Posts tagged support

In the past few weeks I’ve been dabbling (in between my ‘real’ projects of Jerome and Linking You) with the concept of ‘dashboard’ displays and information radiators. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept they are fundamentally a place which presents information in an easy to digest format. Some are pinboards, some are whiteboards, some are clothes lines with bits of paper pegged to them and some are displays or projectors.

What I’ve opted for is the display method, in no small way inspired by the guys at Panic. However, since between ICT we have what is generally referred to as a metric shedload of information that we want to get hold of I decided that instead of crafting a display for each individual group’s specific needs I would instead come up with a sexy looking framework for rapidly building dashboards. These are designed to live on large screens dotted around the office, visible all day to anybody who happens to look at them.

There’s already an example in use at the Service Desk, where a trusty old iMac is proudly displaying various stats from Zendesk (our ticket manager) to the support team. Initial feedback is that people really like being able to get an overview of what’s going on in one place, as well as any urgent jobs and their feedback averages.

Down in the depths of OST, on the other hand, we’re not massively bothered about our ticket stats in such an immediate manner. Instead we’re far more interested in things like our server availability, response time and load. This means that the modules on our dashboard currently pull data from our Nagios monitoring tool, informing us with the red alert klaxon from Star Trek if things go horribly wrong (causing much turning of heads towards the board to see what’s happened, and everyone else in ICT looking at us in confusion).

Hopefully as time goes on more people will find data which can be represented using these boards, meaning that they will start popping up in more places and exposing data which lets us make faster, smarter decisions about what we’re doing. I’ve already started working on a dashboard for getting the data from the agile development tracker that Alex and I use into a really easily digested format, and I’ll be talking to the Projects team to find out exactly what they want to see with regards to more overarching project management.

Easier? I think so.

It is with great and unreserved pleasure that I announce the grand opening of one of ICT’s latest projects, which has been occupying a surprisingly large amount of my time over the last two months and which has led to me wrapping my head around some quite interesting bits of JavaScript.

Zendesk is here. Or, as we prefer to call it, the Support Desk. It’s a one-stop shop for all your ICT and Estates queries and requests, managed by our crack group of support agents and backed by the combined centuries of knowledge and experience offered by the ICT and Estates teams.

It’s been an interesting journey thought the backwaters of the University’s policies and processes, a less than enjoyable romp through bits of law which I didn’t even know existed, and an exhilarating codathon whilst I wrapped my head around slinging JSON across the ether and inserting it into some HTML elements which don’t exist on a page I don’t control using nothing more than a well-crafted bit of JavaScript and a paperclip. All that is behind us now, so it’s time to tell you what’s new and awesome in the world of getting ICT and Estates support at Lincoln.

First of all, we’ve taken the best bits from both, ditched the worst bits and then streamlined the whole process. From the moment you call or email your request it’s placed directly into Zendesk from where we can monitor how it’s doing. Even better, why not submit your query online using our new request form, now with even fewer annoying questions which you don’t know the answer to than before. It’s a simple matter to sign in using your normal University details and skip the whole process of telling us your name, email address, room code, phone number, line manager, inside leg measurement and what you had for lunch yesterday.

As soon as your request is logged you’ll get a request tracking number within seconds, followed up by emails every time we update your request with something you need to know. You’ll never be out of the loop again, and you can even go online and check all your requests to see how we’re getting on. Leave comments, upload files, tell us that it’s solved and more all from right within your browser.

We could have left it there, but we weren’t done. It only took a few minutes of looking to realise that our how-to guides, instruction manuals, FAQs and more were scattered hopelessly around the Portal, Blackboard, paper help sheets, PDF files, student guides, posters and more. This wasn’t good enough, so we decided to bring them all together into Quick Answers. It’s the place to find solutions to your problems both common and esoteric, guides to walk you through getting things done, information on what’s going on and all kinds of other things. Just type your question or a few key words into the search box and see what we can tell you. Think something’s missing? Just drop me an email and we’ll get it added.

At the end of Phase 1 we’re really excited about the changes and we hope that they make everyones lives a lot easier, as well as helping you to get your problems solved faster than before. Support Desk: now open.

Recently, in amongst the myriad of Jerome and Total ReCal (not to mention G2, the CWD revamps, fixing LUNA bugs, Dashboard, Nucleus, Linking You, Get Satisfaction, colour remote printing and a swathe of other Labs projects) I’ve been taking a serious look at Zendesk as a replacement for our current service desk ticketing system. In short I’m sold, and I’m pretty sure that a few other people are as well. After looking at a few other SaaS1 helpdesk providers Zendesk wins out for me on a number of features, but first and foremost on its simplicity and flexibility. Let me elaborate.

Yesterday we switched on a sandbox for us to play around in and use for testing. It’s already visually customised, using our SSO2 solution, using a custom domain, running with an SSL certificate, has custom fields in the ticket view, implements some of our business logic in triggers and automations, has our SLAs built in and flags trouble tickets, integrates with our Twitter account and Get Satisfaction support portal, has a variety of custom reports ready to go and has a small set of knowledge base articles available. Not bad for a few hours work.

We also gain the inherent benefits of SaaS, meaning that we no longer have servers or infrastructure for our support desk solution to worry about, and we gain new features the moment that they’re available without needing to sign up to another n-year contract. Licensing fees are on a per-agent basis so we’re not spending any more than we have to. We can access it on and off campus (something we can’t do at the moment without resorting to VPN. There’s even a mobile application so our roving support technicians can update tickets as soon as they need updating.

Alongside this there are a few other side effects. Our knowledge base can finally be extracted from the inner depths of Portal (where it resides in a set of PDF files and Word documents) and updated so that it’s finally up to date. We can have more agents, so that finally issues can be assigned to the right people. We can email everybody when things happen to tickets so they don’t languish at the bottom of the queue forever. There’s a nice web interface for everybody, so both agents and users alike can look through their own ticket history.

My target is to have us using it in two weeks. Wish me luck.

  1. Software as a Service []
  2. Single Sign-On []

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.


Further to the revelation that there are students out there capable of voicing an opinion, we now have to deal with the resulting fallout. At this point I need to quote Joss, the nice man from CERD, who likened my approach to IT support to this:

Whilst I’m tempted to staple this notice to the front of the helpdesk and watch confused students ask “will you really set us on fire?”, it’s actually better to deal with stupid questions by documenting your response, on the basis that the universe never ceases to provide a constant stream of the terminally confused, people who don’t bother to read the dialog box which pops up with important information and clear instructions, and people who believe that the helpdesk are there to actually operate the computer on their behalf.


We are aware of some possible issues when setting up printing from Windows Vista or Windows 7 which are causing trouble for a small number of users. We’re taking a look at this right now, and hope to have an update for you before the day is out.

Printing from Windows XP, OS X and Linux is unaffected.

Now that the University has some Get Satisfaction support goodness going on, there are all kinds of cool widgets we can use to integrate the support community with other websites. The Blogs help page sports a “Feedback” tab on the left hand side of the window, powered by Get Satisfaction. My other blog has a page explaining about what I do as a Student Rep, and includes a feedback widget right in the middle of the page. In fact it’s so easy to do that here’s an example of our most recent active topics, embedded into the middle of a blog post.

Hang on a second, communicating with the mothership…

Clever, huh? If you’ve got a site which is relevant to the University and you’re wanting to get hold of a widget to expand your direct support methods then just let me know!