Outlook 2007: still famously obscure

I am using Office 2007 on Vista for next week’s Tech-Ed conference. That’s the plan, anyway. Both products are on the verge of being released to manufacturing; but for the moment I’m stuck with Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh, and Vista RC2 (build 5744).

I have a love-hate relationship with Outlook. I like the way it integrates PIM (Personal Information Manager) functions, and I especially like the way it keeps multiple machines in sync with a server-side mailbox. Of course you need Exchange for this to work.

On the other hand, there is plenty to hate. One major complaint is the obscurity of Outlook’s various option dialogs. I often meet people who have missed major pieces of functionality because they could not find them. One recent example was on the verge of purchasing an expensive third-party solution because Outlook cannot make public folders available offline.

It can of course. Non-obvious step one: add public folders you want to use offline into your favorites folder. Non-obvious step two: open Tools – Email Accounts – View or change - select Microsoft Exchange Server and click Change - then More Settings – Advanced – then check Cached Exchange Mode and Download Public Folder Favorites (this last one is not checked by default).

This might be a plot by system administrators to prevent users downloading huge public folders onto their laptops. It is certainly not something you would find by accident.

I’m happy to say (this is irony) that Outlook 2007 continues the tradition of obscurity. Today I was having trouble finding the option to read email in plain text. I know this is a cruel thing to do with beautifully formatted HTML emails, but I regard it as more secure. This option used to be in Tools – Preferences – Email options. No longer.

I looked in Email Options – Advanced Email options. I looked in Options – Mail setup. I looked in Options – Mail format. I looked in Options – Mail Format – Editor Options, though this was desperation: surely even Outlook’s UI designers could not consider reading email an editing function?

Could Microsoft have removed this widely-used preference from the product? Not at all. It is in Tools – Trust Center – Email Security. Silly me.

Here’s my suggestion for Outlook 2009. Throw away all the existing preferences dialogs in Outlook, or hide them in some compatibility mode for those who like a challenge. Then design a new set, with an emphasis on being usable, discoverable, and logical. Please.

 

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