Problems with email integration for work management tools


I’ve been evaluating a long list of work management tools as part of the research for the Work Management Narrative report (see recent post, Work Management in Theory: Context). One issue that comes up a great deal is the integration with email, which is a common trigger for a user to create a task, as well as a means to communicate with other team members who may not be using the same — or any — work management tools.

This post doesn’t look into how work management tools use email as a way to communicate with team member not using the work management tool: that’s a separate use case. I’m focusing on email as a parallel sort of communication, and one from which a great deal of tasks arise.

There are a number of approaches to email integration, which I will categorize like this:

  • Low or no integration: despite the ubiquity of email, and the obvious need to communicate to the wide, wide world through it (and email’s insatiable hunger to communicate with us, too) some vendors offer little or no support for the realities of email. Not good.
  • Loose integration: some vendors have opted for a loose integration, often through bookmarklets or third-party connection services like Zapier and IFTTT. For example, Azendoo supports a Zapier ‘zap’ where gmails that I star become tasks in a specific project. Subsequently, the user can open Azendoo, and perhaps move the task to another project, add notes, fool with metadata (due dates, assignment, etc.). A bookmarklet — like Wrike‘s — accomplishes more or less the same thing. In either case, the connection is one-way, and the work management tool does not try to ‘handle’ email in a general way: the precipitating email is just a starting point for a task. At present, I think loose integration is the best approach.
  • In-inbox integration: Some solutions — like Todoist (a team task management tool) and Sortd (ditto) — provide a Google Chrome extension so that when you are ‘in’ Gmail you can easily convert an email to a task (and add metadata, etc.) in a window while never leaving the Gmail context. This is a lot smoother than loose integration, especially for people who communicate through email a great deal. Also, clicking on a link back to an email makes it more of a two way solution.
  • In-app email: Some tools aspire to replace the email client’s functionality altogether, basically pulling in all emails and implementing the services that emulate — at least in part — capabilities of email services. It is this last case that I want to zoom into in this post.

I’ve tried at least two solutions in recent weeks that seek to bring email integration in-app: Fleep and ScribblePost. I had an exchange with the CEO of ScribblePost, Alon Novy, about his company’s model of email integration. One outcome was the following post, shared with him through the company’s support system. In that post I suggested a more sophisticated version of in-app email integration:

Alon –

I tried and rejected your competitor Fleep’s attempt to act as a email client.

The hybrid failed for some of the same issues I have with your approach:

1. I might have a number of other plugins or features that operate in the Gmail client that I can’t walk away from, like Google Tabs.

2. If I have to undertake email hygiene in both Gmail and in the work management tool, that is an impossible cost.

3. The design of an email client is distinct from that of a work management tool, and intended to meet a wide range of use cases, not just those related to work management.

My bet is that the best approach will be to have a close coupling, but not a full integration of email in the work management tool, like your SP [ScribblePost]. On the work management side, some emails — those that are starred, or labeled in a specific way — would have a handle created, so that the email can be indirectly referenced and annotated: for example, comments can be added to the handle, or a task can be created as a follow-up to the email that would be attached to link to the email handle.

I think that the email handle is a distinct type or object in the work management space, different from tasks, internal messages, and posts. An email handle is a specific example of a general notion: a handle to reference some info object principally or partially managed outside the work management solution. That could also hold for Twitter or Facebook messages, for example, or Salesforce contacts.

At any rate, SP could implement a set of actions for email handles that fall into two groups:

1. those that represent actions on the handle — like creating or deleting the handle, linking it to a task (as a special sort of attachment), sharing it, adding comments, moving a handle from one project to another, etc. — as opposed to

2. actions on the email linked to the handle — like reply, forward, archive, and so on.

I think such a two-faced approach covers the greatest number of use cases, including unforeseen ones.

You might also benefit from a chrome plugin for Gmail, so that some (or perhaps even all) actions that users might want to perform vis-à-vis the intersection of email and SP could happen ‘in’ Gmail. For example, I might read an email and decide to

1. start tracking this thread in SP,

2. associate one or more tags with the handle, and

3.assign a follow-up task to myself referencing the email along with some notes.

I could then get back to other email, some of which never crosses over into SP.



Note that the info handle concept lines up fairly directly with a platform play, obviously.

I applaud Alon and his team for the innovative ideas they are developing in ScribblePost, and likewise the brilliant design of Fleep, both products which I will be reviewing in the upcoming Narrative. I’m sharing this to stimulate discussion around these ideas, and also (shameless plug) to demonstrate the sort of thinking that animates the report.


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