Outlook’s Shortcomings – Part 2

outlook-ms-office-2007-beta-2-outlook.pngA program that is built for time management purposes would assist a user in executing the fundamentals, but also allow him/her the freedom to use its features to support their particular time management system.

Ideally, a user should be presented with as clean an interface as possible, with unnecessary features hidden away from view, so that they provide no distractions.

The purpose of such a system could be stated as “assisting users to manage their time so that they experience peace of mind.”

What needs to be understood at the outset is that “time management” is code language.  While it’s actually impossible to manage time, all that can really be managed are habits that are related to one’s daily activities.  They all, of course, consume time.  Having said that, the system needs to help a user to make it easy to follow the actions that comprise their time management system.

Here in 2Time, we say that every time management  is made up of 11 inescapable fundamentals.

The word inescapable is used quite deliberately to indicate that professionals around the world, regardless of industry, job or position, must undertake the same set of fundamentals to get their work done.

For example, the fundamental practice of capturing is one that everyone must undertake in order to allow new time demands to enter their system.

Outlook and most other programs like it are built around a single capture point — the Inbox that contains email downloaded from a remote location.

I used the word “clumsy” in a prior post to describe Outlook’s design, and its disregard for what users are trying to do with the program nowadays.

The design of the Inbox is an example of the inelegant design for those users who are trying to manage their time.

Why so?

By definition, Capture Points are the locations where time demands enter a professional’s time management system.  Example include the following:

  • email inboxes of all kinds
  • memory
  • post-box or equivalent
  • voice-mail box on our phone
  • pager or cell-phone for text messages
  • paper in a pad in our pocket
  • stack of Post-It notes
  • Twitter updates
  • Facebook message Inbox

The items that enter our Inboxes all have one thing in common — they have the potential for taking time out of our day.  They are meant to act as staging points for the rest of a user’s time management system.  As such, they are meant to be kept clear, and when they aren’t, a time management system can collapse entirely.

The perfectly designed Capture Point would have the following characteristics:

  1. it would be reliable, and hardly ever fail.  There would be some kind of backup available
  2. a user would have control over its use, and have the ability to turn it off and on as needed
  3. it would be designed with a way to prevent it from being overfilled
  4. it would make it easy for the user to move time demands to other points in a user’s system
  5. it would encourage the user to keep it empty, or very close to empty

The Outlook email Inbox is a Capture Point that is not designed as such.  Instead, it’s designed as a place to receive email.

If it were designed as a Capture Point, it might have the following:

  • auto-backup to a secure location outside the program
  • the ability to limit its size, and to issue warnings depending on how close the size is to its limit
  • built-in warnings regarding items that have spent too much time in the Inbox
  • a default setting that forces the user to accept email only on-demand, or at least on a daily schedule
  • appointments would be easier to make from incoming emails
  • there would be statistics that measure how well the Inbox is being managed
  • allow Twitter updates
  • the program would offer incentives (via games or visual cues) to encourage users to empty their Inboxes
  • a different location for the Inbox, pulling it out of the list of folders where it is visually lost, and given a huge icon that is more in line with its status as a major entry-point into the time management system

These are just preliminary ideas, and I am sure that there others.  One that I am fond of is a dashboard that shows the current state of a user’s time management system.  One very prominent indicator of good health is the state of a user’s Inbox — it’s a little like peering into someone’s eyes with a microscope to get a glimpse of their overall health.  On the dashboard would be a large graphic of the Inbox.

I imagine that there are many other ways in which the Inbox could be understood as a Capture Point — the only folder in Outlook that plays that very special role.  The key change in thinking is the new understanding that we now have — it’s more important for us to track time demands than it is for us to track emails.

This is especially true now, in 2009, when we know that not all email is useful, and for most professionals most of it is useless.  Instead, we have learned that time demands are much more important, and it so happens that quite a few incoming emails contain future time demands that must be carefully managed.

To be clear, the critical unit is not an email message, but a time demand.

The first Outlook-like program that is designed around time demands rather than emails will have a chance of bringing some much needed elegance to these programs.