One of the most basic tasks a smartphone can perform is the reading and writing of email. Research In Motion built an empire off of this function with its BlackBerry platform. Yet, the concept of mobile email might need to be redefined. Currently, a mobile inbox does not look all that different from a regular inbox. IBM Research studied how users interact with mobile email and is developing a whole new client based off triage and capturing user intentions.

Think about how you interact with mobile email on a message-by-message basis. It is likely that you read who the message is from, the subject line and the first line or two of the email and decide how you want to treat that message. Some messages you will note but not actually read because you do not have to deal with it until you back at a desktop computer to fully respond to it. Some messages deserve full attention right away because it might be an urgent correspondence.

This is where IBM Research wants to help by recreating the user interface for mobile email. The first step is to help users triage (sort) email messages. So instead of the mobile email client opening straight to the inbox, IBM's notion is to open it to a triage screen. It provides color-coded "badges" to help users determine what untriaged mail they have. In the picture to the left, , the grey badge represents the number of read messages, light blue unread messages and dark blue for new messages.

Once a user has determined new messages, the untriaged view of the inbox looks a lot like a normal mobile email client. A dot to the left of the message indicates how many people have received the message, with a full green circle for the user as the sole recipient, half a circle for a select few users and an empty circle for a large amount of users. New messages have a light blue background.

It is then time to capture the intention of what users want to do with the email. The triage is just a way to determine how to initially react to an email. The next step is to actually act. An overlay appears in the client with the prompts of Next, Deferred and Reference. Next is for when users want or need to respond when they have a spare moment, Deferred is to be used later when a user is at a desktop computer and Reference is for relevant information that does not require an action of its own at this particular time.

Users can also assign a specification action such as call, print, read, reply, save, schedule, send and visit. If users do not want to assign a category, the "next" category will be assigned by default. Tasks can be acted upon by the user from within the client. Users can view, edit and delete tasks. Tasks are synced to the cloud to be available across devices and desktops.

IBM's research on a new mobile email client is directed at enterprise users. To a certain extent this would not work well for commercial users with a high volume of emails or people that see hundreds of emails a day (like the staff at ReadWriteWeb). IBM's strategy centers around Lotus and while that is one of the most-used email clients overall, it may rub some people the wrong way. To a certain extent, IBM's research is classic enterprise thinking: give IT managers and users more layers of control. On the other hand, the notion of triage, capturing intentions and tasks adds more pain points to the email experience. Users want things to be as simple as possible. IBM's triage and capture does not seem to be simple.

The study was done by IBM Research guru Jeff Pierce. You can see the details here and here.

Does mobile email need to be rethought or does the current system work just fine? What are the differences in needs for enterprise users versus commercial users? Let us know what you think in the comments.