Emailing can still be refined

For its 16th birthday, Yahoo decided to celebrate by changing the look of its email inbox. The result? The makeover made Yahoo’s inbox look cleaner, flatter and eerily familiar — if you compare Yahoo’s email interface side-by-side with that of Gmail’s. The setup and the spacing of the navigation and inbox sections are now strikingly similar.

Keeping up with Google · Yahoo celebrated its 16th anniversary by releasing a new user interface for its email users. The revamp bears an uncanny resemblance to the one currently used by Google’s Gmail. - Photo illustration by Ralf Cheung

Keeping up with Google · Yahoo celebrated its 16th anniversary by releasing a new user interface for its email users. The revamp bears an uncanny resemblance to the one currently used by Google’s Gmail. – Photo illustration by Ralf Cheung


But the two email platforms are not identical. Yahoo, unlike Gmail, plays around with icons in the navigation and transparency in the actual inbox section. Not to mention the fact that Gmail still has more customization to offer, especially when it comes to its Labs section — the “testing ground” for various email features in beta.

According to Email Marketing Reports, Yahoo has around 100 million fewer users than Gmail as of 2012. But after making the move to offer new usernames by clearing out accounts that have been inactive for more than a year, there’s a possibility that Yahoo could catch up. Maybe.

Despite Gmail’s popularity, it still isn’t perfect. It’s easy to forget to reply to emails, especially if you’ve already read an email. And were you one of the users affected by Google’s lengthy outage just a couple of weeks ago? Considering that Google handles an enormous amount of data, the incident was forgivable. But even one of the most capable companies on the planet hasn’t completely mastered the art of email.

So what might characterize the perfect email platform?

For one, the platform would have to vary from person to person. If we all operated the same way, most products would be designed perfectly by now. Some people, however, are terrible at checking their email. Others are not so great at replying. Regardless of your email habits, we’re getting closer to finding the best kind of inbox.

Scheduling, as seen from the Mailbox app, is definitely one of the more helpful email features out there that could improve the rate at which people reply. In the app, different swipes mean different things. Swipe right quickly, and you’ve marked an email as read. Swipe it to the right slowly, and the email has been deleted. But when you swipe left, you can schedule when you want your email to re-send — i.e. later today, this evening, next weekend, etc. It’s not a foolproof system, but once you get the hang of it, rescheduling when your emails arrive to your inbox can seriously improve how you communicate with email.

But perhaps designating when emails should arrive seems like a task in itself. Mail Pilot is both a mobile and desktop app that turns your inbox into a to-do list, so any unread emails turn into tasks that need to be completed. Emails that are put off are listed as past due and are prioritized. It’s a great idea, and effective if you want to improve how you check your email. The more emails you fail to read, however, the more tasks you’ll accumulate. And let’s face it — since emails aren’t graded, nor do they have an actual deadline, it’s tempting to put them off until later.

That’s where notifications come in. We already get push notifications — the pop-ups that come up on our smartphones — from our apps and email. Why not take it a step further and integrate Facebook-like notifications to email? With his project .Mail, designer Tobias van Schneider wants to make your inbox more like a social network, so that we feel more inclined to respond as we do when friends post on our timelines or comment on photos.

And like Facebook, algorithms for email could be yet another way to impel people to get through their emails quicker and more efficiently. Gmail already does something similar to this by marking certain emails important based on your previous interactions with the email address. But what about an inbox that places higher-priority emails at the top of your inbox? You wouldn’t miss a beat with people you communicate with frequently, but you might accidentally overlook important “cold emails” from job recruiters or people who want to connect with you.

As of now, my go-to email platform is Mailbox. It’s only available on iOS at the moment, but Mailbox’s founder, Gentry Underwood, has hinted that Mailbox on Android is on the startup’s to-do list, as well as an app for desktop.

Mailbox is not perfect yet, but as soon as the desktop version comes out, the email game could be changed forever by giving users the ability to switch between mobile and desktop without missing a single postponed email.

But until we find the panacea for email, there are some ways to improve your email experience now. In terms of extensions you can add to email, Boomerang is a Firefox plugin that allows you to schedule when you send and receive messages on Gmail. To track whether people read your emails or not, you can add Yesware to Gmail, which allows you to find out who opens your emails and click on any links in the email. There’s also Rapportive, which builds a rich profile of the person you are emailing, with links to their Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, personal website and other social media sites.

As helpful as all these features and extensions may be, they can be very overwhelming. If you really want to be good at emailing others, the best thing you can do is set aside two times during the day to do nothing but check your inbox and reply to emails, one after the other.

Email has come a long way. Despite the fact that it’s still not perfect, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without email at this moment. How would you be able to apply for jobs? Reach out to professors? Communicate for group projects? Though Yahoo’s update wasn’t particularly monumental, it’s certainly a step “forward” in the right direction in the name of email.


Sara Clayton is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column “Tech Today” runs Tuesdays.

Follow Sara on Twitter @saraclay15