Monday, August 04, 2008

Is Lotus Notes Long In The Tooth?

By now, if you are a member of the Lotus community in any way, shape or form, you've probably seen the great new press release that articulates the momentum we've been gaining (quarter after quarter) over our competitors.  It's so great to see the commitment we've all made to this platform be validated in real world terms.  I, for one, welcome our new Lotus Notes overlords.  ;-)

In light of all the great press and positive upswing I've seen out in the wild lately, I thought it was interesting that I had the following conversation the other day.  I was at a meeting with a customer...a large financial institution.  They are a long-time Lotus customer and really do a great job taking advantage of the Notes platform.  After a successful meeting, I was standing out in the hall talking with one of the VPs and he said to me, "We use Lotus Notes for so many things, especially workflow applications, but they are getting pretty long in the tooth."  I was not expecting that comment, but I immediately knew what he was referring to.  The thousands of applications this customer has are still providing a lot of business value, but the problem is...many of them look and feel old.  In other words, the interface is what makes him think that perhaps it's time to do something new.  I've been around long enough to know that this is not a new sentiment, but it's one worth shedding a little light on.

One of Lotus Notes' greatest strengths can also be its bane.  With Notes, you can rapidly roll out a solution that addresses a business problem, usually faster than your colleagues that use some other technology.  I've seen many of these applications continue providing great value to a company many years after they were initially deployed.  The 100% backward compatibility allows these databases to keep on working version after version.  This brings us to the problem of the interface, however.  If an application was created in...let's say R4...that application is already over a decade old.  If changes to the UI haven't been made, then of course it is going to look antiquated.  Both the technology and interface conventions have changed a lot in that time and user expectations have greatly morphed in that period as well. 

Here's the real truth:  As developers, we no longer have the luxury of creating application that work but don't look good.  You can't say "I don't do UI" any more, lest you want the Notes platform to disappear.  The users of today are computer literate or at least savvy enough to know a good application experience from a bad one.  The internet and Web 2.0 has established a precedent when it comes to usability and user interface design and we ignore this precedent at our own peril. Lotus Notes long in the tooth?  Is it a tired platform that we need to send to the old folks home?  Of course not.  The fact is, the future for Lotus Notes is brighter than it's been for a long time.  It is necessary, however, to start treating it like the modern development platform it is and that means that developers need to take a look at themselves and see if they have the requisite skills to create compelling UIs and usable applications on the Notes platform.  If you feel you are deficient in this area, then here's my call to action:

-  Start thinking about the user interface at the very beginning of your project.  You don't necessarily have to use low-fidelity prototyping, but the interface shouldn't be an afterthought.

- Read a good book or two on interface design.  I'd recommend starting with Don't Make Me Think or Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction DesignGetting Real by the guys at 37Signals is a must read.

- Make usability testing a part of your standard development methodology.  Then actually listen to what your users have to say and make the appropriate changes.

- Sharpen your technical design skills.  Learn how to use a graphics program such as Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.  Really learn CSS and JavaScript so that your web apps can look and function like they are modern day creations.

- Stop making all your Notes apps look the same as you did 10 years ago.  Yes...I'm talking to you!  :-)  At a minimum, begin utilizing the User Experience Guidelines for IBM Rich Client Applications.  Better than that, though, is to make clean and simple interfaces that support what your users are doing in your more, no less.

I know many developers think the interface is touchy feely stuff, but the reality is that our software is judged by its looks.  Lotus Notes now has a pretty face.  Do your applications?  If your users think that Lotus Notes is "long in the tooth", then your choice is clear...start fixing those interfaces or put them out to pasture. 


Ed Brill said...

Great post, Chris. Sound advice from someone who has been there and done that. This is a common challenge in existing Notes customers and I have been trying, with encouragement from some business partners and consultants, to think about ways that IBM can help with the impetus to look at old apps and get them modernized. Not sure where it goes yet, but I know that I have another in-house resource to talk to about this!

Jan Schulz said...

It would be even nicer if the designer would give me a fresh look and feel when designing a new DB from scratch.

Something like a nicly designed action bar, some default design elements for the forms, etc... And tools to do this costumizing in a hurry.

Yes I know, I can buy them, but we are a student-organisation, I can't spent thousends of euro on them :-( And so can't all the guyes which just do it for a small task and love the RAD-aspect of Notes.

Michelle said...

Most times, the problem is budget. If it works (i.e. gets the business function done) then there is no budget to update it.

IT funds are limited and usually get spent on new projects which are seen as cool, interesting, possibly a 'political' win, something put on your resume, whatever.

Maintenance is much less attractive

Athansor said...

Oh, bravo, for this wonderful post!!! I've been around Notes since version 3...and I have to say, my first thought when looking at the databases our organization used (as an artist and as a tech), was, "WHO THOUGHT UP THESE COLOR SCHEMES??????"

Cyan featured heavily, as did magenta and yellow. It hurt. And the icons were ugly and tired looking.

I taught myself formula language, and took it on myself to recreate a number of databases I thought were just *ugly*--including softer, more harmonious colors, more appealing design tactics, and a strict attention to ergonomics and customer workflow, and my work was an overnight hit. In fact, I still look at it today...and it might've been written entirely in formula langugage, but it sure was pretty!

End users like "pretty". These days, Notes development has left me behind...but more than ever, "pretty" matters, and makes customers happier. If developers remember that (and learn how to do "pretty--they'll find that even not so great work gets treated as if it was...and great work is considered sheer genius. :)

Tony Palmer said...

I think that anything left for a period of time is going to look tired and dated - clothes, cars, mobile phones, websites and applications. That's why public facing websites like Yahoo, Linkedin and MSN continually update their UI's to keep current and UI/Design is an integral part of the project. Corporate apps, just don't get that type of investment in the UI which is bad.

Cyan, Magenta and Yellow were a step up when you only had a green screen :-)

Jim Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Knight said...

Great post. I have thought for a long time that customers perceive Lotus Notes based on the apps and frankly most are ugly. The mail didn't start looking decent till R6. As 37 signals says, "The UI IS THE APPLICATION as far as the customer is concerned."
I always cared about UI but I'm not a designer so I came up with a simple solution: use web templates.
Might require some photoshop skill to do so but it will really liven up your Notes client UI's. And it costs almost nothing. Take the buttons on the template and update them to "save & close" etc to fit your application. Take the banner and change text and put at the top of your Notes form.

Miguel Angel Calvo said...

I've been reading your blog for years and borrowing ideas from it that have had very good feedback from my customers.

I'm still finding old complex Lotus applications at customer places that look ugly. More than I would expect ! But what concerns me more is the idea you get, if you're new to Lotus development, with standard templates. Old fashioned, not using any new feature for years, strange color schemes being used. IBM should upgrade/replace them ASAP with modern development designs that show the real capabilities of the product as a development tool and make them dual in order to use the Standard client features.

NotesTracker said...

I've been working with design for usability since the mid 1970s or thereabouts. Yes, IBM knew about such things way back then. I subsequently tried to apply what I'd learned during the remainder of my IBM career, and subsequent to retiring from IBM (in 1992) as an independent consultant. I started with Notes in 1993, and Release 3 didn't allow you to design very pretty applications. Notes R4 wasn't much better. It was only starting with Notes R5 (with framesets, pages and other enhancements) that things started looking up. Notes 8 with its Eclipse basis is the biggest leap forward for many years, so there's lots of life left in Notes. Yes, I'd call Notes "Long in the Tooth" -- but only in the way that a saber-tooth tiger used to be! I hope that all you young folks take full advantage of the fearsome beast that IBM has given you and develop lots of great new apps with it (and consider upgrading selected old apps where the business case can be made to do so). I have assembled a huge pile of resource links related to Design and Usability at or backup that you should take a look at. ... And to help me keep the wolf from the door, please take a look at NotesTracker while you're at my site. ... Cheers, Tony Austin.

Anonymous said...

@Jan - "It would be even nicer if the designer would give me a fresh look and feel when designing a new DB from scratch."

The problem is our look and feel might not match what you want or any customer for that matter; remember we have to serve > 46,000 customers.

It's pretty easy to make a base design template from which all your applications can be started with YOUR look and feel ready for adoption.