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h2desk: Your Help Desk Helper

For those of you who’ve had the (mis)fortune of working in a corporate environment, the persona of Nick Burns may have an eerie familiarity to it.  Nick Burns, as you may know, was the “annoying help desk guy” played by Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live.  He was socially awkward, patronizing, poorly-dressed, and very, very weird.  And the character resonated with so many people because of its underlying truth: the pervasive un-helpfulness of help desk staff.  Most of us can relate.

But what if businesses – particularly small businesses – could implement a simple, scalable Web application to make the Nick Burnses of the world obsolete?  That’d be bad for the economy (I guess) but good for our mental health, right?  Then check out h2desk help desk software, a tool that allows administrators to answer support tickets using predefined replies and access a self-service knowledge base to manage help desk tasks.

help2desk

The tool provides two main sets of functionality.  The first allows users to Manage Support tasks, where they can:

  • Convert support emails to tickets instantly with h2desk’s help desk software
  • Keep track of customer issues threaded form
  • Reply with a predefined message for every frequently raised issue
  • Reply directly from your email

The second allows users to Create a Knowledge Base where they can:

  • Easily generate searchable knowledebase articles
  • Provide self-service client support portal
  • Create tutorials, manuals, troubleshooters and more
  • Support Sidebar on their website

Further, the tool is highly customizable; all aspects of the look and feel of h2desk can be modified to fit the look and feel of your own application, with easy to use templates.  With this as an introduction, I took a free tour.

"Free tour" page on H2Desk site
"Free tour" page on h2desk site

The Tour was simply and effectively laid out, providing thumbnail shots of key screens, including the staff home and support tickets page, the support sidebar, customizable customer support portal,  and the iphone app, along with descriptions.  Next, I decided to go deeper.  After reviewing the help desk pricing options, I selected a 30-day free trial.  I chose the Help Desk Service – Medium package.  This trial supports 10 employees and allows for the submission of unlimited tickets.

I instantly received an email taking me to an administrator log in page.  I signed in.  My dashboard appeared – nice and clean and easy to manage.

My H2Desk dashboard
My h2desk dashboard

As you can see on the thumbnail, there are 8 areas above, each with their own icon.  I went through all eight – here’s how it went down.

1. Knowledge Base – “Find an answer to your question.” I clicked on it and got a file entitled “My first KB article.”  It seemed like a dummy article, as there was no content there.  This, I surmised, is where administrators such as myself uploaded FAQs and other related documents.

2.  Troubleshooter – “Step by step help.” Again, administrator-uploaded content.

3.  New Ticket – “Submit a new ticket.”  This is where users submit their ticket.  So, assuming I was someone else, I submitted a sample ticket.  It was easy.  I entered my sample name, email, message priority (low, medium, high), subject, and message.  Upon hitting “Enter” I received this notification: “Your ticket has been successfully created. An email has been sent to your address with the ticket information. If you would like to view this ticket now you can do so. DF5E78.”

I checked the sample e-mail, and lo and behold, I received a message that my ticket had been created.  That said, I wasn’t sure if I – the administrator – also received a ticket (I didn’t.)

4.  My Tickets – “View your current help desk tickets.”  It says, “Please enter your email address and ticket ID below to access your ticket. If you do not know your ticket ID, leave it blank and a list of all of your tickets will be sent to your email address.”  I entered my sample ticket e-mail address from above, checked the account, and lo and behold, received an email.

Note: On the bottom-left of this page is a Navigation drop-down box, enabling me to jump to any of these 8 sub-pages.  It’s on all the eight pages, in fact, which is a nice touch.

5.  Tutorials and Manuals – “Explore our tutorials and manuals.”   Also blank; however, I was told it was “an example manual,” and “change me.”  So, I assumed, like with “Knowledge Base” above, this content would be added at some later point.

6.  File Library – “Browse available downloads” – empty, to be populated.

7.  News – “Recent news from our company” – empty, to be populated.

8.  Links – “Useful links we’d like to share.”  Links back to h2desk’s home page.

Lastly, I also explored the Support options, clicking on h2desk and “Support.”  There were a bunch of support topics; I clicked on “Missing Tickets.”  The information was in-depth and helpful.  Perhaps more usefully, I clicked on the “Tutorials” option and was given an expansive list of selections.  You can also click “Quick Support,” enabling you to send an e-mail directly to h2desk.

Having gone through the trial, I did have a few suggestions for future iterations, from a neophyte’s point of view; let it be noted that I believe the first two can be incorporated in the help desk tour portion of the site:

  • I was initially confused about workflow; namely, what  happens on the back-end, say, when a help desk ticket is submitted.  Does the administrator get alerted?  What are his/her duties once that occurs?
  • I would insert more “dummy” content in the Knowledge Base, simply to provide trial users with a more realistic experience.  Or, during the trial, insert some language like “Administrator adds content here.”
  • The client list is extremely impressive.  It would be useful to include a few case studies, to show how these companies implemented the tool in the real world.  Better yet, try and include some success metrics: reduced response times, ability to meet service level agreements, and improved end-user satisfaction, plus quotes from happy clients.

To this user, h2desk’s layout was intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to use.  As companies – including the dozens of clients listed on h2desk’s site – continue to migrate core functions to the Web, I highly recommend h2desk’s scalable, robust, and user-friendly tool.  And to all the annoying help desk guys of the world – you’ve been warned.  Your days are numbered.

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NoNotes: Furiously Scribbling College Students Take Note

College is hard. Not only are you waking up early to take classes to fulfill general education requirements that will make you a well-rounded individual, but during class you’re forced to walk a line between processing the words coming out of your professor’s mouth and furiously scribbling them down. The smart students bring a digital recorder to class, but then that only leaves you in the unenviable position of missing what might have been a memorable night of shenanigans because you’ve backlogged seventeen hours of recorded lectures and need to transcribe everything before next week’s final.

It’s no wonder that some students feel overwhelmed. You should be out there having the best years of your life. Sure, you’re learning along the way and preparing for the real world too, but does it have to take up so much of your time? Oh, well. It’s not as if there’s some sort of service out there that will take your recorded audio files and transcribe them, accurately and for a reasonable price, so that you don’t have to waste valuable Frisbee-golf time doing it yourself.

Actually, there is. It’s called NoNotes and it does precisely that. They’ll take your recorded MP3 audio files (most digital recorders record in MP3 format) and, for as low as $9.57 per hour, they’ll deliver you clear and accurate notes in 1-3 business days.

nonotes

NoNotes claims that their service allows students to focus on and participate in class lectures without the stress of trying to take notes at the same time. The idea is that you record the lecture onto a digital recording device (which they helpfully sell in a bundle along with 5 hours of transcribing time) and then upload the resulting audio file via the NoNotes.com website. You buy transcription time through the website, by the hour, according to the length of the audio file you uploaded. (If the uploaded lecture was 52 minutes long, you would buy an hour of time.) Within a few days, your notes will be posted to your online account, ready for highlighting.

Although NoNotes was created for students, it can be used by anyone, for virtually any transcribing purpose. Professionals attending industry conferences might use the service to transcribe a lecture from a keynote speaker, students can use the service to record classes they miss because of illness (relying on a friend to record the lecture), teams of professionals may record brainstorming sessions or meetings, or perhaps political candidates could use the service to transcribe their debates. The NoNotes.com website suggests several other uses, including having professors record themselves for the purpose of self-improvement. The possibilities are limitless.

I was somewhat shocked by how well-designed the NoNotes website was: clean lines, pleasing colors, and an abundance of smiling, attractive, multicultural co-eds holding up papers marked “A+,” all convene to make browsing the site a pleasure. The members’ area, usually a dreadfully utilitarian place on otherwise nice websites, follows the aesthetics of the veneer quite nicely. It’s easy to understand where to go and what to do. Payments are made through PayPal, quick and secure, and uploading an audio file is a snap.

nonotes_members

After signing up, I had to choose a file to upload. Since I’m not a college student anymore and I don’t bother to take notes when attending the few technology lectures that I’ve enjoyed over the last year, I had to dig around to see what I had. I eventually settled on a lecture that was taped for me by a friend who’s getting his doctorate in Eastern religious studies. The lecture was 45 minutes long and was about the differences and similarities between Buddhism and Islam. It also contained many Indian words referencing various obscure aspects of both religions and various cities and groups of people. It would be a challenge for anyone to transcribe accurately.

(I also briefly thought about throwing them a curve-ball by uploading a self-induced sleep therapy hypnosis audio file I found a few years ago during a bout with insomnia. The image of the transcriber trying desperately to avoid falling asleep while performing his/her job is very amusing to me. But in the interest of professionalism, I opted for the religious lecture.)

I received an email two days after I uploaded my notes, telling me they were ready, and I logged into the NoNotes website. My notes were available for me to download in both Microsoft Word and PDF format. I downloaded the notes and read them while playing back the original sound file. I had assumed that the transcribers would get the Indian words wrong, but they were, for the most part, spot-on. The notes were not the best in terms of accuracy, with many English words replaced by phonetically similar words (“smiling” became “smelliest”, “remnants” was “reminisce”, etc.), which was a bit confusing at times, but I think that, for the most part, the notes were very usable. I was left with blanks (——-) only a handful of times, where the transcriber hadn’t had a clue what to make of the lecturer’s spoken words. The notes, it should be noted, were not a word for word transcription of the lecture: many sentences were condensed, unnecessary words were removed, and some concepts were simplified. They were, in short, like reading a set of notes that I might take. Possibly better.

I have come to the conclusion (which I’d suspected all along) that the notes were transcribed by someone for whom English is not a first language, but would still be considered fluent. Judging by the remarkable accuracy of the Indian words, I am inclined to believe that the transcriber may be a native speaker from that region of the world. The notes might have benefited from a final once-over by a native English speaker, to help with some broken sentences, but, as I stated before, the notes were very usable and, more importantly, I didn’t have to sit there and transcribe them myself.

One thing that I would love to see added as a feature, perhaps at a later date, would be the ability to view the notes online, rather than needing to download them. An inline document viewer would allow access to the notes from a friend’s computer, which would be handy.

It occurred to me after getting my notes back that, in a strange way, the fact that the transcription service isn’t perfect may help students avoid using it as a crutch, which is one of the major criticisms lobbed at the NoNotes creators. The NoNotes website implies that the service is meant for instances in which you are forced to miss a class due to illness or were unable to take the notes yourself because you were too busy participating or focusing on the lecture, but perhaps the best use might be for the occasional day when you just didn’t have the mental bandwidth or clarity to take decent notes. Everyone has those days, whether you’re a student or a working professional. In this regard, the NoNotes service can be seen as more of a safety net than a crutch.

NoNotes offers a good, quick transcription service, much like medical or legal professionals use, for a decent price. It’s not perfect and it’s not a price that will allow you to use it for every class, but it might just swoop in and help save your grades when illness, family emergencies, football games, or general malaise threatens to sink them.