May 29, 2015

Google Inbox: 8 Months Later

Time flies when you’re having fun, even when it comes to email.

I wrote about Google Inbox when it was first released, and I’ve been using it on and off ever since. Yesterday, along with the rest of its I/O talking points, Google announced that it was opening Inbox up to everyone.

One of the main reasons I kept turning to Mailbox was the fact that it could handle all of my accounts whereas Inbox hadn’t yet rolled out to my Google Apps ones.

With all my email now consolidated into Inbox, it seemed like a good time to address the concerns I brought up initially and discuss some new ones that have emerged as I’ve used the product more.

Problems and Solutions

My initial issues with Inbox could be summed up easily:

  • Unclear or redundant feature concepts (Done vs. Read, Pins vs. Stars, Bundles vs. Labels)
  • Lack of unity across the ecosystem (Reminders vs. Google Tasks vs. Google Keep)
  • No signature capabilities Of those three, the latter two have been addressed in the update to the platform that’s rolling out with the announcement. Inbox now displays reminders created in Google Keep, and the option to create and edit signatures for accounts has been made available.

Unfortunately, the first point remains as problematic as ever.

Read vs. Unread

I still don’t understand the presence of read state information. If they kept it for feature parity with Gmail, they would have kept the ability to toggle it. But they didn’t. If they were deprecating the concept in favour of Done vs. Inbox (which is the equivalent of how many people were using Read vs. Unread) then they could have removed read states entirely…but they didn’t.

I understand that on a literal level they remain two pieces of information. After all, you can be done with an email without having actually read it (uninteresting promos, unsubscribe confirmations, etc.) but I think conceptually and functionally it would be better to have just the one set of states: Done or Not Done.

Inbox is all about streamlining, and this kind of duality is a layer of clutter that I could do without in a product whose primary goal is to change the way we work with email.

Pins vs. Stars

Similarly, I can’t seem to find a use for Pins. Since the whole point of Inbox is to keep only what you need to act on in your actual inbox, the ability to pin” things there seems redundant.

If I need things in my inbox…I’ll keep them there.

To my mind, pins would make sense as a method to denote important emails. In fact, that’s how I thought they worked until I realized that pinned emails appear only in the inbox. As soon as you mark them Done, the pin is removed.

This alone makes them useless for me, but I remain curious about how others are finding a use for them. I suspect it’s a feature geared toward those who are only halfway adopting the inbox zero philosophy.

Bundles vs. Labels

This particular aspect doesn’t bother me because I’ve never been a heavy user of labels (why label when you have such good search?).

That said, I wish that Google would make it clearer what their goals are for Bundles and how they fit into the Gmail architecture, because if I put myself in the shoes of someone who uses labels heavily, I’d be hard-pressed to understand how using Bundles would be better, or even different in a meaningful way.

Future Improvements

Now that I’ve spent so much time with Inbox, I’ve begun to notice other details that I would love to see tweaked, some larger than others. Whenever I contemplate switching back to Mailbox (which I still use on the desktop) or get frustrated with Inbox, it usually has to do with one of the following issues:

  • Unified inbox view
  • Better cross-platform presence
  • Details

Unified Inbox

I may have all my accounts accessible in Inbox now, but it still isn’t the true unified inbox experience that I’m after.

While using Mailbox, I see all emails from all accounts in one view. This is not only impossible in Inbox, but it affects other tasks too: when I reply to an email in Mailbox, it automatically replies from the correct account (and I can easily switch reply-from accounts with a tap).

In Inbox, I have to open the sidebar, switch accounts, and wait for it to load. If I need to reply to an email sent to one account from another account, I’m out of luck.

This is probably a topic that’s come up in Google’s design meetings for Inbox, and I imagine that they omitted the option because many people prefer to keep everything separate, and because the way their account system works doesn’t facilitate this kind of integrated view.

I still miss it though.

Better Cross-Platform Presence

It’s in the browser, so it’s available everywhere, right?

Browser compatibility aside, this still isn’t the case. There are two aspects to this problem that frustrate me, one of which I encounter on a daily basis.

In Mailbox, I’m unable to snooze by location. Instead, because there’s a native desktop app, I can snooze to desktop, which tells the app to show me that email the next time I’m at my computer. I can’t tell you how useful this is.

Many times when I’m out and about somewhere, I’ll get an email that I know I want to deal with at my computer. I could leave it sitting in the inbox, but the point of inbox zero is to keep the inbox free of anything you can’t or don’t want to act on.

Inbox does provide snoozing by location, but no snooze to desktop (there’s no desktop app to snooze to, and I guess it doesn’t trust browser agent indicators to judge what device you’re accessing Inbox from). This leaves me with the possibility of explicitly snoozing the email until I get home (as in the address), but that’s hardly a replacement.

For one thing, the next time I’m at a computer (which is when I want the email to return) might not be at home. It might be at a workplace, or a hotel, or a friend’s house. Likewise, snoozing by location requires Inbox to keep track of my location, which isn’t great for the battery life of mobile devices.

If I could trade explicit location snoozing in Inbox for a desktop snooze option, I would do so in a heartbeat.

Another cross-platform concern emerged in the wake of the Keep integration. I think Keep is great, but I use an iPhone, so in order to really take advantage of this, Google would need to release an iOS version of Keep. I have no idea if that’s in the cards (Material design pun reluctantly intended), but I hope so.


When you love and use a product, you tend to get nit-picky about the small ways in which it doesn’t conform to your expectations. There are three tiny things about Inbox that fall into this category for me: bundle notification settings, email sorting, and emptying spam/trash.

When I set up my bundle notifications, I like having Promos arrive only once per day. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to keep those comparatively meaningless interruptions out of my day. But…I don’t want those emails to be shown to me at 7am. I want to see them after my work day, in the evening. Sadly, Inbox does not provide the ability to choose a time - it’s either immediate notification, once per day at 7am, or once per week.

Email sorting is one of those things that I don’t personally need, but I know many people who do. When viewing the Done list in Inbox, the only sorting option is the default of viewing emails by when you marked them as done rather than when they arrived or any other criteria.

To me, it’s unimportant because I use the incredibly proficient search when I’m looking for an email, but I don’t see the harm in providing sorting options for those who like to look for things manually.

As for emptying the spam and trash folders…who doesn’t love the feeling of zapping all the junk away with one click? I know things get deleted automatically after a while, and I know I can manually move spam to trash, but who wants to act on those emails one by one? I want to blast them away with a single, satisfying click of the empty spam/trash” button. It’s cathartic and I wish Inbox allowed it.

All In With Inbox

For the time being, I’ve chosen to overlook these issues and use Inbox full-time to manage my emails.

I miss Mailbox’s unified inbox view and desktop snooze a great deal, but when I consider the advantages of bundling (including per-bundle notifications), surfacing of important information from within emails, beautiful interface, and vastly superior search, I feel better.

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