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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: Momail

Researchers: Dan Gruen, Li-Te Cheng
Contact: research@lotus.com

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

MoMail explores rich user experiences for email on a PDA. Our goal in this project is not simply to overcome the known challenges in designing PDA applications (small screen, no full size keyboard), but to support the way people really work with email. For example, email users frequently search for information in prior emails before composing a reply, yet traditional multiple window management is difficult on small devices.

A key design approach in MoMail is to enable users to perform most email management functions directly within the inbox screen. This is accomplished through gestural menus, thread highlighting, and one-liner previews.

The MoMail Prototype, showing the main list of messages, the gestural menu, a selected message wih an inline scrolling preview, secondary highlights of other messages on the thread, and a simplified thread map.

Gestural menus are pop-up graphical menus with careful icon placement to encourage memorization of directional one-stroke actions. For example, marking an email for deletion can be done by moving the stylus to the left. Thread highlighting is accomplished through coloring email items in the inbox that are responses to the currently selected item, and through a "mini-map" showing the thread chain. The "mini-map" can also be used to navigate directly to items in an email thread (which is useful for items off the screen). One-liner previews allow the user to read an email message as a "ticker-tape" display, scrolling through the entire text in a single line overlaid over the subject. Multiple previews can be opened in the inbox without switching to another screen (which is also possible to do), allowing the user to compare multiple messages at once, and decide whether to defer, delete, or follow up on messages by reading the first few lines.

CUE interns Devon Rueckner and Jorge Ortiz teamed up with Researchers Li-Te Cheng and Dan Gruen to create MoMail, an email prototype designed specifically for PDAs. MoMail focused on delivering a rich user experience for mobile email, using ideas from Reinventing Email for the desktop, as well as investigating new concepts. The project faced new design challenges, such as dealing with a small screen to present a lot of information, using a stylus and touchscreen for input instead of a keyboard, and managing fewer computer resources than a desktop machine.

Instead of trying to copy everything from a conventional email desktop and scale it down for use on a PDA, the team decided to create an entirely new UI and supporting back-end. Devon created the UI using Flash. Flash allowed him to focus solely on a rich user experience and quickly prototype UIs independent of the back-end. Jorge developed the back-end with C++, concentrating on a compact infrastructure and email database. The two pieces talk to each other using a mutually-agreed-upon, XML-based protocol. Both pieces of the MoMail application are on the PDA, so users can read email even when the PDA is disconnected from the network. It is also possible that the two pieces could be placed in different locations for different applications and interoperate with other networked applications.

Several assumptions underly the UI design. First, users should not have to change screens and navigate complex menus in order to read and process emails. Second, the UI should support people's tendency to make multiple, quick passes through email, weeding out unwanted Spam and highlighting important messages to read in depth later. The main screen in MoMail -- the in-box -- incorporates these ideas. The in-box lets users preview the body of an email on the same screen with one tap on a button, and perform actions such as deleting, marking as important, and replying to an email through a gestural menu. The gestural menu pops up like a standard menu, but then users slide the stylus in a swift motion to select a menu item. MoMail offers other features such as threading, one-click replies, searching for email on the server and PDA, and leaving multiple emails open at once.