Monday, November 05, 2007

Take a Note

My wife thinks I’m a little bit nuts over this issue.

I’ve been an Outlook user all of my life. (By “all of my life,” I mean “since I’ve been a serious email user.” That was probably around 1997 or so. I used other email programs before that, but that was about the time that serious work-related email use really kicked in.)

I’ve always thought of email and calendar as sort of a ubiquitous activity. It was there, and we really didn’t have to put too much thought into it.

Over the years, Outlook has evolved into a very powerful and easy to use interface for email and calendar. When I left my previous job, I was using Outlook 2007 which was coupled with the latest version of Exchange Server. (I’m not much on the Exchange product, so I’m not sure what they call the latest version).

I accepted an offer with another company about 2 months ago. I came to the company knowing that it was a Lotus Notes shop, but I didn’t think too much about it. My wife has been Notes user at her job for years and years. She’s never really complained about it. I mean, seriously… how difficult is it to create a decent email and calendar program?
Apparently, it’s so difficult that the largest computer company in the world can’t do it. IBM’s Lotus Notes is, in a word, awful.

There are obvious issues, of course. It completely ignores the interface design standards that have been established over the last 20 years of Windows computing. For example, look at the scroll bar on the right of your screen. The length of that bar gives you an indication of how long the document you are looking at is. In Notes, the scroll bar is always the same size.

And of course, it’s ugly. Notes is the worst looking mainstream application I’ve ever seen. It uses its icons that are right out of the early days of Windows. Can’t IBM afford some decent designers?

But all of that is probably tolerable, if it weren’t so damned difficult to use. This is where the conversation gets a bit fuzzy. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always used Outlook, or if there is something to this, but I find Notes difficult to use.

It’s hard for me to find emails that I know I’ve saved in my Inbox. It’s hard for me to figure out if I’ve accepted or declined a meeting. It’s hard for me to schedule meetings.

I’ve been using Notes for 2 months, and it’s not getting any easier.

At my old company, we used to sell a service for interface design. We bragged about the staff we had who graduated with degrees that specialize in human/computer interaction. I personally thought it was a bunch of hogwash. But I’m starting to believe that there really is a science to this. I think Microsoft built all of this subtle usability knowledge into Outlook.

Outlook is just plain easy to use. It capitalizes words for me. It corrects spelling for me. It shows me a small preview of my new mail down by my clock, so I can instantly decide to read or ignore it, or even delete it right there without ever leaving my work. I can send email by hitting Alt+S. The calendar is easy to read. There’s no extra effort required to figure out who is available for a meeting. It’s great!

Obviously, I can’t just give up on Notes. My company uses it, right or wrong. I will continue to try to learn its ways and perhaps one day, it will be as easy to me as Outlook. But as of today, it sure doesn’t seem like that will ever happen.

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