When Outlook Attacks

Most people have had to deal with awful user interfaces at some point. Cluttered, messy applications are everywhere from Windows to Mac, Android to iPhone. There are already plenty of examples online of terrible user interface design, but there is another problem which gets a lot less attention: unwelcome interruptions.

Microsoft Outlook is possibly the worst interrupter of all. As the application that receives and manages all of your private email messages, it makes an astonishingly concerted effort to completely ruin that privacy on a regular basis. When you first install Outlook, it enables – by default – one of the worst user interface components ever conceived: the “Desktop Alert“.

From what I can tell, the Outlook Desktop Alert feature was designed to:

  • Show the contents of your incoming emails to anyone looking at your screen while you’re giving a presentation, demo or web conference
  • Completely interrupt your train of thought and distract you when you’re in the middle of important work
  • Turn your email management experience into something more like an instant chat session

Studies show that a single new email notification can break your concentration for more than a minute, but that’s not the most egregious problem caused by this dreadful feature. The real issue is one of privacy.

Let’s imagine that you’re having a very busy week as a manager. It’s a tough time for your company and you’re helping your boss reduce the costs incurred by your team. You also happen to be meeting with one of your employees and going over some documents with him using your laptop, and both of you are reading intently from your screen. That’s when your boss happens to drop you a line:

The next day you visit a customer who is on the verge of signing a deal with your company for a significant product license. You’re in the final stages of negotiation with them and using your computer to show them an Excel spreadsheet with a pricing breakdown when this appears:

You get back to the office to interview a potential new hire. All is going well, and you’ve convinced them that it’s a great place to work. Sadly, while showing them your company’s software product on your laptop, this is what they happen to see:

Dejected and depressed, you hope that your last appointment of the week will cheer you up: you’re due to present your company’s product to a local user group. But just as you start your PowerPoint presentation and begin projecting your slides onto a 10-foot wide screen, your friendly boss sends you another quick email, which everyone in the room can now read:

Of course, Outlook isn’t the only offender. Skype also has a very noisy default, telling me when each of my contacts have crawled out of their beds and opened up their laptops. Every week, more and more applications offer interruption notification services (and Growl on Mac is making it even more common).

If you’re a software developer responsible for creating a communication tool, please consider carefully how noisy you want your features to be. There’s a really good chance that your users would prefer to focus on their task at hand rather than be constantly bombarded with information that doesn’t require immediate action on their part. Just because a user has graciously installed your product doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to interrupt them over and over again.

More importantly, please remember that a computer screen isn’t always a private work area. Until features like the Outlook Desktop Alert are turned off by default, users who want to maintain their privacy are forced to either turn it off or get rid of it completely.

6 thoughts on “When Outlook Attacks

  1. Hilarious! And true. I often enjoy the “slide show of emails” as well as the skype alerts when watching a presentation (usually a sales presentation, as developers turn these alerts off asap).

  2. You know, you don’t have to mirror your display when doing a presentation, right? And outlook notifications can be turned off.

    1. Correct on both accounts, but (a) I shouldn’t *have* to turn them off and (b) I don’t have to be running a presentation for someone to be viewing my screen.

  3. I once sent a cheeky IM to my wife, whose laptop was being projected on a large screen — five minutes before a big presentation.

    Fortunately, it was PG-13 (at worst) and only one other person saw it, but it was only funny later.

    I’m a writer who works on Linux and I’ve turned off all the nannying stuff (it’s not hard, and there is less of it than on Windows), and I also use the virtual workspaces to avoid distractions.

    Still, Outlook might be the single biggest productivity killer (note — not “enhancement”) since the Internet was invented…

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