Three questions and answers: Thunderbird explains the new design of the mail client

At Thunderbird, the signs are on the move: With the upcoming Release 115 called Supernova, the developers are completely redesigning the free e-mail client. With such an important open source project, criticism is inevitable – and the announced changes were correspondingly discussed controversially by many users. In an interview, Alessandro Castellani, Product Design Manager at Mozilla Thunderbird, explains the plans.




Alessandro Castellani is Product Design Manager at Mozilla Thunderbird. More information about his career and his role in the project can be found here:

The Thunderbird team is currently tackling three fundamental changes: You are putting the code base on a new footing, want to achieve monthly releases – and establish a new UI. While the first two goals aren’t particularly controversial, there has been some negative feedback from our readers about the new design. Why is that necessary, aren’t most users satisfied with the current interface?

We know that many users are happy with Thunderbird’s current UI. But we also know that many users are dissatisfied with the current interface – and this prevents potential new users from using Thunderbird.

Because we don’t monitor our users, and because we have the option to completely disable the collection of telemetry data in Thunderbird, we rely on feedback from social media posts, support forums, and online communities around the world to assess satisfaction.

We get daily feedback from users complaining about the cluttered and cluttered interface, the steep learning curve, and having trouble finding the many advanced features because the UI doesn’t make them intuitively accessible.

So we asked ourselves: who is right? And the answer is: everyone is right. Existing users must continue to be able to use the UI they know and love. New users, on the other hand, must be able to use Thunderbird intuitively and without mental gymnastics. And all of our users who value flexibility and control should have the option to set up Thunderbird to work the way they want – just like other established and modern applications used by millions of people.

Our goal is to make the interface so flexible and intuitive that all users will be happy with it. The new UI is optional and always will be.

In your blog you write that Thunderbird falls behind the competition. What is the competition and what features does Thunderbird lack that other email clients offer?

We don’t think Thunderbird has a direct competitor. But here are some sample applications that we compete with for user favor: Outlook, Spark, Superhuman, Hey, and ProtonMail. All of these applications offer some component or feature that works better and looks better than what we currently offer. This lures users away from Thunderbird.

Even Gmail, while many of our users find it rather awful, is very familiar to many, offering a simple web interface that young generations are comfortable with.

We’re not the dominant email client, but we want to be, because email is very personal and must be protected at all costs. Thunderbird wants to guarantee a completely protected private sphere, ethically correct handling of one’s own e-mails and one’s own data. To do that with confidence, we need to look at what others are doing—and do it better ourselves, to convince users who aren’t currently using Thunderbird.

You also mention new features – but Thunderbird is an email client and most users seem to put consistency first. Convince us: What are these awesome and innovative features that will improve everyone’s work?

Consistency is definitely important! But we also have to make it clear that Thunderbird has always been more than an email client. We see it as a personal and professional communication platform. That’s why we’ve always supported open chat protocols like IRC and Matrix. And that’s why our address book got a more intuitive redesign with Thunderbird 102. Also, we’re putting renewed effort into a related calendar redesign for Supernova. Not to mention other long-standing features like the newsgroups and RSS feed support.

There are hundreds of features that can improve every user’s everyday life. Of course we don’t want to make everything we plan public, because we don’t want to promise more than we can keep. Apart from that – this is what we are working on:

  • With account synchronization, users can store their profile on a secure server and no longer have to worry about errors in their configuration after an upgrade. It also allows you to restore everything to a new system.
  • A better vertical layout of the message list to make it easier to process information on a small screen without being tied to a constricting table layout.
  • A new unified toolbar that allows you to customize all the buttons and elements for the different tabs in one place. A more centralized and at the same time more intuitive configuration of the whole application.
  • Accessibility improvements, especially for typing and for screen readers. In version 102, support is very sparse, making Thunderbird difficult to use with such tools.
  • A more customizable calendar interface so users have more control over the layout when dealing with a large number of appointments.

I could go on and on, but our basic goal is to make the interface more intuitive, make important features more prominent through context menus, and flatten the learning curve for new and existing users.

Mr. Castellani, thank you very much for the interview! Details on the background to the new orientation and the new calendar can be found here. At the same time, Thunderbird is working on its first Android app, which is based on K-9 Mail.

In the series “Three Questions and Answers” iX wants to get to the heart of today’s IT challenges – regardless of whether it is the user’s view in front of the PC, the manager’s view or the everyday life of an administrator. Do you have any suggestions from your day-to-day Practice or that of your users? Whose tips on which topic would you like to read briefly and concisely? Then feel free to write to us or leave a comment in the forum.

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