This post has very little interest if you don’t use Gmail
If I had a friend who was a project manager at Google, here are a few ideas I would give him to enhance the tool I use the most in my daily life: Gmail. All these considerations should be taken with one thing in mind: there are two big religions in Gmail world, the “archivers” and the “friends of chaos”:
- “Archivers” read messages and archive them to take them out of their sight as soon as they are treated. Their inbox is their todo list, and their goal is to have zero message in their inbox before they go for the week-end.
- “Friends of chaos” never archive any message, and usually have thousands of unread items because they don’t open messages that don’t interest them. Needless to say, archivers think that FOC are messy and irresponsible and FOC think that Archivers are dangerously maniac ;)
I am a member of the Archivers tribe, and my remarks should by taken with that usage pattern in mind.
ARCHIVE AND READ NEXT BUTTON
This becomes increasingly needed as I start using the mobile version more and more. On the mobile version there is no next or previous message link, so we really need something as Yahoo mail had a few years ago: an archive message and move to the next one in a click. That would really speed up the “morning scan”, when you go through all your messages to see which ones you can archive and which ones will demand more attention.
SEND & FOLLOW
The way I work goes like this:
- gmail is my todo list
- I have macro tasks (like “organize LIFT08″ or “write article”) I keep on paper
- I have micro tasks like “organize LIFT08 badges” or “invite speaker XX” which, 99% of the time, I execute by email.
- I have follow ups, things that left my micro tasks list because I treated them on my side (badges order or invitation email sent) and should happen if everything goes well. To not lose track of all these things I need to maintain a separate list that gmail could easily handle for me via a “send & follow” button. All outgoing messages would for example be labeled “to follow” and listed in a special page. As soon as I get an answer the label would be removed, and this list would be super useful page with all things that have left my todo but still haven’t been treated.
The way my messages are displayed by Gmail has a huge impact on the order of treatment. Messages on top of the screen get most of my attention, even if usually the ones at the bottom are more important and well, more late. There is a conflict that needs to be resolved here, between the importance of messages and their freshness. If I have 5 important messages I need to manage, and a new message comes up from a friend who sends a bad email joke, I can’t resist but click on the message simply because it shows up on top and as unread. Because it is a new message it becomes the most important message, which is not good. The older a message is, the more urgent it is to treat it.
There should be a way to reorder messages in a better way than the actual “what’s new is on top” view. Let’s consider potential factors:
- age of the message (the older the message gets, the more urgent it becomes to treat it). We actually need the opposite view, with old messages on top and new in the bottom.
- frequency of exchanges with sender. Is the message coming from a coworker I email 15 times a day, or from my mother who pings me once every month?
- speed of answer. If I usually answer to a persons email in less than 10 minutes then his emails should be on the top of my todo list.
- meta data of the message, like labels the message has, its length (short message can be treated very quickly, let’s take them first to get them out of the way), its position in the conversation, etc..
All these factors should be taken into account, and have more influence on the presentation of messages. An idea: why not change the width of the line displaying the message summary to signify it’s importance?
I don’t use google reader for a stupid reason: I don’t want to mark each post as read as I scan through way too many. So I use bloglines (yes I know it’s very very old school), and therefore my RSS and email are separated. But I need a view that embeds my two main information sources together. And here is an idea based on a condition: create the best flow of information, interrupting me as little as possible while allowing me to manage new items as they come in.
Step 1: merge RSS feeds and email
When a new email comes in, it appears on the top of the screen in my stack of items that I have to read.
Using a color fading technique, the new email appears in red then becomes an item like others as I move up in my reading.
When I reach the email, it appears just like any other piece of content. I can perform all actions on it (archive, reply, etc..)
What appears on my screen would be the result of a complex stacking process, where the system consistently reorders the upcoming items that are not on my screen using a number of parameters (date of post for RSS, importance of sender, urgency level, message is a reply to one of my message for email) and feeds them into the interface.
With such a concept, novelty does NOT equal interruption, and that would be a huge production boost, allowing me to stay in an information flow, not having to switch between applications (I have all my information in one place) nor being interrupted by new items.
NEW EMAIL DETAILS
A minor point that can still have a positive effect on productivity. The scenario is the following: empty indox, no new messages. I am composing a new email. Suddenly the Inbox link turns bold as I got a new message. This teases me into leaving my writing flow and click on the message to see what it is. Most of the time it could wait, but it’s tempting to see what it is. Why not give me more details about this email so that I can make a decision on whether I want to read it or not? A simple one liner on top of the screen saying: “new message from XXX, subject YYY” disappearing after a few seconds, allowing me to make my decision, and not creating that frustration of not knowing what that new message is about.
AND A FEW MORE THINGS
But these ones I am sure Google is already planning to release them soon:
- we need an offline version using Google Gears. The new interface already has a few offline mechanism (you can switch between messages and inbox view for example) but we need more!
- unlimited storage
- a “search message by size”.
- etc etc…