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Reimagining Email

Looking at a new service that breaks the traditional email model in interesting ways.

The team at Basecamp has developed a new product, Hey. It seems like an interesting ā€” and opinionated (I mean this in a good way) ā€” reimagining of how email works. If you have some time, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried’s video introduction is worth your attention:

Hey was in the news yesterday because its mobile app is being pulled from Apple’s iOS App Store, and Basecamp’s management is vocally fighting the move. Much has been written about that situation already, and I won’t say more about it here. I say it “seems” interesting because I haven’t yet tried it firsthand; currently, access to the product is by-invitation. My thoughts below are based solely on the product’s website and the video above.

Instead, I’m interested in Hey itself, and how it represents a new take on a venerable system. Email has been around for almost fifty years. Current email apps and servers are based on longstanding standards. As a result, we approach new email applications with an established mental model. Hey confounds these expectations in seemingly useful (and user-friendly) ways.

When we approach a new email system, we assume the primary object we’ll be dealing with is an “email,” a message that consists of a header and a body, both text-based. Received (and sent) emails are read-only. Emails can contain attachments. They can also be contained in “folders.” Emails can be viewed in sequential “threads.” Several actions apply to emails: you can forward them, reply to them, delete them, etc. Most email applications provide functions to organize and search for email.

For email to remain usable as email, it must adhere to the standards. As a result, most innovation in the space respects the basic functions (reading email, composing, replying, etc.) and focuses instead on improving findability and organization. For example, Gmail, which was introduced around fifteen years ago, popularized the use of tags for organizing emails and introduced a new way of grouping related emails into “conversations.” Gmail also offered powerful search. Combined with Gmail’s (at the time) market-leading storage space, these features made redundant the idea of carefully sorting email into folders.

As with Gmail, Hey’s primary innovations center on the ways we find information in email. The system’s website highlights its filtering features. For example, the first time you receive email from a “new” sender (that is, one unknown to your Hey account), you must explicitly opt them in so they appear in your “Imbox.” Not a typo ā€” that’s the name of the inbox in Hey; a (somewhat awkward) portmanteau of “inbox” and “important.” The new label emphasizes how the system is different from other emails apps.

The Imbox and opt-in features seem useful, but don’t strike me as much different from other takes on this idea, such as Gmail’s Priority Inbox. Having to opt contacts into the system requires curation, which adds some work to the process of dealing with email. There are other views besides the Imbox that also require curation. For example, there’s a view called “Paper Trail,” which aggregates receipts and such, and another called “The Feed,” for newsletters and marketing communications. These all seem to me as specialized inboxes or folders, which could be simulated with existing email readers.

I’m more interested in the ways Hey reconsiders the core object of the email experience, i.e., the email message itself. For example, Hey includes a view called “Files” that shows all the images, PDFs, office docs, etc. the account has received over time (in reverse chronological order), regardless of what email message they came attached to. As far as I can tell, this requires no intervention from the user; the “Files” view is there from the moment you start receiving messages. This structure elevates the prominence of attachments in the system; they’re no longer solely perceived as “contained” in email messages.

Users can also change email messages in ways that other systems don’t allow. For example, you can change the subject of an email you’ve received to make it clearer to yourself for later retrieval. You can also merge threads and annotate individual emails with “sticky notes.”

These features break the traditional email model in interesting ways. While Gmail introduced important innovations in how we interact with email, it made those innovations backward-compatible. As a result, you can access your Gmail account with a third-party mail client. For example, I interact with my Google email account using Apple’s Mail.app. This app doesn’t show “tags” in the same way Gmail does; instead, you see tags as traditional folders. This introduces some weird situations (e.g., the same email message can appear in two different folders.) However, it’s workable because, at its core, Gmail doesn’t break the conventions of email.

From what I can see in the marketing materials, Hey does break some of these conventions. For example, allowing users to change the subject line of received messages (and, more broadly, the thread it belongs to) seems like a move that would make the system fundamentally incompatible with other mail apps.

I can’t imagine these structures would be portable outside of Hey in ways that could be usable in existing email applications. Additionally, the system requires that users adopt a new hey.com email address. These are big asks. Given how central email is to my communications, I’d want to know that I can take my stuff with me should things not work out. If a new startup were proposing this system, I wouldn’t give it much thought. But Basecamp is an established company with a solid track record. Hey seems like a bold reimagining of the email experience than other such systems; Iā€™m excited to try it.

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