Michael He

January 31, 2022

Email Woes

Here are some things that make emails suck. It doesn't matter whether I pay for my Gmail or Outlook. It still sucks.

Most importantly, spam. I don't narrowly define spam as Nigerian princes or hormonal pill ads. Anything that stops me from using email as a communications tool is spam. Even newsletters count as spam, if I don't want to read them at the moment. Receipts that I need for archival reasons shouldn't clog my inbox either. All of them distract me from doing what I need to do with my inbox.

Even though I don't agree with the inbox zero philosophy, it brings awareness to what an inbox should be - a place to handle all my communication duties and nothing more. The sad reality is over the last twenty years, our use of email as a digital ID (constantly in security breaches) and information access tool (a.k.a a suboptimal RSS reader) brings us all the extra trouble.

I have no control over my own email. The implication of spam or unwanted messages is also psychological and symbolic. It hints at a lack of control over our own domain. My email address doesn't feel like my own if I have 70 new emails at 6 AM every day. They stress me out so much. Nothing ruins my mood more than seeing a long-awaited email below a dozen emails I need to trash right away. Why can't I control who I get my emails from? How can anyone just put whatever they want in my inbox! Like Charlie Munger says, mixing raisins with turds will get you turds, not raisins. 

Email privacy is concerning. Email service providers sell your data. Websites that use your email for accounts sell your data. Data brokers sell your data. All kinds of people use spy pixels to track you in grotesque fashion. As a result, your email is flooded like there is no end.

Most emails have suboptimal user experience due to the above reasons, in addition to a poorly designed writing interface. Major email services are not designed for writing. The Gmail compose button opens up a small box in the bottom right corner by default. Outlook takes up only half of the window for writing. The client is not much better.

And there are simply too many options with the formatting. Most people only need one or two fonts and two font sizes (standard and large). Markup options should be kept simple as well: bold, italics, underline, strikethrough, bullet points, numeral points, indents, URLs, code blocks, and block quotes. And emails should come with four function buttons: forward/copy, attachment, save, and discard. That's all you need. More meticulously formatted documents belong in PDF. You can always generate emails in third-party editors. The core email composition interface should be simple and clean. 

I only listed five reasons. It seems like whoever can address all four can win a good amount of users, who may even be happy to pay. I wonder how long it will take...

Update: I wrote the first draft of this brief essay in summer 2020. Since then, I started to use HEY for email, which solves most of my concerns. You can probably tell, since I AM writing my blog on HEY as well... I will write about my experience with HEY at another point, because it's simply one of the best things I have ever bought - the peace of mind. 

Thanks to Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, and everyone at Basecamp for making HEY a reality. 

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.