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I'm working on an internal webapp that requires users to Enter Meeting Notes. Currently, the users write their notes in a Word template, then copy/paste into one large text field in the app. The notes include various sections, such as Summary, Actions Needed, Conclusions, etc. Problem is, there was no way to "parse" the various bits of notes and reuse them, if needed (say, if we wanted to display only the Actions in another section of the app, it wasn't entered as a standalone piece, so technically it doesn't exist).

When the previous redesign happened (before me), they forced users to use a pre-canned set of entry boxes in the interface (so a section for Summary, one for Conclusions, dropdowns for Actions that could be assigned, etc...). In theory, this would be better since we could collect the information into sections, right?

But when implemented, users didn't use it at all, and instead went back to the old way of cutting/pasting because it was simply easier. It required less of them in terms of breaking things up, changing their mental model, etc...

So my questions/solutions to all this have been:

1) Do we keep what they had before (enter stuff in Word, then copy/paste), which results in duplicate effort, and the inability to parse everything into sections?

2) If we do this, is there a way to parse through all this, know which items are actions, let's say, and present them with a "We think this is an action - who would you like to assign it to?"

3) Should we force them to enter notes directly into the system, using our pre-defined sections, whether they like it or not? Is there a more elegant way to present this? I like the live preview concept and auto-save drafts... not sure if this would be enough for these users to "buy into it"?

4) Any other options?

I'm just torn between "forcing" them into a workflow that's different for them (users hate change!), but also trying to avoid all this duplication of effort that's happening. It just all seems very convoluted to me...

EDIT (to clarify some of the questions below):

5) These particular users hated any instance of accordions - they actually prefer to just see everything all at once, without that extra click, which I can sympathize with.

6) The web app does provide them with rich-media/word-like functionality.

7) The issue isn't so much that the information was forced into sections, so much as it was forced into require more of them for that section. For instance, previously they would enter Actions in bullet form in the Word doc. Done. But in the new format, they would have to enter them in line-by-line (as separate fields), assign someone to the task using a dropdown, assign a due date, ect...

I understand that part of the issue comes down to "This is just how it needs to be done from now on, and you just have to accept it". I'm just seeing if there are better ways to force the new process, yet still make it enjoyable enough for them.

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Lynn, you wrote (users hate change!) but they don't. Actually the love it. What happens is that they resist change when they can't clearly see the benefit, either because there is no benefit, or because they don't understand it (in which case it's a communication problem). Thus, in both cases it's not the user's fault. I've found, for myself, that this line of thinking has helped me a lot in becoming a better user-centered developer, and I strongly recommend it. –  Juan Lanus Oct 25 '12 at 14:40
    
That's an excellent point, and you're absolutely right Juan! –  Lynn Cyr Oct 25 '12 at 15:17
    
Alright - you guys really provided some amazing insights, so thank you all! I think @Girish's answer had the most value to me, and I'm going to propose a few options to them and see how far we can take this. Thanks again! –  Lynn Cyr Oct 25 '12 at 15:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

First question to ask is "Why did the users prefer to go back to the old style when the new process just made it easier to categorize the information?". I think there might be more to it than just the fact they "don't like change".

For example, in the new process, did the text area provide them the same rich text editor options that Word offers? In other words, were the users not able to highlight text, add bullets, format content, etc. in the new system?

Also, another thing to keep in mind is to see if every meeting notes has the same categorization (summary, conclusions, actions needed, etc.) Was the new app making them a required field? Or did just the mere existence of those fields on the page distract the users making them question if they're missing something?

What if you design the app's worflow to be non-obtrusive, in that, the users can enter what they want to enter without leading them to do so? For example, think of an hide/expand section in a form. By default, you could just display the summary field textarea at first. And then right below that field, you could have the other sections with their headers collapsed and +/- an icon next to it, that would indicate that they can click on that icon to add content if necessary.

Check the accordion examples here (scroll all the way to the bottom to see the colored headers) - http://jquerymobile.com/demos/1.2.0/docs/content/content-collapsible-set.html

This way the form is still there and split in sections for easy parsing on the backend, but the users aren't feeling forced to use any section that they don't feel like filling out.

And again, adding rich text editors might be beneficial especially since you're talking about "Action items", which sounds like there might be several and so listing them in a numbered or bulleted format will make it easier to read and follow up on.

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Great follow up questions, @Girish. I'll provide some additional context... –  Lynn Cyr Oct 24 '12 at 20:10
    
Based on the new information you've provided, it looks like the users are hesitating because of the new things they're expected to do with adding notes. –  Girish Oct 24 '12 at 21:14
    
They don't necessarily have to do more things with them, but they now have to force their notes into very specific sets of information (rather than free-form text). It's definitely a tough problem to solve, if it's even solvable... –  Lynn Cyr Oct 24 '12 at 21:17
3  
Sorry, hitting enter submitted the comment. I wasn't done yet. Here's the rest of my previous comment: In the old way, they just added text. They didn't have to assign the tasks to anyone. Their task was complete as soon as they copy-pasted the notes. But now the system response is "nuh uh..not so fast. you gotta assign somebody to work on this". Maybe you should let them finish just entering the notes and revisit later to assign the tasks to someone. Instructional text here could be helpful, i.e. "it's okay. you can do this later." –  Girish Oct 24 '12 at 21:20
    
Good idea, @Girish... I'm thinking there's a happy medium somewhere, and this would certainly help. I also need to find out which elements are absolutely required vs "can do later". Good call! –  Lynn Cyr Oct 24 '12 at 21:28

Considering all you have posted so far, I'd say

  1. Yes and no.
    The user is the most important part there, no the information itself, if they are not happy, they will be sloppy and will make more mistakes. Keep the simple copy paste, but start a process of identification and parsing of the information, think what is the best way to detect those blocks of information, write proposals and test it with real users, then, slowly change the system.

  2. Yes.
    Of course I can't say a specific right now without complete knowledge of the situation, but you can parse the content in the server, with powerful tools and an algorithm as complex as it's needed, then act according, you can save the information, or resend the page to the user for clarification. For that, you should have clear questions or instructions to direct their actions.

  3. No.
    Don't force the user if it's not really necessary. The more you force, the more they are going to dislike the system and more errors may happen. Plus nobody likes to hate something, so avoid it.

  4. Yes, what I mentioned before may work.

The thing is, you can parse the text they paste, and start to understand it, if it's to complex, ask for small changes, like headlines, or titles, or bullets, something that makes sense to them, if you get them to use a standardized format in word, that won't be much of a change for them and it will be easier for you to parse.

About assigning tasks to somebody, that may require the evolution of the system, once you can detect the parts that require the extra step, you can send the user a new page with that bit of information and ask to do that. If you can also leave the option to not be answered because the system can assign it, then do it, if it is necessary that the users assigns it, then make it mandatory, but use two steps, one is the input of information, the other is taking actions about the info.

I think you have to focus on analyse the information to make small changes in the word document, and in parallel, work in a way to parse it in the server.

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I'm assuming:

1) People prefer copying and pasting (and typing human language) because that's easier and faster than filling in individual fields and checkboxes.

2) Getting the info in fields and checkboxes is desirable because it's easier to machine process.

3) The info has to get into machine processable form, somehow.

I think if you put a lot of effort into optimizing the usability of the form(s), in particular allow as much input as possible without requiring mouse action, you'd have an easier case for requiring data being input in structured form. Communicate with your user base, explain what needs to be done, get their feedback, involve them in the design and testing.

And consider implementing an intelligent paste that takes copied text and pastes into a group of input fields - it might not get it right 100% but if it's right enough it will save time.

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There are so many good answers ... I'm late ... well, anyway, I'll try to sprout an idea.
It can be in the line of doing it gradually.

I was thinking of something like @Obelia's "intelligent paste".
MS Word has a powerful scripting language that allowed me to do very interesting things, enterprise kind of things, several times.
In this case I visualize your users entering their notes into a scripted MSWord template that allows them to work almost the same way they are used to (due to smart design).
When done they click something, like a [done] button. This action triggers a script that parses the document, classifies the content into the right sections, and re-shows it for human correction or approval.
Upon approval the script can automatically do the copy&paste actions, or something equivalent, to upload the data to the server.
This two step approach should get your users to learn how to set their notes in order not to have to do corrections.
It also might be accepted because it offers them a benefit, which would be having the computer do the cut&paste thing saving them a chance to commit errors.
Over time the template could gradually evolve into an online form, perhaps a scripted Google Doc, wholly controlled by the system.

A last comment about the accordions. I understand users that dislike accordions because they want to see everything at once and accordions swhow a single item.
But also an accordion can help see everything at once by hiding unused sections and thus saving the real estate they consume.
The solution is to configure the accordion so it won't close a section when a new one is opened.
This way the users will be able to see at once all the sections they are using.

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Excellent answer. –  Yisela Oct 30 '12 at 3:29

Seems like the disconnected capability of the Word Document is key. The Word doc could be more structured with a template (separate sections/boxes) or more like a form. Then the document could be uploaded and parsed.

Seems like the ability to enter notes away from your web page and not having to duplicate the effort are the biggest problems.

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An internal web application like this is typical of many large companies. Accepting a new system like this that affects how they have been working for years needs support from management to get it rolled out. This is not like developing say a commercial application, it is an enterprise application that people just need to bite the bullet and do it. The application needs to set so it is the only way of entering the minutes - assuming you have set up the fields correctly. This may sound awful from a UX point of view, but I think this is more than just a UX issue.

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Thanks, and you're absolutely right... although there's a huge UX component to the "buy in" of this, it also boils down to upper management, and how the business as a whole is willing to train, educate, and enforce how the staff uses it. It's my job to make it work better for the user, but in the end, there's only so much a new UI can do, and they're aware of that. –  Lynn Cyr Oct 25 '12 at 15:30

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