Alto does not require an AOL email address, but rather works with services such as Gmail and Yahoo.

By organizing email into novel and visual stacks, Alto’s UI feels clean and less cluttered than its competitors’ inboxes.

Navigating stacks in Alto is simple, visual, and intuitive.

Alto offers in-site tab navigation, meaning Alto tabs are kept within one browser tab, rather than needing to open up a slew of different windows on Chrome or Firefox to reference an email as you write one.

The dead-simple "skip inbox" feature automatically moves inbox clutter to out-of-the-way stacks.

Alto also offers real-time visual search, which categorizes results by emails, contacts, photos, and attachments to offer users immediate context.

In the social stack, notifications are culled from Twitter, LinkedIn, Path, Facebook, and more, but Alto goes the extra mile to display contextual infographics.

Alto’s stripped-down UI for composing messages features only the essentials.

Co.Design

AOL May Have Invented Email's Next UI Paradigm

AOL Alto, a new web-based email client, is filled with grand ideas, including a Pinterest-like system for organizing your inbox.

Bill Wetherell, a senior director of UX design at AOL, is struggling to find a recent message from his wife in his Gmail inbox. He’s mashing and mashing and mashing on the down-arrow key while squinting at his laptop screen. Wetherell eventually finds the right email, but not before admitting his true feelings for Google’s popular messaging product. "It’s a frickin’ mess right now," he says. "I just want to find that frickin’ email, but I have to go all the way down here--wait, wait, there it is--way down here. This is basically the inbox fatigue we’re all now dealing with."

The exercise is not without a purpose: Wetherell is in New York to show me the true innovations of AOL Alto, a new service that the company promises will revolutionize how we interact with email, which goes live today as an invite-only beta program. As Wetherell describes, email has largely gone unchanged in years. Yes, there have been improvements--in search, contacts, storage size--but they’ve been incremental at best, and based on an outmoded architecture of lists, folders, and more lists. Alto is a radical rethinking of inbox design, and features a stripped-down interface that’s spruced up by visual cues and intuitive navigation tools. "Lists are horrible at revealing the treasures of your inbox, and folders are failing people," Wetherell says. "We took all the pixels that were dedicated to that space and just said, 'Screw that.'"

As a Gmail addict, I’ll admit I was initially skeptical of Wetherell’s claims, especially considering he was speaking for AOL, where email has been typecast as a 1990s-era Nora Ephron movie--a service geared toward oversize-font-reading aunts and uncles. But Alto is not AOL Mail. (In fact, you do not need an AOL account to use the service, which will work with most existing email platforms.) It’s actually proved to be a more modern and nimble alternative to many of its mainstream counterparts, and boasts many novel features that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, even with its beautiful redesign of Outlook, should all heed lessons from.

Stacks, Not Folders

How many times have you searched your Gmail account for an old photo? Had your inbox overwhelmed by daily deals from Groupon and Living Social? Or had to sift through mounds of emails for an attachment? "I don’t know about you, but one of the most annoying things today in Gmail is having to find an attachment by looking for that stupid, little paperclip icon," says Wetherell. "Not so anymore."

Alto is divided into two main windows: a streamlined column of mail that matters, and a grid of tiles for navigating leftover inbox clutter. In Alto, many messages and files are automatically and neatly aggregated into tiles of common categories: for photos, attachments, social, daily deals, and retail. So, for example, say you get an email offer from Amazon or iTunes--Alto will automatically pull those messages into the retailers stack, seamlessly and without hassle. Or say you receive a Facebook message from a friend, or a LinkedIn notification from a coworker--Alto will pull those emails into its own clean social stack. "We basically attached a big vacuum cleaner and sucked everything out," says Wetherell.

So all you’re left with, in the side column next to the stacks, are the emails that matter to you most now. Essentially, a stack is a combination of a folder, label, and filter--only without having to perform the frustrating task of creating a folder, label, and filter. And if you want to create your own stack, it’s a simple matter of dragging and dropping a message into a new stack.

The innovation derives from, of all things, snail mail. When Wetherell was recently watching his wife sift through a pile of mail at home, he noticed that she would swiftly organize catalogues into one pile and correspondence into another, while sticking any coupons to the kitchen fridge and placing any bills by the couple’s bedside table. They’d both address these different piles at different points--the mail from friends immediately, say, while the deals on a weekly basis and the bills at the end of every month. "At AOL, we started to wonder if we could recreate that same physical process but in the digital world," Wetherell says, talking up the "skip inbox" feature that allows messages to jump right into a stack. "We realized stacks are good for the emails you don’t want clogging up your inbox--the messages that you want, but you don’t want right now."

Pinterest-like Navigation

But the real secret sauce of Alto is the way users can navigate these various stacks. Traditionally, to find an attachment or photograph, you’d often have to search for that one message, from that one contact, containing that one file. But in Alto, all photos, attachments, and other stacks are presented visually, allowing for navigation that’s much easier than scrolling through never-ending pages of text-based lists.

When you click into your photo stack, for example, you can see all the photos from your inbox in one place, aligned in a Pinterest-like grid of tiles. ("We’ve heard the Pinterest comparison before, yes--the concept of stacks is to represent the inbox visually," Wetherell says.) Finding a recent attachment is a simple matter of clicking the stack, and finding the right PDF or Word document, which can be previewed right within Alto--no need for downloads or new browser tabs. What’s more, even the email messages from daily deal services and retailers are viewed in carousel mode, allowing for window-shopping-like functionality.

In the social stack, notifications are culled from Twitter, LinkedIn, Path, Facebook, and more. But Alto goes the extra mile to display infographics to help users navigate through fragmented social network updates.

You can narrow down what’s displayed by contacts, dates, and so forth, which helps shift away from inbox search to inbox discovery. And just in case, Alto also offers real-time visual search, which categorizes results by emails, contacts, photos, and attachments to offer users immediate context.

Ultimately, Alto is a more visual interpretation of the inbox, without much of the text and manual organization which can fatigue users. (Users can still create and manually organize traditional folders, if need be.) Alto has recognized the inbox is used to find more than email--it’s the central hub of many of your social contacts, buying habits, work files, and photos. "We’ve turned the inbox inside out," says Wetherell.

Less is More

To hear Wetherell describe Alto is to hear him describe how traditional inbox UIs need "airing out." Gmail, for instance, has become an overwhelming source of colors, text, numbers, time stamps, buttons, and boxes, which combines elements of Google search, Google+, and Gchat. Alto’s user interface has more white space and less text; more visuals and fewer menus. "We wanted to give a sense of visual relief," Wetherell says.

To the left of the tiles is Alto’s main inbox, which is slim and elegant. The colors are softer on the eyes than Gmail’s scheme; there is less junk mail; and the myriad icons that normally overwhelm inbox screens (stars, trashcans, checkboxes, numbers) are gone, save a select few that appear upon mousing over a particular message. It’s a clean experience reminiscent of your simple, thin iPhone email message list.

Even the interface for composing messages has been stripped down. In traditional email clients, when composing a message, you’re faced with a long list of Microsoft Office-like editing capabilities: for fonts, formatting, colors, sizing. "There’s the To section, CC, BCC, subject line, and all this stuff," Wetherell says. "It’s a pretty high cognitive load when you’re composing a message, and we wanted to shrink that form down. A lot of time when you’re dealing with weight loss, the first thing they tell you to do is get a smaller dinner plate--portion control is very important."

Alto’s default compose mode is a simple message form that features boxes for the receiver, subject, and message. (Users can also jump to the the full compose message mode.) The box overlays on top of your inbox--no need to refresh to a new page or open a separate window.

Indeed, much of the navigation in Alto is done via in-site navigation, meaning Alto tabs are kept within one browser tab, rather than needing to open up a slew of different browser tabs as often happens with Gmail. It’s a cinch to jump between composing a message, reading a message, or browsing stacks.

Overall, Alto is a dramatic improvement in the way inboxes are designed, and proves that competing email services are far from having perfected the right interface, despite how many millions of users they all tout.

Add New Comment

50 Comments

  • ChasingBumpers

    Seems optimized for browsing emails that contain an image or attachment.
    Interestingly, the most important emails in my inbox generally don't
    have images or attachments.

    Adding lots of white space and wide
    gutters give the UI a clean layout, but as we know, real estate is a hot
    commodity on the screen.  There's always a trade-off.

    The traditional "list-view" of email user interfaces are optimized for rapid scanning.
    Tile-based
    views like pinterest et al. are optimized for leisurely browsing
    because they emphasize imagery and force the eye to move in multiple
    vectors.  It would be interesting to see a comparative email 'scan' test
    to see how this model does against traditional list views in efficiency
    and eye fatigue.

  • ChasingBumpers

    Seems optimized for browsing emails that contain an image or attachment. Interestingly, the most important emails in my inbox generally don't have images or attachments.

    Adding lots of white space and wide gutters give the UI a clean layout, but as we know, real estate is a hot commodity on the screen.  There's always a trade-off.

    The traditional "list-view" of email user interfaces are optimized for rapid scanning.
    Tile-based views like pinterest et al. are optimized for leisurely browsing because they emphasize imagery and force the eye to move in multiple vectors.  It would be interesting to see a comparative email 'scan' test to see how this model does against traditional list views in efficiency and eye fatigue.

  • Kev Childs

    I often find these articles interesting, but I get a bit confused when the bloggers start talking with abreviation or code language.  In following AOL over the early years, I observed that most applications used by AOL were simply free programs that were rebranded in their name. It's nice to see that original progarms are actually being designed and implemented.   
     

  • astralislux

    I'm wondering if the author actually used the service. I tried using it and it's clunky. It added absolutely no value for me. After using it, I realized I'd rather search for emails rather than having my documents and photos stacked without knowing where they came from and out-of-context.

    GMails plain-text search bar still rules.

  • David Roper

     I agree.  It is unnerving to have someone group your stuff when they have no idea what it really is.  I tried using Fences for Win 7 desktop and felt the same way, ie lost because someone else was in charge.  It's like when my wife of 48 years "cleans up" the house and I can't find anything anymore.  just sayin'

  • Renee

    It's stunning how many negative comments are in this thread. 

    I have nothing to back this up, but any UX designer worth a damn does research with their audiences to determine problems with whatever products they're using, so I am going to assume that this was one of the methods they used that influenced changes in their product. When Bill (lead UX) states he doesn't know how to use search, can we perhaps assume he's channeling his users? Jeez.

    Second, we do know that AOL has had the distinction of catering to older, less tech-savvy users in its history. I am going to assume again that this is still their audience, people who aren't glued to their computers 24-7 and don't know how to organize Gmail because it uses tags instead of a common folder metaphor. Yes, some people don't get that. Some people don't know how to create filters to auto-sort their email. So perhaps, just maybe AOL is responding to these common user issues and attempting to address them by incorporating patterns that work so well on other sites and services. Copying? Sure. We all do it, but we just need to make sure we're doing it in a way that makes sense to whatever service we're providing. Pinterest for Pinterest's sake can fail. 

    Therefore, I am going to assume again that Bill and team put this new model in front of target audiences and it tested well.

    If you don't like it don't use it. But I seriously doubt you're the audience they're going for.

  • Mark Hiew

    Down arrowing?! Try the search bar in your gmail. The difficulty involved in making a label? Press 'L'. Full inbox? Use the zen GTD methodology to get to zero inbox. I'm personally a big fan of breaking your gmail into priority, starred and everything else, then archiving everything that's un-starred. I think Alto looks gorgeous and stacks are great, but he's exaggerating the difficulties of gmail management. What this speaks to moreover is a broader lack of education regarding effective email management.

  • Guest1231234567

    so is this guy that is so frustrated ever heard 'search'? i never 'scroll all the way down' or 'look for the paperclip icon' because there's this handy bar on the screen that will search through my messages based the text i input.

    yeah, that looks pretty, until you realize those 'stacks' do the exact same thing as 'folders' only they do it by eating up significantly more screen real estate. and those messages on the left? try scrolling through all that when you need to find something. let's not even think about how that rtanslates to my tiny phone screen, but hey, who needs mobile email access?

    this looks like a case of solving a problem that doesn't exist and choosing form over fucntion. 

  • Takbax

    You wouldn't have this problem if you were using the new outlook. I used and loved Gmail for 5 years.  But, then i got sick of it.  Poor UI. Poor Task Management.  Zero intelligence.  OUTLOOK solves most these issues.

  • Lazza

     Outlook works only on Windows. :)

    BTW I'm not saying Alto is "the next big thing" or whatever "OMG can't live without it" kind of comment. I'm happy with Gmail, but as I said, Outlook doesn't work on serious (Linux-based) OSes.

  • rahul

    Love the mocks but i don't like the fonts. May be its just me but overall it looks good.

  • Ben Ghazi

    Great, just what we need - another dumbed-down invitation to get more stupid people emailing cat pictures to everybody they've ever heard of.

  • James Ferrell

    I love how the comments are split between "cool, idea" and "what's wrong with the way I've been doing things for the past 15 years?"

    If you don't like the idea, don't use the service. But also remember that organization is not necessarily everyone's strong point.

    Personally, even as an organized person and a gmail fan, I think the existing email paradigm is highly flawed and this is a step in the right direction.

  • rahul

    I completely agree with you James. I have been using gmail for almost 9 years now and i don't like it anymore its cluttered and sloppy. Configured all my mails to IMAP and its better. You stated it right "If you like use it else don't. No one is begging people to use it. I am not an AOL employee or a fan but its demeaning to let down someone's good work. 

  • Graw-_@

    Why can't people handle text these days. Everyone has this ridiculous fascination with tiles and pictures. Who is this AOL crap designed for. Do people really not use cc and bcc? I guess this is really for the people who like to forward huge emails to their contact list, pasting everything in the 'to' field.

    ' "There’s the To section, CC, BCC, subject line, and all this stuff,"
    Wetherell says. "It’s a pretty high cognitive load when you’re composing
    a message, and we wanted to shrink that form down.'

    A pretty high cognitive load? Maybe if reading some text is too "high" of a cognitive load you should just give up using computers. Fuck this pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why don't people take the god damn time to learn the most basic of fucking tasks.

  • Rajesh Satyarthi

    Considering the advent of Tablet and Touch-Screen Interaction, Considering Microsoft went tablet oriented interaction with metro UI for Windows 8, Considering ability of HTML5 for web based apps, Considering new technologies such as Hosted Fonts and trend of Typographic websites --- this is obvious that major web corporations will change their decade old User Interaction System.

    In this new era of touch-enabled interaction its all about ease of use while being a very pleasurable user experience. Generalized by Apple's revolutionary smartphone iPhone's user experience.

    Allowing it to use other than AOL email they are just taunting competitors for better ux. which is great for every one consumers as well as companies.

    Twitter's new design is quite good in the same line but not quite there yet, i just want other major websites to start doing ux re-invention. especially information oriented such as IMDB, Wikipedia and very very importantly Facebook.