The Mailbox Lights

David Barshow
Mar 1, 2016 · 5 min read

Throughout the life of Orchestra and Mailbox, we have had some form of real-time ambient monitoring of the services. Now that we’ve shut down Mailbox I thought it would be fun to tell that story.

With Orchestra we used a set of Super Mario Bros. sounds. Different sounds were tied to different user actions. So, for example, the coin sound played when someone created a new task, and the 1up sound played when someone created a new account.

As we began working on Mailbox we hung color changing LEDs in our office that emulated user swipes in the app. When a user deleted an email, for example, a bar of red lights moved left to right on our LED monitor. As we tested Mailbox, we could see our own actions in real time reflected by the LEDs.

When the Mailbox beta expanded and a lot of people started using the app as their primary mail client, it was encouraging and exciting to see the uptick in swipes.

Color Key: White-Launches, Teal-New Emails, Purple-Background Update, Green-Archive, Red-Delete, Yellow-Snooze, Blue-Reminder

After we launched on Feb 7, 2013, the lights went crazy. All we could discern was that people were using the app… a lot. So we switched our representation of a user’s swipe to a single LED blip. A random individual pixel would fade up quickly to a color, then fade out slowly.

We added a bunch of things we cared about, like app launches, new account creations, sent emails, and even errors. When we had issues, the lights were our first indication of error. In some weird ways, it was like reading the matrix.

After being acquired by Dropbox, we brought the lights with us and expanded the total pixel count from 150 to 680. The light board continued to be a valuable tool for early error detection. Even with all of our charts, dashboards and alerts, the lights were continually the first sign to alert us. We could see when we stopped receiving emails, people stopped launching or even a burst of errors.

Another wonderful side effect of the lights were the bursts of reminders triggered on the hour, so it became a sort of clock.

Mailbox Dashboards at Dropbox : Banana for scale

All hands on deck to shut it down

Once we knew Mailbox would be shutting down we started thinking about what that actual process would look like. Above all, we wanted everyone on our team involved in shutting down the system.

Our first thought was turning keys. We imagined having a big box with different locks and keys so that everyone on our team could turn their own key to collectively trigger the shut down. That was a good start; we began working on prototypes for it. Then we wanted some sort of status light for each key. We toyed with the idea of everyone having a box with one or two LEDs on it, and maybe even a multicolor LED indicating the status of the shut down. This is where we eventually landed.

The result was a 3-inch wooden cube with a frosted transparent top that displays a 8x8 grid of color changing lights. There are no screws, and there’s a single USB cord coming out the back for power. It also has a touch sensor location behind the Mailbox logo on the front wood panel.

For the shut down, all the boxes were plugged into a central hub. A script was triggered on a computer, which switched all the boxes into shut down mode. Once the script was ready to initiate the shut down, all the boxes switched to show live data exactly the same as the large Mailbox light board showed data. At that point everyone simply had to touch their box to initiate the shut down.

With most of the original team there, seeing the live data right before shutting down Mailbox was an emotional experience. But there was something special about everyone doing it together, instead of just hitting enter on a command line.

And now…

Since Mailbox shut down the boxes serve as colorful keepsakes. Touching the Mailbox logo alters modes. In one mode, we can see the lights blink the way they used to with user actions culled from one sample week of historical data. The boxes are also time synced, so the top of the hour bursts of “ snoozed” email reminders line up with the current time. In another mode, the boxes rotate through all 1,115 inbox zero photos. Another mode sifts through ambient color changes.

Altogether, the boxes are an entertaining reminder of something we built, enjoyed and finished as a team.


I had the pleasure of working on these boxes with Mike Roeder and Sean Beausoleil and it was an incredible experience! Photo credits to Gentry Underwood, Tommy Leep, and David Barshow

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