Monday, February 13, 2006

Common Ground

Last week's feature by Charles Arthur in The Guardian set off quite a firestorm within the Notes and Domino community. Several people blogged about it and many more commented. For example, there are more than 50 responses to a follow-up on Mr. Arthur's personal blog. There are close to 80 comments on Ed Brill's blog.

Charles Arthur and the Notes defenders, including me, remain very far apart on this issue. Mr. Arthur apparently lives in a parallel universe where the last three major releases of Notes never happened and where a vocal minority of Notes haters speak for the entire user population. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but the Notes supporters are conceding none of his points.

In such a polarized atmosphere, it is difficult to find common ground. Yet there is this quote from Charles Arthur complaining about his readers:
This inability to read something online and follow the thread of its argument seems to be an amazingly common failing. I notice it again and again in the grousing emails I get about articles: people don'’t seem to twig what they'’re reading. They skim a bit, and then reach the bit they disagree with, then leap to their email program to fire off their prejudices.

I know how you feel, Charles. Change a few words and you have:
This inability to understand and use software seems to be an amazingly common failing. I notice it again and again in complaints on the web: people don'’t seem to grok what they'’re using. They tinker a bit, and then reach the bit they disagree with, then leap to their blog to fire off their prejudices.
Of course, I don't disdain users in general, but I know from experience some users will set their mind against a software product and concede none of its benefits.

So how should we handle this situation, Charles? I think we need to realize that the vast majority of our constituents couldn't care less about such debates. Most readers of The Guardian are moved to complain only very rarely. They are more interested in sports and weather and getting on with their lives. It's the same with Notes users. They are not interested the fine points of UI design. For them, Notes is a business tool. They've learned to adapt to Notes quirks and get on with their work.

We should get on with our work too. At the end of the day, it is not about scoring points in a debate. It is about practicing our respective crafts. On his personal blog, Charles Arthur appears to be losing interest in this topic. Notes supporters like Ben Rose, Alan Lepofsky and Ed Brill need to get back to the fine work they do. I certainly need to get back to writing software.
 

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

You raise an interesting point about the update problem being fixed 'in the next release'. But as a user yourself, don't you find that phrase irritating?

My organisation are still using Notes 5 so most users still have to put up with this feature. We currently have no concrete plans to upgrade: money's tight and many projects like this have been shelved.

I'll make my stance clear: I'm one of the 'Notes haters'. I don't understand the arrogance of the developers: there's a clear Windows application paradigm - why do they ignore it and insist on their own, incompatible paradigm?

brownstudy said...

I work at a federal agency that turns off mail indexing, doesn't allow us to put collaborative databases up where people can use them, and imposes restrictions on database sizes. So all we're left with is email and calendar. Many of us are left with using our email folders as our default document database and running the size limits to the max. As contractors we aren't allowed to take the training that the feds get.

That's not Notes' fault, but that's all we're allowed to use or see. So the resentment about these restrictions gets transferred to what we can actually see, which is the software.

I've worked at three other companies that used Notes and the users either disliked the interface or were indifferent. Depends on how much of your day is spent in email, I guess. I admit to finding the UI hard to navigate and having to re-learn some basics every week. I'll say that the online help is very good, and it's appreciated by me.

I've done a couple of things with tabbed tables in Notes mail that wowed my colleagues, but which was dead-easy to implement. It took scrounging to dig it up though.

I've suggested trying to create some Notes-based collaborative databases to my manager, but his feeling is that the developers here hate Notes so much that they will refuse to use it.

There are many issues to untangle here, but the one I see is that IBM sells Notes to companies, not to users, so fixing the email UI will never be top of their to-do list. It's up to the companies to do more than the minimum with the software, but few of them do or have the resources to.

For the record, I wish Notes defaulted to "remove attachments when replying to all." Several of my correspondents don't select the "reply without attachments" option (because they have to stop and think and read, when all they want to do is press a button--who should make allowances here, the user or the software?), and those documents swell my database.

Dave Delay said...

Anonymous said:

My organisation are still using Notes 5 so most users still have to put up with this feature.

I don't like saying "that's fixed in the next release", but the next release, in this case Notes 6, was available at least four years ago. According to information I've read on various blogs, 80% of Notes users are using Notes 6 or greater, and IBM has stopped supporting Notes 5. I have not checked these facts, but they sound about right.

A good Notes application developer might actually be able to fix the inbox update problem without an upgrade of the Notes core. The folder design has an "On Refresh" property. I think the Notes mail application had that set to "Display indicator" in R5. In Notes 6, we changed it to "Refresh display". That was a long time ago, so I might be mistaken. If your company has a Notes application developer on staff, it would be worth trying "Refresh display".

I don't understand the arrogance of the developers: there's a clear Windows application paradigm - why do they ignore it and insist on their own, incompatible paradigm?

It may seem like arrogance, but you have to realize Notes was first released in the days of Windows 3.1 -- before many Windows conventions evolved. For many years we had an OS/2 release and we always supported the Mac. As the UI evolved over the first few releases, the Notes developers made several trade-offs so it felt right on all platforms. In retrospect, some decisions were good and some were bad, but I don't think any were made out of arrogance.

The fact is many UI improvements have been made since R5 and the next release, so-called Hannover, is supposed to be better still. My big beef with the coverage in The Guardian is that it mentions none of this. It promotes the myth that IBM doesn't care about Notes usability problems. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Kevin Hansen said...

This whole thing inspired me to write a multi-part rebuttal of the Lotus Notes Sucks website. Enjoy:
http://www.dominokeys.com/blog

Charles said...

Dave tweaked my comment -This inability to read something online and follow the thread of its argument seems to be an amazingly common failing. I notice it again and again in the grousing emails I get about articles: people don'’t seem to twig what they'’re reading. They skim a bit, and then reach the bit they disagree with, then leap to their email program to fire off their prejudices to produce This inability to understand and use software seems to be an amazingly common failing. I notice it again and again in complaints on the web: people don'’t seem to grok what they'’re using. They tinker a bit, and then reach the bit they disagree with, then leap to their blog to fire off their prejudices.

Haha. Except for one big, huge, giant difference. *I'm* talking about content. *You're* talking about design. The Guardian takes design soooo seriously. (I'm talking print now, though our web pages are laid out for maximum readability within the constraints of being a commercial site.) We consider what the best layout is for stories: which picture? What size of headline? Is this point size too big? Do chevrons divert, or signal usefully that something has come from a blog rather than a letter? Should the colours on the page agree, or clash? Where will people look when they open the paper? Where should the picture be? Which picture?

We go over and over these issues every day for dozens of pages. That's interface design. We have a template, which has been carefully worked over, but even so there's always variation, always something different about every edition (there are four editions each evening, targeted to different parts of the country).

"People using software" would equate, for us, to something like "people trying to find the weather for today" or "people trying to find the sports results". It's emphatically *not* equivalent to reading or not reading the content when you've found it. We've done a lot about the former, and constantly study ways to make it better.

Dave Delay said...

Charles said:

*I'm* talking about content. *You're* talking about design.

In my opinion, design and content are not so easily separated. Certainly you spend time "designing" each feature you write.

If a reader is having trouble following the thread of your argument, there are several possible explanations. Among the possibilities are 1) The reader is too lazy to follow a complex line of reasoning, and 2) You could have "designed" a better argument.

My analogy was meant to draw a parallel between software and newspaper content -- not between software and newspaper design.

Charles said...

My analogy was meant to draw a parallel between software and newspaper content -- not between software and newspaper design.

I'm afraid though that it's the latter pair which are analogous. Newspapers, you may have noticed, contain different content all the time, but their basic design changes usually only slowly. But sometimes they make radical, wrenching redesigns. The Independent, which had been a broadsheet (like the NY Times) since its inception in the 1980s, turned tabloid in 2003 - a dramatic change. (Its sales increased.) The Guardian last year switched from being a broadsheet to the "Berliner" size, which is about 80% of a broadsheet page size. Again, radical redesign required; though the biggest problem that readers found, arguably, was that Doonesbury had been dropped (or not found room for) in the new design. Readers complained. Doonesbury was reinstated.

That's design. That's analogous to "what happens if you press this button?" in software. Content is not.

Charles said...

For the record, I wish Notes defaulted to "remove attachments when replying to all." Several of my correspondents don't select the "reply without attachments" option (because they have to stop and think and read, when all they want to do is press a button--who should make allowances here, the user or the software?), and those documents swell my database.

Good design would make it a user preference which would follow that user around, whether they were logged in over the web or via the client.

Really good design would also allocate a keystroke combo where you could reply with or without attachments.
Brilliant design would do the above and remind you when you did something different from what you normally do, but with a message box which a tickbox saying something like "Don't show this message again" (as in: I'm smart enough to know I'm forwarding/not forwarding attachments, thank you). You know, like browsers do for leaving/joining secure sites.

Charles said...

My big beef with the coverage in The Guardian is that it mentions none of this. It promotes the myth that IBM doesn't care about Notes usability problems. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So, Dave, when *did* IBM begin caring about Notes usability problems?

Dave Delay said...

So, Dave, when *did* IBM begin caring about Notes usability problems?

Objection, Your Honor. Prosecution is leading the witness.

Of course you realize that's a loaded question. I will only relate my personal experience: We did lots of usability testing for both Notes 5 and Notes 6. There could have been usability testing done on Notes 4, but that was before my time.

Charles said...

We did lots of usability testing for both Notes 5 and Notes 6.

Now you're scaring me.
For example: UI behaviour that amazes me every time: to send a mail in Notes 5 (Mac), the keyboard method is - close window; hit return [ie say "yes" to "Send this message?"]. (Because using keyboards beats mousing around any day. Much faster.)

In UI terms, that's "destroy the window in order to complete the task successfully". Not "press [or activate via keyboard] a button that completes the task" such as you'll find in any email program dating from before or since.

It took me a *long* time to figure that out.
Plus of course there are no keyboard shortcut methods to choose a different option once you've started the window destruction (eg don't save this, don't send it, just bin it); only the escape key works (as it should) to cancel the destruction of the window and takes you back to where you were.

And that's after "lots" of usability testing? No wonder Jakob Nielsen is so rich. (He is rich, right?)

Lawrence said...

They've learned to adapt to Notes quirks and get on with their work.

Having used Notes in one major broadcaster's offices I can only say that all the people who I spoke to hated it.

As for your response to Charles' article I find the above sentence incredible. Good design is about adpating to users, not users adapting to 'quirks' and be done with it.

Whether Notes was there before Outlook or whatever it doesn't matter. Streamlining a user experience should be the highest priority, offering flexibility and intuitive design. And if everyone is using one thing at home, surely moving that way in the office would be a good thing, whatever fantastic back-end shenanigans are going on.

Dave Delay said...

Lawrence said:

As for your response to Charles' article I find the above sentence incredible. Good design is about adpating to users, not users adapting to 'quirks' and be done with it.

Perhaps you are tuning in late, but I never said users must adapt and be done with it. On the contrary, I have repeatedly said IBM takes usability seriously. There have been many improvements to mail and calendaring in Notes 6.0, 6.5 and 7.0. IBM has also announced plans to rework the UI in the next release of Notes, code-named Hannover.

However, it is true that people are wonderfully adaptable. I believe this debate about usability is relatively unimportant to the large majority of Notes users. They do get on with their work and Notes has proven to be an essential tool -- not just for mail and calendaring, but for many business processes.

Anonymous said...

This is a rather common occurence. An opinion/slant is chosen for a piece (yes, it often starts this way; if you thought the former followed research and investigation, please enjoy the rest of your high-school years). Supporting quotes are then found to back up the script, and the article comes out of the sausage factory.

Should some readers dare voice a different opinion, and - gasp - hold on to it, they are superciliously told - if they are told anything - they essentially do not get it, or "did not read the whole thing" and hence missed out on the underlying brilliance of its argument and the unavoidable epiphany that is bound to follow its appropriately respectful study. In other words, they're just whining, prejudiced dolts.

It would of course never occur to Mr Arthur and many of his colleagues that they might in fact be as prejudiced as the average Joe, or that these alternative opinions may be worth at least as much as their own, if not more so by virtue of the actual cumulative experience they represent.

And this is only about software. Somehow, we are supposed to trust that foreign policy, politics and other more complex issues fare better.