Tilburg University (UvT) provides students with the service of having their own UvT email account. This account is coupled to their Blackboard environment and all the information is stored on a router of the UvT. The problem, however, is that this product provided by Novell is the fourth edition while today the eighth is already available. This indicates that this webmail application has not been updated for a while and that it does not serve the needs of today's students. These students are used to webmail servers (e.g. Hotmail and Gmail) that offer a lot more functions than the UvT-mail does, they offer a bigger storage space and have, unlike the UvT-mail, a contemporary design. The result (based on a inquiry done among 10 students): students are not willingly using their UvT-mail and either use it as least as needed or couple it to their alternative mailing account so that they receive their emails in that inbox and are able to send email from that application. For those reasons the main problem is that the service of the UvT to offer students an email account that they can use for internal communication is more or less unsuccessful at this moment of time. The communication problem of the UvT Webmail can be defined as “How can the UvT modify their Webmail-service so that students become active users of Webmail?”
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To answer this question a few things should be considered. First of all, what precisely causes the problem? What do the students dislike about Webmail, or viewed from another perspective, what are their needs. What exactly do the students desire in terms of applications, design, storage capacity, etcetera? Moreover, if their wants are satisfied, will they eventually start using Webmail again? If they will not, investigating this problem will be of no use. Research into these questions must be done. Secondly, what do other webmail providers offer that the UvT-mail does not? And finally, are there ways to encourage internal communication within an organization? How can these be applied to improve the Webmail?
1.2 Communicative objectives
The current UvT-mail is offered by the university to give students a personal mail-address with which they can communicate internally (with their professors and with other students) and externally. All the information is being saved on a router at the university campus therefore safety is guaranteed. However, this also limits the storage capacity for each member of a UvT-account.
The main communication objectives of redesigning the UvT Webmail are facilitating UvT students (people between the age of 18 and 28) with a webmail application that satisfies their needs so that they will use their UvT-mail. This redesigned Webmail should be easy and pleasurable in its use, functional and contemporary.
Working towards the pre-described objectives, the communication problems should be solved and students should become active users of Webmail. The problem is not that the students do not like the fact that the university accommodates them with personal email addresses or that they are not keen on using it, all the students agree that it is very useful to have an UvT email address. Most of the interviewed students like to separate their personal emails from the universal ones and moreover some students say that it looks professional to, for example, send a curriculum vitae from your university email-account. The fact that the UvT Webmail does not meet their desires, in one way or another, is the difficulty and causes the complaints.
In order to make the students actively use Webmail again, not only should Webmail be redesigned, the students must also be informed about the new possibilities the new application offers and they should be motivated to form a positive attitude (again) towards Webmail. McGuire (1969) formulated five sequential fundamentals for successful processing of a message. Applied to our case this means that the students should get attention for the redesigned Webmail, understand how it works, accept the new design, retain a positive attitude and finally take action and become an active user of Webmail.
1.3 Target group
The target group that will be addressed in the design are the students of the UvT. These students are in the age range of 18-28. In the end, all the employees of the university will be using the new application. In this paper, however, we focus on the students because they occupy the major group of users.
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These students are expected to be intelligent as they study at the university. Furthermore, they all experienced the coming of the internet and grew up with it. Internet plays an important role in their lives; “They form social relationships online” (McMillian, S.J., Morrison, M. 2006).
Tilburg University uses these possibilities of internet to make communication between members of the university easier. The university expects the students and employees to be acquainted with internet and communication through email. Their attitude on digital communication is positive (Warschauer, M. 1996) and supported by the inquiry. The results of the inquiry presented in table 1 confirm that the students make use Webmail on regular basis, despite their overall negative opinion about this service (table 2).
Table 1: Frequency of use of Webmail by students
0-3 times a month
1-3 times a week
4-6 times a week
1-3 times a day
More than 1-3 times a day
Table 2: Students reaction to the statement: Webmail meets all of my demands.
Totally not agreeing
Slightly not agreeing
The negative opinions on Webmail are influenced by the fact that the students compare Webmail to other webmail applications such as Hotmail and Gmail as most of them (also) make use of one of these applications. This has impact on the judgment of Webmail and the effectiveness of this communication tool. Therefore Webmail should be redesigned so it meets the desires of the students. A contemporary design, as the other applications have, will also help the effectiveness of Webmail. If the new Webmail is not (nearly) as good perceived as the alternative webmail applications, students will probably continue to use those.
1.4 Activities of the target group
Students use Webmail mainly to read emails sent by the university (e.g. exam calls or schedule changes), by their professors or by fellow students. They also write emails to professors, fellow students or external contacts they like to address with they UvT-mail address. Webmail is used for specific goals and users will look for the tools to reach these goals, for example sending an email. Quesenbery (2001) formulated five styles for approaching information. Using these approaches, the styles of this target group can be described as ‘find' and ‘structured'. Most students want to operate quickly so the interface design should be synoptic and distinct so the tools to carry out the job can be found easily.
1.5 Conditions for the design
Based on the findings above, the redesigned Webmail should meet certain criteria. First, Webmail should look contemporary. Secondly, the structure needs to be synoptic. Navigation needs to be improved. Navigating from one folder or page to another should be easy. Thirdly, the use of symbols and/or words for the different ‘options' should be improved. This should lower the effort needed to navigate though Webmail. Furthermore, it is desired that everything is ‘done' on the same page. Navigating from one page to another should be easy by the use of a tree structure (divergent) from menus. This gives complete freedom to the users (van der Wijst, P. 2009). A tree-structure particular works well for smaller websites as Webmail is (Eick, S. G. 2001). Moreover, the automatically log-off function should be banned so that you keep logged in. In addition, more options should be available so that Webmail meets the needs of the students. Finally, all the users should be satisfied and Webmail should be flexible so that the wants of all the different users can be satisfied.
Section 2: Towards a conceptual design
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To establish the right recommendations for a new design of Webmail, a number of students have answered an electronic survey, a meeting organized by the university was visited (they are working on this case as well) where this problem was discussed with 12students and several academic articles were read.
The redesigned Webmail focuses on students, however the employees need to use it as well. Focus here is on the students as they occupy the largest percentage of users. Adjusting Webmail to the desires of the students should enable the employees to take advantage and work with a new version of Webmail too. They are expected to have enough knowledge and skills to work with the redesigned version, just as students are expected to do so.
The biggest complaint is that Webmail is very old-fashion and that it needs to be renewed. Renewing, in this case, includes a lot of things. These aspects will be discussed in this stage.
2.1 Previews of webmail applications
Firstly three screenshots are presented: a Webmail, a Hotmail and a Gmail account. These screenshots are used to develop the conceptual design.
- Webmail should look professional as people assess a webpage by its visual design. A first impression is very important. Attention must be paid to layout, typography, images, symbols, colourschemes, etc.
- Webmail should look contemporary.
- The house style of the UvT must be taken into account. The house style exists of several agreements in order to create an identity that is recognized by others. (More information can be found on the site http://www.uvt.nl/universiteit/merkgids/huisstijl/)
- The corporate colours should be used. The corporate colours are ‘pms 540' and ‘pms 132'. However, they should be used in a way that looks attractive and does not overwhelm the users. Colours can be used in an effective way that clarifies the structure (Petterson, 2001).
- Rohall, S., Gruen, D., Moody, P., Kellerman, S. argue that reduced resolution overviews facilitate webmail users to find the documents that they are looking for. The corporate colours of Tilburg University should be used consistently and in an effective way to create serenity and therefore make navigation easy.
- Attention must be paid to colour-blindness (Petterson, 2001). The readability of Webmail should be checked for colourblinds.
- For web and digital tools of the UvT the following fonts are used: Arial or Verdana. Point size 10.5 is used with an interline of 14.
- A logo of the UvT and its slogan ‘Understanding Society' should be shown in the left corner above.
- More emails should be shown on one page in the inbox. Scientific research showed that users like “to see more more messages in the index list” (Jones et al, 1990).
- No advertisement or pop-ups should be shown or appear on Webmail.
- The lay-out must be functional and abstract. Users should be able to find what they are looking for at a glance with low effort. A critical look must be taken at the current layout, symbols and functions a Webmail account has (when no adjustments are made by the user).
- Students denoted that the option to save all the emails with the same subject under one heading is desired.
- Users of Webmail are all different individuals. Therefore they use Webmail for different goals. “Some people are prioritizers, others are archivers, some use mail to delegate taske, while others perform tasks delegated to them by others” (Mackay, W.E. 1988). Mackay (1988) indicates that individuals have different preferences. Ones preferences do not satisfy someone else's. Webmail should be flexible so that all the users can change it (their options) to their own liking. This could include the lay-out. Jones et al (1990) reported that users like to have a display that shows the mail inbox while the users were reading or sending an email. See figures 4, 5 and 6 for the options Hotmail offers.
- In the current Webmail, users get logged off automatically. This should be abolished.
- The following functions/folders should be clearly visible and be accessible in the first screen after logging in: inbox, outbox/sent, drafts, new email, deleted, personal created folders, new/create email, delete, mark as, move to, options. Please note: After logging in you access your inbox immediately.
- The following functions/folders given above are new for Webmail:
- Sent items: sent items get saved automatically
- Deleted: deleted emails are displaced to a separate folder. Users should delete emails from this folder to delete them definitely. Emails should go directly to this folder if you delete them.
- Mark as: with this function you can mark emails as read/read/important/ignore.
- Drafts: in drafts you can save emails that you do not want to send yet and/or emails are saved that are not send yet but the user got logged out or moved to another page in Webmail without saving the message.
- It should be easier to organize the contact list. An option to save the receiver in your contact list after sending an email is desirable.
- Webmail should automatically recognize email addresses or names the user has saved in his or her contact list. When filling in one or more character(s) (i.e. letter, number, symbol), all the contacts with that character in his or her name or email are shown and can be chosen.
- A help function should be available and it has to be found easily.
- It should be easy to change your ‘options'.
2.5 Navigation and symbols
- Navigation should be simple and straightforward. “When people are unable to reach their task goals due to frustrating experiences, this can hinder the effectiveness of technology” (Lazar, J., Bassiere, K., Ceaparu, I., Robinson, J., Schneiderman, B. 2003).
- Fewer actions should be needed to accomplish one goal. “Users should not have to click through more than 4-5 levels of a specific Web site” (Lazar, J., Bassiere, K., Ceaparu, I., Robinson, J., Schneiderman, B. 2003).
- A critical look should be thrown on the current use of symbols and terms. “Novice users are disturbed by unexpected changes to terminology, layout, color and fonts” (Lazar, J., Bassiere, K., Ceaparu, I., Robinson, J., Schneiderman, B. 2003). Not only terminology, but lay-out and styling should be consistent.
- A description should be shown when moving with the cursor over the buttons.
- The different functions should be indicated by short, internationally well-known words to improve communication and navigation. Text-based navigation is preferable (Lazar, J., Bassiere, K., Ceaparu, I., Robinson, J., Schneiderman, B. 2003). For example, the symbol for creating an email is currently very distinct.
Current symbol for creating a new email
- You should be able to navigate through Webmail while staying in the same window/on the same page. When opening a folder or message, users should be able to go back to the homepage or navigate to another folder.
- A search function that enables students to search through their emails should be implemented. This is supported by Lohse and Spiller who suggest that “search engines should be mandatory for all large Web sites (1998).
- If you want to move an email to a folder, you should be able to click on button “move to” and all the folders should appear beneath as shown in figure 9.
- Users should be able to navigate from one message to another by clicking on a button as, for example, “next” or “previous” or “ââ€ '” or “ââ€ "”. These buttons should be clearly visible.
2.6 Storage capacity
- The capacity of one account should be bigger. Preferably, an account has unlimited storage space.
2.7 Additional suggestions
- The language should be automatically be set in English. Tilburg University has a lot of international students. The international students do not speak Dutch and changing the language from Dutch to English will therefore be difficult. The Dutch students, however, are expected to understand English and if they want to set the language in Dutch they can do this easily. This should be possible to do.
Furthermore, Webmail should be updated once in a while so that it keeps in meeting the changing needs of the users. This concerns content, structure and lay-out. The design should be flexible to obtain these changes. Moreover, the university should keep records of the needs of the students over time so adjustments can be made on time. This will avoid having the same communication problem that exists at the moment. The changes given above are the basis changes that need to be made, necessarily. Research needs to be done into the remaining demands of the students. These might be a calendar, the option to chat with your contacts, the option to share document with your contacts etcetera.
Section 3: Evaluation
To evaluate the conceptual design of Tilburg University's Webmail and see if the conceptual design is good enough to be implemented the following method was used: several communication specialists (that know the target group) took a look at the conceptual design. However, to enhance the evaluation, it is desired to execute two more methods of evaluation. First, an ICT expert should look at the conceptual design to see whether the suggestion given in the conceptual design can be brought into force. Second, a number of students of Tilburg University should take part in an experiment in which a sample product is tested.
In this stage it is checked whether the communication objectives given in section 1.2 (facilitating, satisfying and activating students) have been reached. For this reason, a qualitative method is used.
If the conceptual design is worked out into a final design and is implemented, a questionnaire containing multiple choice questions and spaces for comments should be send to all UvT students to check if the communication objectives are reached. This quantitative method of research will be used to obtain information about the overall impressions and opinions on the new design.
3.1 Evaluation by communication experts
3.2 Product evaluation by ICT expert
To check whether or not the proposal for a new design of Webmail can be realized, an ICT expert should take a critical look at the conceptual design. He or she can examine if the ideas can be put in to practice. He or she can also examine the design, the lay-out and the navigation structure. A critical view of an expert can be used to improve one of these factors as he or she has more experience and knowledge about designing a webmail application. Complications might occur when the conceptual design is implemented as described in section 2. If there are difficulties, this expert is able to give suggestions on how to solve these problems.
3.3 User-focused evaluation
An experiment in which Tilburg University students participate and use a prototype of Webmail can be used to evaluate the practical aspects of Webmail. User-centered analysis helps in developing a Webmail that the student find useful and easy to use (Lazar, J. 2001). A representative of the university should be there to be in charge. Students need to accomplish several tasks, for example sending an email to another student that participates, and afterwards they need to answer some questions. These questions are designed to get feedback on how easily it was to accomplish the task for example, which problems they encountered and if they think Webmail has improved at this point.
When all the information of all the participating students is gathered, overall questions as the following should be able to be answered: Do the students like the new lay-out? Are they able to easily navigate the page? Do they like the new use of symbols/words to navigate? Are they keen on the new functions and options? Do they, overall, like the new design? Do they encounter any problems while using it? If yes, what are these problems? If the prototype will be implemented, will they become active users? Do the students have any suggestions? The results should also be compared to the results of the pre-test, done before the conceptual design was made and where the design was based on.
The main advantage of this type of evaluation is that it gives a lot of practical information. If there are any troubles during the experiment or, on the other hand, if the students are very enthusiastic about the new design, this information can be processed immediately by the experiment leader. You get firsthand feedback which is very valuable. Furthermore, the representative can ask the students additional questions if anything is unclear. A short discussion among the participating students at the end of the experiment is also a useful source for information.
Hopefully enough students will participate in order to be representative for the whole target group. Based on this huge pile of information possible improvement can be made in the prototype before implementation.
3.4 Validity and reliability
The validity of the evaluation by communication experts was good so some generalizations can be made. These experts are specialized in analyzing and solving communication problems. They are expected to be objective. However, the set up of the questionnaire has influence on the validity since it influences, for example, which things there are addressed. The communication experts, in this case, belong to the target group so they can ‘empathize' with this target group and the results are expected to be able to be generalized. However, the experts might have made accidental mistakes in answering the questions which has influence on the reliability. However, since only five experts evaluated the conceptual design, one accidental mistake has a huge impact on the conclusion. The same validity and reliability problems might occur in case of the evaluation by an ICT expert.
In case of the user-focused evaluation, it is preferable to have as many students participation as possible to enlarge the reliability. This evaluation is expected to have a high population validity ('t Hart, H., Boeije, H., Hox, J. 2009) as the sample only consists of people from the target group. In the experimental set-up as described in section 3.3, problems as the Hawthorne-effect ('t Hart, H., Boeije, H., Hox, J. 2009).
3.3 Results of evaluation
The communication experts all agree that the conceptual design is an improvement of the current Webmail and they all think that students, when this design will be implemented, will become active users of Webmail again. If that is the case, the communication problem is solved. The experts agree upon the fact that the conceptual design improved Webmail along the different aspects (styling, lay-out, content, navigation and symbols, storage space) and that it fulfills the needs of today's students.
If the other two evaluation methods are carried out, more information is gathered. With this information we can say with more certainty if the conceptual design can solve the communication. If it turns out that there are technical problems with implementing the design or if there are practical problems in using the prototype, there problems can be solved before implementation.
A questionnaire should be send, as said before, to all students after implementation. This will give information on the attitudes towards the new design. If there are any problems or suggestions, a new cycle of product development, evaluation and implementation can be started.
Section 4: Realization and implementation
Tilburg University is currently also working on adjusting Webmail. I hope that the representatives of the ICT department of Tilburg University will take a critical look at this paper and use it for their study. I wish this paper can provide new information and help the ICT department in the development of renewing Webmail. Hopefully the students of Tilburg University will be soon facilitated with a modern version of Webmail that ‘beats' all the other webmail applications and serves all the needs of the students.
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