In response to Alan’s ‘judging’ of the Outlook 2007 UI

A couple of days a go Alan Lepofsky did a post on the Outlook 2007 UI which included some truisms but also lacked in some area’s. In the comments I promised I’d get back to him with some feedback and a few screenshots of Outlook 2007 B2TR (Beta 2 Technical Refresh). As you may or may not know, I am running Microsoft Office 2007 since February of this year and Windows Vista since June. Currently I am running Office 2007 B2TR and Windows Vista RC1. Within Microsoft we call this process ‘dogfooding’ but one of my colleagues rephrased it to ‘drinking your own champaign’ so I stick to that.

Creating a new innovative UI is hard

Creating a new and innovative UI is very hard. IBM knows this; the best example of this is IBM/Lotus SameTime. Carl Tyler did a post on this a while back which is one of my favorites :

Spot the difference competition

I think Microsoft is seriously challenging IBM in the Real Time Collaboration / Unified Communications space and innovative solutions (from a functionality and a UI standpoint) such as Live Communications Server and Office Communicator resulted in IBM releasing IBM Sametime 7.5 which finally shows a new face …

Alan’s post on the Outlook 2007 UI

Back to Alan’s Post … First of all Alan is working with a Beta 2 version of Office 2007 and judging from the screenclippings it is not a recent version. This in itself is not an issue ofcourse, but you do have to bare in mind that changes still apply; technically , functionally and also to the UI. Feedback on all issues is received from a variety of sources and many through beta testers, which judging from the downloads could very well be over a million right now.

My main concern of the information Alan is providing, is that he did an effort to make it look complex with loads of different red arrows.

He states:
My top concern about using Outlook, is that in the main screen, there are more than a dozen different "widgets" which  users need to understand.   Many of them seem to do similar things (open/close, drop down, flyout, etc), so why are so many different conventions used?

Imagine me showing a picture of the dashboard of your car with red arrows pointing to buttons and handles you rarely use (and that’s a lot of arrows). You might think ‘hey my car doesn’t seem that complex when I’m driving it’ …
It isn’t, it’s as simple as that, you don’t need all the features and functions and different users have different needs. And Outlook has the luxury of lots and lots of different users, even IBM/Lotus Notes/Domino users 😉

Furthermore, all "widgets" have so called tooltips, providing the user with to the point information of what a button is designed to do; simple and easy. Some of them you may use frequently, others rarely, because you define your screen layout once and when you’re satisfied you leave it at that.

Here’s an example of a tooltip in the Calendar screen of Outlook 2007 :


To show you an example of a significant change to the UI from the early Beta 2 versions to the later one’s and now B2TR is this one :


This is a screenshot of the UI when composing a new mail message. In the old version the ‘send’ button would only appear in the ‘Message menu’ (like in Alan’s screenshot, 2nd one from the top). In the new UI, the send button is next to the To: / Cc: / Subject bars and is visible also when choosing other parts of the menu.

I am not pointing this example out to indicate some kind of rocket science breakthrough, but merely to illustrate that changes are still applied and improvement is made with each and every step in this Beta process and although I can not proof it with statistics the Office 2007 and Windows Vista Beta are huge beta project and maybe amongst the largest ever done.

In summary, Alan has got some good points in his ‘judging’ process, but has gone the extra mile in overstating complexity in the wrong context. He is not taking an end-user perspective; a typical end user is not interested in the dozens of features every pull down menu has to offer, hence the presentation of relevant functions, in context of the users work at hand ….