14 Aug 2014

Social skin on email

It may sound old school, but I love email.

Not to take any thing away for the beautiful social and messaging applications, but fact is email is more efficient, reliable and fault tolerant by an order of magnitude. The strength of email comes from its inherently open and inter-operable architecture. There are numerous email server platforms, clients and intermediary applications that work behind the scenes, most of them open source, still everything works just fine. In essence, the global emailing system is just ONE big free postal system. On the other side, the social applications are as matter of fact not very social to each other. For example Facebook can’t talk to Twitter and vice-versa. Non free nature of many of the popular social services raises a concern even if they are end to end encrypted.

Despite a great architecture, and open standards, its also a fact, that non work email has reduced to a dumping yard for spam or notifications. Most of the human interaction has moved to the social platforms. Even at work, people resort of instant messengers (Skype) or collaboration tools (Slack or Yammer) to accomplish daily tasks. Email is primarily used to send heavy attachments or HR communications.

There have been many attempts to reincarnate the email. For example ‘Inbox’ promised to make email sexy again. Google is trying to reinvent the Gmail interface. Outlook and iCloud are offering clean web interface. All three big players have powerful mobile apps deeply integrated into iOS and Android. And many more… But nothing is sticky enough. Partly because we humans want to have different channels of communication but mainly because, email is unable to emulate conversation. I know all the email clients (Thunderbird, Outlook, Apple mail and Gmail) offer a conversation view that can club the messages with same subject line into one thread, but the effectiveness of threaded conversation view is very different from WhatsApp or Telegram. Not to say that WhatsApp or Telegram have reached Nirvana, but the investments in these tools to make them life like (with intelligent Bots, Stickers, gifs, emojies etc) is phenomenal whereas email is kinda left alone to die a slow death.

The question really is how to make email more engaging ? More lively and hip ?

There are many challenges in reinventing email. The strength of email (inter-operability) becomes the hurdle as there are just too many players to come to same table. Since its a critical piece of infrastructure, making a change is always a scary thing. ‘If its working, don’t tinker with it’ approach holds major players back from making a deep architectural change.

Here are some thoughts..

  • I think the basic problem with most email clients is the way three pans are structured. It starts with folders on the left (Inbox, sent email etc), the second pan is the all the messages in a folder and third pan is the details of message (and attachments). I think we need to make email more like a messenger by changing the focus from folders and messages to people and groups. In fact the current interface is suitable for computers. There is no human touch in it. By shifting the focus to groups and people is the first major visual shift.

  • Lets call ‘mailing lists’ groups. Because that is what they are. Mailing lists sound so nerdy. Every participant of the mailing list should be able to change the name, see which participant has received or opened the email.

  • Each group should have an associated calendar view. Easy enough to set up meetings.

  • Each group should have its view for the attachments.

  • cc and bcc are so last century and quite meaningless.

  • Once we have focus on people and groups, initiating calls, group calls or video calls becomes so natural. Though these tools are not part of email sub systems but they are essential for improving the engagement.

  • New message composition should be inline. We don’t need a separate dialog box for writing new messages. Why click on ‘reply’ or reply all buttons ? Just stat typing for the whole group or individual.

  • Conversations should not be tied to message subjects. They are essentially tied to people or groups.

  • Add hash tags and @ features to create a new notification system with in clients and tracked at the server level.

  • Add voice recording and video messages in line (particularly for the mobile apps)

  • Add emoji, stickers and gifs to the email. Why not ?

Now, I know many of these things are just not possible because of heterogeneous back end. I know messages will not show up as quickly as they do in synchronous messaging apps. But someone needs to stat somewhere to keep email relevant.