I am not a Microsoft basher, or at least I wasn’t until Vista stole a year of my life in its troublesome pre-SP1 version. However, my recent experience with Live Meeting 2007 has me questioning any remaining pro-Microsoft sentiment that I have been nostalgically harbouring.
It was a simple enough problem: set up a half-hour webinar and invite participants without publishing all of their e-mail addresses to everyone attending. With the Live Meeting plug-in, it even looked deceptively simple. The most complicated part appeared to be creating a distribution list to prevent individual e-mails from being shown. But it’s a steep, slippery, downhill slope from there.
The first problem is that Outlook creates a ‘dummy’ message for you to send to attendees. Users are supposed to realise that they can add their own text at the top of the message but the bottom part of the message, where the important details like telephone numbers and Web URLs go, will actually be entirely replaced when the message is sent. So, if you want to correct the phone number (the one supplied had a superfluous zero) or add details for local numbers in other countries, you can just type it all in and then have it discarded without notice. Simple huh? Happily, I discovered that in a test meeting I created beforehand.
For the real meeting, participants were signing up over several days. The initial invitation went out correctly but on opening the calendar entry to add further recipients, I discovered the distribution list was gone, having been replaced by a list of individual e-mail address. What’s a user supposed to do at that point? Update the distribution list or the calendar entry? I may never know if I guessed wrong, but when I started getting two or three separate acceptance e-mails from participants, I suspected that all was not well.
On checking my Live Meeting account, I discovered to my horror that there were now three separate Live Meetings: the original, plus one for each time I updated the attendee list. They had separate meeting codes, so what would have actually happened on the day is that the lucky attendees who were invited first would get to see and hear about card sorting in its full glory, while those in the other meetings would be in an expensive state of limbo (since the calls and webinar connections were all being charged for through Live Meeting). The only remedy was to send an apology to everyone, cancel all the meetings and start again from scratch.
It may be that some of these problems were caused by the Live Meeting plug-in for Outlook as it’s hard to guess how this functionality is divided. What I do know is that if I try to send invitations from the Live Meeting website, I get precisely the problem I wrote about in my last blog entry: the Microsoft server pretends that it is sending e-mail messages from me and it isn’t authorised by our Sender Policy Framework (SPF) to do that. So any e-mail server doing SPF checking will reject the message as forged. And since the Outlook-based e-mail invitations work so badly, I had to devise my own mail merge and calendar entries to be certain that none of this was going to happen again.
It is almost as if some parts of Microsoft have never heard of user experience. And they’re not the only large organisation with this problem. But they really, really should know better.