Inbox by Gmail is not a Radical Rethinking of Email, and that's great

Posted on Nov 15, 2014 4:03:00 PM

Inbox by Gmail logo even includes a check mark!A couple of weeks ago, the Gmail team at Google announced Inbox, a new smartphone application and web app (for Chrome) that ports over your Gmail inbox and makes it simpler and slicker. I requested an invitation immediately, received one, and then used it off and on for the next day or so, unable to stay away from Gmail and commit to learning Inbox. Sensing something special hidden beneath what seemed like a coat of paint, I decided to spend a week using just Inbox for my email service.

If you’re switching from Gmail to Inbox, the new interface presents you with changes that might make you uncomfortable. Each email takes up more space on the screen, there’s no sidebar with the different navigation items, your labels, your chats. There’s not even a prominent “COMPOSE” button at the top of the interface. At first, it felt completely different from Gmail, and I felt unanchored, without my bearings. It turns out that this is amazing.

The best way I have found to think about Inbox is as a to-do list. The metaphor runs capably throughout the product; a pencil to compose new mail, large checkboxes to the left of each message, and even the language of telling the app you’re finished with a piece or thread of mail conspire to make the parallels clear: “Done,” not “Archived.” Indeed, even the app's logo includes a giant check mark. Inbox takes email and stops thinking of it as anything other than a list of tasks, which is a frame of mind that is obvious only in retrospect, but completely changes the way I interact with email.

How We Got Here

This is not the first time the Gmail team has attempted to make email more manageable. Four years ago, the team launched Priority Inbox, which had the application decide which emails were the most important ones, and surfaced those at the top. Then there were the starred emails, selected by the user, and finally, everything else. And a year ago, Gmail launched some tabs in which conversations would automatically be bucketed: Primary, Social (messages from social networks like Facebook and Twitter), Promotions (usually just mail with unsubscribe links), and Updates (which I never understood). I ended up turning these off in fairly short order. While I was unable to find usage statistics for Priority Inbox (which you had to turn on) or the tabbed interface (which was turned on automatically and was therefore probably greater), I imagine that the launch of a brand-new mail application indicates that those experiments were likely not the successes Google had hoped. Fortunately, Inbox does a much nicer job addressing most of the problems Priority Inbox and tabs attempted to solve, in a way that does not inherently make me nervous about missing important messages. In particular, its presentation of auto-categorized mail is stronger, its incorporation of reminders is better, and its overall interface for viewing email is less imposing.

When I received my invite, I decided I would spend a week Inbox-only, with the intention of doing so for a before inevitably returning to Gmail. It is November 15, over three weeks later, and I no longer intend to go back. In fact, I’ve only navigated back into Gmail for work mail (my workplace uses corporate Gmail) and to search (more on that later). Otherwise, Inbox makes it much easier for me to get things done than any version of Gmail has.


Instead of “labels,” which constituted a revolutionary approach to categorizing mail when Gmail was first released (and supplanted the folders of other email providers), Inbox uses the concept of “bundles.” Bundles are functionally similar (and all of your Gmail labels are auto-created in Inbox as bundles), but there are a four auto-created Inbox bundles that have effectively replaced the system of 50+ labels I was juggling in Gmail. They are Travel, Purchases, Finance, and Low Priority. Travel helpfully surfaces flight check-in emails with boxes outlining route and time details and hotel stay information. Purchases creates similar boxes showing shipping information, and the Finance bundle includes emails with bank and credit card notifications, as well as stock information and service reminders from providers like Mint. But the real kicker is “Low Priority.”

From my travel bundle

As mentioned, Google had tried before with the Priority Inbox to create a new paradigm around interacting with email, where we let the email service algorithmically determine, with our help, what mail is important. Something about flipping that notion, and simply collating most newsletters, marketing material, etc. and sending them off to their own bundle creates a superior solution in “Low Priority.” I’m much more trusting of an algorithm to determine, “hey this email has an unsubscribe link, which probably means it’s not important,” because the inverse is not always true and it almost seemed random how some emails were sorted into the Priority section in Gmail. But changing the sorting goal from high to low priority, and doing more functionally useful categories than “Social” and “Updates” only covers half of why the bundle approach is so good. The other is the actual presentation and execution of Bundles within the interface. Considering how emails get bundled, and how that bundling is conveyed to you within the app is where the concept really shines.

The auto-created bundles do not live in their own world only accessible from the app’s sidebar, rather, they are simply all stacked within the space that one email would ordinarily occupy, and the most recent emails are listed within that bundle. This information is presented almost in situ, meaning I am much less likely to miss it should the algorithm fail to categorize it properly. It does not take as much space in the Inbox and affords me the flexibility to address it when I am ready. Meanwhile, the emails that might need more immediate attention are given as much space alone as all the emails in any given bundle do combined. This approach really works: the off-shelf bundles, plus just two I created (for email lists with massive volume that I want keep separate and dismiss all at once), did a great job replacing the entire categorization system I used in Gmail. 


Extending the central metaphor of Inbox as a to-do list are Reminders and Snoozing. Reminders allow you to simply set notes for yourself to appear in the inbox at a given date and time, while Snoozing allows you dismiss messages for a determined amount of time and have them return to you when you’re better equipped to deal with them. These not only make the metaphor more robust, but the two tools are actually indispensable to how I now use email.


Reminders are not emails themselves, but for anyone who has ever sent him- or herself an email as a reminder, their purpose will be quickly obvious and a welcome relief from that practice. When you set a reminder, all you have to do is type a few words about what the reminder is, and you can optionally set a time that that reminder should appear in your inbox. For both reminders and email snoozing, you can select from some preset times (tomorrow morning, this evening) or set a custom one (December 10 at 4pm).


Email snoozing, meanwhile, removes the problem of having to mark something unread that you’re simply not ready to deal with yet. You can respond to someone letting them know you’ll take care of something this weekend, then snooze that message and have it reappear this weekend. Snoozing an email is quick and painless and already a feature I am using constantly. For any heavy email user, the utility of this feature should be obvious.

A bundle in Inbox only occupies the space of one regular email

Not Just a Coat of Paint

In all, the Inbox team challenged themselves to make a visually attractive, but functional interface, and for the most part, they succeeded. The decision to remove the sidebar (and instead use a button to summon and dismiss it) was the right one, even if it makes the inbox dramatically more spartan than most people are accustomed to seeing. The interface is obviously also designed with mobile in mind, and it’s clear that some decisions were made so that it rendered consistently with phone and tablet versions of the app. I think that decision mostly enhances usability by reducing clutter, though the fact that in some cases, only five to eight messages can fit on a 13-inch Macbook screen is a little troubling, though it does encourage some liberal marking as done, so it’s not all bad.

The interface also imagines what Gmail would like like with Google’s new design language, Material Design, which is attractive, but like much of today’s popular design, overemphasizes white space, sometimes at the expense of usability. Still, the color combinations and simplicity are at least preferable to the busyness of what has come before. Gmail was hailed for its simultaneous simplicity and robustness when it first launched, Inbox has shades of that, but a version rewritten for the modern era of computing, where a great percentage of the work I get done takes place on a mobile device. In that sense, Inbox is a sign of the times, and it presents some exciting opportunities.

For example an example of such an opportunity, we can turn to another Google App. I just installed the new version of Google’s calendar app, which is similarly attractive, and by default, has the ability to access my Gmail account and add relevant events and reminders to it. It removes the tedium of adding events from email to my calendar, and recognizes the close productivity space that both a calendar and an email inbox occupy in one’s life. It is clear then, that Inbox, and Google’s new unifying design language represent the company moving to start linking Google’s services together in a really meaningful way (rather than just to strengthen Google Plus). It’s a pretty good look for a company that already knows everything about you.

Searching for Flaws

For the most part, Inbox is very well done. It has already changed my workflow significantly since I started using the app less than a month ago, which is especially impressive considering it replaces something I had used since 2005. The app’s one real bugbear is search, which is not nearly as robust or intuitive as the search of Old Gmail. Unless there is some documentation that the user interface does not surface, the new search seems vastly more limited in terms of its offerings: I can’t search my chats, it doesn’t use the same keywords, and the results are displayed in a seemingly-random order. For instance, if I search the word “box,” I get five “Top results” without any apparent logic into how they are ordered (August 10, October 29, November 4, November 4, October 30), and then an “All results” section that uses an infinite scroll and thereby renders it impossible to skip farther back in time. Google made its name on being the best search engine in the world, and the apparent lack of thought into the search experience for Inbox is disappointing. I find myself searching for old emails and chats several times per week (sometimes multiple times a day), and I usually have to jump back into Gmail for this purpose. This is inexcusable, and I could see some power users not giving Inbox a second glance after that.

The Prospects of Inbox & Saying Goodbye to Gmail

I think Inbox has strong potential to be a legitimate player in the email space. Obviously, it draws on the goodwill of being a Google email product from the very team that produced the most popular online email service in the world, which cannot hurt. More importantly, it also rethinks email in a useful way, but also in a paradigm that everyone—Gmail user or not—has experience with: to-do lists. Currently, the service is invite-only,* harkening back to the launch of Gmail, a service whose coveted invites could sell on eBay for a hundred dollars.

The biggest challenge to Inbox's widespread adoption is that, at its core, it asks people to change an ingrained habit. Any product that requires changing ingrained habits must sustain sufficient parallels to make a user comfortable while offering significant benefits that outweigh the cost of switching. Gmail offered an emormous amount of storage (1 gigabyte) and a superior interface that didn’t require a new page load for each email viewed, but it was still fundamentally the same kind of email program that everyone knew. The cleverness of Inbox lies in its willingness to set aside the metaphors of Gmail and instead offer user comfort in the form of a ubiquitous organizational device, the to-do-list. Meanwhile, the benefits of switching Google can offer have necessarily changed. No longer are a gigabyte of space and a dynamically-loaded page game changing propositions, so the focus is instead on speed. Not the speed of the app, so much as the speed with which one can accomplish its central tasks. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the average person spends thirteen hours per week on email—the value proposition of Inbox is that it can dramatically reduce that number.

Ultimately, you have to try it to understand, and probably for at least a week. The email problem is sufficiently large that most people will likely be willing to try Inbox when it becomes widely available—the question is whether they’ll be willing to enter its paradigms of quick archival and snoozing long enough to realize the difference it can make. What we’re seeing here is a new version of Gmail and of email itself, freed from the psychological trappings of being invented decades of ago. The newness and non-Gmailness of Inbox may in that sense be its greatest strengths: I do not feel, by organizing or thinking about my email differently, that I am perverting the email client or workflow that I have used for the past nine years. Rather, I am finally saying goodbye to it, and hello to something better.


*I have a handful of invites I can pass out—post an interesting comment below for a chance to get one!


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