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:
- Nathan Zeldes on “Information Overload“
- Monica Seeley on “Brilliant Email“
- Darl Kolb’s “Connectivity Corner“
- Brad Feld’s articles on “Work-Life Balance“
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
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
- 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:
- Do/Deal with it (Reply/Move etc.)
- Delegate (Assign/Transfer responsibility, like ticketing & task management)
- Delete (and Archive)
- Defer (Delay / with or without reminder – until later)
- 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.