How fixing links can heal user and IT staff frustration
So much of the content we depend on, and can’t afford to lose without scary results, depends on linked data today. Most Excel spreadsheets bring in data via links to other spreadsheets, especially in the financial sector, with medical and technology not far behind. As another example, rarely do we visit a website where all the images or content are self-contained.
When links fail to resolve (in other words, fail to work properly), lost data, downtime and frustration sets in. This frustration applies to broken links in Microsoft Office files, Adobe PDF, HTML, Autodesk and Bentley products, to name a few.
Websites: Broken webpage links are so common that some users learn to ferret out the solution online. They look at the link code, open a new browser tab and stab at what key combination might fix the problem. Some learn that xxx.PDD is really meant to read xxx.PDF. They can find the cheese, solve the puzzle and get the linked resource. But the problem is that those in charge of websites often find themselves faced with hundreds or thousands of broken links. Even when they know what to try, we’re talking dozens to hundreds of man-hours to fix that many links. So usually IT gets dragged into the problem (as if you don’t have enough to do).
What happens to Microsoft Office files when they are migrated from one server to another and — oops — the associations (links) were not updated is an entirely different story with an additional problem: It’s unlikely that a user will know the path to the intended resource. Often this is for security reasons. The link held an alias to the server. So there are no bread crumbs for the user to follow. Even if Hansel or Gretel were able to find a good path, they would still be vexed by the time cost to cast around seeking a trail. And, as mentioned above, usually there is a lot more than just one broken link going on. Once again, you, the already overworked (often underpaid) IT professional, must handle this.
The problem is made worse for mobile phone users. With no keyboard, resolving broken URLs is a real challenge. Who wants to drag their finger to select the suspect link, choose “copy”, open a new tab … wait … the wrong text was selected. Uugh.
Okay, you get the idea — broken links cause users to hate the IT staff. Users shake their metaphorical (sometimes real) fists asking, “why did you move my stuff?” (Replace “stuff” with you-know-what.) Yeah, they usually blame you. (Well, sometimes we IT pros do deserve the blame, especially if we did a data migration without handling the links issue in the process.)
Even in those cases where it is just a one-off link that gets broken, we have better things to do. Sure, it needs to get done, but it’s tedious work. And it’s an interruption to get hostile calls from frustrated users, just to fix links. True, if you work in IT, you’re going to get some complaining just because you’re IT. It might not feel like a high-level problem to fix things that should have been self-updating. But it’s important to users so…
And there’s the rub. We depend on links today, but links were never meant to change. We really want self-updating links. Right? Links that would follow the resource. Right? By “resource”, we mean the file being pointed to by a link, which file is called a “child file”, or link target, and the data that gets fetched from that child file. Keep reading, because there is a way to get your wish.
Let’s see how linking has changed using as an example an area where it is the norm, websites.
For Internet sites, we have CSS. One file that controls the layout and look of many HTML pages. It’s an idea that was simple. Many pages (web pages) can link to a CSS file, which will cause the pages to have a standard look. Great idea!
When a CSS file has an issue, all the dependent sites (the sites that call for that CSS file) will look off. That is, the site signals that there is a problem. Developers often see this immediately. Not so with most Microsoft Office links. A file can get emailed to users outside the trusted network. These users cannot resolve the referenced document because of the server security structure. Without the right access, the document connection will fail because the main document cannot resolve the link.
Today, Microsoft Office documents are dependent on resources where the location may change, and no one will know. That is, until some unsuspecting soul trips on a bad link.
We live in a world where the network is more complex. From home, it’s normally just the internet. But from within the office, we have firewalls, subnets, demilitarized zones and login access. Any of these can change, blocking the connection to a resource — as the user changes wifi or connection zones.
Should we take the viewpoint that broken links are an end-user problem, not an IT problem? I think you already know the answer to that.
It turns out, that it’s a major frustration for users and therefore for us. (Aren’t pretty much all end-user problems actually IT problems?) But it’s one that can be reduced and minimized. Doing so might not win tech staff any awards, but it reduces a major headache for all. When links must be fixed one at a time, staff cost is very high. Preventing broken links en masse saves costs for users and tech staff.
So how is that accomplished?
Some organizations try to maintain a central repository for all linked resources. This can work for super-small companies — in the 25 employees or less range. This will not fix the issue of access outside the trusted network zone. But login access should fix that, allowing users to work from home. This requires that IT make the shared server available based on login credentials. But even here you still have the issue of what to do if you migrate to a new server with a new name, or to the cloud or to something like SharePoint.
Many large corporations provide secure laptops to employees. Even when outside the office, they will connect via a VPN. The user feels like they are on the open, world wide web. But the reality is, they are in a secure bubble, just like at the office. In fact, ignoring some layers of implementation for discussion’s sake — the employee really is at the office.
Their computer is routed such that their physical location is not important. Their symbolic links are maintained with the resources they need to access. But this is not reliable, when it comes to keeping links intact. What if the server environment changes? What if there is a drive failure or corruption? And there is that aforementioned data migration situation again.
The cost of tech staff responding to issues is reduced when many complaints can be solved at once. While that is obvious, it bears repeating. Jimmy’s printer jam is actually an expensive problem to fix. Because only one person uses their desktop printer, the cost per user to fix that problem is higher than fixing the office (shared) printer on a per-user basis. Fixing the office printer costs less per user, as one jam holds up 20 people. There is economy of scale when responding to problems. True for link fixes too.
For bigger companies, the “one resource server” works at the level of department. A department can be thought of as a small business. Using VPN and login access allows the IT staff to maintain control of the connections. Once again though, this falls short when a new server structure is being implemented. Now a lot of links will break — unless updated. Fixing these links is often left to the individual document creator — one document at a time. “Thanks for the update, IT.”
Let’s discuss migration software
Good migration software lets IT staff use VPN and other secure technologies, and allows seamless updating. And that keeps users happy. In fact, with an ideal migration software, users would never know there was a change. A new server was installed, document associations were updated, and the users were none the wiser. Ah, the dream.
The trick, of course, is that the migration needs to be good — but what does “good” mean? By good, IT wants software that covers the most use-cases. That is, the whole point of the thing would be to catch the most common associations, and update them. So, such a tool would need to know what kinds of files might have links. It should “understand” the right way to update the link in the associated file. Website pages, for example, don’t hold linking data the same way an Excel sheet does. Does anything this robust exist in the world of migration software today? Not really. There are programs that just update one type of application only. Maybe not the best choice for a corporation with many file types. Who wants to run ten different applications for each server move?
Migration can exist when an employee moves from one department to another. Doing so may change their user access. So migration happens more than most people think. And sometimes at the scale of the individual. The ideal migration software would allow staff to migrate at any scale, from a full server reconfiguration, to a department restructure, to updating the links for the company’s content creator or blogger.
Something you could do, as an aid, would be to to maintain a document or log of user issues. Doing this lets the company respond to updates in batches — which sounds awful. But the idea is to see how often links are breaking. If the rate of errors is consistent, and the problem redundant, staff should ask if there is a way to reduce or eliminate it. Staff can look to see what the root cause is. A review of complaint logs can highlight a pattern.
Logging anything is tedious, but the payoff is worth it. Users want IT staff to respond now. Very small issues often don’t get logged. Broken links can often cascade into a storm during important presentations, major initiatives or at client demos, all of which are embarrassing for users. Sure, the users checked the slides, but maybe not the associated data links.
IT staff must be proactive in preventing bad links from happening. Having a plan to nip breaks in the bud before users become frustrated is the key. It’s kind of like controlled burns in forest fire prevention. Having a solid plan in place, and the right tools, allows IT staff to get out in front of such user irritation.
Bad links disrupt the flow of users. Sometimes that can block their productivity flow or derail a project. And IT will take the blame for this. Moving files or resources will cause the ire of anyone when it’s a surprise. Integrating users and IT, as part of a move that involves users anyway, can help everyone take ownership.
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