The Future Of Email

People have been saying for years that "email is broken.” I would say email is fine, the problem is outdated email clients. Our needs from email have evolved, while the clients we view them in stay stuck in the past. For the most part they meet our basic needs but go no farther. Every once and a while a company with an innovative client will say that they “fixed email” but they are no better because they only focus on one aspect of email. They may do one thing very well but it comes at the cost of cramming every other type of email into their narrow view. Email clients have been good enough for too long.

Email is different things to different people.

We receive a variety of different types of email, yet they are all treated the same. Why is an email from a company advertising a product treated no differently than a personal email from a friend? That is what I think is “broken” about email. So how would I "fix" email? I would look at the common types and work out the best way to interact with each one. I would look at what people need today from email and how to utilize other areas of tech to supplement it.

My plan for email works in a number ways:

  1. New email is filtered automatically and anything we don't need to interact with is filed away. I don't just mean junk mail, I mean things like: site/app registrations,receipts, order confirmations, etc. This important info is saved into smart databases not just put into a folder. The idea that we need to save emails is wrong, we need the data they contain.
  2. For things like the company emails that you receive when you sign up for an app or service, you would set parameters for what you see. For example, an email advertising something for 50% off is shown to you but one offering 30% off is sent to your junk mail folder.
  3. The email that you do see eschews the traditional idea of the inbox, for a notification centre. You have a list of notifications that when read, grey out and are automatically archived. You can still manually delete, reply, forward, etc as well as send it to your to-do list. Emails with important information, that were automatically stored in a database, also get a notification card but it has the important information distilled and viewable at a glance. Once read no action needs to be taken on these cards, they are already in the database.
  4. Personal correspondence is displayed more like a conversation. You can choose a person and scroll backward to see all your emails with them, in chronologically order. With clearly defined chains to make it easy to separate different interactions.
  5. Some of the information sent to your email needs to be able to be sent to other applications. If you receive a tracking number, it should be automatically sent to your parcel tracking application. If you receive a product serial number it should ask you if you want it to be entered into the application. If you receive pictures from friends they should be sent to your ‘Photo’s’ folder. If you need to take further action on an email you should be able to send it to your to-do application with a button press.
  6. Tying email to your cloud storage just makes sense. It moves us past the traditional limits of email by:
    • Abolishing size limits, files are sent from the cloud or uploaded and then sent.
    • Allowing you could easily attach files from the cloud on mobile.
    • Most importantly, it could add a layer of security by giving the option to store the 'databases' I mentioned above in your cloud storage account. So if your email is hacked they don't have easy access to all your account names, and other important data. (Or not as easy access) Thumb print, and two form factor identification could be used to authenticate your identity for security. It would also make your database available on all your computers.
  7. Email has evolved beyond a simple way to send and receive messages to people. We have different needs that haven’t been addressed. We need a way to receive secure emails. The world is moving evermore digital and governments, banks, and medical professionals shouldn’t be scared to email you something because of “security concerns”.

While I realize you can do some of these things today with Apple's 'mail rules', different applications, or email clients it is a hobbled together system. Putting them all together would make an easy to use, cohesive email client. This plan would make personal email more personal, reduce the amount of junk you receive, reduce the amount of work you have to do, and organize your information better.

Delving Deeper

Automatic Smart Sorting

There are three types of information that would be automatically sorted out from your email stream. Junk mail, company mailers, and important information that you don't need to take action on. Junk mail would be treated like it is today and just sent to a junk folder.

Company Mailers

Company mailers could be considered junk mail but they sometimes have information we want, like a huge sale. A custom filter that allows your to set the parameters for what you see would be set. For example you could set it to only see emails with new products, and/or sales of over 50%.

Important Information That Doesn't Require Action

Important information like receipts, or site/app signups, don't need our immediate attention but can be important later. Right now we can set a mail rule to automatically send these emails into a folder but that just isn't good enough. It leaves you with a unorganized, un-visual mess of emails. By cutting out the important information and sending it to a database your information would be organized in an easily browse-able visual way.

I'm not a graphic designer. This is to illustrate my point, not to show exactly what it should look like.

Sending Info To Other Apps

If we receive an email with information that needs to be moved to another app why isn't it automatic? If you get a tracking number, a software serial number, contact info, etc it should be sent to the app that we need it in. The tracking number goes to a parcel tracking app, the software serial can be inputed into the app with the click of a button, and contact info is added to our contact list. Any app you sign up for sends the account name and the email to 1Password, or your password manager. Speaking of 1Password, using it on mobile is a much more manual process than on a desktop. You don't get prompted to save new sign ups or password changes, you have to manually change them yourself. What if when you signed up with a new app, there was a special 1Password field that asked for your special app password. This password would be tied to an encrypted file that is sent to your email containing your account name, email and password. When you open the email and click on the file you are prompted to give your app password and when entered it sends the encrypted information to 1Password to be saved.

How Do People Treat Their Inboxes Today?

Before I go on I thought I would outline some of the common ways people deal with email. These are a few of the common ways people use their inbox.

  • For some, the goal is to keep it empty with the inbox 0 philosophy.
  • For others it acts as a to-do list, where the emails kept there are reminders for things they have to do. - I would hazard a guess that for the vast majority the inbox is a wasteland of hundreds if not thousands of old emails.

While the first two have some merit, they are philosophies people adopt because they are so overwhelmed by the onslaught of email they receive. By changing how email works, it will also make it easier for people to deal with.

A Notification Center Rather Than Inbox

How will you see the emails that make it through the smart sorting? I would argue that notifications would be the best way. It would be presented similarly to the inbox of today but classified by type. (Personal, Work, Other, Saved To Database) Once the emails were read the user could take the normal actions of deleting, forwarding, replying, etc but if nothing was done it would grey itself out and after a few minutes send itself to the archive. If further action was required for an email it would be sent to your to-do app. It would also allow that info that was automatically sorted and filed into a database to show you a notification card with only the important information. If new email was treated like this it would take the strengths of inbox 0 and using the inbox as a to-do list and make it more cohesive and powerful.

Conversations

Email is, at it's most base, a means of communication. How would email chains work if emails are treated as notifications? By treating email like conversations. (Which is not a new idea, but I think it has merit for specific types of email.) It would work similar to Messages for Mac with pictures of the participants. Once you reply, or the other persons replies to you, the emails become a 'conversation' with an 'active' status. When you are done you can archive the whole chain by changing the status to 'finished'. How would 'conversations' be displayed? They would still be displayed in the Notification Centre, in their respective column, but be given a special status. Using design elements, like reversing the colours, to make it clear that they are different from the other notifications. While this doesn't fit the notification inbox philosophy I think it still works because it is merely a pinned link to the conversation. If you have lots of conversations going or want to look back on older ones that have been archived a simple slide out menu from the right would give you access to all conversations, current and past. The thing is there are different types of email conversations you can have there are personal, work, support, and those one/off ones like when you're buying and selling something. While these could be treated the same way, I once again think separating the types would be beneficial. (If only in minor ways.)

Personal

Your conversation with friends and family would be displayed in chronological order, like a messaging app. Allowing you to both easily find your current conversation or go back to old emails, even if they are not part of the current reply chain.

Work

Disclaimer: I have never been in a work environment where I got tons of email everyday. I will base this on what I have heard from others.

Work email can be much more varied that personal email. You may be part of a conversation with someone and then be sent an email that outlines a project or a new product. You may receive requests to do things or your boss may be asking for updates on things. All work emails should be viewable in the same place but would be able to be broken down by person, groups, or project. So you could see timelines from both individual people, group email, and by specific project. Email you need to take action on, but not immediately, would be added to your work to-do list.

One/Off Conversations

I am sure you have had an email reply chain with someone that you will never talk to again. I will use a couple common examples here.

Selling/Buying Things From Other People

When buying or selling something on Kijiji, or eBay, you will probably receive multiple emails about the same product. By organizing these conversations by product you can quickly compare offers from multiple people. This type of email could be linked to services, like Kijiji, and when you agree to a price you could mark the item as sold in your email, and it is taken off the site.

Support

When you email a company asking for help with their product you open a ticket. This ticket should also be opened on your side and when the issue is resolved you can close the ticket on your end as well. Once it is resolved it is saved in case you need to refer to it later and all support emails can be sorted by company, device, chronologically, or by product.

A Few Other Ends And Odds

Pictures

I no longer email photo's to people, I just share a cloud storage link. However, many people still do and the user experience is clunky. Sending photos are limited to, in most cases, 25MB. To make it even worse, if you go over the limit it doesn't tell you until you try to send the email. Email clients are not conducive to sending, viewing or saving photo's to your files. If people stored their pictures on a cloud storage service that was tied to their email they could select as many pictures as they wanted and the links would be sent by email. Receivers could then press a button and have all the pictures download to where they store photos or just view them from the cloud. I don't mean view them on a web browser or in the email I want to view them in whatever way I normally view photo's but streamed from the cloud. Sending the links to your picture viewing app so you can view them and download them from there if you want. The app would have to be linked to your cloud storage account but I believe that will soon become the norm.

Saving All Email From Specific Companies

You may receive emails from a specific source that is important to you and you want to save them all in one easily viewable place. For example, I have a mail rule right now that saves all email I receive from Squarespace, my site's hosting company, to a specific folder. However it just leaves me with a messy folder that doesn't differentiate between surveys, comment notifications, financial, or security issues. For this specific use case a folder structure of everything makes sense, but it doesn't make sense to treat them all the same. It should be organized into different categories that make browsing through and finding what I need easy. Colour coding and tags could be used for organization.

Secure Email

While email is usually encrypted when it is sent to stop people from intercepting en route, if someone gets ahold of your phone or password they can see everything. I propose a new class of email that has extra encryption and stays encrypted even once delivered that can only be opened by entering in a secondary password for things like bank statements, credit card bills, medical info, government communications, etc. As the world moves to digital certain institutions are still sending me physical mail or even worse trying to fax me. (I politely, yet firmly inform them that it is 2014, whenever fax is mentioned.) My current requests for emailed statements or medical records are met with privacy and legal concerns. To make it easy to open for the rightful user, we could use the fingerprint scanner that many of our phones now have. While I am not sure how this would work, I do know that we need it.

Add-Ons

I am a huge fan of Add-Ons. I think they have such a huge potential for changing every aspect of computing by allowing users to build the custom experience they need. Businesses could set things up to their specific specifications, people with security concerns could add extra encryption, people could customize their experience for how they use email. I think Add-Ons are especially beneficial for Apple products, because of their simple nature out of the box. You could keep the experience simple while allowing people to add as much power as they need, with features tailored to their specific needs. Think of the Add-Ons, or Extensions, on your web browser. Could you really go back to browsing the web without an ad-blocker? Think of all the tweaks you have made to your computer to customize it to your needs. I love my Mac but using a stock Mac is incredibly frustrating because they don't have things like 'Better Touch Tool', or 'Alfred.'

Final Words

Email is simply outdated. Yes, it accomplishes our basic needs but why settle for the bare minimum. We need it and will continue to need it, if only as an online username to log into applications. If we need to use it shouldn’t we ask that it is the best it can possibly be?


Agree? Disagree? Comment Below.

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