Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

AOL Mail Gets First Major Refresh in Five Years, While Trying Not to Alienate People Who’ve Used It Since the ’90s

AOL today is revamping its email product, after an astounding five years without major change.

AOL Mail’s new design

To his credit, David Temkin, the SVP of mail and mobile for AOL, is completely upfront about the fact that this is overdue. “The market’s changed and people have higher expectations for user experience,” he said in an interview yesterday. “Our visuals and interaction design was dated and suboptimal.”

For me at least, getting an email from an AOL address is like a blast from the past — but 24 million people still use the product. The Mail audience tends older and a bit more female. “It’s almost like flyover territories,” Temkin said about tech-savvy people’s blind spot for AOL.

“A large number of users have been with us since the ’90s,” Temkin said. “Not the majority.”

The most interesting part of this story, for me, is the trickiness of changing a product that people have depended on for more than a decade, without pissing them off. “People using an application for a long time are really sensitive to minor changes,” as Temkin put it.

AOL Mail’s old look

But Temkin, who joined AOL three years ago, said he was doubtful the redesign will raise users’ hackles. Why? Because AOL has actually already rolled it out to many of them. Over the past few months, AOL pushed the redesign to 12 percent of its users, then 25 percent, then 50 percent. Today marks the shift to 100 percent. At each step along the way, user feedback was incorporated and the experience of transitioning users was improved, Temkin said.

The new design itself doesn’t seem too drastically different, though Temkin contended that “every pixel has been changed.” There’s more white space, cleaner icons and integrated Facebook chat. AOL is also committing to freeing up old email addresses that have fallen by the wayside, so active users can get something closer to their own names.

Development on AOL Mail hadn’t totally stood still in recent years, Temkin said. At the end of last year, an 18-month-long infrastructure overhaul was completed.

Growth in usage of AOL Mail has been “down to flat” in recent years, Tempkin said, but that’s similar to the other main U.S. email providers, with the exception of Gmail, which has gotten a massive boost from its integration into Android.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik