I’m going to dive straight into possible refinements to functionality here – each refinement has its own section – and I’d really like to gather your feedback.
If you want to wax lyrical about the “why” I’ve added a few paragraphs at the end.
Simplify Active Results
I think the big step is to abolish the separate “Active Results” tab, and simply add a box containing “To Dos” to the top of all search results, much like the different sections in Gmail’s own Priority Inbox.
So, if you click a Project, there will be a subset containing the active emails first, and then the regular Gmail search results below it. (Technically, the Gmail results would duplicate the ‘active’ results section, but I think that’s expected behaviour).
If you click on “Waiting On”, you will just see the active emails (as they are the only results).
And, the ‘Active Results’ controls will be simplified. Rather than a drop down of “Group By” and “Sort By”, there will be grouping buttons to hot switch between “To Dos” (split into statuses/deadlines), “Folders” (projects), and “Contacts” (people). Every view will default to the “To Dos” split.
I think there is a problem with having a sense of context/place. For example, if I go into Issues in our support account, it’s hard to drill into each individual issue. And once in an issue, it’s hard to progress to its sibling. I’d like to see the contents of a single folder, but easily jump between folders. The solution I prefer is a collapsible right-hand sidebar to switch between folders; but it might eat too much horizontal space. Other ideas are welcome!
(Please make sure you don’t miss I’m proposing a fairly big functional change: to stop a folder showing you all its emails AND all its sub folder’s emails; because it’s overwhelming. How do you feel about this?)
Keep Important Emails In Sight
We can add a Dashboard below the Inbox (which itself should be empty).
It will show you the emails for ‘Today’, emails in any other important statuses you select, and any projects you choose. There could also be the option to automatically show emails in pinned projects.
(If you ever used the Multiple Inbox Lab feature in GMail, this will be familiar).
Visually Reinforce Projects and People
This is a design process, and not yet fully worked out, but Pete & I want to do more to make it a no brainer to know whether you’re looking at a folder, a status/deadline, or a person.
Show Notes In Search Results
We can add a new search operator to Gmail, “in:note”, that would show a special set of search results, that only include emails with a note that matches your search term.
Ideally, any search you do would also look within the notes you write, and include those emails in the result. I’m not sure of the best way to do this. There are two major options:
- Introduce a new section to the search results, called “Notes”, then you can expand to see the emails that have notes matching the search. So, you search for “amex” and the note about “Get the amex receipt from Bob” appears. The downside is that the same email to Bob that mentions amex may appear in the regular Gmail results as well.
- We can store the notes as an actual email in the conversation thread, so Gmail will naturally include it in the search results if it matches any terms. This is more elegant, as there are no duplicate results, but it wouldn’t be visually obvious from the Gmail search results which conversations had notes. (If you wanted to only search for emails with notes, you’d add our proposed operator, “in:note”).
I think I prefer the 2nd option.
Work Within Projects By Highlighting Unread Items
If you automatically filter emails into projects, and then pin that project to the Review Bar, you essentially “live in” that project. As such, it would be helpful to have a section in the project’s items that just show new/unread emails — a mini inbox.
The “unread” count would also appear alongside each project in the Projects dropdown on the Review Bar.
This may only be of use to people who use Contexts, or perhaps Users (e.g. U/Andy, U/Lisa, like we use for delegation in the supp, but I’m thinking of an addition to the Review Bar to apply a “super filter”.
Suppose I have the context ‘Office’ (C/Office), and I’m in the office, I might apply the super filter ‘Office’. This would mean that all ‘To Do’ items – in fact the yellow counts everywhere – are filtered to only show items in ‘Office’. And this would be true in the proposed Dashboard too.
Why the little details matter so much
I think of ActiveInbox as a life support system. It puts your communication on rails, to help you and your peers glide towards your goals.
That means that the major benefit, after taking control, is guaranteeing that the promises that get made in email actually happen.
And so I’m scratching the ruffled currently-mad-professor-esque hair on my head, wondering how we could refine the way ActiveInbox gives you a safety net for doing those ‘active’ emails.
The concepts we have over regular email:
- Treat emails as tasks, to guarantee all ‘active’ items get done (those with a status or deadline)
- Focus on the big picture of projects and people (rather than little emails)
And the current solution:
- Is a Review Bar that gives you access to “To Do” emails, and ‘active’ emails in Projects
Which has the benefits:
- It’s a simple start point
- The Review Bar is placed to always be in view, out of the visual melee of Gmail’s sidebar
And which has the problems:
- Lots of people, especially new users, don’t understand the split between “Active Results” and “Gmail Results”
- Even if they do understand the split, it’s overly-complex to get the results
- The results themselves are buried in hidden lists – you must remember to click the Review Bar to find them
- (A separate issue, but vertical space is also at a premium in Gmail)
So the goals of this thought process are to:
- Visually focus on “things” rather than emails
- Make it harder to forget to get emails done — keep things on your radar
This was written by Andy Mitchell