There was much excitement last autumn when Google launched Inbox, it’s revolutionary new email program. It came with accompanying mobile apps, and the company implored you to fully immerse yourself with it. Like any new product, it required invites to get in and try it. It’s the cool new thing.
But having given it a few months, I’m going to have to abandon it – at least for the time being. I’ll probably check it out every so often to see if they’ve fixed some of my issues. Some of them are still unaddressed from my initial thoughts previously.
But it’s not all bad.
[Note: I’ll use a capitalised “Inbox” to talk about the Google product, and a lowercase “inbox” to talk about where my mail goes generically.]
It’s a Google Now experience for your email. And that’s good. The program is pretty smart at identifying certain kinds of emails and dealing with them swiftly.
Signing up for a mailing list that uses MailChimp? It saves you even opening your email to confirm your subscription.
Bought something from Amazon? It embeds a little picture of your order from the confirmation email and delivers you an easy route to tracking your purchase.
There are loads of these little things where somebody has smartly identified a specific kind of email notification and provided you with a shortcut to dealing with it.
Sadly there are many more of these.
As I mentioned previously, it uses too much white space.
You can change the layout of Gmail to suit your purposes. For example, my work laptop’s screen is only 15″ and so I prefer “cozy” for the density of information. Not too busy, but not too much white space. Inbox uses acres of space, which is fine on a 22″ monitor, but terrible on smaller laptops (or Chromebooks!).
Labels, labels, labels.
I use labels. It’s one of the most powerful things in Gmail for organising your email. I use an extensive set of rules to categorise mail as it comes in. It takes a certain amount of work to do this, but it keeps your inbox in check to a much greater extent.
Certainly Gmail does a good job on its own identifying emails generated by your social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc. But I can use labels to gather together less important emails into one place. Then I can check them out at my leisure. Inbox really doesn’t like that. It prefers that you undo all that “skip inbox” stuff and read your emails that way. Certainly it gathers them together well, but suddenly a relatively clean inbox gets busier again.
Mark as Read.
You just can’t do this. You have to open and close each individual email. Much marketing email falls into the category of “worth having, but rarely reading,” in the sense that occasionally there’s a useful sounding email from a business that you want to read. I’m perfectly capable of unsubscribing from those I don’t want at all.
And if you use labels, then marking emails unread becomes more important, because if you click on a label and find unread emails in there, you spend time looking at them again to see if you missed something important.
No notification for emails that skip your inbox.
This is another problem related to using labels. I tend to have interesting but essentially unimportant emails skip my inbox and put themselves neatly into what are effectively sub-folders. I do this because I know that the emails are essentially unimportant, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll go and read them from time to time. Some email lists and social media notifications fall into this category. But of course if you use this functionality, then you have no knowledge of the emails ever arriving. I don’t want a full notification on my mobile, but I would like a hint that a label contains unread email. Google has set Inbox up to cater for these emails, but it prefers to bunch them altogether as “Social” or whatever. I’ve got finer control and can better group similar emails.
Invitations just don’t seem to work properly.
This is a really bad one, and I just don’t understand what they’re doing. Inbox tries to be very smart. If you order some train tickets online for example, when the confirmation comes through, before you know it, Inbox has added the trip to my calendar. I’ve no problem with this. But one of my breaking points came earlier in the week when a friend sent me an email invitation via his corporate Outlook account. Here it is as it appeared to me in Outlook.
The email appeared to me in Inbox as a completely blank email. I genuinely thought he must have done something wrong to be sending me these empty emails. But when I looked at my calendar, I discovered that the details had been dropped straight in. I hadn’t been given a choice – did I want to attend or not – it had just gone in.
Here’s that same email in regular Gmail.
A date, time, place (yes – we’re really going there), and I’ve cropped it, but a Yes/No/Maybe option for accepting the invitation. I can’t for the life of me understand why this doesn’t work.
Links from emails – reset the email to the top.
This is harder to explain, but it’s incredibly annoying and someone must have purposefully programmed Inbox to do this.
If you get an email containing a number of links – from a news organisation for example – you can of course click a link and open it in a new tab. However when you return to your original email in Inbox, no matter how far through the email you’d got to before clicking the link, the email has returned to the top. For longer emails with editorial and links, that becomes ridiculous, and you waste ages scrolling back down to where you got to.
It’s completely pointless, and I don’t know why it does it.
It hides your spam.
Spam’s not good obviously, so why would this be a problem? Well it’s because Google’s spam filters aren’t perfect – they tend to be a little over-zealous if anything. So I tend to have a quick look at my recent spam every few days, just to make sure that something I wanted to see hasn’t been spam-trapped. It regularly misidentifies marketing emails that I’ve signed up for – not essential, but irritating. And curiously, some Facebook notifications get caught up too. Very occasionally, something more important finds its way in. I always “teach” Gmail that these are not spam emails, but it does mean that my vigilance is warranted.
You can’t find your contacts.
OK – this is pretty dreadful in Gmail anyway. For some reason Google makes it incredibly hard to get a page listing your email contacts. It’s there, but it’s hidden. In Gmail you have to click on the little down arrow next to the word Gmail in the top left of the screen. Contacts and Tasks are hidden underneath. With Inbox, I can find no way of getting to them. Tasks don’t really exist there either, with instead timings being associated with emails.
Look, this is a beta product. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me. Despite all that white space, it does look lovely. But the functionality means that I can’t stick with it.
I suspect I’m not the only one. Although Google implored me to jump fully in, I found myself having to go back and forth to regular Gmail. So Google started doing things to persuade me to stick with Inbox:
– “Let me turn off Gmail notifications that duplicate Inbox. You only need Inbox ones.”
– If you open Gmail in desktop browser, a little prompt reminds you that you’e activated Inbox and wouldn’t you prefer to go there?
Many of my problems with Inbox are because I’ve carefully tuned Gmail to my needs. I’ve used its filters and labels to carefully personalise it to meet my needs. But the “average” user probably doesn’t do that. They let Gmail sift email into the three or four generic bowls, and don’t do much beyond. They don’t care about read/unread/spam email. And I need to face the fact that I prefer order to chaos.
Only when Inbox has power-user controls to let me take more command over my email will it be ready for me.
I will give it a while, and come back regularly to see what’s happening. But for the time being, it’s back to Gmail full-time for me.