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Paper: Visualizing email content

Visualizing email content: portraying relationships from conversational histories

This paper describes the interface and content-parsing algorithms in Themail. It also presents the results from a user study where two main interaction modes with the visualization emerged: exploration of “big picture” trends and themes in email (haystack mode) and more detail-oriented exploration (needle mode)

Themail is a typographic visualization of an individual’s email content over time. The interface shows a series of columns of keywords arranged along a timeline. Keywords are shown in different colors and sizes depending on their frequency and distinctiveness.

The application was designed to help the owners of email archives answer two main questions:
• What sorts of things do I (the owner of the archive) talk about with each of my email contacts?
• How do my email conversations with one person differ from those with other people?

Especially for my family, it was really exciting to see all the words and the things that we talk about for no reason other than to just reminisce; it was like looking through a photo album or something. For instance, I would never go back and search for the wedding planning emails, but it was fun to look at that! It’s almost like this serves a different kind of purpose from regular email readers… It’s more at a personal level… It’s emotional, it’s about reflecting and remembering.

One of the main problems that participants identified on their Themail visualizations was the inadvertently high weight given to topical words in forwarded messages. For instance, sometimes the unique words in jokes that had been forwarded to the owner of the email ended up having too much weight, becoming the focus of the visualization. Whenever this was the case, participants remarked that Themail did a poor job of representing their email conversations.

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