Mail 2.0: Confusing interface and flaws in ‘Signatures’ feature

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
November 9th, 2006 • 3:55 pm

Almost everybody uses an e-mail signature—i.e. some text that is automatically inserted at the bottom of their e-mail messages. And it’s been that way for many, many years. So you’d think that in a mature product such as Apple’s Mail application, signatures would be properly supported in a reasonably straightforward interface.

As soon as I saw the new interface for creating and editing e-mail signatures in the early builds of the new Mail 2.0 that is part of Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), I knew that we were in trouble. Apple had obviously realized that support for signatures in Mail 1.x was too limited and had tried to provide a more comprehensive feature in Mail 2.0. But that user interface in Mail 2.0’s “Preferences” dialog box was just utterly confusing, and I soon found myself firing a series of bug reports and enhancement requests in Apple’s general direction.

Unfortunately, two years later, little progress has been made. The interface is still very confusing, and the feature itself is flawed and buggy in rather significant ways.

Essentially, the feature works like this: In Mail’s preferences, you have a “Signatures” section with three panes. In the left-most pane, you have an item called “All Signatures,” and then one additional item for each e-mail account that you have defined in the “Accounts” section of Mail’s preferences.

The middle pane has a list of signatures. And the pane on the right-hand side displays the actual contents of a signature.

The middle pane also has “+” and “” buttons underneath it, which are used to create a new signature or delete an existing one.

And already there things are utterly confusing and flawed. For example, you can click on the “+” button regardless of which item is selected in the left-most pane. If “All Signatures” is selected, Mail will add a new signature (named, by default, something like “Signature #nn”) to the list in the middle. You can then rename the signature in the middle pane, and define its contents in the pane on the right-hand side.

If you click on the “+” button when the item selected in the left-most pane is a specific account, however, then Mail will add a new signature to the list of signatures for that particular account, but this signature will also automatically be added to the “All Signatures” list.

On the other hand, if you then select an existing signature for a specific account in the middle pane and then press the “” button to delete it, Mail does not actually delete the signature. It just removes it from the list of signatures for this particular account. But the signature is still there in the “All Signatures” list. It only disappears from the system altogether if you delete it from the “All Signatures” list directly (and then Mail also deletes it from all the account-specific lists of signatures where it might appear).

So effectively we have a very asymmetrical behaviour here, which stems from the very interface choices made by Apple, with this three-pane layout where “All Signatures” is just one item in a list, whereas it actually has a different function from all the other items in the list.

It gets worse, much worse. In the list in the left-most pane, you can only select one item at a time. But in the middle pane, where Mail lists either all available signatures (when “All Signatures” is selected) or the signatures available for a specific e-mail account (when that account is selected), you can actually select more than one signature at the same time.

But then, what does Mail display in the pane on the right-hand side? That pane is supposed to display the contents of a specific signature. If you select more than one signature, what should it display? It probably should display nothing. But Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided that, when multiple signatures are selected at the same time, the pane on the right-hand side should display… the contents of the last signature to be selected by the user. So for example, if you click on one signature to select it, and then shift-click on another signature to select all signatures between the two inclusively, Mail displays… the contents of the second signature you’ve selected (with shift-click).

I am afraid I have no idea how this qualifies as a user-friendly interface. Of course, Apple could have prevented users from selecting multiple signatures at the same time. But apparently it was more important to enable users to select multiple signatures than to have an intuitive behaviour in the pane on the right-hand side.

Again, this all stems from Apple’s choice of interface, with these three panes, and from Apple’s own sloppy work. They could have simply disabled the display of the contents of the signatures in the pane on the right-hand side when more than one signature is selected, in the same way that the message preview pane in Mail doesn’t display anything when more than one message is selected in the message list. But apparently that was too much work for them.

Now, let’s forget about these obvious flaws for now and focus on what you can actual do with this interface. What you can do is that you can have a list of various signatures, and assign specific signatures to specific accounts. For example, you can have signatures A, B, C, and D in your “All Signatures” list and have two e-mail accounts, X and Y, and you can assign signatures A and B to e-mail account X and signatures C and D to e-mail account Y.

It’s just a matter of first defining the signatures, and then using drag-and-drop to assign them to the accounts—but you have to know that, because there’s nothing in the interface that indicates that drag-and-drop is how you assign specific signatures to specific accounts.

Once you’ve assigned specific signatures to specific accounts, when you are in the process of composing a new message, the “Signatures” pop-up menu will actually list the signatures that have been assigned to the e-mail account that you are using to compose the message. If you change the e-mail account you are using to compose the message, the “Signatures” pop-up menu will change accordingly. If you are composing an e-mail message using account X, the “Signatures” pop-up menu will list signatures A and B. If you are composing an e-mail message using account Y, the “Signatures” pop-up menu will list signatures C and D.

You should also know that you can assign the same signature to more than one e-mail account. So you really do have a fair amount of flexibility, which is important, since many people now have multiple e-mail accounts and the uses of these various e-mail accounts are not necessarily as compartmentalized as they could or should me.

But then the next important question is: What should the default signature be for each account? And how do you define it? Mail doesn’t actually use the word “default” anywhere in its interface, but you can define a default signature for each of your e-mail accounts. In order to do that, you need to select the account in question in the left-most column in “Signatures” in the preferences dialog box, and then go to the pop-up menu labelled “Choose Signature” at the bottom.

It’s a poor location for this option, because it appears to be outside the scope of the selection in the left pane. And it’s also a very poor choice for a label for this menu, because it really does not mean anything (choose signature for what?). But what it effectively does is assign a default signature to the account selected in the left pane.

Here again, the limitations of Apple’s interface choices are readily apparent. If you select the “All Signatures” item in the left pane, the “Choose Signature” pop-up menu changes to “None” and becomes disabled. This is Apple’s way of telling you that this option doesn’t apply to the “All Signatures” item.

Apart from the user interface issues, there is one huge problem with this default signature option, however. It’s that it does not work properly. It works OK when you are composing a new message from scratch, but when you are replying to an existing message sent to one of your e-mail accounts, Mail fails to use the default signature of that e-mail account when composing your reply. Instead, it always chooses the default signature of the default e-mail account—as defined in the “Composing” section of the preferences dialog box.

This is utterly irritating, because it means that you constantly have to correct Mail’s automatic choice of signature to make sure that it actually matches the e-mail account that you are currently using. I reported this bug to Apple long ago, and they actually acknowledged that it was a bug and indicated that they were aware of it—but they have yet to fix it. What excuse do they have here? It really is a rather fundamental flaw, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t have been fixed as soon as it was identified.

I am afraid I could go on and on with this. There are also problems with Mail using two signatures at the same time when you reply to an existing message and select another signature. There are problems with font matching. Etc. Etc.

But I think you already have a fairly good idea of how poor the “Signatures” feature in Mail 2.0 is. It just does not cut it. Will things be any better in Mac OS X 10.5? I am not holding my breath…

2 Responses to “Mail 2.0: Confusing interface and flaws in ‘Signatures’ feature”

  1. Arden says:

    I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you make it out to be. Is it perfect? Well, no, far from it, but it’s not “horrible” like you say. The adding-and-deleting part that you mentioned first I found to be very intuitive, and it just seems to be the natural way to do it.

    The multiple-selection thing could definitely be improved, especially because changing any text with more than one sig selected doesn’t actually do anything. But the default sig bit is slightly more inflammatory than it needs to be. Could it be improved, sure, but just clicking on it reveals what it does. And the default-when-replying issue, bug though it may be, is negated if you choose the “Account of last viewed mailbox” option in the “Send new mail from” menu of the Composing tab of the preferences.

    Of course, there are a few issues you touched on only briefly, if at all. The font-matching thing is annoying (shouldn’t it show up as your default font, if selected, without you having to change it manually?) and there are issues of whitespace. But in all, I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you make it sound. In need of some improvement, yes… the coming of Second Impact, not exactly.

    P.S. Where’s the Preview button on this comment form?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    We all have our own appreciation of the relative importance of things. I don’t want to select the “Account of last viewed mailbox” option because that’s not what I want. I shouldn’t be forced to use that option just to work around the bug.

    I still feel that the interface for managing signatures is very poor and demands far too much non-intuitive experimenting from the user.

    As for having a preview feature for blog comments, once someone starts paying me full-time for maintaing this blog, maybe I can look into it :).

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