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Aol’s Alto shows some UI innovation October 22, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, Aol started showing off Alto, a new spin on email that’s all about design in the service of ease of use. Back in the day, Aol introduced millions of consumers to email and to the web, but Alto looks very modern in a Pinterest-y, tablet-friendly way. Alto is more than just a pretty face, though, and it’s worth evaluating the user interface techniques that it employs. Good developers copy; great ones steal, regardless of source.

Although early previewers call it an app, Alto is a cloud-based service that acts as a front end for a user’s existing consumer IMAP email accounts. Aol positions Alto against Gmail in particular. Alto’s primary differentiation is a very visual, uncluttered UI that auto-sorts email in real time into “stacks” based on predefined categories like retailers, photos, attachments, daily deals, and social notifications. Users can create their own stacks pretty easily, but as Google Circles have shown us, even simple drag-and-drop group creation is too much work for most consumers.

Tradeoffs in power versus ease

From the descriptions I’ve read of Alto, it seems that once messages are assigned to stacks – defined by topic, sender, and Alto’s interpretations – it stays in that stack and only in that stack, and similar messages will go there, too. Aol’s objective was to simplify and unclutter an inbox; it says its analysis shows that most users don’t bother with folders and routing rules. I’m sure that’s true. While I admire the ability to apply more than one label to a message in Gmail – something that’s hard to do with folders – I expect I’m a more obsessive user than most.

Innovating in UI is a tricky balance of introducing the new without alienating the old, especially when working with existing applications and user behavior. And many user interfaces can’t bridge the gap between easy-to-learn and practical-to-use. Alto looks like it’s done a fair job on this balancing and bridging. Alto is also on-trend in its use of metadata and visual cueing to add context. And although it doesn’t look like Twitter, Facebook, or Yammer, it’s essentially delivering a real-time feed.

Missing out on unified communications

While it can pull in and present multiple email accounts at once, Alto falls short as a unified communications hub. Aol’s traditional email integrates instant messaging – something that’s a future feature for Alto – and Alto only makes the slightest nod to social media by sorting social update email messages. It doesn’t seem to offer anything in the way of persona or identity management.

Alto seems to have achieved its design objectives of favoring ease of use over power for general users. But it’s hard to imagine it being a serious contender in unified communications. This version of Alto doesn’t have any apparent business model: Aol execs hint at ads near the retail stack or premium services, but Alto doesn’t even feature portal content aggregation to drive user traffic. Smart developers should study Alto and evaluate their own tradeoffs between function and design. Aol has made some nice compromises in Alto, though it’s hardly a new paradigm.

The GigaOM RoadMap event is all about design, UI, and connectivity. It’s scheduled for November 5 in San Francisco, and I’ll be moderating a breakout Mapping Session on next-generation user interfaces. I hope to see you there.

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