Monday, July 27, 2015

WebCenter Is Getting A Facelift

In my last post I've shown you that sky is the limit when it comes to developing Content Server UIs - when you apply the App Refacing principles, no budget is too small and no reasonable timeline is no longer too tight. So that's all sounds good but, people are saying, only a few folks can 'drive it home' just like that and start impressing business users with these cool and functional UIs. Most others need an example.

So here's an example you want to study. Learn from it. See how it makes user lives easier by doing tasks better, in a different way.

Now let me tell you, we will be looking at a commercial product, and yes, some of you would seriously consider buying it, simply because the damn thing is sooo good. So if that happens, I won't be receiving a check in the mail. I'm not even counting on a thank you note, as this is not my goal. The goal here is to give you a good example. Buy it or learn from it - it will help you drive home a few important paradigms and hopefully get these light bulbs flushing in your head as you read this interview.

Welcome James Kelleher, founder of Generis, creator of Cara, replacement UI for a number of Content Management systems. The product has been successful for over a decade, replacing the UI of Documentum, Alfresco and SharePoint and, their latest addition, Oracle WebCenter Content.

The interview

D: Welcome, James! So what was the original reason why Cara was created?

J: Because several customers were saying that Content Management platforms are usually very strong at the back end, but they never invest enough time and money doing a nice UI.

The second reason is that clients always wanted to set up quickly, but if they wanted to see different metadata fields or they wanted a business rule implemented - there was always some programming required to do that.

D: Oracle is not the only company who hears complaints about their user experience? Documentum has also released their D2 product to provide an upgrade in user experience...

J: Yes. That was the aim. And it's certainly an improvement. There're still some advantages in Cara and we have a lot of customers in the Documentum space who evaluated both products and selected CARA. There's number of reasons for that like performance, greater configuration capability and so on. 

Alfresco UI is not bad, but it's more in the direction of social Content Management.

Our UI is optimized for people who do a lot of Content Management... They work with 20...30.. 40 documents at a time if they're putting together a report.... They need to multi-task... They are looking for rich functionality... So that's we've focused on.

D: Could you tell us more about Cara Dimensions feature? It seems familiar but I don't remember seeing it in any other CMS so far.
J: Right. The idea here was to come up with something, that could allow people to find documents without having to run searches. With folders too you can only find a document if you know exactly which folder it's in. 

Now if you wanted to see documents from a few folders together - what you had to do in the past is to run some kind of a search where you'd say that you want this type of document with this type of metadata... and it's a lot of clicks to manipulate the results. 

So we said that the power of any Content Management System is in the metadata. So we could use metadata to build the tree. And you could just pick from a list of metadata and build a tree.

So you could see your MS Word documents according to their authors and so on.

This is basically a search but it is given to the user as a tree, because users are very familiar with trees and this is an easy way to work on a system.

D: So users can build their own custom tree view of the content.

J: Exactly. And it's personal to every user and settings are stored in the repository, so if I log in with my iPad, the system knows that this is James and it recalls my settings and my custom tree views.

D: What were the biggest technical challenges you had to overcome when building the product?

J: One of the key things for us was to have all our configurations managed inside the repository. So that when you install Cara and you want to open a metadata screen - the way it is stored, all of its pick lists, behavior - that all stored in the repository. So we had to find an efficient way of storing the XML and also recalling it and caching it at run time to make sure performance is good. 

The other aspect was to make sure that we've adapted all our functionality to native things in WebCenter. For example, there's this concept of a folio, which is equivalent to Virtual Document in Documentum. And we developed something on top of that, which we call a Cara Structure. When you create a Cara Structure, you essentially creating a folio in Oracle. 

The WebCenter folio is an XML file and we had to make sure it was really multi-user, so if two people are modifying it at the same time - they can both modify it without blocking it. This was another challenge for us but we found a way to do that. So I think these were the two biggest questions.

D: And I believe, this multi-tasking ability is not present in the WebCenter itself, so you've actually provided an improvement over standard functionality...

It seems that Cara users will never see WebCenter's own interface and all tasks they need to accomplish are done through Cara.

J: Exactly.

D: Now that you have a mature in-demand product on your hands - what are the top 3 reasons people buy it today?

J: The biggest reasons are that it's very fast and it's user friendly. It's not like a traditional web app. It's got full drag and drop and contextual right click different things, so it feels as fast and as usable as desktop application, but running on the web. So performance and ease of use is the first reason.

The second is quite honestly is the control panel with all configurations. So the cost and time to setup different check in and property screens in WebCenter Content (and in Documentum - it's the same) it's usually a lot more than doing it through Cara, so customer saves a lot of time. The second reason is really the speed and ease of making changes to the setup through configuration. It reduces the cost and the time to manage your system.

D: So basically, you're replacing the Profiles and the Rules engine in Content Server as well with Cara - it has its own engine for customizations? And most of the custom component work required to modify the Content Server UI now does not have to be done.

J: Right.


So there you have it. Gaps in user experience is an industry-wide issue. And there're many ways of addressing it... I'll see you over at the comments. Love to hear your thoughts.

Stay frosty

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The End of Oracle Content Server


It's almost every day lately that I'm hearing from reputable sources and clients alike that Content Server looks dated, it's hard to use, the users are complaining, it's UI sucks and on and on. And they provide examples. UI hasn’t changed much in years, simple things take many clicks and page loads to complete, it doesn't look good on iPhone...

So is it the time we start looking for another ECM tool? Is the Content Server approaching it's end of life?

Well, SQL Server UI hasn’t changed much in years also and it's not going away any time soon. The same is true for the majority of databases, ERP, CRM and ECM tools out there. And they're not going away any time soon either.

Yes, Content Server gives you the tools to put together a quick custom check-in or search form, and many times, these forms work reasonably well, but don't expect it to produce a fancy responsive user experience with business logic, that looks great on all devices. It's an admin tool, not a UI framework!

And the good thing about all this is - simplicity. Content Server is awesome for tracking revisions, conversions, access control and retention management. And if you need to alter user experience, you have a number of other options. Here're a few of the popular ones:
  • New Content Server WebUI application
  • SOAP and JSON web services and RIDC API
  • The tried and true iDoc Script

Let's look at each in more detail:

Content Server WebUI

New Content Server WebUI is a standalone ADF application that uses Content Server as it's 'database' and provides its own cool new interface. And it's also teaches you a lesson.

You may or may not end up using the WebUI, but do notice the new approach it takes. It lets the Content Server do what it's doing best, without creating un-needed complexity. We at ECM Solutions have been calling this App Refacing and so far it produces results just short of a miracle. (This free whitepaper lays out all the steps)

Do let me know what you think about App Refacing approach in the comments section,

And let me promise you one thing - if you do it right and you don't hear your business users screaming with joy a week into implementation - I owe you a case of beer.


Here's my older post that tells you how to integrate Oracle Content Server with almost anything ... in 30 min or less. This keeps things clean and simple and lets you use the tools and the UI frameworks you choose to produce the results you want.
iDoc Script

Some developers are starting to look down at iDoc script and there is no good reason to do so. If you need to put together a custom search or check-in screen without spending a lot of time - I can't think of a faster way of doing it.

Here's the simple basic check-in screen that took less than ten minutes to put together and test.

And here's the code. Just copy the lines below and save it as Sample Check-In.hcst, then click on the Web Location link on its Content Info page for the form to come up:

    <$include std_checkin_html_head_declarations$>

<h1>Sample Check-in Form</h1>

<form method="post" enctype="multipart/form-data" action="<$HttpCgiPath$>">
    <input type=hidden name="IdcService" value="CHECKIN_NEW">
    <input type=hidden name="dDocAuthor" value="<$UserName$>">
    <input type=hidden name="dRevLabel" value="1">

    Type: <select name="dDocType">
        <$loop DocTypes$>
            <option value="<$dDocType$>"><$dDescription$>
    </select><br />

    Title: <input type="text" name="dDocTitle"><br />
    Security Group:
        <$c=rsMakeFromList("SecurityGroupSet", "securityGroups")$>
        <select name="dSecurityGroup">
        <$loop SecurityGroupSet$>
    </select><br />

    File: <input type="file" name="primaryFile"><br />

    <input type=submit>
    <input type=reset >


iDoc gives you all the controls you need on the form with just a few lines of server side script. You're now free to use Bootstrap, Angular, Node.js or whatever the UI framework or library you prefer to use, and Bex's book is still a good resource to pick up iDoc.

So is the Content Server Dead?


Is it going away any time soon?

I don't think so.

Will your organization be using it in new different ways?

You bet. It's only the question of time.

The biggest challenges in poor Content Server user experience are not technical. The tools and technologies you need to create just the experience your users been longing for are there and they have been around for years. The challenge is for you, the designer, is to un-learn the old 'traditional' ways of doing things and start imagining the new possibilities of how your users' problems can be solved with today's mobile technologies and improved user experience.

It's going to be fun.

Now what would YOU do to give your users the tools and experience they expect from Oracle WebCenter? Lay it out in the comments, below…

All the best