Prototype V4 – Email Organized By Person – and What’s Next

In ITP, Project Development Studio, Thesis

Following all the user research and testing I did last semester, I finally came up with an insight that I thought would resolve the volume/email-recall problem. This problem refers to the fact that the main thing that comes up when talking to people is volume, however, the logical solution to volume (smarter categorization/organization) brings up an entirely different problem—email recall. My solution was to categorize all mail under people, similar to messaging, where all correspondence is managed under one line item. This accomplished several important things for me:


  • Effectively eliminated the concept of an inbox, where you needed to file, archive or delete. This would drastically reduce decision fatigue.
  • Organized your messages under sender. When I analyzed my inbox, I had 20 senders for every 100 emails which means that you would need to deal with far fewer line items than with individualized messages.
  • Building off the previous point, now you only had 1 line item for promotional emails instead of 40 messages filling up your inbox from the same newsletter.
  • Instead of each email being given the same significance, one could very easily differentiate between senders that are actually important to them vs. promotional senders.

This led me to think of each sender as their own feed of messages to the recipient. You could have a stream of just one person or build a more thematic stream that included several people. The beauty of the more thematic streams is that you would only need to add a person one vs. indefinitely needing to add individual messages into folders. In addition to this new organizational model, I also honored my initial goal to make email feel a little more visual and modern. I included design patterns from social networking, most notably inline rich media.


[Click Here] to check out the framer prototype I made or you can play with it below in the embedded iframe. You can interact with following:


  • Click on Menu icon to open menu. You can either click on “All People” or the “Family and Friends” stream.
  • On the main “All People” stream, scroll down to the second Katie Spencer line item and click on it to go to her mail stream. You can navigate back afterwards if needed.
  • In Katie’s stream, scroll down to the video and see it auto play as you bring it in frame. Also swipe the inline images. Click on the “Upper West Side Spots” or “Xmas Travel” threads to see the conversation view with all the messages in the thread.




I really believed this new model was not only unique but going to be effective as well. This got me very excited about the prospects of continuing Mailstream for my thesis. However, I eventually came across two apps, Unibox and Hop, which also took a person-centric approach. This was discouraging as I really wanted to explore a design concept that had yet to be looked at. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise.


I gave myself the task of using Unibox and Hop to see what the experience of people-centric mail actually felt like. Unibox was the closer of the two to my concept so I focused on that app the most. The result was pretty surprising—I didn’t like it at all. I thought that organizing by person wouldn’t affect email-recall but I was wrong. It’s possible that it’s because it’s a pretty drastic transition from the traditional model but I felt like I needed more brain power to find what I was actually looking for. I also really didn’t like that Unibox put all the different subjects in the same conversation which was confusing. My prototype didn’t do this, but instead, presented the user with previews of all the threads from a person that you could click into. This creates another problem which is an additional layer of separation between you and the sought after message. Many times, I just remember that I have something from my inbox that needs to dealt with and the sender is an important part of that recall, but the key component in my mental model is time.


Separately, the lack of transparency of the messages under each sender is a huge problem. Unibox gives you none, while my app shows you the three most recent messages from each sender. I still don’t think that’s enough. By not being presented certain messages at a glance, you’re chances of interacting with it drop dramatically. I noticed that extra layer of separation between the user and the actionable message creates a ton of unwanted friction for engagement.


There is also an important fault in logic that I’d like to bring up. I’ve modeled the organization of my prototype on messaging, which is used mainly as a synchronous communication tool. Recall for messaging is not that important as it’s really just the last message(s) that is relevant to any conversation. That’s not at all the case for email, which is completely asynchronous. Therefore, I believe the person-based organization using messaging models is not a good fit for emails from important senders. There is, however, an opportunity to group promotional emails all under one sender line-item since recall is not important in that case. I believe the ideal solution will be a combination of individualized messages for the important things and sender-based groupings for content that is more reference oriented (newsletters, receipts, promos ect). Before proceeding with any new designs and prototyping, I’d like to validate my assumptions by doing some user testing on my prototype and getting some people to use Unibox for a certain amount of time.


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