Email suffers from a tragedy of the commons that makes our inboxes more unwieldy every year. Managing your inbox is about prioritizing your limited time and dealing with a queue of expectations, obligations, and opportunities.
The questions about email never change.
- How should you triage our inbox?
- Who do you respond to first, last... never?
- What deserves attention and what should you ignore or save for later?
We all deal with these challenges in our own way but for many email ends up looking like playing whack-a-mole or hot potato.
The good news is there is hope for a better email world and it's coming fast. I've been working on this space for a number of years and become intimately familiar with the root causes and future potential.
In the near future our email will be more visual, more interactive, will give users more control, and will be paid.
These changes will empower us to better manage our priorities and the connections that are most important to us.
Email will be more visual
As humans, we naturally excel at using visual interfaces when they're personally meaningful. The email inbox of 1999 looked like a text list, in reverse chronological order. The inbox of 2017, with a few exceptions, looks very similar.
In the future, all important links within an email will be surfaced and previewed, all attachments will be previewed and shown without having to jump into an email to download them first, and contact photos will be better and more prominent for people we're close to vs robots that send us promotional emails.
Finally, there will be ways to sort and shape an email app to be more visually customized to an individual user. They will be able to touch, sort, compress, expand things in ways that make them more effective and pickup and reorganize emails in order to organize them according to priority.
Email app interfaces will continue to move in the direction of personally meaningful visual schemas that make us more efficient, less prone to the distraction of our own monkey minds, and more effective.
Email will be more interactive
The hardware that's in our hands when we use a smartphone already offers a lot more possibility than email apps are letting us access. We have devices that know their exact orientation in space and developers create gesture and motion based games for fun but most mobile email apps are still relying on a visual list where we can swipe right or left to archive or snooze an email.
That's already changing and is going to continue to get better. Users will be able to interact with their inbox is new ways that feel like superpowers in the near future.
Apple is preparing to announce the iPhone 8 this fall and developers everywhere are already playing with ARKit (Apple's toolkit for developers to build augmented reality apps).
Imagine picking up, tossing, and grouping emails in whatever way you see fit in 3d space. You can already do things like that now in a 2d space on some of the more innovative new apps for the iPhone.
The next big thing will start out looking like a toy as venture capitalist Chris Dixon says and this applies to the changes in interaction models for the email space we're about to experience.
Email will give users more control
Email in the future will gives users vastly more control. This includes a) control through interaction and b) control through personalization and c) control through programmability.
Users will be able to organize an inbox environment in a more personal way. This includes organizing the main email interfaces of what they see first on both desktop and mobile. This will include choosing to see favorite contacts and the user's most important folders or labels being more prominent and customizable.
Programmatically, the inboxes of the future will allow something along the lines of personal hashtag type rules that give priority contacts permission to 'top post' on your inbox. The email hashtag #erikonehour could be a personal hashtag I create and give out to a few colleagues to use when there is something urgent to consider and a decision is needed asap. Rather than having an associate send me something and choose their own choice of urgent subject line ("URGENT: Deal terms need decision!!! Call me"), I as a recipient get more control and organization if I choose how to share priority access to my personal inbox in a way like creating a personal hashtag that pins an email to the top of my inbox for one hour.
Another way of having control as a user will be interfaces where I can get into a focus mode and look at only the emails from today or a certain person easily. This allows me to better manage how I focus and get through my tasks.
Email will be paid
Isn't the possibility of paying for email in the future a bad thing?! That's one viewpoint but it's also largely responsible for the mess that most modern day inboxes are today. Retailers and spammers try to increase their reach exponentially because the cost is almost nothing.
Paying even fractions of a cent or bitcoin to send a piece of email changes the equation for senders. No longer will it make sense to barrage recipients with junk.
What's the effect for you as a recipient? Will you be raking in the bucks or bitcoins to read your normal emails?
Most likely not because we're really talking fractions of a cent. But that's not the worst thing in the world when you hear the other positive effect that will happen.
A paid model or protocol layer will naturally sift and improve the quality of emails that make it through the 'pay filter' protocol to your inbox. That means.... less junk email!
The primary reason that the internet isn't already built on a paid protocol model is that credit card transaction processing costs make micro-transactions of a few pennies or fractional 'pennies' too costly. Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies can in theory handle this by lowering transaction costs but they would need widespread adoption or a layer that makes mass usage easy and possibly invisible.
An interesting model of this 'pay for email concept' is what 21.co does which is create a way to pay to contact influential contacts in the tech world. There are a number of startups that also try to create a market where potential hires are paid by recruiters for responding to emails. This allows some of the benefit to go directly to those involved vs large tech companies absorbing all the profits.
The inbox of tomorrow will make email more manageable and meaningful again. For many of us, that can't happen soon enough.