Thursday, February 26, 2009

Embedding GTD Into My Life Systems

Hi Gang...For you frequent visitors, just a quick note. I do not plan on turning this into an "All GTD, All The Time" blog...I promise. It's just been on my radar a lot lately for a few different reasons, so I thought I would share with those that are interested. We'll return to the regularly scheduled programming soon (along with an announcement about this site). In any case, if you'd like to delve into why I GTD, feel free to keep reading.

Getting Things Done, the enormously popular personal productivity methodology created by David Allen, provides a systematic approach to helping you master your workflow and has literally changed my life for the better. I'd like to explain a little about why it's been such a powerful tool for me, allowing me to take my performance to the next level.

I was first introduced to the GTD methodology a few years ago. As I mentioned in a past post, reading the Getting Things Done book really struck a chord with me. I was never much on taking notes. Even in college when I was working on my engineering degree, most of my notes were sketchy at best. Instead, I prided myself on being able to keep it all in my head. I was pretty good at doing so and this habit followed me into the work world. The beginning of my career was focused pretty heavily on development-oriented tasks and was fairly routine in terms of the tasks I needed to accomplish and the projects that I worked on. However, as I got older and my workload and responsibilities increased, I found that I started to get some leaks in my "system". Indeed, balancing work and home life was becoming much more burdensome, as my rapidly growing family started to impose greater demands on my time. While before I just had to worry about work stuff and home stuff and was able to keep these in nice and tidy buckets, I found myself juggling kid stuff, school stuff, sports stuff, etc. I was still being productive, but it was all getting to be too much to keep track of and items were certainly slipping through the cracks. Luckily for me, right around the time when it was getting particular cumbersome to manage, a blog post pointed me to David Allen and GTD.

I picked up the book at my local Borders store and thumbed quickly through the chapters to get a preview of what was ahead. To be honest, I kept finding myself drawn to point after point, so I knew I needed to get home and start reading it right away. The concept grabbed me. Why? Well, for one reason, it was new and shiny, with the promise that my life would now be spectacular. Of course, I knew it wasn't going to be quite that simple, but I did feel a certain excited energy because as I progressed through the book, I felt like I was having a bunch of mini-revelations. The core of the GTD methodology is really very simple. A lot of it could even be considered common sense. However, I've found that what we call "common sense" is often easily overlooked and it takes someone else to point out the obvious. In my case, it was Mr. Allen addressing the fact that you can't keep it all in your head. Our brains aren't designed that way, so we really need to find a means to capture all of those things we are thinking about into a "trusted system", one that we can be assured will not forget and will allow us to focus on the appropriate work at the appropriate time. I had found exactly what I needed.

After completing Getting Things Done, I was excited to get to work. I spent a couple of days collecting all my "stuff" and went about the task of processing it, keeping the workflow diagram close by my side. Wow...this was going to be a little harder than I thought. Just in this first act of processing my gigantic pile of amorphous materials, I found myself failing in some of the areas Mr. Allen warns you to watch out for. I wanted to pick and choose through the pile, grabbing the things that seemed interesting or whose disposition I could quickly determine. I had to fight hard to overcome this desire and realized at that point that embedding GTD into my life systems was going to take some work. Like anything else, certain habits needed to be formed, others broken, in order to be successful. With this realization, I doubled my efforts and forged ahead.

Now, being a self-respecting geek, the next challenge was to find the best GTD "system" I could. about information overload! Searching the internet revealed the myriad ways that people have implemented GTD, from the most basic analog approach (pen and notepad) to incredibly complex electronic constructs that required a manual to make sense of. Unfortunately, I made the mistake that many in the beginning do, and dove down the rabbit hole, switching back and forth between many of these systems before truly getting a handle on the basic tenants of GTD. I went back and forth between electronic tools (mind maps, web-based lists and task systems, etc.) and the analog methods that seemed almost like a renaissance for paper in some ways (moleskine, hipster, et. al.), but I couldn't seem to hit on the magic system that made it all click. In the end, I came to the realization that the tool doesn't matter nearly as much as the method. There are a few key things you need. First, it needs to be always accessible. Second, there needs to be some attraction to the tools. If you hate carrying around a paper pad with you everywhere you go, then an analog GTD system is probably not right for you. Now that I figured this out, I set about concentrating more on how to "do" GTD rather than what my GTD container looks like. This was another important step in my GTD journey.

Although I was doing all this switching back and forth between systems, I was making some progress in ingraining the GTD habits into my daily routine. Even at half speed, I recognized a notable improvement in my ability to deliver and keep on top of my work. That's one of the great things about GTD. I was only fractionally taking advantage of what GTD had to offer, but it was still leaps and bounds beyond where I had been. The idea of the two minute rule, making decisions on! On the surface, I found that the methodology couldn't be easier, but I also came to learn that there are many subtle nuances which can only be discovered with patience and persistence. It was in this period that I worked hard to build the necessary habits that would support good GTDing.

Over the ensuing years, I had ups and downs with my GTD implementation. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in stating that the Weekly Review was the hardest thing to do, although I knew it was actually the most important piece. I found myself resisting carving out the time to do the Weekly Review, not because I didn't have the time, but because unconsciously I knew that I would have to face all my projects and tasks and I would feel like I was failing if certain things had slipped. This is silly really, because the whole point of the Weekly Review is to help you recover from such slips. It's your opportunity to find the leaks, plug them, evaluate how you are doing and what you need to do to move all of your projects forward. The light bulb finally went on when I was doing a Weekly Review and found a fairly big hole around a project I was working on. Had I not performed my Weekly Review, I would likely have missed the task altogether and caused some major issues with that project. For those of you just starting out with GTD or who are trying to get back on the wagon, believe me...focus on the Weekly Review. It is powerful and compelling and it really is the key (or the "secret sauce" as I believe Mr. Allen calls it) to this whole process.

Even when you feel like you're on top of things, it's possible to fall off the GTD wagon sometimes. Back when I finally settled on a system to use for GTD, I had made the decision that the best place to capture my projects and lists was in the context of my day-to-day work environment, Lotus Notes. Thus, I created my own, home-grown extensions to my mail file to support this work. Since I used the To Do features of mail along with my own customizations, I had all my action lists syncing to my Blackberry, so my system was always with me. It was in this period that I really got into the groove and felt like GTD had made a significant improvement in my life. I felt more focused, delivered high-quality work, and was able to stay on top of my ever growing list of responsibilities. Simple things, like keeping an @Errands list, saved enormous amounts of time, time that I could then put to use productively in another area of my life. And it was here that I discovered the reason that we're all trying to work this productivity stuff in the first place. The feeling of knowing that what you need to do is captured somewhere safe and that it's alright to be focusing your attention on living in the moment was spectacular. Now I won't lie to myself and say that I am a GTD superstar, because it was when I left my previous employer to come to IBM that I fell off the wagon most ungracefully.

Finding myself in a new job that required me to show off the just released Lotus Notes 8 client on an almost daily basis made it impossible for me to make changes to my mail file. I had a really great system and when I lost that, I found it hard to readjust. I once again returned to the rabbit hole, needlessly testing various implementation practices, finally going back to an analog system (just keeping my next action lists and projects in a simple notebook). While I found myself enjoying the simplicity of that world, the truth is most of my existence and work is in the digital realm and so a lot of needless double entry and context switching was going on. It was time to step up again and get back in complete control. Enter eProductivity.

Recently, I've been lucky enough to begin using the eProductivity system developed by Eric Mack. It's a phenomenal tool built to take advantage of the power of the Lotus Notes platform, all the while adhering to the principles and best practices of GTD as laid out by Mr. Allen. Mr. Mack has been building the foundation of this system for years, continually refining it, researching what works and doesn't work. I'm just a little over a week into this journey, but I already know that eProductivity will be the system I use from here on out. I've already written a couple of posts on the eProductivity system, so I encourage you to check them out here and here.

I keep finding new things to love about this tool. First, processing the inbox is almost effortless now. Being a user experience advocate, I can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into making things just work. I'm finding that I have no resistance to attacking the incoming mail. This in itself is incredibly powerful, because it lets me get to work focusing on my tasks and projects rather than "doing my e-mail". IBM pays me to get things done, not work on my inbox. As I move along on this next stage of my GTD journey, I'll be posting more details about eProductivity and how it really is the absolute best GTD tool for Lotus Notes (just ask Mr. Allen...he uses it!).

So that brings me to today. I'm thrilled to be walking this next path on my exploration of GTD. Getting back into the groove just feels "right" and the addition of eProductivity has brought my game up a notch (and I haven't even got everything migrated over yet!). I'm particularly looking forward to using the Weekly Review Coach that is a key feature the software. I'm super excited about this tool, which is one reason I've been talking about it so much lately. If you are interested in personal productivity and want to explore a tool that will bring the best of what GTD has to offer to Lotus Notes, you should definitely take eProductivity for a test drive.

Aside: David Allen uses Lotus Notes and eProductivity and in fact has said a lot of really great things about Notes. This is very positive for IBM and I hope that going forward you'll see us take advantage of the "free press" that he is giving us. He's a highly visible figure in the world of personal productivity...really a rock star. I hope this helps some of those people that have had blinders on with regards to the Lotus portfolio take those blinders off and see the kinds of stuff we are working on. Many of our products are truly transformative and it's encouraging to see smart people like Mr. Allen get that and then evangelize it to the world!

As I look back on my progress to this point, I'm pretty happy about how GTD has served me. While I haven't been perfect, the tricks I've learned and the tools I've leveraged as I've practiced this methodology have allowed me to play in a higher league than I did before. In the end, GTD allows me to get more done, deliver work of higher quality and lets me use my mental cycles to focus on important things...things like developing new UI techniques in Notes, figuring out how I can help more in the community and spending time with my family. After all, that's what Getting Things Done is all about.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Do Enterprise Applications Suck? And How Can We Fix It?

Originally, this post was just going to be a link to a great article, but as usual, I seem to have a little more to say. Before you read my thoughts on the subject of sucky enterprise apps, please check out what Michael Nygard has to say on this topic.

Good stuff and I whole-heartedly agree. To summarize, Michael postulates that there are four main reasons that enterprise applications suck in terms of the user experience. They are:

1. The serve their corporate overlords, not their users.

2. They only do gray-suited, stolidly conservative things.

3. They have captive audiences.

4. They lack "give-a-shitness".

I think most of us in the Notes world would be hard pressed to say that these things aren't true in many of the applications that we've seen (and perhaps even authored ourselves in the early days). I often lament the fact that the majority of us learned our craft by deconstructing the Notes templates. While they were certainly great back in the day and the underlying code is slick, the fact is that the users' expectations of the software experience has moved on and we as developers...not so much.

I originally started this site knowing that it would be a niche within a niche. Interface Matters is about Lotus Notes development with a focus on user interface design. If you ask a lot of people, those things don't usually go together. At least they didn't. But I'm happy to say that Lotus and IBM get it now. Certainly we can't turn around on a dime. We're a huge company after all. But if you look at the progression between past clients and Notes 8, it's a pretty outstanding evolution. In my sales role, I'm starting to see a lot of traction in upgrades to 8.5 and this presents developers with an incredible opportunity to start rallying against Michael's "4 sucky apps" theory.

In order to overcome the sins of the past, you've got to start injecting the idea of a compelling user experience into all aspects of your design process. It's not just about how things look. Instead, it's about the entire experience, from the time you begin to engage the users to gather requirements to after project delivery. How do they report problems to you? How responsive are you to issues that are raised? Are you thinking about fast release cycles? All of these things are part of the user experience and I don't think I'd be off base by saying most are neglected in traditional Notes development.

To turn this around, begin leveraging best practices in the UX space. Try using "Web 2.0" design patterns (like those found at Examine what well-known sites are doing and determine how they are keeping users engaged. Even better, ask your users what they like. I've received some of my best ideas from the users themselves. It's very eye opening to watch them work or to discuss what sites on the Internet they find easy to use and why. The best advice I could give a programmer is to attempt to "step outside the code". The code is the solid foundation upon which a great app is built, but like the foundation of the building where they live, the user never sees it. Instead, they see their house...a place that is comfortable and that they call home. The same is true for your app, so our goal is to not only lay that solid foundation, but to create the most attractive and comfortable environment that we can. Once you make the mind shift from lines of code to "how will the user feel about this?", then you will be on your way to developing a more compelling user experience.

As developers, we're the ones on the front lines that can make this happen. More than other platforms, Notes developers often have to play the roles of business analyst, designer, tester and programmer all rolled into one. The concepts of user experience are important in the work that all of these roles take on, so by making this a standard part of your engagement model, you'll be able to effect real change for the better and help make enterprise apps suck a little less. Good luck...your users are counting on you!

Thoughts on the eProductivity Install...Smooth Sailing Really

As part of the eProductivity challenge that I'm working on with creator Eric Mack, I promised to blog about the process and my findings as I went along. I thought this would be very useful for those people that are interested in the promise of achieving higher productivity using Lotus Notes.

The first part of getting things done with eProductivity was to actually perform the install. This is very easily accomplished since this tool was designed specifically for Lotus Notes. You'll be using your production mail file, so the one thing you must be aware of first is that you need to have access to update the design. If you're not sure, check with your corporate IT department. Assuming you have the proper access, the install will consist of replacing the design of your mail file with the eProductivity template.

Right off the bat, Eric and team have done a nice job of fully documenting the install of the software. Of course, I wish there were some kind of easy installer for Notes apps in general, but baring that, having a good set of instructions for exactly what settings you need to have in your ACL, how to replace the design, etc., is great. I didn't need the instructions for replacing my database design, but I would feel totally comfortable with an end user taking the documentation and getting right to work. Once the eProductivity template has been applied, a wizard (nice use of UI design pattern here) appears to guide the user through the remainder of the setup process. This consists of accepting the license agreement, setting the initial preferences (where it is recommended you take the defaults unless you are a more advanced user), and updating the design of any folders you already have to add the eProductivity features to them. Again, this is nicely explained and should give the user a feeling of confidence when going through on their own.

After the installation of eProductivity is complete (a process that should only take a few minutes at most), opening your mail file presents you with the main eProductivity UI. The user interface was designed to the standard put forth by the design team at Lotus for Notes 8 (Basic). I must admit to missing the Notes 8 Standard views for their sexy looks, but that feeling was short-lived, especially in light of my improved productivity. When you open your mail after the installation, you'll see a couple of cool features right away. One is the "Tip of the Day". I find this to be quite valuable. Since most users (myself included) would rather just get to work than wade through a big instruction manual, the "Tip of the Day" allows you to learn more about the features of eProductivity in small chunks. You may not figure out all the nuances of the software from day 1, but by using the Tip feature, you'll soon learn many of the tricks and more advanced things you can do.

The Tip of the Day feature

Another key feature is the "Today" view, which gives you a quick, at-a-glance way to see what lies ahead of you for that day. I'll review this more in a future post, but basically it aggregates your calendar, due action items and tickler entries so you don't have to go through multiple views to find out what you should be working on today.

The Today View

So that's it...the installation for eProductivity is a breeze. I think the user experience around this was well thought out and allows the user to get up and running in very little time. In fact, it will probably take longer to download all the materials than it does to perform the actual install! :-) If the install is the easy part, what about using eProductivity itself? I'll be saving that for a future post. Let's just say that getting the GTD methodology right takes some time and dedication, but eProductivity seamlessly supports this methodology and so far has helped me to get information into the correct place better than any other system I've used before.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Paper Prototyping Testimonial

[Hi Everybody...Chris here. I'm thrilled to present another guest post to you here on Interface Matters. Please welcome Kathy Brown, who recently started blogging over at Kathy's Running Notes. She was inspired to try low-fi prototyping after attending my session with Tom Duff at Lotusphere and I was really happy to hear about her success with it. Below is a post about her experience. Thanks, Kathy! Don't forget to check out her blog...]

I frequently spend many hours in meetings with users, emailing users, instant messaging users and phoning users to determine their requirements. I then spend countless hours developing an application that I think satisfies their requirements. Only to demo the app and have the users point out 50 things they would like to see differently ("that's not what I meant"). And around the wheel we go again. All because it is difficult for users to "see" the finished product before it's, well, finished.

I was lucky enough to attend a session by Chris Blatnick at Lotusphere 2009. [Editor's Note: Flattery will get you everywhere! ;-)] Among other things, he covered Low-Fidelity Prototyping, which he has also covered on his blog. He also calls the technique 'paper prototyping' because it is just that, drawing out on paper what the app is going to look like. Everything. Buttons, views, tables, etc. Check out his blog to see more on how to do it.

I immediately got home from Lotusphere and had to try it out. Luckily, I am in the early stages of a new application and could put this right into action. Oddly, I used it on myself first. I think Chris' intent was to get better feedback from users before beginning coding, but I was able to use it to clarify my OWN thoughts on the application before even speaking to the users. (Woohoo!)

I drew out several of the screens required for the application and immediately saw flaws in the design. Back to the drawing board, literally, and I redesigned several portions. Drew them up again and realized several features that I knew the users would ask for when I showed them. I added those onto the drawing. Now I could bring a much more "developed" application to the users before even getting any of their feedback. I looked like a hero! Additionally, they were better able to envision the finished application, and add their feedback, BEFORE I had coded anything!

LFD from a user session. The red pen is actually from the user's input in the meeting, adding two new sections and a field, while removing an entire column of data they decided was confusing to the users.

I am also working on an in-production application. The users frequently have new requests and features they desire. In the most recent release of the application, a new form was added based on vague user input. (You know how it goes, "Hey we want the form to do this and this, you're the designer, you figure it out."). The users had some pretty negative feedback. The feedback tended to be along the lines of "this sucks" and was not very useful in figuring out a solution. I decided to meet with some key users and had a paper prototype in hand. I offered them some visual suggestions as to how we might change the form. Seeing those suggestions "in real life" enabled them to provide constructive suggestions on what they would actually like to see on the form. They were passing the paper prototype back and forth and drawing on it until they agreed on the new layout and design. Again, all before I coded (okay, re-coded in this instance) even one line of code.

I can't recommend this technique nearly enough. It saves me time as a developer and makes the users happy with an end result they like, as well as making them feel invested in the product. I am looking forward to using this in all of my designs.

About The Author: I've been an application developer in Lotus Notes/Domino for four years. I am currently the lone developer at my company, so like many others, I am overwhelmed and expected to do miracles therefore I love to learn techniques and technologies that will make me more efficient! Prior to working in IT, I've been an Investment Analyst, a temp, and even an actress (long ago and far away).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On the Road to Greater eProductivity!

Hi again, folks. Those two or three of you that have been coming here for awhile now know that I am a fan of productivity systems and that I am a follower of the GTD methodology. While not a black belt by any means, I've found that it is the best system for me, helping me keep on top of the ever increasing pile of work I find thrust upon me (or that I volunteer for) and assisting me to close open loops.

I first read David Allen's Getting Things Done several years ago and it really struck a chord with me. Up to that point, I kept pretty much everything in my head. Luckily, it's a big head (haha), but it was quite leaky too. As much as I loved to write, I never enjoyed taking notes in meetings or keeping lists. I realized I needed help as my workload increased, which is what lead me to David's book in the first place. On the surface, the methodology couldn't be easier, but there are many subtle nuances which can only be learned with patience and persistence. In the beginning, I was only fractionally taking advantage of what GTD had to offer, but it was still leaps and bounds beyond where I had been. The idea of the two minute rule, making decisions on! Common sense stuff, to be sure, but it often takes someone to point out the obvious for us to become truly aware of it. Over time, my performance and level of execution of GTD increased and I felt like I was certainly "working smarter". Like many geeks do, I probably toyed around with different systems too much, going back and forth between analog (moleskine, hipster, etc.) and electronic (mind maps, web-based task systems, and so on) ways of keeping my lists. In the end, I came to the realization that the tool doesn't matter nearly as much as the method. There are a few key things you need. First, it needs to be always accessible. Second, there needs to be some attraction to the tools. If you hate carrying around a paper pad with you everywhere you go, then an analog GTD system is probably not right for you. After this became evident, I decided the best place to GTD was in the context of my day to day work environment, Lotus Notes. Thus, I created my own, home-grown extensions to my mail file (easy for me, of course, as a developer). This served me very well until I left my last company and came to IBM. Not wanting to make changes to my IBM mail file, I was cast adrift in a sea of too much information and quickly found myself drowning in it.

For the last year and a half, my GTD-fu has been suffering greatly. When you have a great tool and it gets taken away, it's hard to readjust, especially as you get as old as I am. I once again found myself needlessly testing various implementation practices, finally going back to an analog system (just keeping my next action lists and projects in a simple notebook). While I found myself enjoying the simplicity of that world, the truth is most of my existence and work is in the digital realm and so a lot of needless double entry and context switching was going on.

Before we get to where I'm at today, I need to step back a little. In the beginning of 2007, I was fortunate to begin speaking with Eric Mack, who most of the folks in the yellow bubble now know as the brains behind the eProductivity product. I had been reading Eric's blog for some time, and was very impressed with his approach toward productivity and personal knowledge management. It was at this time when I started to get some sneak peeks into what he was doing with eProductivity and I was definitely impressed. I even helped with a couple UI pointers, but mostly his team was doing all the right things. The short summary of what eProductivity is is this: It is THE tool to use for implementing GTD in Lotus Notes. If you need any more proof than me saying it is so (tongue firmly planted in cheek), consider this: David Allen uses eProductivity for Lotus Notes as his personal system. If it's good enough for the guy that created the methodology, I think it's worth looking into! ;-)

I had the opportunity to reconnect with Eric at Lotusphere this year, to attend his great talk with David and to get another look at some of the pieces of eProductivity that I hadn't yet explored. I was really impressed. Not only is it a perfect implementation for GTD, but it's an incredibly cool Notes application...just another example of how powerful this platform really is. After I returned home, I figured it was time to really buckle down and try eProductivity full time in my production mail file. As it turns out, Eric was keen to have some people try out his system and blog about their experiences, so the timing was right. Last week, I took the plunge and accepted Eric's 30 day challenge. We spent some time on the phone and he coached me through the eProductivity install process. Now, I'm up and running with eProductivity as my full-time, 100% committed GTD system. The verdict so far? I definitely like what I see! There's a lot to explore and I have to get used to some of the workflow, but it's really one of the fastest ways I've been able to create projects and next actions to date. I'm mostly looking forward to trying out the Weekly Review Coach and some of the other advanced features, as I think these will take my GTD skills "over the top".

If you are already an advocate of the Getting Things Done methodology, then I would highly encourage you to check out eProductivity. If you've not yet read the book, then I'd recommend two things. First, make sure you buy GTD and read it cover to cover. It's short and easy to digest (which is good, since you'll want to read it again in a few months). At the same time, get started with the trial of eProductivity. While you'll get the most out of the system if you know GTD, there are enough productivity best practices and help features within the software to improve your game right away. Then, you can grow into the system as you master the GTD principles.

Next time, I'll talk about the install process and how easy it is to start getting things done with eProductivity.