App Standardization Requires Careful Planning

Station-600x365.jpg

This is perhaps a silly question, but what is the first thing you use when you start your computer in the morning? For some people it’s their Email, others it’s Facebook, and others check the news first. But the real question is: “what do all these have in common?” They can all be accessed in a web browser.

Now most Windows users will go straight to Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge, and many people also use Firefox. Mac users will likely use Safari or Firefox. While Linux users also have dozens of options, including some of the above, but the one that is comon across all three is Firefox. Consequently, Linux Mint, our preferred operating system, has also standardized on Firefox which is installed by default.

Standardizing on Firefox

On my network, we used a hodgepodge of browsers before I introduced Linux Mint. However, once I added the Mint computer, I standardized all the browsers on the network to use Firefox exclusively. It simplified my management of the network and tech support was also streamlined.

While standardization of applications wasn’t one of my original goals when I decided to add Linux to the mix, it does bring up an important point. Having multiple operating systems on a network does limit the choices for everyday applications – and that is a good thing – making things simpler is always a good thing in computing.

Fortunately, Firefox has a very familiar interface, so it wasn’t difficult to convince people to switch. It also has some very good management tools that make installation, updates, and support very convenient. Firefox also has some handy power-user features that some of our team members welcomed. In short, it was an easy standardization to make. Most importantly, it was easy because it did not negatively impact anyone’s workflow.

Standardizing on Firefox also established a precedent for me. I was now on a mission to standardize as many applications I could find. However, since our team members often have favorite apps, this was not always popular. On our network, it was an uphill battle, so I needed to approach this with introspection. While standardization would make my management of the network easier, I also needed to show that there were also other benefits – in short, every app required a case to be made.

Introducing Station

The Station application bills itself as the “one app to rule them all.” When I first researched it, I thought that this was a bit presumptuous, and I also thought (as I do about most apps in Linux) that they could have chosen a better name. If you say to someone: “I’m using Station now,” they will probably respond with a puzzled look. Name aside, it’s a wonderful app that works on Linux, Windows and MacOS. More importantly, it looks and works the same on all three OSes, so this would help with support.

Screenshot of Station installed on one of our Windows computers. I was in the process of adding apps, with Trello already configured and Linked In in process. Adding apps is very quick and easy - one of our team members has over 25 apps installed.

Screenshot of Station installed on one of our Windows computers. I was in the process of adding apps, with Trello already configured and Linked In in process. Adding apps is very quick and easy - one of our team members has over 25 apps installed.

So what is Station? It brings all the most popular online services and social media together into a single screen. This way, everything from my favorite email applications to Quickbooks, Slack, Facebook, Lastpass, Pinterest, Asana, Wordpress, Github, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, etc. can all be loaded into a single application and quickly accessed from a list on the left. As a matter of fact, it supports over 600 applications.

My first thought was: why couldn’t I just do this in a web browser? Well, you can, but web browsers are memory hogs. By the end of the day, most people have so many tabs open in their browser that the whole system slows to a crawl. On my network, I even have people who use one browser just for their social media apps, another for their “work” and another for media and video – with enough tabs open in each, the system runs out of memory very fast. Station manages memory better and puts less used apps in sleep mode until they are needed

This was very cool – for me. The people on the network didn’t really care so much or rather just accepted that computers run out of memory and needed to be restarted every few hours. It was more of a welcome water-cooler break for them, and not something that required fixing. Never mind the extra energy needed, the wear & tear on the hardware, and the possibilities for data corruption. It just wasn’t that important, and I had to come up with another reason to get people to use Station.

Another feature that I really like about Station, one that browsers are not really designed to address, is the ability to take an action that affects all the open apps, or a subset of them. For example, Station can turn off notifications of a single app, groups of apps, and all the apps. That is very powerful. When I showed that to the team, there were finally some raised eyebrows. Maybe not yet a sale, but I had my foot in the door.

Another feature is the ability to load multiple instances of the same app, even if they have different passwords. For example, we could have three different instances of Gmail open, switch between them and copy/paste between them. This makes it quick and easy to respond to three different email lists with similar messages. It also allows quick switching between different apps such as accounting, project management, CRM, and email. We could, for example, quickly share budget info across all of these. While a web browser could possibly do this too, it is far less convenient to do so and it is not from a single interface. This was also welcomed by our team.

However, what really sealed the deal was a very simple feature: Recent Documents. This is probably the most used feature in word processors, but now our team could use it across all the applications they used, from their social media to their productivity apps. This was huge for them because it allowed them to quickly resume what they had been working on the last time they were on the computer. It increased productivity, which also made management happy.

Conclusion

When looking for an application to standardize on, it isn’t enough to find one that eases management for the computing staff. By the same token, finding an application that has some great features may also not be enough. Those features need to be seen in the context of the workflow of each member of a team. Does it improve efficiency? If so, does it do that for every member of the team? And is this enough to convince them to change old habits?

My introduction of Station to the Team serves as a great example of what is involved in standardizing. It requires careful considerations and coordination with management. It cannot be imposed on the team without their input. Larger companies and organizations often make this mistake, and this often goes awry. Our network is still small, so there are fewer team members to convince, but the process should be the same, no matter how large the affected team is.

With a third operating system on the network, the number of applications to choose from for a standardization product is smaller. That’s also a good thing. It reduces the frequency of standardizing projects and in the process reduces changes that impact productivity.

This blog is part of a newsletter published by the Colégas Group called The Gigster 'Zine! To receive your own copy of the monthly newsletter delivered right to your in-box, click here.

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