On Gmail's New Inbox

Friday, 7 June 2013

I suffer from email overload. According to research, others do too:

The average interaction worker spends an estimated 28 percent of the workweek managing e-mail. 

Meet Gmail's new inbox that aims to address this phenomenon:

This isn't the first time Google have designed a solution either. The eerie similarity between the blog posts introducing the Priority Inbox in 2010 and the new inbox in 2013 confirms 1) the former didn't solve the problem and 2) the problem still exists. I don't think smart tabs are the solution though.

The Priority Inbox divided the inbox into three distinct lists: 1) unread and important 1 messages, 2) starred messages and 3) everything else 2. The biggest change with the new inbox is that it doesn't make the mistake of mixing important unread messages with unimportant unread messages 3. Furthermore, the ambiguity of an 'important' message has been removed as the default secondary tabs, 'Promotions' and 'Social', can't be misinterpreted. So, although the primary tab won't necessarily contain only 'important' messages, you know it definitely won't have any emails from Twitter or Groupon. 

That's certainly an improvement, but it still doesn't stop any unwelcome emails from coming through. Sure, they're no longer immediately visible and now require a little more effort to get to, but the new inbox doesn't bury them completely - it just hides them temporarily. Moreover, the tools to automatically manage the incoming flow of email are not new. What the Gmail team should be commended for is making them accessible with sensible defaults. 

This isn't going to solve my email problem though. I'll still get the same excess amount of email, only it will now be distributed across a number of tabs to minimise the perception of being overwhelmed. What I want are new tools. For example, make it easier to unsubscribe to emails. Don't make me have to carefully scan an email for an incognito link. Do that for me. And then show the link on the inbox-level. 

What I want, more importantly, is a belated recognition that all email are not the same. For a meaningful distinction to be made between emails that can be replied to (i.e. from people) and those that are essentially a wrapper for external calls-to-action (i.e. newsletters or notifications). One is used as a communication channel and the other as an information medium. For example, I get a separate email every time I get a new mention or follower on Twitter. The data consistency of these emails, however, makes them conducive for aggregation into a single view. Just because they were sent as emails doesn't mean they need to be presented as such. 

For an inbox to successfully confront email overload, it needs more than a few set of tabs. That can be a start. It's what goes on in those tabs that now needs re-evaluating. Whichever service figures that out first will help email attain version parity with the rest of the web. Email 2.0.

1. A variety of signals are used to predict which messages are important.

2. Oddly enough, unread messages that are signalled as 'unimportant' are actually duplicated here.

3. Important unread messages are displayed in the 'Primary' tab, whereas the secondary tabs are used for the unimportant unread messages.