Tool you need that doesn't already exist
February 18, 2011 11:09 AM   Subscribe

What is the one tool that you need or would love to have at work that doesn't already exist (but that you've found an unideal workaround for)?

Have you had to cobble something together in Excel and other programs that you wish someone would just make a standalone app for? Have you had to co-opt some tool or piece of hardware to do something it wasn't originally meant to do (that something custom built could do better)? I want to learn about it.

I think this may be borderline Chatfilter, so I won't be offended if this is flagged. My reason for posting this is: I want to make something, but I'm short on ideas and I'd prefer to make something that would actually be useful to someone.
posted by AceRock to Work & Money (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I would really like a CSS editor that's just as easy to use as Word. (Well, easier, because Word isn't good at graphic design, but you know what I mean.) And it puts out awesome, clean, HTML5 code, which is why Dreamweaver doesn't count.
posted by michaelh at 11:21 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would like a stapler that can handle just a few more pages without having to go find a bigger stapler.
posted by The World Famous at 11:24 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I work in a charter school and I can tell you that most of the on-the-market academic tracking software is garbage. We have a lot of specialized, complicated spreadsheets that we use to track our students progress; if someone came up with a comprehensive system to integrate it all together I'm sure you could sell a lot of them. Most schools in our area haven't even made their own system, they have simply used the state-provided garbageware and accepted the inadequacies.
posted by _DB_ at 11:26 AM on February 18, 2011

I'd pay good money for an iPhone or iPad app that can handle very basic Excel functionality.
posted by argonauta at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I work at a law firm and I want someone to come up with a way to organize the research I do, so I don't have to redo it. Right now I use some kind of conglomeration of Evernote, actual file folders, and outlook, but it's far from ideal.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm always wishing there were better software for working with ideas. I dream of something where I can have 'index cards' on the screen, write or paste images on them, zoom them in or out, view more than one at once, reshuffle them in linear order or just loosely on a screen, etc. I do this with real index cards but you're always having to pack them up, and my writing is messy. I really wish I could this online. Remember Hypercard? Like that, but with more flexibility, and not as crappy.
posted by Miko at 11:38 AM on February 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Maybe there is already something like this, but I've always wanted an add-on or service of some sort that will let me mark an e-mail "return to me in five days" or something and remove it from my inbox and make it pop up new in five days. My in-box is my to-do list much of the time, and sometimes you get social correspondence or something you can't deal with NOW and I want it to just come back on a set date when I will deal with it then. (I use gmail.)

(And academic software is TOTAL crap. Blackboard can't even group-and-drop grades, which is a totally common teacher thing to do ... "I'll keep your best six quiz grades and drop the seventh" or whatever.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:41 AM on February 18, 2011 [10 favorites]

A VPN that only handles traffic going to certain domains (intranet traffic goes to the VPN, traffic to facebook or metafilter or worse, iTunes downloads, goes straight to the internet). I work from home a lot, and want to be able to get work email without routing *all* my traffic through the office.

There is a mess of SSH/tun/tap stuff that can sort of mostly make this work, but it's hardly worth the hassle.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2011

I don't read it regularly, but there's a sub-reddit called SomebodyMakeThis that might be useful to you.
posted by Gary at 11:49 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Really, any custom software needed for a specific profession is probably going to be terrible. I know legal software in particular is hideous, but when there's virtually no competition you don't really need to be good to be the best.
posted by truex at 11:51 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I looked high and low for a long time to find a job-logging and invoicing program that would suit my persnickety wants and needs. I eventually cobbled together a couple of spreadsheets that pretty much do what I need. But if I could find something better, I'd switch.
posted by adamrice at 12:00 PM on February 18, 2011

Lead tracking software that doesn't suck. I'm a small wedding stationery business and I've not been able to find any software that (a) looks good, i.e. not like the back end of an accounting firm (b) syncs with multiple calendars intuitively and (c) allows me to pre-schedule emails.
posted by muirne81 at 12:15 PM on February 18, 2011

My company works with documents in various formats. Plans, graphics, word docs, spreadsheets, presentations, CAD files, etc. These exist in various stages of iteration. Some are being edited while in production, others represent tasks complete but still to be worked on, and others are just plain complete.

I'd like a database/document handler that works across a network that works similar to what I imagine code source control to work like.

It would keep track of:
1. Which docs are "live", but not "camera ready" (ready for distribution).
2. Which docs are "milestone" (camera ready, published/distributed, and linked to a certain date or event, and no longer editable - I use PDFs for this as a workaround documentation of a project in a certain state or level of progress).
3. Which docs are deprecated entirely, to archive, or have been archived, which is similar to 2 above, but more final.

This would be linked to a contact manager (PIM style). I would pull up a form to create correspondence, linked to a project and project team members. It would fill in default or project default addressees, with the option to edit/add/delete contacts. I could fill in the required information, e.g. correspondence description, add attachments, the contact manager would distribute the electronic files AND record the correspondence in a searchable database. I pretty much use my email client like this, but the email client copies the attachments into the sent mail, which I don't really need it to do. I'd prefer the sent files to be tagged as "live-editable" "live-milestone" or "complete-no-longer-editable" and linked to the data server on which they reside to eliminate redundancy.

I'd like the links to update if the files get moved OR the files get tagged so that the database can find them again upon search and recreate the links.

I actually have a long wish list for my "Master Project Database", but I think you get the gist of it.

Of course this would be linked to invoice tracking. Project Managers could input which tasks are milestone-billable or percent-complete billable (or not billable) when they send correspondence. The contracts themselves would be created with this in mind, and the billable tasks would be identified for each project. When billable documents get sent out, the billing dept would be notified immediately, and the Project Manager will have already identified if a particular task is to be billed - eliminating the "pre-billing" step that a lot of companies go through.

Architects, engineers, and other consultants hate doing billing. They just want to get the work done and out. Make the billing tracking part of the correspondence process, which is actually minimal, and you solve a lot of problems before they add up into one end of the month headache for a PM.

So, to reiterate:
1. Track project documents
2. Make correspondence easy to produce and distribute, automate tracking, filing and link to billing
3. Make billing easier to produce, easier to coordinate with project progress and contract requirements

I know that this can be done fairly easily in existing database softwares. I have worked with unsophisticated billing/time tracking softwares in large corporate environments. Those worked great, but a lot of the steps were manually completed - literally, print out hours-per-project-worked and the PM goes through reams of paper, manually authorizing what was to be billed - days or weeks after the work was done. Meanwhile, work had progressed, and the pre-billing was obsolete.

Question about the billing? Pull up the Project Billing Tab
Question about when or where something was sent? Pull up the Correspondence Tab
Question about the status of a CAD file? Pull up the Documents Tab.

I have looked - semi-casually - for software that will do something like this. Nobody seems to have it, certainly not in the price range I can afford.

Meanwhile, gamers create massive databases of players, gear, mobs, loot, auction items, quests, achievements, combat data and boss encounters. They create data gathering mods, collect the data and make it into robust databases that are accessed on the web. They can analyze combat and player data and create softwares and web applications that offer customized gear selections. And they don't charge the players a dime.

It can be done. I am not asking for the damn moon here.
posted by Xoebe at 12:38 PM on February 18, 2011

I'm a grad student and I have not been able to find a satisfactory all-in-one organizational tool for my planning, research, ideas and writing. I'm partially using EndNote, Mendeley, DocuWiki and Google Docs for the time being. In an ideal world I would like to be able to:

1) Upload and mark-up pdfs and edit reference details
2) Upload and edit my notes and writing
3) Upload and tag graphics, and attach reference details
4) Have a way to track non-electronic resources and their reference details
5) Have a way to easily organize and locate all of these objects (identify common themes, seminal authors, critical articles, etc)
6) Have an idea space (perhaps similar to what Miko said above) where i can graphically work with plans, ideas and graphics and somehow link to the pdfs, writing and non-electronic resources
7) Be able to export specified data to documents or powerpoint-like presentations with all related references automatically included

Bonus points if I can do all of this online like google docs
posted by jjonajason at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

It almost seems like what we would really need isn't software all readied for our specific needs, but a much easier and more flexible and powerful platform for individual offices and business to build their own, maybe from a set of simpler tools. Like linking up erector set pieces: "this is gonna operate off the Spreadsheet, feed into Visual Organizer C, and output into Newsletter Layout." Sort of like a more complex Tumblr, but for getting work done.
posted by Miko at 1:25 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I want an automated webscraper. I've got a crappy one right now; it works by putting the results of wget into revision control, and using websvn to provide an RSS feed of changes.

The small thing I need is something that generates RSS feeds with diffs in the body. None of the web frontends I've found for various RCS tools do that. This should be pretty trivial to do in a number of ways, I'm just lazy and focused on other things.

More generally, features I'm missing:

1. Normalize data (tidy?)
2. Customized data treatment hooks (ie 'change "began" to "begins" because that's a irrelevant change to the page based on date' that I want to ignore)
3. Formalized pipeline (xproc?) to share with others.
4. A CLI tool to create new sites to monitor and set up the repos and cron jobs and such.
posted by pwnguin at 4:13 PM on February 18, 2011

Also, on the list of things someone else can make for me: Mylyn for the whole desktop. Except instead of bugs in JIRA it hooks into the various todo list tools.

The basic thrust: if I start a "do my taxes" task, it observes the websites and programs I run, and if I switch to do another task halfway through, it keeps a record of what was relevant to that task for when I return to it later so I get my working set of programs and data back immediately.
posted by pwnguin at 4:21 PM on February 18, 2011

Miko, if your ideas have to do with writing at all, you might take a gander at Scrivener.

I would love a note-taking application that would come back and bug me later. "You took these notes on Tuesday and it's Friday. Should you be doing anything with this stuff?" (I guess what I want is a secretary?)
posted by epersonae at 4:49 PM on February 18, 2011

epersonae: Thanks - that looks pretty close to what I've been lusting after. My main challenge is composing talks on historical topics, and then reconfiguring/sorting them for different audiences and focii. This could really help - so thanks for mentioning it!
posted by Miko at 7:33 PM on February 18, 2011

Eyebrows McGee: "(And academic software is TOTAL crap. Blackboard can't even group-and-drop grades, which is a totally common teacher thing to do ... "I'll keep your best six quiz grades and drop the seventh" or whatever.)"

Ohmychrist, YES!!!!! If you write a good course management system that old fogies who hate "this online nonsense" AND power users can use without either one's head exploding, I WILL BUY IT FOR MY COLLEGE OUT OF MY OWN PAYCHECK I SWEAR I WILL!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:37 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Collaborative project management that is not designed to quantify everything. I don't need to assign fucking percentages. GRAR.

I need for me and my two coworkers to see the status of inter-related projects tagged via several different categorization systems with a logical but unobtrusive place for comments.
posted by desuetude at 9:45 PM on February 18, 2011

Some of these things exist already:

All the teachers who need gradebooks/student tracking: EasyGrade Pro

Email return-to-me-in-five-days: Boomerang (for Gmail)

Collaborative project management: Basecamp, Wedoist, Helium. There are more and more of these coming out every day, with a wide range of featuresets.
posted by squasher at 11:08 PM on February 18, 2011

I asked a question on personal Knowledge management, which evolved to a document indexing system (which if course doesn't exist, I think).


The software would recursively scan directories which I specify and list out all the documents (including images, videos) in them with filetype information and tags based on the folders they are in. Further, I'll be able to describe the document, add some more tags and other "meta" information. When I am working on something and need some reference/inspiration, I should be able to look at this. Of course, on refresh and on startup, the software would scan for changes.
posted by theobserver at 7:04 PM on February 19, 2011

Collaborative project management: Basecamp, Wedoist, Helium. There are more and more of these coming out every day, with a wide range of featuresets.

These are exactly the kind of Gantt-y systems that are utterly ill-suited to my purposes. I shouldn't have used the term "project management," since I'm not talking about tracking the production of deliverables.

So what do you call the internal collaborative...managing...of projects and relationships, in the context of administration? We don't need to assign tasks to each other or set deadlines, we need to be able to compare planning and activity related to specific projects, and also be able to categorize information to help us see the connections between projects.

We have database software in which to report the concrete, "for the record" outcomes, but I've never found a good solution to support the internal collaborative planning that gets us there.
posted by desuetude at 2:52 PM on February 20, 2011

Yeah, and those project-based things don't facilitate the brainstorming/idea-hierarchy phase of creative projects too well. They tend to assume you have a clearly defined goal and can break it down into spreadsheet-able tasks. But if you need something more right-brained and open-ended, the kind of thing you'd want to use to define a goal in the first place, the tools are almost completely absent.
posted by Miko at 9:29 PM on February 20, 2011

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