Scott Hanselman

Shadows of future versions of Outlook?

December 20, '03 Comments [11] Posted in Programming | Tools
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An interesting story out of Microsoft Research.  From an internal alias, but OK'ed for public consumption:

Microsoft Research

When Words Collide:  Organizing Your E-mail Inbox (feel free to share this message with your customers!)

The daily flood of e-mail messages is like a baby's cry — insistent but mysterious. You genuinely want to understand the meaning, but you can't always grasp the language.

Gina Venolia, a user interface engineer with Microsoft Research, wants to make it easy for you to understand even the most complex conversations. She's designed an e-mail interface that focuses on conversations instead of messages, putting what's most important about communication first - the people.

"I like slogans," says Venolia. "And for quite a while my slogan was, "It's about people!" Venolia says that she thought about this a lot after producing a batch of applications that were supposed to be about communication, but just created more layers of intricacy for the user to decipher.

Then, about five years ago she attended an all-day meeting. Doodling on a paper napkin, she came up with a list of all the different ways she could send information digitally: e-mail, attached documents, instant messages, shared files, FTP, Web sites, the telephone. "I ended up with over a dozen things. And each one of them had its own tool and its own quirks. I thought, 'something is wrong here'," said Venolia.

To find some answers, she started observing and surveying people to learn about their e-mail habits. What emerged was some organizing principles about how to communicate digitally. She discovered that people focus on conversations instead of a single message. She also found out that digital conversations aren't as ephemeral as spoken conversations. People often want to preserve them or turn them into action items.

As a result, she designed an innovative interface, code-named Grand Central, which organizes messages into conversations, and allows people to easily store and retrieve conversations.

Focus On Conversations
Current e-mail tools are like looking at a conversation with a magnifying glass. It's easy to see the details but difficult to get an overall picture. In Venolia's interface you view conversations as a whole instead of as individual messages. The initial message is shown at the top, and the most recent reply at the bottom, followed by the text box to input your response, similar to a chat format:

Grand Central UI
The Grand Central Conversation Interface

She found out that about half the time you use e-mail, it's a no-brainer. Someone sends you a message, you reply, they reply back, and it's done. But if there's nine people on the 'to' line, and each one is throwing his or her hat into the conversational ring -- making decisions, offering suggestions, providing links to back up their story, or jumping in to IM you -- it becomes harder to understand who is saying what to whom. In Venolia's interface you can see what a message is a reply to by looking at the heavy black lines that join the messages

Finding an email conversation weeks or months after you've finished it can be maddening. You might look for it under a person's name, but maybe that person isn't someone who you do business with regularly, so you don't quite remember the name. Or you could look for it by date - but if it was months ago, that could be a problem, especially if you aren't sure whether it was March or May or June. There are multiple ways to remember facts and information. So why shouldn't you be able to store and retrieve it in multiple ways? Venolia's interface allows you find conversations by date, person and other attributes or to label your conversations using keywords of your own.

Conversation Clues
Grand Central UIIn a conversation where a message gets multiple replies, a simple chronological view of the messages isn't enough to convey the relationships between the replies. For example, if a message gets two replies, and each of those two got a single reply, your conversation would now have branches. Grand Central handles these relationships by showing lines along the left edges of the messages. You can see at a glance how many branches a conversation has. To help you follow just one person's views - say your boss or the company guru -- Grand Central uses colored lines to connect replies from the same person.

It doesn't stop here. Venolia has also designed the user interface to give you some metrics about your conversations - you can find out at-a-glance just who you communicate with the most, and whether you are the originator, recipient or a participant. You can also see a complete list of the attachments, URLS, and images that are found in all your messages, in case you don't want to hunt through past e-mails to find that one document or Web site reference that you want.

Grand Central is designed to help people keep track of conversations as they're happening, easily integrate different digital communication methods, turn a conversation into a follow-up task, and find and reference past conversations and the digital information that comes with them.

Her innovative concepts show future promise for a medium that has become our number one communication tool. "My goal is to make things better for people who use e-mail, which is just about everyone. E-mail overload is everywhere. People can spend over an hour and a half on e-mail a day. And it's not just knowledge workers — it's everyone. Grand Central is just a picture of how it could be made easier in the future," said Venolia. 

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.