Priority Inbox is a game-changer for email.
This is the second in a three part series on Google. In the first post I argued that some of the shortcomings in Google Instant hinted at larger problems that Google must confront. In the third post, I’ll draw some larger conclusions about the direction of the company.
Mmmm… bacon. Me belly likes. So what a pity, then, that some have been trying to call not quite-spam email messages “bacn” (pronounced like the yummy food). You know the type – newsletters you ambitiously signed up for but rarely read. Regular “statements” for frequent flyer programs. Coupons from every e-merchant you’ve shopped at. C’mon people – that’s not “bacon.” More like summer sausage, maybe. Or bologna, as the folks at Gmail themselves suggest.
Whatever the term, the sentiment is spot on. Some emails are more important than others. Google has understood this brilliantly in giving us Gmail Priority Inbox. And with it, Google is starting to flip some email fundamentals on their head. Since Groupon and others have shown that email is still a crucial component of communicating online, this has wide-ranging implications.
Defining importance from a receiver’s point of view to decrease distractions
Until now, the sender got to set the rules. “Sent with High Importance.” “Marked as Urgent.” These are sender-defined. But we’ve known for some time that this is bass-ackward. Nobody ever complains about struggling to get to Outbox Zero. What we need are more receiver tools. Specifically, we need more automated, no-setup tools. Priority Inbox is a big step in the right direction.
Granted, Priority Inbox is not a panacea for email overload. There’s still no shortage of legit emails that need to be written and responded to, and so far Google’s attempts at automatic email writing haven’t rocked the world. That said, Priority Inbox could have a huge effect on productivity. Studies have shown that it takes about 5 minutes to recover from each distraction. Unfortunately with email, that distraction could come every few minutes! Priority Inbox encourages us to decrease those distractions. And for me, anything that nudges people towards fewer distractions is a good thing.
Making prioritization and categorization a natural part of email
Yes, I set up filters and have complicated flagging, tagging, and sorting systems. As I’m sure many of you reading this do. But they’re all manual hacks and advanced twiddling. Priority Inbox brings email structure to the masses. What’s more, it bakes the notion that there are tiers of email into the structure of Gmail. Instead of creating workarounds like multiple folders to check based on filters, priority and categorization are now first-class citizens. Moreover, it’s clear how the idea could get extended – automatically sorting into several categories such as “interesting read”, creating multiple levels of importance, dividing based on urgency as well as importance, separating work vs. personal, and so forth. Indeed, if we project outward, if automatic characterization is extended and trained to work well enough, we may not need to keep hanging on to quite so many separate email addresses.
Making email more than just electronic mail
We have email mailboxes because email has been framed as “electronic mail” from the start. As the technology and uses have matured, the analogy has softened somewhat – I wouldn’t mind having some better ways to filter physical junk mail, let me tell you (and, uhh, snail mail bologna too). Priority Inbox stretches the physical analog of having a mailbox even further. It’s like a gatekeeping personal assistant. We just hesitate using that term in technology because of all the past false starts (ahem, even you, Apple). Regardless, I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s awesome.
Learning from Priority Inbox
There are several big lessons we can take away from this discussion:
- Whenever you’re designing interactions, consider both the sender’s and the receiver’s point of view.
- It’s one thing to have users be able to achieve a certain outcome with your software. But it can be much more powerful to embed that desired outcome into the fabric and structure of your product. If a particular outcome is central and important, design around it – don’t just build a feature that enables it.
- It’s important to frame your offering from the outset, to give people an indication of how they should relate to it. But check periodically to ensure that you haven’t outgrown your framing, that it is still the most relevant reference point for your product or service.
- Be wary of equating new and shiny with important and powerful. Email is a case in point. Don’t ignore it! Just because there’s a wealth of sexy new ways to communicate through the Internet doesn’t mean that email is dead. Quite the opposite – it’s become so deeply embedded in our lives that we don’t even really think of it as “high-tech” anymore. That’s powerful.