Simplicity vs Customization

My last Outlook as Organizer post about GMail like functionality got me thinking about the differences between Google and Microsoft. Google’s biggest strength seems to be simplicity – their search is simple, their mail is simple, their news is simple. Plus of course, they all work. Outlook is an example of a program that sacrifices some simplicity for the sake of being customizable. Of course, this increases our test matrix quite a bit. It also tends to clutter the user interface. But it also empowers people to work the way they want to. I believe that Outlook 2003‘s new navigation model and mail reading experience are a step towards the simplicity that users want without sacrificing the customization.

Comments (11)

  1. Ron McMahon says:

    I’m not convinced that Outlook 2003 provides the customization level that a typical office worker needs. My biggest beef against Outlook 2003 is the hard restriction on the number of rules that I can create. There continues to be this dumb memory limit that has not changed in any version of Outlook. I can have a 1 GB machine, but I’m hobbled with a stupid 32 KB rules limitation. So much for customization!

  2. yotaku says:

    Actually, the 32KB rules limitation is an Exchange limitation, not an Outlook limitation. Not that the user cares why they cannot do it. But I believe you can have as many rules as you want if you set them up as client side rules.

  3. Ron McMahon says:

    Rock, I appreciate your taking the time to point me to the KB article, but the limitation remains. It is a hard limit, and the ‘solution’ is at best a delay tactic – a hack. Sooner or later one hits the wall of 32 kb, no matter how optimized a distribution list you may be able to craft. What burns me is that in a time of multi-gigabyte systems, we are constrained by these unmovable limitations. Microsoft’s ‘solution’ is also not a model of ‘simplicity’ and it totally removes my customization ability, as is touted in this blog. The worst thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any effort underway by Microsoft to fix this problem.

  4. Rock says:

    Well, I guess the point of my comment is that the problem is not an Outlook problem. Outlook is not limited by this when checking other types of accounts (POP, IMAP, etc). This limitation is true of any email client using an Exchange server.

    Now, as to why Exchange made the design decision to limit Rules storage to 32k, I honestly don’t know.

  5. Scott says:

    Here’s my guess: there can be a lot of people using an Exchange server, and having them each have a whole lot of rules to sort through could create a performance problem. That’s why a lot of Notes shops turn off agents — there is no such limitation on them and they can degrade the server’s performance.

  6. Tim says:

    What Microsoft is failing at is the simple solution!

    Why not have a client side only option? One that does not do anything to the server? Also why does Outlook 98 and Outlook 2000 work with so many rules but not Outlook 2003? This seems to state something else is going on rather than just Exchange only? Maybe how 2003 stores the rules? using up more space per byte, etc?

    32k is silly trully, but understandable if done on a large scale via the server…they just need to look at the options outside of the server to fix this! Cause it is a serious flaw in my opinion!

  7. says:

    HCI guru Don Norman published an essay on the google’s simplicity.

    The truth about Google’s so-called "simplicity"

    The truth about Google? It isn’t simple.

    Look, I like Google. It’s a great search engine. But I am sick and tired of hearing people praise its clean, elegant look. Hell, all search engines have that clean elegant part to them: type your search terms into the box and hit “Enter”.

    “Oh,” people rush to object, “the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other stuff.”

    True, but that’s because you can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks – if you can remember how to get to them.

    Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use. Not because they are complex, but because they simplify the life of their users by letting them see their choices on the home page: news, alternative searches, other items of interest. Yahoo! even has an excellent personalization page, so you can choose what you wish to see on that first page.

    Take another careful look at Google’s front page. Want a map? You have to click once to be offered the choice, then a second additional time to get to the map page. Want to use Google Scholar to check references? Um, well, is that “Advanced Search” or “more.” What about their newly announced blog search? Why is Google maps separate from Google Earth? (Oh, those were purchased from different companies. Yes, but why should I, the user, care about the history of Google’s acquisitions?)

    All of these things require you to click on “more” which gets you to the options page where there are 29 alternatives, plus links to “About Google,” “Help Center” (if Google is really so simple, why does one need help?), “Downloads” and then a special section on “web search features,” which has another 24 links of web features, a book search toolbar, and then another 23 sections of text — not links, text descriptions and an entire meta-language you can learn to improve the searches.

    Is Google simple? No. Google is deceptive. It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages. Why aren’t many of these just linked together? Why isn’t Google a unified application? Why are there so many odd, apparently free-standing services?

    A long time ago, 1968 to be precise, a wise person named Conway wrote: “Organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” So true: I can see this in products from many a company. Except with Google, there appears to be no organizational structure of the product. Hmm.


    Conway, M. E. (1968). How do committees invent? Datamation, 14 (April), 28-31.

    Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being “Emotional Design.” He lives at

  8. sue law says:

    Google’s system works based on it’s simply design combined with amazing algoryhms that works fine.

    yahoo may have gon astray with their attempts to become like aol.