What Would Email Be If We Rebuilt It Today?
54 years since the first message was sent on MIT's MAILBOX system, email is the most ubiquitous form of business communication, and only continues to grow.
However, we at Monolist believe that the email inbox is fundamentally antiquated in today's increasingly collaborative, multi-platform, synchronous work environment.
Email in the modern workplace
Email as your online identity
Email actually started as a workplace messaging application that predates the internet. As the internet became more accessible, email has evolved into both your online mailing address as well as your online identity. With the rise of Gmail and GSuite, email has become the default authentication mechanism for most tools we use at work.
Email is the standard for formal business communication
In today’s workplace, email remains a cornerstone for communication with internal colleagues and external third parties. While tools like Slack have captured a large share of internal synchronous communication, most formal correspondence still happens over email.
Email is the notification center for work
Most, if not all workplace tools authenticate their users via their email addresses. As such, email is by default the communication mechanism between you and your tools. As more informal business communication shifts to other tools like Slack, the email inbox is increasingly a notification center for work.
Email is a task list
As a result of its default integration with workplace tools, your inbox is the most natural aggregator of your work. It’s where you go to discover new work (tasks that have been assigned to you, documents that you’ve been shared on, etc)., and to find out if anything important has changed that would shift your priorities. Furthermore, because emails stay in the inbox unless acted upon, many people use those notifications to track tasks that they need to accomplish.
Where does email fall short?
As teams become distributed, workflows involve an increasing number of tools, and workplace collaboration increasingly happens across multiple ecosystems, the cracks are starting to show. Inboxes simply weren’t built to handle the demands of the modern workplace, and the last ground-up design of the platform happened with Gmail 15 years ago. What are some of the problems that arise with modern inboxes?
1. Email is too open
"Your email inbox is a to-do list created by other people"— Conrad Hackett (@conradhackett) December 1, 2014
As long as they have it, anyone can send a message to your email address. That means the tool you used once, the recruiter that works for a headhunting agency, the SaaS tool that bought your email from a lead list, or that malicious phisher can all send you messages, and there's not much you can do to prevent it. Moreover, these annoying messages are given the same prominence in your inbox as important ones, making it difficult to parse the signal from the noise.
2. Email is a poor aggregator of context
Email is naive
Your inbox has no real awareness of its underlying content. When you receive two separate notifications related to one piece of your work (a pull request, for example), your inbox has no awareness that those notifications are linked to a common item. Furthermore, items that are completely irrelevant (old calendar invitations, for example) stick around because the inbox has no awareness that it’s an invitation; it just knows its an email.
Notifications only show you what’s changed, not what’s happening right now
Each email in your inbox reflects the most recent change to the underlying context it references. However, if I want to see the entire body of context related to the content that the email references, I need to leave the inbox entirely to do so. It’s impossible to look at your inbox and see the current status of all of your work.
3. The inbox was not designed to manage tasks
Just did a (partial) inbox cleaning— Prof Dynarski (@dynarski) April 5, 2019
Which led me to realize why I avoid this task
When I clean out my inbox, my to-do list ends up getting LONGER
This is extremely unsatisfying from a getting-things-done perspective
While email looks like a to-do list, it’s really a notification feed. If you receive an email that translates to a task, you might want to take notes about it, create some sub-tasks, and plan when you want to work on that task. Inboxes don't support any of that, so you often have to copy the email to another tool just to track it.
We’re at a technological inflection point.
Cloud-based software use is exploding, the number of tools people use at work continues to increase, and these workplace tools are only now beginning to provide API’s we can use to aggregate and manage data from the underlying platforms. Additionally, advances in data infrastructure and AI capabilities provide the opportunity to give people meaningful suggestions to help them do their best job.
At Monolist, our goal is to leverage these developments and deliver an inbox built specifically for work – one that pulls in all of your work from the various platforms you use, in one list.
How are we going to do it?
1. Aggregate tasks, not just notifications
As we’ve discussed, inboxes are naive. They only track notifications, which are unaware of the underlying material that they reference. A better inbox would track the tasks themselves, with all of the context and historical activity in-line and actionable from the inbox itself.
A global inbox for everything you need to do
For tools that are not directly integrated with Monolist, we’ll intelligently bundle notifications so that they’re not overwhelming your inbox and hiding important messages.
2. Make the default "open-ish"
Instead of just letting anyone into your inbox, Monolist will ask if you want to receive messages from new senders.
By turning a default-open protocol into something closer to a friend-request model, you increase the quality and signal of the information entering your inbox, and reinforce stronger boundaries between your work and non-work inbox.
3. Tools to organize and prioritize
Your inbox should both be the place you discover new work, as well as store your backlog of things you need to work on. We’ve broken down the inbox so you can find any piece of work with ease.
In addition to helping you find your work, we want to help you do it too, with a planning experience that enables you to schedule tasks, and reminders that ensure you accomplish them.
4. Turning the inbox into a personal assistant
With intelligent reminders, you no longer have to keep all of those messages or tasks in your head. Monolist gives you a heads up when it looks like you need to reply or follow up on your work, no matter the tool.
A new era for inboxes
Managing work has become too much work. Between the endless notifications you receive across tools, the hundreds of micro-decisions you make to plan how you'll spend your workday, and the dozens of post-it notes cluttering your desk, it's incredibly difficult to figure out what you need to do at any given moment.
At Monolist, we're trying to fix that. We're building what we think email would be if we had the chance to build it from scratch with the advancements in technology we have access to today.
Check it out here.