user experience improvements without user interface improvements

As we began the work on the next (and, as-yet-unnamed) version of Office:Mac, it quickly became apparent that the existing Entourage team would be split into two: one working on the release that came to be known as Entourage for Web Services, and one working on Outlook:Mac.

We decided early on that Outlook was going to Cocoa. Outlook going all-Cocoa has a big impact on my user experience team. We're touching every single pixel, which gives my team an unprecedented opportunity to make user interface improvements. We've been working hard on this for months, and continue to do so. (I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and want to spend a couple of hours with my team providing feedback on the new user experience, you should sign up to participate in usability studies.)

This put me into a bit of a rough spot with regards to Entourage for Web Services. Not only did my team have a lot of work bearing down on us for Outlook, but there wasn't really a lot to be gained in investing in user interface improvements in Entourage for Web Services when we know that Entourage has reached the end of its road. We tossed around some ideas for some user interface improvements for Entourage for Web Services, but ultimately decided to invest all of our user interface work into Outlook.

That doesn't mean that I didn't do anything with Entourage for Web Services. There's a lot of user experience that isn't about the pixels on your screen. I decided to take some time away from my Outlook work and help the Entourage for Web Services team make improvements in one key area of user experience: perceived performance. A performance issue that we had in Entourage 2008 and earlier was in synchronising. Users thought that it was synching slow. In terms of throughput, it was syncing as fast as it possibly could. The problem wasn't really with the sync speed, but rather the sync order.

When you open Entourage, you likely care the most about what's in your inbox. This is doubly true if you're like me and have a million rules set up to filter incoming mail into other folders. But Entourage 2008 didn't necessarily show you the newest mails in your inbox first. It updated other folders. This was especially painful on the Monday after you had returned from holiday, and watched other folders get populated with stuff before your inbox.

Thus in Entourage for Web Services, one of the Exchange improvements that we made was to get the sync order right. Your inbox is updated first, and if you've got a lot of stuff waiting for you on the server (such as that Monday morning after your vacation), we get the most recent stuff first. We also prioritised other incoming folders highly: your calendar, your sent mail, and your deleted mail. The last two are important if you're super-connected and are using an iPhone or other mobile device to check and respond to mail.

I've been watching reviews of Entourage for Web Services come in, and the improvements that we've made to performance have been noticed and appreciated. This is one area where my team was able to make a direct improvement to the user experience without touching a single pixel on the screen.