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Monday, February 07, 2005

Yearning for DOS: My Experience with MLS, the Church's New Software for Wards and Branches

For years I wondered why units in the Church were stuck with DOS software for handling membership information. Now that the Church has issued its new Windows-based MLS software, I'm yearning for the DOS days again. The new software looks nice and is definitely a Windows program, but relative to the old DOS version, it reminds me of what Microsoft calls "upgrades." Things that used to be simple are now difficult, and some vital things don't even seem possible. For example, one of my first tasks was to enter home teaching information for the high priests and then determine out totals for our monthly report. MLS will give us our percentage of home teaching, but not the number of families home taught. I had to count that manually. Sweet.

Then I needed to print out home teaching assignments to give to people in my quorum (I'm the H.P. Group Leader). With the DOS version, I could easily print out a page for each home teacher giving a listing of their families, addresses, phone numbers, etc. I can print out tables showing companionships and just giving the head of household of a family, with about 20 companionships per page, and not with the information they really need. Maybe there is a way to get the right information out, but after several attempts I ended up writing down one man's assignment by hand. Sweet. I'm told there is a way, but the Bishop has not yet found the Windows-based Urim and Thummim that MLS requires. Its help file is written for people who already know how to use the program effectively and just need to tweak something - it doesn't explain how to do basics.

Then our Relief Society President came in while I was on the computer and told me that she had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to print out an attendance roll for her sisters. Ah, that's got to be easy, I thought. So I offered to help her. Look, one just has to select Relief Society, see, and then under this menu, just pick, uh, well, uh, maybe this, no, or this . . . no, she had tried all that. Every option had been pursued, with no roll in sight. I was a little flustered. I later learned from a more experienced user that rolls can be printed, but it requires a completely non-intuitive approach. To print the Relief Society roll, one must not select Relief Society as the desired organization, but "other," and then one will find a menu with organization rolls, from which one can then select Relief Society. Ah ha! Sweet.

It's a sweet program, all right, but not as sweet as the good ol' DOS version. When it comes to religious software, I guess Acts 3:19 is not yet fulfilled, and we must keep on waiting for the restitution of all things.

12 comments:

CJ said...

Jeff,

I just changed jobs after working in web design for the Church for nine months or so. I know those in charge of MLS on Temple Square and will pass this post along to them. For what it's worth, they're great people continually working on updates and fixes.

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

I understand the frustration. I'm the Branch Membership Clerck of a student branch that covers about four stakes in Southern California. That means ALOT of changes happen because of the transient nature of it all. I must say it was hard to get used to the new MLS, but once i put in my time I'd never want to go back to the DOS version.

Try reading the help file, it's not as cryptic as it sounds. Once you figure out the way they organize things it becomes much simpler.

-Aaron Goodwin

PS. I'm so thankful that I don't have to press F10 everytime I want something done!

nshumate said...

Me, I'm as happy as a clam with the new system. Even if there were no other upgrades, the tab functions make my job 1000% easier. (For instance, when someone comes in and asks me if they can get a replacement role "really quick," I no longer have to back out through the menu system from what I was working on to do so.)

And I appreciate that they did away with that "MIS Data/Local Data" split that made an incredible amount of trouble when our ward boundaries changed.

Mormanity said...

Good points, all. Maybe I'll learn to love the new version. But one practical side effect of eliminating the old split between MIS and local data is that we can't provide temporary fixes for things like new converts whose paperwork gets lost by missionaries. We've got some problems that we've been fighting for a long time, trying to get the missionaries and the mission home to get the records for new people to be generated. Meanwhile, we can't use the MLS system to put them into the system to make sure they are properly listed. There are other situations where that was really needed. The lack of flexibility may make it harder to properly nurture new people and others with exceptional situations. I hear lots of related frustrations expressed from others.

Anonymous said...

Ironic when you consider the picture that pops up when the program is loading. :)

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I completely empathize with Jeff's original post.

MIS was inelegant, but it was fast and relatively intuitive. It was easy to memorize 3- or 4-digit codes for commonly-used reports. Print jobs spooled instantly and flew out of the printer.

MLS is completely the opposite. Nothing is in a logical location (as Jeff gave several examples), and frequently you have to look in 3 or 4 places before finding the report you're looking for. Print jobs spool and spool and spool and spool before printing, with frequent pauses between pages. Try creating a custom report and then sizing the columns -- it takes 5 minutes of trial-and-error before all the columns print wide enough to prevent line breaks in birth dates or addresses (and we've created about 20 custom reports to make up for the lack of obvious standard reports). Many Windows programs use the TAB key to move between fields and buttons, but this functionality is minimal and inconsistently applied in MLS -- only mouse users need apply.

What did MLS get right? Well, it looks nice. And it's nice that temple recommend expirations and other data now come with new move-ins (although I suspect that could have been done with MIS had someone wanted it to). And you can put photos of ward members in the system (if you have time -- we have 574 members in our ward, and keeping up with THAT would be three full-time callings).

My suggestion: Completely rethink and rewrite the program for the next version. Get actual ward-level users involved. Ask Membership Clerks what's important to them. Ask Finance Clerks how entering tithing can be made faster and less mouse-intensive. Ask Elders Quorum and Relief Society Presidents what they need to make entering home/visiting teaching information simpler and more helpful.

Corey said...

I agree.

The first problem I noticed was the inability to print a home teaching assignment sheet; you know, the single sheet of paper for a single person you can easily hand to them while passing in the hall or visiting them at their door? The new software only supports printing multiple home teaching assignments per sheet.

Since it was the beginning of the year and the Bishop wanted significant changes made to home teaching, we decided to give everyone a new copy of their assignment. What did I end up doing? I had to take the sheets with multiple assignments per sheet to the paper cutter, relief society paper snippet handout style. That took a while.

So when Brother so-and-so comes by at church to ask for a copy of his home teaching assignment, you have only three options:

1. "Sorry, I need to go to the library and cut your assignment off this page. I'll catch you after church."

2. "Just a minute while I mix through a mess of narrow strips of paper."

3. "Do you have a pen and paper to copy down your assignment?"

Another problem. The home teaching companionship list, which is supposed to be a nice and convenient way to view all home teaching companionships for a single district, doesn't list phone numbers! You have to go to the detailed home teaching assignment sheets.

I will say the new software looks nice and is relatively easy to use. But when it comes to getting useful information in reports, it fails miserably. I would take the DOS program any day!

Oh, did I mention the software didn't allow us to go back and enter in home teaching visit information prior to the date of installation? And even if we could, does anyone else besides me want to see more than just three months of home teaching information for a companionship?

It's very interesting there are so many shortcomings. There had to have been at least one person on the development team who has held a calling that needed this software before. Couldn't they have seen the problems?

-Corey

P.S. Opening a new tab window after selecting to "work with something" sure gets frustrating after a while.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Does anybody know how to reach a manager in the develop team to share these SERIOUS and PAINFUL limitations??

Anonymous said...

You might want to try this link.

http://mls.lds.org/scripts/ttcgi.exe?command=SoloSubmitScreen&databaseid=11

It will take you to a screen where you can submit bugs and feature requests.

You also may want to take a look at the unofficial MLS FAQ for tips here.

http://ldsoss.org/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?The_Unofficial_MLS_FAQ

Anonymous said...

I think that SERIOUS and PAINFUL might be a good way to describe cancer or arthritis - but it seems like hyperbole for a user interface.

The wrangling between the MLS and MIS afficionados reminds me of other religious wars: DOS vs. Windows, Windows vs. Mac, Linux vs. everybody, your favorite editor vs. mine, C vs. Pascal. "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I think the key is to see what the new code does, and then go from there. I've seen the beta code for the 2.3 release and I know they have fixed a number of things; I expect them to fix other things as well.

Anonymous said...

"But one practical side effect of eliminating the old split between MIS and local data is that we can't provide temporary fixes for things like new converts whose paperwork gets lost by missionaries."
-----
Have you tried creating a temporary record for them as an 'Out of Unit Member'? This would let you put them on the rolls, give them callings, etc., and then when the mission gets the official membership created, you could go in and remove the out of unit member and use the official one. You would want to be careful not to enter donations against the out-of-unit member, though.

I think you could enter donations against a temporary record and then merge them when the official membership record arrives.

This is a kludge, but then, so was the original process... :)

Anonymous said...

It got to the point where they ended up taking the computer away to fix it because we couldnt even get IN!! to the program after entering the password and pressing enter. So now its back to the old manual way of doing things. for now anyway.