Yahoo! indeed is the king of email. With close to 100 Million unique visitors to email accounts every month (more than 2x as much as GMail; more than AOL, GMail & Hotmail combined), it definitely is solving the need of a large population which keeps returning. But good business today doesn’t necessarily mean that business will be good in the future. Other email providers are catching up and it isn’t a good sign when a new communication service being developed by one of the most visited sites on the internet (hint: Facebook) is considered to be a ‘GMail killer‘ and not a ‘Yahoo! killer’.
Competition is growing and expectations are rising. While Yahoo! has taken what may be conceived as the right steps to stave off competitors, the combined result isn’t the most impressive product. I’ll explain why. But first..
Why write about it?
I’ve always been vocal about my distaste for Yahoo! mail. Word of advice: it isn’t the best topic of conversation at a party. (*shrug*). Anyway, during one such discussion, I received an unexpected response from a member in the audience – “I like Yahoo! mail”. Normally, this response wouldn’t bother me but the setting of that conversation is what makes it significant. I was talking to some friends in the student orgs room in the College of Computing (a hangout spot for CS majors). I expected better out of that crowd. A knowledge of UI designs, user expectations and design criteria. Upon further interrogation I found out that the offender was a freshman. (*smh*).
- The flaws I see aren’t obvious to others who are used to what they see in Yahoo! mail.
- I’m wrong.
I don’t want to be wrong. And the main reason why I write about this is to assure myself that the reasons why I conclude Yahoo! mail as insufficient are at least fair (if not convincing).
What they have right?
Okay, not all of it is bad. They deserve credit for what they do right. The login page, for instance, is a masterpiece. Only Bing (in my opinion) has a better action driving page than Yahoo!’s login page. A colorful, inviting background with a dropbox style login box to the right hand side is exactly how a login page should be. Here are some samples of what I’ve seen in the past:
Good stuff. Lately though, they’ve turned that strategy into a money making one by posting some ads on that page. They’re clever with it too since you never expect a promotion on a page where you expect artsy pictures; you pay attention to detail like you’re used to and BAM! advertisement sold. For example:
Believe me, I spent a lot of time looking for more stuff to add here – nothing. Lets get to the point..
What they have wrong?
I can’t wait to get this one out of my system. The most annoying thing about Yahoo! mail is that it tries to do TOO MUCH in one little page. It’s as if many different teams within Yahoo! took part in a lottery for ‘div’s within the page and made the best out of what they got:
There’s no better example of information overload than this. In a setting where competitors rely on elegance and high use of white space, Yahoo! chooses to clutter their most important asset with information most of its users won’t even use. We’ll get to talking about how this can be changed later but first, let’s wrap up this list.
The next issue rises from the one discussed before. TABS. I know. Tabs. On a webpage where the primary objective of the visitor is to check their email, there are tabs that take you away from your inbox. There are tabs to view your inbox, the (full) message in your inbox, chat messages, etc. Imagine having tabs on your Facebook homepage. Now translate that confusion onto your second more important task of the day (after facebooking, ofcourse) and imagine how much frustration it may cause.
Let’s play a game. I’ll write a word in the next line; it’s a task you perform within Yahoo! mail. When you see that word, look over to the most obvious section of the webpage where you expect to be able to execute the task. Here we go:
Did you find them? How long did it take you to find the right link? Let me tell you what happened. If you have an account on any other website except Yahoo! mail, go to it and look for the sign out button. Matter of fact, go to ALL of them. I can guarantee you that more than 80% of them will have their sign out buttons on the right top corner. Its an unspoken rule. That’s just how it is. Sign out? Right top corner. It’s a simple reflex. If the user signs out, it means they aren’t using your service anymore. So it’s important to keep them logged in. How do you keep them logged in when they are done checking their email? Make it difficult to log out so that when they load the page again, their account is ready to go for them. Convenient. I get it. But what happens when I’m logged in from a computer other than my primary computer and it takes me more than 1.5 seconds to log out? More frustration. Even Facebook, notorious for implementing designs that they think are effective regardless of user feedback, has their logout button on the right top corner. (Yes, they make it hard to find but at least it’s there!)
How was search? I don’t know about you but 4 out of 5 times I try searching for old emails, I end up searching the keywords I entered on the web! I’ll tell you why: THERE ARE TWO SEARCH BOXES ON THIS PAGE! Why? I don’t know. Maybe my hypothesis of teams taking part in lottery for placement on the page is really true but I can’t come up with a fair justification for this decision.
If you compute a ratio of importance vs size of the button assigned to a task, you will find that the ‘New’ button to compose an email will be the smallest. Maybe even an outlier. When you send more emails, you receive more emails. When the bloodline of your business is from increasing sent emails count, a tiny box like that won’t help much. Another addition to faults in this design.
Next up: reading emails. This applies to most email services but Yahoo! mail deserves it the most because theirs is the worst of all. The source of this realization is from the little time I spent with my boss’ iPad. Now, I’m no fanboy but I must admit, they’ve done a fabulous job with their design for the email app.
It’s really a common sense design decision that I’m glad is starting to catch on. Even Twitter has picked up on it (watch from 1:00):
It’s a simple idea if you think about it. In it’s landscape orientation (iPad) and on the computer screen, the available screen space is wider than its height yet, for so many years, we’ve formatted lists vertically but the more practical approach would be to format content drill down horizontally (like the dialog box for directories in Macs).
Yahoo! mail’s inbox design takes it to another level:
Yahoo! mail inbox not only ignores the basic idea that the screen is wider than longer but also expects the user to be able to view the email on a computer screen set on portrait orientation so that the entire inbox list and email selected can be viewed at the same time. Good luck with that. Oh also, if you forgot from before, in order to view the email in “full mode”, you’ll have to double click it and view it in the new fancy tab.
Last but not least is the final step in the entire process of checking email: Sign out. Yahoo! provides a lot more services than just email. So, it’s understandable for them to take the user to their homepage when they sign out of the email service. (Google doesn’t do that even though they have just as many services as Yahoo! does). But what justification can they provide for not having any feedback to confirm sign out when the user is being taken to the homepage. There’s no confirmation window; or a blank login form; or a red bar on the top of the webpage that confirms log out. The user is simply taken to the home page and expected to read the tiny sign out text to confirm sign out which leads me to my next point. What will a user do if they want to sign back into their email account? A site as frequent as Yahoo! can save a LOT more page loads if there was a login form on the homepage, leading to a smoother experience for the user. But I guess that would defeat the login page advertising goldmine that they have just recently discovered.
Yahoo! is clearly in a transition phase. With staff cuts and other rumors constantly in the news and shuffling amongst the board of directors, it can be difficult to find proper leadership but this is beyond that. This is about a service that is clearly widely used which is facing stiff competition from other powerful prospects. If Yahoo! can get back to the basics of web design and cleanup their email client, relocated the sign out button, eliminate the 2 search box confusion and prioritize one function within the client and focus on it then it can grow just like other clients are and be able to compete with other clients in the future.
I have to commend Yahoo! for having the cojones to take a risk and design their email service like no one else has. It takes guts to make the decisions that they took but what’s wrong is wrong and needs to be corrected. Going back to the point I made earlier about my analysis being wrong, I could be and if there was anything within this post that you don’t agree with, let me know. I clearly haven’t written a lot so there are probably many faults in my argument too and I’d appreciate it if you would call me out on it and help me learn to write better. Regardless of how you felt of the post, it’s pretty clear that I put in a lot of effort into this so I would really appreciate it also if you’d drop me a line and tell me how it was.
Thanks for reading,
Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!