Mailbox for iOS Offers a New Metaphor for Managing Emails

If you keep up with tech journalism at all, you may have heard about the new Mailbox app for iOS, which has garnered significant buzz lately as a forward-thinking email client for the mobile age. The app’s website promises to help users “put email in its place”: “We redesigned the inbox to make email light, fast, and mobile-friendly. Quickly swipe messages to your archive or trash. Scan an entire conversation at once with chat-like organization. Snooze emails until later with the tap of a button. It’s a whole new inbox.”

I managed to get an invitation to the service last week (which is in very limited beta—more on their waitlist later) and have been using it over the weekend. I wanted to write up my initial impressions, with a more detailed post to come.

There are many things I like very much about Mailbox:

  1. Mailbox’s UI is truly gorgeous. Mailbox feels like a modern email client. The fonts are easy to read; the buttons are intuitive and responsive.
  2. Mailbox is very peppy. I’ve used both Mail (the default app) and Gmail on my iPhone. Both have frustrated me with their sluggishness. My phone will alert me that I have a new email, for instance, but then has to download that email when I launch the app to check. Mailbox is markedly quicker. New emails appear almost within a second of launching the app, and clicking on an email transitions to reading it almost instantly.
  3. Mailbox uses an innovative, task-based metaphor for managing email. All email clients employ a design metaphor—the filing cabinet, tags, etc.—for filing emails. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, depending on your personal work style. Mailbox treats emails like incoming to-dos—which is for me just right the vast majority of the time—and is designed to help users get to inbox zero. Using the “emails as to-dos” metaphor leads to several distinct behaviors for the app:
    • The app’s icon displays a badge with the number of emails in the inbox, not the number of unread emails. The idea here, I think, is that we often let emails linger in our inboxes instead of acting on them, and that this kind of badge will prompt users to take action.
    • There are four distinct ways to act on emails: you can delete them, archive them, save them for later, or add them to a “list.” The first two are self-explanatory, but the final two are perhaps not. If you choose to save an email for later, Mailbox will present you with a set of options: later today, this evening, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, in a month, someday, or pick date. When you choose one of these, Mailbox moves the message out of the inbox until the time you’ve specified, at which time it will bring the email back into the inbox for review and further action. I tried this over the weekend, marking several messages that I did not intend to address over the weekend as “next week.” The emails disappeared for several days, but this morning were back in my inbox waiting for action. Adding an email to a list is similar (though not identical) to labeling it in Gmail. Lists allow you to keep emails related to a topic or idea together out of the inbox. By default, Mailbox includes the lists “To Watch,” “To Read,” and “To Buy,” but users can create their own. You could create lists and use them, essentially, as folders, but as you can see from the suggested lists Mailbox wants users to treat them as files for less-strictly-time-dependent to-dos. In other words, the idea of lists seems to be that they, too, will be cleared as the emails are acted upon.

    This approach to email suits “Getting Things Done” work styles (like mine) very well. I like Mailbox’s recognition that email often becomes a passive to-do list, and I suspect treating it as such could lead to a healthier relationship email in my day-to-day life

So for the most part I’m repeating the plaudits I’ve read for Mailbox. With that said, however, there are a few things holding me back from a full-throated endorsement:

  1. Mailbox doesn’t allow labels or folders. Unless I’m missing something fundamental in the app, Mailbox entirely eschews older methods of organizing emails, such as folders or labels. You can file emails by time sensitiveness or put them on a list (not entirely unlike a folder, though less permanent); you can archive them or delete them. But you cannot file them away in a folder titled “ProfHacker.” I have mixed feelings about this. I have read lately about how email filing systems can lead to just as much confusion as organization (“did I put that email in ‘ProfHacker,’ ‘Articles,’ or ‘Digital Humanities?’”). Some have argued that simple search is just as effective, in which case one big “Archive” would serve. But I’m attached to my folder system, and not certain I’m ready to part with it. I certainly felt some trepidation hitting the archive button for every email this weekend.
  2. For now Mailbox is iPhone only. Okay, technically you could run Mailbox on your iPad, but it would be in that horrible “blowing up an iPhone app until it’s super-pixelated” mode I hate. There’s no Mailbox app designed for iPad yet, and there’s certainly no Mailbox client for OS X, Windows, or Linux. Because Mailbox proposes such a dramatic overhaul of how we treat email, it’s very difficult to move between Mailbox on the phone and more traditional email clients elsewhere. I’m all for a change of metaphor, but I’m not keen on mixed metaphors. It will be difficult to fully transition to Mailbox’s model for email until I can do so whereever I happen to be checking emails.
  3. Mailbox is not easy to get. The Mailbox team has chosen to roll out their app slowly, rather than getting hit with traffic they’re not prepared to support. When you download the app, you can claim your place in line and see both how many potential users are ahead of you and how many are behind. I can understand why the Mailbox folks are doing it this way: no matter how good a product is, it can be sunk by poor initial performance. If 1,000,000 people downloaded the app and it started crashing for everyone, no one would continue using it. With that said, it can be very dispiriting to read about this innovative app (as you are now), whip out your phone, download it, and then see that you are 752,934th in line to use it. It would be hard for any app to live up to the expectations set by that kind of wait. I will confess—I played the ProfHacker card and the company gave me an early access code. I apologize if that sent someone down to 752,935th in line.

Overall, I think Mailbox is well worth investigating if you can get it. I’ll revisit the app and this review when Mailbox becomes openly available. Have you managed to try Mailbox yet? What did you make of its new metaphor for managing email? Tell us about it in the comments.

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