The challenge was as daunting as it was irresistible: Take a successful software product with several million satisfied users worldwide and make it even better by transforming it into a modern, visually appealing, and easy-to-use platform for collaboration. Ambuj Goyal, Lotus General Manager at the time, described the vision in general terms: "Deliver a world class user experience in mail, calendar, and contact management and new capabilities such as activity management and composite applications."
The project in question was Lotus Notes 8, which began its long, successful run in 1989 and had undergone a major user experience revision since release 4 in 1996. By 2005, it was time for a fundamental rethinking of the user experience from the ground up. (See the History of Lotus Notes.)
Making the vision a reality
To tackle the challenge, Lotus assembled a team of user experience professionals, including interaction designers, visual designers, user researchers, and usability specialists. Their mission: to make the vision a reality, while ensuring that all existing applications continued to work, that existing customers did not feel alienated, and that new capabilities (like Symphony and Sametime) were well-integrated.
Involving users every step of the way
The first thing to do was to define the product goals and provide a framework for the work ahead. What makes up a "world-class user interface”? What are the most important areas to address? How is success defined for this project? Who are the users of Lotus Notes? Early in the process, team members realized that feedback from users was critical and that it must be solicited every step of the way. But with 140 million users, how do you do that?
Developing personas to understand users
The team decided to create composite characters (personas) that represent Lotus Notes users. Using personas gives focus to design solutions, taking them from the abstract discussions about "users” to specific details applied to specific tasks performed by users in specific roles. Because Lotus Notes is used in businesses large and small, three different personas were developed: Samantha, a knowledge worker in marketing; Ted, an executive; and Betty, Ted's assistant. The use of personas gave the team a way to discuss feature and design questions – they could simply ask, which of the personas would use this feature, and how would he or she want to use it? This approach was distilled into the question: "What would Samantha do?"
Ensuring constant customer feedback
The team ensured constant feedback by including customers and partners in design discussions and reviews through formal Design Partner and Beta programs, interviews at conferences, on-site visits, and online surveys. Weekly Design Partner conference calls gave designers and developers the chance to review specifications before coding was well underway. Almost every design was reviewed and commented on by design partners and other customers. In addition, more than 475 formal and informal usability tests were performed at different stages of the project.
In-depth discussions with customers are invaluable to design and development, but the team also needed a quick way to get information out to customers, gather comments, and discuss that feedback. These considerations prompted Lead Designer Mary Beth Raven to create the Designing the User Experience of Lotus Notes blog, an open, publicly available resource for sharing design ideas and decisions with customers and partners. It can keep a wide audience of stakeholders informed and prepared for the new releases before they come out.
If you've ever renovated a house (or even part of a house), you know that a thousand details must be right for the overall effect to be satisfying. The same is true for good software. The Lotus Notes team aimed to create an outstanding user experience, one in which users accomplish their objectives within an interface that supports their goals. Watch the video and read the reviews; we think you’ll agree that team members more than met the goal they set for themselves!