Our Apparatus

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The dichotomy of futures

What will the future have?

We will interact with machines using our brains. Brain-computer interactions are likely to be the future. Why should there be an intermediate input interface between our thoughts and machines, if there doesn’t need to be?

Machines will be intelligent. Much much more intelligent. We’ll be able to talk to all the machines, everywhere, and they’ll probably be talking back. We imagine that a pretty frequent and integral use of email will be in ‘communicating’ with machines. Order your vacuum to clean the house before you return to your place with a date, or picking your mom up from the airport; email your laptop to do a disk cleanup and desktop sorting, while you’re away on a business trip, and be prepared for your report-writing marathons when you return; to email your self driving car to pick you up from your friday night excursions, and drop you safely home; and email your email client to send an email in the future. Perhaps for more email scheduling. Because what is life, if not meta?

We spent some time discussing the integrality of email with regard to, or to what extent it will be obviated by the future technologies. If we can adopt a stance that will be more relevant in the future, it is best to prepare for it from now itself.

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But we realized, that the OzCHI challenge wants the future of email, a replacement or adding of features, in today’s email. But not the scenario of an e-mail system for the future. These are aspects we should keep in mind perhaps, so our email systems are prepared for this additional aspect. But what aspects can make email a more worthy experience today, while being prepared for the future that is likely to be upon us pretty soon.

Thinking more(,) relevantly

We thought about the current annoyances of e-mail, and how to solve them. The existent mail services are making gradual but concrete and highly useful steps to solve problems in the same domain.

Smart Email sorting by gmail
Smart Email sorting by gmail

Filing has been significantly assisted by the recently introduced  smart email tabs in Gmail. This solves a lot of problems, for instance keeping in front, and in focus, emails sent personally, or those detected to be fairly important.

Task management has been attempted to be solved by numerous third part tools, including Gmail’s in built tasks. Other integrations, that are on the rise, and done best by gmail due to Google’s extensive width in today’s tech world, include integration with calendars, maps, reminders, and more. We thought about trying to delve into these problems, but were not too eager because of the excess of existent solutions that attempt to do the same, and how there will always be a trade off of returns with learning time, and adoption efforts.

We see another layer of information-adding people (try to) do to their e-mails, to retain information access, especially for archival. Another tool that is often cumbersome to use, and not very friendly, are labels and folders. We’ve been thinking about how to make this metadata easier to insert in mails, more meaningful, and and convenient.

Let’s hope we can come to something that supports these moves purposefully!

The benighted, ignited

Yes, we like to over-sell simple, simple ideas, sometimes.

Keeping in mind, the constraints that come with old age and the characteristics, goals and limitations of the baby boomers in India as well, we figured that a very simple feature can help with this. Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 1.42.29 PMThe commonly accepted limitations that often arise during the normal aging process are:

Also, coupled with the fact that these people have or are switching to smart phones and/or have laptops. Inspired from the edX courses that some of us take sometimes, our solution resembles its interface.

Solution :

Have a really accessible way to record video and send as mail. The recipient will receive your video and its content transcribed like in the edX interface, as e-mail. So, when possible, they can see the video, else they read if they are somewhere they can’t watch it and come back to it later.

Also, their replies similarly should be really accessible. A mail interface for those who have trouble viewing and using it currently. A new language that will be dominantly used by the older population and mostly for personal mails by those in touch with them. This feature needs to be integrated subtly in the current interface for the expert users and it will need to fulfill special requirements for the older population in the interface that they will use.

It should be really easy to record and send and receive and play, star and save. One can directly record from their smart phone. Or they could also prefer to send voice recordings instead of videos.

So, it’s asynchronous video messaging + transcribed narrative of the same. The people who’ve graduated to electronic mail can do this in their client just like composing any new mail.

This might be a useful feature to have for experts too. Recording a video requires adequate engagement and action, and hence, while you’re talking to someone, you’re being spontaneous, you’re not distracted, you’re not multi-tasking. It gives people on the other side of the conversation the respect they deserve . It will serve to humanize. 🙂

One thing from the past, another for the from-the-past

The first time we looked at these stats about email access though mobile phones in the near future, we were worried about people are doing this more and more and this is changing us, distracting us from giving neither the real space nor the virtual space, appropriate attention. How could we encourage healthy habits associated with e-mail? What could those habits be like? How would they relate to our real lives and real personalities?

But, the other end of the spectrum, was something we hadn’t given enough thought to, till I thought about my Mum – her email account is full of promotional material / notifications/ she has trouble finding mails – she asks me to mail something minutes before she checks her mail. She’s a baby boomer and she’s very slow at typing. She can access facebook and watch stuff on youtube and read articles on medical websites buScreen Shot 2013-09-21 at 12.40.03 PMt e-mail is one thing she has a tough time with and hence is neglected. She has a laptop, a smart phone and a tablet and there are all under utilized. I called her up and talked to her about it. She was complaining about ‘junk mail’ and wasn’t aware that Gmail had come up with tabs.

Before long, we were all dialing up parents and aunts and uncles!

My Uncle and Aunt have a son in Australia and a daughter who stays in another state in India. So, they got them a Samsung galaxy tablet and they have wi-fi but it’s lying there, used for playing games, if ever. They’re old and their motor skills are compromised. My Uncle is great at English but very weak now and my Aunt is not comfortable with English. They have e-mail accounts and skype accounts but they end up using the phone instead. They long to see photos of their grandson who’s going to turn two soon but they rarely get to do that.

We then, went through this a548769_10151304724693273_2058763381_nnd this to understand better, what is being done for older users of the web. Age-related functional limitations and the generation to which they belong to, the age in which they’ve grown up, affect their participation in the wonderful world of e-mail. They need to be taken care of. Skype isn’t used very often despite there being the option of asynchronous video messaging.

We talked to their kids then. They access their e-mail very frequently. My cousin brother runs a start-up in Melbourne and hence uses mail a lot. My sister-in-law has taken some time off work to take care of my nephew. She uses e-mail and skype often to talk to her parents but my Aunt and Uncle aren’t that comfortable with technology.

So, we need to think now, ways to fix this. One of the potential  mail exchangers in this case actively accesses mail and the other one has special needs in this context.

Going into the future, while retaining the essence of reminiscence, nostalgia, and the intimate, deliberate actions that are integral to being human.

Caps, hats, helmets, hair bands – problems with the email!!

So we went through this (50 ways to make email more productive and enjoyable) and it was exciting to see so many good partial solutions.  We recognized opportunities that hadn’t been catered to by the above and the other clients that we surveyed (Gmail, Apple Mail etc. ), some of them are frighteningly pernicious problems that ought to be taken care of. ‘And I will try… to fix you’, yes, we quote Coldplay.

The e-mail hatThe part where we put put out thinking caps on, no, not the Sorting Hat, not caps that think,

How do we make it feel like what it’s meant to feel like?

How do you make it more human?

How do we make it fun, delightful?

How do you deal with e-mail so that we no longer ‘have to deal with e-mail’?

How can we take care of the anxiety associated with long distance communication of this sort?

How can we do all this without compromising all the incredible goodness that e-mail brings to us?

How can we have real conversations with real people without e-mail coming in the way and have meaningful conversations with those far away?

How do we make email meaningful to elder people with significantly different physical capabilities and emotional expectations?

If we think about email and its future- do we think about the future in general and how email would fit into that?

How can we intelligently mark mail that we want to refer to later- so that we do not have to read it again when we are actually dealing with it..

The more popular i am, the more emails i am likely to get- can i not make it tougher for people to reach me?

How can i utilize my random time (walking, while on a train etc) to respond to mail or be reminded that i can respond to mail?

While we are bothered by the amount of mail that we get, we also tend to feel like being liked and remembered when we receive mail- how do we break this duality? So, getting a mail from a close person, even in abundance is probably a good thing..

And all this holds for people who don’t get much mail as well as those whose inbox is flooded.