Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ozzie Watch 2006

So...according to Silicon.com, Ray Ozzie, as chief software architect for Microsoft, is number one in the Top 50 Agenda Setters in 2006. Hmmm...the question is, should we care anymore? Sure he is the father of Notes, but now that he's at Microsoft, he's kind of like Darth Vader...a traitor embracing the dark side! :-)

I jest, of course. I think Ray's tenure at Microsoft is very much worth watching. Not necessarily because I think we need to be scared of more competition for Notes. That in itself will be healthy. Rather, Ray seems to possess an uncanny knack for figuring out the direction technology is headed before it actually starts moving that way. His influence is already being felt. Some of the collaborative features I have seen in OneNote 2007 are simply phenomenal and I think we'll see the pace of these features in Microsoft products quicken as Ray moves the company in new directions. As long as these challenges to our domain spur the Lotus community to innovate and expand our offerings, Ray's work will be a very good thing.

Monday, September 25, 2006

This Week At LotusUserGroup.org...Usability and User Interface Design

Hey all! I'm honored to be the moderator for this week's topic forum at LotusUserGroup.org, "Usability and User Interface Design in Notes Applications". You have to be registered, but it's free and there is a lot of great content on the site.

Come on by and ask questions or share your skills on UI topics with other Notes developers. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sometimes, It's About The Small Things...

When designing a good user interface, there's really no getting around the fact that you need to obsess over all the little details. Sometimes it is the small things that make or break a design and sometimes it's the slight tweak that makes a great design that much better. In some cases, your users may not even notice the small things and that is a great feat...it means you've done your job of getting the interface out of the way! When this happens, your users can really kick ass.

So when is it the right time to focus on the details? Whether or not you follow an interface first way of thinking when you work on your applications, you shouldn't be obsessing about the little things until the end of your project. Whether that text box is 2 pixels too far to the left is irrelevant until you've got everything working. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking about how you can improve your interface while you're constructing your app...just don't let it slow down your development effort. When you think the functionality is ready...that's the time you can really start making your incremental interface improvements.

One great example of an improvement that is oftentimes almost imperceptible is reducing the number of clicks a user has to make in order to carry out a function. The less a user has to click their mouse button, the more productive they will be. With all we have to think about when developing an application, you might argue that worrying about the number of clicks is pretty trivial, but to users it can be very important. As an example of this, I can think back to a recent event in which one of our companies was converted from Outlook to Notes. Believe it or not, there was quite an outcry from many of the users over the fact that replying to a message in the standard Notes mail template required TWO clicks...first to click the 'Reply' action button and then a second to select the desired action ('Reply', 'Reply with History', 'Reply without Attachment(s)', etc.). Yes...this really steamed some people up. In fact, I'm sure this was the reason that the OpenNTF mail template designers added a single click 'Reply' button. (They even added an option to set the default behavior when using this button, which was a nice touch. Users can setup their desired behavior one time and then forget about it.)

One of the "small things" I'm in the process of adding to an existing "dashboard" application is the ability for users to access the four most frequently used options in one of the linked databases directly from the main page of the dashboard. These were determined through feature requests and some user testing and appear to make a big difference in the end user experience. Rather than opening the dashboard, clicking on the database link and then navigating to the place in the database they want to access, users take advantage of the equivalent function directly from a "drop-down" (implemented with layers!) that appears when clicking on a special icon. In most cases, it reduces the number of clicks by at least one. Even when it doesn't, the really cool thing is that the PERCEIVED amount of work is less, even when it's not. This idea of perceived usability is a big deal and one I'll look at in a future post. Below is a screenshot that shows the prototype dashboard feature in action. While not earth-shattering by any means, it's one more small step towards better usability with a minimal development effort and in that way, everybody wins.

Need A Top-Flight Admin?

Hi all! If anyone is looking for an outstanding, senior-level Notes admin with many years of in-house and consulting experience, please drop me a line. A friend is currently on the lookout for a new gig and I told him I'd pass on the word. He's located in between Cleveland and Akron, but geography may not be an issue. Cheers and thanks in advance!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Welcome BOC Employees!

If there are any BOC employees out there reading this, welcome to The Linde Group!!! Today, we become the world's number one industrial gas company and as a result, I think there will be exciting things to come. I look forward to working with our many new colleagues around the world.

...And hopefully, we'll keep Notes as our enterprise e-mail platform! :-)


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lotus Notes...It Can Do That Too (and look ugly while doing it)

Well...Julian has some great thoughts on internal promotion of Lotus Notes within an organization. His tag line "Lotus Notes...Yeah, It Can Do That Too" probably rings true with many of us. Notes is such an incredibly versatile piece of software that it can really do many more things than it is known for. Rather than offer up any additional thoughts on what Julian so elegantly states, I thought I'd look at another facet of this idea.

Yes...Notes can do that too. However, there's still one major downfall for many Notes applications...Frankly speaking, too many look like crap. I'll be bold here and state an opinion that I think holds up after years of working with this product. I think the bad rap that Notes gets as an application platform is due almost solely to the poor user interface of its applications. With this in mind, I'd add an addendum to Julian's tag line..."...And It Looks Ugly Too" :-) True, UI is my area of interest, and there's certainly some bias there, but in assignment after assignment, when questioned about why users didn't like a certain Notes application, it came down to the interface. Often it's a case of usability, where the UI model just doesn't support what the users need to do. Other times, it's just the sheer ugliness of the application. Apps don't need to be a work of art or have wizbang graphics, but they do need to be attractive and easy to use. Unfortunately, far too few developers have had the time or training to focus on this area.

The good news, I think, is that this is changing. Design, as a general topic area, is really gaining more and more appreciation by developers (most often web developers...but this starts to trickle down to other dev types as well). Competition also leads to a greater focus on interface design. Case in point: the recent discussion in the Notes blogsphere about Sharepoint and creating a new "Nifty Fifty" set of apps. More than one comment came up about the interface and the nice, polished look of the Sharepoint templates vs. the Notes templates. From my experience, the polished apps will win the approval of the masses as long as they actually work. A Notes app may be better suited for the job, but if it doesn't look good, it may be discounted as amateur or at least not suitable for the enterprise.

I'm optimistic about the future with Hannover on the horizon and the great effort that the usability team, lead by Mary Beth Raven, is putting into the client. Hopefully, our community of developers can work together to leverage these new design ideas to beautify our own applications.

But what can you do now to build a better interface? Start looking at design as an integral part of your development process. Engage your end users and get their opinions on your design by using low-fidelity prototypes. Ask them to point out websites and applications that they like. Don't be afraid to borrow from good designs that you see. If we can start making Notes look as pretty as the competing products out there, they'll be no stopping us. We'll proudly state

"Lotus Notes...Yeah, It Can Do That Too...
and Look Darn Good While Doing It" :-)

P.S. I'll be presenting a couple of different sessions on usability and interface design at the upcoming Lotus Developer2006 and Lotus Developer2006Europe conferences. Come by and say hello!