We just had a fine day at the Atlas cafe on the first day of our development offsite. We’ve got an agenda, but mostly we spent the day coding. One of the engineers noted that that a day of pure coding was nothing new, but as a manager, personally, 8 hours straight of uninterrupted code feels downright decadent. It’s fabulous to have everyone close by. When you need a code review, there’s an engineer at your elbow. When you have a question, someone across the table has an answer. Sometimes you just need to talk something through with another human being who can nod knowingly and ask the odd question. The whole team is there when you are wondering the best pattern for a new API. Sure, it really ought to be this way at the office, but with business booming some of us are frequently called into meetings. There’s a need for that, but we also need to balance it with a need to create our next gen products.

It feels good to be part of a small company. I proposed the idea of this offsite on Wed night and by Thursday aftenoon it was a reality. Kudos to the management for letting us make it happen. Today we had a great time, being hugely productive, building some awesome apps using OpenLaszlo. Every now and then what you do for work scarily coincides with what you might do for fun. Today was one of those days.

Of course, all things being equal, it would be fun to spend the day at Zeitgeist. As it was, we just spent the evening there. (Sorry no picture to incriminate the team — my camera battery ran out.)

By the way, we’re hiring.

Over the past couple of years as I’ve been leading the development of Laszlo Mail, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about email UI. I’ve marked 2004, as the year of webemail innovation. Email user interfaces had appeared to stay relatively the same for decades. While webmail has proliferated in previous years, vendors had accepted the click-whole-page-refresh limitation of the early HTML standard.

In 2004, we started to see changes happening. Oddpost replicated Outlook UI inside Windows IE and then went beyond email to integrate RSS and some innovative calendaring features. Gmail was launched with a very different approach to displaying lists of messages and conversation threads. With wicked fast search, huge amounts of storage and tags instead of foldering, the Gmail developers challeged the traditional model of sorting and filing. At Laszlo Systems, we started prototyping Laszlo Mail, a webmail app with a cinematic user experience, melding the traditional 3-pane display and direct manipulation of a deskop email app with a new design aesthetic. Yahoo acquired Oddpost. In late 2005, Zimbra launched their app borrowing many features from Gmail and Oddpost and adding a new twist where businesses could integrate back-end systems like UPS tracking to provide extra context to email messages.

By Dec 2005, Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal wrote The Men Who Came To Dinner, and What They Said About Email. An avid fan of Laszlo Mail suggested that my mission for 2006 was to be invited to dinner by Lee Gomes for the follow-up one year later. At the time I wondered whether the spurt of innovation was over and whether this was just the mainstream media catching up on the technical innovation of the previous years. Did this UI innovation even matter to most folk or do they just flock to Gmail lured by gobs of free space? I’d like to say that by this time the new webmails had been vetted by the masses, but Yahoo was in private beta, Gmail invite-only, and Microsoft’s newest forray still under wraps. Laszlo Mail had just launched, lacking the fanfare of the big companies.

Back in 2004, Eudora was my email app of choice. Later that year I moved to Thunderbird, seduced by the quick search/filter feature, plagued as I am by a very large inbox. (It is notable that I stuck with Eudora for so long, despite being frustrated by what I believe was a specific, intermiitent Exchange/Eudora bug that had plagued me across two companies, where every 4-6 weeks my inbox would spontaneously decide it needed to download a new copy of every message on the server. An odd and disturbing behavior that I learned to recognize and workaround when it happened. A personal demonstration of what people will put up with for a UI that they love.)

I grew fond of Thunderbird. It’s nuances become integrated into my daily life. I took advantage of its features and worked around its limitations. Thunderbird became my standard for what a good email experience was. On our team, we had strong advocates for Apple Mail, Outlook, and Pine. Freedom of choice in your everyday tools is a strong part of the Laszlo corporate culture and the diversity of personal experience on the mail team had a strong postive influence on our design choices. About a year ago, we deployed Laszlo Mail internally for us all to use for our own company email, but it wasn’t until January with the addiiton of filters that I began to use it full time. I must admit, that I missed Thunderbird, but I care about my product and wanted to make sure that we fixed any issues that got in the way of a good experience.

A few weeks ago, I turned a corner. We did not release a new verison of Laszlo Mail — no new feature development or bug fix caused this change. I opened Thunderbird because I thought a particular task would be faster or easier with that app, and I gave up and I went back to Laszlo Mail. I’ve realized that there are a collection of features that make the Laszlo Mail experience better for me. In some instances, perhaps the very the limitations of the web have driven us to create alternate, more effective solutions. In other instances, it’s just the delightful imagination of our designers and attention to detail by the engineers. In any case, from my personal experience, these are the features that make the difference:

* immediacy: Laszlo Mail starts up faster than Thunderbird, and data is always fresh. I’ve grown used to the fact that when I look at a folder, it has fresh data in it. Instead of opening my Inbox and first looking at the emails recently received when I last logged in, then being suddenly disrupted by the appearance of new emails, my Inbox always shows the most recently received.

* ever-present search: I really like a search folder that sticks around. I didn’t expect that this design would have such an effect, but it’s nice to go back and forth between my search results and other folders without having to re-type the search.

* integrated contacts list: In Laszlo Mail, you have to add someone to your address book to get them into the auto-suggest list, so I use it regularly. Since I’m using it anyhow, I tuck other info away in there. I’ve never used the address books available in other email programs. I tried with Thunderbird for a while, but it just wasn’t was convenient for some reason. I’d like to make the collecting of contacts a little more automated — it’ll be interesting to see whether that would cause me to use it more or less.

How does our environment influence our behavior? This lovely book, by Jane Fulton Suri + IDEO, highlights things we do as we interact with the objects in our world and with other people. It challenges us to consider: which of these acts are conscious and which are done without thought? How do we react, respond, co-opt, and confom to our world? How do we create signals to other people about what belongs and what should happen?

Some of my favorites:

“reacting? …we interact automatically
with objects and spaces that we encounter”

“co-opting? …we make use of opportunities
present in our immediate surroundings”

“adapting? …we alter the purpose or context of things
to meet our objectives”

“conforming? ..we learn patterns of behavior from others
in our social and cultural group”

If the book isn’t enough, or if you want to participate, there’s also a Flickr group on the topic. Here are some highlights:

Problems worth solving… It’s a mistake to interpret observations too literally, though: the world doesn’t need a uniquq design solution for every creative adaptationwe see (that’s the kind of stuff that ends up advertised in in-flight catalogs!)”

The book has a very nice web site, which cycles through a selection of photos from the book when you click on different sections; however, you the object itself is really very wonderful. You should buy it or ask me to show it to you the next time you see me :)