Outlook in 2013 Reminds me of why I left Hotmail for Gmail in 2006

Saturday, 18 May 2013

I was a happy Gmail user for many years. But as the product matured, the experience cluttered. My dissatisfaction emerged in 2011 with its last redesign. I didn't like it. And I especially didn't like Google+ infiltrating the service shortly after. Unfortunately, the alternatives were not any better. That was until the summer of 2012 when Outlook suddenly appeared. Ironically, it actually reminded me of Gmail back in 2006, when I migrated from Hotmail. Gmail's recently redesigned compose and reply experience compared to Outlook's effectively illustrates why I made the switch. 

Clicking on the "Compose" button in Gmail now opens a modeless overlay to compose your email in. Google claims [emphasis mine]:

You can now write messages in a cleaner, simpler experience that puts the focus on your message itself, not all the features around it. 

Gmail's compose new message modeless overlay

By providing context through the visibility of your inbox (and its accompanying interface), the opposite in fact happens. Google says you can now "check emails as you're typing, minimize drafts for later, and even compose two messages at once". This encourages multitasking behaviour that interrupts your primary task and compromises your focus. Daniel C. McFarlane & Kara A. Latorella describing the effect of multitasking interfaces:

Users do not maintain constant focus on a single task, but switch between multiple tasks and intermittently supervise the processing of their delegated tasks. These intermittent interactions necessarily entail interruptions.

I don't know about you, but when I'm writing, whether it's an email or a report, interruptions are never welcome. Furthermore, I can't remember the last time, if ever, that I wrote two messages simultaneously or needed to check for new emails as I'm typing a new message. The single use case where this UI makes sense is when replying to an email, as context facilitates the response. But, apparently, that makes no sense to Google. 

When viewing an email thread in Gmail, the last message only appears open; you can reply using its corresponding text box. If you want to obtain additional context by opening any other messages in the thread, the reply box loses visibility as it maintains its position at the bottom of the page 1. This movement away from your reply's input eschews Nielsen's 'recognition rather than recall' heuristic i.e. the user's memory load isn't minimised as they need to "remember information from one part of the dialogue to another" . If, however, a modeless overlay was used, you could have continued writing your reply as you reviewed previous replies.

Minimal context - reply visible

Additional context - reply hidden

Outlook, on the other hand, puts content before chrome. When you're composing a message or reply, it's a cleaner, simpler experience that really does put the focus on the message.

Composing a message in Outlook

Unlike Gmail, when you're replying to an email, the reply's content area shows previous replies by default. And because it's practically a full-screen experience, at least the last couple or so 2  replies are usually visible without needing to scroll. It may not provide entire context but it's usually more than enough 3.

Replying to a message in Outlook

There are many other examples that demonstrate how Outlook beats Gmail in simplicity and cleanliness that I'll cover in the future. However, as important as these are, I know a better email service alone isn't enough reason to switch. The cloud it's integrated with has become critical to the overall experience. And it's SkyDrive's superiority to Google Drive 4 (that I'll address later) that makes this a no-contest as far as I'm concerned.

If you, like me, signed up to Gmail back in the day not only because it generously offered 1 GB of storage space but also because it offered a cleaner and simpler email experience, then I suggest you give Outlook a chance. You'll be pleasantly surprised. Add SkyDrive to the mix and you'll have a serious decision to make.  

Update: I've found out you can actually do a "Pop out reply" in Gmail. Its lack of discoverability can be attributed to Google's uncompromising (and sometimes counter-intuitive) pursuit of minimalism.

1. A message's reply box by default hides the entire content of the thread. You can click on the text box's "..." to untrim the reply's content, but you'll be unable to see your input once you scroll down past the last couple or so messages. In fairness, this is similar to Outlook.

2. Of course this number would vary depending on the length of previous replies and the size of your window. It could be more if they were short replies and/or a bigger window displaying them on or less if the last reply was lengthy and/or a smaller window displaying them on.

3. The recipient's latest reply and my message that it was in reply to are almost always the necessary amount of context I'm after. Obviously, different metrics apply when the thread involves more than two people.

4. That's Google Drive, the cloud storage service, and not its Google Docs branch. I've made the distinction because Office's web apps still have some way to go to match Docs.