During a TSG presentation at AIIM Executive committee last month, one question raised from the audience was “how would you define a modern interface for ECM”. This post will address some of the concepts and practices TSG implements in building our modern interfaces to differentiate from the legacy interfaces of the past.
Why the need for a modern interface for ECM and Content Services? Thoughts on network drives and “do all” interfaces.
For ECM and Content Services to satisfy and evolve to the needs of a modern user, old school legacy ECM interface paradigms must be understood. Most of the interface decisions for Legacy ECM and Content Services can be traced to the early days of ECM when the goal was to replace network drives (along with File Manager) as well as the focus on a “do all” interface. In replacing network drives, keeping a navigation focus that looked similar to File Manager but with document management functions was an easy to understand interface for gathering end user support for what was a new capability with document management. During a product competition or RFP, winners or losers were often determined based on features and functions along with how quickly users could understand the interface. Too often users and IT would evaluate interfaces based on all the different features of what the interface could do rather than how users would use the interface. Vendors were able to win or lose competitive bids based on how many check boxes they were able to satisfy rather than on what features and functions users would actually use. With only input from sales efforts that won or lost, ECM interfaces evolved to include every ECM capability in a somewhat bloated File Manager “ish” interface.
Modern ECM and Content Services users want to leverage the interface to quickly and accurately do their jobs. Simplicity and ease of use with minimal training is more important than having every feature and capability exposed or the File Manager paradigm still supported. Next, we will highlight many of the approaches we see our clients requesting with some examples of both modern and legacy ECM interfaces.
Modern ECM Interface – Show only what is relevant
One of the difficulties in a “do all” legacy interface is the requirement to “show all”. A driving principle of modern interfaces is to show only what is relevant given the user scenario. For TSG, in the early days of Documentum Webtop, most of our development work was turning off features to avoid user errors. Some examples in purpose driven ECM interfaces include:
- Search – Rather than a generic search across all documents, the search feature should focus on personalized search and retrieval parameters and content for the individual user optimized for their specific scenario. A user in HR should only see a search configured for HR documents and attributes rather than have to build a search across all documents.
- Group Capabilities – Consistent with Search, each Group or Department can have their own attributes and functionality depending on individual records. Rather than an HR cabinet, HR has their own employee folder and document types that are easily searchable and not confused with AP, Manufacturing or other document types.
- Related Information – The interface should show related content and folders quickly and easily when necessary. Example includes attachments to emails or related documents (AP Invoice to Purchase Order). The interface needs to avoid having the user to leave the context to initiate a new search.
- Document Actions – Show related actions when viewing a document. Rather than viewing being separate from properties, modern interfaces allow users to view properties and documents side by side at the same time. Users should only be able to delete a document when they are viewing it and have the correct permissions to delete. Actions that the user cannot perform should not be viewable or accessible.
- No Hidden Actions – In showing actions when relevant, the interface should also make sure to avoid users having to hunt for actions. Many legacy applications focused on the idea of the pulldown menus with submenus for different capabilities that are on or sometimes greyed out. Having users having to know that a Document action is under the File versus Insert menu items is confusing. Modern ECM interfaces take advantage of browser capabilities to better show off actions for a user in an obvious manner.
Modern ECM Interface – Search rather than Folder Navigation
We have touched on it in the blog often but the easiest way to distinguish between legacy ECM applications versus modern interfaces is a focus on search versus folder navigation. Many times, the interface for ECM users (Documentum – think Webtop, Alfresco – think Share) was developed with a specific file management or collaboration scenario in mind. While tying to a folder hierarchy is easy for potential clients looking to move to ECM from network drives and their PC hard drives, modern users have moved beyond network file stores. The metaphor of cabinets, folders and subfolders drives most of the legacy implementations with more of a search as an add-on rather than the primary navigation method.
For an easy to understand example – see our search comparison of Documentum Webtop versus the OpenContent Management Suite (OCMS). The search in Webtop is built as an add-on rather than the primary navigation. Modern users don’t want to have to click through (or create) folders as they have experienced the inconsistency of network drive folders. Modern interfaces like OCMS drive to a simple search to navigate to a document or folder to take advantage of a simplified, more direct approach to finding content.
Modern ECM Interface – Configuration versus Code
Legacy ECM interfaces have been a potpourri of development tools with a struggle to provide key supportable capabilities “out of the box” to win competitive bids but also provide the flexibility to modify the interface for user’s needs. Often times vendors would come up with development frameworks (Documentum Webtop – WDK) or configuration files (Alfresco Share – XML) to provide these capabilities.
Modern interfaces should be easily configurable to provide the bulk of flexibility without having to hire and maintain custom code. Administrators should be able to add document types, security and configure search, search results and properties screens without any development effort. Support should be easier as custom development efforts are avoided.
For Alfresco users – see Jeff Potts thoughts when comparing Alfresco interfaces along with the pros and cons of development frameworks at ECM Architect.
Modern ECM Interface – Technical Components
As interfaces have moved to the web, many legacy interfaces were developed for early browsers and slower bandwidth/network speeds. Components like helper applications and browser plugins were very common to fill in where browser interfaces lacked capabilities. Development environments like .Net and Java Server Pages were common when PCs and browsers lacked performance and capabilities and interface processing had to be shipped off to a server rather than take advantage of processing power on the PC.
Modern ECM Interface – Promotes and enforces consistency
Typical legacy ECM tools, while exposing document management capabilities, too often focused on introducing document capabilities to a user community that was focused on adding document management capabilities to a File Manager paradigm, modern interfaces focus on removing the “dump that in the system” File Manager approach to better promote and enforce consistency. In enforcing consistency, modern interfaces require users to populate necessary attributes and folder links based on their specific business scenario. Items that modern interfaces promote include:
- Consistent Attribute values and Folder Linking
- Consistent use of Document Types
- Consistent Security typically applied based on document type and attributes
- Consistent Records Management based on Folder, Attributes, Lifecycle and Security
Modern ECM Interface – Advanced Renditions and Publishing
Early Legacy ECM implementations had some basic renditioning (mostly PDF) that were alternative views. Modern ECM systems do more than annotate but combine other capabilities including:
- Generate PDF/MP4 renditions
- Dynamic Watermarking
- Remove pages – combine documents
- Annotate documents and videos within the browser
Modern ECM Interface – Browser Based Viewing and Annotation
Initial implementations of ECM back in the 1990s had limitations in regards to storage when storage of files was more expensive. These implementations relied on the system launching the native application (example Word) from a client server interface and later a browser interface. Launching of the native application was often slow and sometimes confusing.
Modern interfaces can take advantage of the reduced cost of storage to provide browser friendly renditions of documents for quick browser based viewing (typically PDF). Modern interfaces allow both the browser based viewing and annotation of documents without launching native document types.
Legacy ECM systems can be differentiated by their need to follow a basic file folder paradigm as they initially targeted replacing network and PC drives. Modern ECM interfaces remove the file folder paradigm to focus more on search and simplicity in users ability to work on documents within the repository. Modern ECM interfaces also add additional capabilities associated with modern browsers for viewing and manipulation of documents. If you are interested in seeing how TSG’s interfaces are different from Documentum’s Legacy interfaces, check out our series on making Documentum better.