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Lotus Notes - Developer Comments

In contrast to the overwhelming amount of mail we have received in support of the review of the interface problems in Lotus Notes, we have received an occasional note from a Notes developer or long-time user of the product complaining about the review. In fairness to this group of users, we present a summary of typical comments. We consider these comments valuable to Notes developers and users, because they highlight the very stark differences between the way each group views Notes.

Last updated 21-July-1999

Several developers took exception to our classification of Notes as an e-mail application, despite the fact that most agreed that this was the primary reason that it was employed in their organizations.
  • I believe at least some of Notes' problems stem from the fact that it is NOT an e-mail application. Unfortunately, many organizations, mine own included, buy it only for e-mail. The product is actually a sophisticated non-relational database environment that also provides a rather limited e-mail functionality. Many user interface features that make normal e-mail applications easier to use would be out-of-place in a "non E-mail" Notes database.

  • As crappy as the Notes interface can be, it's important to understand what Notes is and is not. It's not just a mail program like ccMail, but a (said in one breath) document-based-development-platform-with-integrated-mail-features.

  • I do however find your qualification of Notes as 'just an email package' quite incorrect. Notes is an applications development environment for tools that facilitate the open exchange of information between geographically dispersed individuals.

  • Notes is a workflow application, meaning that it is possible to model whole processes in Notes database logic, enabling a company to more or less automate everything concerning the flow of information from a business-process oriented perspective. Notes uses these same mechanisms to manage mail.

  • Lotus Notes is NOT just an email application. It is a workflow collaboration software [sic].

  • Louts Notes is not first an email system but rather, a distributed client/server development and deployment environment. The email capabilities were developed using the same capabilities offered to Lotus Notes developers in building their own solutions.

  • It is NOT an e-mail client, it's a database-manager (but its harder to use than bare-bones database that you command with plain SQL).

A number of Notes developers attempted to take us to task for having considered the Notes interface in the context of the operating system on which we used it, as indicated in the following comment:
I think you review had too much of a windows centric viewpoint. Notes runs on multiple platforms, not just windows, and attempts to provide the user with a consistent notes interface across those platforms. As such it will not do things in the Microsoft windows established format.

This comment is probably based on the comments from one of Lotus' chief interface designers (Douglass Wilson, on eSuite; Byte of July 1997):

The majority of people in the world have never seen either the Macintosh or the Windows look and feel (...). We are aiming for a much broader market of corporate and home users who may never have seen any kind of GUI before.

As we have pointed out elsewhere on the site, platform independence only benefits the developer, not the user. The ability to develop a single application that can run on a variety of platforms is meaningless to the user on each of those platforms. In fact, platform independence makes the application more difficult to use, since the Windows user cannot transfer his or her knowledge of Windows interface characteristics to the Notes application, and similarly, the Mac user will find the interface to be quite unlike any other Mac application. Each user could care less how Notes looks on the other's computer, but each is very confused to find that Notes operates unlike any other application they use.

Quite a number of developers complained that several of the examples in the review were false, fabricated by us, or due to our having installed or configured the program incorrectly:
  • you describe a few "features" of Notes that are actually not in the product

  • I've never seen a version of Notes work in such fashion.

  • Don't criticize UI features that aren't actually in the product. There's enough to criticize in Notes without bringing up imaginary UIs.

  • You misconfigured the mail template.

  • You're using the wrong template.

  • If you don't like your mail database template you can change it!

  • The ... would not work that way if you had installed Notes correctly.

Just for the record: we did not install the product, nor configure it. The product is as it was delivered to us (and to the other 600 people at that organization that came to the office one day to find that ccMail had been replaced overnight by Notes). We did, however, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to correct many of the problems. In one example, four computer professionals independently spent over an hour trying to figure out how to turn off the "Do you want to send the mail now?" message. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

We will however, concede that the position expressed by a visitor may help explain some of the problems we experienced:

I think I can guess what happened -- the organization itself, or their consultants, modified the Notes product (which is very easy -- too easy! -- to do) with this awkward email interface.

But, your interface complaints are indeed applicable to whomever designed that custom email interface. All those umpteen thousand third-party Business Partner developers should themselves spend an evening skimming an introductory textbook on interface design, or learning how interfaces behave on the platforms the product is to be released.

We were very surprised (and more than a little amused) to hear from a number of Notes developers that we should not be allowed to use never mind critique Notes without having first attended a formal course in its use.
  • Users should be required to attend hands-on classroom instruction on Notes before they use it.

  • I think you should have to attend at Lotus Notes course.

  • As with any large-scale application, especially a application framework like Lotus Notes, training is important - not the quick, 'here's Notes, here's how to do e-mail' type of training, but real, hands-on training, with an experienced instructor.

  • If the users had decent training at your large financial institution, they would have been shown the myriad ways to attach a file to a document. Notes is not something that the average user just picks up off the shelf at CompUSA and starts using.

  • Training would appear to be the biggest issue, and if a company is too cheap to train their employees, good luck!
Needless to say, Lotus would do well to avoid including such statements in their marketing materials.

We were also amused to hear from several developers who attempted to defend the awkwardness of several Notes "features" on the basis of underlying technical reasons:
  • There is a valid reason that you can't attach a file to the Address, CC: or BCC: fields - they are plain text fields. You can only have attachments, graphics, fonts, colours etc in rich-text-fields. Think about it - why would you want to attach a file in the email address field?

  • Notes isn't like any other product on the market and has to use some different UI models to accomodate the document-centric database that underlies the system.

  • As for your comments on attaching files, Notes was built this way to prevent people from attaching files to just any document from the user interface. In reality, Notes is quite capable of doing what you want. In fact, in older versions of Notes that's how file attachments worked. But when people started attaching files to documents where designers didn't want them, there were complaints about the email interface you're defending. So the interface was changed to where you have to position it to a field allowing attachments. But there could be a better interface for this.

  • Notes is a document based system. All configuration is done in documents. To put a document into edit mode you double-click on it. This may be a hard concept to grasp at first, but you get used to it. (This last statement was often repeated).

  • I do admit that it is ludicrous that Notes uses these databases to supply common services such as application help instead of just using the means supplied by the operating system. But there is a rationale behind all this, though not exactly a very strong one. Notes is a multi-platform application, the client component coming in a multitude of operating system flavors besides the windows world. Thus, it is possible to have a heterogenous computing environment (for example Windows, OS/2 and UNIX clients) and still have all the access the same information, which is centrally stored on Notes Servers.

What these developers fail to recognize is that the user could not care less about the technical reasons why things operate as they do, nor should they be required to know the technical reasons; users just want an easy means of doing what they need done.

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