News Streams and email trouble, Part 2

(Read Part 1 first, if you’d like.)

The last point of Part 1 was that good executive function, or lack thereof, lay at the root of many troubles people have with News Streams. We designers don’t have any control over that, and we don’t have the right to expect users to change. But we can control the design of the News Stream tools that we work on — email clients, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and so on.

So how do we design these tools to help people avoid or mitigate the problems listed in Part 1?

Keeping up with the stream: the impedance-matching problem

One problem was: “The frequency of a source’s messages may not match its personal importance to me.” Like many people, I’ve solved that by redirecting high-frequency, low-value mailing lists out of my main inbox and straight into separate folders or archives — separate streams, essentially. Then I only look at those streams a few times per week, and I pick and choose what to read, ignoring or deleting the rest. My inbox is now “quieter” and has a better signal-to-noise ratio.

Email clients usually offer filters for doing that. But they’re not always easy to use; they’re fiddly, and they tend to break if you give them slightly wrong information about what messages to redirect. I wish filters were easier. Or automatic. I don’t quite know why my Mac Mail client can’t recognize that a lot of my messages come from an easily identified mailing list, and ask me if I want that one filtered.

As for channels other than email, Facebook used to allow users to separate their incoming stream by lists of friends. I have at least ten friend lists. It used to be that if I wanted to see the status updates of only my work friends, for instance, then switch to those of only my family, I could do that. Facebook got rid of this mechanism a while ago, though, and I resent that loss of control. On the other hand, RSS readers generally provide good tools for separating the incoming stream (deluge?) into user-defined categories.

Just off the top of my head, here are some design possibilities for redirecting incoming messages into secondary streams:

  • Categorize them on what basis? By source (e.g. a single mailing list or a single friend’s status updates), by message rate, by topic, by social group, by importance. What else? How do these combine?
  • Are these other streams hierarchical — like nested folders — or flat? Are they Gmail-style tags, where any message can get any number of tags, or are they more like containers, where a message only goes into one secondary stream at a time? I love Gmail tags, personally, but they still don’t work well for people with a “folder” mindset.
  • Automatic vs manual. How much filtering work can the News Stream tool do for the user? If it’s mostly automatic, how accurate can it really be, given technical constraints? That’s easy for identifiable sources like “From” addresses and social media identities. It’s not so easy for softer categories like topic or degree of importance to the recipient.
  • It sure would be nice to share my most common categories across my News Stream tools. Work, family, gardening, parenting, local issues — do I really have to redefine these everywhere?
  • Reminders to read an ignored stream. There are some low-traffic mail folders that I just forget to read for a while, and then I have to spend a lot of time catching up. Sometimes I miss time-sensitive things altogether. I kind of hate that.
  • Using Multiple Workspaces to read multiple streams side-by-side, when the situation calls for it. I love Tweetdeck because it does that so well. I can split up my Twitter stream by topic (or hash tag, or whatever), and watch its four columns display four incoming streams separately. Magically, this makes interpersonal Twitter conversations more coherent and easy to follow.

Acting on items: flagging, to-do lists, and reading later

Here’s another problem from the previous post: “The items in my single inbox stream have diverse meanings and consequences.” Some need immediate responses, some later responses, some none; many items should be archived, but others can be deleted. I have to make triage-like decisions about them all the time, as they come in.

Flagging or starring items is one way to cope. I use flags as a “deal with this ASAP” marker, though other people may use them for different reasons. And on Mac Mail, that’s all I’ve got! Having assigned flags a certain meaning, I have no other markers for other meanings — I’d love to mark some messages as “read this sometime soon,” for instance. Then I could easily scan my inbox and find those messages when I have time to read them this evening. In short, I want more flag types! (User-invented Gmail tags work well for this purpose: “todo”, “read-soon”, etc.)

To keep my inbox quiet, I sometimes move a content-rich message or item into an archive for later perusal. Maybe I never get around to it, but at least I can search for it later. (Good search facilities are, of course, critical; I’m sure you designers don’t ignore them.) Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter’s “content-rich items” tend to be URLs. I still don’t have a great read-it-later mechanism for URLs, though I keep meaning to look at Instapaper for that.

Some email systems offer formal support for transferring email messages into a to-do list (or creating such a list from email messages themselves). These never quite caught on for me, but they work for many people. I would love to be able to easily set up a timed reminder to myself to deal with a stack of flagged messages, though. I can find other tools to do that, but why can’t my email client do it?

Getting rid of unwanted message sources

Another problem: “Some of us have trouble getting rid of sources from our news streams.” This ought to be easier than it is. Mailing lists should be drop-dead easy to unsubscribe from (and some are, to be fair). And vendors, don’t be evil; let people opt out of your marketing email easily!

Facebook offers a way to hide people from our news stream without actually unfriending them. I see this as socially valuable because we generally avoid offending people. I don’t actually want to unfriend that person I met at a conference last year and barely know, even if I don’t want to see all her status updates, six times a day. And I sure don’t want to unfriend Uncle Bob and cause a family drama! (Not really. I don’t have an Uncle Bob.)

Miscellaneous

  • Are there ways to present Alternative Views of a large email inbox, or a busy Twitter stream, or a voluminous RSS feed? Could we use innovative information graphics to manage these streams better? Various products have tried through the years, but I don’t think anything has really caught on. Why not?
  • Sorting and searching mechanisms — generally, ways to find specific messages — are of spotty quality across News Stream tools. My Mac Mail client is okay at it, not great. Gmail is better, though it should show more search results per page. Frankly, Facebook sucks at it; I wish it didn’t, because I sometimes like to go back through a stream (either my combined friends feed, or a specific person’s feed) and find an item that I know I’ve seen sometime recently.
  • Capacious and well-organized archives really help with a lot of tasks, including searching. It also takes a burden off of me: when I read Gmail, I almost never delete anything, and so that’s one more decision I don’t have to make at triage time. (Of course, I recently achieved the honor of actually running out of Gmail space, so take that for what it’s worth.)
  • Threaded conversations engage readers better. Again, we are social beings, and conversations among people we know and like can be deeply rewarding for us to read or participate in. (If we don’t like them, these conversations can be highly entertaining.) So support rich conversations! Twitter, I’m looking at you.
  • Speed matters. If I can blast through a block of 50+ new email messages or RSS items quickly, with no perceptible system wait in between, that keeps me “in the flow.” I’ll save time and have more fun.

One last point: Different News Stream mechanisms match up well with different kinds of sources. I check in with my various News Streams at different rates. My Twitter feed? Frequent — if I wait too long between updates, I’ll miss things! My home email? Not so frequent — I know email can usually wait a few hours, and they don’t come in as often as tweets anyway. Gmail — in between, because I use it for high-volume mailing lists that I want to cherry-pick, archive, and occasionally search.

Given that, I don’t mind going to different touchpoints (apps, devices, sites) to gather all this content. In fact, when many of them were all temporarily funneled into Google Buzz, I didn’t find it appealing. For me, Buzz ended up being mostly a Twitter feed, with a few other types of updates scattered and lost among the numerous tweets. I went back to my usual multiple-touchpoint way of working.

Well, I think I’ve written more than enough for now. I have one more thing to say, but that should be in a Part 3.

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