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Posts Tagged ‘Customer Experience’

I’ve recently been pushing for greater support for Catalyst and MojoMojo on Debian. For the uninitiated, Catalyst is a Model-View-Controller Framework designed for writing web applications. MojoMojo is a Wiki application based on Catalyst that provides a lot of neat features; while it seems less popular than Wikimedia’s MediaWiki software, it’s still got plenty of features other wikis don’t.

Here’s a blurb about it from their homepage:

We also have a bunch of features you won’t find in every wiki, like an attachment system that automatically makes a web gallery of your photos, live AJAX previews as you are editing your text, and a proper full text search engine built straight into the software.

Unfortunately, such a rich feature set comes at a price — this shiny piece of software has a rather large dependency chain. As a result, building the module (after building its prerequisites) from CPAN is both slow and prone to failure, since each module must be individually retrieved, extracted, built, tested and then installed.

To make matters worse, any failure anywhere in the chain (perhaps a new version of a module breaks things) will cause a complete failure to build the module — either Catalyst or MojoMojo — which has some serious implications for production applications.

In Debian, we mitigate this risk by having separate unstable and testing distributions, so if a newer version breaks things in unstable, we will catch it and have a chance to fix it before the package makes it into testing. By packaging these modules for Debian, we get the advantages of a faster installation process (since we’re installing pre-built binaries) combined with better Quality Assurance.

One of the big issues blocking both of these has been missing copyright information for a lot of modules. I’ve worked a lot with Matt S. Trout, one of the primary people behind coordinating the efforts of the Catalyst project, and gathered the necessary information for an upgrade and upload into Debian.

Recently, libcatalyst-modules-perl (version 35) and libcatalyst-modules-extra-perl (version 4) were uploaded to Debian, containing many necessary updates and fixes to improve the Catalyst experience on Debian. The next big push is to get MojoMojo’s dependencies packaged (currently only String::Diff is blocking it, due to missing copyright information).

A bounty of $150 is being offered by one of the MojoMojo developers to the first person who can re-implement the String::Diff functionality in a free/open source way.

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Engineering is a broad-based education that focuses on understanding and applying key theoretical concepts to design innovative products for the public good.  Even so, it is perhaps a bit surprising that, regardless of our specialization and discipline, we can all make valuable contributions to health care.

Often, novel developments involve combining knowledge from several different fields of study; indeed, the fact that many universities like Western offer concurrent degrees featuring a wide spectrum of curricula demonstrates a response to that industry need.  The obvious, and trendy, connections come from programs with a bio- prefix, but the health care profession desperately needs all of us to contribute.

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the various ways that all of us can impact the health care profession, in disparate and traditionally unrelated fields such as electronics, software design, materials science, thermodynamics, environmental engineering, water resources protection or any of the many fields Engineers work in, all of us have society at heart.  The Engineers’ Code of Ethics emphasizes that we have a duty to the public, above all else; it comes before loyalties to our employer, clients, colleagues and even ourselves.

Engineering is different from other professions because we work under various constraints, including public safety, cost, legal restrictions, environmental friendliness and implementation timelines.  These pose some of our greatest challenges as engineers, since we must always know how we fit into the big picture; this is why systems engineering is so important.

All too often, our education neglects an important design component: how users interact with the product.  Because it is difficult to quantify the costs of staff training and reduced efficiency of poorly designed tools, it is easy to overlook these opportunities for significant cost savings.  By simply tailoring our products to the customer’s usage process, we can improve efficiency and thus reduce costs.

In the realm of health care, the media generally portrays the problems as systemic, due to lack of funding and a shortage of staff.  Engineers can play an integral role in improving health care by devising ways to streamline the process.

For example, the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario implemented software to track its $2.5-million inventory of medical instruments in the cycle of use and subsequent sterilization.  In the same vein, the LHSC worked with HP to begin digitally tracking its blood infusion pump equipment, to increase capital utilization and thus free up room in the budget to explore other projects or hire more staff.

At the same time, keeping track of patients’ medical records can be a daunting task in a busy hospital, so there is a need for a system that allows fast entry and retrieval of patient data, especially between different institutions.  With millions of Canadians requiring emergency care each year, the implications are immense: we can save days’ worth of labour hours by devising ways for all health care professionals to work together, especially inter-departmentally.

Once established, this systemic interoperability can provide further cost reductions by helping doctors avoid duplicate work—it reduces the chances of inadvertently ordering the same test twice or ordering unnecessary tests.  It can also reduce the risk of error by helping to keep track of drug interactions automatically, which could reduce workplace stress.

It is easy to see the many ways that Software, Electrical and Computer Engineers can benefit the health care industry.  However, though it is much less apparent, it is no less significant how other engineers can contribute to health care.  Indeed, as with many industries, this type of innovation must ideally involve interdisciplinary teams.

The role of an engineer is to identify problem areas and devise effective solutions.  The very nature of our industry demands that we always consider many constraints simultaneously, and the health care profession is no different.  We all want to improve patient care and reduce the environmental footprint of hospitals and long-term care facilities, but we have to do so within the constraints of legal restrictions, budgeting and related deadlines.  Often, this does not directly relate to technology, but the optimal placement of everything.

We have ignored it in favour of cost reductions for decades, but facility design can actually have a profound impact on patient care and result in a net decrease in cost.  It can be difficult to see how psychology affects patient treatment, so mental health is an overlooked component of patient care.  The austere and sterile façade that characterizes so many hospitals could have numerous effects on our mental health and that of health care workers.

While not the most glamorous of undertakings, these projects can have a significant impact on increasing productivity; it is a wonder that they are not proposed more often.  Perhaps it is a question of the large capital investment and the notion that better building design will not have good returns on investment.  While preparing a design to meet new building code legislation, the Sutter Health Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, California, undertook the daunting task of creating an environment more conducive to effective patient care—things like accessibility for disabled persons, using sophisticated new technologies to streamline the process and to make the new building more environmentally sustainable.  The new hospital design responds to a change in usage patterns: on average, the length of a patient visit is now shorter than ever.

This change poses various challenges for all engineers.  Civil Engineers must construct the building cheaply but with concern for the long life requirements and chaotic atmosphere of the hospital.  Electrical Engineers must ensure the continuity of the power system, while Computer and Software Engineers must ensure that the system is reliable enough to replace the paper medical records formerly used.  Systems Engineers must ensure that everything works well, while minimizing the enormous building’s environmental footprint.

There are so many outstanding questions that the Engineers of tomorrow will have to answer.  With material costs on the rise, how can we ensure that the inevitable construction of new buildings is affordable?  How can we implement computers and other technologies without reducing overall productivity?  Health care is a field we, as Engineers, will have to watch closely.

Over the past few decades, we have seen the increasing demand on our health care system.  Society has a clear need for better health care facilities, and Engineers, working with doctors, nurses and politicians must be ready to face these new challenges.  We all have something to contribute to an important industry, and we face the certain knowledge that there will be dire consequences if we do not.  At the end of the day, it’s not just the bio- prefix that matters.

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One of the things that many students don’t realize is that we are essentially customers. We give the university money (tuition) in exchange for knowledge and a degree. We are often forced to put up with a terrible customer experience we would not accept anywhere else; yet, we do.

How do organizations get away with providing awful support for their products?

Well, put simply, support is not a criteria we often use to select a company we wish to deal with. We look at cost effectiveness, we look at the short-term gains we expect to achieve, we look at whether there are other solutions available, we look at whether we need the solution in the first place. But as everyday consumers, we don’t often require that an appropriate level of support is in place.

Why? Because we don’t think about the inevitable; we always like to pretend that we will never need our car insurance, that we will never need to use the limited manufacturer warranties that come with our products. We often don’t even bother to stop and read the fine print, instead preferring to believe whatever promises salespeople leave us with.

As a student of both Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I am actually part of two faculties – a full time student in the Faculty of Engineering, while a part time student in the Faculty of Science. This arrangement means I can enroll in courses from both faculties, but it also means that in order to do so, I must deal with the faculty that has control over the particular course.

So when I needed to have something done with regard to a Computer Science course, I had to go to the Faculty of Science Dean’s Office. Upon arrival at about 08:30, I received a ticket and waited in the reception area. When my number was called, I was sent to a triage-type area, where the counselling assistant determined whether or not we needed to make an appointment to see the Academic Counsellor.

When I finally got to the Academic Counsellor who could actually do what I needed, it was 10:30 – two hours later and shortly before my next class. The transaction itself took a few minutes, which left me wondering why my situation wasn’t dealt with in a more timely fashion.

I understand that it’s not always the fault of the staff. After all, there are lots of students in the Faculty of Science, and only four counsellors, only one of which was accepting drop-in appointments that day. So perhaps this is an intrinsic problem with the way we allocate people.

This graph illustrates the number of students each academic counsellor is responsible for, assuming equal distribution of students per counsellor.

This data was compiled from data published by the University of Western Ontario as part of the CUDO – Common University Data Ontario – initiative. The data from 2008 was used to compile this graph, with counsellor counts coming from the respective faculty web sites.

As we can see, the number of students each counsellor must handle is large, and has little to do with the total number of students in each faculty. So while there are 11091 students in the Faculty of Science, there remain only 4 academic counsellors capable of special review tasks. In the Faculty of Engineering, there are 1788 students and 3 counsellors. Does this make sense? I think not.

So, support should always be part of the equation. In business, support is a important metric for making the next buying decision. As a result, the Business Division of Dell Computer provides excellent and prompt response with minimal waiting — offering services like quick advice from highly trained personnel backed up by Next Business Day service.

This is important in industry. Why shouldn’t it be important to us consumers? Why shouldn’t we demand more support personnel, or different ways to quickly apply for these types of special considerations? Perhaps some sort of online queuing system could be a solution to this; and definitely we need some review here.

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