Mail 2.0: More on reading and deleting message threads with the keyboard

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
April 5th, 2006 • 2:19 pm

Yesterday I wrote a post about the shortcomings of the user interface for collapsing and expanding message threads in Mail. Today I’d like to discuss one other aspect of message threads in Mail that is a regular source of annoyance for me.

As noted previously, I use Mail with the so-called “message area” pane closed. In other words, my main mail viewer window in Mail consists of the mailbox list on the left-hand side and the message list on the right-hand side. I don’t have a third pane at the bottom displaying the contents of the currently selected message. I don’t like that, because when that “message area” pane is visible, any message in the message list becomes marked as read as soon as you select it, whether you actually want to read it or not.

I want to be able to select messages without reading them and without Mail marking them as read. With the “message area” pane visible, this is impossible. With the “message area” pane closed, the only way to read messages is to open them in a separate window, either by double-clicking on a message (a single click only selects the message) or by pressing the Return key when a message is a selected.

Now here is a pretty common scenario as far as I am concerned: When I sit down at my computer in the morning, I check my mail, and I get a whole bunch of messages that were sent to me during the night. All these messages are added to the bottom of my message list (which is sorted in ascending chronological order) as unread messages (with the blue bullet).

Because I tend to prefer using the keyboard whenever it’s possible, I typically select the first unread message in the list and open it by pressing the Return key. This opens the message in a separate window and marks the message as read in the message list. I read the message in the separate window and then, unless it’s an important message that I want to keep, I press the Delete key while the message is still open in a separate window, which is in the foreground.

Pressing the Delete key in such a situation does several things at once. It closes the message window. It deletes the message in question. The focus returns to the message list in the main viewer window in Mail. And Mail automatically selects the next message in the list.

This last step is particularly important. Since the selected message has just been deleted, Mail has to do something. It can either display the message list with no message selected (which is possible) or it can automatically select the next message in the list. Thankfully, Mail is smart enough to do the latter, so that I can continue to use the keyboard to read the rest of my mail.

If Mail did not do that and returned me to the message list with no message selected after deleting the message that I had opened and read in a separate window, then I would be forced to grab the mouse to click on the next message in the list, which would be a major annoyance.

Now what happens in such a scenario with threaded messages? Well, since I tend to use the keyboard in priority, when I have a thread of messages that I want to read, I have two options.

I can expand the thread with the Right cursor key and then select the message(s) that I want to read manually with the Up/Down cursor keys and open them with the Return key.

If I do that, the behaviour with the Delete key is as described above, i.e. when I delete a message in the thread after reading it in its own window, Mail automatically deletes the message and selects the next one in the thread. If the message I’ve just deleted is the last message in the thread, then the thread is gone altogether and Mail automatically selects the next message after the thread in the message list. No problems here.

But there is also another possibility. If I want, when I get a thread of messages that I want to read, I can select the thread itself (or its heading line if the thread is expanded) and press the Return key once.

This causes Mail to automatically open each and every message in the thread in its own separate window. In other words, with a single Return keystroke, I can open several messages at the same time, each in its own window.

But now consider what happens after this. As described above, I tend to read each message in its own window, and then delete it by pressing the Delete key while that message window is still in the foreground. This closes the window and deletes the message. It also automatically switches to the next available message window, i.e. the next message in the thread open in its own separate window.

I then read that other message, and delete it too. And so on, until I reach the last message in the thread, in its own window. I read that last message, and I delete it by pressing the Delete key while that message window is still open.

What does Mail do then? It closes the message window, deletes the message, and returns the focus to the main mail viewer window in Mail with the message list. But it does not automatically select the next message in the list! Instead, it returns the focus to the main viewer window, but with no message selected in the message list.

This, as indicated above, forces me to grab the mouse and select the next message in the list with the mouse pointer, because there is no easy shortcut to do this with the keyboard. (When no message is selected in the message list, you can select the last message in the list by pressing the Up key or the first message in the list by pressing the Down key. But then you have to press the cursor keys repeatedly to actually get to the next message you want to read, which is somewhere in the middle of the list.)

It might sound like a small annoyance, but when it happens to you every day, several times a day, it becomes significant just the same.

Of course, I should probably note that this is not something that really affects people who use the “message area” pane to read their messages. Because these people cannot read more than one message at the same time (unless they open those messages in separate windows, in which case they are affected by the problem described above).

And, much as I suspect that many problems in the Finder’s list view mode are due to the fact that Apple’s engineers tend to use the column view mode exclusively and do not test the other view modes as extensively (or at least do not give problems in other view modes the same priority), I suspect that part of the reason why flaws such as the one described above exist (where Mail fails to select the next message in the list after deleting a thread by deleting each message in its own window) is that Apple’s engineers tend to use Mail in the default view mode with the “message area” pane open, and tend not to read messages in their own separate windows.

9 Responses to “Mail 2.0: More on reading and deleting message threads with the keyboard”

  1. Alberg says:

    This is one of the most annoying quirks that I’ve encountered in using a Mac for the past 20 years! And it seems like it should be an easy fix or modification. What we’re trying to do is even easy in Outlook. So why the big deal with Mac Mail? Some should figure out a workaround and post it to the Hawk Wing’s site! -ab

  2. danridley says:

    I suspect that… Apple’s engineers tend to use Mail in the default view mode with the “message area” pane open, and tend not to read messages in their own separate windows.

    I’m inclined to doubt that, if only because I’ve never known a power user that worked like that.

    As to the main issue — there’s a workaround, though it’s certainly not perfect. If the thread is expanded, and you press Enter by selecting the heading line, then when you return to the message list after deleting all messages, it will take you to the next item that was listed after the thread.

    This requires a few extra button presses; or many if the thread is long, but it’s still less disruptive.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Dan: Another sign that Apple is not paying enough attention to the mode where Mail is used with the message area hidden is the difference when searching for messages with Spotlight. I cannot see any other reason why they would have neglected to provide a “Show in Mailbox” command for users who do not have the message area visible.

    As for the work-around, you are right. It works. But of course since expanding the thread causes Mail to jump to a specific message in the thread, this forces you to go back up to the headling line first before you can press Enter. Like you said, if the thread is long (lots of messages), that’s not really a pleasant alternative.

  4. sjk says:

    Excellent summary of several annoyances related to Mail threading, Pierre. I also use Mail with the message preview pane closed most of the time and have already dealt with everything you mentioned since migrating from Mulberry a few months ago.

    Another frustration is not being able to easily select/display only unread messages in a thread, whether expanded/collapsed and especially when they’re discontinuous.

    There’s also an issue (which I haven’t fully analyzed yet) with discerning the parent message of certain replies in threads. Seems that Mail unthreads/rethreads messages that originate from a common parent instead of keeping them all within a single thread. And what criteria “View > Select > All Messages in this Thread” uses is a mystery.

    Also, there’s the inability to navigate to the next/previous unread message directly from an open message window, which you’ve probably written about before. It’s tedious deciding how many messages to open at a time, plus having to first expand a thread to see the total number of messages in it or risk encountering the “do you really want to open a bazillion message windows” warning. Sometimes I’ll temporarily turn off threading and/or switch to the default 3-pane mode and fuddle with navigation/viewing from there.

    Off-topic, but I’ll toss it in here:

    Whatever Cyrus Daboo (of Mulberry fame) is doing at Apple now, I hope some of Mulberry’s smarter ideas/features manage to trickle into Mail (with an emphasis on usability rather than Mulberry’s oft-obscurity). A few times, before permanently switching to Mail, I wrote on the mulberry-discuss list that a “best of” fusion of Mail and Mulberry could come close to being the OS X IMAP mail client I’d be most satisfied using. That’s pretty much describes how I still feel now, preferring some of Mail’s features (including useful plugins like Mail Act-On) yet missing several of Mulberry’s (like identities).

    PS: Any chance you’ll add comment previewing to Betalogue? The optional live previewing on Hawk Wings and Red Sweater is quite nice.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    I must admit I have no idea what the “View > Select” submenu is for. Maybe the first command is useful to some people because it has a keyboard shortcut, but the other two? Who on earth would want to travel to a submenu with the mouse just in order to be able to select the next/previous message in a thread? (I know you can add your own keyboard shortcuts through System Prefs, but I am talking about the default config here.)

    In addition, these commands are horribly dumb. The Previous command remains enabled even if all messages in the thread are selected, and just plays a system beep when you try to use it. The Select All command remains enabled even if all messages are selected too, which doesn’t make any sense.

    I must admit I never pay any attention to that particular submenu.

    As for comment previewing, I think I’d have to upgrade to WordPress 2, which I am not planning to do at the moment. But I’ll look into it. Maybe it can be done with a plug-in.

  6. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Threading and keyboard annoyances says:

    […] A second post expands on the problems , especially with regard to the way keyboard shortcuts operate in normal and threaded views. […]

  7. sjk says:

    I often use the “View > Select > All Messages in this Thread” shortcut in unthreaded mailboxes. Quite handy when selecting larger numbers of messages for deletion, first deselecting those I want to keep. I agree the Next/Previous commands in that submenu are frivolously dumb.

    Forgive a bit more off-topic wandering …

    In general, Mail navigation/selection/searching (threaded or not) is begging for improvements.

    Something I particularly miss from Mulberry is being able to option-click (IIRC) a sender address and have the message list collapse to only list those from that sender. Basically, a one-click From field search. Option-clicking on other fields would have a similar selective-search-display behavior.

    Why can’t Mail search specific header fields except in Smart Mailboxes? I don’t want to create a Smart Mailbox for every style of search. And the “any/all” limitation with Smart Mailbox conditions makes it harder to match in multiple mailboxes.

    Then there’s the whacky mailbox list (de)selection/focus, of course.

    Re: comment previewing. Thanks for considering it in the Betalogue post-WP-upgrade future.

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    I see, so the “Select > All Messages in this Thread” command is actually useful when not viewing messages as threads. It’s not obvious in the interface, to say the least :).

    Yes, Mail’s searching features could use major improvements. It’s strange how, with OS X 10.4, Apple went all the way Spotlight, and in the process somehow “forgot” some basic search needs. It’s the same with file names in the Finder. It’s pretty basic stuff. Why do I need to use a third-party tool to do this?

    Here’s hoping that 10.5 will restore some kind of balance…

  9. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Apple Mail’s failings exposed says:

    […] And it’s not only the dead pixels between picture and text that trouble him. Check out his blog for a list of things wrong with Apple Mail. […]

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