Microsoft has put a lot of emphasis on the importance of ‘user experience’ and improving the design of user interfaces (UI). It was one of the core themes of the recent MIX conference.

So why oh why oh why does Microsoft continue to make hardwork of web-based UIs? Take the following example: Microsoft’s web-based email service versus Google’s web-based email service.

Below is a screenshot of Windows Live Mail:

It’s not as swamped with adverts as it used to be, but we’ve still got a nice big ugly banner ad occupying the top of the page. (Oh, and a ‘Today’ page that you have to navigate past to get to email.) The UI has been redesigned to closer mimic Microsoft’s client email application – Outlook. And on the whole, that is a good thing. But the design appears to have assumed that you will want to individually read all the email you receive. To read an email is easy – click on it and it will appear in the preview pane on the right. But if you want to quickly manage your email, i.e. delete newsletters and spam that you have no intention of reading, life is not so easy. To select a message, you have to hover over one of the envelopes and it will magically turn into a checkbox that you click on to select the message. You can then choose one of the actions in the toolbar at the top – reply, forward, delete… If you want to do the same action for multiple emails at once, you have to individually hover over the little envelope of each one and click the checkbox. If you accidentally miss the checkbox of one, all previous selected mail will be deselected and you have to start all over again.

Compare and contrast with Gmail:

Gmail doesn’t have any big fat banner adverts, just the usual text-based blurb. Gmail sticks with simple checkboxes, making it visually obvious how you select one or mail messages. You don’t have to take your mouse cursor on a discovery trip to see what happens when you hover over something. But the best productivity gain of all (well, for me at least) is the ability to select and manage multiple emails with 3 clicks. In the toolbar, there is a set of options starting with ‘Select:’. When I have read emails I intend to read, for the remainder I simply go to ‘Select:’ and click on ‘Unread’, then click the dropdown arrow for ‘More Actions’ and select ‘Mark as read’. Job done.

The most successful designs are usually those where everything possible has been removed. i.e. to the point where to take one more thing away will destablise the design. Having little envelope icons that dynamically transform into checkboxes when you hover over them might seem cute but it can cause confusion (users have to discover how to select a message), slows down the user interface (you often experience a slight delay when hovering over the envelope before it becomes a checkbox) and makes it harder to quickly select multiple messages. Net result – it reduces productivity. And that is a major failure for Microsoft, given improving productivity is one of their core focus areas.

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