What is IBM Connections? And how to explain it to users!

In my work a big part of what I do is to explain both the reasons as well as the interface of IBM Connections. Why? Well because once you get the hang of it it’s not that hard but to a newbie user who opens it up for the first time it can be very daunting and alien.

So then you start to explain and it often comes out a little like….:

Connections is a platform that enables people to work together, offering a box of tools that you can use to share information, tasks and knowledge with others. It’s an environment where you’re connected through your profile to others by way of their profiles so that you can share information and work together with them. Individually or in groups (Communities). The information can be shared through various independent or community apps like Files, Activities and Blogs or through simply sharing status updates.

Which can cause certain people to become even more confused! So what I usually use to help me explain IBM Connections is this simple picture:

 

In short it explains, the concept of:

  • a person-centric environment,
  • that brings together people, one-on-one through profiles or in groups (communities)
  • allowing them to share information & expand knowledge.

But more importantly, it also visualizes the reasons behind the interface of IBM Connections. Allowing you to go through the various elements and helping them understand the differences between the various screens and options.

So next time someone asks you to ‘explain this IBM Connections‘, perhaps this image can help you too!

 

IBM Connections Explained: all about files!

Ok, I admit, this one was a long time in coming but it’s finally here! The next video in my little series on IBM Connections usage questions. This time it’s all about files and especially about the difference between :

  • Attachments vs Files
  • Personal vs Community files

I hope it helps explain a little what the difference is between them and how to use each. Good luck!

 

IBM Connections 4 gold nugget: Drag and drop file management

Like everyone else I’ve been excited to find out all the little and big new features IBM Connections 4 has to offer and even though I’ve been Beta testing it for months I’m still finding new little gold nuggets of functionality each day. One that I came across while looking at Luis Benitezvideo of new features in IBM Connections 4 is the drag and drop in the files section of the browser to upload new files or versions (at approximately at 2:50). I love it!

It makes it so much easier to upload files as you don’t have to first click a button and navigate to the file location anymore. On drop of the file or files (yes multiple works too!) it will automatically prompt you for tags and sharing options. Giving you the option to share it immediately with individuals or communities. Even better is that it also recognizes files that are already uploaded in your files section, prompting you to save the new version either as a version or with a rename.

This same functionality was already available through the Windows desktop plugin and the Lotus files plug-in that also allows drag & drop and automatic recognition of new versions but lets face it not everyone wants to install plugins and add-ins and sometimes it’s simply not even an option (try installing the Windows desktop plugin on your Mac!). With this you don’t have to, simply open your ‘My Files’ section and drag&drop your file or files in. It works like a charm!

And it turns out this doesn’t just works on Greenhouse or your on premises install of IBM Connections 4 but on Smartcloud as well (thanks to Erik Vos who alerted me to this!). This nifty little functionality is absolutely one of my favorite new functionalities of IBM Connections. What is yours?

 

Know your client…

Yesterday I signed up for the life web coverage of the exciting unveiling of the new IBM PureSystem which was hosted not by IBM but by external virtual event organizer Unisfair. Nothing wrong there. Each to its own and they are probably better in organizing these kind of things, but….

I have two pet peeves with how they organized it:

1. At registration you could indicate whether IBM & Affiliates are allowed to contact you by mail, phone or postal mail. I deselected all entries and saved. Guess what. Postal mail and Phone were automatically selected anyway which I saw in a flash while the page was saving. Even logging in and editing the settings does not allow you to deselect this. Sure, it will look deselected but save, switch page and come back and it’s selected again (and yes, I cleared my cache).
Big interface No No here. Even if that is actually saved as deselected you should never show it as selected as it is confusing and misleading. If it is saved as an approval then even worse, don’t give a user an option that really isn’t an option!

2. The second one (and yeah, I know I’m nitpicking here) is that when you organize an event for a major player like IBM and require the attendees to registeryou should at least make sure you know that customers products. So don’t send out a registration message with an “Outlook reminder” option….. sigh

Big issues? No, the first one I simply corrected by changing my info to fictional data and the second one… Well… I’m probably one of the few that even noticed.

But…. it does influence my feeling about the whole thing and makes me distrusting of it all. So if you use external companies to organize events and campaigns for you, make sure they obey to the same standards you do, are familiar with your products and don’t call out competitors products in their communications to your customers. The same goes for organizers. Know your client! It really doesn’t take much now a days for customers to get weary and distrusting on the Internet and that can directly impact the brand as well as you as an organizer….

The bright side of errors (just for fun)

Sometimes errors can really help put things in perspective….. or simply give you a chuckle. Todays highlight were two errors that made my day. Rest assured, neither were real problems but both gave me a great big laugh. So to brighten your day, here they are!

This one made me almost feel proud of the achievement!

And this one from Microsoft online help…. well irony 🙂

Testing – the Japanese confusion test

When I test software I love to test for the quirky details stuff. I know, why bother, but I guess I’m just one of those people for whom the devil is in the detail.

And one of my favorite tests for multi-lingual applications is to test for consistency by changing the language to either Simplified Chinese or Japanese – languages I absolutely do not speak. The reason? Well for one it has a different character set, flushing out non-translated items right away (even if they sound the same the different characters will make it look different).

(‘share’ is clearly not being translated here)

But secondly it also means you are suddenly stuck in a piece of software with no textual hints, forcing you to rely on logic and common sense to find your way.
Now, you shouldn’t do this if you are absolutely new to the software. You need to have a basic familiarity with the functionalities first, otherwise you’ll just get lost. But when you do have that basic knowledge, turning yourself into a temporary illiterate by trying to navigate the application in Japanese is a great way of seeing whether the logic of the application still holds up. Doing this has often helped me find inconsistencies you would otherwise easily overlook. Issues for instance with changing button or menu orders, when on one screen the order of buttons is [Ok] – [Cancel] and on another [Cancel] – [ Ok].

Now why is that important? Surely most won’t bother about that?!? Well, yes. Most won’t, but then there is this thing called repetition… We are creatures of habit and when we use software we often start anticipating moves, almost clicking automatically without looking. Like flipping through a photo album where you always flip through the pages from left to right, expecting the chronological order to follow that. How annoying is it if half way through you find the chronological order has suddenly changed, forcing you to go the other way?

So try it. It’s a great way of finding things you would otherwise overlook and it can be kind of funny to see how good your own understanding of the application really is…

User Experience: Menu & button placement – How to make your users hate you

I’m kind of opinionated when it comes to User Experience and the way users are directed to use certain functionality. Maybe it is because as a Business Consultant I’m usually the one talking most to users about their frustrations with software. Or maybe because I really believe that to fully understand you have to use it yourself. Whatever it is I spend a lot of time going through UI designs, looking at how stuff works. And one of my biggest irritations is with how badly thought through the navigation and placement of functionality options (buttons/menus/actions) is done in some applications & sites. 

Generally you can group action buttons & menus in 4 categories:

Layer 1: Most used options
These need to be glaringly obvious. Things like a “Create” or “New” button need to be there where ever I am. They need to be big and at a logical place. Not placed at the bottom where I can’t see it unless I scroll down.

Layer 2: Regularly used functions
These are things I might use maybe a couple of times each day, so I don’t need them to be there all the time but I should still be able to hit them really easily and within 2 clicks. Generally these are the first level options in my menus. Not buried in the third level of some 40+ option menu or hidden on the 3rd tab of a seemingly unrelated 3 page application wizard. 

Layer 3: Rarely used functions
Ok, these are the things users hardly touch. They can be buried a lot deeper. That doesn’t mean they should be in an illogical place though… So don’t put the ‘Share’ option of a request on the bottom of the versions tracker tab. Also make sure similar functions have similar logic to where they are placed throughout the application. Knowing a function can be found in the left upper corner on one form will mean users automatically look for that function in that same place on another form.

Layer 4: Preferably never used functions
The interesting stuff. Things the application developers rather not have users use but that need to be build in for that rare instance where it is needed. The things they secretly hope nobody will actually need…. Well users will find them and they will find rational uses for it. So don’t try to hide it or make it unnecessary difficult to use. Instead make sure it’s clear what it’s for and how to use it responsible. There is nothing as irritating to a user then an unnecessarily difficult to find action keeping them from doing something they deem important. For me these options are actually of the same importance as level 3 options and shouldn’t be any more difficult to find.

Ok nice, but how? My two cents worth on how to improve…..

  • Determine the base set of functionalities for each page/element based on the use cases  before starting development. Map your menus and buttons for each page.
  • Determine importance. Avoid having an overkill of options on the screen. In general not having more then 3-5 buttons or options in the most prominent layer. All other options should go into drop down menus or at other places.
  • Group functionalities: “Save” and “Save&Close” should be next or close to each other, not on either side of the screen
  • Keep to generally accepted menu build ups. Things like having the “[Print]” option in the first menu to the left which is generally called “[File]”. Users expect it there, so why confuse them by placing it in another menu?
  • Create a uniform functionality naming scheme: Don’t call the button to create a new form “New” on one page and “Create” on another 
  • Create a mockup for each of the main pages/elements placing the function menus/buttons and review it with the users. Do the same with the menu map. 
  • Keep it consistent and logical: A “Next” button typically resorts on the right side of the page/element, the “Previous” button on the left (and yes, I’ve seen this done wrong)
  • Keep it simple: Don’t create more options than necessary. Having 3 options “export to Excel”, “Export to CSV” and “Export to Text” in a menu can also be solved by creating one menu option called “Export” that opens a dialog in which to chose the type of export to use.
  • Think in pairs when it comes to functionality: If you allow someone to “Create” something then they usually expect to be able to “Delete” that something too.
  • During development: Look at the page / element with a typical display size the users would use. Don’t give developers a high resolution wide screen display if you’re not prepared to give something similar to all your users…. 

So what prompted me to write this? Well because I had one of those moments this week where I could have literally growled at a web development team. The simple task I tried to complete was to unsubscribe myself from several groups I was no longer interested in on LinkedIn. Really? Yes Really. I didn’t see the necessity to be a part of them anymore and so they had to go.

I would categorize this as one of those Layer 4 options as in general LinkedIn seems to think people will never leave the groups they add themselves to. So I was expecting having to click a few times to get there. I was NOT expecting to become so frustrated at not being able to locate a ‘leave group’ option I would have to resort to Google. Browsing search results to find out If, and if so How to do this. The fact that I hit a full page of results with people asking the same question just shows how badly this option was build in.

UX Labs

I spent a good hour yesterday in the User Experience lab. Talking to UX specialists about Social Software and how I think it could improve. Now why is that important? Well it’s not and it is… My opinion on it’s own isn’t important at all but by being one of those thousands that is actually sharing it I might be able to make a tiny difference in how the products I work with, and my customers work with are build. And isn’t that what ‘being social’ is all about? Making a difference together…?
Now apart from it being good it’s also a lot of fun. People who know me know that I can be a very opinionated person who will not shy away from speaking her mind. And if there’s one thing that is really…. correction: REALLY close to my heart it is usability and UI logic. So being able to sit there and just tell about all the pet peeves, ideas and possible improvements I’ve got swimming around in my head with someone who is not just politely nodding but actually taking notes is just fantastic. Ofcourse there is no guarantee that any of it will be used but at least you get a chance to talk to the people who do have the ability to make a difference.
So if you haven’t done so yet get your butt down there and start talking! They will ask you questions if you don’t have any direct ideas and you’ll be surprised how much you actually have to add!

Structure for an unstructured mind

I just created a new tab on my Lotus Notes Workspace. ‘Workspace?‘ you ask. Yes, workspace. Ok, I know, it has been more or less buried by Lotus since Lotus Notes V5 came out. But every time I install the Lotus Notes Client the first thing I do is to reinstate the Workspace back to being the Homepage. I just find it so much easier to work with.

It’s a visual thing. I hate having to scroll through extensive lists and if you’d see my current workspace you would know I have a lot of databases listed.

On my workspace I can easily find certain databases blindfolded (CRM database: 1st tab, 1st line, 1st tile from the gap). But if you asked me what the application name was though….
This is because I use visual indicators for finding an application. Things like location on my tabs, icon image and relative position towards other applications. I rarely look at the name.

Having a workspace allows me to structure things visually and in a way that is logical to me, like placing templates below the databases and grouping things the way I want them to, not just into alphabetically sorted lists by name.

Why don’t I like the alphabetical lists?

Well… people who know me will recognize this but I’m simply horrible at remembering names! Be it people, brands, databases, etc. I will make a mess of it. I’ll easily call a Volvo a Volkswagen, mix acronyms up and still sometimes search for the names of my own cousins. So to put an alphabetical list of 100+ database names in front of me is like saying :”Good luck!“. Give me a workspace and tabs though and I have no problems what so ever.

I think this is also why I’m so fond of my iPad. Things are more visually-orientated then list-orientated and that makes it easier to work with for me. I think Lotus could learn a thing or two from Apple there. The visual way of working that Apple has developed would really benefit a lot of people like me that just don’t work in structured lists. Take for instance the “Application-Open”  control. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to find databases if it was portrayed in an AppStore like fashion? With a search box and tiled overview, suggestions lists and maybe even preference recognitions? Ok, yes, I know the list-lovers now cringe but I’m sure a lot of ordinary users would absolutely love to have a more intuitive way of locating apps.

How often have you had users you literally had to walk through opening an application on the server?

“Ok, press CTRL and ‘O’ keys simultaneously. You should see a window called ‘Open Application’. Now enter ‘x’ in the server name field. Do you see a list of names below it? No? Ok, press the [Open] button. Do you see the list now? Yes? Ok. Scroll down until you see the yellow folders and locate the ‘x’ folder. Double click it. Yes. You see another list now. Find the “xx” name and double click it”…..

So until Lotus decides to permanently take out the workspace (or comes up with a better replacement) I’m really happy with my Workspace and the 14 tabs and 100+ tiles I have on it. Let me work in my own quirky way of visual structuring. I’m sure I’m not alone!

User friendly

Sometimes images just speak for themselves……

If your site shows input examples to show users what is expected of them, than make sure your example entries match the fields validation rules! Putting in an example with an underscore (“j_smith”) while an underscore is not allowed is really stupid and very annoying!