Aaron Brethorst

Round peg in a square hole, rabid generalist.

Optimize Your UI' Readability - Why Apple Mail Sucks

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One of my least-favorite pieces of software ever is Mail 2.x, included in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. What was a stable, reasonably performant, sensible, and usable mail client in previous iterations has become "hideously ugly," and "inflexible, inconsistent, and again, a little strange." You can find a ton of usability nitpicks of Mail scattered across the web from any Mac pundit with a pulse.

My greatest pet peeve in Mail 2 is its insistence upon forcing users to read their mail in a horizontal orientation reminiscent of the worst aspects of Microsoft Outlook Express.

Mail 2 in Tiger

Mail’s UI layout has two major deficiencies. First, according to a 2002 usability study:

[I]t is suggested that full-screen line length should be avoided for online documents, especially if a large amount of text is presented. For adults, it is suggested that medium line lengths should be presented (approximately 65 to 75 CPL [characters per line]).

On my Apple iBook G4 (with a 12” screen at 1024x768px), I find that Mail can display approximately 120 characters per line in a maximized state, which is well outside of the line length threshold established in the aforementioned article.

Second, I have many more emails in my Inbox than can be shown in Mail’s email header table at any given time: I can see the header information for 15 emails out of 45 messages in my Inbox. This isn’t so bad, but if my personal Inbox looked like my work Inbox where I typically have 1000 emails, this would be a nightmare for management!

If Mail provided a vertical layout I would be able to see many more email headers than I can now, and provide myself with a more enjoyable reading experience. For an example of how this might turn out, see the mockup I created below. Unfortunately, creating a "widescreen" version of Mail doesn’t work quite as well as you might like on a screen with a 1024x768px resolution (perhaps the reason why Apple chose not to provide this option), but it can be made to work quite well with a few modifications to Mail’s overdesigned UI:

  1. There is no reason why the folder list on the left has to use 32x32px icons by default. Change the default to 16x16px.
  2. We are sacrificing 22 horizontal pixels to the iChat availability icon in the mail header table. Let’s push these icons into the ‘From’ column on the left-hand side.
  3. The splitter is ridiculously oversized. We can easily shave two pixels off its width.
  4. Let’s clean up the folder area’s buttons on the bottom and shave off a few more pixels from them.

You can see the fruit of our labor below (click it for a full sized image). Now, we can see about three times as many email headers as we could before, quite a bit more of our individual emails, and the width of an opened email is displayed to us in a far more pleasant to read size. I hope Apple fixes this serious UI issue in Leopard, the next version of OS X, but from the look of things it appears that I will be sorely disappointed.

Mail Mockup