e-mail as a usable interface

Usability in software interfaces is quite a hot topic these days. Myself I am no expert whatsoever in this matter, but I tend to see a certain evolution.

A couple of years ago, I thought a lot about how the Ultimate System Administration Documentation System would be. A package who could manage all information a sysadmin has to carry about the different systems on the different networks of his different customers. Information about hosts, network layouts, LAN and WAN setups, application configurations, hardware inventories, maintenance contracts, contact info, dial-in info, and maybe secure password documentation, but that last one will generally remain an issue apart. Further on it should be able to carry maintenance updates and reports to log everything the sysadmin does and… Well, to say the least it was big and mean and I fun to dream about.
When you think about how to design de data model to hold all that information, you can go very, very far. You could design a very rigid application, design data fields for all that stuff, think of how to relate it and whatnot. You’ll never make an app that suits everybody or even many people.

But then, is it really necessary to strictly model all data? yes, if you want to query a list of all pc’s with a Pentium IV processor and with 512GB RAM. That would be nice, but how usefull would that really be? How many times do you really need that? There are enough inventory tools available to manage that kind of information. If you are enterprise grade, you’ll need big programùs full of a lot of enterprisiness. But I manage small businessess. I need simple and practical tools.

If there is one thing Google taught us, then it is that data does not need to be well arranged to be found. If there is one thing the internet taught us recently, it could be that applications with simple, accessible interfaces tend to be more popular. Think Wikipedia, whose engine Wikimedia gets used a lot as documentation applications.

What if I used a simple Wiki to manage all that network information? I get a very simple interface, which I can use and abuse to hold a lot. no rigid structure, crosslink information, manage a page to hold the info of one server and get version control as a bonus. I could write some plugin to export all data changed on a certain period of time (e.g. when I was on the customer’s premises) to a pdf and mail it as a day report to my customer. Maybe a plugin to interact with OpenOffice.org to write some stuff offline. Maybe I’ll use those tools my way and a colleague another way. Fine. As long as it gets the job done.

Isn’t this also what email is about? How many of us are using their mail client for a bunch off stuff besides e-mail? It’s a todolist, a project management tool, a data archive, … E-mail is a simple and practical medium. You can answer messages at the moment you want and how you want. A lot of classic applications require a lot of user focus to satisfy strict interfaces whereas e-mail (and wiki’s and blogs and …) allows people to communicate in their own way, not the way of the application.