Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good #7
Wednesday, 12 June 2013
When editing an event's details on your Outlook.com calendar, it can now be supplemented with a charm. That is, an icon describing the type of event. November is setting up nicely.
When editing an event's details on your Outlook.com calendar, it can now be supplemented with a charm. That is, an icon describing the type of event. November is setting up nicely.
The PS4 wants to be a device in your living room. The Xbox One wants to be the device in your living room.
This is what it will look like.
The average interaction worker spends an estimated 28 percent of the workweek managing e-mail.
Meet Gmail's new inbox that aims to address this phenomenon:This isn't the first time Google have designed a solution either. The eerie similarity between the blog posts introducing the Priority Inbox in 2010 and the new inbox in 2013 confirms 1) the former didn't solve the problem and 2) the problem still exists. I don't think smart tabs are the solution though.
The Priority Inbox divided the inbox into three distinct lists: 1) unread and important 1 messages, 2) starred messages and 3) everything else 2. The biggest change with the new inbox is that it doesn't make the mistake of mixing important unread messages with unimportant unread messages 3. Furthermore, the ambiguity of an 'important' message has been removed as the default secondary tabs, 'Promotions' and 'Social', can't be misinterpreted. So, although the primary tab won't necessarily contain only 'important' messages, you know it definitely won't have any emails from Twitter or Groupon.
That's certainly an improvement, but it still doesn't stop any unwelcome emails from coming through. Sure, they're no longer immediately visible and now require a little more effort to get to, but the new inbox doesn't bury them completely - it just hides them temporarily. Moreover, the tools to automatically manage the incoming flow of email are not new. What the Gmail team should be commended for is making them accessible with sensible defaults.
This isn't going to solve my email problem though. I'll still get the same excess amount of email, only it will now be distributed across a number of tabs to minimise the perception of being overwhelmed. What I want are new tools. For example, make it easier to unsubscribe to emails. Don't make me have to carefully scan an email for an incognito link. Do that for me. And then show the link on the inbox-level.
What I want, more importantly, is a belated recognition that all email are not the same. For a meaningful distinction to be made between emails that can be replied to (i.e. from people) and those that are essentially a wrapper for external calls-to-action (i.e. newsletters or notifications). One is used as a communication channel and the other as an information medium. For example, I get a separate email every time I get a new mention or follower on Twitter. The data consistency of these emails, however, makes them conducive for aggregation into a single view. Just because they were sent as emails doesn't mean they need to be presented as such.
For an inbox to successfully confront email overload, it needs more than a few set of tabs. That can be a start. It's what goes on in those tabs that now needs re-evaluating. Whichever service figures that out first will help email attain version parity with the rest of the web. Email 2.0.
1. A variety of signals are used to predict which messages are important.
2. Oddly enough, unread messages that are signalled as 'unimportant' are actually duplicated here.
3. Important unread messages are displayed in the 'Primary' tab, whereas the secondary tabs are used for the unimportant unread messages.
Any time you change a product you introduce that challenge. If you have any install base at all. And that is one of the biggest things that really makes disruption sort of a challenge. If you have no market, no customers then you're not disrupting any body but all the other companies. And if you have a product with customers and you introduce something that's not exactly the same as the old one, by definition you're going to disrupt them. And that's a balance that you face in anything you do. Whether you're making a sequel to a Star Trek movie. Or anything. And, so, can you always do more? Well, after the product comes out, if it turns out that it was easier or harder, then you can do more or less and change it and you just adapt. And that's part of what it means to do this. There's no magic answer. But you can't sort of A/B test your way to it. Because a billion people don't get your product until a billion people have your product.
Tim Cook loved to say you make a set of choices and people are sort of paying you to make those choices. You use your product development intuition to do things. Cause when you test a product, any product, not Windows 8, any product before it's in market, the people who naturally go to use it will use it and push it the way that they push the old one. Eric Ries talks about this in The Lean Startup. You come out with a brand new product and you let some enthusiasts use it and then you just have to break from them and re-do it. Those first hundred people are very upset. But you want a million people. Not a hundred. And to get a million you're going to do something different than that first hundred. And so all the pre-release testing in the world doesn't necessarily help a product that's going in a different direction because the people that are just there are the experts and enthusiasts that like the old direction. That's why they signed to the pre-release.
Windows 8 was disruptive. I get why. Microsoft's mistake wasn't that it was, but that they didn't make a concerted effort to mask its disruptive qualities. Yes, it is a new era for Microsoft. But, it was naive to expect a billion users to sign up, let alone be ready, for change of this magnitude. They were not prepared for the future. Especially not a future that wasn't even feature-complete. However, whereas Windows 8 made no tangible concessions to facilitate the transition, Windows 8.1 does the opposite. And that's not a bad thing. Those billion users will be given the tools, and more importantly the time, to familiarise themselves with the future without needing to commit to it. And once the future becomes the present, whether that's Windows 9 or 10, users won't be blindsided. And there lies the answer. To successfully 2 release a disruptive product update, unless it is objectively and immediately better than its incumbent, the execution of its vision needs to be gently spread across a number of releases. With each iteration boasting more of the future and less of the past. Eventually, a release will be stripped entirely of its legacy. And the best part is, when this happens, users 3 won't even notice.
1. If you've not watched the entire interview, then I recommend you do.
2. Keep in mind, success can be considered in any number of ways. Such as, if you lose only a small sub-set of users. Or if you win more new users than lose old ones.
3. There will be users who are adept at detecting early the implications of the changes. Some of whom will jump ship immediately, whereas others will use a wait-and-see approach. That is, executing your vision periodically, as opposed to suddenly, doesn't necessarily mean you won't lose any users - you will but on a smaller scale and at a slower rate. Losses that won't hurt as much. And, anyway, let's not forget you can always be replacing lost users with new users.
Windows 8's problem wasn't bundling a modern and legacy environment together, but the failure to dispel the perception that the two are entirely independent entities. The Desktop was falsely presented as an app. And not an operating system feature. Metro, on the other hand, was carelessly introduced as an additional operating system layer. And not an extension to the Desktop. Windows Blue appears to address this, despite earlier concerns.
The Start button clarifies that the Start screen is the Start menu's successor (and not a Desktop replacement). As a result, transitioning between the Desktop and the Start screen should now make more sense on a conceptual level. However, perceptually, there would remain friction because of the absence of visual uniformity. That is, clicking the Start button is akin to time travel. One moment it looks like 1995. Suddenly, 1995 feels like 18 years ago. That's a lot of change to absorb in one click. But there's an obvious and cost-effective solution. And Windows Blue implements it - the ability to use your Desktop wallpaper as your Start Screen background.
I've actually always used a common solid colour background for the Start screen and Desktop to make the transition between the two less jarring. Compare the difference in transition to the Start screen from a Desktop with the default daisy flowers wallpaper to a Desktop with a customised solid background colour.
Judging by the screenshot of this leaked feature, the Start screen is now essentially a visual layer on top of the Desktop resulting in an even less jarring transition 1. This seemingly trivial addition may significantly influence people's perception of the Start screen. That it's an evolution of the Start menu. And an extension to the Desktop. A big win, potentially.
Update: See a video of the Desktop to Start screen transition on Windows 8.1. Pretty smooth.
1. It could even be smooth depending on the animation used during the transition and the effects applied after.
Outlook.com's Calendar1 features a five day weather forecast. Each day has its weather represented with the appropriate icon - clicking on it gives a basic forecast.
1. I don't know if the Calendar web app is considered an extension of Outlook.com, or a product of its own. If the latter, I've no idea what the correct title to refer to it is.
The Surface RT launched to mixed reviews, but they all shared one thing in common. They were written on the back of artificial time spent using the device as opposed to living with it 1. My experience with a Surface RT, however, has been real. I pre-ordered a Surface RT last October. I had it for six months. But then I decided to sell it last week. Apps were not the problem. It was the stage they were set on. It was not the ultimate stage for Windows.
A session without an app crashing was rare. And not just third-party apps either. Internet Explorer, the app I spent most of my time in, was the biggest offender. I question Microsoft's decision to accomodate the "full web" by supporting Flash. Sure, the correlation between Flash support and IE's stability doesn't imply causation (there was never any feedback about the cause of a crash), but I know at least one person who would think it does. Even when Flash wasn't necessary, such as on websites that offered a HTML5 video alternative, Flash was still used by default. And other than video, the only other application of Flash I would encounter on sites I visit was for interactive ads, leading me to conclude that the full web isn't necessarily the best web. At least not for me.
Crashes in general happened often enough that the experience of using the RT became defined by anxiety. As my confidence in the RT eroded, I used it less. It was never reliable enough to be consistently an arm's length away. Its unreliability violated my trust. And once trust became an issue, no amount of monthly firmware updates was going to regain it.
There were occasional gains facilitated by the Touch Cover and an Arc Mouse. Touch, keyboard and mouse coexisted effectively. This setup made sense and felt really good. It was empowering. There were tangible results too. If writing is considered work, then I got some serious work done. But it was always from a desk. I expected the kickstand to be a trivial differentiator, but it did add meaningful value as a
laptop desktop (with Touch Cover) or second screen (without Touch Cover) enabler; away from a desk, I also used the RT in bed quite a lot because of it. Finally, the combination of USB port and MicroSD slot made transferring data to and from the device, specifically from my DSLR, a breeze. My next tablet must have both.
I didn't expect to get any work done on the RT when I bought it. Yet I managed to. But I didn't buy the RT for work. It was for play and it was here where the experience fell apart. Issues with reliability, as established earlier, made it impossible to feel relaxed when using it. The slightly underwhelming battery life exacerbated matters.
I considered it an achievement when I comfortably managed to get a full day's use out of it on a single charge. The strategy implemented halfway through the day usually involved reluctantly reducing the screen's brightness. This was annoying because the screen was too dim on anything other than full brightness. This dilemma was somewhat counterbalanced by the exceptionally quick charging times, but I was still disappointed because I remembered reviews generally being impressed by battery life. But then again these are usually based on benchmarks involving looping a video at a specific brightness setting.
The terribly low sound from the speakers meant I disappointingly refrained from using the RT to watch TV or movies (or listen to music or Skype even). Any media consumed inconveniently used my earphones - the RT's mobility meant the earphones were rarely within easy reach. Although the 16:9 aspect ratio was a relatively unused feature, it still had an indirect effect on my experience. Unfortunately not in a good way as it stopped me from doing any long-form reading on the device 2. I tried using it in portrait a few times but I felt silly every time. So I stopped entirely.
Ironically, playfulness and not productivity was my RT's greatest shortcoming. The seeds for abandonment were planted early, but being an early adopter you're programmed to persevere. My threshold for accepting the RT's inadequacies may have elongated as a result, but it wasn't boundless. Last week, my patience was finally up. And not because of any particular incident but a belated acknowledgement of the diminishing returns the experience offered. An experience severely compromised by the guts of the hardware.
I probably won't be pre-ordering the next Surface RT, but I'm still hoping it will address the first-generation's deficiencies through the necessary hardware improvements and software optimisation. As long as the first-generation RT on the Microsoft campus was the same as mine, I'm cautiously optimistic about its next iteration as its problems are as obvious as they're solvable.
Although my experience wasn't positive, I've still come out of it respecting Microsoft's vision. I get it. Its the execution that isn't there yet. Fortunately, modest sales mean Microsoft have a second chance at a first impression with the majority of Windows users. If you were considering on picking up a discounted first-generation RT, don't. If you're waiting for the next RT, either be careful or be conservative (i.e. get a Pro instead 3).
1. This problem isn't specific to Surface RT's reviews, but applies to reviews of software and hardware in general. Someone needs to start a site where stuff is reviewed after reasonable real-word usage.
2. PDFs or ebooks.
3. The Pro's hardware shares some of the same problems as the RT. And has some of its own. But it's at least reliable. That is more fundamental to the user experience than a few less grams in weight or a few less hours of battery life.
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.
Besides a conventional file attachment, a new Outlook.com email can now have an inline picture 1 or a link to a file's 2 SkyDrive location added to the message body without needing to leave the page. Switching to Outlook/SkyDrive from Gmail/Dropbox has been easy.
1. Still can't, however, copy and paste an image directly to the message body.
A new product may be useful to new users, but not to the current users who have developed skills and conventions around existing tools and practices. The researchers saw a product potential, but worker participants desired a less generally useful system that was more closely synchronized with existing practices.
Familiarity and usability are competing forces in interface design. To facilitate a transition between the two, developers need to exercise patience. Microsoft are learning that. Unfortunately, and not at all surprisingly, that willingness to learn is being misconstrued as an admission of failure.
Tami Reller, the chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the Windows division, on the Desktop:
“We started talking about the desktop as an app. But in reality, for PC buyers, the desktop is important.”
Microsoft presented the Desktop as "just another app" before Windows 8's release. I was never convinced. But the problem with Windows 8's Desktop wasn't a matter of semantics. After all, it's unquestionably a better Desktop than Windows 7's. That despite being a menu short. And that menu is coming back anyway. Well, sort of. As a button.
My immediate reaction was that this is less of a solution and more of a (another) compromise. Critics routinely refer to the popularity of start menu replacements to justify re-introducing the Start menu. These third-party extensions' utility effectively allows users to bypass the Start screen. This suggests a convenient shortcut to the Start screen isn't the fundamental need they address.
Windows 8's Desktop problem isn't the absence of a familiar interface element, but the need to leave the Desktop when launching (unpinned) apps or searching. Even if Windows Blue allows you to boot straight into the Desktop, that would result in only one less Start screen visit. Not exactly a measurable improvement. However the addition is not without merit, albeit for different reasons.
Windows 8 did a lousy job in educating previous Windows users on what the Start screen represents. There's no discernible link between it and the Start menu it was replacing. This causes users' conceptual model of Windows 8 being inconsistent. Some may consider the Start screen as a Start menu replacement. Others may think of it as a Desktop replacement. The re-introduction of the Start button externalises the Start screen's purpose and role and thereby educates users in a manner that a hot corner is inherently incapable of.
Although I fail to see how adding a shortcut button translates to Microsoft acknowledging the importance of the Desktop, it does show they're willing to let go of the idea that the Desktop is an app. By breaking convention they've conceded the Desktop is different, if not important.
Perhaps more significantly, it's further evidence that Microsoft is losing confidence in the effectiveness of hot corners to communicate actions. Moves have already been made in first-party Metro app updates that can be interpreted as Microsoft conceding Windows 8 Charm's lack discoverability; changes evident in Windows Blue leaks reinforce this idea.
However nothing hitherto suggests Blue's Desktop addresses this deficiency. And that's surprising because if Microsoft genuinely considers the Desktop to be an entity of its own as of Blue, then I would expect its Charms to be more discoverable. For the Desktop to be the natural exception to the rule. It once was. Maybe it will be again.
Watching these two ads consecutively highlights the disparity between the iPhone and Windows Phone.
One has matured and is now roaming the world effortlessly.
While the other is still an adolescent, impatiently waiting on the sidelines and secretly wanting in on the grown-up action.
One is an apple. And the other is an apple too. But also a pear. And a kiwi. And a pear. And a lemon. And grapes. That's according to Todd Simmons, the man operating on the Microsoft brand.
It is perhaps the ultimate triumph of accidental skeuomorphic design – when new objects or graphics ape the original functional image of what they are replicating.
What Oliver Wainwright is describing is a skeuomorphic feature not exclusive to iOS. There are misconceptions that the term 'skeuomorphism' applies purely to aesthetics and not behaviour. Just as misconceptions about design were famously challenged, so it should for skeuomorphism. It's not about superfluous textures, shadows and gradients. But just one approach to design motivated by familiarity. Technology's increasing ubiquity, however, makes its effectiveness questionable.
Holden's style was minimalist - almost austere. But the restrained (yet stylish) use of signage and logos, wide entrances and smart cream-coloured tiling reflected prevailing taste - sleek, contemporary and with an air that all would run smoothly and efficiently. Holden's emphasis on flat surfaces with fine geometric detailing and the widest possible opening in the facade not only met Pick's [his employer] requirement for unobscured entrances but provided a neat, unmissable 'shopfront' for modern railway.
Holden's approach to architecture was 'to throw off its mantle of deceits; its cornices, pilasters, mouldings'. Sounds familiar. This was 1924 when Frank Pick was contemplating how a station could combine an impression of authority and modernity with functionality. Holden was Pick's guy and an inspired choice; he's credited for revitalising design in the railway environment. Sounds also familiar.
If settings to disable Windows 8-style multi-tasking and to enable booting straight into Desktop wasn't evidence enough, then re-introducing the Start menu must be. Charles Arthur of the Guardian reports on comments made by Microsoft's chief financial offer, Peter Klein, to investors and analysts on a conference call on Thursday:
Klein also hinted that an upcoming revision to Windows 8, codenamed "Blue" and due this year, will reinstate the "Start" button that has been familiar to Windows users since 1995. The changes will be partly due to "customer feedback", Klein said.
When efforts for Blue should concentrate on a deeper and more meaningful integration between the Metro and Desktop environments, Microsoft are in fact doing the opposite. Making an already disjointed experience further disintegrated. Windows 8 had one eye fixated on the future. Blue, on the other hand, appears to have both concentrated on the past.
That's judging by the emergence of settings to toggle off Windows 8-style multitasking and the re-emergence of reports that you'll be able to boot straight into the Desktop. These additions would've made more sense in the initial release of Windows 8, but to introduce them in its first major update, probably a year later, makes me think of them as (belated) concessions. Windows 8's problem wasn't that it wasn't Windows 7. Moves like this however suggest Microsoft may think it was.
On the recently (and finally) revamped Outlook.com Calendar, you can now set multiple reminders per event1. A reminder could either be an email sent to your Outlook.com address or a notification on your PC and phone's calendar. Although you can be emailed a reminder multiple times before an event, you can inexplicably only set one calendar reminder at the moment.
1. For the time being, you need to go to Calendar's Options in order to activate the new reminder system.
I love how no one is an expert at MS's "modern" UI yet. Feels like the web in 1996, in a wonderfully freeing way. Lots of space to invent.— Jon Bell (@workjon) February 27, 2013