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.
So...is 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 Design. Getting 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.
- 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 application...no 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.