At the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles last month, Microsoft provided a sneak peek at the next version of Outlook, known as Outlook 12 (part of the Office 12 release). Greater integration with Microsoft SharePoint sites, a consolidated Outlook Object Model, and three significant UI changes were some of the Outlook features highlighted in keynotes and other sessions.

Microsoft calls the new Office 12 UI "results-oriented" and said that it's based on extensive usability research. Julie Larson-Green, group program manager for the Office User Experience, explained that this research included thousands of hours of usability studies, surveys, and feedback from Microsoft's voluntary Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP--see "Casting a Quiet Vote through Office 2003," April 2004, InstantDoc ID 42515 for details about the program), which let researchers see which commands participants used and in what order. The result, according to Larson-Green, is a UI that contains no pull-down menus but instead organizes commands into a strip at the top of the screen. "There's nowhere else to go to look for commands," says Larson-Green. "There's nothing hiding in a stack of task panes somewhere. There's nothing hiding in a bunch of other toolbars ... All the commands still exist in the applications, just organized in a new way." The new UI is oriented toward document-authoring tasks and will be present in Microsoft "Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and the authoring part of Outlook--your calendar, your mail notes and your contacts--not the shell of Outlook," according to Larson-Green.

A fantastic source of information on the new UI is Jensen Harris's blog. Harris was instrumental in Office Outlook 2003's UI redesign and has been working for the past 2 years on the Office 12 interface. He has been reviewing in great detail how Office has outgrown its original pull-down menu interface, what goals the new UI is designed to meet, and how the new UI will work in common scenarios--for example, how it will scale when a user has an application open in a small window. Just as fascinating is the insight he's given into Microsoft's ongoing usability research, which involves not just one-way mirror observations but real-world users both inside and outside Microsoft. I can't wait to hear more about the small business owner who will be switching from Office 2000 to Office 12 and providing the UI team with daily reports about his experiences over the next 2 months. (Jensen says one of Microsoft's design research leads calls this the "Truman Show" test.)

Even though the main Outlook 12 window won't use the new Office UI, it will have two new UI features that are specific to Outlook. One is a to-do bar, visible on the right side of the screen when you're viewing a mail folder. This bar shows a couple of upcoming appointments and a list of tasks, organized by day. During the PDC opening keynote, Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Information Worker Product Management Group, demonstrated how a user can right-click a mail message, choose to assign it to next week, and have it appear automatically in the to-do bar list of tasks as due next week.

The second new UI feature in the main Outlook window is the ability to preview attachments inline, without having to open them. This is a feature Outlook users have wanted for years. Capossela showed how Outlook 12 can preview even an attached PowerPoint presentation.

Other new Outlook features include support for Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, indexed search that highlights search-term matches both in the item list and in the reading pane, the ability to subscribe to a SharePoint document folder and take the documents offline with Outlook, and the ability to email InfoPath forms.

For developers, Outlook 12 will offer a consolidated object model. In his PDC presentation, Microsoft Program Manager Randy Byrne said that this Outlook Object Model will address key-security, performance, and form-design issues; add more than 70 new objects; plus enhance existing objects. He also said that the new version of Outlook will be able to handle such common scenarios as creating rules programmatically, adding a command to a right-click context menu, displaying the address book so that a user can select recipients, and preventing the user from deleting items or folders.

Microsoft says that Office 12 will ship in the second half of 2006, after a limited beta release. (Office VP Steven Sinofsky said that all PDC attendees would receive Beta 1 "in a few months.") If you want to see the new Outlook UI in action, watch Bill Gates's PDC keynote at http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=17E1B:10344 (starting at minute 59:00) or the interview with Julie Larson-Green at http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=17E1F:10344 (starting at minute 28:45).

Q&A: Microsoft Showcases New User Interface for Office "12" Core Applications http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=17E18:10344

Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=17E23:10344

OFF312 "Outlook 12": Developing Solutions Using the Consolidated Outlook Object Model http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=17E20:10344