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Thinking Out of the Box

It’s time to redesign email

Andreas Burghart
December 10th, 2013

Some new e-mail clients have been introduced recently. Unibox, Airmail, Mail Pilot and others feature convincing visual design, increased joy of use and intriguing interaction concepts.
In my opinion, the person-centered approach of Unibox is very promising. Instead of being organized in a folder hierarchy, e-mails are sorted based on contacts (friends, colleagues, etc.), which results in speedier e-mail retrieval. In addition, one almost forgets that one is dealing with e-mails – it feels more like a conversation between two people. I wonder why nobody has thought of this approach earlier.

The redesigns have inspired me to have closer look at e-mail clients and propose some additional concepts.

The problem with email

It is astonishing that so little has changed since the early days of email. Still, working with e-mail is tedious and time consuming. This is especially true for the business field, because there, the use of email is part of the daily routine.

Here are just some of the problems that the reader is likely to be familiar with:

  • Often one does not know whether a response is required or one does not feel like answering. This is related to how an email is written. Amongst other things, it is detrimental when an email is too confusing, contains too many communication goals, or questions which are formulated imprecisely.
  • Notifications of incoming messages often are a distraction from work 1. But it is no option to turn off notifications if one does not want to miss any mails that are important and require a quick response.
  • All mails in the inbox look as if they have the same importance, even when this is not the case: mails that are important, whose content is not up-to-date or for which no response is required, look just the same as highly relevant messages. This problem is particularly dramatic when the mailbox is “flooded” by many new mails. An important mail might then go unnoticed between many unimportant messages.

These and other problems served as the starting point to conduct a targeted research for plugins and positive approaches in other software products. Subsequently, the building blocks for solutions were supplemented with additional ideas to create a rough concept in order to show through wireframes how an optimized use of email might look like. In the following, a scenario is described that exemplifies how the design of an email program can support the user technically and also support behavior in the direction of more efficient e-mail handling.

Approach to a solution

Receiving emails

Adjusting notifications to individual needs

Andreas does not like to be constantly distracted by incoming messages. That’s why he has set preferences so that he receives an overview of new mails three times a day including on 13 o’clock, when he returns from lunch. This means that he is not notified of each incoming mail.

There is one exception to this rule though: if the software detects that an email has the highest relevance level, then it is “passed through” and Andreas immediately gets a notification when it arrives.

Seeing what is relevant

Andreas looks at the overview, because he wants to decide to which of the new incoming mails he should respond first. It is helpful for him that the relevance of each mail is color-coded. To account for color blindness, relevance is additionally communicated by the number of points. This dual coding improves usability.
Messages are sorted by the system according to their relevance. The relevance can be determined by automatisms of the software, which are combined with individual user settings:

  • The sender can specify until which date the receiver should respond. (This concept will be discussed later.) This urgency of an answer also affects its relevance, which would allow, e.g., to automatically move a mail to the top of the mailbox if one has not replied for one week.
  • By clicking on the star in a profile picture, the user can mark one person as favorite. Mails from favorites are then ranked higher in relevance.
  • Automatic text recognition: a higher relevance is assigned when one’s name is mentioned, which can be helpful in email conversations with many participants; certain keywords that suggest a high degree of relevance are detected (e.g.: “important”, “fast”, and so on). These keywords can to be set by the recipient.

The configuration of relevance ranking is therefore mainly in the hands of the recipient. This is in contrast to a mainly sender-driven approach, which basically relies on the sender setting the priority of a message.

Reading, editing and sending emails

Retaining overview by grouping messages based on content
A longer mail thread relating to one subject and in which several people are involved is automatically displayed as a stack. Thus, the messages are not wildly distributed in the inbox and clarity increases.
Überblick durch inhaltliche Gruppierungen behalten
Stapel ausklappen

Andreas expands the stack to see at a glance which people are involved in the conversation.

Legibility & Readability

Umfangreiche Konversationen zusammenfassen

Next, he wants to read the conversation. He has hidden the inbox-area, so that he can better concentrate on message content.

Although more width is available now, the text does not fill it completely, so that the readability is not impaired. Other basic rules of typography are taken into account, such as a line-spacing of at least 140% of the text size and a font size which is set at 16pt. Because of this, a good legibility and readability are ensured.

Being able to grasp content quickly

Andreas can scan the conversation easily because the software has detected and marked important key terms. Andreas has defined his own key terms in order to quickly identify goals, warnings and questions in the text.
Andreas realizes that the topic “Preparing a usability testing” is highly debated and that he needs the help of Kai to clarify the discussion.

Summarizing conversations

Andreas knows that Kai is often under time pressure and therefore does not have much time to read through the long discussion. Because Andreas needs a quick response, he wants to make answering easier for Kai. For this purpose, he switches to “Summarize Mode”.

Zusammenfassung erstellen

Andreas wants to bring about a decision and therefore has selected the appropriate template, which makes the text boxes “decisions” and “open points” available for him. Now he can search for decisions in the conversation, mark these and drag them into the text box. Also, he marks the open point for which he needs the help of Kai. He confirms the summary by clicking on “Confirm”.

Fertige Zusammenfassung

The software now brings the final summary to the foreground. It is now opened by default, whereas the entire conversation is collapsed. Thereby the summary is displayed to the recipient later on and in the best case, he is not forced to read the entire email.

Next, Andreas wants to forward the conversation to Kai.

Persuasive writing

Überzeugend schreiben

Andreas receives help while composing the email to Kai: a template is available, which provides recommendations and assists him to keep a proper structure. Thus, he focuses on one communication goal and in the last paragraph he creates a call to action to Kai, so that Kai knows exactly what he is supposed to react to. The template is based on the principles of Persuasive Design 2, which, amongst other things, provides recommendations concerning the composing of mails. 3

The layout is designed in a way that provides the author the original email as a reference in addition to his own text. If necessary, he can read through certain passages again and refer to them in his writing.

Hinweis

When formulating the communication goal, Andreas writes a lot of text and therefore gets the hint that this reduces the likelihood of a response. Despite the hint he can still continue writing and the text fades out only so much that it is still readable.

Toolbox

To make the call to action as persuasive as possible, Andreas opens the Toolbox.

The toolbox contains tools, which help to present information more clearly and thus make responding very easy for the recipient.

As Andreas would like to bring about a decision, he drags the tool “decision” in the text box.

Auswahlmöglichkeiten eingeben

Now Andreas labels the options from which Kai is supposed to choose.

Antwortwunsch

To complete the message, Andreas sets how urgent he needs an answer from Kai. After that, Andreas can send his email.

Responding to an email

Replying with little effort

Checkbox anklicken

Kai retrieves his emails.

After Kai has selected the mail from Andreas, he immediately sees the summary of the topic, a preview of Andreas’ message and the decision options. It is also visible for Kai until when Andreas would like him to respond.

The summary is enough to decide which option to choose, and so Kai decides to click on “Local”. He sends the response to Andreas.

Now, we are at the end of my exemplary scenario. As seen in the scenario, it is possible to ease daily work with email, by technical assistance and the guidance of user behavior.
I would enjoy to see my solutions in future email redesigns. Below I will explain, which solutions already exist:

Sources of inspiration

In the article some approaches to handling email more efficiently were shown. Although there is currently no single email software in which all of these approaches have been integrated, there are several solutions that can already be used to make one’s own working with email software easier and more enjoyable. In addition, you can see some promising solutions in email software redesigns and other software products. Some of these solutions are listed below:

    • Overview of notifications
      Growl displays a “rollup”. This is about an overview of all notifications, which were received during one’s own absence.

    • Notification only takes place if it is highly relevant
      In the “Control Center” of iPhone 5, it can be set that only calls from favorites are passed through, if the mode is set to “Do Not Disturb”: this is described more detailed on http://www.apple.com/iphone/iphone-5/tips/ under the heading “Get some peace and quiet.”

    • Relevance Sorting
      Email messages from close contacts rise to the top of the inbox: http://inky.com
      In Thunderbird, the user can mark important mails with a star and sort by that identification, so that the marked messages are listed above.

    • Sorting by answering status
      In “Boomerang for Gmail”, sent emails to which no response has been received, are brought to the inbox, so the user is reminded that a response is still awaited.

    • Increasing the relevance of an email
      In writing mode of Thunderbird , the priority of the email can be set. The scale ranges from “very high” to “very low”. The recipient then can see the priority.

    • Automatic recognition and highlighting of key terms
      In the notification settings of Skype, it is possible to define keywords. Only if one of the defined keywords is mentioned in a conversation, you will receive a notification and the corresponding keyword will be highlighted: This is described more detailed on: https://support.skype.com/en/faq/FA10808/sending-instant-messages-mac under the heading “To change notifications for individual conversations or contacts:”
      In Thunderbird, a “virtual folder” can be created, in which all emails are collected, which contain a key term that has been defined by the user. The counterpart to this is called “Smart Mailbox” in Apple Mail.

    • Assistance in writing a text
      In Word, it is possible to select a template. The choices are for example templates for CVs and protocols.

    • User guidance
      In Thunderbird, the user is reminded (contains german content), when he is likely to have forgotten an attachment. Thunderbird recognizes this through key words that are mentioned in the text, such as “enclosed”, “attached”, and so on. The hint is not too intrusive and does not impair the user when composing a text.

Sources

 

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