how I’d fix some apple mail interface wackiness

Apple Mail IconApple’s default OS X email application, simply called “Mail”, is probably my favourite email client of all time. What it lacks in features, it more than makes up for in simplicity, grace, and, for the most part, ease-of-use. But two seemingly minor interface quirks keeps this software from being quite perfect and contribute to frequently negative usability experiences: counter-intuitive terminology and a collection of confusing buttons at the bottom left of the Mail window.

The core of my sore point with Mail is this little panel of buttons in the bottom-left corner of the main window:

Apple Mail's frustrating utility buttonsCollected together as they are would seem to suggest they share some common utility. And, indeed, they do. The left-most “+” button is for adding new mailboxes and RSS feeds to Mail, while the right-most button opens a menu that offers a variety of “mailbox” (I’m going to pick on that word in a minute) management capabilities. So what does that little monkey-in-the-middle do? Well, heck, it opens an activity panel, of course, just above this panel of buttons, like so:

Open Mail Activity Panel

Isn’t that obvious? Well, no. In the first place, the downward pointing arrow would seem to suggest that something is going to appear below the button when you click on it. Second of all, the image seems to suggest a menu, rather than a panel.

Mixing utility in this manner, i.e. mailboxes and interface adjustments, is counter-intuitive and builds confusion in the user. And trust me, I’ve sat through many a session with clients, friends, and family members where they couldn’t wrap their heads around this mix-and-match of interface elements.

So, ignoring that middle button for a minute, what about the other two buttons, what do they do?

Here’s the “+” button in action:

Apple Mail's Plus ButtonWhat the –? A drop down menu? Nobody I’ve ever watched click that button expects a drop-down menu. They seem to expect a dialogue box, or just something “new” to appear, as the “+” button would suggest. But a drop-down menu? That’s what that middle button seems to suggest but doesn’t deliver on.

So what are these things we can “+”? Waitaminnit – here’s where I think Mail’s major usability rears its ugly head. A “mailbox”? What is a mailbox? Well, in Apple Mail parlance, it’s actually a folder, as demonstrated by the item at the bottom of this image:

Apple Mail Folder InterfaceSo that makes absolutely zero sense: choose a menu item called, “New Mailbox,” and you get a folder. Or let’s think of that in reverse: a user wants to add a new folder to their Mail environment: they can’t do it. Even though the default visual metaphor for organization in Mail (and the Mac OS in general) is a folder, the user must translate that imagery to the word “mailbox” if they’re going to ever get organized. This metaphorical confusion is enhanced when you take a look at the top of the image above. Hey – a box! And it’s called a box!

So by the time the user is trying to create a folder and gets to the “+” button, they’re already conditioned to perceive a “box” as being like their Inbox. And that’s not what they want, they want a folder. So most users, from my experience disregard that “+” button’s functionality altogether and continue looking for an option to create a folder. Just the other day I caught myself urging a client to ignore her instincts when I said, “Trust me, if you pick New Mailbox you’ll get a folder.”

And to digress just momentarily, consider the Mailbox menu:

Mailbox MenuHooray! An option to create a folder! As you’d expect, selecting that menu item gives you a folder, but the results further muddy the visual waters in Mail, like so:

Smart MailboxesSo, let me get this straight: in terms of Apple Mail’s visual metaphors, boxes and folders look the same? That’s just plain silly.

From my experience, the folder-image to box-name metaphorical split is way too huge a mental leap for a user to successfully achieve and, as result, Mail’s user interface is often very cumbersome. It’s confusing and it makes managing and organizing messages in Mail extremely difficult.

Let’s get back to that panel of buttons. Remember these guys?

Apple Mail's frustrating utility buttons

So what does the right-most button do? It’s actually the most intuitive of the lot. The downward arrow suggests a drop-down menu, and the gear suggest some form of utility. So here it is in action:

Utility MenuI refer to this as the dog’s breakfast menu because, well, that’s what it is. There’s no real collective value to the menu items here, unless you consider that it’s an abridged version of the main Mailbox menu with an Account Info item tacked on to the bottom. So, in essence, in my opinion, the dog’s breakfast menu is redundant. But at least it behaves as the user expects it to, even if the contents are by and large ignored by most users.

To summarize, that panel of buttons at the bottom left of Mail are confusing and, by and large, not very useful. In a sense, it’s as though the interface designer took the commands from the primary “Mailbox” menu, which is populated by a counter-intuitive metaphorical language, and split them in two, placing a relatively useless interface modifier button in the middle.

How would I fix Mail? First and foremost, I’d straighten up the metaphors. I’d call a folder a folder and a box a box, and I’d have unique icons created for instances of each. That change alone would go miles to making Mail’s organizational utility a lot easier on users.

As for that little panel of confusing buttons? I’d turf them all.

Then I’d add the very essential functionality of new folder, smart folders, and RSS up in the toolbar, where they belong, either as a button group, as illustrated below, or as individual buttons.

Folder Button GroupHere’s a bigger view, with the buttons in context (click to enlarge).

My Ideal Apple Mail Toolbar

One argument for this: Notes and To Dos have their own button group. I find that, as I observe users, they search for a way to create new folders and smart folders way more often than they do notes and to-dos.

The panel called, “Mail Activity,” which can be opened and closed by the middle button is pretty much an irrelevant feature of the Mail interface for most users and can be done away with entirely. The concept of Mail’s activity is a bit beyond the average user, and the power user has access to a much more comprehensive Activity window under the Window menu.

As for the dog’s breakfast, the commands in there are very esoteric and all of them can already be found in the Mailbox menu and in a variety of contextual menus.

Apple’s next major operating system release, Snow Leopard is only months away. Here’s hoping somebody on the Mail development team recognized the applications interface foibles and corrected them in some fashion similar to my suggestions. But just in case, if that developer drops by here, please, steal my ideas.

One thought on “how I’d fix some apple mail interface wackiness

  1. Pingback: finally, the email client evolves: previews of Postbox and OtherInbox « bad robot

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