Be my Sender Policy Framework?

February 14th, 2009

My wife and I expected to find each other’s e-cards in our inboxes this morning, it being Valentine’s Day. (Yes, I know they’re not very romantic but they are inexpensive and environmentally sound. Besides, we’ve been married for quite some time!) However, we found personalised Non-Delivery Reports instead. It is a problem that I have come across with quite a few websites attempting to send e-mail on behalf of a customer. The sites fail to take account of something called Sender Policy Framework (SPF). This is an extension of domain name information to include a list of computers that are allowed to send e-mail for a domain (see Wikipedia and the SPF web site.) So, for our fairly small domain, we list our two servers plus the system that hosts our website. If you receive an e-mail from us and have some form of SPF checking, your e-mail server can look up our domain to check that the computer that sent the message is actually allowed to. And therein lies the rub.

The website, amongst others, pretends that the customer is the sender of the message. However, a check of the SPF data for that customer will alert the receiving e-mail server that Hallmark is not actually a valid source of e-mail for that address. I raised this problem with Hallmark last year and they appeared very eager to fix it, but regrettably have not managed it as yet. So, instead of confirmations that our e-cards had been read, we each received a report that is not a valid source of e-mail for our domain.

SPF is quite a useful tool for reducing spam, but only if it works. Unfortunately, it will not work if organisations sending e-mail on behalf of others completely ignore it. Certainly Hallmark and other e-cards vendors need to be sensitive to this since non-delivery can be a serious embarrassment. (I am hoping to still be married by the time you read this!) But, news, social networking and similar sites need to deal with SPF intelligently.

The joy of Plesk

February 9th, 2009

I was as surprised as anyone to discover last week that my blog, admittedly underused, had disappeared from our website. We have our own WordPress installation and like an increasing number of organisations, this is hosted on a Virtual Private Server (VPS) where we share the resources of a UNIX/Apache server with about 50 others.

To try to make the VPS idea workable for mere mortals, our hosting provider uses a product called Plesk. This is a graphical interface for setting up clients, websites and domains for each VPS. At first sight it appears very pretty and fairly well organised. Unfortunately, its attractiveness is literally skin deep – it is a “thin” interface on top of a set of fairly complex underlying technologies.

And therein lies the problem with the disappearing blog. I was foolish enough, when trying to resolve an unrelated problem, to click on the Updates icon. After some wrestling and heart-stopping moments where I was informed that the update on my remote virtual server had failed and it may therefore be inoperable (they were only kidding) I finally managed to get the latest version of Plesk installed (9.0.1). Unfortunately, this didn’t actually solve my problem and left me with missing icons in the graphical interface (wherein lies another story). However everything else seemed to be working.

Then the panic set in. A week later, clicking on a link to my blog produced only a message that the MySQL interface had not been installed. This is an essential component for WordPress and had certainly been present earlier. Not only that, on examining the status of the MySQL database for the blog in Plesk, I was informed that no databases existed. Indeed, even as you read this blog Plesk insists that it does not exist. (Perhaps carrying virtualisation a little too far!)

The problem is not a new one for user interface designers. In this case, the relatively lightweight Plesk GUI had its own ideas about the state of the system, and was not robust enough to carry these forward through a major upgrade. On using the PHP tools for managing MySQL, I discovered that the blog database was indeed present and fully functional. The problem turned out to be that in the process of upgrading PHP, Plesk had defaulted the configuration to exclude MySQL functionality. A one line change to the PHP configurations file fixed this, but as you can imagine, the overall user experience was not a happy one.

If nothing else, this does serve as an excellent example of the perils in oversimplification. There were many aspects of the underlying system that Plesk was trying very hard to hide, but at the expense of considerable confusion when problems occurred. Maybe Parallels (the developers of Plesk) will eventually put in the effort required to make the interface work for the intended semi-technical audience. But until they do, it is not for the faint of heart.

Nix Xobni, Taglocity Rocks!

July 13th, 2008

Xobni Panel from OutlookI have been using a couple of Outlook plug-ins over the past few months. Xobni, which is rated by some as a must-have (see for example, Xobni: The Super Plugin For Outlook) and the somewhat more retiring Taglocity from Terazen Technology (

They both claim Web 2.0 credentials, but for me Xobni represents what’s bad about Web 2.0 hype while Taglocity roles up its sleeves and changes your life.

On the right is a screenshot from Xobni. I haven’t broken the news to my wife as yet, but she is apparently the 12th most important person in my life (email wise). I still haven’t found a way to see who is number one, but that is the least of my problems.

Don’t like the colour scheme? Tough. Shades of orange, red and purple are here to stay, at least in the current version. However, I guess my biggest issue is that it just doesn’t solve any real problems for me. It has a fast email search, but so does the Vista desktop. It will show me the conversations with a contact, but I am used to just clicking on From column in Outlook to do that. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, but I just cannot find anything that it does that makes it a must-have in my book. In fact I had uninstalled it last week and only reinstalled it to get the screenshot shown.

Taglocity, by comparison, I find eminently useful. It has a very unassuming presence in the Outlook user interface, just a tool bar (which Xobni seems to disable during installtion) and a tag line at the bottom of email windows.

Taglocity Toolbar (new window)

 The point of Taglocity is to allow you to have threaded conversations with other people, whether they are using Taglocity or not. So if you tag an email and send it to a client, their reply comes back already tagged. Also, Taglocity integrates its tags with Outlook categories, so all of the relevant tools that already exist within Outlook automatically work with the tags.

And there’s more. Taglocity allows me to share my tags (and even my emails if I want) with friends or colleagues. I just create a group on the Taglocity site and invite people to join it. This makes it pretty valuable as a piece of groupware, especially in virtual teams. For example, colleagues of mine at the Intranet Benchmarking Forum are experimenting with Taglocity using a set of around 60 shared tags and so far the results are pretty encouraging.

Taglocity is currently in its version 2.0 beta but seems fairly stable. The plug-in and associated account are still free, but personally I would have no hesitation in paying a reasonable charge for the services offered.

Just off to unintall Xobni (again)…

Paying tax the fun way!

July 2nd, 2008

Well, not exactly. While the UK’s beloved HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) has come a long way with its online services, they seemed to have stopped short of providing a good user experience.

The problem appears to be that us technologists are very enthusiastic about deciding exactly what constitutes a user error, and punishing transgressors appropriately for them. So, for example, let’s consider the following example: 

Error message repremanding user for failing to make a choice when only one option is displayed

Users do this all the time. There is no choice to be made and the empty radio button does not provide an adequate visual cue that something needs to be done. The Next button was enabled, so being as bad a user as the next when it isn’t my own design I clicked on it and received the ticking-off you see above. I find it very hard to believe that it is really necessary to force the user to make a selection, but disabling the Next button would be an obvious alternative to dealing with a user error. That would require client-side scripting but an equally acceptable alternative would be to select the first item listed by default. But the biggest failing is the lack of empathy that designer of this interaction is suffering from. How does he or she think the customer (taxpayers are customers, right?) is going to react to receiving an error message that appears to deliberately intended to cause frustration?

But there’s more. On the same site, but in a different form, users are required to enter the cash equivalent for tax purposes of a company-supplied car. For this purpose, they are invited to visit a web page that does the calcuation and then to enter the result into the form. It’s a bit clunky, but that is not the only problem. Here is the calculator result:

Page showing cash equivalent of car with a comma as the thousands separator

Notice the comma pound sign and the comma? Trying to copy and paste these figures – from the tool that HMRC recommends – causes a message like this:

Error message stating that the input field must be numeric (it contains a comma output by the calulator)

The really galling thing here is that it is very much easier to write code to ignore unwanted commas than it is to complain about it and force users to put it right. And that really is the smoking gun in most of the empathy-deficient cases I see: the designer has become fixated on handling the error rather than working around it in the interests of good user experience. Sigh.