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Imagining Multi-touch in Outlook by 8869Er

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									Imagining Multi-touch in Outlook
I managed to impose my way into a discussion (somewhat contentious, but I wouldn't call it an argument)
between Rob “many tablets” Bushway1 and James “when did it become Kevin’s blog” Kendrick2
concerning the uses and usefulness of multi-touch input in the upcoming Windows 7. Rob produced an
excellent list of usage scenarios, but they apply largely to specific fields, not necessarily to a mobile
professional like James. So the big question is how can multi-touch improve the mobile computing
experience? The answer, I think, lies in that powerful piece of business software known as Microsoft
Outlook.
Background
First off, this all stems from the recent demonstrations of multi-touch on Windows 7, most notably by the
big dogs at Microsoft, Gates and Ballmer, at the All Things Digital3 show this year. Multi-touch is the
ability of a computer to recognize multiple points of contact on a touchscreen or touchpad. Until recently,
touch was limited to a single point of contact for cursor control. Well, that’s changed.
Apple made the big splash last year with multi-touch control on the iPhone and has expanded it to their
notebooks via the touchpads. Microsoft has been working on it as well, but hasn’t come to market yet. So
to minimize their apparent trailing behind Apple, they’ve started showing off their work in progress.
Problem is, it doesn’t look that good.
They showed off things like finger painting, map navigation, and image manipulation, which are fun, but
not terribly impressive in terms of utility. Compared to multi-touch on the iPhone, which is centered on
the user experience, multi-touch on Windows 7 looks like a toy. This, as I find typical of Microsoft, is a
flaw of execution, not technology. Multi-touch on Windows, I believe, can be very useful if it is done
right. To demonstrate that usefulness, I’ve decided to cut to the chase and look at an application built for
business, Microsoft Outlook.
One caveat
This should go without explaining, but in case you’re new, I’m looking at this from a Tablet PC
enthusiast’s perspective. I see multi-touch as a path to enhancing the Tablet PC experience. While such
improvement would have the most direct impact on those already using tablets, I strongly believe a better
experience will attract more users. Dedicated desktop users won’t be swayed, but I think many could
come to agree that it is more natural and intuitive to control the screen items with your fingers than with a
cursor controlled by a mouse controlled by your hand.
Control like a keyboard
So here’s a statement that sounds odd coming from me – multi-touch should offer keyboard-like
functionality. No, it should not simply offer an on-screen keyboard, but the ability to recognize multiple
points of contact opens up possibilities previously reserved for keyboard input.
The keyboard is essentially a multi-touch input device. Pressing different keys makes different things
happen. More importantly, holding different keys while you press other keys opens up even more options.
Hit DEL in Outlook and you send an item to the Deleted Items bin. But hold SHIFT while you hit DEL,
and the item is permanently deleted. Same basic command, but it goes a step further.
With singular cursor control, as with a mouse or standard touchscreen, this type of action is cumbersome
at best. Left-click or single tap on the delete icon does the basic action, while right-click or press-and-hold
on the item calls up the context menu. A gesture could replace the basic action, but if a left swipe deletes
the item, what would permanently delete the item? A swipe in another direction seems counterintuitive,
especially given the established keyboard practice of holding one key to expand what another key does.
No, if a single-finger left swipe deletes an item, it would make more sense for a two-finger left swipe to
permanently delete the item. That’s what I mean by “control like a keyboard”. If a gesture with one finger
does one thing, then the same gesture using two fingers should take it a step further.
Selecting multiple items
If you get a lot of email, chances are you’ve had to select multiple items in Outlook at some point. With
keyboard and mouse, this is done by clicking an item, then holding SHIFT and clicking at the end of the
range of items, or holding CTRL and clicking on the items individually. With the pen or standard
touchscreen, you can select a range by dragging through the items on the left end4, but to add items
individually, you’ll need another button. With multi-touch, a second finger could be that other button.
If tapping on an item with one finger selects that one item, then tapping on an item with two fingers could
enable the selection of multiple items. Just drag down with two fingers side-by-side to do a SHIFT select
or two-finger tap each item for the CTRL select. Again, it’s similar to the standard keyboard system of
expanding options by holding a key, but instead of holding a particular key, your second finger is
recognized as that key hold.
Now combine this with the previous idea of deletion with a swipe. Once the items are selected, a one-
finger left swipe across one of them could send the items to the Deleted Items bin, while a two-finger left
swipe could permanently delete them. Very useful for dumping spam or an overly long email exchange
between folks who Reply All to everything.
And a two-finger drag could also be used for scrolling. Instead of dragging two fingers over items, drag
them through the body of an email or along the scrollbar. Dragging a finger directly over the narrow
scrollbar can be difficult, but if two fingers are detected near the scrollbar, it could be used as an indicator
that scrolling, not selecting, is desired.
Don’t drag items – teleport them
One thing I really like about Outlook is the ability to drag emails into different menu items to turn them
into different types of Outlook items or drag them into different folders for organization (both are
critically useful at work). If someone emails me their contact info, I drag it into Contacts. If someone
emails me an appointment, I drag it into the Calendar. If someone sends me a reprint permission request, I
drop it into the Permissions mailbox. It’s very intuitive.
But dragging an item requires some precision and sometimes I miss. Sometimes the mouse get stuck.
Sometimes my hand gets in the way when I’m dragging with the pen. But it usually has something to do
with carrying the item over that admittedly short distance. Carry something and there’s a chance you’ll
drop it somewhere along the way. But that’s not a problem with teleportation.
Instead of dragging items, what if you could hold an item with one finger, then send it somewhere by
tapping on that place with another finger? Not possible with single cursor control, but the possibility
opens up with multi-touch. Hold the item with one finger, tap the target destination with another.
And sometimes I get multiple items that should go into a different folder. So if I combine this with the
idea of multiple item selection, I could select multiple items with two-finger taps and/or drags, hold two
fingers on one of the items, then tap on the target folder to teleport the lot of them away or lump them
together in an Outlook journal entry.
Reply, Forward, and Reply All
So far, I floated the ideas of left swipe for delete and two-finger drag (up and down) for multiple
selection, but what about the most commonly used commands of Reply, Forward, and Reply All?
Forward should obviously be a right-swipe since that’s the forward direction. But then what would that
make a two-finger swipe? Doesn’t seem like the best approach.
Instead, how about breaking up the remaining cardinal directions into up for open, down for Forward, and
right for Reply? An upward swipe to open an item is pretty straightforward. A downward swipe for
Forward is a bit odd, but we need the right swipe for Reply. Again, if a right swipe is Reply, then it’s
intuitive that a two-finger right swipe would be Reply All. We can’t do upward or downward two-finger
swipes because that would get confused with selecting multiple items. A swipe is different from a drag,
but it’s a nuanced difference, very easy for one to be recognized as the other. No point in making it easy
to confuse the two.
To clarify, this still refers to looking at the list views in Outlook, not items opened in separate windows.
Obviously, you wouldn’t have to worry about selecting multiple items if you’re working with one
particular item. Also, gestures are less important when you have the big buttons of the Ribbon interface in
tapping reach.
Also, these are just the cardinal directions of up, down, left, right. Diagonal gestures and multi-direction
gestures are also possible.
Useful resizing
Resizing items and images appears to be a must-have for multi-touch devices (it’s always being shown
off, so it must be important). There’s no reason why this can’t apply to Outlook. By and large, most
people don’t change the default composition settings in their email applications, so most email messages
come in 10pt Arial or plain text. But some people do change their settings and of them, some do it in a
way that looks good to them and no one else.
You’ve seen these emails. Someone working on a really big monitor blows up the type in their emails to
30pt, or someone with a tiny monitor with low resolution thinks 8pt is huge. Then they send that email to
you and the message is either obnoxiously huge or ridiculously tiny.
That’s looking at individual email items. Going back to list views, squeeze and expand gestures could be
used to resize the view of your email list, zoom from day to month in Calendar, and expand or shrink the
timeline view in Journal. If Microsoft wants to push resizing as a good use of multi-touch, this is where
they should start.
Bottom line
Multi-touch is a great advancement in user interface technology, but the key words there are “user
interface”. Microsoft needs to explain how this enhances the existing user interface, not show us how it
works in new applications we’re not using. Making ripples in a virtual pond is fun, but I’m not using a
virtual pool now. I use stuff like Outlook. Show me how multi-touch can improve Outlook, then I’ll be
interested in seeing what else it can do.

1
  GottaBeMobile: Multi-Touch Scenarios on a Tablet PC
2
  jkOnTheRun: Windows 7 does multi-touch- been there, done that
3
  All Things Digital 6: Gates and Ballmer interview
4
  GottaBeMobile: How To Multi-Select Items With a Pen

								
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