Sunday, May 04, 2008

Hello, World: Meet Xobni

This is the first of a three-part series on the Xobni launch. Come back on Thursday to check out Part II of the story. This series was co-written with Marie Baca.

Every day, millions of people are forced to deal with the inefficiencies of Outlook. Almost 50,000 people have tried the early versions of Xobni's private beta. Today, we are opening the floodgates and allowing anyone to download a beta version of Xobni's eponymous product for free.

You can read our official announcement here. The New York Times details our launch in this article.

I've devoted this post to explaining why we built Xobni's software the way we did. The other posts in this series will document the journey up to the launch.

Email Overload

Experts say that there are two types of email users: Cleaners and Keepers. Cleaners receive only a few emails a day, and they meticulously file each email into a specific folder. Keepers, on the other hand, receive copious amounts of email, and although they may start out with a good organizational system, it is quickly abandoned. We designed Xobni for the Keepers — the everyday people who need a product that will help navigate their flooded inbox.

The average Xobni user deals with a whopping 30,000 stored emails and communicate with some 1,900 people. For many, this means sifting through several hundred messages every day. It’s only going to get worse: the Radicati Group estimates that by 2009, people will spend up to 41% of their workday dealing with emails. We are experiencing bona fide email overload, and the challenge for us "power users" is to find a way to process and organize large volumes of information over a short period of time.

A People-Focused System

One of the key insights the Xobni team had early on is that users think about email in terms of people and relationships, not abstract tasks. For example, think about the last time you went hunting through your inbox for an attachment. What was the subject line of that email? Can’t remember? Well, what about the name of the person who sent it to you? I bet that you were able to recall that bit of information far more easily. Indeed, the majority of searches inside email clients are for names of people, and it’s those same names that help us identify the relative importance of a particular message. It’s this idea of a people-centered email system that drove nearly every aspect of our development process.

A Smarter System

Let’s take a look at a few of Xobni's features and discuss the rationale behind them.

  1. Super-fast email search. Other than acting as a holding pen for messages, one of the most important functions an email client can perform is allowing the user to quickly search through your emails to find the information they’re looking for. It's such a fundamental need, and yet Outlook’s search is often painfully slow. That’s why we designed Xobni with as-you-type search, so that as soon as you’ve typed "Jan," Xobni has already pulled up all the emails from Jane Smith, as well as all the emails where she is mentioned.
  2. Threaded Conversations. Research indicates that one of the biggest problems people experience with their email systems is being unable to put their messages into context. In a standard inbox, messages are sorted by arrival time, which adds very little meaning to what is being said in the body text. Gmail has an effective method for grouping emails, and with the advent of Xobni, Outlook will also have this ability.
  3. A Built-In Social Network. Just as it is easier to remember who sent you a message than it is to remember the subject line of a particular email, it's much easier to recall relationships between people than it is to remember a name. For example, one of our investor's names is Rob. I can never remember the name of Rob's assistant (sorry, Carly!). For this reason, we designed Xobni to analyze emails and automatically create a network of relationships around each contact. Now when I pull up Rob's name, Carly's name appears on his list of related people, and I can call or email her with the click of a button.

Research vs. Reality

If you take a look at the research that has been done to improve the usability and usefulness of email clients, you'll find that a lot of the work was performed at Microsoft Research. But these ideas haven’t yet made it into Outlook. It's difficult to change Outlook because the improvements have to be compatible with all of the previous versions of the software. Meanwhile, rebels like us are free to build the next generation of email clients, making them faster, smarter, and easier to use.

Be sure to check back next Monday for Part II of this series, where I’ll tell you about a big mistake we made early on: building the wrong product.

Further Reading

  • In my thesis, I review significant research into improving the UI and smartness of email. Chapter 2 gives you more insight into email overload, and Chapter 3 lists a lot of work done in this area.

  • For more background on interesting email-related research ideas, read my earlier blog entry, "How Researchers are Reinventing the Mail Client".


Anonymous said...

Hi Gabor - I understand the rationale for allowing people to see what their email contains but how does Xobni allow people to manage tand organise he work that results from all that email? Are you not just encouraging a better arranged pile of information all in one place?

Gabor said...

Anonymous - I'm not sure I understand your question, but I'll give it a shot.

The point of Xobni is not that is organizes your email for you. For example, it doesn't file your email into folders or, in fact, modify your emails at all.

Instead, Xobni allows you to search and navigate your email in a better way. The key insight here is that users can find email best when it's organized around people, not around folders, or sorted by time received.


Anonymous said...

Szia! I am also Hungarian...but much older than you (sajnos!). Would you guys even thinking of this stuff for the MAC? There is Entourage, almost as bad as Outlook...I know we are the minority, but!

Gyula said...

OK, I missed the opportunity to identify myself: Gyula Sziraczky (related to the MAC comment).

Jeremy said...

This is an excellent product with many useful applications. We've recommended to many of our clients (all of which use Microsoft Outlook), to better search and navigate Outlook's data.

Jeremy Sankey
Microsoft Outlook Support Specialist

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Martin Welker said...

Hi Gabor!

Sorry you left Xobni. I just met Matt in S.F. last week! Nice guy!

Cheers from Martin, founder of

Maybe you want to contact me..:)