Monday, 27 February 2012

Contact-centric email

This blog post develops the basic thesis that collaboration is person-centric, while the most prevalent collaboration tool, i.e. email, remains firmly wedded to the concepts of 'folder' and 'email', leaving the concept of 'person' somewhat out in the cold.

This post is labelled 'contact-centric' (rather than person-centric) purely because 'contact' is the term used in most email clients. Actually email clients are often endowed with an 'address book', named after a thing that contains 'addresses', not people.

The argument is more fully developed on my contact-centric email page, itself really a specific example of the principles of data-driven web design.

All email clients support the concept of folder. I.e. you can click on the name of a 'folder' (e.g. Sent Items) and can expect to see a list of emails associated with that folder conveniently displayed.

All email clients support the concept of an email. I.e. if you see a list of emails (e.g. after clicking on a folder name above) then you can expect the contents of that email to be conveniently displayed.

Person has a long history of being effectively an attribute of an email, i.e. a piece of data in the form of an email address that may appear in the From, To or CC fields. As mentioned above, email clients have added 'address books' over the years but almost entirely as a convenient cache of email addresses to aid the primary task of writing an email. Person (aka Contact) remains a poorly supported entity in the system, certainly compared to 'folder'.

It doesn't have to be this way. Rather than being hidden behind an 'address book' icon which effectively takes you 'out' of your email tool, your list of contacts could be displayed within your 'main' email view.

For 'Person' to be treated at least as importantly as 'folder', something more useful should happen when you click on a person name. The illustration below shows how the 'contact pane' could actually be a composite of contact details plus mails-from and mails-to the person concerned.

Regarding 'Person', the additional consideration is what would you click on to bring you to this view? The obvious answer is the name of a contact in the contacts list (aka 'address book') left-pane. In addition the same view could be reached when clicking on any email address in the To:, From: or CC: fields of any email.

So the 'person page' has two primary qualities that distinguish it from current 'traditional' implementation of email clients:
  1. All useful information derivable from a given individual is accessible from their 'person-page', and in many cases that information is 'promoted' to appear on the page itself (rather than being provided in the form of a link that takes you away from the person page). The 'Sent' tab in the illustration above keeps the user on the person page, not off to an 'inbox view' that happens to be sorted by email address.
  2. Clicking on a person reference (typically in the form of their email address) consistently brings the user to this view.
This post doesn't attempt to provide the definitive answer on what should be on the email person-page, but provides instead an illustration that should easily justify its value. Given a person page, there are many opportunities for collecting information even within the email system that could appear on this page. For example
  • the mail lists to which that users belongs
  • relationship scores with other users of the email system (equally this allows the collection of contacts with whom this user is most associated)
  • other systems (e.g. voicemail) may provide additional information that can be incorporated.