I really hate email.
I used to love it – back in the “old days,” there was something magical about hearing “You’ve got mail!” and finding out that somebody had sent me something. Now I breathe a sigh of relief when I check my email and there’s nothing waiting for me. No spam, no messages giving me another to-do, no more mental clutter.
I’ve stopped checking my email first thing in the morning because it can immediately turn a proactive day into a reactive day; instead of working on real projects, I’ll just end up handling tasks as they arrive in my inbox. I usually wait a few hours before responding to messages, because I don’t want to create the expectation that I’ll always respond instantly. I recently bought Sparrow, a lightweight mail client for Mac, because it purported to make email pleasant again. It’s definitely an improvement, but if it doesn’t fix the fundamental problems of the medium, it’s like putting a bandage on a broken bone. It just doesn’t do much good.
I know I’m not the only one with these problems. It’s common to see people on Twitter celebrating when they reach Inbox Zero. Why are we all content to sit with a system that’s been broken for decades? We’re a group that lives to solve problems and rethink processes — is email just unfixable?
Tobias van Schneider says no. His latest personal project, entitled .Mail, attempts to redesign the email client from the ground up. Right now it’s still in the concept phase, but van Schneider is actively seeking feedback as well as a developer to “steal” and implement the idea.
Van Schneider’s concept incorporates four key components:
- Aesthetic improvements over existing email clients.
- Action steps.
- Improved attachment management.
- Social/brand connections.
Van Schneider points out that the average professional spends around 50% of their day using email, so the aesthetics of an email client are especially important to maintaining that person’s productivity and sanity. .Mail would feature “a clean and clutter-free interface” with “perfect spacing and clean typography.” It would also “only show what you really need,” which I assume means that CC, BCC, and other less-frequent features would be hidden by default.
I agree that all these things are critical to the success of the product, but I think they’re already well-implemented by products such as Sparrow. While .Mail needs to incorporate good visual design, its real advancements lie elsewhere.
I often find myself starring emails that I need to add to my to-do list, commandeering the “Favorite” feature for task management. This is too hacky for Van Schneider, who integrates a task management system directly into .Mail. This idea is brilliant — you can add an email to your Next Steps list and prioritize it with one click. Furthermore, it separates tasks from favorites, removing the hackiness and creating a more natural interaction with the email.
Attachments are often ignored by email clients, relegated to a little window at the bottom of an email. .Mail adds a mechanism to sort attachments by date or sender, complete with thumbnails so you can see what you’re looking at. It also enables users to drag-and-drop from the attachment manager to any other location, similar to Finder.
This, like most good ideas, seems completely obvious as soon as you’ve heard it. Why hasn’t this been done before?
.Mail would place an avatar next to each email, pulled from Gmail or Facebook, to enable quicker identification of senders and to “build a connection to [the] emails.” I agree that this is a useful feature, but again, it’s not revolutionary — Sparrow includes similar.
.Mail is good for what it is, but it’s not revolutionary — it’s still just an iteration of the traditional email client. Email would still be email, and all the prettifying in the world won’t change the fundamentals of the medium. If we agree that email itself needs a redesign, we shouldn’t work from the peripherals inwards. Let’s figure out what modern communication should be, unfettered by the assumptions of the past, and build the system we really need. The way we communicate influences everything else about us; this is not a topic too insignificant for our attention. So let’s start a grand discussion and see if we can’t change the world for the better.
As for .Mail, Mr. Van Schneider has asked for feedback, so here are my two cents: .Mail would make a great email client, but I’d love to see what you can come up with to reform email from the inside out. You’ve clearly got some serious game; what would you do with a blank check to rethink electronic communication? Show us what you’ve got!