Thunderbird just stole me 30 Minutes

Thunderbird IconI used to advertise Mozilla Thunderbird to friends as a great free E-mail client with excellent IMAP support. Not anymore (I switched to Apple Mail). This is due to some stupid UI flaws in Thunderbird that just make me shake my head. Today, I focus on my fight against Thunderbird to recognize the changed password of my IMAP account. I expected a dialog box with a prompt for the new password. But far from it!

Our admins have forced each employee to set a new password. As a consequence, Thunderbird now just fails to log-in by displaying a message like “Login failed.”. The message is displayed not once, not twice, but three times! OK, I expected this to happen in some way, but I also would expect a dialog for fixing the problem, like, for example, to provide a prompt for a new password. Or at least suggest where to find a fix. And please no discussion like “It’s not Thunderbird’s fault. How should it know the IMAP error is related to the password?” Other Mail clients do. To me, Thunderbird is just dumb here. After 10 more tries and 10 minutes of my life wasted, I gave up. A sad and frustrating user experience.

I knew the answer is somewhere out there. So I took the challenge, figured out the search keywords for Google, and after 10 more minutes, I found the answer in the Thunderbird FAQ:

“I changed my IMAP password, how do I get rid of a cached password?”

The answer is actually so obvious, even my mom would have figured it out…

“In the menu, select Tools > Options…, click on Privacy, choose the Passwords tab and click View Saved Passwords. Select the site/username line you want to delete and click Remove. When done, click Close and restart Mozilla Thunderbird.”

The Luxury of Ignorance

Hilarious… I was supposed to know that Thunderbird uses a cache for IMAP passwords and that I have to remove a specific entry from it manually. (BTW, my cache has about 200 passwords, so just locating the specific one requires a serious dose of endurance.) It’s not funny, actually. This is an example of these small, flawed details that make non-geeks stay away from this otherwise great piece of software. I probably felt the same degree of frustration that Eric S. Raymond felt when he tried to configure CUPS (“The Luxury of Ignorance: An Open-Source Horror Story”).

Pursuing Quality in Software

So what’s the morale? I think we as developers need to focus a lot more on user friendliness. For starters, forget about power features — at least until the application invites new, non-technical users with a clean, simple, intuitive and supportive UI, and they are happy to stay. Here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on how to adapt the software to the user’s workflow and understand his usage patterns. Specifically, this means to
    • provide ways to assist the user, and
    • help and guide him when an error occurs.
  • Follow the Principle of Least Astonishment (aka Principle of Least Surprise).

Mac OS X Developers take the Challenge

When I switched to the Mac, I quickly figured out what I think is one of the most important competitive advantages of Mac OS X over Windows, Linux etc. It’s the simplicity in use and intuitive UI, refined to perfection by the application developers. This is, to a certain degree, a consequence of Mac OS X’s excellent Cocoa and Carbon frameworks, which enforce simple, consistent, great-looking apps. But I think, the main reason is that the users are accustomed to just such a high level of simplicity and intuitive use. Applications are appraised or dismissed merely based on this quality aspect. On Windows, users quickly give up to expect any UI consistency and design quality; on Linux nobody expects it in the first place. On Mac OS X, developers take the challenge. And users appreciate it. Actually, it’s the premise of the slogan “It just works”. For example, take a look at initiatives like Apple Design Awards or follow the reviews at VersionTracker.


  1. Bob said

    Hello Martin, please be advised that Apple’s Mail has its share of problems too. The problem with open source such as Thunderbird is not its openness, but the reluctance of its developers to listen to the user’s feedback. I am, of course, talking out of direct experience… I agree that open source projects should be less geeky, better designed, and close to the users.

  2. Thomas said

    The problem with OSX’s UI is that if you don’t like it (and I absolutely hate it) there is no other option. In Linux I have the choice of KDE, GNOME, WindowMaker, Beryl, etc etc etc. Even Windows is slightly more usable than OSX, althought that’s probably more to do with its primativeness and ubiquity than any positive design skills.

  3. when it comes to free email, i found gmail to be the best and yahoo the worst ~:-

  4. Collier said

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