September 12, 2007

Crash Boards and Support Tips

A while back, I got a call from a company that was having issues with Illustrator at their company. They asked if I might come in and take a look at their systems, their files, and the workflow to help solve their issues and to offer advice for how to better manage their workflow.

Upon arriving at the client, they showed me something which I had honestly never seen before. It was an easel with a huge piece of foamcore board on it. Pinned, taped, and stuck to the board were printouts of screenshots. Each screenshot depicted an error dialog or system message that occurred during the use of Illustrator. There were probably close to a 100 printouts in total on what the IT department and the design team dubbed "The Crash Board".

Basically, it was nearly impossible for designers to accurately describe each problem that occurred, and more so, to wait for an IT person to come visit the design department to see the error. So IT instructed the design department to take a screenshot and print their screen each time something unexpected happened.

I had never seen a crash board before, but oh how wonderful it was for someone like me to see. Rather than have to jump from one workstation to another and interview designers on the problems they've been encountering, I had a pretty good idea just by looking at the Crash Board.

In fact, within moments, I was able to organize all of the errors into groups that I could quickly identify as having similar causes or symptoms. It also quickly became clear that some were system errors while others were Illustrator ones. It was also immediately apparent they were working on their files directly on a network server (rather than copying it to their local drives before opening, etc.). I was able to make some suggestions on workflow adjustments, and ended up spending time showing designers some cool tips and techniques to help them in their work rather than waste time trying to duplicate errors.

Especially so, if you consider that I have this problem in that computers seem to be aware of my presence. Just about every time a designer calls me to their desk to show me a problem they are having, the computer works just fine. If I had a dime for every time I've heard the phrase "ok, I swear this wasn't working a minute ago..."

In closing, I thought I'd offer a few tips that are sure to make support calls or searching for help that much easier:

1. Start your own crash board. Each time you experience an odd error dialog, take a screenshot and print it out. These will always help when trying to decipher the cause of repeating issues. Any IT department or support person would benefit greatly from reviewing these.

2. Keep a legal pad handy. Each time you see something odd happen, or something doesn't work as expected, jot it down. Also note when you tried doing a particular technique and either it didn't work or you couldn't figure out how to do it. This way, if you're ever at a conference, you'll have a list of questions to ask an expert (for example, at the Creative Suite conference in Chicago this October, there's a Help Clinic where people can even bring their files and have experts offer advice).

3. Keep a log of system changes. On a separate file or a pad, make a quick note each time you install a new application, an update, a system update, a new font that you've never used before, etc. Often, the first thing to look for when a system goes awry is, "what was the last thing that changed on your system?".

4. Share what you've learned. User to user forums and blogs like this one are great resources, but only because people share their own experiences. If you see something that you can't explain, others may be able to learn from that as well, and still others may be able to offer solutions or advice. Sharing what you know with others often has an added benefit -- you end up learning from others too :)

If you have any additional tips that have worked for you in the past, feel free to add them to the comments! Here's hoping you never have a problem or crash... but just in case, it's always good to be prepared.


Woz said...

"It was also immediately apparent they were working on their files directly on a network server (rather than copying it to their local drives before opening, etc.)"

Hi Mordy, what's wrong with working on a network server? We open everything from indesign, p'shop and illustrator and it just works... Only for really big (500mb or larger) files do we bother to copy to the desktop.

Newmango said...

Hi Mordy

I've never had any use for Version Cue, so have never used it. But wouldn't it be a solution for a company with multiple artists working on mixed projects? Especially the Version Cue Server edition, which might be well suited for network server oriented tasks.

CG said...

I was wondering about Version Cue as well. I have another suggestion: Switch to Mac (looks like the "crash board" is filled with Windows screen shots).

Mordy Golding said...

woz - Adobe always suggests that you work on local files. Opening and working on files directly off a server opens you up to a plethora of issues. Especially in large companies where network bandwidth is shared by numerous people, the chance for file corruption and momentary loss of network access during read/write times is inevitable. Sure, if oyu have your own private network with enough bandwidth, you can get by, but you're playing with fire.

newmango (gary) - yes, Version Cue would be a viable solution for this example (and it was something I discussed with the client). However, there is much to consider before deciding to use Version Cue. Also, just so we're all aware, there's no such thing as a "server edition" of Version Cue -- there's just plain old version cue and that's all :)

cg - hmmm... all these questions about Version Cue have got me thinking about writing more about it. It's certainly one of the most misunderstood aspects of Adobe Creative Suite... oh and yes, the client was Windows-based. In their specific case, I'm not sure if things would have been different in a Mac environment. On that note, it's important to realize that it's rare that a company with an in-house IT staff chooses to support a Mac-based in-house design department. Either there is resistance (and the Mac group supports themselves), or the company makes the difficult decision to force the design group to use Windows so that it can be supported by their IT staff. This client was actually a really nice example of how the IT department was trying to understand the needs of the design group and tried working with them. While it's very rare, there ARE companies with large design groups that do have a dedicated Mac-based IT department. The NY Times is one such example.

Anne-Marie said...

Mordy, fwiw, Adobe engineers have assured me (and my clients) that working off the server is fine, at least for InDesign files, and definitely for InCopy files (it's the only way to work with the IC/ID workflow).

Like the first commenter, at least 1/2 of my clients; small to huge, routinely have everyone working off the server for all docs, including CSx ones. (Though personally, I think it'd be faster to open and work on mega 500MB Photoshop files locally, and recommend that when network speed issues come up.)

A couple years ago an Adobe "higher up" told me that the main reason Adobe used to (maybe still does? haven't called tech support in a while) tell users to always work locally was because tech support could not deal with all the possible bizarre network configs out there, when glitches would happen and people would call in. Tech support wouldn't be able to figure out if the prob was Illustrator or the server or the network or what.

But over the past 5 years or so, this guy said, networks and servers have become far more stable than in the old days. As long as the network was stable, times synched and connections fast, there was no technical reason why working off the server would be harmful.

I'm sure you know better than I about this, since you actually *worked* there ;-) but I'm just reporting my experience.

Mordy Golding said...

I don't know for sure AM -- but I do know this -- ID is very different than AI in this regard. ID was built as a "fail-safe" application from the ground up. It is meant to be used in environments like newspaper workflows, where one can't afford to lose work due to crashes, etc.

As you know AM, InDesign creates a temp file when you are working on a document. It's rare that you'd ever lose more than 60 seconds of work when using InDesign. I think the Adobe engineers really did some wonderful work on planning out ID well in advance.

Unfortunately, because AI was first coded in the late 1980's, there's a limit to what you can do with the architecture -- and building that "database" functionality isn't possible with AI. When you save a file, Illustrator first makes a temp file and then overwrites your file -- just in case a crash occurs during the save process -- which would leave you with a corrupt file. But there are still too many times where network traffic or unreliable server connections could wreak havoc on Illustrator files.

At least that's how I understand it.

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