Emails as Extensions of Product Interfaces

For years emails were seen as a way to deliver messages. Today the line between products and emails is blurring. We are now seeing a silent shift in this approach where emails are not just a medium to deliver valuable information but a way to extend product (core in some cases) functionalities and give users a secondary way to interact with products.

A few notables startups started as Email-First products. Product Hunt started as an email group, Groupon, Craiglist and Angelist started as email lists, TimeHope was a simple email reminder of where you checked in on Foursquare a year ago, Sunrise — eventually acquired by Microsoft — was a simple email digest of your appointments.

While startups use Email-first strategies to deliver products in the simplest form, well-established companies use emails to remove frictions and to extend the opportunity to stay on the customers’ radar.

In these products, emails are not just a relevant part of the overall brand experience, they are directly involved in the users’ interactions as part of the product experience.

Before we go deeper, let’s recap what the traditional email-interaction flow is:

  1. Someone opens the email you sent
  2. He reads the message in that email
  3. He clicks a link that email
  4. He navigates the page where the link was directed to
  5. He performs the end-action

Every time you send your users an email you’re asking them to do all these 5 steps. You lose some of them at each single point of this flow. You can easily improve the path between the first point and the 4th with:

  • Optimized subject-lines
  • Good (and short) copy
  • Clean and simple design with visible call-to-actions
  • Tested email over different clients

With my surprise, I noticed that very few companies realized that — in some cases — they can eliminate the fourth step. Let’s see how it would work:

  1. Someone opens the email you sent
  2. He reads the message in that email
  3. He clicks a link that email
  4. He navigates the page where the link was directed to
  5. He performs the end-action

Let’s see who are these products and how they work with emails:

1. Linkedin & Twitter — tiny interactions

Every time a new contact accepts your Linkedin Invitation you’ll get a confirmation email. They want you to (1) talk with your new connections and (2) suggesting other contacts in the same network.

If you hit the “Message” button, they prefill a text message with your new contact in the recipient box. Definitely easier than searching for it among your contacts. Isn’t?

If you hit the “connect” button in the suggested contact stripe, they send you to the public profile. You need to click again “Connect” but you’ve already expressed it a step before.

Twitter has a similar use case. The send you weekly emails with people you might be interested in. If you hi the “Follow” button on the email, you automatically follow that user, you won’t need to re-click “Follow”. They give you a visual feedback showing you the public profile page (with latest tweets) you’ve just followed.

2. Basecamp & Workable — comments made easy

In case you never heard of Basecamp, it’s a web-platform to manage projects and communications company-wide. Every time someone posts a new thread, all the project collaborators receive an email (like the one below). If you want to add a comment to the post, you can (1) Log in the web-app and search for the thread (2) Click “View this on Basecamp” in the email (3)compose your message and hit reply to that email.

Many people don’t keep Basecamp opened in their browser tabs during the work-day and email notifications are a great way to keep on the same page everybody in the company. That’s why they want to give you the shortest path to your goal.

Just hit reply and automatically your comment will be added to the thread on Basecamp.

This is a great product feature and they should make it more clear in the email itself.

Something similar happens with Workable.

Email is the most important tool for hiring managers. 99% their communication go through emails. If you’re building a SaaS in the hiring industry at some point you will need to understand how to bridge the gap between your product and emails to make life easier for your users.

Every time there’s a new comment in their platform about a specific candidate they send you an email with the other recruiters for that position in /cc.

If you reply to that email, it will go the recruiters in cc and to the main platform as a new comment.

They tell you that you can reply to that email with “Reply above the line ↑”. Neat experience!

3. Slack — Magic Link as a new login

We’ve seen so far products using emails as a way to facilitate a set of specific actions: following a user, replying to a message, adding a new comment. Slack did something more. They literally embedded emails as part of their onboarding process. As Scott Belsky said in a recent podcastthey realized new users, the second time they come back, don’t remember their password, so they give them one (quicker) chance to log in: The Magic Link.

You know that a product makes a new standard when users adopt its naming convention.

4. Asana — different ways to open tasks

Asana is a web-application to track your team’s work. When you start using Asana on a daily basis you will receive a similar email (see below) which is a daily recap that summarizes all your activities.

If you look at it carefully you’ll notice a line that says “Ask Leonardo about the status” and when you click on it this is what happens.

They’re not just using email as an extension of their product, they’re are using emails as a built-in feature in their product. They know that no matter what is the tracking tool that your company adopted, eventually you will end up using emails for a lot of tasks and none of them will be tracked in Asana. They are stimulating you to use email in a way which is trackable for them. If they keep email communications under control they are able to track users activities at 360 degrees.

So when you send that email out automatically it creates a task. And when the other part will reply to that email it automatically adds comments to that task.

You’re still communicating via email but everything is being recorded in a more coherent picture in Asana. Emails just became a complementary way to deliver a better product experience.

4. JIRA — “don’t make me open the email”

Jira is one of the most popular issue tracking products, developed by Atlassian. It provides bug tracking, issue tracking, and project management functions. While both Asana and Jira send you email notifications every time someone has an interaction with you or your issues, they have different approaches.

JIRA Service Desk doesn’t even want you to open the email. Directly in the email preview, you’ll see a small call-to-action that brings you directly to the ticket, without opening the email, reading the body, clicking the link. No — you click “View Issue” and you go straight the web page.

They’ve implemented this with Gmail Actions.

This is the revisited path by JIRA Service Desk: from 5 steps to 1.

  1. Someone opens the email you sent
  2. He reads the message in that email
  3. He clicks a link that email
  4. He navigates the page where the link was directed to
  5. He performs the end-action

Originally published at on March 27, 2017.