A New Outlook(.com)

Outlook.com, a preview of Microsoft’s new webmail experience, launched last week to some pretty positive commentary.

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

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.

Organizing Email

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

The Sidebar

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.

Other

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!

On the Inside

Sometimes, I feel as this guy does. No, I’m not going to Google nor am I extraordinarily fascinated by Identity (with a capital I). I share his gripe that there are simply too many interesting things happening at my place of work that I cannot write about. There was a point in time, long before I even worked at Microsoft, much less Windows, that I thought, if I get a sweet job, on the inside, I’ll finally have so many interesting things to write about, with a unique perspective.

But that’s not the way it works. NDAs and social writing guidelines aside, I only rarely itch to chime in or counter someone else’s internet arguments on this major event or that news item, relating to Microsoft or Windows. And, it’s not for a lack of interest.

There are times that I read an article that is so offensive and misleading, that I want to hastily reply in counter. Everyone has their opinion (myself included, like I’m writing, here), but the difference in recent years with the explosion in internet usage, that opinion can now be easily amplified and touch many more people, be it worthy or worthless (and sometimes, plain, outright malicious).

I work directly with Windows ecosystem partners, so I fully understand the importance of appropriate disclosure and confidentiality. While, everyone has an opinion, the appropriate use of disclosure helps companies and brands more effectively build an opinion that they want. Leaks are nearly by definition a sneak peak at an incomplete set of information on some topic. People naturally fill in missing context and information in a manner that makes them content. Whether that means speculating with optimism or FUD depends on what side of the fence you’re on.

But, allow for appropriate confidentiality and a planful message and more often you get closer to the desired outcome and interpretation. That’s why I’ve liked the approach Microsoft has taken in recent times, and, despite sometimes wanting to yell out my thoughts and opinions, it would undermine the message.

33rd Street Residence

One site I’ve recently added to my feed reader is Design Milk. I particularly like their showcase of some modern architecture, and the 33rd Street Residence post caught my eye.

33rd Street Residence

Designed by Rockefeller Partners, the home is located in a densely populated area, near the water. It was designed to evoke a south-east Asian ambiance, with the top floor dedicated to views of the Pacific Ocean. I particularly liked the materials (mainly the look) and a layout that makes sense, given the space available. I also like how indoor and outdoor flows together in the design. A central courtyard is all the space dedicated to a yard of sorts, given that the lot size makes a real lawn of any sort impractical to achieve.

I am intrigued by the use of the property area and a differentiated design in its surroundings.