Are We Asking Too Much of Email?

I have been thinking a lot about user interfaces lately and I am beginning to wonder if we are asking too much of the email inbox these days. Gone are the days where I only used my email inbox for sending and receiving messages and the occasional attachment. My inbox is the primary method through which I receive email (obviously), but it is also the major conduit through which friends share pictures, I stay on top of the world via RSS, and keep the bulk of files that I need.

I am beginning to think that I am asking too much of my inbox. Sure, the Newsgator Outlook plug-in that I use is great for making it easy for me to read all my favorite RSS feeds while I am doing my email for work or school. It is not too much of a hassle to simply detach the pictures my friends would like to share and save them to where I store the rest of my photos. And most of the blogging tools I like to use support a publish-from-email feature. There is no single feature (or lack of feature for that matter) that I find frustrating. Rather, I am reaching the point where I am tired of trying to make more square-pegged applications fit into my one-size-fits-all Microsoft Outlook inbox.

Let’s pause for a second. I am not calling for the abolition of email. It is too useful and widespread to be stopped (even by the scourge of spam). We are just talking about interfaces and how people interact with information and content.

I am heartened to see that there are many other people with more talent and resources than I have who seem to be on to something. Firefox and Thunderbird are re-energizing and frankly raising people’s thoughts about what they should expect from a web browser and mail client. Ditto on Gmail, Oddpost, and Bloomba. It is good to see that there are some really interesting things being done to help interfaces catch up with content.

So what would this new interface look like? I am not sure, to be honest. But I do know that it would have a few of the following characteristics:
o Search-don’t-sort paradigm similar to Gmail
o Integration of RSS and email – This is a no-brainer and you can get it in many clients today. It should be made standard issue.
o Online/Offline functionality with support for synchronization – I would want an interface that has a fat local version and web mirror for the data store. If you have ever tried to use an Outlook inbox connected to Exchange on a not so great connection I am sure you can relate to the frustration.
o More flexible presentation options – Sometimes I want to see content by topic. Other times I want to see it by thread. Other times I want to see it by date or sender. There should be better ways to seamlessly represent the information in a way that make sense.
o Support for information enrichment – We are still in the very early days of this. What I have in mind is some intelligence that can take advantage of the fact that the app sees my entire information stream. For example, if I subscribe to the RSS feeds for Engadget and Gizmodo and have been exchanging a bunch of emails with a friend about a new device, I’d like to get some enrichment – grab some sneak peek photos, find user forums that are talking about the darned thing, point me to the blogs that are generating the most traffic, etc.
o Smart Attachment handling – Despite the efforts of many collaboration vendors, the bulk of documents seem to travel over the email channel. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. The toughest thing for me is version control – keeping track of the most current version at any point in time plus figuring out what to do in the meantime with all of the in-process versions. This is no an intractable problem.

Not all of these features matter for all users. Some of them aren’t really that important for the majority of users. But I do think someone will take a hard look at a lot of our currently staid interfaces and introduce some interesting products.

Comments? Email me at blog @ charleshudson.net