Got Notes?

What this is about

If you read this it is very likely that you are working in an environment where people (have to) use »Lotus Notes«. IBM has rebranded the software to IBM Notes (client) and IBM Domino (server), then sold it to HLC who baptized the products - not surprise - something like HLC Notes. Whatever the product line is called, it looks like this communication & collaboration platform continues to make many people unhappy.

I have my doubts regarding HCL's claim to make Notes a more likeable and better maintained product. If your choice of collaboration tools is limited to Notes, let me sing for you that great song from Stephen Stills, »Love the one you're with«.

What I mean is: Get to know your tool and be as efficient as possible with it!
That does not take long trainings, but a bit of curiosity and a minute now and then for trying out some features, a few of which I describe below. Even if those tips do not make you a big Notes fan, it can at least make you a more efficient user.

Why is your company using »Lotus Notes«?

You are wondering why these IT morons have not migrated the enterprise to the latest and greatest work environment. I can't answer that, but I can tell you that the answer might go way beyond laziness or reluctance to change.

IT expertes (architecture, security, administration) often value some impressive backend features of the platform, including its security model and the replication capabilities. Those things are hidden to you but can have positive impact on the Total Cost of Ownership. Notes is not about the so-called email client (only): Your company may have a lot of knowledge in Notes Databases or workflows etc. in Notes Applications. Migrating that might be considered too risky or too expensive at the moment.

No matter how weak your IT management's business case for keeping Notes is: If you can't change it, get to know the tool and use it efficiently. At the end of the day you will learn concepts that you can also use in the future on other platforms.

Why I don't like Notes

  1. During the long years that Notes is around, new Office software from various manufacturers became popular. They all come with similar, quite self-explaining user interfaces. This did obviously not impress the Notes designers. Neither their client nor the standard application templates look sexy, user friendly, or at least self-explaining.
  2. Although equiped with a web server quite early, Notes produces horrible web views. One could blame it on the people who build your individual database or application, but that is not fair: With the tools that Notes has on board, nobody can develop a great web GUI.

Why I don't complain

  1. Nagging is a waste of energy.
  2. I thought: If this is one of my daily working tools, I better learn how to use it. So I checked some documenation for features that I needed on a daily basis. The invested time got paid back hundreds of times during the time I used Notes (around 20 years in total). By the way: I did that with very few but important tools for my daily work.

How I get more out of Notes

Overview: Know the Features

You do not need to read the whole manual, but it is still stupid to ignore core features that would make you efficient. Your get paid to work efficiently, thus use the tools appropriately!

Notes was the heart of my workplace. Entries in my calendar and to-do items were linked to related emails and to Notes documents in databases. All documents ended up in Domino applications (a.k.a. Notes databases), where I could easily group multiple attachments in one Notes document, and where I could then add text around them, explaining what they are about etc. I also add tags or categories to these documents to group them or to find them back. Believe it or not: The search in these databases works great and is easy to use (other than the mail search).

Given the time that you spend with emails, calendar, to-do, and hopefully also with other Domino applications) it is worth learning how to use at least some of the more advanced features. In the following you find some appetizers.

Small things first: Editing documents & mails

Some useful shortcuts to start with:

F2 Increase the font size
Shift+F2 Decrease font size
F8 Shift a paragraph to the right
Shift+F8 Shift a paragraph back left
Ctrl+K Open the text property dialogue box
Ctrl+Shift+L Displays all shortcuts and what they do

With a right mouse-click you can see and select many text formatting options directly (e.g. bullet lists). Shortcuts known from other office software work as well, like Ctrl+B to toggle bold font, Ctrl+I to toggle italic font, Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+V to paste text. Also very interesting for formatting and structuring Notes documents or emails are, from the »Create« menu, the »Horizontal Ruler« and »Section« feature: Just select one or more paragraphs and click »Create« > »Section« and you see. Right-click the section header and change the »Section Properties« at your convenience. You can create long documents or internal emails with a good, collapsed structure. Just don't use such features for emails to the external world.

By the way: My recommendation for external email is still to use plain text and thus be free of surprise. If the layout or graphic design is really important it could make sense to wrap your information into a PDF file or so, but most often plain text will cause the least pain.

Managing Personal Documents

I had asked an administrator to create me a Document Library and to call it »Hermann's Documents«. Document Library is one type of Notes Application (aka »Notes DBs«). I asked the admin to give nobody any access except me. That way, I could structure and maintain personal information in Notes documents. Records in a Document Library look like emails that have, instead of the recipient list, some other fields for meta information. One mouse-click to create a new document and then I could write text, paste images, and attach files. Compared to other collaboration systems, attaching (many!) files into a document works flawless. Side remark: Your whole database is managed as one single file in Notes and I have never seen any of them break.

When I wrote a document I assigned it to one or more categories. The categories I had defined were for example »Meeting Notes«, »Performance Reviews«, »Budget«, »Project Preparation«, »My Objectives«, »Recruitment«, »Personal Records«. The standard views of Document Libraries allow to look the files by date or by category. By the way: Many people don't know that you can collapse all categorized views by pressing Ctrl+- and expand them with Ctrl++.

When you attach files to documents, you may need to edit them. This worked for me very well without detaching and reattaching: You just open the Notes document, right-click the attachment and chose »Edit«. That opens the respective application (e.g. Excel or Powerpoint) and you can edit the document. At the end of the editing you just save the document in the application (Ctrl+S) and close it. Then, back in the Notes client, you save the Notes document and can be sure the attachment is updated.

When building large documents with LaTeX, I archived all text sources, embedded images, any other sources (drafts, sketches, building scripts), and the PDF result in one single Notes document.

You can search in all documents of a Database / Application, and that search will even search in all attachments within the documents. However: In the poorly designed Notes user interface you have to find first of all how to start a search: In the top menu bar click »View« and then »Search this view«; then enter your search keywords. Well hidden, but working well. (Note that the indexing is not in realtime, so you may not find the latest documents. Ask your administrator about the indexing frequency.)

I took profit from the security features: Nobody could ever gain to these documents, except the administrators. If they accessed my files, I could easily track that because Notes allows the user to trace back who has viewed and/or edited documents.

Sharing Documents and Tasks

In my team we were sharing a Team Room Notes Application. The Team Room is a bit like a Document Library, but has additional features. You can create action items, schedule tasks or trigger document review cycles. All people in my team had Editor rights, and finally we granted similar access to many other teams. That way we could easily share documents with them and ask their input. People with the Editor role for a Notes Application can modify their own documents, but also those of others. If there was less trust we could have limited permissions to Author (i.e. read all but modify only yours). But anyway: You can always trace who has modified my documents, and: Why would somebody come into your living room without being invited?

When I had created a document and wanted to show it to a colleague, I could just sent her or him a link to the document. (Top menu: »Edit« «Copy As« »Document Link« and then paste it into an email.) That way the people could always find the latest version of the document. When it comes to attachments we sometimes kept a whole history of old version in one document with the recent version on top. Although: I am of the opinion people don't share enough and people collect too much old crap.

Discussing and Collecting

For some large projects or topics we asked an adminstrator to create a Discussion application. We created new threads, we placed responses to existing threads, or wrote responses to responses - just like you know it from Internet forums. Often I used the so-called Newsletter functionality. It allows to subscribe to keywords or author names, so that I receive a summary with document links every day when new posts contain certain keywords or stem from certain authors I can specify.

Writing Emails

In internal emails or (IBM Sametime) instant messages / chats I usually avoided to send attachments, but instead sent links to our Team Room or respective other Notes application.

If you received an email with an attachment for review, you can do as follows:

  1. Click on »Reply with attachments« (e.g. Microsoft Word).
  2. Write something like "Find my modifications in the attachment".
  3. Right-click the attachment, select »Edit« and modify the document in Word.
  4. Save the document in Word.
  5. Go back to the email and send it.

For email exchange with external parties the »Reply with Internet style history« feature can come handy.

So What?

My recommendation is: Talk to your Domino administrators if you have a need to save information, to store documents, or to collaborate. Ask them which standard templates (i.e. types of applications) they can provide and how to use them. You should successively learn how to efficiently use the Notes client. Play with Notes and try to detect one new feature per week!

Collaboration To Come

It is inevitable that your company will move into new directions for collaboration and communication. Whether that will be based on one of the major players (e.g. Microsoft made great moves around 2020) or cloud niche players: Embrace the change if it makes you more productive. Let's see to what extent the hype around the Social Collaboration and Cloud will add completely new aspects to our Messaging & Collaboration platforms. Stay curious!

© Hermann Faß, 2022