Email: an interface redesign (sketch)

All popular email clients share the same document-based metaphor, where each new message they received is added to the top of the stack of other messages. Users are expected to sift through their inbox, respond to incoming messages, and file or delete the message. However, this immediate, “one-touch” model of usage is does not match the real-world usage patterns of most users; the quantity of incoming messages, the varied responses they demand, and time it takes to compose a response results in an inbox that is full of messages that users can neither respond to nor even read in a timely manner.

At the heart of this problem is the way email clients strive to preserve the inviolability of the single message. Email clients are message-centric. Each and every single message is another document in the great stack, and you as a user are expected to deal with your correspondence in this manner. What I am proposing is a model that is conversation-centric. What I mean by this is that it is useful to think of your inbox as a collection of voices, rather then individual messages. I’m proposing a model where the most recent message is presented as the latest utterance of the sender, who resides in a list of contacts, and whose position in the hierarchy of contacts is determined by the arrival time of their latest message.

To see the value of a voice-centric model, all you need to do is to divide the number of messages in your inbox by the number of senders, or better yet, the number of unique senders regardless of multiple email addresses. In my inbox I have a staggering 782 messages of varying status: unread, partially read, fully read, and responded to. Compare that to the number of email addresses they were sent from (245), or better yet, the number of unique senders (216), and now you have 216 conversations to monitor rather then 782 messages to keep track of. That?s a reduction of 73%.

I am proposing a new interface to take advantage of this idea.

In this design, the first thing to notice is the three big buttons across the top of the screen.  These let the user can toggle between three views of their inbox: Messages, Threads, or the new Conversations.

Each line item in Conversations can be thought of as a channel that features all the messages you’ve received from that person or people.  The list is ordered by whomever wrote to you most recently; for example, the top three conversations are the last three people who wrote to you. A dot appearing next to a conversation indicates there are unread messages in that conversation.

Try it out for yourself with this PDF demo (the top three buttons are clickable) and toggle between Conversations, Threads, and Messages to see how the interface changes.

About msallin

Matty Sallin is the founder of Kinfo.com. Since 1999, Matty has worked to develop consumer products that manage everyday information and media in a satisfying, illuminating, and beautiful way. His professional and academic work has focused on social media, information design and information visualization. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Good Morning America, GQ, American Public Media, Make Magazine, Boing Boing, Engadget, Gizmodo, Coolhunting, ResFest, and others. Matty holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and a Bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz.
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4 Responses to Email: an interface redesign (sketch)

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