June 17, 2020

First Impressions of Hey

A few quick thoughts from my first hours using the new email service

Hey is a new email service (not just a new email app but an entire new system) from the makers of Basecamp. The discussion around Hey has, so far, been mostly about its troubled App Store experience.

I’m going to side-step that entire discussion to talk about the product itself. I’ve had access since launch and have gathered a few early impressions.

My main take-away is that I like this a lot and will most likely pay to keep using it as my main email system, but I want to dig into a few of the concerns I have so far.

A New Take on Email?

Hey is a bit less innovative than it thinks it is.

Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that it’s innovative in the way Apple is often innovative: not in the creation of entirely new ideas, but in the assembly of those ideas into a cohesive and superior whole.

Hey borrows a lot from earlier attempts to revolutionize email: its Feed view borrows from MailPilot, its Focused Reply view borrows from Tempo, categories and labels have been in Gmail for years, and interaction features like Reply Later and Set Aside are more rebrands of existing functionality than something new.

I’m perfectly fine with this because I see the revolution of email as a process rather than an explicit before/after transition. Hey is another step in that process, and one that assembles some of the best aspects of previous attempts into one very opinionated new form.

On UX Copy

Before I go any further, I have to address my biggest annoyance with Hey so far: its language.

Instead of an inbox, we have an Imbox. Instead of snooze, we have Reply Later. Instead of flags or stars, we have Set Aside.

I understand wanting to enforce the philosophy behind the product in its interface, but I find this approach alienating. I can’t look at Imbox” without thinking it’s a typo, and I don’t know that it helps with adoption to rename some of the few familiar features from other email services.

As someone coming from Gmail, I might see that there’s no snooze and worry that I’m giving up that useful functionality when it just has a different name in Hey—Reply Later.

I understand the thinking behind it, and while I would have probably opted for copy that builds on existing understanding, I suspect the majority of users weren’t using things like snooze to begin with, so to them it’s irrelevant.

Perhaps the clearer naming actually makes it easier to adopt by signalling its intended usage better.

In the end, I’m not surprised. This concept of renaming familiar features is common in the Basecamp design playbook. Direct messages are pings” in Basecamp, and its notification tray is called Hey!”—though I wonder if that one will change given the confusion it might now cause.

Zero Inbox

Despite Jason Fried’s claims to the contrary, I find that Hey does work as a platform for adherents of an inbox zero approach to email.

Inbox zero, as I understand and apply it, is to turn your inbox into a triage point. If something is in the inbox, it hasn’t yet been acted upon. If it’s been acted upon, it isn’t in your inbox anymore—it gets archived or deleted/marked as spam if that’s the intended action.

Hey builds upon this by removing a few unnecessary actions. There is no archive” anymore: an email is either seen or unseen, and both live in the same environment. Once you’ve seen an email, it moves to the bottom of your Imbox (I hate this word) and remains easily accessible.

In fact, there’s no Sent folder either; sent emails are part of the Imbox’s seen area. This is a bit disorienting at first, but actually makes sense when I think about it. Sent folders come from a time before threaded messages and conversations.

I can surface those emails through other means and from other areas anyway. It may be more divisive for others, but this is a big change that I’m happy to accept.

Comparing to Gmail

Since I’m coming from using a Gmail account as my primary email system, I’m noticing the ways in which Hey is different.

In many ways, the two are similar: both are web-first, both are very responsive, both have strong and simple keyboard shortcut support, and both implement email in non-standard ways (though Gmail does support IMAP/POP and thus third-party clients—something Hey does not).

They differ mostly in how far they’re willing to push beyond the traditional concept of email. Google was once bolder on this front, with Inbox (which I still keenly miss), but Hey takes this even further.

This boldness is not universally beneficial though, and unfortunately it’s made email triage an overall slower process for someone like me.

In Gmail, I have no multiple inboxes, no labels, no categories, no rules, and no filters. Email from all my various addresses forwards into my one Gmail account and I’ve worked hard to keep email volume low and signal-to-noise ratio high. I rarely have more than five emails in my inbox at any given time, so email is not a source of stress or overwhelm in my life.

I recognize that this is a luxury, as many people can’t lower their incoming email volume as dramatically as I have. Still, for low-volume users like myself, Hey’s approach has drawbacks that are worth noting.

In Gmail, any non-spam email I get is immediately visible in a single inbox, and without even leaving that inbox I can perform actions like archiving or snoozing simply by hovering over the message and clicking the appropriate icon that appears.

Everything I haven’t seen and need to act on is visible to me at once, in one place.

In Hey, this isn’t necessarily the case.

There are technically 4 places to look for new messages in Hey: the Imbox (important or personal messages), the Feed (newsletters, advertising, etc.), the Paper Trail (transactional notifications), and the Screener (quarantine for new, unapproved senders). Not only that, but I can’t act on those messages directly from the list without opening each message first, or initiating a selection.

Hey does offer an Everything view that’s a bit more familiar, but it can’t be set as the default and is clearly not intended to be used much.

I would love the ability to disable the alternative category inboxes entirely (the way you can configure which tools you have active in a Basecamp instance). That way, I could replicate the same streamlined single-inbox system I’m coming from, but with the benefits of Hey’s other innovations.

Basically keeping just the Imbox, with all new messages heading there.

Inverting Assumptions

In Hey, notifications are off for everything by default and there are no global notification controls.

Instead of the default assumption that anyone can email you and new email always deserves a notification, Hey starts from the opposite assumption: new senders must be screened before they can send you mail, and no sender is worthy of triggering an interruption in your day unless you explicitly say so.

If you want to be notified of new messages, you have to turn on notifications for each sender. In the beginning, this means a lot of checking back in with the app to see what’s landed since your last visit as there’s no indication that there’s been any activity from the outside. There’s also no way to be less granular about this—you can’t screen in all addresses from a particular URL, for instance.

In theory, you don’t want to be notified of things that go into the Feed or the Paper Trail because they’re not actionable messages. That’s fair. But there’s no notification for new messages in the Screener, so I’m forced to check my emails a lot more frequently than I did with Gmail simply to make sure that anything urgent is dealt with and any new VIP gets notifications turned on for future messages.

This is something that’s to be expected with a clean slate approach as you train the system, but even having the ability to toggle notifications for Screener items temporarily during this initial transition period would help.

On the bright side, notifications (once enabled for a contact) come via push and are incredibly quick—coming from Gmail that’s not new, but it’s still an important feature worth mentioning.

Setting aside the different workflow and inbox situation, the only functional aspect of Gmail that I miss so far is Send Later, which I use regularly. I was kind of surprised to see it missing because it’s a useful feature of modern email.

I consider email replies in three categories, based on my capacity and the delivery timing:

  1. If I have the capacity to reply immediately and I want my recipient to get my response immediately, I simply reply to emails from the inbox as they come in. This is the classic email workflow that exists everywhere.
  2. Reply Later in Hey (snooze in Gmail) takes care of situations where I don’t have time to reply when the message comes in, but I want the recipient to get my answer as soon as I send it.
  3. What’s missing in Hey—and what Send Later in Gmail allows for—is the third case where I have time to reply immediately but I don’t want the message to be delivered right away. For example, if I’m answering a work email in a spare moment during after-work hours, I don’t necessarily want to teach my coworkers or clients that I’m available outside of work hours; I’d prefer to use Send Later so the message is acted upon from my perspective but only delivered to its recipient first thing the next morning.

Unique Benefits of Hey

I said at the beginning of this piece that Hey includes functionality unique to the service, and I want to quickly mention those features because they’re great:

  • The concept of the Screener is wonderful: it inverts the assumption of consent with emails and allows you complete control over who gets to send you messages
  • You can clip (or highlight) content from emails for easy reference—think of something like Kindle or Instapaper highlights but for your emails
  • You can add private sticky messages to emails in your Imbox, or even rich private notes (with support for file attachments) within threads
  • Threads can be renamed, so you don’t have to deal with inscrutable subject lines anymore; the change is only visible to you, of course, and you can always see the original subject line if you need to
  • Threads can also be merged, useful in situations where you have separate emails or threads about the same subject and would prefer to keep them together
  • If you’re stuck on a thread that you don’t need to be on, deleting it won’t stop future replies, so what do you do? In Hey, you can ignore the thread so future replies don’t land in your Imbox—they still arrive, but they get immediately filed in your seen area so they don’t distract
  • Any and all spy tracking pixels and other sleazy marketing technologies in email are automatically blocked
  • High-volume senders who you need to keep hearing from can have their Imbox impact tamed by bundling all their messages to keep clutter to a minimum
  • Large attachments just work. Think of Apple’s MailDrop or the various extensions for attaching things from Dropbox, except this is native to the service and is hassle-free for sender and recipient

It’s also important to me that Hey is a paid product, and that by paying in money I avoid paying in data. This may or may not concern you, but when it comes to something as central to digital life as your email, I think it’s prudent to minimize the amount of data leakage.

It’s part of the reason I always preferred to use the native Gmail clients on all my devices instead of opening up access to that data on more fronts. At least that way I only have to trust Google, not Google and the developers of whichever third-party app I’m interested in trying.

Hey has no third-party app support, so that solves that. And since it’s a paid product, it’s easier to trust that the company doesn’t need to access or sell my data to support itself because it’s directly monetizing my usage through a subscription.

As it should be.

Wrapping Up

In the end, Hey is launching stronger than I expected it to. The web app is remarkably lean and quick, it looks great, it’s worked flawlessly thus far, and it brings together many smart ideas from other attempts at improving email.

So far, my issues with it are fairly basic:

  • No import from your previous provider means there’s a high barrier to entry
  • I don’t want to use the Feed and Paper Trail categories, and I can choose not to send emails there, but there’s no way to turn them off entirely
  • I think the card view in the Feed is fundamentally a flawed idea. The larger cards mean more content to load from each email, slowing down the loading of that entire page if you have multiple image-heavy emails (as is usually the case for the marketing messages you’re supposed to put there)
  • I miss having a Send Later option
  • I wish there were more global controls for notifications, even if just to ease the initial transition period
  • Light/Dark mode is always tied to your system setting and can’t be controlled separately—I keep my iMac in Dark Mode because I prefer the dark toolbar, but I basically never want sites or apps in dark mode on my desktop

Hey won’t make sense for people looking for business email, or those who have very sophisticated custom automations and email workflows that rely on intricate rules. In theory, it’s not for me—a low-volume email user—either. Still, I’m enjoying it and will likely keep using it rather than reverting to Gmail.

More than anything, I’m excited to see a big, opinionated player getting into this space in such a dramatic way.

This isn’t just another email client, tied to the legacy of the past, it’s a fresh start. I hope it pushes things forward for everyone, and I’m glad to be in relatively early so I can help provide feedback as the product grows and matures.

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