Usability review of MS mail’s new “Outlook.com” UI — lots of deduction required

Presuming that all changes in UI are meant to be improvements, I thought I’d put on my critical-eye glasses for the new hotmail/msn mail UI (called “Outlook.com”?  I wasn’t sure).

First, my overall evaluation:

  1. The new UI isn’t an improvement. Change (in UI), here, is not so much a factor in the affect (as some people are loathe to change) as much as disappointment that usability did not improve and, thereby, raise the overall bar.
  2. MS used to be known for (starting with MS Money) inductive design.  This UI requires an extraordinary amount of deduction — extraordinary in the sense that it is both a step backwards and over-relies on user conventions-literacy.
  3. Friendliness is a factor in a user’s sense of “ease of use.”  Simplicity does not mean friendly or easier to use IF it does not include keeping track of user choices and helping to better manage steps in a task flow.  Task-analysis just seems to be lacking.

It is definitely moving toward the “everything is active” paradigm so that buttons no longer have to look like “real” buttons, information is better tiered, page is minimalistic with very few conventions for identifying controls. Functions (such as writing a new message) are more mobil-app-like, where you slide into an inductive screen or panel instead of separate pages or modals.

When you select a checkbox or two corresponding to messages, the dedicated blue ribbon at the top changes to provide you with contextually relevant commands.  This feature is wonderfully consistent throughout.

They’ve enhanced the View [what] feature to include Social Updates, which identified FB and LinkedIn. (I’d like to be able to widen the scope of what the system considers “social updates.” That’s cool. Kinda makes it like an RSS feed aggregator.

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Just a screenshot to get your head into the zone.

Likewise, some controls position themselves in different regions depending on the width of the browser window (aka, responsive design).  For instance, when writing a new message, the address block is either in the left margin with an exposed list of “frequent contacts” given a wide enough window; or at the top, without the frequent contacts list, in a narrower window.

MSN-Mail_Page-1

Example of ‘responsive design’.

However, there are a few usability clean-up nits they might think about.

The vertically center-aligned ellipsis doesn’t communicate a thing to me as either a control or drop-down list of options.  As it turns out, that ellipsis is used two ways: 1) to show that the width of your screen is hiding other options, and 2 ) when the screen is full width, it evokes a dropdown list of marking messages as junk, read, etc.

Informational icons (like “you replied to this message”) have no legend, and you can’t mouse over them because that brings up a layer with controls on it that covers it up or there simply isn’t a tooltip.

In some cases, the consequences of certain actions are not completely clear before you click to execute.  For an instance, View: All really is Select All. When you click and it selects all, if you have Flagged any messages, they are in a section at the top … which does not get selected. So you wonder if the flagged messages are selected as well but in a chunk you can’t see. You have to play around a bit to be sure that what is selected as the View subset really is the scope for the Select All.  (Select All is italicized instead of bolded because this is the control’s assumed label.)

MSN-Mail_Page-2

Another gotchya with the Select feature is this:  it is a block of functionality that displays inconsistent options.  Here are two scenarios and what it shows:

(1) Select one or two messages: the block shows the checkbox, the number of items, and a control for Clear All Check Boxes. Your option is to Select All by clicking the checkbox or clear all selections.
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(2) Select all by clicking the Select All checkbox:  Your options are to Select All or Select Everything in your Inbox.  So the checkbox does not really select-all, it selects an undisclosed subset of 30.  You only know that because you see “30 items selected” and the control to select everything. (So you get to select 30 or everything — I would have to experiment with the functionality to see if I had other selection options.) You can deselect all by clearing the checkbox, which is different than if you only had selected two.

The problem with clarity thus far is related to requiring deduction. “Why did it only select 30 items the first time? ” Experience tells me it’s because that’s how many show on a page of paged data. The UI should tell you that, perhaps by duplicating the bottom-of-page paging controls.

So you click Select Everything in your Inbox: everything gets selected.  You now have two ways of clearing all the checkboxes: clear the Select All checkbox or click the Clear all checkboxes control.  So, unlike when I can click the Select All checkbox to select all of an undisclosed set, I can use that same method to clear everything “in my Inbox.”
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In the editing world, we’d call that “non-parallel construction.”  It also sets the user up to wonder if each of those methods does a slightly different thing (as it did before).

Moving on.

The block that contains the flagged messages isn’t labeled or its function/purpose isn’t obvious.  The fact that all the messages show the bright-red flag (message setting) requires deduction in order to arrive at, “aHa! This is a collection of just messages that are flagged.  I can refine my deduction because none of the messages show UnRead, by which I assume that I’ve already seen the message so it can’t mean urgent … which is what the Exclamation mark is supposed to do, right?”

Requiring deduction: bad.  Inductive: good.  This is an information pane with what amounts to shortcuts to “real messages.”  They’re not “real messages” in the sense that they are duplicate “information” about messages located elsewhere.  This is not an easy concept for newbies to grok: these don’t get selected when I click Select All because they’re just information that I can, for some reason, treat just like real messages.

The two controls at the bottom, inside the block are Flagged 17 | Hide.  My deduction tells me that, since I’m only seeing 5, then clicking Flagged 17 will expand to show me more.  Hide, as I think about it, must mean this block will be hidden, or rolled up.

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This is modified to get the Quick Views menu visible. In reality, the Folders list is long and pushed the Quick Views menu below the fold.

So I click Flagged 17 and takes me to a page with a filtered list of only flagged messages instead of expanding the panel as I had expected.  This, as it turns out, is equivalent to clicking the Flagged 17 link in the left panel under Quick Views, which is selected (but I didn’t see it happen).

From the expectations that have already been set by other interactions, I’m afraid to click Hide for fear that the block will simply go away, just as Flagged 17 took me to a different page.  Then I’d have to figure out a way to get it back.  Luckily, it rolls up … as it should have rolled down to show me the 17.
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Other conventions, like the Select All checkbox, are utterly assumed. Similar to questioning the scope of Select All is the QuickView. I clicked one of the categories and discovered there was no obvious way to re-set back to whatever the default view is (with the Flagged block at the top). Clicking the Outlook logo did that, but that was a hopeful guess.

I had a similar problem using Arrange By and selecting From, then clicking Flagged as a filter. The only way to undo the filter was to click the Outlook logo, which then totally threw out my Arrange By selection.

Friendliness factor has some low points.

Assumption or presumption of user familiarity with conventions?  In the case of this new UI, I think either one has over-reached, which puts a hurtle for older or inexperienced users that haven’t had the conventions patterned into them through constant and consistent use.

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One Response

  1. I hate the checkbox selection functionality. It you miss the area to click by a tiny bit, all of your previously checked boxes are unchecked. Try doing that with 15 at a time and have a miss click (by just a hair) and all of your previously clicked selections are undone. Who thought of this as acceptable usability? I waste so much time having to re-click my selections.

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