A Few Days with Google Inbox

About a month and a half ago, Google announced what is arguably the single biggest update to Gmail since its launch. This “update” is really something more like a re-imaging of the tool, creating an entirely new UI sitting on the data warehouse of your email. This new tool has been named Inbox, and as of this writing, is still currently an invite-only tool. A couple weeks ago, a friend was kind enough to pass on an invite to me so that I could try out the platform myself. Since I sold my soul to Google long ago, I was happy to spend some time trying out their latest endeavor.

After redeeming my invite code, I committed to giving myself two days with only Inbox – no Gmail – before I’d decide what I really thought of the tool. I did this, in part, because it was so different from what I was used to, I wanted to at least try to work through the “different is always bad” feeling that comes with this sort of change. It also kept me from using Gmail as a crutch along the way. I should also mention that a lot of emphasis, so far, is being placed on the line that this is not a Gmail replacement, but rather an alternative management tool. The fact that Inbox is heavily showcasing the power and potential of Material Design (if you aren’t familiar with MD at this point, and you’re a web developer, I highly suggest you take some time learning about it) is also no accident on Google’s part. This is meant to sell developers and designers on the guidelines. So… yeah.

Main Inbox Feed

Main Inbox Feed

After logging in for the first time, this is what I saw. Gone are the tabs, the sidebar filters and Hangouts (though both are still available under their respective menus), and the traditionally linear list of emails. The layout has gone icon heavy, and absolutely takes some exploration the first time you start looking around. My immediate response was not pleasant, but easily recognizable as that “different is bad” reaction I wanted to avoid. I pushed onward. Old style “tabs” are now considered “bundles” in Inbox. There are also more of them. And instead of being perpetually at the top of your inbox, they now move up and down with the feed as items filter into them. These bundles are also taking a cue from Google Now, and are implementing “card” style features by sniffing out images, media, and certain content formats to break out information in a more visually appealing way. For instance, in the image above, you can see I recently bought a new saw from Amazon, and I’ll have it soon. This. I like this. (I will cut you.)

Setting up bundles

Setting up bundles

Labels, tabs, and bundles are now all basically the same thing. Gmail only has five tabs to choose from (Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums). Inbox has seven (dropping Primary and adding Travel, Purchases, and Finance) that add a couple much needed categories. But the big thing is that you can use labels like bundles too, causing them to be treating the same visually in Inbox’s message feed. This somewhat amorphous blending of principles turns out to work really well, in my opinion, by using the same functional application of properties to produce different presentational results with nothing more than a simple toggle. You can still have labels just be labels, but you can “elevate” your most important ones to improve their visibility and the organization of your feed in ways that make sense. So far, picking a few to do this with has proven really useful and effective for managing incoming messages.

Another area they blurred the lines is the concept of deleting versus archiving messages. In Inbox, you just check off on the email, or swipe it away once you’re done. It just “goes away.” Basically, this is archiving it. And you can specifically still send messages to the trash, too. But there’s something oddly satisfying about not having to think about which action is more appropriate in a given case. I’ve also found that it’s encouraged me to pay more attention to cleaning up messages and getting them out of the way, specifically because I can just click away on the checkmark without any consideration of the consequences of deleting versus archiving. This is a weird, silly UX change, that probably makes no sense when talking about it from a strictly mechanical point of view, but I think makes a huge difference once you account for actual user behavior. A simple change that might be my favorite.

Attaching reminders to messages

Attaching reminders to messages

Another very nice addition is the ability to pin messages and attach reminders to them – whether that’s something you need to specifically do as a result of the email (go hire that hitman we need), or just a helpful note to come back and reply to a message after you’ve slept on it (open a conversation about outsourcing our hitman initiatives). This dovetails with the new snooze feature for a message, which effectively defers the message in the feed until later – again, good for when you’d rather deal with a particular email later (ugh, this hitman can just wait until later. Wait, why am I bleeding…).

Icon madness

Icon madness

There are a couple things, however, that still aren’t sitting well with me, but they’re mostly nitpicky. First, when searching, there’s no “select all” feature anymore for dealing with messages. If it’s there, it’s most definitely not visible enough. This can make getting rid of things in bulk somewhat tedious. The second is the reuse of the “sweep” icon, which clears all the current messages. You can sweep ALL messages in the feed, or all messages in a bundle, or just individual messages. And this sweep feature lacks a certain granularity. For instance, if you look at a bundle with several days worth of messages, you can’t sweep them day by day – you can only sweep the whole bundle. And really, the idea of sweeping my entire inbox just terrifies me (I’m not an Inbox Zero sort of guy). This also comes back to my earlier comment about “exploring” the interface, which is very icon heavy. Know what you’re clicking.

All in all, I have rapidly grown to love Inbox, though. So much so, that using my work email (which uses Gmail) now feels bloated and cumbersome by comparison. A side effect is that I’ve come to realize just how much crap I get from companies on a daily basis that funnels into the promos bundle (and I’m unsubscribing a lot of the legit ones now). Inbox feels like they took the time to simplify the UX of their email platform in a lot of smart, very human sort of ways. I think one of the single biggest reason this works as well as it does is that they did all this while still letting email be email. They didn’t try to force it to be like Google+, or Google Buzz, or Google Wave. There’s evidence here that they very much learned from those past mistakes. They didn’t try to make the content and the data be something it wasn’t. And that’s actually very admirable in this case, especially because I just don’t think there’s a lot of juice left to squeeze out of email innovation, as far as the treatment of content goes.

The other part is that I don’t feel like the platform is trying to be too much smarter than me. They’ve kept the predefined bundles limited to categories that make good sense (and even then, you can disable the ones you don’t need). Otherwise, I don’t feel like they are trying to out-anticipate what I might think is urgent of high priority. Gmail tried to do this with its priority flagging that apparently “teaches” it about what’s important to you. In my opinion, that’s just extra noise and UI clutter. And possibly the most amazing apart about it all is that they did all this in a way that extends Gmail, so you can still go back and forth if you need to. They must have the Gods of MVC on their campus to pull that off.

So, if you’re interested in trying Inbox out, go scrounge up an invite. You can also follow me on Twitter, if you don’t already. I usually announce on there when I have invites to give away. Are you using Inbox already? Let me know what you think in the comments below!