The Importance of prototyping

In my current job, one of my roles is to take people’s needs and turn them into software. I’ve helped develop and evolve the software engineering process in my company over the last ten years, and I find it interesting that of all of the documentation we produce, the most critical artifact tends to be the mockup (a.k.a. the ‘prototype’, or ‘storyboard’, depending on what industry you come from).

On the importance of mockups

Mockups are crucial to building intuitive, relevant software for your target audience, and here’s why: when you’re brought in to design software, you begin by exchanging ideas, needs, scopes and budgets with your client. You spend a good chunk of time doing nothing but talking about objectives, stakeholders, features, and risks – and by the end of your analysis, your client believes that you know everything that you need to know in order to build what he/she needs.

The reality is, of course, that it’s not so simple. By the end of your needs analysis, you’ll definitely know a lot more about the client’s work and needs than you went in – but there’s a difference between understanding the gist of a person’s work and being able to do that work. Although you have an appreciation for the complexity of that person’s job, your software’s intuitiveness and completeness will be limited by your high-level understanding of the process and information the job involves (unless you come from that domain, naturally). Conversely, your client may have conveyed her needs to you, but she has no means to gauge whether 1) you’ve understood them or 2) you’re able to translate them into something intuitive to use.

This is where prototyping comes in: now that you understand the concept, you can start to design the interface that will be used by the client to interact with the system. If the design is good, it will reflect the underlying business logic of your solution. The client will therefore be able to gauge your understanding of her domain and comment on whether your design is intuitive and practical… or not. This avoids the cost and frustration of having to re-design your designing software based on misunderstandings.

Convinced yet? If so, allow me to share the name of a tool I’ve been using very happily: Balsamiq. I’m not affiliated to the company in any way – frankly, I’m just that impressed with what they’ve implemented. Worth checking out at any rate.

Introducing Balsamiq

Balsamiq is not for designing graphical user interfaces, as one would with Dreamweaver, Eclipse or Visual Studio. It is specifically built to design mockups – there’s a difference. This is the kind of output you might expect from Balsamiq:

When people are shown realistic-looking interfaces, they tend to focus on fonts, colors and choice of image; and although these are certainly an important part of making the solution user-friendly and pleasant to use, those are easily changed later. When you show your prototype to clients, you want them giving you feedback on things like navigation, content and layout, because these are what will make the difference between something that will be used on a daily basis and something that will do the virtual equivalent of collecting dust in the back of the office.

It’s all about speed, speed, speed

The purpose of prototyping is to save time. You can create mockups with nothing more than a pencil and paper, so there should be a reason why you’re using prototyping software. I’ve found that with Balsamiq, I’m able to create prototypes at a fraction of the time it takes me to design the interface by hand (or using GUI designers like Dreamweaver). Not only that, but the interfaces are rich enough to be recognizable by the client – although you don’t want your prototypes to look too realistic, it’s no good if people spend most of their time trying to understand what it is you’ve drawn.

Compatibility

Balsamiq runs on most common operating systems. For those of you who use Ubuntu, you may be disappointed at first when you realize the Adobe’s dropped its support for AIR on Linux. Do not be discouraged! AIR, and therefore Balsamiq, can in fact be installed on Ubuntu 12.04 using these instructions: http://www.liberiangeek.net/2012/04/install-adobe-flash-reader-air-in-ubuntu-12-04-precise-pangolin/

Do note that Balsamiq also works very nicely as an application in Chrome and can be purchased from Google Marketplace. The benefit of using the Desktop version, however, is in the links you can create between markups: you can set up your mockups to point to other mockups and therefore make the presentation of your prototype more interactive.

Final words

If there’s anything you should take away from this article, it’s this: prototype. Your. Software. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve presented a mockup to clients and they’ve said “I can tell you’ve understood; but this isn’t quite what I had in mind”. I consider this a happy problem – because the alternative is showing up after countless hours of development only to find out I’m going to have to scrap a lot of my work and start afresh. Prototyping is not only cost-effective because it mitigates risk of project failure due to silly misunderstandings, but it also reduces a lot of frustrations between you and your client.

Happy prototyping,

R.

Multiple Sharepoint List Synchronizations in Outlook via GPO

When setting up access to a few Sharepoint contact lists using GPO for a client, I realized that only one of the lists was being synchronized. The source of the problem is the fact that when assigning GPO’s that have the same setting, the GPO’s don’t append to each other — they overwrite each other.

This is a pain for sure, but after a few unsuccessful attempts, I realized that the problem I was facing was just one of perspective. Here’s a short article that will hopefully help you adjust your means of thinking about multiple sharepoint list synchronizations in Outlook via GPO.

A few examples to consider:

Example 1
GPO A is applied to the entire domain, GPO B is applied to the Sales OU. GPO A adds the Internal Contacts list, GPO B adds the Sales list.

What happens in the case of users in the Sales OU?

For people in the domain that aren’t in the Sales OU, then they get just the Internal Contacts list
For people in the Sales OU, the settings in GPO A get overridden by GPO B, so they only get the Sales list.

Example 2
Let’s say there is no Sales OU, but you still have GPO A and B.
If the link ID on A is lower than B, all users in the domain will have Internal Contact list
If the link ID on B is lower than A, all users in the domain will have Sales list

Your GPO Strategy:

My confusion was ultimately because of how I was thinking about the problem: GPO’s are feature-centric, not permission-centric. However, you’re applying them with users, groups and OU’s in mind, so it’s easy to slip into a mindset where you’re thinking of layering lists based on permissions.

Policy settings are overridden at the policy level, period. If you’re hoping to add a few rules to your domain computers’ firewall settings by setting up a policy with just those rules, assuming that they will get appended to everything you have set before, you are mistaken: though would definitely be the most effective and intuitive way to implement GPO, it just doesn’t work that way.

Coming back to our examples:

– You can use security settings for GPO to enforce which policies get applied to whom, which is especially useful in the case of Example 2.

– If you want certain people to see both lists, then you have to think about rewriting you GPO’s. For instance, in the case of the Sales OU it makes sense that sales people see both lists. Rewrite GPO B to have both the internal contacts and the sales entries. What’s important, here, is that you set the link order correctly. Right-click on the OU under which the GPO’s are applied (this can be the root) and move the order of your GPO’s around; make use of permissions where necessary.

Troubleshooting:

I highly recommend using the RSOP (Resulting Set of Policy: Planning) feature in AD Users and Computers. By right-clicking on a user and going to All Tasks > Resulting Set Of Policy: Planning, you can see what the user’s policy is going to look like. Furthermore, there is a nifty Precedence tab which shows all of the policies that are being applied and in what order – this was particularly useful to me because I was inadvertently applying my policies both at the domain and OU level and had forgotten to set the link order at the OU level – once I had removed my policies from the OU level, synchronization worked without a hitch.

Thoughts on the Amazon / Apple hack

Just thought I would share this harrowing tale of how Mat Honan basically got his info deleted off all his devices and personal e-mail accounts within hours:

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/08/apple-amazon-mat-honan-hacking/all/

A few thoughts on this:
  • The guy basically got all his info wiped from his Mac and iPhone, using the same mechanisms to keep the devices safe from data theft.
  • The “entry point” here was the victim’s Amazon account; the attacker made his way from the victim’s amazon account into his .me account and from there to his gmail account. He wiped the Mac and iPhone, changed the .me password and gmail password, then hit the guy’s twitter account.
  • The target of this “Apple hack” that cleared out irreplaceable photos and files actually didn’t have anything to do with his his photos, files, or even work data. The real target of this attack? The guy’s twitter account. Why? ‘Because it looked cool.’
  • The attacker exploited two different “security philosophies” to gain access. In a nutshell, one company was using the last four digits of the victim’s credit card to secure his data; however, it’s a fairly common practice to show the last four digits of credit cards in order to identify the card without giving away the whole number.
The moral of the story? Think security no matter what or where your systems are. I realize how silly this sounds, and how daunting this can be. Ultimately, we all have insecure practices, especially in a day and age where the boundaries between technologies that are used for work and home are so blurry.
This story will make you think twice about relying on the cloud — but the reality of it is that it shouldn’t take you this long to start thinking about it. You may surmise that this could happen to you and stop using .me, gmail and the like… Don’t! Because you’re taking away the wrong message. It’s not because it’s on the cloud that it’s insecure. It’s because we tend to mistakingly rely on other companies to do the thinking for us.
Transparent Login to Sharepoint isn't as simple as one would assume...

Getting Office to transparently authenticate with a TMG-secured MOSS 2010

Transparent Login to Sharepoint isn't as simple as one would assume...Over the past few months, I’ve been working with a client on ramping up their existing Sharepoint installation. Although there’s still a lot of work to do, we’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel: we’ve set  up a new production farm with a Sharepoint server, an SQL Server, and a Forefront TMG reverse proxy. The Sharepoint / SQL components run on a virtual environment for better scaling and (more importantly) snapshotting, and the TMG setup is starting to look very sweet indeed; we’d run across some performance hiccups but those now seem to be sorted.

If you’re a sysadmin, you may be able to appreciate the work involved in setting up, testing, and fool-proofing the above. However, you will probably also understand the fact that to end-users, this isn’t particularly interesting. In fact, if you place yourself in the mindset of a non-technical client, what you’ve effectively witnessed is absolutely no change to your (increasing expensive) system. “In fact,” you may muse, “I’m worse off than before.” Indeed, setting up a TMG does pose a few challenges to overcome: namely the fact that when you open up documents that are stored on Sharepoint, you now get prompted for a user name and password.

That particular issue was a hard sell to the client — and frankly, why shouldn’t it be? We IT folks keep talking about the benefits of storing documents on private clouds, recurring frustrations like being constantly prompted for a username and password are what prevent people from adopting cloud technology. So after some digging, I came up with the solution to getting Office to transparently authenticate with a TMG-secured MOSS installation.

I must admit that this post started out in a different format: it was logged as a trouble-ticket in our ITIL system. However, I spent so much time scouring the Net for simple, concise information on the topic that I think it’s worth re-mentioning. I will assume that you’re looking for some basic information on the topic and a few leads to more detailed articles.

What is SSO?

SSO stands for Single Sign-On. It allows users that have logged into a domain to re-use their credentials transparently for all subsites of the domain. This may sound trivial, but in this day and age when more and more enterprise services are accessible via the cloud it is a mission-critical feature. Consider this: if your exchange inbox is at mail.yourdomain.com and your sharepoint is at sharepoint.yourdomain.com, SSO is what allows you to authenticate once and access both resources without having to re-enter your creds.

SSO doesn’t just apply to websites, but also technologies. In my case, I had gotten feedback from a client that she was getting annoyed at constantly being prompted for her password when opening documents from Sharepoint; SSO is used to transparently authenticate your users, saving them a bit of time and typing.

For more information on SSO with TMG, please consult the following link: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc995112

The configuration, server-side:

– You need to be using Forms-Based Authentication; this is set up from your web listener’s properties, and frankly, this provides the most consistent, secure, interop-compliant end-user experience.
– The SSO features need to be enabled (this is also on the listener’s side). Make sure to specify the domains for which you want to use SSO.
– Enable persistent cookies: you do this by editing the properties of your listener, going to the Forms tab, and hitting Advanced. There, you’ll have a section for cookies. You needn’t enter a name for your cookie, but set the “Use Persistent Cookies” dropdown to “only on private computers”.

The configuration, client-side:

– Add the sharepoint portal to either your trusted sites or your intranet zone. This can be done either by using GPO or by running this manually on all computers that should use SSO:

  • Open Internet Explorer
  • Open Internet Options
  • Navigate to the Security tab
  • Click on the zone
  • Click on Sites
  • Add your site

Note that if you go the GPO way, your domain users will no longer be able to control their sites’ zones. Although this may sound reasonable if you’re a sysadmin, please do remember that your end-users may think differently depending on their corporate culture.

– Protected Mode needs to be disabled for the zone in which you’ve put the portal. This is done in Internet Explorer > Internet Options > Security tab > click on the zone and untick the “protected mode” checkbox.

A few additional notes:

– You could use naked IIS over TMG; however, this is not advised. Naked IIS exposes your system directly to security threats, reduces your monitoring capability, and disallows you from providing a reverse cache on your pages (which reduces performance and, in the case of public sharepoints, searchability).
– Use of persistent cookies can be dangerous, namely because people can easily steal and re-use them. This is why it is highly recommended to enable persistent cookies for private computers only.

Finally, I’d like to thank Dinko Fabricini for his easy-to-follow post. To be perfectly honest, his post is a much better how-to than this article. As mentioned earlier, this is an adaptation of a trouble-ticket tech note I logged for my company which I thought would be useful to others. If you’re interested in setting up SSO for your MOSS, I would highly recommend you check out his original post.
http://www.itsolutionbraindumps.com/2011/01/multiple-authentication-prompts-when.html

Addendum: here’s a short and straightforward vlog post about the benefits of using TMG over naked IIS… Useful points to consider when having conversations with the sysadmin team! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnKCZctn8TM