A fresh approach to email or an unnecessary overhaul of something that doesn’t need fixing?

Of course it’s attitudes such as the latter which means we’ve been stuck with the same boring old umbrella design since the 18th century. 

Gmail Inbox is a new email app that wants to hit the reset button in terms of what we expect from an email account. It’s a year zero if you will, or to use Gmail’s expression, ‘a fresh start’.

Inbox is still in beta testing at the moment and you can only access it if you have an invitation. You can request one here. In the meantime a very generous colleague let me have their spare invite over the weekend, so I could offer you this sneak peek.

First of all, let’s list what Gmail Inbox is offering that’s different to your existing Gmail.

Bundles: promotions from marketers are neatly organised together. Purchases are all kept in one place. Anything pertaining to a particular trip or holiday are together. You can also create your own ‘bundles’. I assume these are like chat groups with specific users, much like you can create with the Facebook Messenger app.

Highlights: you can see a lot more information in an email now, without having to open it.

Reminder and to-do list functionality: it looks like there are even helpful links to call establishments directly from the reminder.

You can also hit ‘snooze’ on reminders if you’re feeling a little too ‘busy’ right now.

UX test

First of all, you can use Inbox on your desktop, it’s not a mobile only app. In fact as soon as I logged into my personal Gmail account I was met with this message…

It hasn’t replaced my existing Gmail account, I can use either one whenever I like.

The desktop site is almost identical to the mobile app. (Expect to see a lot of censored screenshots in this article).

The only difference is that on the desktop where you can see these clickable symbols, on the mobile you merely swipe to the right to say you’re done with it or to the left to ‘snooze’ it for dealing with later.

New email

A new email is simply highlighted in bold, if you use the browser tab - where it might say ‘Inbox (1)’ - to spot whether you have a new email you’ll be disappointed.

However one of the great things about Inbox is that you receive a notification on your mobile in real-time, you no longer have to wait for your mobile’s email app to poll your inbox every 15 minutes depending on your existing set-up.

Snooze

Clicking snooze means you can get rid of an existing email and then be reminded of it at a later time and date of your choosing.

The email then appears at the top of your inbox.

Although it doesn’t appear as a ‘new email’ per se, it just says ‘Snoozed’ and how long ago.

You can also find all your snoozed emails together in the left hand burger menu.

Pin

You’ll find an option to ‘pin’ an email in the far right of each message in the desktop, and then when you open an email on your mobile.

At the top of the page you can toggle between your inbox proper and all of the emails you’ve pinned. 

This is a great feature, very easy to find and simple to use.

Sweep

One slightly scary feature is the ‘sweep’ button, this basically removes any unpinned emails from that day.

However when I say ‘removes’ I mean ‘marks as done’. All of your ‘done’ emails are kept in one folder, which can be accessed from the burger menu. 

So they’re not deleted like I initially feared. Also there is a handy undo button, which appears for a short time at the bottom of the screen. Be quick though.

Bundles

Inbox has grouped certain emails together for me. Here’s a ‘purchases’ bundle which appears in the ‘yesterday’ section, as I did in fact buy something particularly stupid yesterday.

This will expand to reveal all 25 messages.

Everything here is pretty much as it should be, without any erroneous inclusions. 

To make the most of Inbox it seems that you have to change the way you find an old email you’re looking for. Instead of scanning chronologically, you now have to think about the context of the email to find it.

Of course there is always ‘search’ but more on that later.

For marketers it looks like all your emails are bundled into an ‘updates’ folder. 

Much like the promotions tab of your existing Gmail account, this is where newsletters and other marketing material appears. However there are also reservation confirmations, updates on existing orders and email confirmation requests for new accounts. 

It’s a catch-all mixture that perhaps is a little too broad.

You can however go into any email and click on ‘remove from updates’ and it and any subsequent emails from the same company will appear in your regular inbox.

The problem with this is that once you’ve removed the email from updates, it will place it chronologically in your inbox. This is theoretically fine, however your inbox is now made up of broad sweeping time frames. To find the email I removed I have to stare at a massive block of ‘October’ emails to see it.

Again that brings us to search…

Search

Search is fantastic here. Predictive text entry that scours your inbox as you type and provides all relevant emails in real time. 

It also searches through all available folders, bundles and your unsorted inbox in one go.

Create

There is a floating + button in the bottom right corner, which if you hover over it reveals a compose message button, and quick links to email your last few contacts. 

This is also the only place where you can set a reminder. Gmail Inbox has made quite a big deal about the ability to set reminders, however the functionality is a little hidden and can’t be found elsewhere within Inbox.

When setting a reminder, the excellent predictive text entry comes into play. I’m about to write the word ‘reply’…

All of these options are based on keywords in my inbox.

And then here are all the Matts I’ve ever had contact with. The first one being the most recent.

An email address appears straight away, along with the options for time and date. If you have your Gmail synched to your contacts, and if you set a reminder to ‘call Barbara’, her number will appear along with the ability to click and call when the time arrives.

Compose

Writing an email is pretty much identical to the old Gmail, however functions are even more streamlined than before.

Easy.

Conclusions

Usual caveats apply here: it’s still in beta, an awful lot can change, its still very early days yet. 

Now that’s out of the way. On using Inbox I felt the typical horror and frustration that everyone feels when something changes, but it only took an hour or so to appreciate it and feel my way around.

Things I love: the appearance, the swipe ability, the colour-coded flat design, the reminders, the circles that carry each user’s picture if they have Google+, it’s ease of use, the toggling between pinned and inbox, excellent search.

Things I’m not too sure about: it doesn’t feel like it’s built for a huge amount of incoming email. If you’re a business you may end up being swamped with lists within lists. I’m also not sure if the snooze function is terribly necessary and perhaps offers the same function as reminders.

The main stand-out for me is that after using it only for a short while, when I go back to my traditional Gmail account, it feels and looks terribly old fashioned and clunky. In fact I’ve only now realised that it’s the most antiquated platform I use online. Perhaps email does need an overhaul after all.

I’m not 100% convinced the Inbox in its current form is the best solution as some of its features feel somewhat illogical (the bundles need a lot of work) however it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 11 November, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Jon Hobbs-Smith

I got my invitation about a week ago and I absolutely love it. I've gone from around 3000 emails (mostly unopened) in gmail to inbox zero overnight and I've never been able to say that before.

I love being able to swipe away a whole bundle of "promotions" in one go and just leave an important email about a product I'm waiting for amazon deliver pinned. I know you could do most of this before with archiving and starring emails but this interface just seems geared towards making it painless.

about 3 years ago

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Peter Kelly, Senior Content Strategist at Critical Mass

For me, Inbox's main achievement is making email actionable and making that action easily achievable. Swiping, snoozing, checking and marking "Done" is huge - but smart bundling and the ability to mark a giant stack of promotional emails as "Done" at once? That makes the whole process almost frighteningly conquerable.

But in light of how easy it is to get newsletters and promotional emails out of my sight quickly and easily, what I've found Inbox has done for my email behaviour is actually the OPPOSITE of what that implies. Now that my inbox is controlled and I feel empowered over my mountain of email, I feel freer to spend time picking out promotional emails that I otherwise wouldn't pay attention to.

When Gmail introduced smart tabs, it had the effect of reduced visibility of marketing messages. They were easy to ignore and available only when you felt like it (which wasn't often). Now that they smartly reorder through bundles and users have greater power over their email, I can spend that new free email time checking out brand emails if they look interesting.

This is a win-win for marketers and users alike.

about 3 years ago

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Neta

Have you heard of another new email app called SmartMail? Their beta is out soon but they have a site www.besmartmail.com. It seems like they found a cool way to reduce the time you spend on your emails by both previewing your mails and by bringing all the content to you so you don't have to swich apps and you can do any action from your mail in one touch. Can't wait to try it. I'd love to hear your opinion on this one too.

about 3 years ago

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Andrew Thorne

The snooze feature is what I'm most excited about in inbox. Being able to take control of email is key to being productive for me.

Currently we use Boomerang - an add-on for Gmail which gives you the ability to return emails to your inbox at a designated time, so a bit like snooze.

Also, Boomerang lets you schedule messages. For example, if I didn't want to send an email right now at 9am I could set an email to send out at 2pm. I'd love to see this in Inbox.

about 3 years ago

Philip Storey

Philip Storey, Founder & Principal Consultant at Enchant Agency

I love it - all the comments and the blog sum this up well.

For me, it has reimagined the way that we deal with so many emails hitting our inboxes. This has turned inbox zero from a dream, into a daily reality.

Awesome work, Google.

about 3 years ago

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Michael Duxbury

I've been using Inbox for a few weeks now, and I love it - but it did take me a little while to 'get' it.

When you say "For marketers it looks like all your emails are bundled into an ‘updates’ folder", that's not quite right - they go into a promos bundle. Updates on previous orders go into the purchases bundle. In fact, when you say bundles need work, I've not found this - bundles have been pretty spot on for me.

And also, you're not sure about the snooze button? For me that's the best bit. I can reach inbox zero daily now - but as I said, it does take some getting used to.

about 3 years ago

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