This one can be filed under “incredibly specific.” The question is simple: What happens when a new email arrives in the iPhone’s Mail app?

That question may sound ridiculous at first. You may immediately say, “Of course I know what happens! I get a new email! Isn’t it that simple?” But do know what really happens? How does Mail.app decide to deliver email?

The design of Apple’s Mail app is proof that it’s all about the details…

The Invisible” is a blog that looks at why interfaces behave in certain ways, and specifically, the hidden elements that make interfaces work. The iPhone’s Mail.app behavior is one of those interfaces. I’ll walk you through what Basil Safwat talks about in his post on The Invisible.

When an email arrives in Mail, it “pushes” all the other emails down the list that is your inbox. Seems pretty simple to understand, right? If you use Mail on the iPhone often, you’ve seen the way new email comes in and pushes the other messages down.

But what about if you’re not at the top of your inbox? When you scroll down through your list, what happens when you get a new email?

Let’s say that you’ve scrolled down to the fourth email in your inbox:

In this case, you are automatically pulled to the top of your inbox, where your new email awaits you.

So far, Mail handles incoming emails in two ways. If you are at the top of your inbox, a new email will simply push the existing list down so that it remains on top. If you are slightly scrolled down the list, you are autoscrolled to the top of the list when a new email arrives.

When you think about it, the way Mail works is pretty cool. It adjusts its behaviors based on the user’s own behavior. The way it handles incoming email makes sense until you think about having lots of emails in your inbox.

It’s no big deal to be a few emails down your inbox and then get pulled back to the top when a new email arrives. But what about when you’re farther down than only a few emails? Say that you’ve scrolled down at least a dozen emails, it would be pretty annoying to be forcibly pulled back to the top of your inbox if a new email arrived.

Most likely, you’de be rudely pulled to the top to see some message that wasn’t even relevant enough to require your immediate attention. And there would be no easy way of getting to where you once were in your inbox. Over time, you would probably develop a fear that the same process would be repeated when digging through your inbox.

Apple thought of that problem. And they solved it.

If you’ve only scrolled down a little bit in your inbox and you happen to receive a new email, you will be autoscrolled to the top of your list. That’s no big deal because it would be easy to get back to where you were.

If you are farther down your inbox, getting a new email does nothing.

If you scroll down more than three emails deep into your inbox, a new email has no effect. You still get the normal alert sound and indicators that an email has arrived, but your current location in your inbox does not change.

Someone at Apple realized during testing that it’s just plain annoying to always be pulled to the top of your list. It’s not as annoying when you’re only a few emails deep, but it can be a huge pain when you’re dozens of messages away from the top of your list.

Three is the magic number in this case.

If you are less than three emails down your list, you’ll be returned to the top when a new email arrives. Any number more and you’ll stay where you are in your inbox. Go ahead, send yourself an email and try.

So, what’s the point of going through all this? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter that Apple’s Mail app behaves the way it does.

However, what was just demonstrated shows immense attention to detail. Sure, it’s not something you’re going to show off to impress your friends, but it speaks to the care that Apple puts into its work.

Hopefully this shows you the amount of thought and attention that is put into the apps we use everyday. Well-designed apps are more than polish and pretty pixels. Real thought goes into great software.

Details like this are the reason that Apple is the successful company it is today. This level of attention to detail isn’t found in many other similar interfaces. Good job, Apple.

I think how Basil ended his article was perfect, “The addition of this extra detail has made the app less visible than if the detail wasn’t there. Lovely.”

  • appletiser

    now if only facebook’s app would learn from this by not jumping back to the top after I’ve scrolled through a few pages 😐

  • thierry

    Okay maybe it is a good thing, but I don’t see why there is a “limit” for pulling to the top or not.
    What would be better, I think, is to never pull to the top no matter deep we are on the inbox.
    Because if you want to go to the top of your inbox, you just need to tap on the status bar.

    So really I don’t see the point of automatically going to to top if we are three emails down the list.

    • brrrr

      exactly, the phone beeps, vibrates and show a blue dot for the new messages, why does it scroll up the list when i do not ask him to?

  • QuarterSwede

    I was thinking Facebook should do the same as well. It’s insanely annoying.

  • brrrr

    i thnk the author of this article have just had a little orgasm, this shows my attention to details

  • Spd

    It’s absolutely right to autoscroll mail, list then new message arrives. Play sound once, show new message arrived and user remembers, what this sound mean. 1 second study course. iOS is intuitive. My father always asked me to help setting alarm or changing sound profile on his old phone. Now he enjoes mobile Internet, maps with traffic, movies, music and games without problems.

  • luis

    wow im really going to start reading this… the length scared the hell out of me and jumped first to the comments <3

  • Dav1d

    With all this attention to detail, what happen to the creation of new mail app? When writing a new email if I need to leave my email how do I get back to it? I don’t seem to be able to do it on my iPad! Am I the only one who may want to check a fact, Google for something, or for any other reason need to leave the email creation window while creating an email? Once left there doesn’t seem to be a way to recover it, tapping mail only gets me back to the main mail window.

  • Samer Ghanim

    I really would like to know what’s the best practice/idea for storing mailboxes?
    The question is shall I use filesystem for storing user’s email or I should use database? I have been thinking about this for longtime and have posted this on different forums but nobody has answered this in a clear way.
    The problem is I’m using a web service for pulling new email which my app calls this ACL once the app is launched or based on a user request by clicking the ‘Reload’ icon. This however, will call the web service and download the new email and I store them in a file by appending the current existing file. If the file is not found I create the file and write the full list. This what i have finally reached but in not 100% sure about it.

    Guys any ideas?

    Thanks