AOL's new Alto Mail

AOL’s new Alto Mail

A came across an article today by Fast Co Design regarding AOL’s ALTO email program. I’m not sure what rock I’ve been under during the holidays that I haven’t heard of this yet, but it has definitely got my interest.

Alto Inbox

If you’re anything like me, you have a Gmail box that your almost afraid to open because of the masses of emails you’ll need to dig through. I use the star prioritization and folders, but somehow it doesn’t seem to help other than to flag things I need to try to respond to sooner rather than later, or for quick finding like a flight reservation that is upcoming. If you’re like me you also associate AOL with a dying company and the sound of a dial-up internet connection.

So when I saw the title of this article “AOL May Have Invented Email’s Next UI Paradigm” you can imagine my curiosity was peaked. I began reading, and I can say I am seriously impressed and recommend reading the article to get a good perspective on it’s functionality.

Below is a quick write up of some other popular websites and applications that I feel helped trend this new direction of design. To be fair, I have requested a beta but have yet to have the chance to play with it, so I’m judging my evaluation on screen shots and the linked article above. Still, it seems like the perfect amalgamation of Pinterest, IA Writer, and a real world sorting paradigm which is what has me excited about the direction.



This is no doubt my favorite online time suck. It is a tool that visually pins links, recipes, photos, articles, etc. from the web to a board so that you can save and sort through things visually. It allows you to choose the image from the source that you would like to associate with the pin, and organize the pins into an array of self-created boards. Referencing notes from an IA summit talk I attended: “There are more brain resources devoted to vision than to any other sense.”, and “Picture superiority effect: We have a better memory for pictures than for words”. I think it’s not surprising why visual pin boards are seeing such success as a way of organizing information and why Alto has chosen to use visual boards as a way to help organize the piles of mail they allow you to create.

IA Writer

IA Writer

IA Writer is one of my favorite iPad tools for writing because the toolbars, navigation, etc. get out of the way. It allows you to focus on what you are trying to do, and minimizes the cognitive load of the interface to support your concentration. While Alto hasn’t taken things to an extreme with your email, there is an obvious attempt to reduce the chrome per say compared to most current tools like Gmail. A lot of trends seem to be moving in this direction, which is something I’m looking forward to, websites and applications that get out of the way, and support the goals at hand.

Real World Mental Models

Finally, I’m really excited to play with the way Alto is using piles. From what I have read this idea came from real world research into the way that people sort their snail mail. I believe it, because I do exactly what they said they found people doing. I walk in the house with a load of mail in my arms and immediately being making piles. Things to read right now, bills, friends/family, ads/coupons, and trash. I also can relate the research to another IA summit talk I attended about clutter and the types of piles people create on their desks, and how the relationship of piles in space corresponds to their relative importance and faster organization. I am very excited to import my Gmail and see what these piles can do for me.

I am definitely excited about the direction that Alto seems to be going, and can’t wait to get my invite to play in the beta.