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!


Kirk said...

Excellent post! This has been my complaint about Notes for years. In addition to the client UI being so much different than what people are used to with Windows, Office, etc... I've always said that you can have the most elegantly engineered, functional application out there but given the choice between that an something with lots of eye candy most end-users will pick the app. with the eye candy everytime.

andy b said...

Have you taken a look at the design of the DDM interface? Given that it is working with what the Note's client has to offer, I would like your impression of what IBM/Lotus was able to do.

To me, DDM has the best looking and most functional interface of any Notes client application provided 'in the box.'

Your comments?

Corey Kimball said...

Excellent topic. I've been in the Notes arena for about 13-14 years (admin and dev), and I've seen the same things.

I've had experiences where I've inherited other applications, and although they "did the job", they were somewhat confusing to use.

As an example, I'm currently upgrading an app that was designed by a third party. I'll use "designed" loosely here. There are many things that could be improved, from the GUI to the actual functionality.

As an example, there is a java agent that gets launched by the end user. When we inherited the app from another agency, this agent would run and finish with NO indication to the end user that the agent had completed. The agent also takes forever to run, and the user was resigned to sit and look at the lighting bolt in the lower left corner of the screen. The only indication that the agent had completed was that the lighting bolt stopped, and the cursor came back on the screen. So, I added a dialog box to let the user know when the agent had completed. Took all of 10-15 minutes.

After many weeks of upgrading this particular app, it appeared to me that the application was developed by someone that knew VB and was just learning Notes. Lotusscript everywhere, and not much concern for the functionality and looks.

I have NUMEROUS stories like this. I think part of this is caused by the types of programmers that come into Notes. Many of the developers that I see are coming from a legacy background, where they are writing line after line of code, and have never really been exposed to the GUI side. Although the application works well, it doesn't look very nice, and sometimes many apps are just downright confusing to use.

Yes, Lotus has some work to do in the front end department, but there is so much that can be done by a developer from a GUI standpoint, as well as from a code standpoint to make an application work well, and look nice.

I believe that you are on the right track though. Developers need to look at the applications from a standpoint that it needs to be useable, and not be confusing to the end user, not simply from the standpoint of "look at what my code can do".

We need to be "Application Designers" and not "Application Programmers".

Chris Blatnick said...

@andy - No, actually I haven't seen the DDM, but now I am intrigued. I'll try to get around to looking at this soon and I'll post my thoughts. Thanks for the tip!

Chris Blatnick said...

@corey - You said it exactly...I think of myself more of an application designer than a programmer. In my mind, especially where Notes is concerned, the former involves the entire life cycle of an application, while the later is just one piece. Taking advantage of architecting the UI just as you do other parts of a system yields far better results. The end user experience is improved and as a consequence, their acceptance of the app is much higher. It's definitely a win-win situation.