IBM/Lotus Notes vs. Outlook — How replying with attachment devides the community

Thomas Shepherd
Apr 11, 2019 · 5 min read

I would like to illustrate with the help of a small example what hight-level challenges you’ll face when switching from Notes to Outlook from a user and change management perspective and how you can tackle some problems with the latest Microsoft technology.

How it all began — The status quo

In the transformation of a medium-sized construction company from an unconnected analog world to a shiny digital and flexible infrastructure, I was entrusted with the honorable task of replacing the old Lotus/IBM Domino/Notes environment with a highly polished Office 365 hybrid cloud environment from Microsoft. In my youthful and Microsoft-influenced carelessness, I took on this task with excitement. As an engineer with a passion for user centricity and a conviction that Office 365 can easily solve almost any problem of daily work (in an emergency with custom development), I began at the point that was most important to me: the end user.
I sat down very pragmatically next to one of the digital enthusiasts and quickly realized that exciting the users is an absolutely low hanging fruit. Old, dusty, sometimes extremely untidy user interface paired with a strong isolation from external systems. I came, I saw and I miscalculated. Why?

Dusty and isolated vs. shiny and connected — The Lifetime Achievement of an IT Administrator

At a high level, Office 365 with its unbelievable number of services makes the old Notes/Domino environment seem to be a breeze. If you take a closer look, you will also come to the conclusion that the extensively programmed workflows for a modern drag-and-drop workflow engine are an absolute crack. Of course, it takes a certain amount of manual effort (BTW, the admin worked the last 12 years on these workflows and in my opinion he made an absolutely fantastic work!) to create a few approval workflows that have already been precisely specified in the Lotus environment, but now you don’t need a mental masterpiece.

But where did I miscalculated? In the UX!

How old and dusty is one step ahead when it comes to usability

Let’s take a simple example: Who has ever looked at all the features available in the Outlook Ribbon Bar and used each feature at least for testing? I guess not many of you. What does an administrator do in the old world when a function is not needed? Sure, hide or delete it! What is today’s answer? It’s a training topic! ;-) I don’t want to say that training per se is bad but that the solution at that time was very close to the focus and streamlining approach that is always preached today! But how can we tackle this streamlining topic with Microsoft 365 as a basis?

The worst solution is the most practiced solution: we do nothing, don’t care about the old-time experiences and there is no training. I don’t want to argue about the sense and nonsense of training, key user and adoption concepts at this point (I’m even in favour of these when it comes to method competence oriented trainings and not stupid “If you click here, this and that happens”-coffee-break-trainings).

At this point, I would like to take a closer look at Microsoft’s small answer to the well-known applications from the Notes client. This answer is called Office Addins.

Place your own logic in Outlook and integrate Outlook with web applications such as SharePoint.

Simple example: In Notes it is no problem to reply to a received e-mail with attachments and to return the attachments in this reply.
Why does this make sense? You will receive an Excel sheet by e-mail (yes, there are still attachments which are not stored in the cloud) and shall make a small correction. In Outlook you have to save this sheet, open it, change it, save it, attach it again and then delete it. In Notes you click on Reply with attachment, change the sheet directly and send the mail back. So you always spend ideally about 1–2 minutes if Outlook is not hanging and you can quickly find the document you have saved somewhere.

How can we solve this problem with Office Addins?
Office Addins are in principle nothing more than small or larger web applications that can communicate via common interface technologies such as REST and thus offer the possibility to integrate their own logic into the Outlook client. So it is possible with a small effort to write an Add-In, which simply adds the described “reply with attachment” function to Outlook.

Getting started with Office Add-ins

To see this in practice, I have not only published the above mentioned Add-In in my own organization, but also packed it directly into the Microsoft AppSource Add-In/App Store. So you can easily test the look and feel of a very simple office add-in and transfer this procedure to your own business logic (in the Outlook client there is the possibility to search and install the function “Reply with attachment” via “Get Add-ins”).

By the way, the Reply with attachment feature is one of the most desired features of the entire office environment. In addition, this feature has not only polarized our project stakeholders but causes complaining ex-Notes users and opponents of Outlook everywhere on the Internet (take a look in the Microsoft Uservoice Forum of the feature “Reply with attachment” nearly every second post is from an ex-Notes user)

The advantage: The add-ins can be distributed and published within the organization and thus seamlessly integrated into the own on premises infrastructure.

The disadvantage: No offline possibilities like with Notes!

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Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

What have I taken with me?

All that glitters is not gold and the sustainable replacement of a Notes environment is less a technical than an organizational challenge that can only be mastered with a good change management (because unfortunately the Office Addins don’t offer the same possibilities as we know them from Domino ;-) ). Furthermore, try to become a good friend of the Notes guys and please, don’t blame these guys because there is no Microsoft logo on their achievements (yea, time has changed and Microsoft consultants/developers are now proud on their company too :-) ).

Please do not take the prejudices mentioned in the text too seriously. These have only been placed to make such a boring topic more exciting.

PS: The Notes colleague became over time not only one of my strongest supporters in the project but also a really good friend. That’s why I dedicate this text to him.

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