The Outlook on Outlook

by | Sep 6, 2018 | Office 365 news

The Microsoft news that was supposed to dominate the headlines yesterday was the forthcoming updates for Office 365 users of Outlook for Windows and Outlook on the web. Instead the news that dominated was the data centre outage in San Antonio TX after a lightning storm took out the cooling system, which had cascading effects across the world for Azure, Azure Active Directory, and Office 365. But that outage seems to be resolved now, and so we can get back to seeing how changes from Microsoft can have an impact on how people work together.

Two main blog posts on the Outlook Blog yesterday were released together to highlight the forthcoming changes in Outlook (although the team released five in coordination). It’s worth a read to see what the team has been working on: Outlook for Windows and Outlook for the web.

The forthcoming updates that stood out to me were:

  1. The opt-in slider for users of both clients to choose whether to switch to the new experience immediately, or wait until it is fully released. Giving people (and organisations) options for when they embrace the change in the interface helps with pacing what is coming, determining whether any new adoption resources are needed, and for the Outlook team at Microsoft, provides a way of getting targeted feedback from people with a high interest in seeing what’s coming. I don’t know why Microsoft uses a different name for the opt-in slider on Outlook on the web and Outlook for Windows though. That seems an unnecessary complexification of the change. 
  2. The simplified ribbon in Outlook for Windows. I remember the transition from the short icons to the higher ribbon a decade ago, and the furore in response. Looking at both the ribbon we’ve grown used to and the simplified ribbon that we’ll soon have access to, the second is definitely cleaner and easier to look at – mainly due to the removal of so many options. Microsoft’s design point that many people use the same 10 or so commands, but then the next few are different between people is well founded – and surely they have the in-product usage telemetry to make that design assertion. The simplified ribbon provides a way of addressing this individualisation of the experience; it will be good to try it out. I know in my use of Microsoft Office generally, there are many ribbon buttons that I don’t ever use.
  3. The subtle but powerful re-arrangement of the new meeting form was the change I loved the most: putting the time for the meeting ahead of the location. By entering the time first, the availability of locations can be shown alongside the list of possible meeting locations. Defaults are a powerful thing, and clearly so is the sequencing of input fields. It would be great to see this innovation flow across other Microsoft tools that combine a request for time with a request for a location, such as the new meeting form in Microsoft Teams. 
  4. Talking about the new meeting form, I was very surprised to see a button for making the meeting a “Skype Meeting” instead of a “Teams Meeting.” Surely the Outlook team has read the memo about Microsoft Teams being the strategic communication app in the Office 365 stack now, and Skype for Business being relegated to second or lower fiddle. Defaults are a powerful thing, and having Teams as the default option would be the better choice in light of the wider Microsoft vision. Hopefully that email about the strategy wasn’t caught in spam!

Finally, there are a whole set of small, almost inconsequential and subtle changes in the layout: Groups being a peer to Folders, message actions in the top right corner, background highlights for flagged messages, and so on. These are all good directional changes that simplify workflow within Outlook.

Of course, while Outlook remains a pivotal place for people to work, collaboration is best done through other experiences such as Teams, Yammer, and SharePoint. It’s good to see Outlook getting better, but no degree of getting better will address the fundamental weaknesses of an email system for productive collaboration. For that you need modern collaboration tools and a journey of transformation to becoming a collaborative business.