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We’re more or less stuck with email, so Mailbox decided to try and make it more useful

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Session Name – The Value of Redesigning Utility

Chris Albrecht
Janko Roettgers
Gentry Underwood

Chris Albrecht 00:01
You gave me an idea. Everybody smile. Selfie. There we go. I got asked backstage the Swedish font is actually for realsies, so you can go look it up. In Sweden I believe they call it lagat and if you’re really cool in Sweden you can call it delange, for any Swedish folk in the audience. Up next we have my colleague Janko Roettgers. He’s a senior writer with Gigaom. He’s going to be speaking with Gentry Underwood, the cofounder of Mailbox about the value of redesigning utility. Please welcome Janko and Gentry to the stage.

Janko Roettgers 00:42
Tough act to follow. But we’re going to do it anyway. Mailbox, you guys– it’s an interesting back story that you have because your team initially developed a productivity app and then you had good reviews for that. You had users for that. You decided to scrap it anyway and said do a mail app. Why was that?
Gentry Underwood 01:01
That was a tough decision for us. I left my job at IDEO and my cofounder left his at Apple when we came to this realization that we wanted to build something in the productivity space. We’re really excited about startups, really excited about mobile phones and the way they were changing the ability for consumers to have a voice in the tools that they used, and we felt like it was a really great time to be building tools that help speed up human innovation, help to take the pain and frustration out of work. We were playing around with different ideas in this space, but the thing that really got us to take the leap was realizing that almost ubiquitously people used e-mail as a terrible to-do list. Just out of curiosity, how many people in the audience have something in their e-mail that they’ve got to get back to almost as a to-do list?
Janko Roettgers 01:47
They probably are reading e-mail right now.
Gentry Underwood 01:49
How many of you guys send e-mails to yourself? This is the thing that we started out with, realizing that everybody was using e-mail as this productivity tool, but most everybody just hated it. In our first attempt to solve this we built this thing called Orchestra To-Do. The idea was, let’s build a to-do list that’s simple and clean and efficient and fast, mobile first and enables me to keep all the things I need to do on a list, but let’s make communication right into that. Let’s make it really easy for me to put an item on somebody else’s list and let’s make it possible for us to have a real-time communication about that thing to get it done. That’s when we launched this tool called Orchestra To-Do. People got pretty excited about it. It seemed to resonate with folks and there was a lot of early attraction. But we didn’t see really heavy– there wasn’t a lot of people sticking with it. The drop-offs were fairly substantial. We were trying to figure out what to do about that, and using an iterative design process of going back and looking at how people are using it and understanding what was working, what wasn’t and how we can make the product better. Along the way we realized we had made this fundamental error because even the people that were using this tool most fervently, they still had this problem, they still had tons of stuff trapped in their inbox. We had this feature where you could forward an email to Orchestra to turn it into a task. It was really cool, it would crawl all the message and basically create a chat thread from the replies and you can basically migrate if you will on a per message basis. It was very popular but it was slow and tedious. We realized the mistake we had made was expecting that people would be able to move entirely out of their inbox. It was only going to happen if everybody at the same time made the shift. None of us use email because we want to, we all use email because we all use email, because we all use it together. It’s a decision that sort of emerged from us collectively. There was this day where I remember lying on the carpet, on my back, with my team in this moment of realizing, if we really wanted to do this, we had made a fundamental error and we needed to go all the way back to the beginning and instead of building a new tool, we needed to try and transform the tool that people were already using. We needed to go back to the inbox where these messages already lived and start working there.
Janko Roettgers 03:58
So you actually just saw that people are stuck with email, you have to do something about that in a way.
Gentry Underwood 04:05
Yeah, I think over the last decade or so we’ve seen many attempts to get people to kill email, to get rid of it and invariably these don’t work. I think for the reason that I as an individual can make the decision to stop using something like email. But I’m going to miss that third or fourth invitation or important message and realize the world is still trying to get my attention that way, and while I may not want everything that people are trying to say to me there, I’m probably going to want some of it. Eventually I’m going to get back into that mix. I think that’s part of why mailboxes resonated with people is we have this very frustrated relationship to mail. Where whether we like it or not, it’s a part of our life and many of us feel inundate by it, we feel it’s a burden, it’s something that sits on our shoulders and we have to deal with. The tools we have that are dealing with it, they’re not really…historically they haven’t been very efficient. Particularly take Desktop tools and try and mash them into these little phones that we’re carrying in our pockets, they become even worse. So the frustration goes up even as I’m getting more messages, even as the use of the tool’s increasing.
Janko Roettgers 05:08
That’s kind of interesting because email seems like an interesting [?] because before I’ve been using email for years and maybe decades some of us and we all have some conceptions about email. Some ideas how email has supposed to work, we have desktop clients that we use before and maybe some of us used Outlook before and now we all use Gmail. The web has certain structure and certain ideas and now people use email on their phones and maybe use applets, mail app and use the Gmail app from Google. How do you deal with those ideas and principles that people think have to reply to email, how far can you push the envelope there?
Gentry Underwood 05:46
How far can you push the envelope is a really great question. This is one of the core questions of design. We could have designed mailboxes that Utopian tool that worked perfectly in the case that you used it in a very specific way. We could have made it as massive a departure as we could have imagined from how people use mail today. For the people that made that journey with us they probably would have had an idealized experience from there forward. At the same time we could have imagined optimizing for building a tool that was as consistent with how people use mail today as possible, with the hopes that would become as familiar as it could be to them. But then there would really be no reason to switch and there would really be no reason to stay with the tool. So you have to find this sweet spot in the middle. I think this is true with almost any design. You want to create something that’s better than what exists today, but it also needs to be familiar enough that people can see their way into that transition. I think that’s what we’ve tried to do with mailbox. At least with the first version is, to create an experience that is better but it’s familiar enough that people understand how it’s better and how they might make the transition to a better way of working themselves.
Janko Roettgers 06:48
One of the interesting concepts that you actually say to get rid of, is the concept of labels which Gmail has. Previously there was folders that Gmail took the idea and transformed them to labels which is little bit different but for most people it still works the same. What’s wrong with the labels?
Gentry Underwood 07:02
I think there are some real use cases for labels. When we were launching I remember, for example one of our attorneys was very excited about mailbox but told us that he wouldn’t be able to use it until we had label support. The reason for that being that he has basically a career level responsibility to organize every message he has into these project folders so they’re easily track-able and easily audit-able to a certain extent. It seems to be a pretty good case for labels. What we found when we were looking at how people were using mail and how people were getting frustrated, is that a lot of time and energy was spent taking every message and putting it into some folder or sub folder or sub-sub folder as an attempt to keep a clean house. I think this is for many people a behavior that began years and years ago and a lot of time and energy has been invested in building this structure and it feels like something you need to keep doing because it’s something that you’ve done. Along the way, Search has gotten much better, particularly with Gmail which is the first email platform that we support. What we found is that when people went actually looking for a message, they didn’t go drilling into those folders, they just searched and the algorithms took care of the rest. So all of this time and energy being spent filing was actually making part of their experience be more slow, laborious and frustrating and wasn’t serving any other secondary purpose. For those people we offered basically a tool where we encourage people to just try using the archive function that Gmail already uses and taking advantage of snoozes and lists, these are the pieces we built into the system for the other things people try to do with labels which is create a section of mail people need to get back to in some way shape or form. Just take the leap of faith that not putting everything else that you’ve really finished with into a folder and see if you can back to it with Search. For the people that have made that leap, there’s a massive efficiency that comes from that. It creates some of the benefit of using mailbox, you get much faster overall mail experience because you give yourself the permission not to do a lot of the busy work that you were once doing.
Janko Roettgers 09:01
Talk about this sweet spot that you have to find between pushing the envelope too far and advancing and getting rid of these concepts that don’t really as well for many people, how is the sweet spot evolving and how far can you push it ahead once people take that leap, what’s going to come next for them. What are things that you are working on that might transform this experience even further?
Gentry Underwood 09:23
That’s a great question. I think that particularly design on this edge of innovation that we’re all writing together, it is this ongoing conversation between users of your product or service and the people building it. The tool itself. Thinking about for example something like I was IOS7 what you were talking about back stage before we started up here, the things that are being done in iOS 7, now I think are very appropriate as a next step for a mobile operating system. They would have been completely unthinkable at the time that you were trying to get people to move away from physical keyboards. Back then it was very important to create buttons that felt a lot like the physical buttons that you might otherwise be using. Now everyone’s very comfortable interacting in glass all the time and so the question becomes, what are the appropriate interfaces for this medium that don’t have to try and replicate where someone’s coming from. We’ve all collectively become more comfortable and so that’s why I think we’re beginning to see gestures like the things you have in mailbox inside of iOS 7, other more flat designs and transparencies, things that can really lean into this medium in a way that it can be quite nice, it can open the door to wonderful innovations and we can throw off the burden of trying to replicate something that we don’t really need to deal with anymore.
Gentry Underwood 10:33
In the same sense with mailbox there was a whole set of things that we were really excited about that we could do to make mail better and we ended pulling all that functionality from the first version, with the expectation that we will bring it in over time as a conversation with our users as a way of incrementally improving peoples experience with their inbox more and more.
Janko Roettgers 10:52
So what is next on your list, give us a little bit of a sneak peak here.
Gentry Underwood 10:55
The things we’re working on short term are really about making mailboxes available as we can to as many people as possible. The MVP is really IOS and Gmail only and obviously by no means the whole world. The first thing we need to do is basically extend the number of email providers we support and extend the number of devices that we support. This is basically laying down the groundwork for everybody who wants mailbox to be able to use it. I think the next thing we do is, we know that we live in this error that we’re calling a mobile error, but it’s really a multi-screen error and the expectations for the tools I use most often is that my information moves with me no matter what device that I’m on. We hear of all the time people asking for Desktop a client, something that brings the experience of mailbox back to their computer when they get there and creates a seamless experience between the two. That’s something that we take very seriously and we’ve been working on and I think there’s as much opportunity for innovation there as there is on the mobile. What gets very interesting is when you have those as an ecosystem, you can do pretty cool things. You can imagine, right now you can snooze a message until this evening or a little bit later today or next week and that’s a nice feature but often people what they really want to do is they’re on their phone and they’re saying I want to get to this message when I get back to my desk and I can sit in front of the keyboard and respond to it.
Janko Roettgers 12:11
Do you think location could be a rule in there?
Gentry Underwood 12:13
Location’s another great one and adds in presence, so if you’re using mailbox and so am I and really what I want to do is put this message off until we’re together and then let’s discuss it in person, these are fairly obvious things that you can do when you have multiple devices and you have an ecosystem where you’ve got these little sensors in your pocket working with you in mail.
Janko Roettgers 12:33
Interesting things to come. Talk a little bit about these other versions that you’re working on. How far along is Android? Also stepping back, how different do you have to approach a platform like Android? Is it going to look very different, is it going to feel very different or is it just the plumbing underneath that has to be different?
Gentry Underwood 12:50
That’s a great question too. Android’s coming on quite well and we got versions in the office we’re playing with that are very nice. One of the challenges we’re running into is what Kevin was speaking to you before, there’s a lot of challenges you have to deal with in terms of a fragmented space of devices that become an issue for anybody developing an app. It’s nice to be working IOS in the sense that you… it’s very easy to test almost all the devices that could theoretically run your product. A lot of the libraries that Apple has spent time and energy building to make the interfaces clean, fast, efficient, fluid, beautiful there’s not a one to one mapping of those in Android. Many of the things that we have taken for granted in terms of our ability to build a fluid, efficient and just really fast and delightful feeling mil app, we have to go back to basics with Android and try and replicate that. Even simple things like swiping and having a list collapse which it’s not too hard to pull off in the IOS world. It takes a lot more energy to create a similar kind of fit and finish. We feel like it’s extremely important for us to do so. We feel like if we get there or when we get there we’re setting ourselves up to be one of the most beautiful Android apps around which is certainly and important goal for us to have.
Gentry Underwood 14:04
The other piece which you mentioned before about the transition we have to be careful as well to not just take an IOS design and map it into an Android world. For the same reason we don’t want to come up with something truly strange and unusual and ask people to adopt it as their mail client on the iPhone, we need to provide a path of migration for people who are used to using certain kinds of conventions in Android. So we are spending a lot of time making sure that the adaptations of the goals are appropriate for the medium. That’s true not only for Android but also for the Desktop client. Sometimes. mobile apps when they go to the desktop they replicate things too closely, you can imagine taking the swipes of your finger and asking a user to do that with a mouse it would just be a mess, suddenly this thing that was nice and fast and fluid would become burdensome and almost a gimmick. There are similar opportunities for innovation. Similar opportunities for finding the most efficient and most delightful way of getting through this content for the Desktop client. Our challenge becomes going all the way back to those first principles of figuring out what it is we’re trying to achieve and finding a way to represent them in the medium that’s most appropriate and provides the most seamless or comfortable migration path for the people that are familiar with the language of that particular medium.
Janko Roettgers 15:20
What again are they saying, when are the release dates for the Desktop and the Android versions?
Gentry Underwood 15:24
One of the things that we are trying to do with mailbox is neither set dates for things nor talk in too much detail about them until they’re ready. Taking notions from some of the other companies that have been leaders in terms of product design we feel like the right way to do this is to really bring it out to the world when it’s ready and not set dates before.
Janko Roettgers 15:46
Fair enough. Let’s step back for a second and look back at your experience going from a very specialized approach building a very specialized application then scraping this and building a new tool a new way to deal with a general utility that everybody uses. I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on other areas where there could be a plan, other utilities that people use on their phones, on their Desktops maybe that are really ripe for a rethink.
Gentry Underwood 16:15
That’s another great question. One of the things that’s happening right know is that there’s a kind of battle for the home screen happening. Where if you imagine all the apps… the staples that come pre bundles on your phone, these are products or services that it’s almost impossible not to use them. It’s not as impossible to have a device that doesn’t have a calendar, a mail client, a messaging client, a camera, a photo gallery, a web browser and so hardware manufacturers have basically had almost like a burden to get a version of these apps out that help sell the devices and help create an overall view on version of the hardware that is useful. We’re all running with these stock clients, these stock apps. They’re also apps that get used get quite a bit because really these are the things that when you back up and before you get too clever you see these are things people are going to be using all the time, it’s going to be hard for us to sell a device that doesn’t have them. Those become basically centers of attention. They’re areas in which I as a user spend a lot of my time on this device and in the same sense we may be competing for eye balls and web pages. In the web world the energy and attention spent on these native experiences is substantial. I think what we’re going to see is more and more attempts, Kevin is a great example of how the camera was really right for reinvention for social error and that’s one of the things that Instagram has done so well, is re imagined the camera for a mobile computer in our pocket combining effectively the act of taking a picture, the act of curating even with some light weight Photoshop and then moving into that social sharing, wanting to get feedback on your picture. He’s taken that whole thing and turned it into a single simplified work flow which is why I think they’ve been able to go to 150 million users so quickly. My basic sense is we’re going to see a similar kind of process happening to many of these utilities on the home screen. They’re valuable real estate if you will for a world where people are spending more and more of their lives interacting through this little piece of glass.
Janko Roettgers 18:27
So what could be next, calendar?
Gentry Underwood 18:30
It’s already happening, there’s lots of companies competing for the calendar. Lots of people competing for the photo gallery app on your phone. We’ve seen obviously the browser wars. Messaging is huge, this is not something that’s really coming in the future so much, it’s something we are really living into right now. They don’t all have winners yet and some of those areas are more difficult than others to really create a fundamentally better experience. One of the things that you have to do is, you have to make something that’s ten times as good as what’s there already, to really have a shot at getting the kind of attraction you will need to build a business out of it because the inertia of the tool that’s already on your phone, it’s high. Having that default already there put in place it’s a really tough thing to compete with.
Janko Roettgers 19:12
Apparently what you also have to do is, when you build a specialized tool, lie down on your carpet, think about it and maybe do something else. Thank you very much.
Gentry Underwood 19:19
Thank you very much


One Response to “We’re more or less stuck with email, so Mailbox decided to try and make it more useful”

  1. “No one uses email because they want to — they use it because everyone else uses it.”

    I keep hearing this kind of statement and I couldn’t disagree more.

    Email has many challenges, but the async nature of email makes it my preferred method of communication. Pretty much all others are disruptive and usually counter-productive, so I am personally glad they are focusing on improving email…even if they think there is something better.