This post will probably make people think I am insane for bring up such a small issue.  But little things bother me, and this little thing has bothered me for years, and I have been waiting for Microsoft to fix this.  No matter what email client you choose to use, there is a set of basic features that all must support.  Once you start looking at competitve advantages, little features make the difference.

Target for today’s discussion: Windows Live! Hotmail

As a synopsis (to those who don’t want to read the whole post): Unlike all of its major competitors, Hotmail does not allow users to mark emails as unread within the context of reading an email.  As a secondary, they provide buttons that don’t actually do anything.

I will also look at some competitors: Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Facebook’s Message Inbox

The left navigation area of 4 popular message/email clients

I use a lot of email clients, gmail/hotmail mainly.  I also use 2 other lesser known clients but mostly to keep up on innovations in the UI etc.  Over the years, (after gmail came out) Yahoo! Mail seemed to be the only client that made improvements or drastic changes to their interface.

I took this above screenshot because it demonstrates how I (and many others) use email.  I generally try to keep my email box with 0 unread emails.  As it gets closer to Friday my work inbox sometimes gets up to 10, but I am pretty good keeping it low.  When I read a message and realize it is too long to read at the current moment, I mark it as unread.  Similarly, if there is an important email, with vital information I will need in the near future, I will mark it as unread.  Some clients allow the ability to mark or flag as important/follow up.  Most clients allow folders for organization.  Depending on the user’s level of organization they may have their own way of dealing with such messages.  Personally, I like to mark anything as “unread” until I have fully closed off all ties with that particular issue.  It is the one thing that at the end of the day, reminds me there is something outstanding (The big number beside my inbox).

The Windows Live Hotmail inbox screen

Currently, I can easily organize my emails from the overview/inbox screen.  I can either use the checkbox to do batch jobs: mark as unread, read, phishing scam.  Or I can use the right click button which brings up a menu which has the same and additional options.  But what happens when I read a message:

Sorry for the overzealous gaussian blur

Suddenly, within the context of reading an email I am no longer able to mark a message as unread.  Odd, because the item is literally missing from the menu.  Even more strange is that I have the ability to mark the message as read.  If I click this button, nothing actually happens.  This button does not do anything at all.  And to double check, I looked at the network traffic logs (Yes I am a geek).  When I click that button, nothing is being sent to the hotmail servers, which makes me confident saying that this button does nothing.

For people not familiar with Firebug, I highly recommend you get it (if you are a developer)

I wasn’t trying to make fun of Hotmail, I was just really confused and curious to see what that button could possibly do.  I don’t like to rag on other people’s software unless I can provide some kind of improvement or suggestion.  Is this really something that Hotmail should fix?  Is this nuance so big that it deserve a blog post?  In my opinion yes.  This is an integral aspect of my and likely many people’s daily email routine.  The existence of this “do nothing” button tells me that they know there is a hole in their UX.  Lets take a look to see how other companies have managed this feature.

Gmail does it right

Yahoo does it too (with a whole lot of other cool options)

Even Facebook has identified this as an important feature

I personally give Facebook the cake here, although they really aren’t an email client.  They have a massive button that lets me Mark this message as Unread.  Certainly this was to satisfy a use case that was handled by all except for Microsoft.   On implementation, a few things that I’d like to pay attention to.  Generally it’s simple, just add the Mark as Read and story is over.  But there are a few general UX things we can all learn from both Google and Facebook.  They handled implementation the most gracefully.  Why?  Because they make it hard for you to do something stupid.

Lets look at how they did it, and why I liked their approach.

Don't yell at me for letting me do something stupid

This is the resulted flow of trying to mark a message without actually selecting anything from the overview inbox page.  Note that both Facebook and Gmail grey out/disable those options.  They will not let me do something stupid.  Hotmail and Yahoo on the other hand give you a plethora of options, however most result in a large popup window and the loud Windows Chime! (which actually startled me while writing this post).  Gmail takes it even further by only showing the “Mark as read” or “Mark as unread” depending on the use case.  Yahoo, allows users to mark read messages as read, which of course, does nothing at all.

The last point to make (or suggestion for Hotmail’s update) is on what happens after we mark a message as unread.  When in context of reading a message and marking as unread: Facebook sends you back to the overview, Gmail sends you back to your inbox, Yahoo actually labels the message as unread but keeps you in the message.  Yahoo’s approach here is a bit strange because after marking the email, you are now reading an email that is technically unread.  They do update the Inbox (number) on the left, but the proximity of the UI change with respect to the button itself is a bit of a stretch.

It reminds me of an old, poorly designed PC game, when you hit a switch and its impossible to tell what just happened. This must break some UX law, too tired / lazy to look it up. And yes I measured it, 490px is much too far considering the subtle update/status in the UI.

So there we have it, a bit of a rant, but I certainly offered some suggestions.  I have some friends on the Live! team so maybe they will read this without getting to angry at me.  I must reiterate that I rant a lot but I try to offer constructive criticism when I can.  I still use Hotmail as my secondary mail client.  The personal (non professional) web based email market is huge, and certainly these 3 (I exclude Facebook) are the biggest players.  You may call me crazy for calling bullshit on such a minor feature, but it’s these nuances that can often lead a user to switching programs.  How I managed to write a 3 page post about a single button is beyond me, but if you find this useful in anyway, comment away!