Photo Credit: ntr23

The Innovator’s Inbox

A closer look at Google’s ‘future of email’ interface

Google just launched a new, don’t-just-call-it-email product called: Inbox. It’s a combination of a few things like Google Now, Gmail, and to-do lists. Google’s marketing says that “Inbox is a fresh start that goes beyond email to help you get back to what matters.” Some publications have hailed it as the “reinvention” of email. According to Google, Inbox is the future of email.

But wait, hasn’t this kind of hype happened before, Google?

Ah, yes. Google Wave in all its glory.

It’s easy to look back and discuss the reasons why we didn’t use Wave. From a product perspective, it wasn’t clear on what it wanted to be and then tried to do too much. The original demo rambled on for over an hour, exciting the technorati and overwhelming the average person. It’s no surprise that an interface for an email-like product that features information overload doesn’t actually help people that are already struggling daily with their inbox demons.

Half a decade later, almost 60% of all mid-sized companies are using Gmail (Google) to host their email — this includes everyone from Dropbox to Etsy. When you get to startups, around 92% use it. Gmail is one of Google’s most widely used products beyond search and Google Now, which makes it a huge success. However, it also makes it a huge pain to make truly (buzzword alert) innovative leaps of improvement, let alone disrupt email.

Consider product iteration framed by this quote from Ryan Singer:

On the very first iteration the design possibilities are wide open. The designer defines some screens and workflows and then the programmer builds those. On the next iteration, it’s not wide open anymore. The new design has to fit into the existing design, and the new code needs to fit into the existing code. Old code can be changed, but you don’t want to scrap everything. There is a pressure to keep moving with what is already there.
Our early design decisions are like bets whose outcome we will have to live with iteration after iteration. Since that’s the case, there is a strong incentive to be sure about our early bets. In other words, we want to reduce uncertainty on the first iterations.

Gmail’s bets have been placed and played out for years now. As you can see from the stats above, it’s been good for Google. The bad is that by applying the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility to software, the more features added at this point, the less overall perceived benefit and satisfaction there is for users.

If you are Google, you pull an Innovator’s Dilemma move, by creating an internal competitor that could cannibalize one of your flagship products.

So how do you make something a lot better without the past decisions—code and design patterns—weighing you down and especially not piss off a ginormous user base? If you are Google, you pull an Innovator’s Dilemma move, by creating an internal competitor that could cannibalize one of your flagship products. Around two years ago, this is exactly what Google did, creating a team to look at what email could be a decade from now.

Ambitious Iterations

IBM Mail Next

There have been a lot of email apps that have tried to rethink or even just simplify the experience. From enterprise companies like IBM, to startups like Orchestra (acquired by Dropbox). It’s an appealing thing to designers, not only because it’s seen as a low-hanging fruit kind of problem (see: to-do lists), but an easy way to show off design chops as an app maker. It’s like counting the amount of Craigslist or Facebook redesign comps lurking around portfolio gallery sites — there are a lot.

Sparrow.Mail, and Mailbox

Email is an ambitious undertaking. The main issue is that we, as users, already are used to what email is. It’s all based on our decades of experience with the current form. The mental model has been well established (burned) into our minds. Additionally, it’s more than just the interface itself at stake. Many younger users don’t like email all that much, and prefer alternate ways to communicate: texting, emojis, the revived animated GIF, Instagram, and Snapchat.

We’re also up against performing on an ever-expanding range of devices. This is something that wasn’t a concern when Gmail was first built, or it’s range of productivity Web apps, for that matter. With Inbox, Google seems to better understand the demands of modern Web apps.

I’ve used probably 90% of the email apps that have come out, at one time or another 1) Because I design apps and love to examine their approach, and 2) I have a secret hope that it will solve my email troubles, once and for all.

Simple By Strategy

I’ve only had access to Inbox for a full day, so I can’t speak to much of the utility of it. In other words, I can’t tell you if it solves my inner wish of making Email (big E) a better experience. What I can speak to are what I see as interesting improvements to the email app interface.

The @GoogleDesign team has shown an impressive amount of constraint with what you can do with Inbox. When you use the mobile app (iOS) and the Web app, it shows that they have rebuilt Gmail using at least two of the four strategies of simplicity: Remove, Hide, Organize, Displace.

If you consider the average amount of emails in the inboxes of Gmail’s millions of users, there are only so many things you can do with that data. It’s up to the user to remove the data, or displace it to another interface like an Evernote or a physical to-do list. That leaves organizing and hiding somewhat in Google’s control as strategies to simplify the experience.

Automated Organization

The first time I opened Inbox, I wondered what happened to all of my email. As I scrolled through I saw that my emails had been bundled into certain categories. Bundles are a concept in Inbox where it tries to presort your emails into categories pre-populated by the design team, as well as some that are based on your current labels. I was happy to see that they kept labels, because this is the main way that I keep my emails organized.

Currently in Gmail you can choose to split up and hide emails in a handful of tabs — for example, “Promos.” With Inbox, the Bundles take the place of this and allow for greater context of the emails by showing you, what they refer to as Highlights (more on this in a minute).

They also have spaced out individual emails and email bundles into clusters based on the date. This visually helps to react to emails and see a kind of timeline to hopefully take action on outdated emails.

Automated Organization is nice, but it also means trusting the big Google brain knows how you want your information sorted, grouped, or hidden from your view. For me, it’s hard to let go of that control because it makes me uneasy, thinking: What if I miss a really important email? For users that don’t design apps for a living and trust that places like Google know what they are doing, they may welcome this kind of interface.

They hide much of the navigation in the off-canvas junk drawer we all love to hate, but still use.

Sparse Controls

They hide much of the navigation in the off-canvas junk drawer we all love to hate, but still use. The main thing in there is the list of labels, and they don’t necessarily need to be shown at all times.

There are also some nice shortcuts available at all times from the bottom corner. You can quickly write people you frequently communicate with, compose a message, or add a to-do item within your email feed.

Search is still king, but seems to be highlighted even more within the top navigation bar. In the iOS app there are only two things you can do to quickly get to specific emails: Filter using search or slide to see pinned items. Flipping on the pin toggle immediately removes everything from the interface so you can focus on the pinned emails or to-do items.

Google borrowed…er… stole the snooze feature that Mailbox introduced to enable a user to hide emails or quickly archive them out of the way. The implementation works well enough, but I would like the choice to be able to archive or delete, instead of just the one option.

Focused Motion And Interactions

It’s also interesting to see Google’s Material Design in a working app. It’s a nice approach to standardizing on motion and interactions across their many apps. I’ve only had a chance to see the actual guide and some case studies of it applied to other apps.

It brings meaningful movement to flat interfaces like this and allows for inheritance of interactions. It seems to fit well on iOS and in the Web app. It used to be that Google was taking design nods from Apple — not anymore. Apple should start taking some notes here.

Reduced Information Density

George McFly:
“Lorraine, my density has brought me to you.”

Through some careful automation, Inbox is able to free up a lot of visual space in the interface and allow you to focus on fewer items. Reducing the information density is tricky, because you can go too far. There needs to be a balance.

Google seems to effectively use their features like Bundles and Highlights to clearly show meaningful parts of the messages, the sender’s avatar, and (one of my favorite features) making attachments visible. There is enough context there to be able to make faster decisions about emails — perhaps without even opening some of them.

Google sees emails as “mostly things other people want you to do, or read, or reply to, or follow up on” according to Andrew Gawley, who is the product director of Gmail and Inbox. So the more that Inbox can allow you to focus and visually sift through emails, the more effective the interface will be for you.

Wrapping It Up

Time will tell if Inbox is a good competitor and potential replacement for Gmail. What is apparent is that it’s too early to claim that they have reinvented or created the future of email. The most important step is if it actually solves the issues people currently experience with email.

Better email is also more than just an app. Some people may already have a solid system in place like Getting Things Done (GTD), or Inbox Zero (for the truly disciplined) and not want a new app.

The other key here is how it will potentially integrate with Google’s Contacts and Calendar. I have to assume there is a holistic product strategy in place for their suite of popular apps and they might already be taking the same kind of approach with them.

It’s an interesting take on the email interface and definitely worth trying.

I am a UX Design Lead at Universal Mind — A Digital Solutions Agency. You can follow me on twitter at @iamfinch.

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