Businesses users primarily choose email as their communication tool. Today, those same users expect technology to have a modern user interface, something the desktop version of Outlook has delivered for years. Personally, as someone who uses email throughout my day, I expect to have an interface with the functionality I require in order to send messages quickly and efficiently. I have wasted precious time if I have to search the UI for expected functionality and will likely resort to the simplest method to complete the task. For example, using Outlook through Office 365 has previously limited me to having the most expedient way of sending email at times. I rely on drag and drop functionality for attachments; something that can't be done in the Office 365 interface.
On August 8, 2015, the Office team announced new enhancements to Outlook for Office 365. Microsoft will release these updates immediately for participants in the First Release program. Other Office 365 users will receive the updates during the first week of September. As the first comprehensive update for Outlook for Office 365, the release will include functionality that provides greater speed and efficiencies, as well as formatting and calendar improvements. You can track these Office 365 updates and releases, which are fluid and in various stages of development, on the Office 365 Customer Success Center.
A number of directional changes in this update to Outlook, now called Outlook on the Web, are noted, with the entire focus seemingly to now provide a near identical experience to the desktop. Users today have high expectations for any web-based experience. Technology solutions company Adestra recently completed a survey, which showed the global trends in email service usage. The study, completed on a monthly basis but accounts for annual trending, showed that 20% of respondents are using a web-based email service, while 31% rely on the desktop version. This increasing figure supports the expectations for online email services, an observation that Microsoft has addressed with this release.
With this update, Outlook receives a simplified interface in the form of an Action toolbar across the top panel of the screen; akin to the Home, Send/Receive/Folder and View functionality available on the desktop. Users will now be able to access this as a standard feature across the Mail/Calendar/People and Task experiences. Microsoft also provided mail management features in this update, such as Sweep, a rules-based engine to manage frequent mail from the same sender, one-click archiving and an undo button to address any user-generated mistakes. From an esthetic perspective, the update includes enhancements to images that are included in-line, as opposed to attachments. Functionality including image resizing, border creation and shadow enhancements similar to the capabilities of PowerPoint are now standards in Outlook on the Web.
My favorite feature in the update is the Pin functionality, which allows specific messages to be pinned to the top of your inbox. As a feature that is surprisingly not available in the desktop version of Outlook, Pinning allows important messages to sit atop your inbox, highlighted with a yellow background, until such time as they are unpinned and sent back into the normal categories of your inbox. Originally offered as a function within Windows Explorer and the Start menu, this feature allows folders or programs to be pinned to the top of a list.
Finally, and most important in this announcement from a non-technical perspective, was Microsoft's increased commitment to Outlook UserVoice, where feedback and recommendations can be shared directly with Microsoft. Microsoft has successfully incorporated previous user feedback into the functionality we now enjoy throughout the Office ecosystem. Users can provide feedback by clicking the gear icon on the top right of the screen, just left of the user’s image.
Overall, this update is an excellent step for Microsoft, who in my opinion has for years lacked the functionality in Office online that they need. Microsoft has multiple versions of Outlook in the market, and they should match functionality across these platforms as best possible in order to provide the unified experience that users expect. I look forward to seeing how business users respond to and adopt these updates across organizations in the coming months.