My first day and a half with the new Google Inbox app

I’m always tinkering with new tools to make my day-to-day work and personal “workflow” as efficient as possible. That I spend way too long on said tinkering rather than just getting on with things is not lost on me! It’s not lost on Mrs ® Andy either, who always bemoans “don’t put it on your so-and-so list, just do it!”

Quickly on the point of my so-and-so list, whilst I’m not a formal devotee of the GTD methodology, being a bear of little brain (or at least little memory these days) I do absolutely follow its core tenet of having a system for recording items I need to do, using it always, and trusting it to “know” what I need to do. The tool I’ve used for a number of years to do that is Trello, and I’d commend it anybody who prefers a visual Kanban-style of keeping lists of thing.

Many of my other fundamental tools are Google based. As an aside, I probably really should work for Google since I’m a long running fan/user, but have previously decided I couldn’t deal with being mostly London-based and with lots of campus activities meaning I’d see the boys too little. We have several shared Google calendars that hold things like family appointments and also my work location and travel plans. The app I use personally on desktop and mobile to access those calendars is Sunrise. Personal email wise it’s equally long been Google Mail for me (hence why I don’t call it Gmail but will hereon in this post), though over the years I’ve tried various apps on top like Mailbox and Boomerang, but neither worked well with my use of labels, adding labels of their own. When Google announced its own new app for email on Wednesday, called confusingly Inbox, I naturally immediately requested an invite!

Inbox isn’t totally ground breaking, but instead it’s a slick combination of a number of previously seen concepts working perfectly alongside/on top of your Gmail account. Neither Inbox or traditional Gmail conflict with each other and overall they’re totally in sync. Importantly the same labels existing in both, though the impact of those labels is different. Ultimately they’re both built by the Gmail team so you should consider them to be different views of the same data.

At Inbox’s heart is the idea of a various automatic smart labels that can then bundle all so labelled content together in your Inbox inbox – standard ones include things like Finance, Purchases, Promos and a final catchall Updates. Expand a particular bundle and deal with it more coherently. Neat tricks around bundles include setting when they show up in your Inbox inbox (I’ll stop soon), so for certain lower priority bundles you might chose that they appear at the top once a day/week, keeping the lower priority noise out of your inbox until when you can quickly process them in bulk. Bulk operations work nicely since you can apply a single operation to a whole bundle.  Picking up on the approach of Boomerang, you can also snooze emails so that they reappear at your chosen point in time, or indeed location on the mobile app version. Likewise you can set yourself reminders which appear in your inbox, tied to particular emails or in general, and you can snooze those too. For emails that you want to remain anchored in your inbox you can pin them, and you can switch the view to only show pinned emails if you want.

So after a day and half what do I reckon?

  • Well the starter for ten is that I’m smitten! The fact that I can use Gmail and Inbox simultaneously remains important, but I’m already happy using Inbox as my primary email app. The UI is clean and modern on both web and Android.
  • The automatic labelling and related bundling is already hitting the mark. It lets me see the things that are more important immediately, and then I can deal with the lower priority bundles later.
  • You can add your own new bundles to the inbox, but it’s not obvious how to do so! You can add a label to an email easily (equivalent to a Gmail move) and create a new label whilst doing so, but that new label doesn’t then appear as a bundle. For the automatic labels you can select their settings and chose whether they appear as a bundle or not. Likewise all your existing labels show up as “unbundled labels”, but when you select their settings there’s no option for making them appear as a bundle. In the end I worked out that you need add at least one new filter/rule to “Automatically add messages” using the Inbox settings UI for a particular label, and only then does the option appear to make that label bundled in your Inbox.
  • Once I’d discovered the above, the neat trick is to group your existing Gmail labels into less granular Inbox labels by adding filter/rules which using the “includes” condition to search for “label:<labelname>”. Hence my Gmail filters sort things into lower order labels, and Inbox neatly uses those to bundle together at level above.
  • Core Gmail shortcut keys work but it took me a while to realize! I don’t know if I changed mine from defaults at some point, but my Gmail is set for up/down to move through the list; on Inbox it’s left/right. Once I’d discovered that I realized I could select things by keyboard and then others eg. ‘x’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘#’ work as expected.
  • The Google preference that we archive everything rather than deleting still overrides, and that’s the one thing I don’t like. The core action in Inbox is to mark emails as “done”, which is synonymous with “archive” in reality. On the Android client swipe right will only mark things as “done” and you can’t change that. I receive too much opted-in marketing/spam plus regular short term emails that I don’t need to keep and so still delete a significant proportion of my emails. On the web app it’s not so bad especially with shortcut keys, but on the Android app it’s a real pain having to either open an email to read and then selecting trash from the menu, or long pressing on the inbox to select before you can again chose trash from the menu. Personally I’d like to see a short swipe to be “done” and a continued longer swipe to be “trash” in the Android app.

I’m sure there’s plenty more for me to find out yet, and time will tell, but the “shiny shiny” nature of Inbox plus the fact that I’m sure there’ll be loads to come has grabbed me for now!

 

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