Over the past couple of years as I’ve been leading the development of Laszlo Mail, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about email UI. I’ve marked 2004, as the year of webemail innovation. Email user interfaces had appeared to stay relatively the same for decades. While webmail has proliferated in previous years, vendors had accepted the click-whole-page-refresh limitation of the early HTML standard.
In 2004, we started to see changes happening. Oddpost replicated Outlook UI inside Windows IE and then went beyond email to integrate RSS and some innovative calendaring features. Gmail was launched with a very different approach to displaying lists of messages and conversation threads. With wicked fast search, huge amounts of storage and tags instead of foldering, the Gmail developers challeged the traditional model of sorting and filing. At Laszlo Systems, we started prototyping Laszlo Mail, a webmail app with a cinematic user experience, melding the traditional 3-pane display and direct manipulation of a deskop email app with a new design aesthetic. Yahoo acquired Oddpost. In late 2005, Zimbra launched their app borrowing many features from Gmail and Oddpost and adding a new twist where businesses could integrate back-end systems like UPS tracking to provide extra context to email messages.
By Dec 2005, Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal wrote The Men Who Came To Dinner, and What They Said About Email. An avid fan of Laszlo Mail suggested that my mission for 2006 was to be invited to dinner by Lee Gomes for the follow-up one year later. At the time I wondered whether the spurt of innovation was over and whether this was just the mainstream media catching up on the technical innovation of the previous years. Did this UI innovation even matter to most folk or do they just flock to Gmail lured by gobs of free space? I’d like to say that by this time the new webmails had been vetted by the masses, but Yahoo was in private beta, Gmail invite-only, and Microsoft’s newest forray still under wraps. Laszlo Mail had just launched, lacking the fanfare of the big companies.
Back in 2004, Eudora was my email app of choice. Later that year I moved to Thunderbird, seduced by the quick search/filter feature, plagued as I am by a very large inbox. (It is notable that I stuck with Eudora for so long, despite being frustrated by what I believe was a specific, intermiitent Exchange/Eudora bug that had plagued me across two companies, where every 4-6 weeks my inbox would spontaneously decide it needed to download a new copy of every message on the server. An odd and disturbing behavior that I learned to recognize and workaround when it happened. A personal demonstration of what people will put up with for a UI that they love.)
I grew fond of Thunderbird. It’s nuances become integrated into my daily life. I took advantage of its features and worked around its limitations. Thunderbird became my standard for what a good email experience was. On our team, we had strong advocates for Apple Mail, Outlook, and Pine. Freedom of choice in your everyday tools is a strong part of the Laszlo corporate culture and the diversity of personal experience on the mail team had a strong postive influence on our design choices. About a year ago, we deployed Laszlo Mail internally for us all to use for our own company email, but it wasn’t until January with the addiiton of filters that I began to use it full time. I must admit, that I missed Thunderbird, but I care about my product and wanted to make sure that we fixed any issues that got in the way of a good experience.
A few weeks ago, I turned a corner. We did not release a new verison of Laszlo Mail — no new feature development or bug fix caused this change. I opened Thunderbird because I thought a particular task would be faster or easier with that app, and I gave up and I went back to Laszlo Mail. I’ve realized that there are a collection of features that make the Laszlo Mail experience better for me. In some instances, perhaps the very the limitations of the web have driven us to create alternate, more effective solutions. In other instances, it’s just the delightful imagination of our designers and attention to detail by the engineers. In any case, from my personal experience, these are the features that make the difference:
* immediacy: Laszlo Mail starts up faster than Thunderbird, and data is always fresh. I’ve grown used to the fact that when I look at a folder, it has fresh data in it. Instead of opening my Inbox and first looking at the emails recently received when I last logged in, then being suddenly disrupted by the appearance of new emails, my Inbox always shows the most recently received.
* ever-present search: I really like a search folder that sticks around. I didn’t expect that this design would have such an effect, but it’s nice to go back and forth between my search results and other folders without having to re-type the search.
* integrated contacts list: In Laszlo Mail, you have to add someone to your address book to get them into the auto-suggest list, so I use it regularly. Since I’m using it anyhow, I tuck other info away in there. I’ve never used the address books available in other email programs. I tried with Thunderbird for a while, but it just wasn’t was convenient for some reason. I’d like to make the collecting of contacts a little more automated — it’ll be interesting to see whether that would cause me to use it more or less.