in case studies

windows live mail beta: is there something missing?… well, yes.

Windows Mail Live Beta

I don’t really use Hotmail very much anymore, but I do love a Beta test, so of course when they asked me I said that I’d be happy to play with their beta version of Windows Live Mail, the new and improved Hotmail.

Well, yes, it is new and improved.. but then, that’s not saying much is it? Hotmail was an utterly ugly dog of an interface that we only put up with because it was free. And then along came Gmail. Say no more.

Back to the story… some people do still use my hotmail address to send me email, and so it happened that today I went into the new-ish Windows Live Mail to check out and reply to some email. Except, I couldn’t.

I was using Firefox, as I do. And they haven’t enabled ‘Reply’ for Firefox yet.

No, seriously. You can’t reply. Only make new mail and delete it.

Here’s what they say about it:

Note that the web browser you are using does not yet support all Mail Beta functionality. You can still use this browser to access basic Mail Beta functionality, like reading and composing messages. We will make more functionality available for this web browser soon….

Opt out of the Mail Beta

If you opt out of the Mail Beta, you will return to the current version of MSN Hotmail. Note that it may be difficult for you to return to the Mail Beta if you opt out now. We recommend that you opt out only if the above options do not work for you.

Ooooh. Well, in that case I’ll definitely ditch Firefox so that I can keep using Mail Beta. Yeah right! Of course I’m not going to do that – there’s nothing so compelling about Mail Beta that would make me want to switch browsers. Or give up Gmail for that matter.

I’m not going to do an indepth review of what Mail Beta offers because, really, its all just webmail. Despite the fact that I now use webmail (Gmail, that is) for upwards of 80% of my email correspondence now, I don’t consider myself a power user. Really. Its not that hard. I don’t need to do all that much.

BUT I DO NEED TO BE ABLE TO REPLY! That’s something I’d consider basic functionality.

Argh… It makes me angry. Using Beta as a sales pitch for Explorer. That’s just the kind of thing that gives Beta a bad name.

Mail Beta

There are two other things irritating me re: Mail Beta.

  1. Advertising. Do you think there’s enough on there yet, Microsoft? If you haven’t seen for yourself, the template features a big whacking banner across the top and then a huge tower down the right hand side. It looks particularly ridiculous now that they have gone to the trouble of implementing a cleanish, white space design with nice small fonts and a small clean logo. Surely you can do better than such in-your-face real estate hungry banners? Not that i’m much of a banner clicker at the best of times, but I’ll be avoiding these on principle. I’m all for advertising if it gives me free stuff… but please… a little sophistication? A little integration? A little contextualisation? Is that too much to ask?
  2. Interface Design & White Space Design. Now, I’m a big fan of white space. I love that its very trendy to use so much of it these days, its great. But, sometimes colour (or just shading, perhaps) is really useful in making interfaces more usable. It’s particularly helpful in helping me to group related content or tools together, and to easily see where the application/content ends and the advertising begins. This interface is just all too white for my liking. It looks a lot like a wireframe that I might give to a visual designer to make beautiful.

Perhaps this is part of the Beta Aesthetic? I’m not sure. I do know that if it were up to me, there’d be just a little more colour to make the tabs, toolbar, content and advertising more clearly delineated (and therefore, more easily found/accessed). I’d also move the icons (tools) over the top of the mail window (where you actually read the email) so that the actions are more proximate to the content that you’re attending to. I think I’d make everything just a little bit larger too… small looks cool, yes, but not so great with the usability (and I have a bit of a dodgy mouse at the moment, so the effect is heightened!)

And hierarchy… obviously they’re relying on the old left-to-right movement of the eye across the screen for the layout to make sense… there’s very little sense of the relationship between each screen and the relative priority to each other conveyed in the page layout or visual design. Perhaps they’re operating on the assumption that we all have prior experience with email applications and that we’re taking our mental models from another application to this one… I think that’s a bit of an assumption. And I think its also part of why the layout looks as scrappy as it does.

gmail

Its not often I find myself recommending Google for their interface design, but in this case the guys at Microsoft could do well to look closely at what Gmail has done with their design – they’ve managed to address most of these relatively simple problems.

Meanwhile, I also downloaded the Messenger 8.0 Beta recently. My response to date: it’s pretty. Its a space hog, but its pretty. And its got those ‘very 2.0′ 3D icons. Ahhhh. (Nope, haven’t used it much yet, although feedback from others has been that it interferes with some Outlook functionality badly, and complaints that the ‘nudge’ feature seems to have disappeared).

Have you been playing with any of the Live suite yet? What are your thoughts?

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  1. Exchange Server’s webmail interface offers the same bonus “You can’t reply” feature, which makes me wonder if windows live mail is simply rehashing some of that code.

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