Google Summer of Code 2014 - Proposal to Improve Composer UI

Axel Grude (Axel) axel.grude at
Sat Feb 15 10:48:30 UTC 2014

Just to show that I can do this as well (and the mail doesn't end up in John's spam 
folder) I am replying in plain text; I excuse in advance that I am little 
controversial in the following but I am very enthusiastic on this topic, and formatted 
email is something that is near and dear to my heart:

On 15/02/2014 00:55, John Crisp wrote:
> On 14/02/14 22:03, Axel Grude (Axel) wrote:
> >> Gets my vote (or ckeditor ?) - can't stand the ribbon mess.
> > Maybe you should have hung in there... Messy or not people HTML mail
> > users want an intuitive interface where they can easily use and define
> > styles without having to know CSS. And you can only do this if you offer
> > an interface that defines styles and is easily extendable. It is a
> > typical thing to say "I do not like X" and "I like the look of that,
> > because I know it" without looking at the actual requirements people have.
> >
> > In the corporate sector people take this pretty much for granted. Click
> > a style, define it, use it everywhere.
> Having seen so many users of numerous applications struggle and be
> overwhelmed with developers trying to give them more options they don't
> use, I'm kind of glad I didn't 'hang in' there.
The trick is to offer the options the users need in a way that they can find them. It 
may be true that 90 % only use 5% of the features, but it is impossible to say which 
5% these are and it would we foolish to describe the other 95% of  features as 
superfluous. Also it is often fringe features that can draw in new users - you would 
be suprised at the amount of people who praise certain features of my extensions 
because they miss Eudora.

Of course you are free to write text only messages, like you can already on gmail or 
your mobile phone, personally I am talking about that part of the users who want to 
write well formatted mail without having to struggle for it.
> As I personally use text email almost exclusively (your original mail
> with all the images rendered very nicely in plain text - just no glossy
> pictures to look at !) I don't worry about the mess that is created by
> the vagaries of differing html viewers and 'standards'. Your fancy HTML
> is invisible to me :-)
And that is okay as well - you probably saw my screen shots as attachments, so you 
missed out on some important context, and had a bit of pain piecing it together. But 
this (piecing together) is precisely what people in the corporate world and also 
private users who maybe want to share some pictures from their holidays and maybe add 
some captions, do NOT want to have to do, hence HTML email. So really if you do not 
care for html email, why even discuss my suggestions for improvements? You can just 
happily ignore *all* formatting elements and use _oldschool_ formatting methods as the 
ones in this sentence.
> For those that do, I agree that KISS should always apply. I don't work
> in the big corporate world so in my own experience most users I know
> wouldn't know a style if it fell on them.
Here I agree, but they will expect that they write their mails in a paragraph 
structure which is precisely what Outlook does and where Thunderbird falls short. My 
74 years old mum still does not understand that she has to hit [Enter] twice to make 
something that resembles a paragraph; so her emails are every hard to read. Making a 
paragraph with [Enter] is something that is given to her by Word or outlook. So the 
first thing I would do is that paragraph becomes the default style when in HTML mode 
and then reasonable styling can be tied to that tag.

And obviously Enter within a paragraph should always insert a new paragraph, as <br> 
(which should be SHIFT+Enter) is almost always _not_ what people want - If you count 
the amount of single <br>s in this email and compare to <br><br> you will find they 
are always in the minority (You also have to count <br>text<br> between block level 
elements as a pair as they only benefit from a trailing or preceding block level style 
element which adds necessary padding). I personally think writing text as a direct 
child element within <body> is a bad practice and shouldn't even be (easily) possible. 
For more details on this, please see [*Bug 330891* 
<>] which is going to be my next 
focus for patching.

Thinking about this again, it might also be of added benefit in HTML to show a visible 
right margin so people do not compelled to do their newline formatting themselves. 
With a wide screen the temptation to add your own line breaks to everything may be 
quite big otherwise, so if you add a visual means (like a moveable right border) this 
might become much more intuitive.

> At my own company the current html toolbar rarely ever gets used and I
> can't say I'm upset - I want my own workers to work, not sit and faff
> about for hours tweaking their 'styles'.
Apart from screenshots and mockups there is another very important thing that often 
gets sent around in companies, and this is tabular data. It should be very easily 
possible to insert a table and style it so it has a proper heading and maybe 
alternating rows. If it is just an excerpt or a couple of rows I infinitely prefer 
this to having to open attachment after attachment after attachment. To offer the 
tools that I described in the original email exactly _avoids_ the faffing around (as 
it only takes one click). There is a lot more faffing around going on when you do not 
have the proper tools at hand and try to create something readable. Just saying.
> These are the same people who don't understand that they can't open an
> image with a spreadsheet application. Don't get me wrong, I'm not for
> dumbing down in this respect, just better education of users. But there
> are still a huge swathe out there who really know nothing about
> computers whatsoever and any new toy is an excuse to play, and not work.
I am not necessarily so much for education than for accessibility. Yes it is possible 
to do something like nth child background coloring, but you do not need to worry about 
this, you just click on one of the presets that shows you how it is going to look. 
Isn't this infinitely better, as it shows you that you can do awesome things without 
wasting time or energy learning new things> My experience (for instance from my addon 
quickFilters) is that people like to do new things (like creating a mail filter) if 
you give them the means to do them without effort; this is what the original ribbon 
idea from Microsoft was about, and I think they did a quite good job, as they have 
more task-focused approach.

But this is just one way of implementation. What I do not like about the out the of 
box editor toolkits that were suggested so far is that they are much too HTML centric 
and they do not really add much value in the domain of customizing your own style and 
having that persistent across all your emails. Also they weren't really enticing 
enough for somebody who wants more formatting power.

And this is what HTML email is about, for me. One thing they do not like is that fact 
that the generic, unstyled HTML looks different on full-blown HTML capable mail client 
(I am not talking about one that dumbs down the markup) depending on the other side's 
settings. Another thing mail correspondents would expect is that when they get a reply 
where they are quoted, their original text style would remain largely intact. (I added 
the qualifier "largely", because for instance recoloring / quote baring for the 
purpose of quoting is one widely accepted method)
> If you work for a corporate I would have thought that the company would
> lock down styles anyway ? Why on earth would  you want individually
> tailored emails looking like they came from different companies ? And if
> you are doing fancy markup, why bother doing it in an email ?
No that is not true; I work for a big multinational company and the only thing where 
there are suggestions is on the style of the signature, which is understandable. There 
are however preset template for certain documents such as business requirements, HDS 
etc, which are used to generate these documents and these are then usually shared via 
SharePoint and version control. But it is possible to start to write up something in 
an email and then later on paste it into Word to create a properly formatted document, 
and the big advantage of Outlook is that it shares a lot of the UI (and predefined 
styles) with that of Word. And this is something that makes writing emails and working 
with corporate documents a lot easier as there is no big UI difference to the user and 
no huge learning curve.
> > In its most minimal form imagine you can define <h1> with a default look
> > (could be based on the tag or on a class) and you are able to reuse that
> > on any email you write. The interface just has to be easy to use and
> > enticing enough so people start using it and panels with preview styles
> > are the most intuitive way to offer this to the users.
> >
> As I said above, if I am honest, anything beyond Bold and Italic is
> beyond most of them. H1 & H2 are another language. Styling them as well ?
People are aware of the concept of headings. The reason they do not use them is that 
they are too hidden in the current formatting bar. This is precisely another thing 
that my suggestion addresses. You see something you like on the screen (a preset with 
an example), click it once, and "voila" you got a heading. Also once you hit Enter you 
leave the heading and create a new paragraph. And you do not need to care for the fact 
that it is implemented as <h1> or whatever, it still works without that knowledge. One 
thing most of these users know is the Paragraph End sign which is basically nothing 
but a visible closing tag. (see the section about paragraphs above)

> Ironically more and more people use web based systems which usually only
> have basic formatting, and portable devices, again with simple
> formatting. Are they clamouring for fancier formatting tools I wonder ?
Are they the _only_ users Thunderbird wants to cater for I wonder? Excuse me but I do 
not see the irony here. I think Thunderbird should precisely show this difference and 
show that it is easy to be awesome. Yes you can write text only email too. By the way 
you shouldn't leave a space before your question marks. ;-)

And your slighting of "fancier" tools is a bit of a diversion, it is not about the 
*tools*; it is about making the already inherent functionality (full expressive 
freedom on styles) (yes you can have *fancy* *formatting*) easier accessible. So it 
doesn't mean to confuse users (or earn bragging rights) it is about giving the users 
who want something an easy way to get that; preferably with a single click.
> Even if they do all that formatting, can the receiver actually see it ?
> Ironically at my place we reject most html email anyway...... most of it
> is spam. If I had my way I would ban the lot !
Which in my eyes immediately disqualifies you from the discussion of html editors. You 
should be honest and vote for abolishing the html portion of Thunderbird altogether 
and not vote for "yet another online html editor clone" just to keep html as 
inaccessible as possible. Do you see my problem with this argumentation?
> I think there are better things to be done than worry about the composer
> interface for now. Fix some of the old bugs perhaps ?
I think not, but feel free to fix bugs as you see fit. In my proposal, the big 
untapped potential of users that I would like to entice using Thunderbird are the ones 
who ask themselves whether Thunderbird is dead and why there is so little innovation 
happening. And why it is oh so, oh so hard to write properly formatted emails.


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