Some email usability ideas
Way back in 2000, Ximian were designing Evolution, their GNOME mail reader/contact manager/Outlook clone.
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, here's a local copy.
I've updated it to include some comments apt as of 2004-04-15, after taking a look at Google's GMail, which has some killer new e-mail usability enhancements. (These comments are marked with the string "2004").
From: Justin Mason (spam-protected) Date: Fri, 02 Jun 2000 12:11:56 +0100 Subject: CHI'96 paper on mail usability and some thoughts
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);
- (2) 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;
- (3) 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;
- (4) 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.
(2004: ExMH added it into the mainline in a later version -- but I no longer find this useful! Not sure why; maybe my workflow has changed in some way. However, Evolution now does this, too.) (20040622: after I wrote this, I decided to give it another try to see why I'd stopped using it. now I'm finding it invaluable again so scratch that comment )
- 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.
(2004: it looks like GMail took this advice and ran with it. It will archive all "deleted" mail, and allow an innovative thread display format based on that data -- while viewing a message, the entire thread context is visible at a click. A totally different action is required to really "delete" a message. Very nice work! See GmailThreadingDetails.)
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
(2004: being able to flag such messages with a user-defined set of categories, e.g. "sysadmin", "howto", "reference", "important" etc. and easily narrow down the message list view to display those -- poss through a search interface, or even just a sort column in a table view -- would help here too. Evo now does allow flagging, but with a preset list of flags, not user-editable. GMail, however, does this as described. Retitling and annotation would still be very, very useful functionality.)
-Alain : There is a "Keywords:" header defined in the RFC822 - I guess it is underused !!
- 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.
(2004: apparently this is planned for Evo 2.0)
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! (2004: neither Outlook nor Evo have sorted out all of these.)
(2004: I'll now add a new one: refiling the current message into a folder with one keypress. This has become an essential part of my daily workflow, but may not be so essential for others -- principally because I use it for spam corpus building to train a spam filter. I have one key bound to "refile to the spam folder", and another bound to "refile to the deleted-ham folder"; instead of deleting most mail, I hit those keys instead to refile them according to their type. This quickly and easily builds up a spamfilter training corpus.)
(2004: There's some more good tips from Kaitlin 'Duck' Sherwood at http://taint.org/2003/04/15/175305a.html too.)
April 2004 - I use Outlook 2002 as my email and PIM. It handles most of the items above. IMHO the killer email app for Outlook users is Nelson Email Organiser (NEO) from http://www.emailorganiser.com . NEO has made my email much more accessible and useable. If the Linux crowd manage to replicate NEO and Outlook's functionality then they'd have a killer app.
Maybe checkout the latest Mozilla thunderbird 0.5 - it most of what you want like letting you do label emails with categories (user defined label & colors) though at the moment your limited to 5 categories and one-click junk email classifcation, vfolders (called views), etc. Well worth checking out: www.mozilla.org/thunderbird