Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 1

In prior posts on the blog, I have made the point that Microsoft Outlook’s design is one that is not meant for time management purposes, but instead appears to have been made by engineers who simply added feature after feature after feature.

Recently, a reader of the blog posted the following request in a comment in an earlier post:

Can you clarify your point about Outlook’s process being “clumsy” and like an “afterthought”? I’m curious about areas where it could be improved, as I’m sure the Outlook PMs would be as well. How would you suggest this procedure be made easier/simpler/more efficient? Any thoughts or feedback to help better understand this would be appreciated.

I compare Outlook to the design of Gmail, the Palm and the Apple iPhone (although I am not an expert in any.)

IMHO, they all suffer from the same approach — design a cool email program and then add on other interesting stuff such as appointment calendars, to-do lists, reminders, contacts and the like.

What if Outlook and all the others were designed as time management systems that were built around the fundamentals, rather than a collection of features that must be beaten into the shape that a user must suffer with in order to get it to do what they want?

Why is this even important?

The way Outlook, Gmail and others are designed actually shapes the way a user develops his/her habits.  The design has a powerful effect on the way they manage their time, because their time management systems are nothing more than a set of habits that they repeat.

Case in point:  Apple just announced the release of its iPod OS 3.0, which now allows a user to copy and paste a block of text from one place to another:  Next Up for the iPhone:  A Basic Left Out Before.

Now, a user can copy the contents from an email to an appointment calendar.

The only way that a piece of software could leave out this particular feature entirely is one that either isn’t focused on assisting the user with time management or one that doesn’t understand what a user needs as they move through the fundamentals.

I’d bet that it’s the former.  After all, music, video and camera functionality are much more sexy features than those related to time management.

Not that Outlook is much different.   Until I used an add-on which cost me almost $100 a few years ago, I couldn’t do something as simple as drag an email into my calendar to make an instant appointment.

It’s clear to me that the design of software shapes a user’s habits, and a design that makes dumb things easy, and easy things hard, is one that will get in the way of the natural flow of activity from one fundamental to another.

For example, it’s easy to make To-Do Lists in Outlook, even thought they often grow to be infinitely large, only to be abandoned by their creators.  Also, Outlook offers no statistics on how well someone is managing their time management system.  In other words, it offers absolutely no form of numeric assessment, even as it’s becoming clear among most users that there is something dangerous about having an inbox containing 3000 unread items and 5000 “read” items. ( A simple warning bell would be invaluable.)

The problem with these software systems starts from the point of conception.

A  brilliant article in a recent Harvard Business Review entitled Reinventing Your Business Model makes the point that the iPhone, Tata motor car and the Gillette Razor redefined the markets in which they operated, and did so by asking the following question: “What important job is the user trying to do?

Outlook and its contemporaries — Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo et al — answered the question in the late 1990’s with: “Dealing with email effectively.”

I believe that asking that question today, in 2009, for the first time, would ultimately lead to a different design, and that today’s salient answer might be something like: “Managing my time to experience peace of mind.”

I think there’s room for a company to design a software system around this answer as a starting point, using the fundamentals of time management.  It would include email management, but that would not be its centerpiece.

Perhaps there will be a product for time management that is invented that plays the disruptive role of an Apple iPod, but I’m a bit doubtful that it will come from Microsoft.  After all, it has a major investment in Outlook, and the article makes it clear that it’s hard for established companies to turn their trusted and faithful business models on their heads.