E-mail has changed. Our inboxes need to change, too.

Edit (May 18, 2011): HA! Google launched the Priority Inbox, almost exactly what I was describing. Google is cool. Hmm... Did they read my blog, or was it just a coincidence? Probably a coincidence. It's true. Software designers are still thinking about e-mail wrong. I love Gmail, and have used Outlook, Live Mail, Apple Mail, Entourage, Postbox, Thunderbird, Xobni, and a few others. But everyone is still stuck in a decade-old rut. E-mail is much more than a way for people to communicate. For freqent users of e-mail, it becomes their personal queue as well. The next generation of e-mail software needs to focus on making e-mail fulfill that role more smoothly. One major challenge we often face is maintaining e-mail's ease-of-use as our inbox gets filled with newsletters, notifications, sales reciepts, usenet posts, and chain e-mails from distant acquaintances. Our inbox contains messages that vary in priority from nearly-spam notifications to critical conversations and high-priority to-do items. Notifications bury the important items quickly, and I find myself forwarding e-mails to myself so they stay on top a little while longer. It doesn't have to be this hard! Most e-mail services and clients offer tagging features or flagging, but stop short of integrating those into a smooth workflow or allowing the inbox to be customized to take advantage of the data. To-do lists are great, but I never see them unless they appear in my inbox alongside my e-mails. Most to-do items originate from e-mails, so it makes sense that to-do items should really just be a tag or label for an e-mail. (E-mails sent to yourself should automatically get this tag). 50-70% of e-mails I receive come from a computer, not a human. I still need to see them, but only once, and I don't need to reply. These crowd my inbox, and hide other much more important items. More on how these are easy to label later.

Introducing the Thinbox

Some people like absolute control, others are lazy. I'm one of the lazy folk who want my computer to do all the work an keep things simple for me.  To handle this kind of person - I'm suggesting a whole new type of inbox - the thinbox...  This could live alongside the 'inbox' without any compatibility issues, I think. Gmail could implement this without a lot of trouble. The thinbox is minimalistic. The goal is to only show items that need to be dealt with.  If I'm caught up, it's empty - a blank screen. To achieve this feat, the user is 'guided' to deal with e-mails as they are read, and the view is limited to a certain time span (such as the last week or month). Archived items are never shown. First, what types of e-mails do we get?
  1. E-mails we want to see and handle now
    1. Reply, and the conversation disappears
    2. Read and act on. No reply needed; click Archive.
    3. Read and Archive. Completed conversations, or boring newsletters, sales reciepts, ship notifications, automatic notifications..
  2. And ones I want to see later
    1. Skim and read later. Interesting newsletters, usenet posts, etc. Cool, but not right now.
    2. Read and remember to do something on a certain day. To-do item arrive in the form of an e-mail from a colleage or boss, an appointment reminder, or a bill.
    3. Read and reply later... when I have more data, or when I have more time, or when they get back from vacation/trip/etc
This brings us to a feature that we need to achieve our goal - we need to be able to have a e-mail re-appear at the top of an inbox on a given day. This could be implemented with a 'reappearOn' field. This allows us to 'postpone' an e-mail/todo.

Supporting features needed for thinbox

  • Limiting by age in needed, because I will never sort my 9,079 old e-mails: Hide older than 1 day | week | month | all (probably needs to be group level)
  • Results from following queries displayed one after another in the thinbox, with no divider (just a different background color, and a pop-out tab on the left that vertically spans all group items.
    • "Needs Reply": Search inbox (not all mail) for e-mails I haven't replied to, and aren't flagged automatic, review, or to-do. Plus all e-mails tagged "Needs reply". Defaults to 1 week visibility.
    • "Automatic": Could be done with filters, but would be best done as a learning set of heuristics, based of user preferences. Users could black/whitelist addresses. Defaults to 1 day visibility.
    • "Up for review": Articles tagged 'review', and have a review date before current time. This is a way to postpone/schedule e-mails and e-mails tagged 'to-do'. A way to remind oneself about an e-mail at a certain time in the future - simply set a future date for it to reappear in the inbox (just sort by scheduled date instead of sent date when present). Defaults to 1 week visibility.
    • "to-do": A simple default label. E-mails to oneself are automatically tagged. Defaults to 1 month visibility.
    • "Bored?": (optional) A 'quick' label for e-mails that I don't have time to read right now... Should probably stay minimized untill the other groups are empty.
  • Quick links (on hover) for marking an item as "to-do", "review", "automatic". Then choosing "soon, tomorrow, next week, next month" as the review time.
  • It should be easy to manage groups as a whole: - a tab for each group in a left colum should allow batch archving, postponement, or re-labeling.
  • Automatic archiving when I reply (Send and Archive is default). Forwarded e-mails should suggest "Archive" and "Check Later"
  • It is important to keep things clean... Instead of displaying the 5+ groups in separate boxes, put them inline, ordered by group, then date. Background color should differ by group. Groups disappear when they have no items.

Labeling 'automatic' e-mails.

Separating such 'no reply' e-mails from the rest isn't very difficult - we can look for 'unsubscribe' links (newsletters) , large quantities of e-mail addresses in the TO field and the body (chain e-mails), keywords such as "order confirmation" or "reciept", or addresses like no-reply/[email protected]  I think we can flag these with 90% accuracy at least, and allow users to correct algorithm mistakes at the e-mail and e-mail adress levels.

Other gripes

Viewing all e-mails by a particular address should be a 1-click operation. If I'm looking at an e-mail from [email protected], there should be a "See all conversations with this person" link. It could appear when hovering over any e-mail address in the entire application - easy to implement. Preferably, other recent conversations should appear below the current conversation as links... Maybe the last 3?

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About Nathanael

Nathanael Jones is a software engineer, father, consultant, and computer linguist with unreasonably high expectations of inanimate objects. He refines .NET, ruby, and javascript libraries full-time at Imazen, but can often be found on stack overflow or participating in W3C community groups.


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I run Imazen, a tiny software company that specializes in web-based image processing and other difficult engineering problems. I spend most of my time writing image-processing code in C#, web apps in Ruby, and documentation in Markdown. Check out some of my current projects.

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