The Woman Who Designed Outlook


If you’ve weaved in and out of the corporate world at all in your life, there’s a good chance that you’ve at least used Microsoft Outlook to send and receive emails at some point. While Outlook’s popularity might have faded a bit in recent years (there was email before Gmail and iPhones??), recent research indicates as many as 600 million people still rely on the application to be productive at work.

Many of today’s information workers practically live in their inboxes, dealing with hundreds of emails on a daily basis. Thankfully, email applications have become incredibly more sophisticated over the last decade, giving users the ability to manage their calendars, contacts and tasks in addition to their business communications—functionality that, as hard as it may be for some of you to believe, was severely lacking as email first infiltrated the workplace.

Originally grouped with Microsoft Exchange, in 2007, Outlook became a standalone email client that was also included in the Office suite. Since then, it’s had two major redesigns: one in 2010, and the other in 2013. Knote was lucky enough to speak with Marta Rey Babarro, who worked at Microsoft during the email client’s most recent redesign, serving as the lead researcher for the company’s Outlook 2013 project.

“We were working on streamlining communication throughout the entire Office suite. One of the apps touched by it was Outlook, and I was leading that effort,” Marta tells Knote. “We had to redesign the whole application and also make Outlook touch-friendly.”

Which is quite the task, considering the number of professionals who wouldn’t be able to get through their days without Outlook. Many of these users, of course, were already comfortable with previous iterations of the application—despite the inherent limitations tied to their release dates. So any redesign certainly couldn’t completely ostracize these folks, some of whom might not be the most computer literate.

microsoft outlook

Getting Started

So how is such a massive undertaking successfully accomplished?

“First, you need to really understand the business needs you’re addressing and the priorities your team has established for the project,” Marta says. “Of course, you also have to really understand your users, too. Then you draft a research strategy, trying to improve the entire product as much as you can.”

To do that, she says, you have to direct your focus on end users first and foremost. When designing an email application, for example, it’s critical to remember that workers need to be able to access their email from their desktops, laptops and mobile devices—no matter where they happen to be.

Building the product for a general persona—the information worker who puts in around 40 hours each week—Marta and her team conducted research to find out which functionality would be most beneficial for this persona type.

The Outcome

All their hard work paid off.

“The overall redesign was really beautiful and useful—it tested extremely well,” Marta explains. “It was very crisp, very fast and very clean. We got great feedback from end users of the product and from critics when we launched.”

Email has become much more than an inbox. Many knowledge workers keep their entire schedules in there, too. As such, Marta and her colleagues heavily researched how people use their calendars on a daily basis. They then redesigned Outlook’s calendar functionality based on these research findings.

“Among other great calendar improvements, we built a timeline that cuts across an entire week, allowing users to visually see how their days and weeks are laid out by scrolling,” Marta says. “It’s a much faster way of accessing the calendar.”

Other Outlook upgrades included adding more actions within emails (e.g., flagging messages), creating comprehensive profiles for senders and enhancing contact information with images.

microsoft outlook

How To Build a Productive Team

Marta, who’s now a senior lead researcher at Google leading a team of UXers that work on the company’s internal tools, believes building exceptional projects begins with never losing sight of what you’ve set out to do from the start.

“You need to have a set of core values and you need to be able to translate those into the design of the product,” Marta continues. “One of the things we focused on was speed; reducing the amount of time it takes to complete a task by 1 to 3 seconds goes a long way toward enhancing productivity. Speed was very easy to prioritize because of the values we established.”

To really succeed, teammates need to be consummate collaborators, with all those working on a project heavily involved throughout the entire process.

“I love involving all the people I work with: engineers, product managers, product owners, the designers,” Marta says. “When everyone is one the same page and everyone really cares about the user, the results are amazing.”

How about a tip for personal productivity?

“We undervalue how much time it takes to switch from one task to another,” Marta concludes. “We’re more productive when we focus on one set of tasks, tackling the ones that are similar together. Multitasking is not good for you—and it’s not good for your brain, either.”


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