Email as a task manager - Boomerang takes it at another level

It is interesting to observe how mainstream PIM applications get features explored a decade ago by research community. Email threads for example were explored back in 1993 in email client Mona [1]. This time it's tasks again:

We know (from my paper) that email has been always extensively used for other activities besides its primal role - communication [2, 3]. People manage tasks, delegate work, backup files, send themselves reminders and use email for several other activities which were not envisioned by email creators. This flexibility of email has its drawbacks as well, as important emails can easily be buried in inbox with less important ones. The diversity of usage has led to several prototypes.

Research PIM prototypes

Raton Laveur (2000) integrated calendar, to-do list and notes in a regular inbox to provide support for tasks reminders [4]. To reduce clutter (of mixed information in the inbox) and cognitive effort (to file information), it allowed grouping and searching for information with users’ defined and predefined queries (unseen, completed to-dos, etc.). TaskMaster (2003) also had task management incorporated in the email client where each task (called thrask by authors as a combination of words thread and task) could include a list of emails, URL’s and attached files [5]. All this information could be viewed in an internal viewer without leaving the email client. Each thrask could have associated clusters of actions and a due date (additional attributes). The due dates were presented with graphical elements which were always visible and changed accordingly to approaching due dates. The tool was positively accepted by participants but was never developed in a fully functional email client. One of the drawback of both tools is added complexity and cognitive load with several organizing mechanisms.

An interesting approach was used in TimeStore (1997) - a time-based email visualization [6]. This email client visualized emails as dots on a two dimensional grid with time on horizontal axis and contacts on vertical axis. In this view a user could see rhythms of conversations (on which days a particular person sent emails or emails were sent to), but the subject of each email was obscured. Users could create additional notes on each email to support tasks. This time-based visualization provided a reminding function with visually emphasised emails (tasks) that moved too far away in the past and a list of contacts that helped as social reminders. TimeStore vision was to completely abandon the traditional inbox view and free users from filing. The tool inspired another grid based email prototype called TaskView (2002). This prototype provided a matrix view of email messages with dates on the top axis and email subjects on a side (day/subject as opposed to day/sender in TimeStore) [7]. While both prototypes provide a better overview of tasks in emails, they also lacked the regular inbox view in which users can search for their emails by subjects, dates, senders and other standard email attributes.

Mainstream applications

Some present email clients have tasks management embedded in email interface. Outlook version 2007 has a task list, to which emails can be dragged to as new tasks. Gmail has an extension called Taskforce which splits emails in three categories: information, action and broadcast. Tasks can be created from its interface or from email, can be shared and can have files attached as well. Thunderbird also has several extensions that provide reminding capabilities of to-do’s and tasks integrated in a calendar. But there is still room for improvement of design of these tools, integration (e.g. calendar with tasks in Outlook) and reminding functionalities.

[1] A. Cockburn and H. Thimbleby. Reducing user effort in collaboration support. In IUI ’93: Proceedings of the 1st international conference on Intelligent user interfaces, pages 215–218, New York, NY, USA, 1993. ACM.
[2] W. E. Mackay. Diversity in the use of electronic mail: a preliminary inquiry. ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS), 6(4):380–397, 1988.
[3] N. Ducheneaut and V. Bellotti. E-mail as habitat: an exploration of embedded personal information management. Interactions Magazine, 8(5):30–38, 2001.
[4] V. Bellotti and I. Smith. Informing the design of an information management system with iterative fieldwork. In DIS ’00: Proceedings of the 3rd conference on Designing interactive systems, pages 227–237, New York, NY, USA, 2000. ACM.
[5] V. Bellotti, N. Ducheneaut, M. Howard, and I. Smith. Taking email to task: the design and evaluation of a task management centered email tool. In CHI ’03: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pages 345–352, New York, NY, USA, 2003. ACM.
[6] K. S. Yiu, R. Baecker, N. Silver, and B. Long. A time-based interface for electronic mail and task man- agement. Advances in human factors/ergonomics, pages 19–22, 1997.
[7] J. Gwizdka. Taskview: design and evaluation of a task-based email interface. In CASCON ’02: Proceed- ings of the 2002 conference of the Centre for Advanced Studies on Collaborative research, page 4. IBM Press, 2002.

Memolane - a timeline of personal information

Our personal information on the web is scattered and fragmented between several web sites. Just take into account for example your social networking site (e.g. Facebook, Google +, Tweeter), blog (e.g. Tweeter, Wordpress, Blogger), photo sites (Picassa, Flickr), etc. We already talked about a few aggregation and visualization tools:

Here's one more. Memolane:

"Capture photos, videos, music, tweets, posts, and much more.
View and share your entire life online.
Create stories of your best memories together with your friends.
Explore and search your life and the lives of your friends online. "


Update an old Ubuntu: 404 Not Found; Err; Failed to fetch

Today I stumbled into a weird problem. My Ubuntu server 9.04 couldn't update anymore. My /etc/apt/sources.list looked like this:

  deb-src jaunty main restricted universe multiverse

Running apt-get update gave all sorts of problems as it couldn't find repository servers anymore:

  $ sudo apt-get update
  Ign jaunty Release.gpg
  Ign jaunty Release
  Ign jaunty/main Packages
  Ign jaunty/universe Packages
  Ign jaunty/main Packages
  Ign jaunty/universe Packages
  Err jaunty/main Packages
    404 Not Found [IP: 80]
  Err jaunty/universe Packages
    404 Not Found [IP: 80]
  W: Failed to fetch
    404 Not Found [IP: 80]

  W: Failed to fetch
    404 Not Found [IP: 80]

  E: Some index files failed to download, they have been ignored, or old ones used instead.

To upgrade a really old Ubuntu release, we first need to edit our sources.list and change all (xx.) to

   $ sudo emacs /etc/apt/sources.list

So your lines should instead of

   deb jaunty main restricted universe

look like

   deb jaunty main restricted universe

In this example I use jaunty release. But it works the same on other releases.

Now update the repos

   $ sudo apt-get update

Install update-manager-core if it is not yet installed:

   $ sudo apt-get install update-manager-core

And now upgrade the system.

   $ sudo do-release-upgrade

Note that you can just upgrade to the next release (in my example from 9.04 to 9.10 or from LTS 8.04 to 10.04).

Also note that if upgrading over the ssh session it is advised to run the upgrade in the screen. If the ssh session drops, the upgrade will continue to run. Install screen first (if not yet installed)

   $ sudo apt-get install screen

Now run screen

   $ screen

And upgrade with

   $ sudo do-release-upgrade

How to work with the screen is beyond this post.

EDIT 14. 9. 2014:

As Dmitry has mentioned in the comments, security packages should also be replaced with old-releases. So:

security.ubuntu.... should be changed to old-releases.ubuntu....

A good morning image on a side of a bowl of cereals

Sometimes world around us surprises us with beautiful shapes. This one came up on a side of my breakfast bowl. I should sell it to Nestle or better not. They might charge me for making my day :).

Ctrl+F not known by 90% of Americans. Blame the interfaces, not users.

An old news but a new rant.

When looking/searching for information we often look for specific words in text. We search for specific words in texts we find on the internet, in documents, in file names, emails, etc. The point is - searching for information is a part of everyday life. This process helps us complete tasks or satisfy needs.

So is the statement "90% of us don't know CTRL+F" a surprise? Not really! Comments on this news from various sources are far more surprising and sad:

  • "Americans are stupid" (I think this is a worldwide trend not limited to USA)
  • "People are dumb and lazy" (not knowing CTRL+F is not a sign of laziness)
  • "If they would be paid by productivity, they would learn it in a minute" (Disagree :().

I spent some years as the end user support and I have to agree that some users don't know how to use computers and they don't wish to. These users always rely on "support" to complete even the easiest task such as "copy files from a USB thumb drive". In my case, these were mostly (but not always) older users who were caught by computers by surprise and a few years before retiring they don't want to be bothered. But there are the majority of users (of all ages) who use computers, don't rely on support, and still don't know simple keyboard shortcuts!

First we have to take into account that most users are not power users and their usage ends with word processor, email client and nowadays a social network site. All of them use buttons in their word processors (instead of CTRL+X, CTRL+C and CTRL+V). After I realized that they scan tons of emails to find a desired one I put a search box on a toolbar so it became immediately visible and all users started to use it regularly. Why Gmail has a search bar above inbox? To make it visible!! 

Keyboard shortcuts are not for everyone. I don't blame users for not knowing them. Users learn how to do something and if they think, that cost of doing it does not exceed benefit, they are satisfied. So if they spend 10 minutes on searching for a specific word in a document by reading it, because they don't know the shortcut, I don't find it surprising. At the end they reached their goal. Such important functions should simply be more visible.