Liaise, a product that debuted at DEMOfall 2009 and was named a People's Choice Winner there, is a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook designed to help individuals and teams manage tasks and projects through e-mail. I recently had the chance to test the Liaise beta. While I was impressed with some aspects of it, the user experience didn't quite live up to the exciting glow of the 5-minute demonstration I saw at DEMOfall.
Some of this is due to the fact that Liaise is still in beta and has many of the quirks and deficiencies that one expects from an unfinished product. But I also found some limitations in the current scope of the product, which may limit Liaise to the role of nice mail management tool rather than collaboration and project management system.
To get started with Liaise, I downloaded the beta code and loaded it on a few systems. Currently, Liaise supports only Outlook 2003 and 2007, and it runs only on Windows systems. The plug-in install was fairly simple. When I started Outlook after installation, the mail client had some new Liaise elements built into it.
These elements included buttons for creating a Liaise-enabled e-mail, launching the Liaise manager application, or turning the Liaise bar on or off. When it is turned on, the Liaise bar runs at the bottom of the screen and shows information about the e-mail currently highlighted in Outlook. (Standard new-message capabilities in Outlook remain, so messages do not need to go through Liaise.)
When I clicked the button to launch a Liaise-enabled message, a window opened up that looked a little like a standard Outlook new-message window. Within this message window-which Liaise calls a Smart Message-I could operate pretty much as I would in Outlook, pulling user names from my Contact list, and retaining my signature line and most of the standard features of Outlook messages.
But Liaise adds many of its own elements. For example, as I began typing, the application analyzed the content of the message, looking for specific task-related action items, or what Liaise calls KeyPoints. These include whether the point of an e-mail is to take action (such as "finish that report") or deal with an issue, whom the e-mail is being sent to (essentially, the task participants), when the task is due to be completed, and the importance or priority of the task.
Liaise does a pretty good job of figuring these things out. When I typed "do this by Friday" in an e-mail, Liaise created a due date of Friday for that task. Using words such as "urgent" and "ASAP" led to higher priorities. It was a simple matter to edit any of these elements manually.
Once tasks are in Liaise, they can be viewed and tracked in multiple ways. The Liaise bar showed information about tasks related to the e-mail, date or contact highlighted in Outlook, and provided a quick view into whether anything related to that message needed to be addressed.
The KeyPoint report, which could be accessed from the Liaise bar, provided a very nice overview of the state of a task or project, and even made it possible to print or export the report as a PDF or Excel document.
The Liaise Manager offered several views into people and tasks being tracked in Liaise, providing a nice quick overview on where important items stood and who was responsible for them or needed to be included in further work.
As far as general task and e-mail management go, Liaise worked fairly well in my tests. It was especially good at figuring out who among my contacts was involved in what tasks or issues, something that isn't always easy to determine with standard e-mail threads.
If your co-workers are using Liaise, the product works as a pretty nice collaboration tool, making it possible to easily coordinate on tasks and issues and know who and what is running behind. However, if your colleagues aren't using Liaise, there are several weaknesses to the model.
Obviously, non-Liaise users won't receive reports, reminders or updates from the application. However, e-mails that I sent to non-Liaise users included many Liaise artifacts that were at best useless and at worst confusing.
For example, e-mails I sent to non-Liaise users contained a line of information that in static form isn't as helpful as within a Liaise Smart Message. In addition, Liaise inserts a small Liaise advertisement in the signature, and I could find no way to remove it.
Liaise didn't seem to impact Outlook performance in general, but interacting with Liaise messages was definitely slower than interacting with standard Outlook messages. This may be due to the current beta state of the program.
For more information or to apply to be part of the beta program, go to www.liaise.com.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.