Why GMail's Priority Inbox Needs to Get Off the Web (And Why It's the Future)

Navneet Alang September 17 Google

The introduction of Google’s Priority Inbox in GMail was hailed by many as a step forward for email. Here finally was a way to not simply filter email in to spam and regular email, but a way to filter on what you read and replied to most.

Though the service has its share of people who don’t seem to see the benefit – like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who simply finds that he can prioritize fine on his own – most of the reaction was pretty positive.

Primarily, I’ve found that Priority Inbox works best for separating out those emails that you’ll read ‘eventually’ and the ones you want to read right now. Perhaps the most useful thing about the new tweak though is a slight change to the interface that allows you to have all the starred items together. There’s a handy little list of everything you need to deal with now – and all the rest of the crap.

But the main problem with Priority Inbox is that, for now, it’s confined to the web.

 

Priority Inbox Doesn't Work Across Multiple Platforms – Yet

The trouble is, people access their GMail accounts in different ways throughout the day. Some access their Google email on their smartphones, or get notifications from Google Talk or Gmail Notifier, a small app that sits in the taskbar and alerts you when new email arrives.

But having Priority Inbox only on the web defeats the main purpose of the new feature: to help focus your attention on the things that really matter. With it not integrated into the GMail ecosystem of mobile mail or mail notifiers, it still means that your phone or software still goes off every time you get an email. Your day is as equally interrupted by a mass newsletter as it is an email from your boss. The filtering function is nullified by its inability to transfer to other platforms.

So to make Priority Inbox infinitely more functional, Google have to build it into the infrastructure of their email system so that any client, whether mobile or desktop, would be able to adopt the filtering of Priority Inbox. That way, when the mass newsletter arrives, there is no need for a notification on your iPhone or Google Talk in your taskbar.

 

Priority Inbox Could Push Priority Mail to Smartphones

After all, the newsletter email is still there. But there’s no need to be alerted to the fact while riding the bus – or, worse, when waiting for a much more important email. (Getting an automated note when you’re expecting an email from someone you’re into = worst. thing. ever.)

So how does Google fix this? Well, the best way to do so would be to bake it into Android and then go from there. Because Android is Google’s mobile ecosystem – in which Gmail integration is one of the most desirable features – it would be easiest and most logical to start there.

Once people get mobile filtering, it would take the “attention economy” lessons provided by Priority Inbox and start to spread them.

So in a way, Google have inadvertently provided two major lessons with Priority Inbox:

  • First is that filtering of notifications is the future. As the mass of notifications increase – Facebook, Twitter, email, Foursquare pings etc. – we’ll need to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, and only be alerted to the things that are important. To get the same annoying chime every single time anything happens on our phones will not only be cacophonic, it’s just inefficient.
  • And second is that changes to services like email or social networks no longer can happen only at the level of the web, but must happen in the infrastructure of their service so that they appear at all levels of the service – web, third-party applications or mobile.

More generally though – what did you think of Priority Inbox Techi readers?

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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2 Comments »

 
#1
Robby Slaughter
September 20th, 2010 at 8:48 am

Gmail Priority Inbox represents everything that is wrong with our approach toward information management. Instead of treating email as a permission-based medium for correspondence, this new feature allows users to experience even more overload. The service just enables bad behavior.

I outline the problems with Priority Inbox and what Google should do instead.

If Google Priority Inbox becomes available elsewhere, then it will only further ruin email as a communication medium. We should be trying to stop feature creep and instead focus on using technology more intelligently, rather than letting the technology allow us to avoid responsibility.

 
 
#2
sjones
September 20th, 2010 at 12:16 pm

R. Slaughter makes a lot of good points about Priority Inbox not being a substitute for email discipline but saying it will ruin email or become a crutch is going too far. Also, your suggestions for better email headers is terrific only people have been suggesting something very similar since 1990 or so (AFAIK) without much compliance.

Here’s why Priority Inbox is useful: Let’s say you _are_ extremely disciplined and have filters for all notification emails, newsletters, etc. so that your inbox is hit with only 20 emails a day. You can’t filter everything, so half of these are updates from websites you haven’t filtered yet or correspondence from people you haven’t talked to in a while.

Without Priority Inbox, what do you do? You scan those emails for people you know and subjects that look worthwhile. That’s exactly what Priority Inbox does, bubbling those to the top for you. It isn’t perfect nor does it keep you from being lazy. It just makes email “work” more efficient.

And Navneet is right. How great would it be if all our messaging worked that way? “You have 5 new voicemails/texts, two from priority contacts. Press 1 to hear/read those first or 2 to hear/read them all in order.” Sign me up for that.

 

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