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For reference: email usability

I was clearing out my mail last night, and came across a message that referenced a mail I sent a few years back; it’s a selection of feature requests I made at the start of development of Evolution, the GNOME mail reader/contact manager/Outlook clone. (Not sure if any got implemented BTW ;)

Since I still think some of these are killer ideas that would really improve email readers, and since the only copy is sitting in a mailing list archive, I’ll take a local copy here by posting it.

Worth noting that the reason it came up was a quick mail exchange with Kaitlin ‘Duck’ Sherwood, who’s the queen of email usability, and will be working on the OSAF’s Chandler PIM (and mail) application. Not only had she read the CHI’96 paper in question, she noted it as a ‘profound influence’! Cool — and bodes well for Chandler!

Kaitlin also replied with some excellent plans for folder-overview presentation; I can’t wait to see the results in Chandler, personally. If you want an idea of this stuff, her page on the Perfect Email Client lives here.

Quick top tip: filtering or colorizing messages based how you’re addressed in the headers is immediately beneficial. Quoting Ducky:

My pet view also color-codes messages based on how you were addressed.
  • to me and only me
  • to me and other people
  • cc me and only me
  • cc me and other people
  • bcc me
  • Most people who have implemented the above techniques (you can do it
    with either Outlook or Eudora, though it’s somewhat painful to set up) tell me they’ve saved between 25% and 50% of their prior email time.

She’s right, too!

From: Justin Mason (spam-protected)
Date: Fri, 02 Jun 2000 12:11:56 +0100
Subject: CHI’96 paper on mail usability and some thoughts

Hi guys,

Dunno if you’ve seen this, it’s a good paper on email usability and some recommendations to improve same…

Basically it says:

  1. heavy mail users use incoming mail as a to-do list and appointment tracker

(I personally would add “as a reference bookshelf” as well in my case);

  1. filing into folders doesn’t work in a lot of cases; once it’s out of the

inbox it’s off the radar and soon forgotten about; and folder names are hard to pick and remember;

  1. users quite often do not delete mails in case they become valuable context

for an ongoing discussion, resulting in inbox bloat and an interleaved stack of messages from threads filling up the inbox;

  1. inbox bloat means important mails from a day or two ago soon scroll out

of the “main” window and are lost in the noise.

to fix these:

  • it recommends threading (makes sense, and we know that). This reduces

the visual impact of inbox bloat and sorts 3. and 4.

  • close links to PIM functions such as todo and datebook would be good to help

with 1. (that’s the plan isn’t it!)

  • vfolders should deal with 2.

A few ideas I came up with myself during reading it:

  • I previously added some code to ExMH to colorise messages, and used

the colours as a way of differentiating “todo low-priority”, “todo high-pri”, “support mails”, “pals chatting”, etc. This worked very well as a way to scan a lot of mails and immediately work out the rough categorisation without having to read and parse the from and subject. (unfortunately the code stopped working in the next ver of ExMH and my Tk knowledge wasn’t good enough to fix it!) Helps with problem 4 and aids scanning.

  • up to now there’s been essentially 3 states for mail messages — “unread”,

“read” and “deleted” (ie. not there anymore). I would like to see another state, “saved_as_context”, which would be similar to deleted; ie. the mail would not be visible to the user at all. However, if another mail came in that referenced the “saved_as_context” mail, it would be possible (probably through hitting a “view context thread” button) to see all of that new msg’s context mails. This sorts out problem 3 in a nice way IMHO. BTW it may even be better to use “saved_as_context” instead of “deleted”, ie. keep deleted msgs around for possible context use, and purge them periodically.

  • Retitling mails (ie. changing their subjects after they’ve been received)

would help deal with problem 1 as well — e.g. changing a mail from “Re: help” to “How to fix the latest Outlook worm” is obviously handy for future visual message retrieval ;)

  • It would be handy if an incoming mail can be converted into a To-Do list item

in the PIM interface; ie. right-click on mail, select “add to to-do list”, and that mail (and/or thread!) would be visible in the To-Do PIM interface in some way (even just as a “see this mail” link a la the “note” attached to Palm To-Do list items). It’d also be cool if this went both ways so the To-Do list position/priority of a mail was visible in the inbox view.

Anyway, these are some ideas I thought I’d throw in. I’m pretty excited by the possibilities of Evolution, and I’m looking forward to trying it out; after reading that paper, I just had to share ;)

BTW I haven’t used MS Outlook, so forgive me if Outlook sorts out these problems and I just didn’t notice — ditto for Evolution too, I haven’t had the time to get it compiling yet! ;)


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