Last week, I explained why Google’s Priority Inbox feature was terrible for worker productivity. This week, I’ll explain what they should do instead.
The reason that I can’t stand Priority Inbox—which automatically reorders your messages based on what Google thinks is most pressing—is because this is conflict-avoidance for email. You already get too much email, and instead of tackling the problem Google is simply keeping most of the problem out of view.
This is not terrible if you practice efficient email management techniques. But if you’re the equivalent of an email hoarder and have hundreds or thousands of messages, Google is the enabling friend who shuffles boxes around in your overstuffed home. Priority Inbox makes the issue worse, not better.
It’s not as if this is a new philosophy for Google. As explained in their about section (emphasis added):
Use Google search within Gmail to find the exact message you want, no matter when it was sent or received. You don’t have to spend time sorting your email, just search for a message when you need it and we’ll find it for you.
With Gmail, each message you send is grouped with all the responses you receive. This conversation view continues to grow as new replies arrive, so you can always see your messages in context.
We’re always working to increase the amount of free storage we offer in Gmail, and if you want even more, you can always purchase additional space. With all that space, you can archive instead of deleting messages, so they won’t clutter your inbox but will remain searchable in case you ever need them again.
Again, this is enabling behavior. You can’t really learn to deal with email directly if systems like Gmail allow you to avoid actually processing email messages and deleting them or organizing them yourself. Would you really want a storage unit that automatically expanded as you kept adding items? Or would you rather try to figure out how to simplify your life so that you didn’t need the storage unit in the first place?
What Google Should Do
In order to understand what Google should be doing instead of inventing new ways to support bad behavior, we need to know a little bit more about how email works. Right now, Google does include a feature to show the “original” email message without all the bells and whistles of the Gmail interface:
If you click that, you will get something like the following:
Those bits of text are called email headers. They provide information about the email beyond just what you see in the body. For example, the subject of the message is “Re: New T-Shirt Orders”, but the Thread-Topic is simply “New T-Shirt Orders.” That’s because this message is actually a reply to an earlier message, and the sender’s email program is keeping track of the original subject.
From what I can tell, there are about 200 million active Gmail users in the world. That’s enough clout that Google can suggest new email headers and others are likely to follow suit. Consider for example these ideas:
Automated-Newsletter: – Used to voluntarily mark an email as part of an ongoing newsletter. That way, companies that send these messages (“email service providers”) could receive a special mark in inboxes.
Replaces-Unread-Message-X: – This header could be used to indicate that an email should completely replace a previous message. That way, if you need to send out an update and someone hasn’t read the previous message, they don’t need to see both.
Expires-After: – Indicate a date after which the message is definitely not relevant if it has never been read. Old messages could be pushed into an archive or deleted entirely.
These kinds of extensions, if implemented judiciously, could help change email for the better. Google needs to rethink Priority Inbox. Instead of helping people use email irresponsibly, they should change the design of email by encouraging better behavior.