2010-12-15 19,855 21

Night of the Living Unread

Not many people think of email as a game.  After all, games are meant to be fun. Email, on the other hand, is laborious and stressful and makes you stop breathing.  But email has at least one game-like quality - the thrill of victory when you defeat your inbox, achieving Inbox Zero.  It's like slaying a dragon, man.  If you think that's hyperbolic, consider Merlin Mann's preface to Inbox Zero - a veritable player's guide to email: "It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life."

Email is a game of numbers where progress is measured by a single statistic - the count of unread messages. Whereas we're pleased to see many stats (points, followers, @mentions) count up, we battle desperately to keep the number of unreads in single digits.  As email became ubiquitous, the unread indicator became iconic.  Web and mobile apps adopted it for their app-specific inboxes.  More recently, the arms race toward gamification has emboldened app designers to try the unread indicator in ever more aggressive contexts.  Unread tweets.  Unread system notifications. Unread recent activity?  Things have gotten out of hand.

As with all design patterns, the unread indicator can be used well, and it can be overdone.  The rest of this post discusses some key considerations surrounding the indicator's use.

The Great Unread Message Inflation

You open up Twitter's Android app and see 2100 unread tweets since last night.  It seems you've been attacked by the night of the living unread!  Immediately your head explodes.  Unread messages feel like this decade's Viagra spam.  Everything on the internet *wants* to be an unread message.  But they needn't be.  It's a bit awkward to think of tweets as messages that need to be queued for reading.  First, unless a tweet is addressed (@reply is like "To"; @mention is like "Cc"), there isn't really a recipient so much as an audience.  Second, Twitter is not meant to be "read" in its entirety, and many loved it precisely for not being an inbox.  Third, unaddressed tweets don't require priority in the same sense that emails do.  After all, missing an important email could get you fired or damage a friendship. 

The stress factor

At its best, the unread indicator reminds users that an app is full of activity and participation.  It draws the user's attention, invites them to act, and gives them a sense of control.  But app designers should also weigh potential costs to the user. 

few unreads [useful, motivating] <----> tons unread [stressful, intimidating]

The indicator carries psychological baggage from its original use in email.  A few unreads might create a constructive sense of urgency.  But when inboxes overwhelm their owners, urgency is replaced by stress, frustration, and intimidation.  My friend Linda Stone observed hundreds of people using email and found that 80% (!) of them held their breath or hyperventilated while doing so.  So the stressful association of email seems pretty widespread.  In short, unread indicators are not necessarily harmless; used in the wrong context, they can lead users to associate your app with a stressful rather than game-like experience.

Too many unreads

When you call customer service and there's a wait to speak to an operator, 15 minutes might be acceptable. But if the wait is more than 30 minutes, research in queueing theory says that you're far more likely to just give up.  Unread messages are a lot like wait time.  A few unreads are actionable.  But when there are too many unreads, you might just give up on taking any actions.  App designers should reflect on the likelihood that their users will encounter 20+, 50+, or 100+ unreads.  If the likelihood is very high, perhaps the unread indicator is no longer serving one of its key purposes - creating a sense of actionability.

In recent years there have been some notable efforts to help email users ensmallen their unread counts.

Gmail's Priority Inbox keeps a separate count for more important email messages.
GTD Inbox allows actionable messages to be flagged and tracked separately.
The Email Game helps users divide and conquer overflowing inboxes by limiting each game to 30 unread messages.

Visual priority

Apple's white-on-red graphical badge is an iconic form for the unread indicator.  Red is the most eye catching color, so this badge design has the highest visual priority.  On the Mac, a few icons like Mail, iChat, and Skype are decorated with an unread badge, but the percentage of total screen space they occupy is slight.  However, on the iPhone, there are likely many more unread badges than seen on Mac, all squeezed into a smaller footprint in the home screen.  The high visual priority of the badge seems to be counter-productive in this context, becoming a distraction or even a nuisance.  Aggravating the situation, some of the badges feel like permanent fixtures and cannot be disabled.  There may always be unread Mail, but that badge can't be disabled. And is it absolutely necessary to treat App Store available updates as unreads? 

Many web apps have followed Apple's design lead with their own white-on-red badges.  Facebook's use is particularly encouraging because it demonstrates awareness of visual priority.  Facebook actually uses three tiers of visual priority for their unread indicators.  Requests and messages are shown with white-on-red badges (highest priority) when they are brand new.  Once viewed, the unread badges are demoted to blue-on-light-blue.  The most recent news items count is shown with an even lower priority white-on-blue design.

"Mark all as read"

Given that unread indicators can be stressful and even overwhelming, it's important to give users a way to quickly regain control of the situation.  As a rule of thumb, the less important the unread, the easier it should be to clear.  Facebook's highest priority badge clears automatically when the appropriate dashboard icon is clicked. Quora puts a "Clear All Notifications button" just below the list of notifications.  In Gmail, Mark All is now a handy button.  Or, if one seeks total liberation, one Gmail Labs feature eliminates the unread count entirely.  If email is a game, then that is the ultimate cheat.  

Read part IV of the Game-Like Mechanics series here →