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Analysis

Lion Mail enhances usability
Peter Abrahams By: Peter Abrahams, Practice Leader - Accessibility and Usability, Bloor Research
Published: 18th August 2011
Copyright Bloor Research © 2011
Logo for Bloor Research

I wrote an article about new accessibility features in Apple OSX 10.7, Lion, just before it was available, I have been running Lion on both my iMac and Mac Book Air and all my comments hold.

The new feature of Lion that has really impressed me is Mail, the email engine. Apple have really researched how people would like to use mail and made significant changes to the usability of the interface. When I read about the changes and even when I saw them demonstrated I was not that excited, it is only since I have started using them for real that I realised how good they are.

The layout of the window has changed to take advantage of the standard wide screen format, which means you can see more of the email you are reading or writing. A sensible but not surprising change.

The facility to search all my emails has been made more intelligent and easier to use. For example if I am looking for an email I sent to a specific person:

  • I start typing in the name and it will give me a list of suggestions.
  • I choose the relevant suggestion and it places a token in the search field.
  • The token gives me options to narrow the search by emails with the person's name in the from, to, or entire email.
  • In my example I would choose 'to' and I will get a list of emails that I have sent.
  • This list can be narrowed down further by creating other search tokens, for example having a phrase in the subject field.

This is saving me considerable time and reducing the stress I suffered when I could not find the email I was looking for. Really a big boon.

But my real favourite is conversations. This feature takes an email that has a long conversation in it, with many replies and forwards in it, and re-formats it to remove all the indentations and repetitions and just shows each step as a separate block. This makes it much easier to follow the threads and it just looks much better.

However, for me the real excitement is the massive difference to round robin replies and daily emails.

I organise a rota of volunteers. To do this I send out an email to all the volunteers asking for availability. The answers arrive over several days. With the old Mail I had to gather them altogether to process them, the new Mail does that automatically. I click on the latest reply and all the other replies are visible in the same pane, just like steps of a conversation. I can see them all at the same time, deal with them and then delete or file them as a whole. It is faster and I am less likely to miss one.

My inbox always has several daily emails, for example one from Bloor with the new articles on the site. I do not always have time to look at them on the day. I have to say they tended to get lost. But with the new conversations they are all brought together, I can skim through several days worth, pick out the few interesting bits and then delete all of them at one go. This is helping to clean up my inbox.

Usability and accessibility are close cousins; the extra usability in Mail should improve the accessibility as well. The new Mail is a great example of User Centred Design.

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