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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: Bifrost: Managing the overloaded in-box

Researchers: Steve Whittaker, Candy Sidner

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

Bifrost, done in 1999, was a follow-up to our earlier email studies. In an attempt to address the concerns uncovered in the email study we experimented with extensions to the standard mail template in Notes. Bifrost 1 presents email in the inbox using a set of categories that reflect time-critical email (related to calendar events), people and groups of importance to the user, and other categories of less importance. The categories are integral to the inbox (not in separate folders). Making them integral assures users that their email is "not out of sight and out of mind," a concern that we uncovered in our email studies. Users specify which groups and people are of interest to them by filling in a form, and Bifrost 1 uses a set of rules to create categories in the inbox. Bifrost was tested in everyday use by several test users; it proved stable and reliable, and our initial studies of the test users showed that they sifted through their mail far less than with standard Notes mail.

Bifrost 1, however, used the standard "everything is a list in the view" format of Notes. This was problematic because users not only read and responded to email, but they also used it as reminders of tasks that came from others. In addition, it was hard to get a bird's eye overview of one's mail that way.

To address these issues, we built Bifrost 2, which uses the Overviews technology to present the email inbox as a collection of "piles" located on an open space. Each pile contains one of the categories created by Bifrost 1. Items can be moved from one or more piles and either put on the open space (which resembles a desktop) or collected together in a new pile. The Bifrost 2 piles make it easy to see email as well as to get a quick view of email overall. Furthermore, by moving emails from one pile to another, users can create special piles for tasks they are tracking or want to follow up on. Bifrost 2 currently runs in Notes and raises a number of questions about how to best represent piles of email. We are interested in making it both useful and pleasing to look at. To that end, we are exploring various interface designs for the piles.

Related Publications:
TR 00-08, Olle Blter and Candace L. Sidner. Bifrost Inbox Organizer: Giving users control over the inbox