Looking at User Experience for Thunderbird 3

Over the past year the Thunderbird platform has received a large number of updates, however it is also seeing a number of improvements to it’s over all user experience.   In a recent email I tried to write out some of the major improvements that are in the works for the next bird release, here’s a summary of that mail.

Search

With some needed changes to the Thunderbird platform it has become possible to provide efficient full text search over messages and their headers.  This will enable Thunderbird to offer a much improved search experience over the previous search methods.  Search can start over the full text of a message and then be filtered against specific attributes like sender or subject to narrow down the set of results.  We can also offer auto-complete on subjects and people in the search entry to help prevent spelling mistakes and partial matches from slowing down the search process.

Tabs

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how people use tabs which lead us to a tab mail implementation that should improve searching, reading, and processing; hopefully also saving that state.  Currently a search over mail will destroy the state of your message list by filtering down the messages in the exposed view.  With searches opening in new tabs your current view can remain intact while you explore your mailboxes in new tabs.   Messages can be opened with a middle click, just like in Firefox, to help you process mail quickly by queuing the messages you’d like to read later in tabs; later you can close your opened tabs as you read each message.

Account Auto Configuration

When trying to setup Thunderbird the details of your email accounts host, port, and security settings are so 2008, lets evolve.  Long in the works has been a better, easier way to setup an email account.  Our design goal was to get an email account setup with absolute the minimal number of questions.

  • Name
  • Email Address
  • Password

With those 3 items Thunderbird can infer all other details automatically, with exception cases handled gracefully.  It has been difficult work to make this happen, but we are well on our way and we know that when we finish it will have been worth it.

Message Archive

Thanks to the recent improvements to enabling cross-folder search we are able to implement an archive system for IMAP and  POP clients.  With a single button Thunderbird users can automatically file messages from their Inbox and other folders into the archive folder system.  We’ve pushed the Archives folder into the list of special folders such that it will sort with your Inbox, Sent Mail, and Drafts.  If you’re interested, take a look at the archive bug for more of the technical details, otherwise just take a deep breath… its coming.

Activity Manager

Notifications and download progress concerning your mail accounts are important events, however they aren’t events that require your full attention.  Earlier last year we looked at how we could reduce the amount of dialog noise Thunderbird generates in order to handle your account details in a more civilized manner.  We took a good look at the Firefox Download Manager and created, what we called, an Activity Manager.   Recent activity on the activity manager has lead to new patches in the review cycle headed toward a coming release.

Theme Improvements

With recent steps forward Thunderbird has finally made room for the Linux Desktop theme space.  I don’t even need to say much else about this change, this list says it all.

And of course lots more

There are many more changes, from the auto-sync offline work to preference cleanups that have happened and/or are still in the works; this list is just a grouping of major areas.  We’ve come a long way, but have an even longer road ahead.

Is George W Bush the worst president?

I’m eagerly downloading the latest Intelligence Squared debate, Bush 43 is the worst president of the last 50 years.  What makes this especially interesting to me is the fact that Karl Rove is participating in the debate the panel, arguing against the motion.

Activity Manager… Activity!

It’s been a while since my first post on the Activity Manager for Thunderbird.  There was a lot of positive feedback from an Activity Manager talk we gave in Barcelona for the EU Mozcamp.  And since that time there has been quite a bit of progress on the Activity Manager code.

Emre recently landed a new “work in progress” patch ( check out the patch in bug 257942 ).  Also there has been a lot of work put into documenting the Activity Manger Interfaces to help other developers properly hook into it and use it.  Please take a look over the interface docs and if you’re so inclined you could grab the patch and apply to a current release, beta or later, to see the current activity manager in action.

Beta 1 Released

David Ascher has a great post about our recent Thunderbird 3 Beta 1 release with info on where you can get it and what it involves.

This bird can dance!

Thunderbird can finally do the Tango

For a long time Thunderbird has been using the same theme for Linux and Windows, resulting in an ugly and out of place Linux theme.  However now Magnus has a patch is up to create a gnomestripe theme space.  Magnus already moved Thunderbird menus over to using the gtk stock icons.

Here’s a screenshot (courtesy of Michael Monreal) of Thunderbird using the desktop icon spec.

Now we can start the move over to using the Tango icon set!

Thunderbird Tab Session Restore

The new Thundertab has (partially) landed in the nightly builds of Thunderbird.  You’ll need to get Lightning installed to see all this and it’s not too pretty yet, but we’re making lots of progress.

But there’s no time to lose!  We’re already talking about how to handle tab session restore to keep all your opened mail tabs around for future sessions.

I’ve put up a partial mockup already, but it’s still early.  As always please leave comments below!

Thunder-tab

I’ve been experimenting with how we can use tabs inside Thunderbird.

Thunderbird Tabbing

The previous tabbing post already discussed how tabs help people to keep their current context and multi-task more flexibly.  I’ve created a number of designs that look into using tabs in Thunderbird so email users can have the same kind of power over their context.

In Tabs By Default

To keep your current context of email reading, searches will open up in a new tab by default.  Such that anytime you’re in the All Mail tab and start a search the results will open in a new tab.  Opening up the Calendar, Tasks, and Contacts will also open up by default in a new tab as well.  Tabs will need to be fast to open.

Tab Shortcuts

Much like you could want quick bookmarks to open up the web pages that you access frequently Thunderbird needs a way for users to open up different types of tabs that are unique and used frequently.

Shortcuts

Tab shortcuts allow us to offer a default set of tab locations that users may want to open.  We can also offer this location up to extensions to enable them to add in their own shortcuts for items like CRMs, Thunderbrowse, and other elements that would want to be opened up in tabs.

With shortcuts we should also focus on some ideas for preventing people from opening up too many tabs of the same interface.  Perhaps something that (on mouse over) shows you the other tabs of that type already opened.

New Tabs / Summary Views

Sometimes you just want a new tab to start fresh, there are lots of reasons to start a new tab. For this we have a new tab button that allows Thunderbird users to open a new, empty tab.

New Tab Button

Upon opening a new tab Thunderbird could just show a blank page and focus the search bar.  However it would probably make more sense to use the opportunity to open up a summary view page while the search bar is focused.

This summary page could use the widget system that Spicebird uses or just give a static summary of your mail, events, and tasks.  Adding in items for recent searches could be good as well.  Pulling information from places like whoisi about my contacts could be another interesting element to this summary page.

Progress

There’s still lots of work to be done and issues to understand; this design work isn’t finalized.  For tracking the Thunderbird tab work that’s planned for Thunderbird 3, see bug 21899 where I’ll be posting more comments and designs.  Comments on this blog are always appreciated as well.

How to steal from a Fox

Interface design is hard work, so it’s really nice when someone else has done much of the heavy lifting for you and left their labor open to cherry picking.  :)  The Mozilla platform has been getting a number of upgrades in large part due to the work of the Firefox team and thankfully I have no shame in stealing the work of our compatriots.  Here’s how you can do it too.

What to Steal

I started in the Preferences area because we (TB & FF) share many of the same mechanisms used to change preferences.  Also it’s difficult to get preferences done right so it’s nice to be able to take all the hard work someone else did there and make it our own.

In Bug 451620 — “Remove the Advanced Preference for Connection timeout” we are cleaning up a preference mostly used for debugging and therefore doesn’t really belong in the main interface.  While working on the patch I took a look at FIrefox’s preferences to see what they were doing in that area and noticed they have the exact same preference, but it looked cleaner and nicer.  So I took it. :)

In Bug 452711 — “Use firefox default font chooser for display” I wanted to improve a users ability to change their font preferences.  Currently Thunderbird requires a user to change fonts with the daunting font dialog now available from the Advanced button.  In making this patch I went straight over to the Firefox font preferences and ported it over to our code.  Again, I have no shame about taking this either. :)

How You Can Steal Too!

Stealing code for preferences is easy, so easy, that I (not a programmer) can do this in a fairly short amount of time.  It only takes a reasonable knowledge of HTML/XML (XUL can help) and Javascript.

There are lots of this kind of preferences work to be done and it’s a great way for a new person who wants to submit a patch into the codebase to get a sense of the process.

Here’s a step by step on how I’ve been borrowing their code such that anyone should be able to do it.

Step 1 – Source Code

Get the source code from steps in the Comm-Central source code wiki page.  This step takes a little while as it downloads all the necessary components to build Thunderbird.

Step 2 – Initial Build

Build Thunderbird initially, you should only need to build it entirely once.  Follow the steps to create your .mozconfig or you could just try mine, which gives you a debug build.

export MOZCONFIG=~/tbsrc/comm-central/mozilla/browser/config/mozconfig
. $topsrcdir/mozilla/browser/config/mozconfig
mk_add_options MOZ_OBJDIR=@TOPSRCDIR@/tbird-debug
mk_add_options MOZ_CO_PROJECT=mail,calendar
ac_add_options --enable-application=mail
ac_add_options --disable-optimize
ac_add_options --enable-debug

Then run the build command as they describe.  Now go get some coffee or something.

Step 3 – Start Stealing

Time to start stealing!  Move into the Mail Preferences code and open up one of the files (check out Prime Places to Steal for ideas).

(from src)
cd mail/components/preferences/

Then at the same time go into the Firefox preferences and open up the preferences file that has the component pieces you’re looking to steal.

(from src)
cd mozilla/browser/components/preferences/

Step 4 – Building Your Theft

Now as you viciously swap pieces from the Firefox preferences over to Thunderbird preferences you don’t need to rebuild the entire Thunderbird source code, just the preferences component you’re changing.

Move into the preferences component on the build directory.  (this assumes you have a tbird-debug directory, which you’d get if you used my .mozconfig file)  There should only be a Makefile in this directory so type “make” and it will build up the preferences component.

(from src)
cd tbird-debug/mail/components/preferences
make

If you were to change any of the strings (preferences DTD files) used in the DTD that the XUL file references then you’ll need to rebuild the locales jar, which is just as easy.

(from src)
cd tbird-debug/mail/locales
make

Step 5 – Testing Your Theft

Now you’re ready to run your new version of Thunderbird!  You’ll likely want to create a different profile than your normal profile.

(from src)
./tbird-debug/mozilla/dist/bin/thunderbird -P test

Common Gotchas I Encountered

Here are some common errors I hit that were annoying to work through.

Parse Error: If you add code with references to DTD entities ( often labels like “&colors.label” ) that don’t exist you’ll get a parse error that’s pretty difficult to understand.  Check that your DTD has the correct entity ( <ENTITY colors.label “Colors:”> ) and that you’ve built the jar from the locales directory.

Adding New Files: If you’ve added new XUL and DTD files you’ll need to add references to those files in the “.mn” file.  Don’t ask me why!  I just work here.  See the preferences jar.mn and the locales jar.mn files, the format is pretty obvious.

Prime Places to Steal

Bug 451599 — “Add preferences UI for disk cache size and clearing the cache“.  To implement this bug you really just need to grab the Firefox Preference code from line 221 to line 233 and copy it just after line 216 of the Thunderbird Preferences code.  You’ll need to poke around at the related Javascript code for hooking it up.   And don’t forget to copy the strings from Firefox advanced.dtd file into the Thunderbird advanced.dtd file.  See, no shame at all!

Another one is the continuation of Bug 452711 — “Use firefox default font chooser for display” where you can copy over the color chooser.  First apply the patch provided in the bug. Copy the Firefox colors.xul file over to the Thunderbird preferences directory and the colors.dtd over to the Thunderbird preferences locale directory. Don’t forget to update both jar.mn files (and build the jars) as mentioned in the Gotchas section.

Then have a look at the code for the Firefox Content Preference and grab the row from line 195 to line 201, the button which launches the color chooser dialog.  You’ll also need to grab the content.js configureColors function and add it to the display.js code.  Don’t forget to change “chrome://browser/…” to “chrome://messenger/…”.

Making and Submitting Your Patch

Once you’ve made your changes and tested them out you’ll want to open a new bug, and upload your patch to that bug.  Use the hg diff command to make your patch, I generally do something like this.

hg diff --git > ~/Desktop/stealing-ff-preferences.patch

Make sure the new bug is against Thunderbird Preferences, use this link to get the product/component entries correct, and attach your patch along with that new bug.

Don’t forget to CC me on that bug!  Use my email: clarkbw at gnome . org

Legitimate Sharing

Stealing isn’t right.  It’s not that we want to copy all this code, which can create known issues of code sharing.  However I defend this especially for something like the preferences UI which goes under a considerable amount of churn each release; making it difficult to place those elements in a lower layer like toolkit for optimum sharing.

Once we’ve played catch up for a bit I hope that Thunderbird can start sharing code back as we create new improvements on the current systems.

A Cure For Real Estate Amnesia

Mr. Unger of The Unger Report has outdone himself this time.

“…Real Estate Amnesia (REA) is the leading cause of real estate anxiety, next to homelessness and foreclosure…” – A Cure For Real Estate Amnesia

What are Attachments?

Should links inside emails be considered attachments?  In the technical sense of an email (like rfc 2183) links wouldn’t be considered a different content type.  The question isn’t whether they are technically attachments as much as if they should be attachment-like in the user interface.

Facebook

Facebook handles links in a message almost like an attachment-object and will do some additional meta work on the link to provide a default photo and short description for it.

In the message list view Facebook offers an icon to note that a link attachment was included in a messages.

In the composition view Facebook also grabs links from inside the message and shows them separately as an attachment like thing.  In the screenshot below the composition window grabbed the link inside my message and pulled down a description and number of photos from the site.


link detected in the composition area

This kind of meta data around a link can be really beneficial.  The presentation of the link is better than a person naturally would and since it’s the information is retrieved automatically it only takes extra seconds  to make sure a good image and description appear.

Beyond just the benefits of better presentation is another hot topic in the Thunderbird world of offline support.  When reading mails offline it’s far better to have a more context about the link than none at all.  Even if I can’t bring up the link in an offline state the image, description and comment can help me to recall what the link is about.

Gmail

When you’re using the rich editor for composing a message in Gmail and create a link it has some nice features for recognizing a link and helping you edit it.  Here are some screen shots of what Gmail is doing right now.

Popup indicates the link has been recognized in compose window

Editing a Link

Alternatively Editing an Email link

Pretty straightforward and simple stuff when compared to the extra things Facebook is doing.  Gmail doesn’t add meta-data about the links or make their inclusion visible in the message list.

Links as Attachments

If in Thunderbird we wanted to start treating links more like we treat attachments…

  • How do we present that to the user?
    • Both in terms of composing messages and when receiving links in messages.
  • Do we grab meta data for links sent to us?
    • assuming some kind of policy about what links we can do that with
  • And should we be making links available somehow in Firefox?

Visual Field of Dreams

Not more baseball

I’m wondering what is the optimum visual field or display size for reading on a computer screen?

I haven’t been able to find an easy answer to this question for a number of reasons and what I’ve found for research indicates many conflicting studies.  One difficulty is that you have to really define what optimum means.  Are you optimizing for speed, comprehension, or satisfaction?  Also the size of the documents you are reading can change the optimizing factors for presenting it.

So here’s a compilation of research papers that I’ve found related to the Visual Field, Optimum Display Size, whatever you want to call it problem.

The Effects of Line Length on Children and Adults’ Online Reading Performance [ pdf ]

Adults were measured against children in 3 sets of line length for reading time and effective reading score yet no real differences were found.  What is interesting is the perceived results, only in adults found the narrow to medium line length (45  – 76 CPL – characters per line) to be preferred when compared to the full length (132 CPL).

The Effects of Line Length on Reading Online News [ pdf ]

Twenty college-age students were given news articles to read displaying in 35, 55, 75, or 95 characters per line from a computer monitor.  The results showed that passages formatted with 95 cpl resulted in faster reading speed with no effects for comprehension or satisfaction other than strong preferences for sizes.

The Effect of display size on reading and manipulating electronic text [ pdf ]

An attempt at more meaningful analysis of the effect of window size on reader comprehension and manipulation of “real-world” texts.  Participants were given journal articles for comprehension and a software manual for specific information.  Indications that screen size does not play a major factor in performance on either task and readers prefer larger screens. (no kidding!)

Reading and skimming from computer screens and books: the paperless office revisited?

Previous research made conclusions from the screens of the 1980s vs. paper, however when comparing against high quality CRTs speed and comprehension are equivalent.  However skimming on a CRT is still 41% slower than from a book, reasons for this finding are discussed.

Interface Design and Optimization of Reading of Continuous Text

A fantastic overview of a lot of different research that has taken place with breakdowns of key variable components of each experiment.  If you only read one paper this is likely the best one to get a handle on the situation.

Cited in several other papers but I couldn’t track down an available source for this paper.

Please leave comments for other related research articles, I’d love to be able to find more information on this topic.

This is Dialog Invasion!!

Later today I’ll be giving a summit session on UX for Thunderbird.  The Thunderbird Dialog Invasion is one of the many topics to cover.

<a href="http://clarkbw.net/blog/2008/07/30/this-is-dialog-invasion/"><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-430" title="Dialog Invasion" src="http://clarkbw.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/dialog-invasion-thumb.png" alt="" width="300" height="161" /></a><br/>non-flash formats available. ogg and wmv
Watch it in a High Quality format.
If you love Reggie and the Full Effect as much as I do you can grab his new album from  MySpace.com -Reggie and the Full Effect or Vagrant Records – Reggie and the Full Effect. Please don’t sue me reggie!!

All-Star Break

I arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday July 1st after my long adventure across the country. I think all the sun, baseball parks, and driving ran down my system so after my friends left and I got 2 days of work in I spent the weekend sleeping.

Cleveland Indians Stadium
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers Stadium
Detroit Tigers
White Sox vs. Pittsburgh - U.S Cellular Field
Chicago White Sox
Busch Stadium
St. Louis Cardinals
Kauffman Stadium
Kansas City Royals
Coors Field
Colorado Rockies
McAfee Stadium
Oakland A’s
Safeco Field
Seattle Mariners

Eight stadiums in all.  An amazing trip, though some places were certainly missed due to timing.  I would have loved to see a Cubs game in Chicago as well as a Giants game in San Francisco but the teams weren’t available when we were coming through.  Next time.

Vancouver

Is a beautiful place.  I seem to have brought nothing but perfect weather with me as everyday but one was sunny and warm.  I quickly setup a Canadian SIN (which is similar to an American SSN), a local bank account and spent the last couple of weeks getting settled into to my international digs.  I had already prearranged a stay in a temporary apartment which is working out well as it’s right in Yaletown and lets me easily explore the downtown area.

Sunset Beach

Vancouver has such a mix of different people.  Everyday I hear people speaking in a number of different languages, Chinese, German, Russian, and Spanish to name a few I could recognize.  Everyday on my walk to and from work I smell someone smoking weed somewhere.  And everyday I hear the grinding and pounding noise of construction.  Overall somewhat similar to summers in Cambridge.

Experimental Message View

Before I left the states we started work on something I called The Experimental Message View.  I’ll post more about it later, but the simplistic goal is to create a new way of interacting with messages and with the required technology change enables others to easily create alternate experiments inside Thunderbird.

Andrew Sutherland has been cranking on the Global Database work with an initial preview, an m-1 trial release (download and install), and even an early visualization.

Paul Rouget has updated his work on the new treeview API which could help us implement richer message lists by changing how we display messages.

Things are coming together quickly.

Where’s Scotty when I need him?

This Scotty, not that Scotty.   Yesterday andrew and I were interrupted at the office by a power outage that affected the entire city block around 11am.  And again today when I got to the office it was still closed.

At least one downtown building told power will not be restored until 8:00 am ThursdayLatest info on downtown power, traffic, transit

That’s my office!  Would have been useful news if they informed me which building it was before I made the trip downtown to find it closed and missed the status call.  I still need to pickup a canadian cell phone and it would have been useful to arrive at work more than 5 minutes before the call.

Go West Young Man!

This Thursday I take permanent leave of Boston to make my new home in lovely Vancouver, BC.  Boston has been my home for over 4 years now and after growing up in neighboring NH I honestly never thought I’d be back here this long.

Boston Skyline @ 4:45am

Boston Skyline @ 4:45am by StarrGazr License:

Though it won’t be the place I’ll miss, it’s my friends and I wish they were coming with me.  I’ve tried to convince several of them to do that.  Why can’t we all live in the same place?

On Tuesday my u-pack boxes arrived and I squeezed in all the possessions I hadn’t thrown out in the last couple weeks and feel are worth bringing across the country.  I actually don’t have many of these things even though they add up quickly.  On Friday Moose and I will have left Boston on a grand trip across the states.

Moose in the snow

Moose is too old to fly anymore, he might not even make this trip in the car, not really; he should be fine. But luckily I won’t be alone with a dog who farts a lot as two of my best friends and I are cramming into my little car to catch baseball games on the road as we make our way from one coast to the next.  Thus our route isn’t a clear shot from one place to the next.

I will be partially online during the trip, uploading photos of baseball stadiums, cities, arches, and other parks along the way.  I also want to keep up with all the changes we’ve got planned, Thunderbird is starting to make so much progress it would be crazy to take too much time off right now.

Vancouver skyline at night

Vancouver skyline at night by istargazer License:

Thanks to everyone I’ve met in Boston, all the friends I’ve made.  Please come visit me in Vancouver.

You can learn a lot from TV

I used to think that Bill Clinton was the first black president, but of course that loose fact could easily be replaced if we had a real first black president.   Until The Colbert Report Threat Down last night revealed a little known fact about the history of the USA; the title has already been taken by Warren Gansta Harding.  Aren’t pundits great? :(

He just keeps getting crazier

Activity is the new download

So hip, just like silver is the new gold

Last week I began some work on some ideas for a richer, interactive user notification system for Thunderbird.

Status Bar

Currently the status bar acts as one of the only notification systems to the user.  However the status bar is a steady stream of temporal plain text messages.  The messages are helpful if you understand what they are indicating, otherwise to most people they only convey general activity happening.  In general the messages end up lacking meaning because there is too much information running by.

A First Approach

Initially I took an approach of an interactive status bar that looked a little bit like the awesome bar replacing the status bar.  Instead of just giving plain text messages we could make richer messages with visualizations.

  • Linked Messages
  • Progress Meters

The linked message could open thunderbird up to the account or message they were referring to.  Next is to add some access to status history where people can see a list of what Thunderbird had done and perform actions (like restart) on those past activities.

  • History of Activity
  • Interactive History Items

The New Download

After seeing the amazing work that has been done on the download manager in firefox it seemed like a good second approach to the problem could be to reuse much of what they’ve done.

The download manager in firefox is solving a similar set of problems.  We want to allow people to watch the progress of a specific set of (likely asynchronous) activities. We also want to ensure that people can view the list of past activities in case they want to manage them.

Should we continue using a simple text status message?  The progress bar included in the status bar gives a visualization for time to complete an action.  But do we need to help people visualize what is happening in the background?

And then instead of an inline popup for the history list we open up the download manager window which allows for searching and management of items inside the list.

Nothing is set yet, most likely a final version will be taking bits of both approaches.  Still lots of work to go, more comments and ideas are always appreciated!

Standard8 has your name

Obviously after kicking so much ass there was nothing left for mr. banner to do but take names.

What used to be an awkward set of instructions is about to become as simple as a checkbox.

And yes this isn’t quite the feature that gets everyone laid (hopefully at least a couple people get laid).  But it’s an excellent intermediary step toward getting some more testing on the Mac OS X System Address Book connection that should be available in the next alpha.  Likely in a month or so when Mark is done with your name he will have replaced this system with an even better experience.

What is the connection experience?

It’s well beyond time to be thinking about what it means to have the OS X Address Book connected to Thunderbird.  There’s a long road ahead.  What is the end game here?

Should all contacts be stored in the System Address Book or the Thunderbird Address Book? Would that kind of change mean something for Windows? What would that mean for Linux?

If we want to sync your contacts with your iPhone or other iAppleDevices then we should be storing our data in the OS X Address Book, however we should also be careful of another systems limitations.

I like to think of the future of the Thunderbird address book as providing an overlay on top of other address book systems like the OS X System Address Book or an LDAP type address book.  We want our data to be compatible with those different basic remote and local storage services.  However we also want to do more interesting things with your contacts than what most LDAP systems offer.

If I were to steal the look and feel of GNOME Mobile platform diagram (which I like a lot) it might come out looking something like this for the Thunderbird Address Book Overlay.  Underneath is a system address book, ldap, or local thunderbird address book providing the basics of storage.  Then above that layer is where we can begin doing interesting things with your Thunderbird Address Book.  Going beyond just emails and names and perhaps linking with different kinds of accounts your friends have.

You had me at hello

I spent some time on Friday and Monday writing a script to do some analysis of the Enron Email Dataset.  I’m working on a new type of message list view for thunderbird, well a whole new layout actually, but for the message view I wanted to have an idea of message size and content.

Email Data

It turns out that decent email data is relatively hard to come by.  Because of privacy concerns it’s nearly impossible to have access to a companies email where you can see the full exchange between a number of different people.  Luckily the Enron dataset has become publicly available exactly for this kind of research into email problems.

The enron dataset is broken down into directories for many of the people involved and sub-directories of their emails.

  • maildir
    • taylor-m
      • all_documents
      • archive
      • australia_trading
      • boat
      • brazil_trading
    • mclaughlin-e
      • all_documents
      • calendar
      • contacts
      • deleted_items
      • discussion_threads

The script I wrote is designed to read in email files in the directory and analyze the message body for its content.  Then is spurts out the numbers with median and averages computed.

Mail Trends

If you’ve seen Mail Trends, you know that Mihai Parparita analyzed the enron emails for time, size, threading, and people comparisons.  If you download the code you can run it against your own email and will likely see some amazing results (someone should pull this into Thunderbird!).

However the information I was looking for was not available in the mail trends analysis.  Mail trends analyzes only email headers to create relationship statistics between emails.  And while it does have the size of messages in terms of KB I was looking for the size of message in terms of the number of words.

You had me at Hello?

I’ve had this hypothesis or assumption that within the first 2 sentences of an email I can tell what it’s going to be about without reading the rest.  Please try this out on your own!  Read the first two sentences of any email and take a second to think if you can at least prioritize your response required for the message.

Combine this assumption with the my other assumption that it’s more important for me to process my mails than it is for me to actually read the entirety of any message.  I know people are probably thinking, “you should read the whole message”; but in all honesty more than half the messages I get aren’t important to me at all so reading them would just waste time.  This second part of my hypothesis stems from ideas like Inbox Zero and GTD where processing all those “things” is the most important part to being productive.

45 is Median Number of Words Per Message

Analyzing all those emails gave a bit of a statistics problem.  On average it turned out to be something like 120 words per message.  This high average number came from a few outliers of 500+ word messages that were skewing the results towards the high end, when the numbers should really be reflecting the low end where more results were present.  So on average the median number of words per email message was 45.  That’s the average of all the medians… rounded.  Probably should have just included the standard deviation and called it quits.

I didn’t analyze the kinds of words or their length, which would be something else that’s pretty interesting to know.  A next step could be to simply analyze the number of characters per message, that could give interesting hints on how to display the message in it’s entirety.

Back to the Message List View

Here’s a rough breakdown of what GMail gives me when I look at any given message.  It’s just enough to understand who this message is from and what it’s probably about.

It’s possible with the [x] checkbox and the actions menu that I could process this mail and move on.  However usually I end up opening every message to make sure there’s nothing else I should see.  I’m not sure if that’s because I really need to read the rest of the message or what.

So my question continues to be this:  Given a little bit more of the message itself, or a little bit more of the context of the message… is there a better way for me to process my emails?  I have some mockups and ideas on how I think it could be done, but they need more refining.  Will post soon.

Some Signature Updates

Some news for the Thunderbird signatures in email.  I’ve updated the Message Signatures wiki page with some new possible directions.

Signature Manager

One still missing piece has been adding a signature manager.  Previously I mentioned that we could create a new dialog window for managing signatures, however several comments posted and emailed made me want to look into other possibilities.

So here’s a mockup of a possible layout for the Signature manager to be in the Thunderbird preferences, under the Composition tab.  (tabs within tabs… whoo hoo!)

Script Signatures

I keep offering a possible script signature in different mockups and yet there hasn’t been any mention of how you’d add a script signature yourself.  My feeling is that we can leave script signatures up to extensions and extension developers.  It might be nice to offer a script signature by default and perhaps this would lead more people to try out extensions that provide script signatures, however I don’t have a plan to create a default interface for them yet.

Signature Add-ons

Here’s a pretty simple way to introduce signature add-ons specifically to the signature preferences.  There are some open ended pieces of this that need to be worked out.  What does the add-on manager look like when it opens up from a link like this?

Your comments and suggestions are appreciated as always.

Tabulation

Lately I’ve been asking a lot of different people, “Why do you use tabs?”, in reference to tabbed web browsers.  I wanted to do some quick and dirty research on the design and usage behind tabs; some of this is obvious yet it helps to have it written out.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve found people claim to use tabs for.  I’ve arranged the information into what I felt were 4 distinct types of usage.  I’d love to hear about other usage that doesn’t fit into these categories or other categories people have observed.

Defer Action

Tabs for Defering

Often people want to defer an action until a later time.  In a web browser they will open a link in tab that they’d like to read a little bit later.  This was reported to occur on news or information sites where a person is reading a single page but wants to branch off to other links after reading.  After completing the tab in their current focus the person would begin processing the other tabs lined up for later.

Lightweight Bookmark

Similar to deferring an action, people mentioned that tabs were a way of keeping certain pages around for an indefinite period of time.  These pages weren’t necessarily going to be processed right away but they didn’t want to be lost.  When asked if they bookmarked these page people responded that these pages were transitive reference type pages (i.e. they needed them to continuously use them for a certain project) and so tabbing seemed to be a way to bookmark things in a lightweight fashion.  This especially made sense when tabs are saved within a session; people reported opening lots of tabs (hundreds) and then closing Firefox down completely only to reopen them all later.

Collect Related Information

Many people cited using tabs specifically to collect information on the same subject.  Often this kind of collection was research for a composition like a blog post.  Some people claimed to do this in a very formal fashion of opening up a fresh window for a blog post and then creating new tabs in that window for research related to the blog post.  While others referenced doing an important activity in one window and having a set of windows with tabs in them for researching ideas around that important activity.  This type of collection is similar to the lightweight bookmark except that most of the tabs were intended for a very finite period of time such as using the page to link to.

Switch Context and Keep Current State

Many people also talked about how they would “Adventure off” into other tabs to follow something that was either more important or more interesting but they really wanted to keep their exact place they were.  This  is very similar to the defer action, you could say this is the after state of the defer action.  The only difference here is that the person is intentionally keeping the first tab around in it’s exact state where the defer might lead to closing tabs as they are finished.  A common example was a quick interruption that called for searching for something unrelated to what they were doing.  People would open a new tab, complete their search and then close that tab to go back to what they were doing.

Some Related Links for you to open up in Tabs

What does this mean for Thunderbird?

This information isn’t for figuring out how tabs work in firefox and then squeezing that idea into thunderbird.  It is merely here to create a common language reference for talking about tabs and their usage.  Hopefully people could see new ideas on how tabs can be used from understanding how they are used in other contexts.  There currently exists an implementation of tabs in Thunderbird but it will not be the same as it is now by the 3.0 release.

aboot

This is the blog personality of Bryan Clark. I'm a designer in a world of open source. This blog reflects mostly writing about Design, Open Source, Economics, Beer, Wine, and Dogs. There's more information about me on this site or you can contact me directly at clarkbw@gmail.com.

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