Mailbox is solving your email overload problem the wrong way

by Ivar Slavenburg

It was the marketing trick of the year 2013, when the original Mailbox app was launch for Apple’s iPhone. After a couple of raving reviews, the creators of the App put up a waiting list. So, you could download the app, but not use it right away. You had to wait for your turn. That waiting soon became a long time, as the list grew to over 300.000 people. I myself had to wait over a week before I could finally use this new magical mail app.

Bringing email into the age of the smartphone

For those not familiar with Mailbox, it is an app for managing your email. So it compares with the likes of your Gmail app on Android, Mail on iOS and MacOS or Outlook on Windows. However, when was released it added options to postpone emails, dealing with them at a later date and time, in a very easy and convenient way.

Mailbox postpone options

Mailbox postpone options

Not only the additional options itself were interesting, also  it was remarkable how they were implemented: using swipes to the left and the right to manage emails. If you want to experience it yourself, just go out and download the apps. They are free and very nice indeed. As reviewers remarked at the time, the swipe movements to manage your email and the additional options really brought email into the age of the smartphone.

Soon after the launch the company behind the App, Orchestra Inc, was acquired by Dropbox, known for its excellent remote storage products. Next to the iPhone, Mailbox was brought out for the iPad as well. Since it effectively a front end for Gmail, it could use its cloud based nature to ensure the iPhone and iPad app were synced. Something sent using Mailbox on the iPhone could be seen on the iPad as well. Nowadays most of this is standard, but it was pretty ingenious at the time and very well executed indeed.

The most pressing problem at the time, the lack of support for the desktop, is going to be solved soon. The Mailbox application for MacOS is in beta at the moment. I have been using it for some time now and works as fine as on the mobile platforms (including Android nowadays). So I would suggest, again, to go out to the respective App stores and grab a copy and try it for yourself!

Background syncing issues

After all these appraisals you might be wondering whether I use the Apps myself, as the answer is „No”. After using them as replacements on my iPhone and iPad for a long time, I removed them from both devices. At the time, the reasons were the lack of a desktop version, the lack of proper background syncing between versions of Mailbox on different devices and the peculiar order in which they showed mails as part of a conversation.

As the lack of a desktop version is soon to be solved let me start with the second, the syncing between the Mailbox on different devices, or better, the apparent lack thereof. Whatever I have tried, Mailbox on the iPhone doesn’t seem to understand that when I have handled my mail on the iPad, it should adjust the App badge count accordingly. So while the iPad badge count shows that everything is done, the iPhone keeps telling me that I have email to deal with. Though the Mail app of Apple isn’t perfect on that point as well, due to the lack of push support for Gmail, at least it is updating automatically every 15 minutes (the time I have set for fetching my Gmail). Thinking of iOS and MacOS as a platform rather than individual devices this irritates me.

Unnecessary diversions from standards

The desktop version is, as said, still in beta and reviewers are thrilled about it. I’m not really a fan of its minimalistic, dominantly white design. Additionally, for some odd reasons, Dropbox has decided not to implement the regular three red, yellow and green buttons in the upper left part of the App window, but replace them with their own minimalistic design. Even worse, they replaced the functionality of the green button, normally used to enlarge the App window as much as the screen used makes possible, with the full screen mode. This mode is normally found on the upper right of the App window, but Dropbox has removed it entirely. There’s nothing against changing standards, only it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose and it is very confusing for regular MacOS users.

Mail and Mailbox windows

Comparing Mail (left) and Mailbox (right) windows

Another thing the MacOS beta version shares with its mobile counterparts, Mailbox insists that in a conversation the oldest mail is on top. Most other mail solutions choose to have the latest mail on top. Again Dropbox chooses to do things different and again I don’t like it. This the Apps are forcing you to scroll down through the entire conversation to find the latest status. As the designers have put so much effort into all the Mailbox versions I’m surprised there is not option to change the order, or why they are hiding it so well at least I can’t find it.
In the end, all of this might be „personal” and come down to a „difference in taste”. As such I am urging you again to judge for yourself. The apps are very well made and there’s clearly a way of thinking behind them.

Finally, I’m not comfortable with the way the swipes work either, being an almost literal copy of the way they work on the mobile devices. Maybe it is something you can learn when doing it a lot, but as easy as it is to swipe left to right and vice versa on an iPhone or iPad, the difficult it is for me to do the same using Apple’s „magic mouse”. It works better if you just select the mail first and then move the mouse to the left or the right, but this somehow doesn’t feel as natural as using a real swiping gesture. I have tried it also on the excellent pad of my MacBook Pro and for me it doesn’t work a lot better. When used with Apple’s Magic Trackpad, I doubt it will be much different.

Facilitating postponing things to do

However, there is a more fundamental problem, that isn’t related to taste or the willingness to learn certain gestures. The idea behind Mailbox is that you should see email as just another to do list. So once a mail comes in, you judge whether you should deal with it immediately, that it can wait until another time or be postponed indefinitely. When you decide that it can wait, e.g. until next week, it will be removed from your list and pop up again in a week.

However, in the Mailbox philosophy (and as indicated by the badge of the App) you have handled the mail. Obviously, you didn’t, you only postponed having to deal with it here and now. It is the equivalence of having 100 unread emails in your list, the App just hides it from you. All the design and usability issues I have with it aside, on all platforms postponing dealing with mail is made very easy. If a mail that you postponed before pops up again at the time you set, you can just postpone is again, and again, and again.

Reducing the burden of email

If you want to bring down the burden that email is having on your live, especially when working in an environment where it is common to „cc” everybody for everything, the ability to easily postpone dealing with it will not solve your problem. Articles have been written about email etiquette in organisations to resolve the overflow of email and that is definitely something to think about. It is totally valid to ask the sender of a mail why he of she sent it to you. If that can’t be made clear ask the person to leave you out of the conversation next time.

Another good way is start unsubscribing from mailing list that you don’t really read anyway. The urgent news is getting to you anyway, e.g. by twitter, and often faster than by mail.

Another annoying source of email to get rid of are confirmations that you have received a message, e.g. on Facebook or WhatsApp. You probably have allowed these Apps to sent notifications anyway, why also sent let them sent an email? Using the notification, you jump right into the right App at the right point, much better than using the mail for that. Fortunately, most of these Apps are allowing you to switch of the mail option.

Finally, make it clear to people that if they want to speak with you, they better can give you a call of pay you a visit. It’s much more personal and you’ll find that people become more careful asking for your time.

In the end, getting you mail box under control is not about postponing mails, but about receiving less of them.

Photo Credits: Ivar Slavenburg, “Feeding Butterfly”