Lotus Notes is rubbish

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Lotus Notes UI is a disaster. Examples are legion, and there are doubtless a million web pages attesting to this. So here’s the million-and-first. I thought Notes was clunky the first time I encountered it, which was back in 1996. I was dismayed in 2003 when I started a new job to find that I would have to use the Notes client, not just for email, but also for internal documentation and even for entering time sheets. It turned out that that company had started life as a Lotus Notes development shop. I managed to escape, but now my new company and the client that I am working for both use Notes for email. It’s a nightmare.

Unless otherwise indicated, all comments apply to Lotus Notes client version 6.5, though a lot of the comments apply to version 7.0 as well. Webmail comments apply to version 7.0.

Preferences: Looking for Preferences? There is a Preferences submenu under the File menu. It contains six menu items for different kinds of preferences (but none of them are to do with files). But there’s also another preferences command, in the Actions menu under the Tools submenu (note: not an action). So for example if you want to add a digital signature to all your sent mail, you set this in File/Preferences/User Preferences/Mail; but if you want to add a text signature, you go to Actions/Tools/Preferences/Mail/Signature. This is ridiculous.

New Folder: I wanted to create a new folder to file some emails. In the panel on the left hand of the window, there’s the standard Inbox, Drafts, Sent and so on, as well as a Folders icon that can be expanded to show all your folders. You’d think that the command to create a new folder would be obvious. You’d be wrong.

Right-click the Folders icon. Huh? I get a context menu with options like Italic and Underline, amongst others. (I select Italic just for fun. Nothing happens.) But no New Folder option.

Right-click the panel itself. Huh? I get a context menu with options like Document properties and even Forward. (Just for fun I select Forward — a new email appears containing a picture of the lefthand panel. It’s hard to overstate the uselessness of this.) But no New Folder option.

File/New from the menu bar. This gives me a few options: Memo, Calendar Entry, Contact, To Do, and URL. (URL?! I try selecting that. It turns out that it actually just lets me type in a URL rather than create a new one. And then it opens up the URL in Internet Explorer. Even though Firefox is my default browser.) But no New Folder option.

Create from the menu bar. Surely. But no: I can create a new Memo, Reply, To Do, etc. There’s a Special submenu that lets me send a message to the database manager. There’s also an Other… option. Surely here! But no, Other… actually just gives me a list of the same options in the rest of the Create menu. Brilliant — the Other option actually does not give me any other options at all! It’s utterly worthless and confusing and I really can’t be bothered trying to come up with words to express how monumentally stupid the whole thing is. And I still can’t create a new folder, even from the Create menu.

And now finally I discover the several ways to create a folder. I select the Inbox icon to show the Inbox view. There is a button bar above the actual Inbox view. It’s not a toolbar — there are already two toolbars below the menu bar. This button bar is just a row of buttons, except that some of them are really dropdown menus that look like buttons. Anyway, there is a Folder button (actually a menu) that has a Create Folder… option. I didn’t notice it before because it wasn’t there — I had the Trash displayed, and the Folder button/menu does not appear when the Trash is displayed.

With the Inbox showing, there’s also a Folder/Create Folder… item in the Actions menu. But I also notice that if I click the Inbox icon, the menu bar shows File, Edit, View, Create, Actions and Help. But if I click the word “Inbox” beside the icon, the View, Create and Actions menus disappear after a second. If I click it again, those three menus appear for a second and then disappear again. Oh dear.

Also, it turns out that I could right-click the Inbox icon — a New Folder… item is in the context menu. Note that the new folder does not appear in the Inbox. In fact it has nothing to do with the Inbox.

So finally I have created a new folder, which appears under the Folders icon. It appears that I can now right-click on my new folder to get a context menu that will let me create another folder. And now that there’s a folder under the Folders icon, right-clicking the Folders icon gives me a different context menu! It’s the left-hand panel context menu (with the nonsensical Forward option) rather that the old Folders icon context menu (with the nonsensical Italic option).

All this just for a folder. In the time it took me to do this I could have simply run the Lotus Notes uninstaller and ended up much happier.

Scrolling: I got a meeting invitation that contained several screenfuls of text, but there was no scrollbar. In fact I didn’t even discover the text until I printed it out and was surprised that it was 5 printed pages. Scrolling with arrow keys or scroll wheel didn’t work. I also couldn’t select any text. I tried going into edit mode, and that seemed to make things better, though the scroll wheel still didn’t work unless I actually selected some text. (!?)

Daylight Saving: This is from a Certain Company’s intranet from 31 March 2008. This is not a joke:

The end date of Daylight Saving Time in New Zealand has been extended for 1 week this year. We now revert back on Sunday 6th of April.

When browsing your calendar for the week starting Monday 31st of March, your meetings may appear to be 1 hour late, so please OPEN the calendar entries to view the correct start time.

Ugly: Big fat ugly stop signThe Notes client has its mysteriously-changing “keychain” picture. The Web client has a big red stop sign on its login page. The stop sign has a fat, fleshy hand on it, just to hammer home the point that you have to stop. It looks like a scary error icon. Why is it even there at all? The only sensible interpretation I can think of is that it’s saying “Stop, the application you are about to log in to is hideously bloated and ugly.”

Meeting invitations: There’s no obvious way to accept a meeting invitation without sending a response. Even worse, select Respond with Comments; an email form appears. Change your mind and close the email form. You get an “are you sure?” dialog box, and since it’s Notes, you get several choices: Send as is, send without comments, or continue editing. That’s right, there is no way to cancel. You are forced to send the response. You can’t even quit from Notes now — if you try you will get the dialog box offering the same three choices. The only way to quit Notes without sending the response is to use the Windows Task Manager to kill the process. This is magnificently, fantastically stupid and is just another reason why the people who designed Notes should hang their heads in shame.

It turns out that even killing Notes won’t kill the meeting response form. When I started up Notes again, the form was there. Apparently that form will now be a permanent fixture of my Notes usage forever, until I finally give in and send it. Even though I don’t want to send it. Shame! Shame!

I noticed that a couple of days later, the form had finally gone. I can’t even remember if I restarted my PC or something like that, or if I finally gave up and sent the confounded thing. I have no more comment.

Webmail drafts: When you’re writing an email using the webmail interface, the Save button saves the email as a draft and then closes the window. So if you’re writing a long email and you want to save periodically, you have to keep pressing the button and then going back to the main window, opening the Drafts folder, opening your message and scrolling down to the bottom to continue. What a waste of time.

Spurious error: In webmail, if I create a new message and start editing it and then return to the main window and select a mail folder, a message pops up saying that they are sorry (which is nice) but “we were unable to process your request at this time.” (I don’t know who “we” refers to — the entire Lotus Notes development team, presumably). So I click OK to dismiss the dialog box and guess what? Everything works fine.

Well, I could go on. In fact I already have. It’s important to pick holes in Notes like this because otherwise we might get used to its warts. If we relax our standards for the software we use, it might flow on to affect the software we write. For this and for so many other reasons, Lotus Notes is rubbish.

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  1. The 6.x codebase for Notes first shipped in 2002. We agree that it is outdated in terms of user experience. In fact, Notes 8, which shipped in 2007, was designed with input from six full-time usability researches who conducted over 2000 usability tests. You can find the positive results via http://ibm.com/lotusnotes

    [Edited to correct the URL — Bennett]

  2. You get webmail? On our notes system we’re not trusted with such “bleeding edge” technology.

    I walked out of notes training (in April of this year) and text messaged a friend “I’ve just been transported back to 1994.”

    Notes blows.

  3. Ed, It’s good to know that finally, after 7 versions, Notes client 8 has been redesigned with a view to usability. The screenshots certainly look nicer. And I’m sure the focus on usability has yielded vast improvements.

    I am a bit worried about this snippet from What’s new in Lotus Notes 8.0 on the Lotus website:

    Access data from multiple business applications right within the Lotus Notes client, so you don’t have to spend time switching back and forth between different applications.

    It’s not 1988 any more. It really doesn’t take much time to switch back and forth between applications. But Notes is still designed to be a full-on does-everything integrated business application. It’s an idea whose time has gone. I’ll write a bit more about that in a future post.

    I won’t comment further on Notes 8 here until I have a chance to use it. Given that I am currently using Notes 6.5, I might get to start using Notes 8 by 2010 or so. At that time I hope I can finally write a “Lotus Notes is great” post.

  4. Your frustration with the interface is understandable, but to make a pronouncement like “XX is Rubbish” is going a bit far. A complex product like Notes is going to have some navigational challenges. I suggest that your time would be well-spent making an effort to learn the awesome capabilities of Notes as a collaboration platform, in which Lotus maintains a fifteen year lead over Microsoft.

    I could state, “Microsoft Word is Rubbish” based on frustrations I’ve had over the years. Anyone using Office 2007? See how intuitive is it to find the author of a Word document. In Excel, to insert a row, don’t click on the Insert tab, don’t click on the Insert button on the home tab (click on the down arrow beside the Insert button on the home tab). I could go on and on.

  5. I agree with “Larry” that cherry picking some “newbie” mistakes some people make and declaring the product rubbish is a bit excessive.

    Example 1) Daylight Savings Time
    Hmm.. Is NOTES the problem here or is that “certain company” the problem? We got the scripts from Lotus, ran them, and everything was fine. (On tens of thousands of machines.)

    Example 2) No way to cancel a meeting invite?
    Yep, you’re right! I ran across that too. But it’s not a problem with Notes, it’s a bad line of code in the SCRIPT in the TEMPLATE. It took me maybe 15 minutes to find it, rewrite it, and submit the fix to our enterprise group for deployment.

    In your discussion of what rubbish it is I don’t see any mention of how easy it is to have multiple copies of a database deployed across a dozen servers that all stay synchronized without any handholding from me. Or the incredible level of security built into it. Or even the simple convenience that I log in to Notes once and I can access a hundred applications never having to log in again because the client is smart enough to remember who I am.

    Though I like Notes, I do have a confession: I ran across your article while searching online for a workaround for a problem I’m having getting Notes to do something! (On the programming side)

  6. Larry, Notes doesn’t have “some navigational challenges”. It has a quirky and ungainly UI through and through. I have heard that Notes shines as an all-singing all-dancing collaboration platform (as long as you’re collaborating with other Notes users), but as an email client it is just plain clunky.

    As for Microsoft Office, of course it has its own navigational challenges. But Notes just takes the cake. Of course you may not agree. By all means write your own “Office is rubbish” post if you like. Or… As I said, I’ve not yet seen Notes 8, so a “Notes 8 is great” post would be very interesting.

  7. Tracy, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was cherry-picking some newbie mistakes. I was trying to create a litany of Notes’s numerous UI blunders. For example, the Preferences farrago and the hideous webmail login page are just bad design, whether you’re a new user or an expert.

    The DST problem interested me because it shows that Notes is designed so that it’s possible for an event date to be displayed incorrectly in the calendar view, yet correctly in the event view. You’d think that, whether correct or not, they would at least be consistent.

    As for the meeting templates, aren’t they distributed as part of the Notes package? You could argue that they are not technically part of the Notes application. If so, then just pretend that my post was titled “Lotus Notes and the templates included with it are rubbish”. Then my point will stand. I hope you understand why I favoured a shorter, snappier title.

    Now, of course Notes does have some good features. Yes, multiple copies of a database deployed across a dozen servers that all stay synchronised without any handholding from me. Although now you mention it, When I quit from the Notes client it always asks me if I want to update all databases with my local changes. This is the classic Notes approach of offering too many options. No, I don’t want to update any databases — I just want to read my email and then quit.

    Perhaps Notes can be configured not to ask these handholding questions. It should be configured like this by default. Is it?

    Besides, if you don’t need multiple copies of a database deployed across a dozen servers, then all you’re left with is the awful UI.

    You say you can access a hundred applications? You are clearly a Notes power user. If you use Notes all the time, for email, calendar, collaboration and 97 other things, then I’m sure you will learn to appreciate the nuances of its interface. Either that, or familiarity will blunt your critical faculties to the point that you won’t notice the pervasive awkwardness.

    People who lose both arms to accident or disease can sometimes live fairly normal lives by learning to use their feet as substitute hands. This is very impressive and inspiring. But the fact that it’s possible to learn to write with your toes does not mean that that’s a good way to do it.

  8. Hey Bennett!

    I’m going to agree with you that I’m “in” Notes enough to “blunt my critical faculties”. But a better comparison than your armless guy would be people taking their screaming kids to restaurants and movie theaters. They are so used to the noise they can be oblivious to it bothering the rest of us. And in my analogy Lotus Notes = “a screaming kid” so I figure you’d like that.

    I’ve never seen that “do you want to synchronize now” message. I would guess that comes from running your mail file off your local HD instead of a server? So I’ll go with “no that isn’t the default” and “yes it can be modified to not ask”.

    By webmail login I assume you are not using “inotes” which looks almost identical to the client in appearance and function. Yes webmail looked (past tense) like crap. In it’s defense if you’re checking your email on a 486 it can be a godsend. (And yes I will walk by some 486s on my way out the door.)

    I use Notes all the time, but not much for calendar or what is commonly called “collaboration”. To me it’s a database and an email program. I’ll admit I have plenty of problems with it especially on the development side. And as a programmer I’m more likely to blame me for not being able to figure the puzzle out than to blame the application for not doing what I assume it should.

    I wonder between us which will have a higher or lower opinion of version 8. The GUI is updated to be more “outlook-like” so you’ll like that and I won’t care. Beyond that the GUI is extremely customizable so users will be empowered to make it what they want, and at the same time able to break it to the point they can’t read their mail. To me that is generally a negative.

  9. Tracy, thanks for your reply; I really appreciate your comments. I’m just a (reluctant) Notes non-power user, so it’s very interesting to hear the views of someone like yourself who really knows Notes.

    I don’t especially like Outlook’s UI, but at least it mostly works like a standard Windows application (of course, given its provenance). As I describe above, much of the Notes UI seems to have been designed with no regard to how other Windows applications work. Therefore users are forced to learn a whole new set of conventions, when many of us only want to read our email. If Notes 8 works more like a standard Windows application, then that will be a good thing.

  10. Killnotes.exe can save your life (read: sanity) 🙂


  11. Hello Bennett.

    Just one phrase – yes you are right, it is rubbish (in soft words); I was tire to use it on my previous job ..

  12. its bery good project.

  13. I use Lotus Notes at Work (version 7), I don’t realy like it but can live with it.

    I have done a program in Visual basic .Net that used OLE automation server to create maildrafts so I can say that that worked well, and the documentation was good, but hard to find.

    Many in the company where i work only use it for reading e-mails, I dont like that you don’t get to the mailbox directly, after you login you are in the “Workspace” and I haven’t found a way to auto open the mailbox.

    Many of the simplest things are to hard to do or find so the avarage user here don’t use many the of features.

    Btw, do anyone know how to sort incoming mails by setting a date on them manualy when they arive, and then have them sorted so you can se what to do this week, and when you done one mark it as done and move the mail.

    I can’t solve this, don’t whant to make 52 folders every year becaus you can’t make folders fast. And to dos / folow ups don’t sems to make the right thing for me.

  14. Funny…I am the Domino admin for about 3000 users…and the only people I have trouble with are technically declined people who choose not to learn and pay more attention to their inability to use something they hate rather than their actual job. They usually don’t last long with our company and bounce around from job to job a lot…basically, they are complainers, whiners and are best at arguing for their limitations…not doers. Wink….Wink…

  15. Len, of course it’s annoying that some people are complainers and whiners rather than doers. That’s why I prefer to offer my views on my website rather than bother my own IT department with things that I know they can’t change.

    On the other hand, I do understand why people might hate a badly-designed tool that makes it more difficult to do their actual job. In fact, I am one of these people, and nobody could describe me as “technically declined”.

  16. Yet another User who would be better off with restricted out of the box Micro$oft Outlook.

    Of course if you only want email and calendar and never anything else then Lotus Notes is the wrong product for you.

    If you compare Lotus Notes and Exchange in regards to Email and Calendar then this is like comparing a Jeep with a formula one car.
    If you put both in a race on a F1 track then its quite clear who will be the fastest, however it is very important to notice that the jeep will also finish his lap…….And Now We Go Off-Road 😉

  17. True. I’d be happier with Outlook as an email client. And even happier with Thunderbird. Because the Notes UI is badly designed.

    If I wanted to race round a track I would choose a F1 car. Then if I wanted to go off-road I would simply get out of the F1 car and get into a jeep. Easy!

    The Notes philosophy is to try and do everything. The days of the integrated all-in-one suite are long gone, but nobody told the Lotus people.

  18. I’m in the middle of deploying Notes 8.0.2 to 8000 Outlook users. I’ve never seen an application as poorly designed, or as buggy, as this one.
    1) Emails are archived that don’t meet the selection criteria.
    2) In Folders, the “Sender” column always contains a name other than the user’s. It should be labeled “Other Guy”.
    3) When a meeting reminder pops up and you clear it, the Notes application grabs the system focus. Word, Excel, or whatever I was working on at the time are moved to the background.
    4) Conversation View is nice, but you can’t select all the relevant messages and move them to a folder… you can only copy them.
    5) We have several users lose all of their personal contacts when they started archiving email… not a clue why this happened.
    6) Emails in Tabs??? How can that be productive? Thank God they let us open emails in separate windows.

    I could go on but I have to go host another training session.

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