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a Run Through the Jungle of Software Development and Unrelated Sagas

What I Want From Accounting Software

with 16 comments

Regular readers (both of you: Hi Mum!) will know I have already ranted about this before, and again about the basket-case that is QuickBooks, weaved by two packs (wipe that smile of your smug dial MYOB) of narrow-minded window-licking codetards and email-pushing middle-managers at great expense to both themselves and us to prop up a regime of beancounting droids who couldn’t get a date at tax-time. I hope that was diplomatic enough. If you’re one of that crowd well sorry but you knew what you were getting yourselves into. Shut up.

Well, it’s time for another rant because it’s tax time. I’ll try to make this one somewhat more constructive.

There is hope on the horizon in the form of Software As A Service (SAAS) providers like Saasu, Xero and a Clarity. There are surely others worthy of consideration. If you know of one you like (or at least don’t despise) then please add your thoughts via a comment.

My initial thoughts on these are that the developers of all 3 are very keen on hearing feedback and engaging with their users. This alone puts them leagues ahead of QuickBooks & MYOB. Leagues. Miles. Light years. You get the picture.

  • Saasu – If you’re familiar with QB/MYOB then the Saasu interface won’t confuse you. It’s more straightforward to use than the 👿 Ones. For me it is a bit too much like them to warrant the leap of faith. Not yet, at least. The dashboard in the demo just shows news items – it should show what I would expect to see if I set my own company up and ran it there. I can see where to manage it and add stuff but you can’t edit the demo. You can in Xero. I haven’t bothered setting up my own accounts in there (why would I if I was just testing it?) but the empty dashboard for my company file shows more promise. I still don’t know what would be clickable there though.
  • Xero – is the pretty one. It has a really nice interface and User eXperience (UX). It does automatic bank statement imports for a lot of NZ banks and some Australian banks which is full of WIN for me because I’m lazy and disorganised, just like you. The UX is my favourite of these by quite a margin. The dashboard is nice (ooh, graphs) and you can click through items in the Aged Receivables report to drill down to details, something I couldn’t do in the Saasu demo without going into edit mode. I just wanted to look at it! I could in Clarity too. Xero’s documentation is well done and comprehensive too.
  • Clarity – is similar to Saasu. Without spending a mega-hours poking around I think Saasu may be more a little more evolved in some places but less in others. For example-instance, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me how to add an item to an invoice in the demo in Clarity. Perhaps the demo needs a few items in it. I had to manually type in the description, price etc each time. If that’s the way it works then I’d get bored with it rather quickly. I suspect that ultimately you can add items to an invoice but I didn’t figure it out. You can edit the demo in Clarity too.

😦 None of them warned me when I was navigating away from an incomplete invoice (in the demo). That sucks. The reason I dropped MYOB like a hot potato is because it was (and apparently still is – let me know) all-too easy to lose all your work on an invoice by simply hitting the escape key too many times. There was (is?) no warning dialogue about losing your unsaved work. Suckage. 😦

🙂 All of them allow you to access your accounts from anywhere in the internet, naturally. Xero has an iPhone version which I must says is bloody noice. That might have something to do with my having just crossed to the Dark Side. Here’s a video of Xero on the iPhone in action, complete with now-fashionable (thanks to The Flight of the Conchords) Kiwi narration. The mobile site should work on most mobile devices. ANZ Australia bank’s site worked on my old Nokia. I’m sure the Commonwealth Bank etc should too.

😦 None of them directly do timesheet invoices or project tracking. I’m sure I am not the only person who bills their time by the hour. All of them advise you to create an item that represents an hour of work. Saasu has timesheets but they don’t allow for meal breaks. Xero interfaces with WorkflowMax (so does Saasu) but I’d like to keep both the portals and the costs (an extra $25/month) contained. Bonus – WorkflowMax too have an iPhone interface.

😥 Depreciation is a pain in the bum. Xero wins here, hands-down. The others need you to set up accounts, workarounds and all that rot. bah. Actually, I don’t think Clarity even has an asset register.

😦 None of the 3 have particularly customisable invoice layouts. My timesheet invoices include a field at the top for an overall project name (which is tracked) and each lines has fields for Date, Project-Item-Name (which doesn’t get printed), Project-Name (also doesn’t get printed), Description of the work, Start time, Finish time, Break duration (lunch), sub-total hours for the day, hourly rate, Tax type (not printed), line total & GST. Then there are totals at the bottom for before GST, the GST amounts and the total to pay. I suggest they take a look at the level to which you can customise QuickBooks invoices and save different layouts. Then forget what you saw because the way you customise invoices in QuickBooks 2007/08 sucks. You can do better. C’mon , AJAX draggy-droppy is all the rage – show me the money! Also, I want to change fonts here and there. Poor ol’ Comic Sans doesn’t get out much these days

🙂 All three of them have an API so they are extensible. The API is free, unlike the 👿 Others… unless that changed recently. Like I could be bothered checking.

🙂 Xero have a UserVoice forum for their API and also take suggestions via a pop-up within their site. Clarity also has a UserVoice forum. Saasu take feedback via support tickets on their site. I’m a big fan of UserVoice and I’d like to see more of it, or at least of its ilk. I like seeing feedback in a public(more-or-less) forum where you can see what’s going on. For one, it saves you from a flood of duplicate requests. I think it also builds communities. My love of UserVoice is a another topic altogether that I probably won’t get around to blogging about. Hell, I’m only writing this because I hate QuickBooks and this is far more interesting than actually doing my tax.

🙂 oh, look – another reason to like Xero. Also  Xero’s blog is a lot more active than Saasu’s. Clarity’s blog is definitively worth a read too.

😕 I don’t care about payrolls (because employing someone these days is too damn hard) but Xero (via an integrated 3rd party) & Saasu handle them.

❓ Halp! I have already mentioned Xero’s documentation. It is dead-easy to get to from the middle of what you’re doing at the time and it’s context-sensitive. Yay!. Saasu has a help link that leads to to their documentation. It’s not as pretty or as intuitive as Xero’s. Clarity also has a link to help from their dashboard. Xero is the clear winner here, taking a leaf from QuickBooks and wiping their … moving right along …

💡 Here’s what I really want, specifically for depreciation in this instance: I am on the “simplified” tax / Small Business Entities oh there’s too many words … System. When I buy a laptop I’d love to be able to click the big green “I bought something” button, tell it how much I paid, what it is (shiny!), tell it what percentage is for business use (100%, of course!) and forget all about it. The software should be smart enough to know if I paid less than $1000 (excl GST) then it is a 100% deduction and if I paid more then it is 15% for the 1st year then 30% for every year after that until the asset pool falls below $1000 then that pool is a 100% deduction. Does your head hurt yet? Here it is explained in a far more complicated manner. There would be another button (perhaps red?) for when I sell or dispose of it that does all the depreciation stuff in the background, generates a tax invoice for the sale, tells me how much I lost made on the sale versus depreciation deal and tells me to go buy one even shinier. This is all stuff that QB & MYOB would insist you pay a bean counter to tell you. I’m calling bullshit on that one. It’s just sums and a logical sequence, the sort of thing you’d get a computer to do.

There are a number of other things I want along these lines and timesheet invoicing is one of them. All the timesheet / invoice really needs to know is ….

  1. Who is the client?
  2. What are you working on?
  3. What day did you work?
  4. What time did you start?
  5. What time did you finish
  6. How long did you take for lunch? Times are optional but that’s a bit nit-picky for me
  7. How much is the hourly rate for this task?
  8. [optional] How does this compare with a quote / estimate you gave earlier for this job?
  9. How much allocated time is left?

The trick is this needs to be simple to manage. You also need to be able to leave stuff out til later if you’re in a rush. If you just need to write some times down with a short note about what it was so you can be reminded to finish the details later then let me do that – and then remind me. You need to be able to add new projects and project items while you’re in the middle of filling out a time sheet or invoice. I am more than happy to wade though documentation and concentrate for a while to set up invoice templates and some workflows. After that I just want it to work. Don’t make me think! I want the computer to do as I say & think, not the other way around. <—Important point, read again.

🙂 Saasu, Xero and Clarity are all on Twitter and all seem more than happy to chat. I’m on Twitter too.

😦 Xero is a tad expensive for a lone freelancer at $50/month. I think it needs a tiered pricing scheme so I’m not potentially paying the same book-keeping fees as BHP. Saasu is half the price or even free if I only do 15 transactions per month. Hey, I’m not a marketer so who am I to dictate pricing? Clarity is even cheaper but has no free option. Given the nice UX and abundance of conveniences, Xero might just get away with their premium pricing. Well, they haven’t gone backwards, that’s for sure. QB & MYOB will rob you of at least $250 / year for a version “that works”. I think most of that money goes into printing all the 😡 brochures they keep sending me to recycle. Shiz, what do I know about pricing?

😯 I missed 88 Miles from this post initially. Thanks Corneliu for reminding me. I found it very straightforward to use. It is simple but effective in managing time worked on projects. It doesn’t do quote etc but for timesheets, it’s a win. You can even clock in and out on the web page. The only thing I didn’t like was, as I mentioned in the comment below, when you enter a shift manually you can’t account for meal breaks. You’d have to fudge either the start or finish time to get the correct hours worked. The pricing is good though and it interfaces with Saasu.

8) My Verdict? Well, Xero is coated with sugary WIN, as far as I am concerned. It has the UX win and that’s what I was looking for. QB can count beans but it alienates me, leading to anger, which leads to the Dark Side, which leads to blogs like this. This must be stopped! No, wait.

Alas, Xero + WorkflowMax they are a tad too expensive for me at the moment at around $75/month for the pair. My invoicing and accounting needs are not so complex at this moment in time to require such expense in managing them. Having said that I found WorkflowMax a bit clunky. Also, there didn’t seem to be a way to put either your or the supplier ABN on a Tax Invoice in WorkflowMax. It is actually illegal in Australia to omit your ABN if the invoice is over $1000 and also to omit the supplier ABN at any time (possible exception: if you withhold the GST). I think Saasu might be guilty here too, if memory serves me right [edit: it didn’t – see Marc Lehmann’s comment below. Saasu does cater for this], which it often doesn’t. [obviously!] I think there are easier and/or more comprehensive ways to track time & projects. Maybe I didn’t take a good look at it but it wasn’t better than the way QuickBooks does it.

Either of the others is, at this stage, a bit more-of-the-same as QuickBooks so I’m sitting tight with QuickBooks for now, despite the fact that I hate its guts. Basically I am just using it as an invoicing tool and doing the sums in Excel. That will surely change sooner or later but not just yet. The temptation is not quite strong enough. Yet 🙂

To the vendors – Take a look at the stalwarts (QB & MYOB). You want their functionality (well, some of it) but for Gawdsakes don’t let Bookworms and Beancounters determine your User eXperience. Go ask a plumber or a sparky. Don’t take my word as Gospel. That would be :lol:. They’re your customers and they will tell you what you need to know about UX. UX is the path to WIN. Oh, read this about UX too. You’ll find it handy. or not.

Right – your turn – what do you think:?: What do you know:?: What do you want:?:

Vendors – I’d especially like to hear your feedback and corrections. If I got something wrong, let me know & I’ll update the post.

————

Stop the Presses – update (July 6, 09)

💡 Apportionment. I’d love to be able to apportion what percentage of an expense is tax-deductible. I operate as a sole-trader, as I am sure many do, so my business accounts are reasonably-closely tied to my personal tax return. Items like motor vehicle expenses are deductible at a rate set by me according to a log book. So, when I enter a fuel expense I’d like the software to apportion the business and personal percentages to separate accounts so I don’t have to do it later to work out my personal tax return. As a bonus, I’d like to be able to update this percentage and apply it to a range of transactions retrospectively. Yeah, have that spanner in your works! 😕

This would be especially handy for a method like Xero’s that automatically guesstimates what a transaction  may be, based on past entries. I really like that feature. Coupled with automatic bank statement imports, I can see that really taking the tedium out of counting my beans. It’s all about getting the computer to do the boring stuff. Having spent the entire weekend cooped up inside, in my pajamas, counting beans – it gets boring.

Update March 2014

I have been using Xero for a few years now and I would never go back.  My annual (personal – I am a sole trader, not a Pty Ltd) tax return process has gone from a profanity-ridden 4 day antisocial lockdown to about 2 minutes copying Xero reports totals into a simple Google docs spreadsheet. BX (Before Xero) I literally had no idea how my business was doing until the EOY return because it was just too hard to figure out. Xero may even have saved my marriage, such was the angst.

A lot of the nitty-gritty in this post is well out of date, you really should check them out for yourself to see what each currency have on offer – they have evolved a long way from when I first wrote this post.

Written by CADbloke

July 4, 2009 at 11:38 am

Posted in Rants, Wot I use

Tagged with , ,

The Web is Not a One-Way Street.

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This post is a follow-up for a presentation I gave at the The Sydney Business Technology User’s Group in June, 2009 on Interwebz feedback channels for your customers and community. If you weren’t there you missed a golden opportunity to heckle. Maybe next time, eh?

These days the internet is steadily evolving into a medium for communities to connect and congregate. The notion of a static HTML brochure page has gone the way of Alta Vista. These days it’s all about interaction. Like the best camera is one that gets out of your way so you can take a photo, the best web is the one that facilitates communication and interaction without being intrusive, to the extent that it takes place outside of a browser in clients and on mobile devices.

Whether you have a personal blog with visitors, or a business with clients and prospective clients, or you are interacting with your peers, it’s the same thing in real terms. Communication and community build rapport, credibility, leads and are generally just warm-and-fuzzy nice. We’re social animals. Hey, none of this is new to you. Even monoliths like mainstream media have feedback channels. They always have via the letters-to-the-editor. The difference is that most letters don’t get published. That’s not very Web 2.0.

The trick is your participation in feedback channels. My biggest takeaway from 4 and a half years of university was this from psych 101: “It is that which comes from you that determines your quality of life, not that which comes to you.” To elaborate, your well-being and reputation (professional and otherwise) are determined by your actions far more so than by the actions of others towards you. This includes your participation in the communities relevant to you.

Allow me to use one of my cranky rants to illustrate. I was trying to find a mind-mapping solution and stumbled upon Gliffy. I couldn’t find any pricing for it and I wasn’t in a particularly good mood so I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about it:

 Me: Hey @Gliffy. I will *NOT* sign up for an account just to view your pricing. GGF! Pricing info link #FAIL

and Gliffy’s reply: @CADbloke Try clicking on the ‘free basic account’ link from the signup page. Sounds like we could make some improvements there.

So, who looks like a dill now? Yup, me (again). Therein lies you lesson (albeit at my expense), your contribution to the conversation is what identifies you in the community. Sure, a massive attack on you in a public forum will shake things around but you should realise you have a lot of control here – everybody is watching what you are saying and doing. Make it count.

Now to the cheat-sheet for my presentation…

Community is about empowering your clients, users, potential clients, even friends and family. Think about FaceBook and MySpace if you’re pondering the last couple of groups there.

There are various types of customer interaction. This is not an exhaustive list, just a starting point for conversation about conversation. Um, metaconversation anyone?

  • Feedback for your product / service / something you said
  • Request for more information
  • a one-to-one conversation with a member of your community
  • a conversation amongst many members of your community, led by you
  • a conversation amongst many members of your community, not led by you
  • annoying, pointless rants (usually from me)
  • spam

Try to contain it to all but the last two. So how do you go about it?

 

Modes of Customer Interaction

  • Nothing: won’t cut it in the 21st century. One way communication is dictatorial and not empowering. It is not the Cold War era anymore. Silence will get you ignored or raise suspicions about your intentions.
  • email link from website: Spam bait and not open, conversational nor community-driven. Better than nothing but not by much. Never use a mailto: on your web page unless you really, really love sifting through spam. You can encode it if you like but it is still not much a of a communication channel.
  • contact page: More spam-proof. Initiates a one-to-one email conversation. Still doesn’t benefit the community because it is a closed conversation.
  • Surveys and Polls. This is more like a call for comments. It is still initiated by you and is still a closed-ish channel although revealing the survey results opens the channel somewhat. Obviously polls are more one-way than a survey that allows for written answers. They can initiate but can’ host discussions.
  • Comments, blog-style: More web 2.0. Conversational, open. You still initiate the conversation and choose the topic, at least initially. This is a generational leap ahead of the mailto: dinosaur. All blogging platforms support comments. It has been widely opined that a blog without comments is just a rant. Threaded comments add another dimension to the conversation. I like ‘em.
  • Forums: Open, public or semi-public – there are various method of Access Control. Community members can initiate conversations. You can moderate forums but you should be careful not to stifle discussion.
  • Bug reporting tools like  Bugzilla, Mantis, Eventum form the MySQL team, BugNET, Bug Tracker .NET, FogBugz, Jira. These are far-more suited to technical crowd. Their interfaces are very technical & quite confrontational for the uninitiated. Your average user, already flustered because the app you wrote for them has crashed, will probably give up at this stage. Too hard!
  • Hosted feedback forums are relatively new to the mainstream tubes. UserVoice is my favourite, perhaps because of their start-up story but also because of their widget that goes on your site. They don’t try to pwn your brand. Speaking of which, and here too, there’s also Get Satisfaction but it’s pricey. It is worth looking at if you have needs for a more intricate feedback channel but I don’t think it’s really meant for SMEs.
  • Generic hosted forums like Whirlpool for Australian IT Linked-in, FaceBook, MySpace have professional groups you should look at participating in
  • Instant messaging communities like  Twitter, Friend Feed etc. FaceBook etc are rapidly evolving into this space too. Like it or not, this is the leading edge of evolution, as far as internet collaboration goes. Well, it was when I wrote it.

The above list is, more or less, in increasing order of public-ness and decreasing order of monolithic-ness. More significantly you can see a drift from the top of the list to the bottom of the list towards Social Media.

 

SEO

SEO on your support site is just as important as the rest of your site, as the 37Signals vs GetSatisfaction example shows. Here’s another example. For exampleinstance, you would expect a search for QuickBooks has encountered a problem and needs to close to return you all sorts of Quicken support goodness. It does but there’s a SEO red-herring in there – well, there was when I wrote this. Serves ‘me right, I say 😉

 

Spam Control

Akismet is amazingly effective in controlling spam on blogs. It is easily integrated with WordPress and other blog platforms. Use it!. Seriously. Mollom is an alternative to Akismet for systems like Drupal. Dries invented Mollom so Drupal don’t really “do” Akismet

You can test to see if the Contacter (yes, I made that word up) is a human or a robot using various methods, the most popular of which are CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA. They both tend to  be pretty effective deterrents to both robots and humans alike.

Hosted solutions are a bit easier here because spam control is more-or-less their problem to solve.

Well, I hope that gives you food for thought. Please feel free to add your thoughts and observations.

cheers

Ewen

Written by CADbloke

June 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

SEO is for emails too

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There’s a lot of hoo-ha going around about SEO and how to make Google your friend. This ain’t about that.

This is about making your email searchable. One thing that works really well in Outlook, particularly with version 2007 after SP2 is search. Search isn’t going to work if the keywords aren’t there to be found. So, if you’re writing an email and there are a few variations on some terms and keywords that come to mind, mix it up a little and put them in.

If you can’t make them fit in your narrative then go to the trouble of adding a “ps” after your email signature (fer instance) and list them. You could even say something like “I’ve included these keywords so you can find this email in a search later on: yada yada yaa…” or sumfin like that.

Forexampleinstance. The other day I was searching for an email about “WPF”. I didn’t find it under that – it was under “Windows Presentation Foundation”. Simply including both variations on that theme would have returned the email in a search first time around. I eventually found it but, hey, I’m lazy so I sincerely appreciate it every time you make life a little easier for me.

 

🙂

Written by CADbloke

May 27, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Posted in Rants

Tagged with ,

CHM help files don’t display their content

with 2 comments

Trying to view a chm help file and getting something like “This program cannot display the webpage” or “Page Cannot Be Displayed”  or this sort of thing …

Nothing to see here

Nothing to see here

There are plenty of solutions on the web about unblocking chm files in Vista etc but here is a curly one that can catch you out – if the path or file name of the .chm contains the “#” character then you have a problem. The solution is to rename it, removing the # character.

See http://support.microsoft.com/kb/319247 for details.

I hope this saves you the considerable amount of time it took me to find this.

Written by CADbloke

November 5, 2008 at 8:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

QuickBooks has encountered a problem and needs to close.

with 30 comments

If they keep this up it will apply to the whole company .image

This happened to me after successfully using it in Vista for almost a whole week. It was nigh-on impossible to find a solution to this so I hope Google has been kind to you today and this helps. If not, abuse them. It won’t fix anything but they thoroughly deserve it.

This is (if you’re lucky) an easy fix. It is all about how QuickBooks uses Internet Exploder, sorry – Internet Explorer as its internal browser. QB, apparently, is so shoddily coded that it expects IE’s security to grant permissions for all its hacks. Here’s how to let it do that…

  1. Open Internet Explorer
  2. Go to the Tools Menu
  3. Click Internet Options
  4. Click the Security tab
  5. In the Security level area, click on Custom Level
  6. I set the level to Medium-High (Default)
  7. Click on the Reset button on the bottom right
  8. Click ok on everything on your way out.

I have had QuickBooks working on windows XP, Vista, and even Windows Server 2008 with only the usual level of issues. It also seems to work ok with Internet Exploder 7 & 8 Beta 2. It uses Internet Exploder even if you have another browser set as the default. I use Firefox.

I have also heard reports that you need to turn the User Account Control off in Vista (in the Windows Security Center).

For the technically-minded – the shoddy code in QuickBooks generates an Access Violation Error which is the programming equivalent of a knockback. The implication there is that the program’s approach is also the equivalent of behavior that “had it coming”. When I searched the QuickBooks support (LOL) forum for "Access Violation" I get 9359 responses. I gave up in there before I looked elsewhere for this answer, ironically from a user in their forum. I think they might have big a problem there. If Google brought you here then QuickBooks is still living in denial. Personally I think they spend all of their money on marketing and bugger-all on development or User eXperience testing

I’m not a fan of QuickBooks but it seems like the lesser of many evils at the present time. Just remember – MYOB sucks worse and so does doing it all by hand.

Written by CADbloke

October 24, 2008 at 9:20 am