hopes that the name will explain what it should be used for and people can latch on to the idea.

The very first version of the CWD.
The very first version of the CWD.

Along with this will come a set of guidelines on how to write content for the CWD so that everything clicks together nicely. The whole thing is specifically designed to be portable between services (perhaps using the storage location for CSS, images and JavaScript). More importantly I feel that the CWD is a deliberate disconnect from the old look and feel. Things using the design won’t be a re-hash of the old systems with the same quirks, they will be ground-up redesigns with goals of ease-of-use and interoperability explicitly in mind.

This is very much a work in progress and probably won’t ever be seen in the wild, but we can hope. Ideally I’d like to get the design finished and roll it out for PFMPC and LUNA to help spread the message that ‘things are changing’, but since I’ve mostly done this in my own time and off my own back I may surprise people.

  1. Print From My PC []