I’ve had the chance to use Inbox for the last couple of days, and so far it’s been a good experience. I’ve been deep in the email space for several years now, even helping organize an email conference in the Bay Area next week, at which Google will be there to talk more about Inbox. I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on what I’ve experience thus far.
Inbox basically takes a large majority of the research that’s been done in human computer interaction, productivity, and email over the last 15 years and tries to roll it into one. As such, they actually have succeeded pretty well.
For example, the grouping feature is similar to the idea of thrasks put forward by PARC (Palo Alto Research Center, research arm of Xerox, invented the GUI and internet) is actually one of the most powerful components of the app. Similar types of messages, bundled by content and by thread, should in theory be able to be dealt with together with minimal context switching costs. And if you have several threads related to the same topic, finding a previous conversation inside of a thrask/group should be much easier. Inbox implements these in a half-automated way, so things like Travel or Social get grouped together, and you can make your own groups as well, which basically equates to creating a new label in Gmail. The other cool thing you can do with bundles/groups is to have them appear at certain times. Want to deal with all of your Social emails at night, after work? Set it to only appear then, and you won’t be bothered by those emails during the day.
And that brings up the timing options, which have been popularized by apps like Boomerang, Mailbox, and Boxer. Yep, Inbox does that too. It also takes some of it to the next step with Pinning. Pin a few messages that are important and they stick around, much like a task would. It’s more proactive than just leaving your messages (which really are tasks) in your inbox, and it lets you more actively deal with them.
And in the email as tasks mindset, which research has shown again and again is the case for nearly everyone, you can set Reminders based on time and location, much like iOS’s Reminders.
Inbox does a pretty good job of pulling out relevant contextual information from an email and making it very prominent. For example, I received a hotel booking email, and at the top, separate from the actual email, was the address for the hotel that I could click on to open in a map. Inbox recognized that as the address for the hotel and pulled it out for me, pretty nifty.
Often the main objective of any of these types of apps or researched techniques is to give you time back and reduce your email overload. The most impactful technique is batching the times you check email, and not reacting constantly throughout the day to popups. Inbox sort of covers this: you can do constant checking via push notifications (handy and a battery saver!), or you can turn them off and just check manually. Unfortunately there’s not a full inbox batching mode yet–it can in part be accomplished by scheduling your groups/bundles, but not on a whole. So it’s an either/or situation right now. (Though don’t tell anyone, but I’m starting to lean away from wholesale batching as an effective technique… “He’s a witch, burn him!”)
A large interface caveat:
This is 100% a mobile application, and doesn’t translate well to desktop yet. It is very neat that the web component uses Material Design (big hat tip to +Mike Denny!) but it’s obvious that the desktop/web version is still a second class citizen, and is mostly just the mobile version scaled up. There is a huge amount of innovation that could be present here as well, but as it stands, I’ll continue using the regular Gmail interface on the desktop and Inbox on mobile.
Unfortunately, Inbox doesn’t really know how to do unified messaging, which a big bummer. Even amongst three Gmail accounts you still have to switch in and out. No Google Apps support yet, though history has shown that will come, if late to the party. And of course (though it makes complete technical sense), there is no support for third-party accounts through other services, including Exchange. The answer there, of course, would be to proxy that email through your Gmail account. For now, though, I’ll just use Mail.app or Boxer for my other accounts.
All in all, it’s very impressive to see the number of features, all with pretty direct backings in established research, making it into v1.0 of a product. Whereas many other apps and providers have had a few here and few there, it’s fun to be able to play with them all in one, and interesting to see how each one individually is effective.
I have a good contact who runs an email-related startup, and I think he said it really well:
“Overall, Inbox feels analogous to Perl. It’s a collection of clever, interesting, useful features, some of which have never been seen before. And, like Perl, there’s not just one way to use it, which makes it difficult for new users to understand how to use it best.” – Alex Moore
Inbox will evolve over time, and I think that it will help move email management forward in general just as Gmail did. Should be interesting to see how it continues. There are rough edges and things that don’t work well just yet, but I’m sure they’ll improve.