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.
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."
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.
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.