Windows Live Messenger – a usability nightmare

The other day, I had a chance to check out the Live Messenger beta on a fellow developer’s machine here at SnapStream.  Sadly, we mostly just sat there making fun of it.  There are so many things wrong with it I don’t really know where to begin.


Well, actually, I do know where to begin, because it’s my job.  Maybe we should start with downloading the program.  Here’s what happens after you sign into Passport from the invite.

Actually, that text should say “Now all you need to do is open up Internet Explorer, and use THAT to download the program, and sign in.”

It is my opinion that creating a graphic and linking it to a file in this day and age is not that difficult.  I have to hand it to the creator of this page…whatever it is you need to do to fudge a button to do nothing in Firefox and work only in Internet Explorer, this guy found it.  I don’t think HTML has changed THAT much over the past few years.

Not an auspicious start.

1. Devoting space to everything but the reason why people use your product.

Some basics.  In an instant messenging application, the contact list is the heart of the product.  The application is open so that you can find and talk with other people.  Without the contact list, there is no reason for the product to exist. With that said…


This is a screenshot of two IM windows side by side at a typical size.  Live Messenger is on the left, and Windows Messenger, built into Windows, is on the right.

First things first.  In the left image, see how that Messenger text at the top is all cut off and disappearing like? Yep, looks sloppy.  Dude, not sure why you don’t just use text and an ellipsis instead of squashing images together.

Anyway, aside from that, I think it’s pretty self evident what’s wrong here.  Live Messenger is hogging all the space for the contact list with useless junk.  The names of my contacts occupy less than half of the window’s real estate.  I see 5 contacts in Live Messenger…with Windows Messenger, I see 16 contacts.  Even Windows Messenger could be just a tad smarter about using screen real estate, but for the sake of comparison, Windows Messenger is like Kobe Bryant, and Live Messenger is like the fat kid whose parents sent him to basketball camp so they could have some time to themselves during summer vacation.

Now let’s see what happens when we contract the window.

You would hope that since the application is for instant messaging, it would keep the contact list visible since without it, there IS no application.  Sadly, this is not the case.  The contact list is the first thing to go, rendering the application completely useless.  I have to ask myself, “Self, do I really want an application that shows me an ad, web search, my own name, and nothing else”?  I thought about that for 5 seconds before my brain dragged me out back and beat me senseless.

Now, for the sake of argument, if a developer wanted to force someone to keep looking at an ad, he might decide to do something similar to what happened here, where the main section of the application disappears before the ad does.  But the idea of an ad in my instant messenging application doesn’t do a whole lot for me, and I suspect it doesn’t roll well with most other people either.  There are plenty of non-ad driven alternatives out there.

In summary, your ads and your giant frigging title bar suck.  I want to see my contact list.

2. Wasting real estate on infrequently accessed options.

Now I’m going to mark up all the options taking up top level space that people generally don’t use.  Watch out folks, this isn’t going to be pretty.


1. Sorting contacts.  Well, this isn’t too bad. But I sure as hell don’t sort my contacts that often.
2. Add a contact. If anyone did this often to benefit from an add contact icon on the front of the app, their contact lists would quickly become unmanageable.  Therefore you can infer that people don’t add contacts that frequently.  Put this on a menu item where it belongs.
3. Contact card.  The only people who want to look at their contact card all the time are vain people who you shouldn’t be friends with anyway.
4. Folder sharing. Don’t need it, don’t want it.
5. Personal message. Do people actually have a need to change this that often?
Well heck, let’s try this out.

Did I do that right? It always feels better sharing your misery with others.

Actually, a useful feature would be the ability to set an away message so that people who try to IM me when I’m not at the computer know how to contact me. Has that been added yet?

6. Create a blog. Yeah, so I don’t want to create another blog on MSN Spaces. But I still need to look at your damn button.  Does this button change to manage my MSN space blog if I have one? Why would I want to manage my blog from my IM client if I did have one?
7. Change color. I change my clothes on a regular basis. IM client colors?  Please.  Maybe you can hard code this button in a special build for Paris Hilton and spare the rest of us peons.
8. Contact search. Hey, who has this many contacts?  I think you think I have more contacts than you think I think you think. Or something. For the 0.001% of people that need to search their IM contact list, make this an option somewhere that is OFF by default.

To be fair, there’s usually a little room for fluff in an app.  It’s the total dogpile of irrelevant options here you are forced to look at that violates basic principles of usability.

Suggestion: at the very least, they could have adhered to the paradigm of a toolbar that’s been established already.  That allows the user to customize what they want to see in a fashion that’s optimal for THEM.  Not all of the above options suck all the time, it’s just forcing the user to see them all the time that’s the problem.  A toolbar is perfect for this scenario.

3. Assuming people want to do things in Messenger that rightfully belong to other parts of the system.

Then, of course, we get to some classic symptoms of bloatware.  Like the addition of tangentially related features that serve mostly to make the primary function of the application less pleasant and more difficult to use.

Seriously man, what is this?  A “Check my e-mail” button from MSN Messenger.  You guys realize I have a Start Menu and a Quick Launch bar to handle this for me already, don’t you? It doesn’t get much faster for me than a single click. 

People don’t use MSN Messenger to launch programs. They use it to talk to other people in real time.

Oh yeah, what about this search the web thing that I can’t get rid of?

Let’s come up with other cool things for MSN messenger to do that other programs are already doing.

1. Downloading programs
2. Playing MP3’s
3. Macroing characters in World of Warcraft and selling their junk on eBay, putting sweatshops in foreign countries out of business. Crazy Americans!

The most egregious thing, of course, is that you can’t get rid of any of this junk from the window.  Not do you get inferior alternatives that are worse than existing options built into the OS, you don’t even get options to shut off this abuse of your window’s real estate.

4. What about this shared search thing?

You know what’s really great? When I try to IM a friend and I hit this Search button you put right next to the Send button instead.  Gosh, it’s just the greatest thing ever!  In fact, from the colors it actually looks like Search is a more important button than Send, since you’ve used orange in other parts of the application to color dead space like the title bar area and the contrast of the text on the Search button is higher.

Get that Search button away from the Send button and get the colors visually correct so that they cue the user properly.

5. Contacts that move as you try to click on them

You know that cool toolbar on Mac’s that grows icons and shrinks them as you pass the cursor over the bar?  It’s really cool to look at.  It makes some people feel good.  But from a usability standpoint, it’s horrible.

Let’s state out loud a very simple concept…it’s a lot easier to aim for and hit a stationary target than it is to hit a moving target.  In one case, you aim for an area and course correct a tiny bit at the end.  In the latter case, you must constantly course correct more as the target moves around while you try to move your cursor towards it.

Now check out this neato and completely retarded feature they added to MSN Messenger.

I would like you to imagine the contacts expanding and repositioning other contacts when you move your mouse up and down the list.  It sucks a lot, trust me.  I guess aiming for a contact was too easy, so they decided to make it this little game where the list constantly shifts under you while you try to get to the person you want to talk to. Awwwwwesome!

At least you can turn this little gem of a feature off.  Probably because someone else at MSN realized that the feature sucked. After the first developer/idiot wrote it, of course.

Turn the feature off by default, at least.  Frankly, I think the option should be annihilated completely.

6. Tell me why I want to remove those tabs. Please.

So, let’s say you want to get rid of these annoying tabs on the side here.  You know, because you never, ever click on them.

You go to Tools/Options, because from past experience with Microsoft applications, you know that’s where you go.  Personally, I think it’s debatable what the Tools category even means, but whatever.  You’re there.

You momentarily contemplate the fact that you may not even be allowed to turn off the tabs, because the people who designed this program are evil bastards.  However, you forge on bravely.  Scanning the categories before you, you spot…AHA…the Tabs section.  You think  briefly to yourself “Well, that was almost too easy. It must be here!”  Oh, how wrong you are, foolish one.  For a brief fleeting moment, you have hope.  That hope quickly turns to despair once you click on the Tabs section and realize that you have nothing available to you but Up and Down buttons to rearrange the order of the tabs.  Vainly, you right-click on the tabs in the list, hoping against hope that a right click menu might appear that will let you delete all the accursed tabs from your sight.  Your attempt fails…you are now humbled in your defeat. The tabs will STAY.

What you missed, dear readers, is that you can, in fact, turn off the tabs.  You just need to go here…

Yes, folks, that is EXACTLY why I want to turn off tabs. Because I share this computer with friends and they might see my tabs.  I’m not sure what kind of dirty profane tabs I can add to MSN Messenger that would make me worry about this, but if you find any, let me know.

The odd thing is, there doesn’t even seem to be a way to change what tabs you have in the first place.  Which means everyone has the same frigging tabs.  Hey, as long as you let us hide the tabs, I’ll guess you think can whatever you want, smart guy.  On the downside, hiding tabs means I end up missing out on this Oreo Cookie theme pack. S***!

7. Ask me if I want to share a folder again, please?

I’m just going to describe this concisely.  Every time I send a file to a contact, it asks me if I want to start Sharing Folders with them.  EVERY TIME.  It rules.


To summarize, Windows Live Messenger breaks about a zillion common sense usability fundamentals. It also kicks puppies on weekends.

I recommend whoever is in charge of this product get a designer with a strong product vision on board and the nuts to say no to random developers or marketing folks trying to dump random features into the product.  It’s clear to me that your product vision at this point consists of cramming random junk into the application.  Probably a case of too many cooks spoiling the brew, or too many developers sitting around with nothing better to do…but that’s not the user’s problem.

Focus on one thing and one thing only…making a great instant messenging application.  Treat your screen real estate like gold, because you’re in the special position of running all the time along side other applications.  Users will forgive the other junk you put in, but they won’t forgive backslides in usability.  In fact, at this point, you should cull top level buttons and items out of the product and make sure Live Messenger does IM really, really well before you add anything back.

That’s all for today, boys and girls. This markup and critique was brought to you by a Toshiba M200 Tablet PC and the Snipping Tool 2.0.  Rock on.

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