God Must Still Watch Over Sparrow(s)

I spend a lot of time thinking about design and how to resolve problems with usability. Having grown up in a technology world of complex and difficult to use systems – simplicity is like a mantra.

Often I try to identify strong examples of simplicity and clean user experiences to share with my team (and myself for that matter!) as well as others. My goal – how to streamline a process so it seems the user may be missing something (like – wait, that was too easy…). A stretch goal in many cases, and one that based on the high standard, helps reach higher even falling short of the pinnacle.

Recently I had a strong experience that drives these thoughts home. Let’s consider email. Rewind back to the 1990s and in the consumer space we had AOL (I believe I have a disk mailer kept for historical purposes). Then came Hotmail, Yahoo…and Gmail. Game over for chapter one of email with Google. Email was just too easy using Gmail and they won that battle.

For this piece I’ll spare you a review of Eudora, Pegasus, Claris Emailer, Outlook Express et al).

However – those computer-based email packages come into play here. Just as webmail was emerging, so the computer-based email wars were on. Then came Outlook – and it remains a monstrosity that dominates business email (and remains just as clogged, bloated and aggravating).

Chapter two kicked off in the mid-2000s when Apple released Mail.app. Initially, and for some time, folks (even dedicated Mac users) felt it a bit of novelty and just short of what was needed. However – it introduced something very valuable. Simplicity. Add an account, check your email. Done.

Yet something was missing. And just about that time, as Gmail began to become a clogged dashboard of complex choices – along comes Sparrow. To me – installing Sparrow was an epiphany. True simplicity with just a touch of sophistication (native cloud integration for modern attachments – i.e. links with no major payload, Facebook integration for photos of your contacts and access to Gmail labels offline.

Its layout, approach to handling unread versus read versus flagged (starred) and keyboard shortcuts created immediate productivity. The access to Google Apps email labels even better. And plain and simple it was a pleasure to use on my Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Just as I began to celebrate this joyous discovery – the news arrives. Google has purchased Sparrow and there will be no further development on the product. My hopes here are for it to become “the” Gmail app for all devices and platforms. A partial salve.

Based on this notice – I chose just as I upgraded to Apple’s new OS X (Mountain Lion) – to restart my use of Mail.app. This in part was to address the lack of new Sparrow development and to shift back to at least what I consider the second-best email app. I made it 11 days. I just simply could not take it – it seemed sluggish, cumbersome to navigate and missing those simple elements that make email tolerable. This from an app I consider also in the realm of clean design.

In sharing this I hope it illustrates the power of clean design and simplicity. I reverted back to an app that will no longer be improved due to the extraordinary user experience and speed it provided me in handling email.

This kind of influence inspires me to continue examining my designs and those of others for improvement – not just for features but for an overall user experience. Just keep it easy to use.

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