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’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:
- There is no reason why the folder list on the left has to use 32x32px icons by default. Change the default to 16x16px.
- 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.
- The splitter is ridiculously oversized. We can easily shave two pixels off its width.
- 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.