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The power of email clients: why did we redesign Thunderbird?

Paweł Hawrylak

November 17, 2016 | Product Design

Update (16.01.17):

Our Thunderbird redesign drew a lot of buzz from industry press. Now we teamed up with Mozilla Thunderbird core team to think how we can upgrade current look and feel of the product. Maybe using the “Monterail” theme or its next version? You can read the continuity to the story in the newest article. 

Update (27.04.17):

We’re happy to let you know, that our Thunderbird redesign idea by Krystian Polański from our team is now a working theme and can be downloaded here. Thanks to everyone who supported the case and made this happen, especially to spymastermatt, who used our mockups and managed to recreate it really closely.

Another great news is that Richard Marti, Primary maintainer of Thunderbird themes, is working on a theme available for all platforms. It is based on our redesign, using original icons provided by our design team. It is still work in progress but will soon most likely be simply installable by everyone.

Stay tuned for more info!

Our mockups received some great recognition from the community on Dribbble (with almost 30k views currently), but also on other social media.

We hope you’ll enjoy using it!

 

Full story about Thunderbird redesign idea:

No matter what happens in the messaging world, email is here to stay. Slack didn’t kill email. Hipchat didn’t kill email. None of the other applications from this list killed email. And no matter how much we try not to rely on them, we end up using them more and/or in sync with all the new tools that we started using to replace email in the first place. If you want to know more: read here.

I think this is because email is simple, versatile, safe and reliable.

There is basically nothing you can do wrong; all the patterns are obvious and embedded in our culture of doing things.

Two of my grandparents (aged 86 and 96) use email.

Yet there’s a general notion of hate towards it and an observable movement to do something about it. Even Google made its own client: Inbox, because the native email experience just lacks something.

Power of email clients

In the beginning, when internet access was scarce and difficult, email clients were built to provide offline access, the possibility to use multiple accounts and an option for regular backup. Many people even used emails as a way of storage and data archiving. Physically having things on your computer meant safety.

Nowadays—when it’s the other way around—it’s safer to keep things in the cloud in case your computer/phone gets stolen/destroyed—some people still prefer the safety of keeping files on their own devices.

Also, we can add serious organizational tools, plugins and add-ons to the list of pros for email clients.

Abundance of choice

There’s a ton of email apps that promise you boosts in productivity, better organisation, personalization, actions, labeling, snoozing, etc. Mostly, they try to build upon the legacy of a desktop email client being a superior organizational application, but giving it a twist for modern times.

dotmail

I don’t know whether you remember dotmail. It was a concept created by Tobias Van Schneider in 2012 to create a new and powerful email application. dotmail introduced Actionsteps, social/brand integration and better attachment management. I think it was a breakthrough back in 2012, but development stopped in 2014.

dotmail app interface

Mailbox

Mailbox was the first email client that I really loved using. I don’t know if it was the first app to use swiping messages into actions (did they get it from dotmail?) but it was new for me and I loved it. I had the app on my Mac and on my Android phone and it was glorious. Until Dropbox announced that they are shutting down Mailbox, that is. They chose to focus on corporate clientele and entities like Dropbox Notes (now Paper, which I—incidentally—write this article on).

mailbox app interface

Nylas N1

Open source email client strongly targeted at sales professionals. With features like Enriched contacts, open and link tracking Nylas promises deeper understanding of your audience. Mail merge, send later and translation inside a draft allow you fine tuning of your message and finally meeting requests and email templates give more opportunities for boosting your productivity. Almost all of this short description was taken from their website. I must admit, they have a good copy.

Nylas app interface

Missive

Looks like a “full featured mail app” but with chat. You can basically chat inside a mail, invite people to mail thread, discuss, create tasks, snooze threads. It’s like putting Dropbox Paper and slack into an email app. Don’t know if it’s good or not, but if emails are your daily bread-n-butter, maybe it makes sense.

Missive app interface

Polymail

I feel a similar vibe to Nylas with this one. It offers a strong, helping hand for boosting productivity with features like email tracking, sending later, snoozing emails and one-click unsubscribing (which is pure awesomeness). Also—it has a powerful emphasis on the beauty of the interface.

Polymail app interface

Airmail

Email app without one standout feature that would easily define it in the crowd, although its strength is full customization. Apparently you can do everything in Airmail: “from setting per inbox notification sounds to bouncing emails and altering Gmail folder mapping”. Sounds great for heavy users.

Airmail 3 app interface

Postbox

This app both looks amazingly great and has a ton of useful features—too long to list here. Better check it out yourself. I love the interface. According to modern trends, it’s very simple, but—thanks to the clever use of colors—at the same it just looks fun and more organized. It has a strong identity. According to me, of course. And with advanced search, placeholders in responding templates (70 of them) that support dynamic data and an anti-tracking feature alerting you if there is a tracking tool in a mail that you received, I cannot but respect the effort.

Postbox app interface

What didn’t make the list: — Spark (only mobile) — Outlook (good looking powerhouse, but platform related), — Inbox from Google (sleek simplicity, but platform related), — Protonmail (it’s an email service)

Idea: A real upgrade in the Thunderbird design

Like I said, tons of email clients.

And in the midst of this hunt for unattainable holy grail, we recalled Thunderbird.

Actually some of us still use it (although Mozilla ceased funding it development in 2012). It’s definitely a powerful application with a lot of possibilities of personalization and tweaking the app to your needs. The mozilla community is famous for its add-ons and themes culture.

But the functionality and robust attitude isn’t enough in the current world. Good design comes not only from useful products, but also the aesthetic ones.

Interface-based product with best functionalities but outdated visual design can loose to other competitors because of aesthtetic-usability effect. It states that the design which people find more aesthetically pleasing are easier to use than the less pleasing design.

Today, in the world of email clients, Thunderbird is one of the biggest players. However, its popularity might be in a serious threat because of growing number of competitors focusing on a current users needs.

Usability and the package are intertwined elements which create a product, and using Thunderbird feels like driving a bit rusty cargo-car. Still reliable and working, but would be better it had those comfy ergonomic seats and marvelous A/C.

We decided to check how Thunderbird could look like in the modern world.

It’s presumably easy to start from scratch and redo the design from ground up, so that it looks “modern”. But we didn’t aim at designing another Polymail. We were interested in how a clearer version of Thunderbird would look like. One that would still be true for all the people that use the app now, but also attractive for the possible new zealots.

This is what we came up with:

Thunderbird redesigned app interface

You can also check our mockups on our Dribbble profile. If you like it, leave us your heart (not literally of course…) or share.

What we’ve done is our proposition of aesthetic adjustment (with some feature tweaks) that would be true to us – few users in Monterail. Something that—we hope—would make the time spent in Thunderbird more smooth and enjoyable. For greater UX redesign, there is a need of the community input, convinced stakeholders and a larger range of time.

The basic principle of this redesign was to achieve more clarity and readability. In effect, it could reduce a cognitive load, which is crucial in low measures to make a product more friendly, especially for the new users.

Currently, Thunderbird faces the problem of simultaneously showing a vast amount of information on one screen and we hope we addressed that.

"Clean lines and good layout. Email (or discussion threads) can contain so many details that the collapse of extra information is critical"
Bryan Clark, former User Experience Lead at Mozilla Messaging

 

Whole work was focused on adding some white space, inserting new typography an equalizing colors, but still keeping in mind branding and character of Thunderbird. That’s why the redesign was based on FirefoxOs Style Guide to keep its identity somehow coherent.

Thunderbird redesigned app interface

To improve interaction side, adding a gestures support (which becomes a standard) would be a nice touch. It could be used in managing emails and operating calendar with marked events and todos.

"The colours are great! I'm really enjoying how everything looks tied together, and how much space there is left for people to add different themes to."
Blake Winton, Thunderbird Contributor and UX Engineer at Mozilla

 

Doing this upgrade was a lot of fun and we are quite excited with the final result.

If you feel the same about our work, please leave us a comment or share this article on your social media profiles. Every like and share feels like a thumbs-up for our open-sourced-at-heart team.

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