Release Candidate One with Chris Clark

Mail’s Email Aliases, and Complexity Hidden

I have many email addresses. Well, I actually have many incoming email aliases and a message sent to any of them will arrive in my one private inbox. It’s helpful for filtering and, at times, cutting off a spam funnel to replace with something fresh. eBay, craigslist, memberships at porno sites… that kind of thing.

But until today I still had the problem that all my outgoing email appeared to come from the One True Email Address, and if you think letting people from craigslist know your One True Address is safe or healthy for your spam filter you haven’t been on the internet long. Trying to remedy the situation, I looked around Mail’s account preferences for a hint as to where outgoing email aliases could be set up. Nowhere, it seemed. Could they have left that feature out? Do they want strict one-to-one mappings between incoming and outgoing addresses, and didn’t account for aliases? Surely not.

A Google search later, it turns out you can list multiple addresses separated by commas, and later those addresses will appear on a menu in the New Message window. Your selection will determine from whence that message appears to be delivered, and everybody’s happy.

It’s a simple and elegant solution, but not at all discoverable; I needed documentation to help me find the setting, which is unusual and troubling for a UI nerd. I might’ve been understanding if they’d just nixed the feature, as Mail is bundled with OS X and one could argue that it’s not supposed to be for Power Users. But Apple’s designers and engineers took a different route. They added the feature and obviously put a lot of work into it, considering new aliases show up in the menu automagically, but they opted for zero interface. No fifteen pixels of fame.

Still reeling from the shock of having to read documentation on an Apple product, I wondered as to their motivation. If I were a betting man, I’d say they hid the feature because 99% of Mail users aren’t ever going to use it. By hiding it they’re reducing complexity for millions of people, and forcing mere thousands to spend a few seconds Googling the answer. Sure it adds up to a lot of seconds, but those seconds for the minority are difficult to weigh against the mental effort expended by the millions of John and Jane Does who would have to parse a set of controls they’ll never use.

How many minutes does an average user (or worse, a novice user) spend reading a label describing a confusing concept, trying to figure out what the hell it does, before asking their Computer Friend for help or skipping it entirely? One might ask how many people are desperately looking for a Minimize All item in OS X’s Window menu, not realizing they need to hold the key. And if there were such a menu item, one might ask how many people would waste time reading it when they don’t need it, and how many people would hit it by mistake.

Those of us who are independent designers and developers can usually expect a more sophisticated customer—a customer who is already an acknowledged part of the Power User minority—but Apple can’t. No truly large company can. They’re tasked with designing for everybody, which often means inconveniencing the few for the good of the many. I can’t decide whether I pity them for that or envy it.