The Future Of Inbox Management

At Unified Inbox we’ve been thinking a lot about the future of communications and especially on what the best quality “Inbox Management” could look like.

If you’ve been reading my blog a bit, you already know that I started to think about this as early as 1992. This was when I bought my first modem and set up an early Bulletin Board System, called “LIGHT-BBS”. When I was SysOp at LIGHT-BBS, I was responsible for the secure distribution of many messages (group messages as well as public posts and private messages) between the different members of the mailbox and the different networks we had connected to, from across the world, such as FIDO-NET for example. Even in those early days and before the internet or smartphones were commonplace, it was pretty clear that electronic messaging would eventually become an integral part of our daily working lives.

Since then, email, social media networks and other digital communication channels have truly taken over our world – which is why we’ve seen the need for better inbox management solutions and put the work into developing Unified Inbox.

In this post I’d like to share some of my personal (and our team’s) experiences on why Unified Inbox is truly revolutionary and how it empowers information workers in their daily communication processes and workflows.

Before I start, I’d like to give sincere thanks to some of our mentors and advisors. If you’re interested in better inbox management, take a look at some of their blog posts, they’re the gold standard for managing digital communication in – not just for email:

Apart from these great blogs, many articles have been written about email, email overload, best practices on how to manage email and so on. There exist posts such as the “10 email commandments“, requests for “replacing email” (see 2), initiatives like “inbox zero“, the “email charter” and some even suggest to limit the length of email responses.

So clearly, there is a problem with email. But is it really just email or is there communication overload in general?

Craig Roth from Gartner in 2011 wrote an article called “If You Thought Your Inbox Was Overloaded, Wait Until Activity Streams” which sparked an interesting discussion not just on his blog but across the web on whether streams will actually be the solution we’re all looking for.

To us at Unified Inbox it’s immaterial whether a user wants to consume information in the form of feeds (or an activity stream) or in the form of a traditional inbox. It should be their choice. But they will then need additional choices such as the sources of information (what messages are displayed), in which order (why they’re prioritized and sorted like this) and how one can deal (what actions one can take) with them.

Before we delve into those choices, let’s take a look at the two fundamental differences in how people communicate. One is “synchronous”, for instance:

  • in person
  • video conferencing
  • calling
  • chatting

In synchronous communication, a reaction is expected from each other in real-time or at least next to real-time.

The other one is “asynchronous”, for instance:

  • postal mail
  • email
  • notes left on desktop or otherwise
  • SMS (though these days this is sometimes used almost like chatting)
  • fax (though it’s hardly used these days)
  • commenting on the web (i.e. on articles or on posts in social networks and so on)
  • voicemail (recorded messages left on an automatic or manual answering service)

The nature of asynchronous messaging therefore leaves the recipients time to respond when they are ready for it.

Why does this differentiation matter and what does it have to do with inbox management?

For several years it was assumed that multitasking is something that would help us to increase our intelligence. It was heavily promoted around early 2000 along the rise of our computer’s ability to do so, but it’s now clear, that except with the Dual N-Back task (which is a quite specific use case of multitasking), the increase of intelligence promoted by multitasking actually is a myth.

So for the two main ways in which people communicate, unification of both is possible, but given a user can only focus properly on one conversation at a time, unifying synchronous communication is less practical at this time.

That said, then why have asynchronous channels not been properly unified yet?

In fact, the sorting and prioritizing of such incoming messages could easily be done as per the users personal preferences (noted above) and such a system could even learn from the users behaviour eventually, making it a more intelligent inbox that gets better and better over time.

Such a Unified Inbox has the ability to sort all incoming messages and conversations according to the individual users relationships, their current focus/interests and related context, rather than just by date, subject, or sender – independent of the source of where the messages came from.

A layer with “unified inbox management features” on top of all asynchronous communication channels would further enable an information worker to deal with such messages in much the same way, rather than having to learn using different systems with different functions for the individual channels where there are frequent media breaks in conversations and synchronicity around contact data.

So what are we doing to give our users a better inbox management experience?

We’re using the concept of 5 “D’s” to empower our users managing all inboxes centrally and completely from one place, namely:

  1. Do/Deal with it (Reply/Move etc.)
  2. Delegate (Assign/Transfer responsibility, like ticketing & task management)
  3. Delete (and Archive)
  4. Defer (Delay / with or without reminder – until later)
  5. Distribute (i.e. Share a Tweet/Email on FB / vice-versa / Export to other systems etc.)

With them, it’s possible to create structured processes and workflows from previously unstructured (inbox) data, even across communication channels. While every email, tweet or facebook message is a task, because I have to deal with it somehow, it’s still the user’s personal choice of whether to manage tasks within or outside an inbox.

Making this experience (which has become such a big part of our private and working lives) easier, fun and more productive, that’s what Unified Inbox is all about.

What are your thoughts?

Did we miss anything? Have an idea? Would you like to register for pre-launch access? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

30 thoughts on “The Future Of Inbox Management

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  10. I was going to raise Nathan’s point about how we handle streams like Twitter differently than unquestionably direct & personal ones like voicemail…but you addressed that in your reply. To that end, though, your ability to recognize not only the value but the the norms for each communication medium will be very important.

    The power of streams is their ability to surface personalized content that we probably don’t need to act on (often even when we’re called out). The power of products like Mailbox is their ability to help us get out-of-sight the content that we do need to deal with (without any prioritization or ability to monitor its status). Arguably streams are mostly distractions and deferring messages is too rudimentary, so a great unified inbox will help eliminate distractions and help us resolve rather than simply defer the important stuff… but this gets very complicated very fast. To Chirag’s point, complex products require not only training but change of behavior.

    I would love to see all these problems solved, and I like the way you’re thinking about it. I look forward to seeing the power of the AI you’re bringing here, and also how you’re addressing the challenge of the different values & norms for each type of communication. Especially when these can be different for different age groups, cultures and, at times, everyone.

    • Recognizing the norms for each communication medium is super important. I totally agree. In fact, today we may have the best norms so far with added functionality like #hashtags @mentions, extended privacy aspects and ultimately the users behaviour around it being driven by various social media networks. The evolution in communication has been stronger that most admit or are willing to realize and in that, norms have been changed already. These new “norms” come with a new generation of people that will demand new systems to manage those.

      Mailbox is great, but what is the use to get stuff out of the way just to have it come back hitting you harder the next time. I may be I’ll defer the same thing 4x. Why? I’m spending at least 8 clicks (or touches) for one thing that I haven’t even really dealt with. Plus I have to make a decision each time taking up some “decision power” just to defer something which could be otherwise be used for more important things requiring some mindshare. Again, I agree with you that resolving will be key more than to simply defer. But I do see sense in deferring, on average, 10-15% of my messages are of the defer type. Be nice to see the analytics for the 5 D’s one day :)

      Really looking forward to have an off-blog chat soon!

      • I agree – we do have much better norms today, and much more sophistication in our understanding of messaging and info consumption,.. but we also have way more messages. I can’t really say what is growing faster – our norms or our overload?

  11. Interesting write up Toby. The 5Ds approach, or Getting Things Done (GTD) approach as its been called before a few years ago, still doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried normal email, priority inbox, GTD, and the mailbox iphone app approach where everything is a task and you defer bits for later days, but none are the ideal solution. I think there’s still a significant innovation required, and a unified inbox is still not there yet for me either. I tend to classify emails into a few different mental boxes, some I just want to acknowledge receipt of in a polite way, almost like a ‘like’ button, but don’t want to reply to (maybe your interface is a like button, and the recipient gets an automated email); there’s some people who I want to hear from and reply immediately, but everything else is noise, but there’s still politeness that requires you to respond somehow and somewhen. No-one has cracked it for me yet. I do think, looking at some above comments, that automation on the recipient side is part of this solution, but no-one yet, even cutting edge startups, are thinking simplistically, and innovative enough for my liking. What’s the simplest interface that solves this comms problem? Is it a checklist at the start of each day that intelligently files incoming emails, and auto-responds to the recipient to let them know when you’re likely to reply, but you don’t see it until you need to (taking length of time since receipt into account). If this worked, and I didn’t have to file each and every email, this is getting close to a better solution. I can see the problems, but hope you can cut through this to find the killer-solution. Happy to sit down with you when I’m back in NZ in mid-Nov. Good luck, keep on trucking.

    • I totally agree with you Dan, that there is no ideal solution out there. GTD or Deferring in my opinion doesn’t go far enough on the one side and on the other puts a heavy burden on the user to “do” a lot of things to make it work. Like many have commented below, it must be really automized and with a highly acurate aspect of artificial intelligence (AI) in order for the user to make it a smooth experience.

      Also I think the simplicity you mentioned is key, especially in relation to personalized user behaviour. So to summarize, maximum intelligent automization + simplicity + personalized user experience, is this something that you think could work for Unified Inbox?

  12. One thing occurs to me: within the asynchronous channels there is another distinction. There are channels where you are expected to (eventually) read and somehow act on every item (email and voice mail being prime examples), and there are those where you just skim and look at a fraction of the stream, letting the rest disappear unattended (the usual case with RSS feeds and Twitter). Unifying these two types is a challenge, because of this difference in consumption mode. Finding a good way to do this, that would do justice to both with the proper priorities within and between types, is an interesting challenge!

    • It’s good you mention this Nathan, because it gives us the ability to clarify. Actually I find that most things in a stream are like noise. If I want to browse a news section, search and discover, I go and look at a stream. Any stream for that matter, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Flipboard, Pixable and so on.

      But, if I simply want to see what I actually have to respond to eventually (or at least most probably should take notice of), then I usually venture into my inbox. So apart from focusing on asynchronous communication at this point, we also focus on those conversations in which you’re actually personally addressed (i.e. an @mention or a reply to a comment you’ve posted on the web or so). We’re not bringing streams of information to you which may or may not be relevant, for this we feel it’s better that people continue to use the native experiences that Twitter, Facebook etc. offer.

  13. Not sure whether this fits under delegate, but an important part of the way I handle messaging in addition to your approaches above is to Automate. I use a variety of automated messages and actions for certain requests to eliminate the impact on me at all.

    The most important overriding aim here is to reduce cognitive burden, an all methods need to be measured against this goal. Measuring what you don’t do is hard, but a core part of determining a personal or corporate ROI.

    • I think the question of automating stuff is a good one. It’s also one which highly depends on the users ability to manage the system. Some are more skilled, some less. Ideally the user doesn’t have to learn and do anything for automising something, it happens naturally by using the system.

      So what we want to create is a system that (as much as automatically and sensibly as possible) helps the user to improve his inbox management, much like Mike further down commented already: “…coach us how to change in ways that will improve our effectiveness and efficiency”.

      Hopefully we’ll be able to build into the system just enough AI and learning ability to adopt and learn best-practises from a users behaviour and potentially even suggesting those to other users, i.e. “best inbox recipes” or so.

  14. Hi Toby,

    Interesting to see unified inbox evolving/pivoting a little bit from collaboration side to more towards the inbox management side. Here are some thoughts:

    Behavioral or a Technical Problem?

    The 5D concept is exciting, refreshing and definitely makes sense. To me, it is more of a behavioral up-skill rather than a technical/software problem. If i want to follow the 5D concept, i can start implementing that RIGHT NOW. I don’t need any special software to do that. Why? Because its a methodology of managing your communication, rather than a software solution. The question for me — if unified inbox does focus as a important part of its future, the question i would ask is — would unified inbox make it so much easier for me to follow the 5D concept and also outweigh the benefits of using various platform for different communications (discuss below), that customers will use it and pay for it?

    Hoping to Change/Adapt human behavior is a tough challenge as humans usually resist change, and don’t like changing habits, specially behavioral habits, even though they/world knows its better for them and they probably know its the future, we still resist as thats our natural tendency.

    A personal example — As i work at xero, i deal with lots of accountants/bookkeepers on a every day basis. One of the guys said they are using workflowmax to manage their workflow, but not xero. When asked why, he said that it is TOO FAST and TOO EASY, and it will reduce what we charge our clients because with xero we can get stuff done much more quicker. I was shocked. They probably know cloud computing is the future, all accounting softwares whether xero or myob are moving to cloud computing, bank feeds, and all the good stuff, its the future — but they wanted to be behind and didn’t wanted to change their behavior.

    The point = A key part of success for a futuristic product is education, and teaching the market that they need this and how this change their lives — this is specially important for software solutions that require a behavioral change.

    The advantages of multiple tools.

    The other thing that stuck me while thinking about unified communication and observing my current communication pattern is that what could be a list of things/reasons the biggest challenges faced by the solution that pitched themselves as a unified/all-in-one sort of solutions? Here are couple of reasons:

    1. 5D concept sort of solves the problem of managing your communication overload. But sort of it doesn’t. Here is why: its solely based on the idea of reaction to an incoming asynchronous message. But when we think about our current patterns of engaging on the internet across various channels (email, facebook, twitter, etc. ) — they are not all reactionary. I can 5D working very well for managing email overload. However, how well it would work with your other forms of communication depends on your usage pattern of social media. If i go on facebook to hang out every couple of hours or less, then i would be much likely respond to facebook message from there rather than through 3 rd party tool which will probably have some limitations, and also because it doesn’t feel facebookish.

    Similarly if i go to hootsuite, tweetdeck to see what other people are saying and just observing, rather than engaging — then i will probably end up replying through that native platform that is custom built for that channel rather than a 3rd party tool which will probably not have that feeling/environment/functionality that custom built tools have.

    Unified communications, 5D and collaboration focus are really great and i think there is definitely something there .. we need to figure out the right mix and how it balances with actual customer needs and for who specifically does it solve the problem based on their online communication patterns.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Chirag. Actually if you had written that comment just a year (or even 6 months ago), I would have simply agreed with most of what you said.

      But in the past few months, I can see more and more people struggling with the overwhelming amount of messages, choices of communication channels and the thus created silos, media and information breaks, distributed contact information and so on. I think it’s very interesting when you say “we need to figure out the right mix and how it balances with actual customer needs and for who specifically does it solve the problem based on their online communication patterns.”

      It really depends on the pain somebody experiences having to deal with such different forms of asynchronous communication throughout the day. Ask a Blackberry user who got used to his Unified Inbox when switching to Android or iOS what he misses the most – 99% he will say, my “unified inbox”. Considering that Blackberry users traditionally are some of the most hard core messaging users anyway (see, this is no wonder. So to start with, we’d clearly target those incredibly busy people who simply don’t have time to check their Facebook or Twitter feed (and apps) every 3-4 hours and simply want to get that stuff out of the way that they have to deal with anyway (because they’ve been personally addressed).

  15. This is a future facing concept. Blackberry Hub on Z10 and Q10 is a slimmed down version, but is moving in this direction. However, it has far fewer action options and is asynchronous. And Blackberry usage is stagnant now. If Unified InBox delivers, life will be simpler for us all.

    • Thanks Chris, funny enough I was also thinking of Blackberry users just now when I replied Chirag’s comment and even before reading yours. Many Blackberry users are approaching us now and asking for an alternative solution to the Blackberry Hub in form of a Unified Inbox on other devices.

  16. Actually, I’ve done some research on unification of communication channels. Speaking with different people led to some unexpected results. I can share and discuss the information, if you’re interested.

    • Couldn’t agree more. It also depends how big the pain for the people you’ve spoken to personally is. An Inbox (any kind) is something very personal. Just a like a living room. So the “inbox atmosphere”, i.e. the situation and the visual environment in which people operate is different, leading to different feedback and unlimited opinions. I’m super interested in your findings and will ping you by email.

  17. I fully support the idea of Unified Inbox. Dealing with different asynchronous communication systems becomes more and more too time-consuming. Not having the right information at the right time can cause business troubles.

    • Thanks Bernd, that’s actually the crazy part: on one side, a Unified Inbox makes sure you don’t miss anything, on the other side it can actually easily increase overload as nothing gets lost in the void. Which is why we’re working on smart algorithms to sort your inbox not just by date, but by many other factors (relationship, context, importance etc.)

  18. The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous communication is interesting. Another way I often think of the two is in terms of intrusion on personal space and time. Synchronous communication is often “rude” – it demands immediate attention and doesn’t occur unless I stop what I am doing and engage. Asynchronous communication is “polite”. I have control over when I do it and how much time I devote to it. The former is only partially in my control and the latter is fully in my control. However, asynchronous communication does not fulfill the emotional need we all have to interact with other humans in real time, so there is motivation to engage in synchronous communication to feel connected.

    Also, when it comes to the efficiency of our asynchronous communication – the area of value added for Unified Inbox – I think we all may be a bit schizophrenic about our needs. On the one hand we want an intelligent and intuitive tool that thinks like we do and can quickly sort things out for us. But, on the other hand we are not sure that the way we sort things out is optimal and we also desire better techniques, tools and discipline.

    Perhaps the best solution is one that can initially mimic our personal style but then intervene and coach us how to change in ways that will improve our effectiveness and efficiency. Not sure this is even within the realm of possibility for Unified Inbox, but sometimes it is useful to wish big.

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