Accidental hurdles: What Outlook can't do

It's happened to everyone: suddenly the computer won't let you do an action that (always) is critical to completing your task. You mentally search for an explanation for a few seconds, then frown at the monitor and ask, accusingly, "Why can't I do that?"

Most often, the problem is merely a procedural misstep. But sometimes, you can't do what you have to do because, well, you just can't.

Outlook can do a lot; there are people who live their lives by Outlook, running almost every facet of their lives through its communication and scheduling capabilities. Nevertheless, the reality is that there are some things that Outlook can't do. In some instances, it's by design. Occasionally, it's something unanticipated by the otherwise very thorough Outlook designers and planners. There aren't many of these hurdles to productivity, but let's examine a few. You might find an explanation here for why you were interrogating your computer.

A few places Outlook gets stuck

Organizing meetings

Views and Folders

Distribution Lists and e-mail

We feel your pain

Organizing meetings

Outlook's central purpose is structure and organization. It therefore expects certain things from meeting participants, and has still higher expectations of meeting organizers.

  • The organizer role is not transferable.

    Once someone has organized a meeting, they are the organizer until the meeting is over. Someone else cannot take the meeting organizer role if the original organizer can't attend. The only workaround is to delete the original meeting and reissue invitations. This is a big and complex issue, in both design and programming required to make it work..

  • The meeting stays on the organizer's calendar.

    The meeting can't be deleted from the organizer's calendar, even if the organizer can't attend, because the organizer is the only one who can change the meeting. This barrier was designed specifically for and implemented into Outlook 2007.

  • Meetings you decline don't exist.

    If you decline a meeting, it disappears from your calendar. If you want to track all of your group's meetings, you'll have to look for another way to include those that you decline.

  • A meeting invitation is a separate e-mail.

    Currently, you can't reply to an e-mail message with a meeting request. This is a frustration for many users.

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Views and Folders

Outlook offers many opportunities for customization, but there are a few areas where it currently enforces restraint.

  • Folders lists are sorted alphabetically.

    In the navigation pane at the far left of Outlook, you can freely rearrange your "Favorite Folders" in Mail, and the shortcut buttons at the bottom that take you between Outlook functions. But the list that you see in "Mail Folders" and "Folder List" — including Inbox, Drafts, Sent Items and Deleted Items, together with organizational folders that you create — is sorted alphabetically, and that's how it stays. If you want to go to the trouble, you can rename your folders, but be careful about Outlook functionality (e.g., avoid renaming "Inbox") and any rules that you may have set up.

  • Each folder has its own view.

    You can change the view of each of your folders - your Inbox can look different from your Sent Items or personal folders. But you can change the view only for each folder individually - you can't apply changes to multiple folders at the same time.

  • The navigation pane font is what it is.

    The style, size and color of the type in your folders list can't be changed. Sorry.

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Distribution Lists and e-mail

The world revolves around e-mail nowadays, and that's an area where Outlook shines. Even so, there are some features users still dream of.

  • Distribution lists come from Contacts.

    It would be useful to be able to stick an e-mail sender directly onto a distribution list — for example, someone responding to an offer for an e-mail newsletter. But Outlook prefers that you build distribution lists from your Contacts, so you first must add the sender to an address book in Contacts. If you'd rather not mix contacts, you can establish an address book especially for the purpose by creating a new folder within your Contacts folder.

  • Contacts are individuals.

    As you learned earlier in this article, you have to add e-mail senders to Contacts before they can go in a distribution list. So, wouldn't it be clever to be able to search for such senders and add them en masse into Contacts? Of course it would. But Outlook says that you have to add e-mail senders to Contacts individually.

  • Each message is sent only once.

    Some people say they'd like to set up a recurring message, e.g., to send reminders. Outlook doesn't do that, but there are third-party add-ins that enable that function.

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We feel your pain

We understand the frustration of roadblocks. The Outlook planning and design team has listened to complaints and comments about these hurdles, some of which may enter discussions of changes to future Outlook versions. In the meantime, here's hoping this article helps you avoid some future moments of aggravation. Because we really don't like it when you and your computer monitor are yelling at each other.

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