In our Expert Thinking blog, we write mostly about the world of professional services and technology outside the walls of our office. But from time to time, there’s home news.
We are very pleased to release today Neota Logic Server 7.0, the latest version of our platform for online professional advice, policy automation and decision management. In this version (“NLS 7″), we have focused on four themes – Learning, Creating, Communicating and Testing.
Our work at Neota Logic is guided by two imperatives.
Legal and compliance problems of consequence to people and organizations:
- Require solutions that are flexible, subtle, precise, integrated, and often complex – therefore our software must deliver applications with all those qualities.
- Outnumber programmers by 1000′s to 1 – therefore our software must enable people who are not programmers (law students, lawyers, tax professionals, business analysts, and many others) to create those applications.
Of course these two goals are always in tension – simplicity to allow the widest possible community of creators, power to build the most useful applications. We confront the tension in every design decision, and continue to examine and re-examine every aspect of NLS from this viewpoint. Is the user experience as simple as possible, for both novice and expert authors? Is every feature useful, logical, learnable, teachable, complete, necessary?
Our collaboration with Georgetown University Law Center has been an invaluable source of good ideas. This year, Professor Tanina Rostain is teaching three courses on Technology, Innovation & Law Practice – each organized around a different topic (regulatory agencies, police procedure, access to justice) – in which students, instead of writing papers, build real applications for real clients using Neota Logic Server, from start to demo within a 14-week semester. (The ABA Journal’s story about last year’s course is here.)
Law students are terrific test pilots for our software: they are tech savvy and fast learners, but also busy (TIP is only one course in their semester), purposeful (deadlines are real, grades are given, and competition is built in), ambitious (the apps they design are not simple), and, shall we say, neither shy nor inarticulate. When the software is confusing or clumsy, we hear about it. And we listen.
We thank the Georgetown University Law Center’s students, faculty and teaching assistants, again and with applause, for their contributions to NLS.
NLS 7 is much easier to learn. We estimate that time from first tutorial to beginner proficiency has been cut in half. How? By simplifying concepts, clarifying terminology, and redesigning screens. And by creating video tutorials, example applications, and learning guides, all available via the training portal.
Having learned the concepts (six key elements compose an app) and the flow (seven steps to a working app), authors of applications want productivity – build fast, avoid errors, test effectively, deploy instantly, update fast. Better tools, fewer mouse clicks, more assistants for repetitive tasks … at every step, let authors focus on substance while leaving mechanics to the software.
The foundations of Neota Logic authors’ productivity are the software’s declarative model and automatic prioritization algorithms (details here). These are unchanged. But in Version 7, core concepts have been simplified. All elements of an application are visible in a single tree view. Every screen has been scrubbed. Assistants automate repetitive steps. Every logic element can be tested immediately while it is being built. Multiple editors open in multiple windows so that authors can flip quickly from one part of an application to another. Breadcrumb navigation tames the view of complex applications. Toolbars have been reorganized. And so on.
We are veteran dogfooders (from “eat your own dogfood,” a software shop mantra attributed to Paul Maritz of Microsoft) – that is, our consultants use Neota Logic Server to build applications for customers, and we especially like beta food. Version 7 has been in the bowl for several months, and meal times are much shorter. To shed the metaphor, we have found that building and maintaining applications, both complex and simple, is about 30% faster.
Oh yes, what about the dogs? Some in the software industry find “dog food” unappetizing. Hence, “drink your own champagne” or “icecreaming.” All are OK with us. We like dogs, champagne and ice cream too.
Smart applications – the kind that Neota Logic Server enables smart people to build – need to talk smart to their users. Well, we don’t mean talk, at least not yet (voice-enabling NLS is on the horizon, though). We mean communicate in writing – in on-screen orientations, questions, hints and messages; in reports, memos, contracts and forms in PDF or Microsoft Word; in email messages and attachments – all precisely tailored to the user, the topic, the context and the problem.
Version 7 adds a comprehensive document engine to our state-of-the-art reasoning engine, so NLS now delivers Word, PDF and PDF Forms for use in contract management, case management, due diligence, regulatory advice and compliance applications.
Unique features of the NLS document engine include:
- Reasoning and document automation are unified on a single cloud platform, from authoring to deployment.
- Apps may be built and tested on Macintosh as well as Windows machines.
- User interfaces for document applications, like all NLS applications, can be 100% customized via the NLS template and style mechanisms, and can include any elements available in web applications – graphics, video, audio, etc.
- Applications use responsive design techniques to run well on desktops, tablets and smartphones.
- All document logic is built with the same robust and efficient logic tools used in the reasoning engine. NLS’s unique hybrid reasoning capabilities – which add formulas, weighted factors, spreadsheets, and custom and client-specific reasoning tools to NLS core logic – are all available for use by the document engine.
- NLS’s comprehensive documentation, validation, verification and testing tools (described below) can be applied to document automation.
- Close integration with Word and PDF enables NLS Author to parse fields in Word templates and PDF forms automatically, then present the fields in Author for easy drag-and-drop linking to NLS variables.
Things change. Laws and regulations change. Company policies and risk guidelines change. Smart apps therefore need to be updated – swiftly, cheaply, and with a complete audit trail. With Version 7, we are introducing tools for rigorous regression testing – powerful, yet easy to use.
Authors – and subject matter experts – can create tests, run them, save the results to the NLS database, and then re-run the tests after an application (or NLS itself) has been changed in order to verify that the changes have not broken existing logic. Differences between test run results are automatically identified and flagged for review.
Combined with NLS versioning, which saves versions both automatically and at the author’s request, the new testing tools assure that the precise state of an application at any point in the past can be audited.
We are already hard at work on the next version of NLS, which continues to advance the themes discussed here – learnability, productivity, output excellence, and testing – and will add new reasoning tools, SharePoint integration and other good stuff. Stay tuned.