Email is harder than you think

Two years ago, I started working on Front, a multiplayer version of Gmail. Today, I’m sharing thoughts on email, things I wish I had known at the time, but instead had to learn the hard way. If you’re thinking about innovating in the email space, hopefully it’ll help you too! This is the first in a series of articles on that topic.

Today, the consensus when trying to bring something new to the market is to build a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. The reasoning goes like this: start with something small, no bells or whistles, but provide enough value for people to actually use it. That way, you can see whether people want your product, without wasting a ton of time on a full-fledged version.

In the email space, this approach does not work. Reaching MVP status is very hard, for two reasons.

#1 The technology is hard

Email has been coined “the last unowned piece of technology.” It’s true: email doesn’t belong to any one company. It’s just an open standard, drafted more than fifty years ago. Any developer can implement it and owe nothing to anyone. This is a great feature of email, but it also has big, adverse side-effects.

Providers have been implementing the email standard for decades now, supplementing it with their own technology as they saw fit: a proprietary email format here, a bizarre way of quoting previous messages there, etc. You’re probably reminded of it from time to time, when a long email reply gets truncated for no reason, or when your perfectly formatted HTML email looks awful in your recipient’s client. Some open source initiatives are trying to address the issue, but they can only do so much — and they require constant maintenance. There are hundreds of similar quirks hidden in each provider’s implementation. If you want your product to integrate nicely in the email ecosystem, you have to accommodate for all those edge cases.

Of course, the standard is slowly evolving. But because email is an open standard, no provider is forced to implement the newer features. Until a majority decides to make the switch, every developer has to assume the feature is not available. Closed systems owned by one single company can avoid this chicken-and-egg problem, but email moves only as fast as the majority of the network.

#2 User expectations are high

Everybody is an email expert. We’ve all been doing it for so long, we expect it to work perfectly. We have a clear idea of what an acceptable email experience is. Other types of software can get away with bugs and flaws, as long as they deliver a big enough core value, or a sufficiently novel functionality. But we don’t tolerate that with e-mail.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of those expectations:

  • Ultra-high reliability. Delayed reception, unsent messages, or plain old downtimes are total deal breakers.
  • Many core features: message composer, attachment handling, drafts, conversation threading, archive / trash, etc. These are the basics.
  • Email doesn’t stop at sending and receiving text messages. A lot of the experience is not in the standard, but around it: a good contact manager, a powerful search, a great spam filter, a reliable “undo send”, highly flexible labelling and sorting, intuitive keyboard shortcuts. To be done right, each of them could keep a team busy for weeks.
  • Intuitive, almost magical onboarding. Your product should feel familiar (all the while being innovative, obviously), because if your users haven’t found their marks within 5 minutes of using it, they’ll go back to their previous provider.
  • Banking-level security and confidentiality. Maybe not 100% of users want that badly, but those who do are very vocal about it.

On top of that, users would very much like your product to be multi-platform, working with IMAP, Gmail, Exchange or Yahoo! Mail; and of course be available on the web, desktop, mobile and tablet.

But it’s not over! Everybody is also a spoiled kid. Corporate giants (Microsoft, Google, Apple to name a few) have been investing heavily in the space, but offer most of their products for free. It’s not like you can offer a less complete experience but make up for it with a lower price (unless you’re ready to pay your users :).

So now you know: you’re fighting two uphill battles, one against technology, and the other against the market’s expectations. If you’re not completely put off by this article, tune in for the next one! And if you’d love to get your hands dirty working on email with us, check out our job offers.

Next article: Don’t try to kill email, try to fix it