Design | 7 min read

The Future of Email Products

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The last significant innovation in email came 8 years ago with Gmail which introduced conversation threading, gigabyte storage, speed, powerful search, and lots more. Not much arrived since, but it looks like 2013 has a lot in store.

Paul Graham’s Frighteningly Ambitious Start-up Ideas seemed to shake the tree, and now there is plenty of action in the space. Paul makes the point that considering how much time is spent by busy people in their email client, many could justify spending up to $1,000 for a significant improvement.

Let’s have a look at where those improvements could lie.

1. Efficiency Improvements

MailBox

These are email clients that promise better performance, better interfaces, quicker actions, and more. Their goal is not to to provide any new functionality, or even behave differently—it’s simply to speed the user up. Beating Gmail in terms of aesthetic isn’t too hard, but that won’t win many customers. Beating Gmail’s UI in terms of speed and efficiency is quite difficult; it’s not pretty but it has plenty of power.

Sparrow led the line in efficient email clients up until its recent acquisition. Mailbox (shown above) offers lots of clever interface tricks for speeding up regular tasks. MyMail below offers a powerful user interface for folks who spend time “managing” email.

MyMail

Mailer

2. Smarter Understanding of Regular Emails

AltoMail

In 2013 I like to think that my email client will be aware that there are products like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, and more. It will understand that these products regularly send me notifications and receipts. “Smart by default” is a good guideline here. I should be able to view all Amazon orders without setting up rules & memorizing substrings to search by.

The same goes for mailing lists that I am on, newsletters I receive, and work related mails (e.g. assignments etc). I’m sure you’ve heard of the popular hack “Search your mail for the word unsubscribe and that’ll tell you all the lists your on, go through them one-by-one and unsubscribe”. Seriously? We’re mining asteroids and skydiving from space, but Gmail still doesn’t offer a smart way to handle my mail subscriptions. The success of UnRoll.me shows us that “smart by default” is certainly possible. Someone needs to work on this.

Alto Mail (shown above) launched this as one of their defining features, other products are hinting at it. This is a real quick win, and it’s frankly staggering that Gmail have yet to offer anything like it.

3. Better Workflow Integration

WeLoveMail

The Inbox Zero ethos has us all using our inbox as a “To-Do” holder. It was never designed for this. Email is often used as a medium for assigning responsibility. This means that emails usually include a task, an owner, and often a date for completion. Because email mixes communication with no action along side tasks, you end up with the worst of both worlds: a bad to-do list and a bad communications tool. There’s no easy way to ask questions like “What’s on my plate today?”, or “What happened with that report”. The struggle project management apps face is that everything ends up in email anyways so why not start with email as the interface?

We Love Mail shown above, .Mail, Outline, and MailPilot below all attempt to merge work with mail.

.Mail

Outline

Mail Pilot

Mail/Calendar Solution (Untitled, from Dribbble)

The last image above is a concept from Dribbble going for the rarely heard “Outlook-killer” approach by integrating all work related items. There’s a tendency amongst web developers to describe this approach as “heavyweight” in contrast with a “lightweight” product such as Sparrow. For some reason we latched on to the idea that lightweight is good and heavyweight is bad. In practice, neither term applies. There is no heavyweight and lightweight, just right weight and wrong weight. Tools like Outlook, Sharepoint, Salesforce, Office are all the right weight for the organisations they serve.

4. Better Attachment Handling

WeLoveMail

We all have gigabytes of storage now, which means that we keep really important things in our email rather than on desktops. This is because you email account outlives every hardware replacement. In other words, we’re using email as a file system and, once again, it wasn’t designed for that. So it sucks.

Many of the new clients are providing an attachments view offering a grid of previews of photos, documents, audio, etc. to make them more browsable. You can star or tag important files to make them easy to recall. Google is moving this direction with Google Drive, but has yet to join the dots between Des receiving a DOC file and Des having an easy way to find it again. WeLoveMail, Attachments.me, and Persona (below), are a few products solving this ubiquitous problem.

PersonaMail

Social Integration

In an age where people connect their Twitter and Facebook accounts just to watch a video, it seems woefully naive that mail clients can’t also be connected. Rapportive is an amazing hack for this, but there’s so much more to be done. Responding to social network notifications and even comments could be done from the client, not outside it. Someone follows you, click follow and archive. Someone messages you, click “Reply via Facebook”. Of all products Gmail should be able to tell me who I should follow, or put an email in perspective using social data. Alto Mail seems to the only one to tip toe in this direction, but I hope that we’ll see deeper social awareness in mail clients.

Prioritisation and Analytics

Analytics is the perpetual “tool in search of a job”. It offers so much, but only becomes useful when packaged as a solution to a problem, rather than yet another “Here’s some numbers you can tweet” tool. Gmail probably has the data to know more about me than any other product or even person in the whole wide world. What does it do about it? Nothing.

We have yet to see a product truly make use of the goldmine of data that sits in our inboxes. There are some glimpses however. TripIt gobbles up travel emails and creates my travel plans, Easily Do analyses all of my mails, augments all my contacts, schedules all my events, and creates a day to day plan for me. These type of products show the potential of thorough mail analysis. More of this please.

Beyond Email

Modern companies are quite flat & transparent in comparison with those who most email clients were designed for. This means that CC’s, BCC’s, and other email etiquette are less longer necessary. Stripe, for example, has a global mail stream that everyone can access. If this turns out to be a good way to work, then a good solution might a global company communication product which only falls back to email when involving outsiders. Perhaps employees can opt in, or duck out of conversations as they wish and the only ones you see by default are ones where your name is mentioned. Far fetched for sure, but any idea that leaves email behind always will be.

Some ideas that have yet to state their goals but promise some magic are Evomail(below), and Unibox. They’ve yet to say much so it’s hard to tell what’s coming.

Evomail (More on Dribble)

Encouraging a Switch

The average power user has invested a lot in their current choice of mail client. They know the keyboard short-cuts, and have all their filters & plugins already set-up. They’re pretty tied in.

Motivating a switch requires addressing the 4 forces above. Users are already being pushed away from Gmail, and many of the new mail clients have lots of attractive features. However adopting a new client (or full solution) is scary. The one thing you can say about Gmail is that it won’t get bought and shut down by Google. The anxiety and risk of adopting a new full solution will be quite high, so it would have to come from someone trustworthy. Adopting a client is far easier, however investing sufficient time in it to reap the rewards still requires a lot of trust. 2013 will be interesting.

Have We Missed Any?

If you know of an email client we’ve missed in this article, please let us know in the comments. If it’s something you’re working on, please send us a screenshot too.