The Momail project
Before anyone had ever heard of a Blackberry® or iPhone, a small IBM Research Collaborative User Experience group in Cambridge, Massachusetts was exploring ways to support the emerging use of mobile devices for e-mail and communication. This exploration, referred to internally as the Momail project, illustrates the pivotal role of design in early visioning for IBM Research projects. Many of the innovations developed by the team are increasingly relevant today not just for portable devices but also for the design of widgets for desktops, dashboards, and social Web applications.
Design in small spaces
The design process included storyboards and sketches at various level of detail. For example, one of the design stories was based around an event coordinator in transit who had to handle e-mails about the delivery of items for an upcoming conference. The team chose to build functional prototype using Flash for the front end, so that they could easily explore and iterate through different design concepts throughout the project.
Some of the design challenges for Momail were pretty basic. The team quickly noticed that when people used their fingers or styluses to control touch-screens, their hands blocked traditional drop-down menus. To address this, context menus were placed above and to the side of the screen location being pressed.
Triage approach to e-mail
The team observed that users approach e-mail on a mobile device by making a quick pass through the mail and dealing with the most urgent messages immediately. This triage approach means that many messages would be returned to later when users had more time or were using their desktop computers. To make this first pass as valuable and informative as possible, the team designed a mechanism that allowed users to scroll back and forth through the full text of a message in a ticker-like fashion, without leaving the main list view, by pressing down on an icon or dragging the text itself. A series of quick triage gestures connected to a pop-up icon menu gave users a way to easily indicate the disposition of a message, and the gestures were designed to be as natural and consistent with their meaning as possible. For example, dragging up next to a message marked it as important; dragging to the side (as if off the screen) marked it for deletion.
A real challenge with a small device is dealing with a number of messages together. E-mail messages are often part of a larger thread or conversation, and people often consult one e-mail message for information while responding to another. To address this, the team implemented a simple tab scheme to let users keep several messages open at the same time and move easily from one to the other. Drawing ideas from the Reinventing E-mail project (see the sidebar) and modifying them for use in a mobile setting, the team designed a small thread-map-summary to give people a sense of where a message fit into a larger conversation. Users could click on this display to move easily through the other messages in the conversation or to pull up a more detailed view of the conversation as a whole.
One benefit of this display was that users could see if someone else had already chimed in on an issue before they did so themselves; in explorations using two-way pagers and other mobile devices, the team had encountered at least one situation in which someone laboriously replied in detail to a request, only to discover a message several screens down saying the issue had already been resolved. The participant expressed frustration: “the system knew there was a follow-up to the message; why didn’t it tell me?” This observation prompted the team to find ways for the system to communicate such relevant information.
Impact of Momail
The Momail project has led to several patents and academic papers and is informing current work on collaboration tools, widget design, and attention management. The prototype built during the project has been shown to customers in various settings, including executive briefings and in the Innovation lab at Lotusphere. It proved to be an effective tool for gathering valuable feedback both on the tool itself and on the broader needs and usage scenarios IBM customers face.
For more information
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