The future of email or
just another pretty distraction?
Email is a touchy subject. It can be distracting, overwhelming, even addictive for some people. Above everything else, it’s necessary – but as a testament to how imperfect email is, the design and tech communities are full of people trying everything to avoid having to use it, trying to find a better solution. Every so often another company comes along that claims to have created something that will finally let you say goodbye to email – and sure, some of them are actually quite nice. Slack has been gaining traction, but time will tell if people are ready for a departure that radical. The problem is, when you try to replace something as ingrained as email, everybody has to be in on it. Everybody has to be willing to willing to learn a new system.
Email is universal, multi-platform and omnipresent. Finding a workaround for the problems and shortcomings of email is a nice design exercise. Actually fixing it is the real challenge.
The Mailbox team (now acquired by Dropbox), have taken on this challenge and succeeded.
Opening up Mailbox for Mac is a beautiful and refreshingly new experience. It’s clean, understated and at the same time colourful and friendly. Straight away it sets itself up as the polar opposite to the imposing, serious email clients we use today. Mac mail, Outlook and even Gmail look frightening in comparison.
Of course, the Mailbox team did have an advantage. They were able to do away with the legacy of these established email clients. Their idiosyncrasies and feature bloat didn’t have to be tamed, they simply started from scratch.
Every core part of the emailing experience has been torn apart, rethought and rebuilt. The focus here is on keeping you organised and calm rather than reading and replying to emails. Where before the user was at the mercy of the incoming barrage of emails, Mailbox apps interface empowers and keeps the user in control. Gestures play a huge role here. Swiping has replaced clicking when dealing with emails, and this changes the entire dynamic of dealing with emails. Swipe right to archive or delete, left to add snooze or add to a list. Swiping is as simple as it sounds, is satisfying to see in action, and it quickly becomes second nature. It immediately makes all other email clients seem quite old-fashioned. This swiping feature is not simply a fun gimmick, it’s the future.
I was personally a little reluctant to move over to Mailbox because I had so many intricate rules and folders set up in my email clients that I couldn’t imagine doing it all again in a new client. To my surprise though, it took me only one or two days of normal usage to get everything organised better than ever before. This is thanks to Mailbox apps’ innovative approach to ‘rules’. Rules in a traditional email client are a way to apply certain actions to emails with specific attributes. In my case I have a specific “Marketing” folder where all my newsletters relating to marketing go automatically. Setting up rules in an email client is usually a cumbersome chore, Mailbox has found an elegant solution.
“Adding accounts, signatures and setting defaults are easy to understand and beautifully presented.”
“Autoswipe”, a recent addition to the Mailbox mobile apps, is Mailbox’s way of setting rules. There are two ways of setting this up. One way is contextual. Mailbox notices that you continually use the same action from a specific recipient or subject. Like adding an email to a list. It will then ask you if it should always send this to that list. Saying yes essentially applies to rule to this email type in future. You can also manually add “Autoswipe” to an email by holding down on the “List” icon.
The love, care and attention to detail that has gone into the design of Mailbox can be seen throughout the app. Even the preference pane, where many apps like to hide their dirty, embarrassing secrets, is usable and logical. Adding accounts, signatures and setting defaults are easy to understand and beautifully presented.
The app isn’t without its limitations of course. At the time of writing it only supports Gmail and iCloud accounts. The only non-mobile platform it supports is Mac and there are a few missing or under developed features that some users may find irritating. Search for example is simply not as powerful or useful as Mac Mail or Outlook. Adding rules, though beautifully implemented, is very restricted. Labels and VIP contacts are also absent.
I, however, applaud the Mailbox team for their restraint and ability to prioritise. Many companies fear this kind of focus. They fear that only being on one platform will hurt them, they won’t reach the critical mass. They fear that not having all the features of their competitors will leave them weak, unable to compete or differentiate.
“It’s this restraint which tells me that people working on Mailbox are one of the strongest product teams in the world today.”
Conversely, it’s Mailbox’s confidence in its design solutions that allowed them to release the original mobile app on one device (iPhone) with only one email account supported (Gmail). They still managed to blow every other attempt at a new email client out of the water because they made something better, something that got people excited. It’s this restraint which tells me that people working on Mailbox are one of the strongest product teams in the world today.
Mailbox is beautiful, elegant and empowering. Its trade-offs and lack of features may deter some for now. But for those like me who dreaded opening their email clients every morning; its these trade-offs and lack of features that make this a perfect app.
Get the app: http://www.mailboxapp.com/
Version reviewed: Mailbox Beta 0.3.6
I am not in anyway affiliated with Dropbox or Mailbox.