Monday, July 31, 2006

BarCamp in the Press

Our idea of organizing BarCamps in Switzerland is barely a week old, and we already have some press coverage! Today's Heute newspaper features this tidbit about our first BarCamp in Chur (page 28)

With things going this well, I'm sure we'll also draw plenty of attention for BarCampZurich, the main event!

Thanks to Markus Egli for pointing out the article.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Help Wanted for BarCampZurich!

BarCamps are 'unconferences': Open, participatory workshop events, whose content is provided by participants. Anyone can attend, anyone can present! I'm a big fan of the concept and I'm happy to have found some enthusiasts who are would like to organize one this fall in Zurich. So far, this is just an idea and the date (October 28, 2006) isn't quite cast in stone, but we already have a page up!


Interested in helping out? We'll need participants, a venue, and sponsors. If you can help us find any of these, let me know. You'll find my e-mail address here.

Thanks to Corsin Camichel for everything and to Chris Messina for the logo.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Look of Things

Two interesting, recent articles:

Kathy Sierra writes about design differences between the US and Europe: "The restaurant/cafe decor in much of western Europe looks like it was ripped out of a MOMA installation." In one of her examples, she compares Swiss bank notes to those in the US. Switzerland wins because of fancy features: the colors, the designs, the different sizes for each value, and tactile cues for the blind. Personally, I have to admit that I first didn't like the 10 Franc note because it looks like Monopoly money.

Bálint writes about the future of the desktop: "Today's operating systems still use a GUI based on ideas already available in the 90s. But computer resources are growing exponentially - couldn't we use this extra computing power for a better desktop experience? We could." He argues that the desktop experience will start resembling the real world by introducing physics-based interactions. The examples in the entry are pretty nice - be sure to check out the videos!

Friday, July 07, 2006

How Researchers are Reinventing the Mail Client

For the last 10 years, the three-pane has been the standard view of looking at email. A pane for folders, a pane for folder contents, and one showing the selected email. Even though mail clients are highly configurable, this has been the standard view of many users. It isn't likely to change soon: The beta of Microsoft Outlook 2007 – pictured below – sticks with conventions.

Email today has many annoyances. Even though we now seem to have a grip on the spam problem, many users are suffering from email overload: There are just too many emails flooding the inbox. Many are drowning in heaps of emails that aren't even important – it's just a colleague at work Cc-ing everyone evenly remotely connected to his project.

There are plenty of ideas on how to improve the current state of mail clients, and I'll present some of them here. None of this is my work: I'll give references to publications of others. There are literally hundreds of papers on this subject, so I've chosen to present my selection of personal favorites.

Here are the three ideas I'll present:I'll present one example from each category.

Task-Driven E-Mail Organization

People's lives today are organized in their mail client. It's not just communication that takes place here: Meetings are organized, lists of todos and deadlines are exchanged, documents are sent around.

In effect, what you're keeping track of in your email client are tasks. Most emails you get are part of some project, belong to an event you're attending or organizing, or are part of a greater plan, e.g. keeping in touch with a girl.

That's the idea behind TaskMaster [2], a tool developed at PARC in 2003. All your emails, drafts, attachments, and bookmarks are mapped to "thrasks". Emails in the same thread are grouped automatically, but the user still has to assign other mails, links, and deadlines manually.

Thrasks can have associated actions, such as "call this person", and "review this". You can also add deadlines to each task: they are shown as green and red bars as they approach. Documents can be previewed right inside TaskMaster's UI, as seen with the Word document on the bottom.

I think the great advantage of this approach is that items that belong together are displayed together. Instead of using email folders to hold related messages, the central element is the task, with all the associated deadlines, todo items, and documents.

Here's a quip from the paper's usability interviews:

"It's just nice to be able to have the control over mixing [...] related things together, even though they might not be [...] the identical kind of thing."

What if we went a step further and looked at workflow patterns? For example, at a company where you interview candidates in a formal hiring process, you get automatically generated messages reminding you of the interview, requesting feedback after the interview, and a notification of the final decision. In the future, we might be able to automatically identify the structure of such processes [4] and classify email into these activities [5] – both of which goes beyond Taskmaster's model, which requires some manual effort.

Creating Smart Organization Structures

Almost everyone I know keeps incoming email entirely in the Inbox. Newly arriving messages join the 500 messages already marked as unread and are displayed at the top of the pile. Is there a better way to organize this view? Can we sensibly restructure incoming mail?

Bifrost [6], a plug-in originally conceived at Lotus Research, that takes this approach. The idea here is that the people are the main indicators of whether an email is important. After installing Bifrost, you're asked to sort your contacts into five groups: Your own email addresses, "VIP Platinum" (extremely important people, e.g. your manager), "VIP Gold" (important people: friends and family), as well as small and large distribution mailing lists.

Bifrost then reorganizes your inbox and displays your email in a number of predefined categories:
  • Timely: Emails that contain today's or tomorrow's date in the subject line. They'll likely be important today, but not next week.
  • VIP Platinum: emails from your manager.
  • VIP Gold: emails from friends and family.
  • Personal: replies to emails you've sent out, emails sent directly and only to you, and any unclassified emails you receive.
  • Small distribution: Intended for group messages.
  • Large distribution: Large-distribution mailing lists.
Below is a mock up of what this looks like in practice. (I had to draw this up myself as the screenshots in the paper were too small).

This structure is helpful in identifying important messages and weeding out the less interesting ones. A quote from their user interviews:

"If I am running through an inbox, I might be tempted to read a title and get sucked in because it is interesting. Whereas if it is in a pile of listserv stuff, I just ignore it altogether. That was a nice thing when I was busy, to not get distracted by unimportant mail."

It's interesting to note that except for differentiating small and large distribution messages, this approach can already be replicated in today's email clients. You can simply create search folders or message filtering rules which simulate the Bifrost behavior. However, this would put emails into folders and wouldn't offer the one-page overview that Bifrost has.

Cool New Features

ReMail [7] was a project at IBM Research that ran from 2001 through 2004. It was basically a reimplementation of an email client from the ground up and had several cool new features. I'll describe two of my favorites below.

Thread Arcs visualize relationships between email messages. Instead of wasting lots of space with a tree view that Thunderbird has, it displays the thread structure in a little image. This feature helps you see where you are in a long conversation. For example, in the picture below, emails B, C, D, E, F, and H are all direct replies to A, while email G is a reply to E.

The advantage of thread arcs is that you can see the position of the email you're viewing in the larger conversation, without having to switch to a tree view: your main inbox pane remains sorted by arrival time.

Contact Maps offer a different view of the address book: Senders from which you have received email are grouped by domain. Each person's name is shown with a different background color, depending on the time of the last email exchange. This offers a better view of your contacts than the traditional non-grouped lists where your least important contact looks just like your most important one.

Many of ReMail's other ideas can be found in today's popular clients: Instant messaging is now integrated with Gmail, which also groups emails by thread. The collection mechanism in ReMail is semantically equivalent to Gmail's labels. Outlook integrates emails and calendaring and has list separators ('today', 'yesterday', 'last month'), just like the ReMail prototype.


It seems like the ideal email organization tool would be like your personal, smart secretary: It knows what's important or interesting, and deals with stuff you don't want to be bothered with. That would be perfect.

Today, we seem to be at a point where it seems like we might be able to solve the spam problem. But the problem of figuring out which of the non-spam emails is important, and what it relates to, still exists.

One solution – the one I presented here – is to add nifty features to the mail client. But would all these features really be understood and used? Users today seem to be using a very basic set of mail client functionality. Anything we add should not only solve a painful problem, but also be easy to use. I'm not even sure this applies to the applications I've shown here: You don't know until you've tried.

What do you think? Are these good ideas? Would normal people who are drowning in email use these features? What features can't you live without? Post a comment and let me know.


Thanks to Keno Albrecht, Bálint Miklós , Markus Egli, and Fabian Siegel for reviewing drafts of this.



A more thorough and academic overview of the subject:
[1] Steve Whittaker, Victoria Bellotti, Jacek Gwizdka: Email in personal information management, Communications of the ACM, 2006

Examples of task- and activity-based systems:
[2] Victoria Bellotti, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Mark Howard, Ian Smith: Taking email to task., CHI, 2003
[3] Michael J. Muller, Werner Geyer, Beth Brownholtz, Eric Wilcox, David R. Millen: One-hundred days in an activity-centric collaboration environment based on shared objects, CHI, 2004
[4] Nicholas Kushmerick, Tessa Lau: Automated email activity management: an unsupervised learning approach, IUI 2005
[5] Mark Dredze, Tessa Lau, Nicholas Kushmerick: Automatically classifying emails into activities, IUI 2006

[6] Olle Bälter, L Sidner: Bifrost inbox organizer: giving users control over the inbox, NordiCHI, 2002

[7] ReMail: Reinventing Email Website, Collaborative User Experience, IBM Research, 2003

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Gregory Crewdson in Winterthur

On my walls, you'll see three art posters and a world map. Two of the posters are prints of paintings by Edward Hopper, the American artist (Gas and New York Office). In rough strokes, he paints images of people in buildings, often alone, often sad. I like his style and the way he deals with ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Gregory Crewdson is to photography what Edward Hopper is to painting. When I saw a poster advertising an exhibition of his pictures at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, I knew I had to pay a visit.

Crewdson's motifs are American suburbia and rural landscapes. Most of his pictures are taken around Pittsfield, MA, where he drives around for days to find just the right spot. The right spot, of course, is a nondescript corner of the town, with small commercial buildings or residential homes built in a style that I associate with New England.

There, he stages little dramas. Disaffected people are pictured in quiet loneliness. A story is being told. Something strange and surprising just happened.

The images are beautiful and dreamlike, and undercut with something fearful.

Crewdson's pictures aren't snapshots: They are elaborately prepared. A video at the exhibition showed a 60-man crew preparing a photo shoot at a North Street intersection in Pittsfield. A nondescript car with a woman in the passenger seat stands in the middle of an intersection. The driver side door is wide open, but the driver is nowhere to be seen. For this shot, the street was blocked off for almost an entire day; it was sprayed with water and fog machines clouded up the background. Many photos were taken, but only one was produced: The final, perfect image is often put together in Photoshop, from perfect pieces of all shots, to create a Spielbergian moment.

While there are many similarities to Hopper – lonely people, attention to light – there are also differences. Hopper doesn't care for mysteries and his pictures aren't fine-tuned to perfection, but are painted in rough strokes. Hopper also didn't need Photoshop. Clement Greenberg once said: "Hopper is simply a bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would probably not be such a great artist."

The exhibit continues through August 28, 2006 at the Fotomuseum Winterthur. Gregory Crewdson, 43, is a photographer and art professor at Yale University.