Quick Filtering in Thunderbird

Today we’ve released a new add-on the Mozilla Messaging team has been working on for a little while, the Quick Filter.  A new single folder search and filter system that will work alongside our previously released Thunderbird global search.

The Quick Filter add-on is reminiscent of the old quick search system of Thunderbird 2.0  but we’ve improved it in a number of areas.  Here’s how it’s changed from the 2.0 days:

Search Message Types

Unread, Starred, Contact, Tags, Attachments are all types of searches you can toggle to turn on.

A Tag search presents the array of possible tags to help you filter down even more.

Filter Results Count

If your search returns a lot of results we let you know the search bar will let you know how many messages match.

And if even if the search query is too strict and there are no results the Quick Filter will display this inline.

Better Search Type Options

The old quick search tended confuse people because the search type settings were hidden in this popup menu:

In the new Quick Filter we’ve brought those options out every time you focus on the search entry so you always know what kind of search you are performing.

Space Saving Options

Last but not least we’ve worked hard to make sure that if you are using the Quick Filter on a smaller screen it converts down to icons only mode automatically.

Note for Techies: This change was made possible by the CSS  @media rule

Try it out!

You’ll need to be running Thunderbird 3 and then from the Add-on Manager (Tools -> Add-on)  search for “quick filter”.

Give Feedback!

We’re looking for feedback before this lands in Thunderbird as a core feature so any praise and/or comments you have would be greatly appreciated.  Leave your comments in the Quick Filter add-on reviews.

Something you might have already noticed is that this is a separate toolbar just for quick filtering but you can show or hide it as you need it.  Try out the keyboard shortcut and see how it feels.

Thanks for taking a look!

Testing RTL in Thunderbird

For bug 484166 we’re moving away from the old search icon  to the newer Firefox search icon .  Included in this change we need to ensure this icon works for RTL as well as LTR.   With bug 481860 offering a way to use css to transform the image I just needed to test that the transform works.

Here are some notes I have from my limited experience working to test application UI in both LTR and RTL.  Please drop a comment if you have better experiences, I’d love to be able to save a bit of time.

GNOME RTL

In the GNOME world to do a simple test of an RTL language you could start up the application with the LANG environment variable set to an appropriate language.  For instance:

LANG=he_IL eog

LANG=he_IL eog

Thunderbird RTL

With Thunderbird I’ve found a number of options to make this happen.

The UILocale flag can be added your command arguments.

thunderbird -UILocale he

However Thunderbird, as compiled from hg, or download nightly likely doesn’t contain the translations needed to run that test successfully.

For the nightly build you’ll want to grab a translation XPI from the comm-central-l10n nightly builds.  You can drag any of those XPI links into the Thunderbird add-on manager window to install them.  (saves a bit of time compared to downloading and installing)

For your compiled builds the process seems a bit longer and more difficult getting the translations from l10n-central built in.  I gave up half way through as there is an easy method out there already, at least for simple testing.

Force RTL Extension

An easy alternative approach is to use the Force RTL extension, which I only just found out about today.  The extension provides an option in the tools menu to trigger RTL mode, which is really a lot better than trying a language you don’t understand.  If all you need is to test layout in an RTL this works really well.

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.

Auto-Complete on Subjects

To make an initial start on our new search aspirations we need to begin testing and trying out some of our improved searching ideas.

Quick Search

Our first step in this direction is to add an auto-complete on subjects in the Quick Search entry.  It’s important to get a lot of feedback on our search improvements so integrating our improvements with the current search is paramount. New behaviors need to be pushed out during our alpha releases to gain visibility and testing.  This improvement doesn’t alter the current search behavior at all, everything is planned to act in parallel.

What will change?

The quick search will try to help you find message subjects by auto-completing on the subject name. The subjects it offers for auto-complete are searched from the available subjects in the folder Thunderbird displays in the current view.

For Example:

  • Type in the name “address” into the quick search entry
  • The auto-complete will give a list that match the word “address” somewhere in the subject
  • Selecting an item in the list will complete the whole subject name and search the message view for that name

Lo-fi mockup of Quick Search Auto-Complete on Subject

The auto-complete is only planned to work for subjects at the moment.  Hopefully we’ll be able to start expanding this soon to include email addresses and names too.  Once we have some experience with the auto-complete widget we can start expanding it’s scope a little.

Here’s the current design for the layout of the rich-item widget for matching message subjects.

There are a couple of other tweaks to the {meta} area that need to be improved.  The light colors are a little hard to see and it might be better to brighten up the sender names.  Also it could be good to add the date the message was sent. Perhaps like this:

$SENDER to $RECIPIENTS $TIME_AGO

ex: Bryan to you,david,gary 3 hours ago

What will stay the same?

The quick search should continue to search only in the current folder / view.  This may change sometime in the future, but only when we have a better solution for that problem.

Also it will still work for searches that aren’t subjects, like senders.  When you select a different search type, like “to or cc”, then it won’t continue to auto-complete on subjects; only when you select “subject” or “subject or sender” types.

When is this happening?

Everything is up in the air for discussion right now as we work through an incremental design that makes sense.  The implementation pieces are going to come together soon when the new toolkit auto-complete widget from firefox is pulled into Thunderbird (see bug 370306 and bug 309081) and we figure out the best strategy for quickly searching a set of subjects from the current view.

Searching for a new find

It’s time to start looking into a new search method for Thunderbird. One of the major changes planned for Thunderbird is a new and improve search, but what does that mean?

What do we have?

First lets look at what we have for a search system.  At a very simple level most search systems break down into two pieces, a search interface for filtering and a results interface for listing.  Thunderbird does this in a couple places.

Quick Search

The quick search entry is always at the top right of the Thunderbird window and allows people to search over the current view.  The results of a quick search fill into the current view, replacing whatever listing was previously shown.

The Quick Search defaults to searching only the Subject or Sender and will only search mail that Thunderbird has downloaded already.  Messages that are not listed in the current view (like in another folder) will not be searched unless that folder is selected, otherwise a person needs to use the Advanced Search.

Advanced Search

Hidden under the Edit Menu and Find Sub-Menu is an advanced search dialog that can make use of the remote mail or news protocol to perform a full search instead of just a local search.   The Search Messages dialog provides it’s own search interface as well as it’s own results view directly below the search.  While the Search Messages dialog provides some more advanced search methods over the quick search it’s hard to find and difficult to use effectively.

The Search Messages dialog allows for complex search queries to be built with multiple search terms composed of a number of different field type selectors.  The queries require a lot of input from the user because of the tight structure used to create them.  The same search and results interface code is used for creating mail filters.

Edit -> Find -> Search Messages…

Advanced Search Dialog

What do we want?

I was lucky enough to chat with Andrew Gilmartin yesterday and he framed a future goal very well.  “We’re not looking to make search an added feature box on the side of Thunderbird“, we’re looking to make search the definitive method for viewing mail.

What does “Search as the definitive viewing method for your mail” mean?  That’s a good question and I’m not sure exactly what a good answer is yet. A search would help you find the message you’re looking for, and perhaps a search view never lets you lose that message in the first place.  There’s a lot to explore.

Here are two important pieces of a search system and view that need to be examined and somehow exposed in the interface.

Search and Filter

An impediment of the current search system is requiring people to choose a search type (Subject or Sender) before they even enter any text.  To help people hunt for the correct item you want to allow for starting their search very broad and then allow them to narrow down that broad search with filters like subject or sender.

The current search system has some speed issues that likely prevented a broad to filter system of searching to be implemented.  The mail client Mail.app provides a decent filter bar when searching mail that allows people to see what the current filters are (folder, account) and change them.

Browse and Filter

The SEEK extension is an excellent example of how offering a system of browsing mail by grouped attributes from the start can help people find the item or group of items they were looking for.  Instead of starting with a search term you give the person a list of attributes they might use to filter the list of messages.

An inspiring system for a similar searching, browsing, and filtering methods is things, you should try it if you haven’t already.

Getting What we Want

Moving towards a new search based paradigm will take some adventurous steps and it’s important not to disturb current usage while making those steps.  Here are a number of changes to look at making.

Merging Search Interfaces

Each of the two current search interfaces provide some needed features and capabilities, however having two separate interfaces for searching is confusing and difficult to understand.  We need to combine the ability to do a quick search with the ability to perform a full search into a single interface with an improved results view.

With a single search interface Thunderbird will be searching the local and remote mail (like IMAP) at the same time.  However local results will be listing quickly and remote results will likely take a little more time.  Both sets of results, local and remote, can be merged into the same search results view by showing local results instantly and filling in remote results as they arrive.

Offline Cached and Indexed Mail

In order to have a fast search system even while offline Thunderbird needs to do a much better job of caching and indexing mail as it encounters it.  With new messages instantly cached and indexed they can be made available to search queries, filters, and views immediately.

This is an excellent time to start thinking about the data mining mail in a way that helps searching messages later.  It’s also time to think about making the defaults tuned towards offline usage while still allowing people to control online / offline caching.

Auto Complete

With mail data indexed locally and quickly available Thunderbird should be able to provide a slick and fun auto-complete on search terms it knows about.   Auto complete when searching for items you’re already aware exists helps with miss-spelling errors and more complete matching.  The awesomebar shows how with just a little broken memory of a title or url you can easily find the page you saw once before.

Fetching Results

Our current drive is to investigate some indexing on messages (at least subjects), pull the new auto-complete into Thunderbird, and get a search bar using that fancy auto-complete on mail subjects and hopefully the addition of a couple more fun things.  Leave some comments or jump on the newsgroup to participate.

Search Yesterday and Attachments

A wire frame of a possible mail search auto-complete

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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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