When you’re designing software, you start by figuring out what you want to get out of the program—well, if you’re smart you do. Covey’s "Begin with the end in mind" is a good rule of thumb for most any kind of project. Groupware designed for business is designed to serve different purposes and goals than family groupware would be. There are obviously some commonalities. Families and businesses need to share some of the same kinds of information. Presumably, family members have common goals, just as the employees of a company would have common goals.
There are basic differences in the information needed by coworkers and family members, though. I’ve never needed to know what size pants a coworker wears, and I need that information for my family members on a fairly regular basis. I didn’t plan meals on a regular basis for any employer or do major grocery shopping for the office. I didn’t really need to see my coworkers’ schedules when doing meal planning, either. The fact that the guy in the next office is out of town next Tuesday doesn’t affect my shopping. The fact that Sam is going to be at a meeting next Tuesday night does affect dinner that night.
The differences that have occurred to me so far are:
- Contact Information
I keep different kinds of information for people in the family address book than I did for business contacts. I care about birthdates, anniversaries, kids’ names and ages, hobbies, gift preferences, etc. when I’m tracking information about family and friends. I don’t need to know a person’s job title as much as I need to remember that he’s allergic to nuts, so that when he’s coming to dinner I make sure the food is nut-free. Obviously, I want highly customizable fields in the contact management module of my family groupware. I want to remember that we gave a particular child a certain present for her birthday last year so we don’t give her the same thing next year. Also, I want to have separate records for people but be able to link them into family groups, similar to the way genealogy software is set up. (Actually, I’d prefer to be able to link more flexibly than genealogy software allows, to account for polyamorous households and people with nannies and so on.) Outlook will let you enter the name of a contact’s spouse, but there’s no way to enter their children’s names or automatically set reminders for everyone’s birthdays unless you do it manually. I want that.
- Medical Records
I need to keep up with the medical records of each family member as well as the veterinary records of our pets. I don’t want to crawl through the paper files to see which antibiotic it was that Geni’s last ENT prescribed that stank so much I wouldn’t have the stuff swallowed myself. I certainly don’t want to have any delay in finding Katie’s drug allergies. When I have to fill out a permission slip for a Girl Scout camping trip, I want all the information for it at my fingertips, not in three different programs. If I enter the fact that Rowan’s last tetanus booster was on a certain date, it would be very handy to have a reminder generated on the calendar for the next booster shot.
- Other Information
No, I’m afraid I don’t automatically remember Sam’s shirt size or Geni’s current shoe size. I have to write those things down or I can’t find them when it’s time to go shopping. Putting the fact that I absolutely detest orange in my own record can keep Sam from making a mistake when shopping for me. Remembering which Gameboy cartridges each kid has is definitely beyond my ken, but boy, can I keep notes!
- Education Records
Hey, I’m a homeschooler, so what I want isn’t just "school records" okay? Anyway, homeschoolers end up keeping varying kinds of records depending on their family style and the legal climate in which they live. Even people with kids in public school have to track some school records. Every once in a while I do need to know the name of somebody’s teacher two years ago, or remember what Geni made on the verbal section of the ITBS last year, and I’m not going to depend on my very full memory for that.
- Basic Legal Forms
Medical and child care authorizations and so on should be printable for each child in an instant. Yes, I do want to give those to any person who is babysitting for my kids, just in case. The time you don’t give the sitter one is, to my pessimistic mind, the time that one of the kids will decide to try climbing a taller tree and break an arm. I don’t want an injured child waiting in pain with no relief while Sam or I race to get to the hospital. Memories of my own experience when I was injured on a family vacation at about age 10 are still too vivid. 90 minutes is a LOOOOONNNGGGG time when you’re in severe pain from having the end of your finger cut off and legalities are preventing the doctor from giving you anything more than an ice pack.
- Household Tasks and Chores
Okay, I’m not a naturally organized person. I have to use the Sidetracked Home Executives cardfile method to keep up with household tasks or they get out of control. Being able to enter those into my groupware program would be so much better than dealing with an actual physical cardfile! We’ve tried using recurring appointments or tasks set up in Outlook or Time & Chaos to keep up with which family member does what when. For instance, the kids have "dog days" on a rotating basis so that nobody (like me) ends up always being the primary caretaker for the dog. They’ve said that they’d have a much easier time keeping up with their other tasks with reminders, as well. We have things like the day the trash is picked up on the printed family calendar, but the person who is doing the trash is really the only one who needs to see that on his or her task list. We strip the beds and wash the linens weekly, but not all on one day. If, when Rowan checks his email Wednesday morning he saw the reminder that it was his turn to toss his sheets into the hamper in the morning, he’d be far more likely to do it than if he has to remember to check the calendar in the kitchen. I know of shareware programs that track chores for kids—but again, they don’t work in tandem with other programs and they aren’t multi-user. I want something more like project management software, so that some users can assign tasks to others and monitor the status of those tasks.
- Meal Planning
I do need to see everybody’s schedules when doing meal planning. I’ll buy groceries much differently for a week when we’re going to be all over the place doing a dozen different things than I will for a week when we’ll be home and eating meals here most of the time. If we’re hosting a game group over the weekend, I need to get plastic cups and paper plates and lots of napkins and paper towels in addition to the sodas and junk food that are de rigeur for RPGs. If I’m going to a singing circle Friday night, we’ll probably plan for Sam to make fajitas for him and the kids that night (since I don’t like them, but everyone else does). FamilyTime was really strong on this feature. It had an integrated recipe database, meal planning module, and customizable list of staples (things you always keep on hand). If you discovered that you needed teabags and sugar, you noted that. Then you planned your meals for the next however many days, using the recipe database, and the program printed up a nice shopping list. You could even organize by what’s on which aisle in your favorite grocery store. The fact that the program went out and got coupon offers from various websites was pretty nice too, but that’s just gravy.
- Wish Lists
This suggestion came from Katie. If each user kept a wish list (like the ones some shopping websites will keep for users now – Amazon, CDNow, etc.) of things they want, other family members could look at the list easily as occasions like birthdays come up, and the list’s owner could remove the CD she just bought for herself from the list.
This was another one from Katie. She wants a diary built into this thing. I’m thinking it could be similar to the journaling feature in MS Outlook, so that you could keep notes as needed and it could be used as a diary. Her main concern was that the other kids couldn’t read it. I pointed out that I could read it, but no, the other kids couldn’t read it unless they knew her password.
- Custom Look/Sounds
I can tell you without even asking that the kids will be far more likely to use this thing if they can customize it – use "skins" and different audio files to reflect their personal tastes. And, of course, if your users don’t use the software, it’s a waste of resources, so making it attractive to kids (and adults) seems perfectly reasonable to me.
Everything I’ve listed here is something that some piece of software is already doing. They just aren’t doing it together! I’d be fine with having modular software that shared common data and accomplished the same things, but in my experience, the legal software doesn’t speak to the address book that doesn’t speak to Calendar Creator that doesn’t speak to MasterCook and so on.
Obviously, different families have different needs. So making this thing modular would be marvelous. Some people won’t care to use the meal planning capabilities, others will. Some may not care to keep educational records, some just want very basic ones, and homeschoolers will probably want extensive ones.
What would you add? What would your kids add?
Back to Family Groupware.
Last updated January 31, 2001