How I triage email using color

Let’s face it, many of us now receive more email that we can read. So if we’re not reading all our email, are we at least reading the most important messages? If you haven’t customized your email client, I doubt it.

Most major email clients (e.g. Outlook) treat all messages the same and sort by time stamp. Unread messages are typically shown in bold. Here’s an example inbox:

Standard Email Inbox

Notice in this example, there are some messages which are more important than others. For example Jill Executive (presumably a big shot at the company) is asking about some super important presentation coming up. And my wife apparently needs me to pickup the baby, also very important :). Yet the emails from David Shah were automatically generated when he created the projects and not critical to read.

Now, I know many of you are thinking… well Preston, why don’t you setup some filters and have some of those messages moved to folders. I’ve experimented with those but I always end up “losing” a message which was not filtered the way I had intended. Also, as with all hierarchical organization schemes, finding the messages later in folders can be challenging. Some of you may also have some other nifty email program which you’ve found to be better—but those of us in Corporate America are stuck with Outlook (at least for the time being).

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a new way to deal with this problem using a little known feature within Outlook which can automatically color messages based upon certain rules you setup. By doing this you can make less important emails appear less noticible and more important emails stand out. Here’s an example:

Triaged Email Inbox

Notice how an inbox of 8 messages at quick glance looks like just 4 messages. Amazing! In this way the likely most important messages will be most visible in your inbox whereas the less important ones you more likely don’t need to respond to will fade into the background.

Here’s how it works from within Outlook 2003. Click on Tools—>Organize from the menu.

Click on “Using Colors” and then on “Automatic Formatting”. Here are the rules I setup (in this order as they’re run sequentially):

  • Condition: Where I am on the CC line
    Font: Grey
  • Condition: Where I am the only person on the TO line
    Font: Blue
  • Condition: Where I am on the TO line with other people
    Font: Green
  • Condition: From: <My Manager’s Name>, <Executives Name> Where I am on the To: line with other people
    Font: Red

Note that this system works best in an environment where people appropriately use the TO and CC lines. You should always put a person on the TO line if they need to respond and the CC line if its simply to inform.

Archiving and Finding Messages

I’ve found the color system to work well with my archiving and search system I’ve setup. I have a daily auto-archive setup on my inbox to archive anything older than 14 days to a file for that quarter. In this way each archive file does not get too big. Then I have all my archive PST files open in Outlook which allows Windows Desktop Search to index all the messages. If you haven’t tried Windows Desktop Search, it’s based on the one in Vista but available to install on Windows XP for free. You can even do complex queries like “date:last week” and “status from:John Doe”.

If you’ve found other interesting ways to organize and triage email, let me know.

Let’s face it, many of us now receive more email that we can read. So if we’re not reading all our email, are we at least reading the most important messages? If you haven’t customized your email client, I doubt it. Most major email clients (e.g. Outlook) treat all messages the same and sort by […]

Yahoo’s Elegant Interaction Design in Search

I read in Techcrunch about Yahoo!’s new improvements to search results. What caught my attention was how elegant the search suggestion widget operates. Unlike other search suggestion sites which annoyingly get in the way all the time with their smarts, this one senses hesitation in the search box and only then displays the results—that way it doesn’t get in the way. Also it correctly interprets arrow keys (down moves into the related search box widget). This kind of interaction design is not flashy but it is quite effective, meets the needs of the user and I think is a sign of where the web is going.

Yahoo Search Suggest

I give our yodeling friends up the peninsula a lot of credit for getting this one so right. While I’m an avid Google search user these improvements just might lure as a customer.

I read in Techcrunch about Yahoo!’s new improvements to search results. What caught my attention was how elegant the search suggestion widget operates. Unlike other search suggestion sites which annoyingly get in the way all the time with their smarts, this one senses hesitation in the search box and only then displays the results—that way […]

Yahoo’s Elegant Interaction Design in Search

I read in Techcrunch about Yahoo!’s new improvements to search results. What caught my attention was how elegant the search suggestion widget operates. Unlike other search suggestion sites which annoyingly get in the way all the time with their smarts, this one senses hesitation in the search box and only then displays the results–that way it doesn’t get in the way. Also it correctly interprets arrow keys (down moves into the related search box widget). This kind of interaction design is not flashy but it is quite effective, meets the needs of the user and I think is a sign of where the web is going.

Yahoo Search Suggest

I give our yodeling friends up the peninsula a lot of credit for getting this one so right. While I’m an avid Google search user these improvements just might lure as a customer.

I read in Techcrunch about Yahoo!’s new improvements to search results. What caught my attention was how elegant the search suggestion widget operates. Unlike other search suggestion sites which annoyingly get in the way all the time with their smarts, this one senses hesitation in the search box and only then displays the results–that way […]

Handling bad queries

I was discussing eBay search with a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in a while and he brought up that he was impressed with a number of the changes we’d made over the past year. Flattered, I probed a bit further to find that it was how eBay handled bad queries that he found most helpful. This is now the third separate person that has mentioned this particular improvement to me.

Here’s how the feature works (launched in June 2005). When a buyer searches for something that returns low or no results we offer suggestions on how to improve the query. For example if a buyer searches for more than 4 keywords we suggest crossing out some of the more problematic ones along with the number of items they’d find with that query (patent pending). Here is an example of a Finding Nemo query:

 

In this way we enable buyers that would have perhaps left eBay to continue their shopping experience. In a similar way if a buyer pics too many options in a product finder on the left-nav we suggest removing some of the attributes. This is critical when a shopper goes into Tax-mode and fills out all the attributes as important to them—not realizing that the product they are describing actually does not exist. Here is an example of a Sony Laptop query: 


Please let me know what improvements you find helpful or areas that still need improvement so I can add it to my long list. 🙂

I was discussing eBay search with a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in a while and he brought up that he was impressed with a number of the changes we’d made over the past year. Flattered, I probed a bit further to find that it was how eBay handled bad queries that he […]

AOL Search’s new “saved searches” feature

I’ve been thinking alot lately about how people keep track of past things they’ve found online and was pleased to see AOL’s new saved searches feature today. I think it is important that any eCommerce site or search engine integrate this functionality deeply into the user experience.

On mouseover a pair of scissors appears and clicking it adds it to your saved search cue without a refresh (shown prominently in green). Also they show on the left recent searches you’ve conducted. In the spirit of Halloween next week, here is search for the incredibles costumes.

Chris Sherman
and Jennifer Laycock each have good writeups on this.

I’ve been thinking alot lately about how people keep track of past things they’ve found online and was pleased to see AOL’s new saved searches feature today. I think it is important that any eCommerce site or search engine integrate this functionality deeply into the user experience. On mouseover a pair of scissors appears and […]

Montreal here we come!

Marti Hearst, Corey Chandler, and I submitted a course application for CHI 2006 over the summer and we received word yesterday that it was accepted! It’s titled “Faceted Metadata for Information Architecture and Search” and will cover leasons learned thru research at UC Berkeley and eBay. If you aren’t already planning on attending the conference, you should.

Marti Hearst, Corey Chandler, and I submitted a course application for CHI 2006 over the summer and we received word yesterday that it was accepted! It’s titled “Faceted Metadata for Information Architecture and Search” and will cover leasons learned thru research at UC Berkeley and eBay. If you aren’t already planning on attending the conference, […]

Ask Jeeves shares Search stats

Jim Lanzone shared a number of interesting stats from Ask:

  • The money is still in the head: 30% of searches drive 70% of revenue. However over time there will be more competition in the tail.
  • Average word count varies as one would expect. In the head: 1.57 words vs. tail: 5.01 words.
  • The most popular sites in the search index take the lions share of the usage(25% of clicks on just 0.35MM sites, 50% on just 6MM, 90% on 250MM pages)
  • The myth of Advanced Search: 10% “say they want it”, but only 1% use it. People refine their search using keywords as only 30% of visits have just one query
  • Where to people click: only 2% click on link-tabs, 35% on selected pictures shown at top of page, 45% on the 10 blue links, 15% on search refinements (add/replace words). Google: 1-2% click on text ads vs. 15% on related search links on Ask.
  • Last if you haven’t tried Ask.com lately you should give it another spin. They definately have a unique take on how to run a search engine.

More stats up on the Ask Blog.

Jim Lanzone shared a number of interesting stats from Ask: The money is still in the head: 30% of searches drive 70% of revenue. However over time there will be more competition in the tail. Average word count varies as one would expect. In the head: 1.57 words vs. tail: 5.01 words. The most popular […]

New Way to Shop on eBay

I helped drive forward a program of user experience changes to our search products during 2005. The first of which launched in May 2005 as the alpha test for a “New way to Shop on eBay”. In addition to general simplification of the Finding UI, it introduced the following improvements:

  • Multi-faceted browsing (e.g. search by bed size OR brand OR product type)
  • Matching buyer and seller language (e.g. CK = Calvin Klein)
  • Multiple selection of concepts (e.g. see all the size 8.0 & 8.5 shoes)

Alpha Test (May – June 2005)

A limited test was run in five categories in May thru June of 2005 to a small percentage of users. Shown below is a screenshot from our bedding category. Press Release

New Way to Shop on eBay (May 2005)

Update:

  • Finding experience launched within eBay Express (April 2006)

I helped drive forward a program of user experience changes to our search products during 2005. The first of which launched in May 2005 as the alpha test for a “New way to Shop on eBay”. In addition to general simplification of the Finding UI, it introduced the following improvements: Multi-faceted browsing (e.g. search by […]