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The Outlook default behavior is to mark a message a read as soon as

  • it appeared in the viewing pane and
  • another message was selected.

This leads to confusing behavior: For example, when I read a message in the reading pane and then move it to another folder (I have just read it and want to archive it), it is still marked as "unread" (because I did not select another message first).

Apparently, one of the first things many people do is to change that behavior to something more sensible:

In a comment to this superuser question, someone asked:

Can anyone tell why the default behavior is the way it is. I just can't find a use case where this is the desired behavior.

I wondered the same, so I would like to ask the UX crowd: Does this default behavior make sense? As far as I can see, most people who care about these things either set their Outlook to "immediately mark as read" (as above) or "never mark as read" (for those who use read/unread as a todo/done marker and don't use folders).

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  • 1
    I think it depends a lot on how you organize your email. I have rules that pre filter special emails into certain folders but everything else dumps into my inbox and it stays there forever thus I never have the move issue. I'd argue that most people run their mail in a similar fashion. PS I used to be meticulous with sorting my email but gave up on it when search in email became worthy (e.g. Once gmail showed us that search was better than sort)
    – scunliffe
    May 18 '16 at 10:31
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    I would speculate that the logic behind this is that just because an item is in the viewing pane, doesn't mean you have literally 'read' the email. But by moving to a different item, that implies you have 'read' the email and are moving onto the next one.
    – Midas
    May 18 '16 at 11:26
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    The behaviour in outlook has always intrigued me - I can't think of any other mail client that behaves the same way - most mark as read on opening. May 18 '16 at 16:07
  • Are there any additional questions you have that we did not answer in our responses? May 26 '16 at 14:36
  • @maxathousand: Nope, I think "changing to calendar" is a very good example of a use case where this behaviour makes sense.
    – Heinzi
    May 26 '16 at 15:29
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I believe this has to do with how Outlook presents the messages in the Inbox.

By default, when I open the application, the first email in my Inbox (whether I've read it or not) is visible in the reading pane. If, however, I'm actually opening Outlook to click over to my calendar, I may have completely missed that email that first opened. That first email is now marked as "read" though I never actually read it.

I believe the reason why Outlook differs in this behavior from other email clients is because Outlook opens emails in the reading pane automatically when the application opens whereas Gmail, Yahoo, and other web-based clients don't tend to do that.

I will concede that this is not the behavior I expect, and I have also changed the default "read" behavior.

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  • That explains the first message, but at the cost of undesirable behavior for every other message displayed in the user's session. A poor trade. In Office 365 Outlook, it's even worse: only reading another message in the same folder marks the first as read, clicking a new folder keeps the message unread (adding extra clicks to mark the last message in each folder read). Also the O365O setting cannot be changed! This was probably why the Outlook Today page was originally created instead.
    – brianary
    May 26 '17 at 15:57
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    I agree--it's a good safeguard against not accidentally missing the first message that opens automatically, but it seems that any additional action where I explicitly open the message should count as a "read", IMO. Perhaps not considering a message as read when switching folders is intended to provide the same kind of safeguard as the "on application start" behavior..? Who knows. May 26 '17 at 16:18
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I always have believed this is bad UX when considering the totality of email applications, and questionable UX when considering Outlook in a vacuum.

When compared to other email apps, virtually every other application out there marks an item as read as soon as it's opened and decrements the total unread mail count. In Outlook, both the message status and total unread mail count remain the same. There's an argument to be made that not marking a message as read until it's been clicked away from violates the Schneiderman rules that human computer interactions should strive for consistency and informative feedback at the very least.

In Outlook, this behavior is a historical consistency, going back for years and multiple different versions of Outlook. It's been "wrong" for some time, but at least it's been consistent.

It's worth noting that you can change this behavior, if you so desire.

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  • You cannot change it in Office 365 Outlook. :(
    – brianary
    May 26 '17 at 15:59

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