Mailplane is a mac desktop app for Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Contacts and Inbox. It makes it easy to use an unlimited number of accounts organised and tidy within one app instead of a tab-cluttered browser window. In addition to that it provides notifications for new emails, a search across all accounts, image annotations, third-party extensions and a lot of useful shortcuts. With Version 4, Mailplane went through a major update which also included a redesign.
This case study shows my design process and my thoughts, behind the redesign of Mailplane 4. As the whole project became quite extensive in the end, I restricted myself to the following five topics which I hope give a good insight about the work I did.
We decided to start the project with a redesign of the app icon. Mailplane 4 was going to be the biggest update since the app's initial launch 10 years ago and with a new app icon we could convey this at first glance. In addition to that, we wanted to have a softer and simpler looking icon. The present one with its 3D style was a bit out of date and did not match the macOS design language anymore. As representation for the app we wanted to keep the combination of a plane and an envelope. Based on that I drafted two possible routes with design proposals.
After evaluating both routes we decided to go with number 1. Even with this major update, Mailplane 4 will still be the same product in its core concept. Route 1 captured this idea nicely by being a better version of itself and not something completely new. Based on this design, I started to iterate on the icon's appearance and optimised all the details that weren't convincing yet.
Pleased with the new app icon, it was time to take on the app's UI. First task: the redesign of the toolbar, toolbar icons and tabs.
Until this point the toolbar icons were a bit a random mix of style and size. I wanted them to become uniform and closer to the macOS UI design. In order of efficiency we decided to work with an existing icon set. Missing ones we would create form scratch. I researched for sets that matched my style requirements and found the feather icons. They have a light and soft style, are carefully built and work very well in small sizes. They also provided more than half of all the icons we needed for the toolbar.
For the tab icons I needed 4 designs which resemble their corresponding google app icons. They should also work in different colors so we can use them to color-code the tabs by account. In this case the feather icons couldn’t provide a match as there were no icons close to the official ones from Google. On top of that they only come in an outline style version which does not provide enough surface to represent different colors properly. Therefore I decided to design them myself.
As Mailplane only consists in parts of native building blocks, there were several UI components that needed a design which normally would be predetermined by the macOS AppKit. For several windows we needed a complete body design including UI components like buttons, input fields and labels.
The license window was one of those. It includes informations about the current license type (trial version or one of three payed versions), a button to buy or upgrade the license and two input fields for the owner's name and license number. For all those components we needed a design. My goal was to create a look close to the native windows but also to leave room for Mailplane specific designs when necessary. On top of that I wanted to improve the UX as well. For example the button to buy a license was quite unobtrusive in Mailplane 3. I wanted to change that with Mailplane 4 and gave it an unmistakable button shape, introduced an accent color and placed it much more prominently within the window.
Based on those first designs I was able to create a basic style guideline which came in very handy for the further course of the project.
One of the more extensive chapters was the design of the onboarding process. I was very excited about it from the start, as it seemingly offered a lot of room for creativity and uniqueness. As the basis for my design exploration, I received a roughly implemented version of the general flow by the developer. On one hand this was great, as clicking through it, helped to understand the overall concept and see what already worked and what could be improved. On the flip side, it immediately influenced my thinking and put an image into my head of how it could look and feel like. Therefore, I wasn't sure if I would still be able to come up with the creative and unique idea I initially aspired to.
Being kind of stuck on the creative side, I decided to choose a more analytical approach. Instead of thinking how amazing this should become, I focused on what was already there. I divided the onboarding into individual steps, by counting every time the whole UI changes, as a separat screen. With this method, I ended up with 6 screens in total. By arranging them in order, I got a static representation of the whole user flow, which helped capture everything at a glance.
As a result of that arrangement, I realised that 4 of those 6 screens will be hosting contend coming from google. Three for the google account login flow and one for a loading indicator. For those 4 screens I primarily needed a background theme to connect them with the rest. Google's login mask should stay as it is, to be familiar to users and therefore receive their trust. The remaining two screens were for Mailplane specific content. The start screen and the account configuration screen. Those two would be my priority for now.
Additional design elements we need
What I liked in this first sketch
What did not work for me yet
I’m always interested in finding a way to explain things with as little words as necessary. In this case I thought it would be nice to visualise how the combination of Mailplane with the Google apps generate this symbiotic and improved product. To better communicate this idea I created an animation, that shows how the plane and the envelope merge to create the Mailplane experience.
I liked the idea of the animation and wanted to try it in context with the whole flow. I matched the size of the card with the size of the google log-in UI to have a consistent area in which all the main actions happen and sketched up a draft containg all the onboarding steps.
I was quite happy with the way the whole flow felt. Of course it was still a draft and needed more love. I started with more detailed design work by styling the account configuration screen next.
As I already sketched a first version of the account settings for the prototype, I started from there.
I wasn't happy with the design of the account color buttons and their hover and active state and I also wanted a different styling for the account selection buttons.
For the final design I changed the sky form blue to a light grey. This way it looked less playful and it helped to increase the focus towards the main content. I also looked into font styling and defined a custom input field.
Based on the design for the account configuration, I adjusted the rest of the screens. I also suggested to animate the clouds in the background, to make them look like they're passing by the window of an airplane. Furthermore, I applied the new style to the rest of the Mailplane UI.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it and I was able to give some valuable insights into my design process. If you are interested, how I adapted the Mailplane UI for mac Mojave dark mode, then I invite you to read the following article I've written on Medium.