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Email is often characterized as hellish: at best a necessary evil and at worst a monstrous time sink.
Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face. — Paul Ford
In this post I am not going down that rat hole (as worthy a digression as it may be), and I will simply accept the fact that email exists, we use it, and it is an integral part of many working folk’s workflow. I won’t be talking about email zero, or other approaches that take a Fordian slant.
There’s been a great deal of innovation in email clients for mobile devices — a topic I’ve written about a great deal — but this is about the breadth of what is in email clients, rather than in the gestural and mobile innovations we’ve seen in tools like Mailbox (now defunct).
Sortd is a ‘skin’ for Gmail, implemented as a Chrome extension, and attempting to integrate task management directly into the email inbox experience along with conventional email. The company has also developed an iOS app, which I haven’t had a chance to fool with, yet.
Here you see a screenshot (courtesy of OSM), showing four columns. The leftmost is the email inbox, which flattens out all emails into a single stream, even if you’ve set up Gmail folders.
The right three columns are like Kanban boards, and are user definable. Here the user has defined ‘To Do’, ‘Follow Up’, and ‘Deals’ boards. The items in the boards are nominally Sortd tasks, which are created by either dragging an email from the inbox, or creating a task in one of the boards by clicking the plus sign (‘+’) at the foot of one of the boards.
[My goal in this post is to discuss the concepts motivating Sortd’s design, and so I will leave my quibbles in square brackets, so they can be filtered. In this case, I think the plus sign should be at the top of the list, so it doesn’t drop out of sight when the task list grows long.]
Tasks that start out as an email inherit their name from the email subject, but can be renamed. Tasks can have email(s) added, so a task — in both cases — can include a variety or emails from various people. This is an interesting alternative to email labels or folders, when you think about it: a collection of emails united by some intention, goal, or activity.
Tasks can have notes, deadlines, and reminders, but there is no real concept of subnotes. Boards can act as projects, but there is no other level of task lists.
The UX allows for dragging and dropping of emails onto tasks, and dragging tasks around to reorder them. And dropping tasks onto other tasks consolidates any attached emails and notes, but does not create subtasks, alas. [This is something that should be remedied.]
In my personal case, I have defined ‘Today’, ‘Soon’, and ‘Later’ boards. I refresh what’s on Today, every day, using my 1, 2, 3 technique (one big thing, 2 medium things, 3 little things). Tasks are added, moved, checked off, and consolidated across the three boards all the time, and in particular, new tasks are created as new emails arrive.
When a specific task is opened, there are three flavors of UI:
No email –– notes, due date, and reminder fields are shown.
Single email — as above, but minimized, with most space given over to framing the email:
Note along the top right various icons to deal with the task/email, like label, and trask, and including a check mark for completing the task. The email can be responded to in this presentation: replied to, forwarded, archived, and so on.
Multiple emails — a selector that allows the user to pick which of the emails should be viewed appears under the task title, and once a specific email is chosen, the presentation is like the single email case.
Sortd provides a toggle on the right hand side of the Gmail window so that the user can toggle between the Sortd and Gmail skin. There is also a setting to select which skin to open in.
Lastly, when looking at an received email that has not yet been associated with a Sortd task the tool allows the user to ‘sort it’ using a button at the top:
Note this also allows selecting which board the new task will be placed on.
A second approach for turning a reply into a task is provided by hover icons:
And this allows either pinning the email to a new task in a specific board, or to set a reminder for the email. [There should be away to select an existing task, too.]
I like the Sortd approach to melding task management and email right into Gmail. Partly that’s so that other services offered by Google and others that are integrated into Gmail continue to work, and so that I don’t have to move to some other client. That also makes trying it out much easier, and likewise for gradually transitioning.
The problems I have are only a few:
Sortd’s task management is relatively immature — lacking features like subtasks, recurring tasks, multiple notes, bookmarklet, etc. — is a powerful disencentive. Sortd has not to deepen the offering’s task model dramatically if it wants to attract people using tools like Asana, Todoist, Wrike, Clarizen, and so on. Creating a bookmarklet, so users can create a task linking to the URL of any web page, is a really easy feature to create, especially since the tool runs as a Chrome plugin already, and this counters to some extent the lack of integration with other tools, presently.
Sortd’s communication model is minimal — At present, there is nothing like chats, messaging, or comment threads. I’ve been told that @mention style communication is in the works, presuambly from the existing task notes.
There is no capability for assigning tasks to people, so that effectively limits tasks to personal use. Note that other offerings — Like Streak — have extended the notion of Gmail labels for that enables personal emails to be shared among invited users. I bet that Sortd will have to implement something like this for task assignment — or at least sharing the attached emails as something other than text — to work.
Skinning has limits, or maybe doesn’t go far enough — I like the idea of skins on top of Gmail, but it only goes so far. Why doesn’t Sortd implement opening one of multiple emails collected in a task as an additional hover panel above the topmost one? Each email could be its own task, with nested tasks and emails. Likewise, as in the task management tool Trello, why don’t we have ‘subboards’ within boards? For example, in my ‘Soon’ board, I create tasks that serve just as labels to break up the list of tasks into weeks, like ‘— wo 4 Jan —‘, meaning ‘week of 4 Jan’. But if boards could be dragged onto boards, this would work better.
I will be tracking the progress at Sortd, which has been around for over a year, but we’ll have to see if they are pointing their efforts in the same direction as I would like to see.