Kevin Cheng  

Grimmís ™ Fairy Mails

May 14th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

During CHI2004, I attended one presentation on Remail (there were two, but I wasn’t able to attend the other). Several days ago, Tom and I finally got ourselves GMail accounts thanks to a reader of OK/Cancel. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two up and coming clients. Admittedly, GMail is a web application and comparing it to a suite like Remail has some element of comparing apples and oranges. However, the two systems do share surprising similarities in philosophy.

Compare

I think all e-mail readers are beginning to recognize that e-mails are more than a collection of individual messages. Hence, it comes as no surprise that both applications offer some features around conversation threading. However, their approaches differ somewhat.

In Remail, all messages are still treated as individual entities by default. When a message is selected, it is highlighted in a dark blue. All messages in the same conversation are simultaneously highlighted a lighter blue colour. Further, within the details of a particular message, there is a simple visualisation of the thread, indicating the where in the thread the message belongs, the flow of the messages, and permitting you to quickly review and navigate to other message in the thread.

Conversely, GMail does not ever differentiate a message from its conversation. All conversations are grouped together with information regarding the number of messages in the thread and the people involved in the conversation clearly visible. When a thread is selected, the most recent message in the thread is shown. However, bucking convention, GMail does not order the messages in reverse chronological order. Instead, it shows them from oldest to newest, collapsing all the older e-mails such that only the most recent is actually displayed. Of course, an expand all functionality is easily accessible on the right. As a bizarre oversight, there is no function to collapse a thread once its been expanded without collapsing each message individually.

GMail Browse Interface

Aside from organizing by threads, e-mail clients seem to be trending away from the concept of folders, favouring instead a system of labelling or categorizing. Those who have used Outlook 2003 will recognize these features to be similar to Outlook’s Search Folders. One of the biggest problems with folders is that they tend to be mutually exclusive. A message cannot belong to multiple folders without having another instance created. This system is problematic when we often organize our messages across different dimensions. Sometimes, we will label whether a message is related to a project. Sometimes, a message may be important for reference purposes. A single message can contain both of these properties.

Using categories (Remail) or labels (GMail), users can tag the messages with multiple flags and subsequently browse through all messages with a certain set of criteria. Where the message is stored no longer becomes a concern.

Further to the “Inbox is all you need” philosophy, there is an additional emphasis on searching and filtering. Both clients offer powerful yet easy to use search functions. Remail has taken it one step further by offering direct search feedback to each key press.

Finally, in terms of displaying the information, both applications focus on minimizing clutter in the e-mail browsing area. Neither mailer show the full date and time of the e-mails. In GMail, for example, the time of the mail is only shown if it was mailed on the day. Otherwise, the month and day, are shown without the year. How older mails prior to the current year are shown is unclear at the moment.

Contrast

Remail, of course, has a slew of features beyond GMail. Probably the biggest conceptual push is its intimate tie with calendar functions. Remail ensures that the calendar is always visible to the user and depending on the screen real-estate allocated to it by the user, shows a week or month view. By having the calendar readily available, users can drag e-mails directly to calendar dates to set up appointments. All e-mails that are tied to calendar entries or official meeting invitations are indicated with an icon.

More interestingly, Remail also includes a feature which attempts to detect mentions of dates or times. For example, an e-mail mentioning “this week” or “tomorrow” will be flagged with a grey clock (as opposed to the orange one used for definitive calendar events). How useful this feature is remains to be seen but the most common use would likely be for tentative meetings being discussed through e-mail. For example, “How’s Thursday sound for lunch?”

Remail also offers a great deal of visualisations. Some are more obviously useful than others. Their correspondent map displays a diagram of all your contacts with shades of blue and black indicating how recently you corresponded with each. The visualisation also indicates which contacts have contacted you more recently than you have contacted them, thus flagging potential areas requiring follow-up.

GMail, for its part, has features which we take for granted in regular mail clients but would rarely expect in a web application. I was particularly surprised to find auto-completion activate when I was entering e-mail recipients. Other functions typical of regular mail clients included keyboard shortcuts and flagging messages and column sorting. In addition, GMail has simplified other aspects of corresponding. To respond to an e-mail, one simply begins to type in a box underneath the message in question. By default, even the subject field isn’t displayed whilst replying.

GMail Conversation Threads

Not everything is perfect in GMail land. Some actions, such as deleting e-mails, are made deliberately cumbersome. 1Gb of e-mail, after all, should leave nobody wanting to delete their e-mails, right? Checking whether you have new mail is equally painstaking. Hotmail has integration to Outlook and Outlook Express whilst Yahoo! has integration with their instant messenger and My Yahoo.

Of course, the most controversial “feature” of GMail is their inline advertising, which displays advertisements potentially related to the contents of your e-mail. Privacy issues aside, I did not feel the placement nor the content of the advertisements to be particularly intrusive and much easier to ignore than those offered by Yahoo. In addition to advertisements, GMail also sometimes displays related web sites. These links are not paying advertisers but simply sites which Google feels has potential relevance. Given the strength of Google’s search engine, I foresee this to be a potentially useful feature.

Conclusions

GMail, with its 1Gb of disk space, is already set to change the face of web mail. However, their interface has taken definitive steps towards new ways of organizing e-mail. Judging from the most recent incarnation of Outlook and the prototype of Remail, it looks like there is a consensus on the future.

Personally, I have found Outlook’s search folders immensely useful but I’m still using folders and rules more than anything else. My personal e-mail doesn’t really suffer much from organisational chaos but at work, thereís much more going on.

While labelling/categories/whatever you call it may make finding e-mails easier, it doesn’t solve the big issue of having too much e-mail to sift through. GMail takes the approach of “never delete e-mails” which means one big inbox. Give my main dilemma is “should I spend time reading this e-mail”, that approach could make it much more difficult. To handle this load, I currently have rules so that certain mailing lists are automatically filed in other areas. That way, I know which mails I can get away with not reading.

Are categories/labels the way to go or are they solving the wrong problem? Perhaps we need to completely change the way e-mail fundamentally works as it’s evolved far beyond its original usage.

13 Responses to “Grimmís ™ Fairy Mails”
Dave wrote:

Kevin, Thanx for the comparison study.
Couple of things worth noting:

  1. the Archive feature of gMail is how you “empty” your inbox. Archived mail is still findable in their label areas (or searching of course).
  2. My big concern w/ labels/categories, is that they themselves can grow and grow and would start to require “structure”. What I like about my folders is that they are heirarchical. I like the idea (love and live it) of being able to use multiple labels. I.e. I have a label for the list name (the generator) and then another label for the topic if I feel I will need it. The other problem w/ labels is that you need to know taht something should be labeled something before you archive it. Once you go the route of archiving it, its basically going to forever be w/o that label. Unless that is you search for it again and give it the label.
  3. Things stay selected. This has been a HUGE usability issue of mine w/ Yahoo and others. I go to a message, click “inbox” and anything I selected is GONE (unchecked). GMail remembers my selections and I like it.
  4. open in new window. This is a nice feature. It allows you to choose a thread or even an individual message and open it into a new window. Very nice indeed.
  5. What’s missing? Oy! I can go on. But what keeps me from really using GMail for my real e-mail use are the following:
    • Can’t access other “pop” accounts
    • Can’t access my current very large archive. I mean my e-mail life didn’t start just now, eh? I’d love to be able to use Googles search on my own archives and then label stuff.
    • I think you said this one; no alert mechanism. But I think this is going to be eventuallyand easily handled in the googlebar (at least for those users that can use it).
    • There is an addressbook (the auto-complete is awesome), but if it doesn’t sync to my palm & desktop what’s the point. I have NEVER used Hotmail’s addressbook for this reason and I stopped updating my yahoo addressbook b/c it just become too combersome to maintain so many addressbooks. I’d prefer something like access to a fusion like space. Then I might be able to apply the same labels/categories to my contacts as to others

My conclusion (don’t know nuttin’ about remail) is that GMail is great. I have really enjoyed using it. But it is just a Beta and it is an pre-IPO hype builder that’s for sure, but it also very useful and usable and the new methods are on the right track, IMHO.

Thanx for the review again.
— dave

Dave wrote:

OH! and I like the ads (so long as they remain text only). — dave

James wrote:

In the comic, is the GMail fairy supposed to look like the MSN butterfly?

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I sort of drew the wings thinking they’d be translucent or yellowish. Tom coloured them with Google colours and we both noticed the similarity. I thought it was kind of funny. We’d never noticed how their colours were identical.

I hope Google comes out with an instant messenger next ;)

Andrei Sedelnikov wrote:

2. My big concern w/ labels/categories, is that they themselves can grow and grow and would start to require “structure”.

I see no problems here because noone forbids that the categories can be somehow hierarically groupped, too.

Have you seen the Adobe Photoshop Album? It has a nearly perfect system (and UI, too) of organizing images in categories. I suppose exactly the same can be applied for e-mails.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Have you seen the Adobe Photoshop Album? It has a nearly perfect system (and UI, too) of organizing images in categories. I suppose exactly the same can be applied for e-mails.

Actually, that’s not an entirely accurate comparison. Photoshop Album does do labels the same way as GMail. The difference is, GMail doesn’t have the ability for you to see some combination of the labels nor does it have things like sliders to dynamically constrain date ranges. So while the architecture of the organization is the same, the tools to make use of these are different. I can see all photos with me in them, dated last year and based in London. I can’t, even with the advanced search, look at which e-mails have label A AND label B.

Oluseyi Sonaiya wrote:

While all of this is very interesting (personally, I find ReMail to be far more intriguing), it’s also old hat. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Novell Evolution (formerly Ximian Evolution) - probably because it’s Linux-only.

Evolution’s vFolders and automatic e-mail indexing make your entire inbox searchable by virtually possible criteria, as it automatically sorts all messages into non-exclusive collections based on date, size, author, subject, and all other intrinsic properties. You can extend the mechanism to custom vFolders, which you manually populate, and all of this has been available for over two years.

Evolution also features a calendar, integrated to-do list, vCard database, Palm device support, a powerful summary page (”State of the Mail”, if you will), and integration with Microsoft Exchange, so it doesn’t necessitate isolation from a corporate groupware environment.

Disclaimer: I switched back to Windows before Evolution reached maturity, but I’ve followed its development intently for three years now (accompanied by regular sacrifices to the Software Gods in the hope that it’d be ported to Windows). Novell has just announced Evolution 2.0.

Andrei Sedelnikov wrote:

I can’t, even with the advanced search, look at which e-mails have label A AND label B.

Well, since I don’t have an account yet, I didn’t know that. Maybe this would be possible in the Release Version? At least I hope so. Isn’t it an obvious feature to add?

Kevin Cheng wrote:

OH! and I like the ads (so long as they remain text only). — dave

Great points, Dave. Synchronizing with Outlook, at least in terms of addressbook, is something I expected they’d eventually get around to but I didn’t realize others still didn’t do it. Even E-vite knows being able to synch is important.

Regarding the text ads … AdSense recently introduced image ads so we’ll see if that also translates to the ads in GMail.

Nigel Homely wrote:

Bored with googlewhacking? Here’s a fun new game that takes advantage of the google ads in gmail: Try to write an email that says what you want to say, but use phrases and words that will produce a completely unrelated set of ads. The goal is to get ads that are compeltely unrelated (or opposite) to the content of your message!

jmalm wrote:

Remail and Gmail are approaching what would be ideal — a single message for every thread. I still have not seen a good way of handling forks, concurrent replies, attachments, splices, and the annoying “add comments to a message below,” as is what is capable in Outlook, that reeks havoc on long threads. From personal experience I sometimes need to check 3 or 4 messages in a thread to find the information I need because of the aforementioned issues.

Ideally it would be nice to organise all messages in a thread into one visualisation, whatever its form. It is still the case that 95% of information contained in many email threads of moderate length is both redundant visually difficult to search (the fastest search/filter method is often visual for small data sets).

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Ideally it would be nice to organise all messages in a thread into one visualisation, whatever its form. It is still the case that 95% of information contained in many email threads of moderate length is both redundant visually difficult to search (the fastest search/filter method is often visual for small data sets).

GMail handles this by automatically hiding quoted text in every message. I’m assuming it’s doing this by detecting the usual > character used. One thing I haven’t tried is what you mentioned about commenting on an existing message. e.g.

> What day is best for you?
Friday

Does it hide that text? I don’t know. I’ll try that out and report back.

Remail handles full thread visualization including splices and forks but I don’t see it as solving the problems you mention. One would still have to drill through each message to find the desired information.

Typically, the way I handle that is to mark the message that has pertinent information or even delete other messages in the thread, keeping only the one with the right information. Something I can’t actually do with GMail.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

The goal is to get ads that are compeltely unrelated (or opposite) to the content of your message!

Not entirely related to this thread (but then neither is that GMail game) but I thought I’d mention a friend’s slightly different take on potential Gmail privacy fun.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?