Design and layout
Over the past couple years, the Hotmail team made some changes to the user experience of the webmail client. However, it still had numerous design challenges, like multiple layers of action/navigation toolbars, colour gradients, and too many borders and lines explicitly dividing the page (busy). It was distracting from the main purpose of the experience, reading and writing emails.
Outlook.com significantly reduces these extraneous visual flairs and simplifies the interface significantly. The search box is now located where you navigate through folders (it used to be top-right, above the email previews for some reason), the header has been reduced in height to free up space for content, and the multiple rows of navigation links have been reduced to a single, context-aware set.
The focus is on content, and that’s great.
I don’t receive a whole ton of email, but they do range from personal emails to newsletters from some store or another. The sweep and mailbox cleanup functions are fantastic for clearing the inbox out of old, crusty content. Then, to further tease out the really important emails, there are some predefined filter views, which will highlight shipping notifications (tracking numbers), emails with document or photo attachments, or any other flagged content.
Again, it’s about breaking through
Ads have become far less intrusive this time around. In Hotmail, ads were colourful, prominent and irrelevant. That’s the most basic and crude way of getting someone’s attention, but almost always, it did so in a negative sense.
In Outlook.com, the focus appears to be on surfacing deals. There is only a limited attempt to make these relevant (and in fact, Outlook.com says it’s explicitly not reading personal emails, only newsletters, which is a pretty good indicator as well). It appears to occupy a similar amount of space on the right-hand side of the screen, compared to Hotmail’s ads.
It occupies this area until you move into an email from a human. Then, the ad suddenly transforms into the sender’s latest social update, if you’ve linked something like Facebook or Twitter with your Microsoft Account. (Ads only appear when no email is selected or the email is from a mailing list, newsletter, etc.) It’s a pretty neat feature, certainly much more contextual and relevant than the ads. There are inline buttons that allow you to take action on their updates, but for the most part, open up a new tab to the service’s site to perform the action. Facebook “Likes” appears to be an exception, and can be done without leaving your emails.
Then, there’s the little message bubble icon that will replace all that with an integrated Messenger sidebar. You can kick off conversations, stylized in the Windows Phone or Windows 8 app manner. It fits well and feels integrated, as opposed to the little floating windows at the bottom of the page. Even more, message history can be saved into a folder.
Also more publicized than before is the idea of email aliases. If you don’t want to give out your primary email address, you can create an alias, which can be filtered to a subfolder. You can then send email from either the primary email account or from the alias. It’s simple way of keeping your private and more public identities somewhat separate, but conveniently access it all from a single interface.
Now, go on, give it a try, or upgrade your Hotmail account!