HEY is Email, in a New Light

11/27/2020
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Over the last week or two, if you are at all in the tech space you have probably heard of HEY, the email platform created by Basecamp. If you haven’t, Basecamp is the maker of a very successful project management platform. Now they have gone knee deep into email. This project has been underway for over two years, says David Heinemeier Hansson. If you know Basecamp, DHH the CTO or Jason Fried the CEO, you know that they are an opinionated folk. This reason alone is a huge part of why I was excited when I heard they were taking on this venture. Both of these founders are very vocal in the tech community, being leaders and advocates of security and privacy along with hating venture capital. Their vocalness and opinions are things I truly admire about them and I try to do the same with my beliefs. Long story short, when they sent out my invite, yes there is an invite list, for now; I was very excited to dive in.

HEY is very different than any email service of the last twenty years. They are not just emulating email with some improvements, they are rethinking it from the ground up. HEY is choice and privacy focused. It is also a paid service. When you think of these two facts together they make sense, one cannot exist without the other. Right now, the email you received this on, likely Gmail, has allowed the tracking that Substack injects into this newsletter. Please don’t unsubscribe, this information is only telling me if you opened it and if you clicked through.

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Gmail also allows you to use their services, which include a lot more than email, for free. Why do these things happen? Firstly, Gmail is not free, you pay with data. Gmail, in this case Google, if you zoom out further, Alphabet, can scan your email. Not only can they scan email, they scan your free Google Drive or free Google Photos accounts. They might not be selling this information or make it publicly available, but they do use your information to improve their knowledge graph. I think this trade off is ok, but most people do not realize that there is a trade off. HEY is bullish on security, they point it out very obviously. See the image above.

HEY is also choice centric. This means you choose who can email you. Doesn’t this sound amazing?! You don’t have to get email you don’t want/need. I don’t only mean that email drip campaign or marketing newsletter you cannot unsubscribe from, but anything! This feature is called The Screener. This is literally a section to screen your email, just like calls. This feature truly excites me because it really is different and quite powerful.

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They also offer two features that are similar to Gmail's Starring feature, Set Aside and Reply Later. These are interesting because in practicality they don’t seem powerful, but in practice they are.

Set Aside is like starring, you just ‘pin’ the item to the bottom of your Imbox – I’ll touch more on the Imbox later. It will stay there at all times so you do not forget about it. Starring in Gmail is not as obvious as this. This is literally over your UI, so it stands out to you, calling attention to it.

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The Reply Later feature is built around the concept of you controlling your email process. Imagine getting email all day, you check it a few times, but reply to none of them until you are ready to get heads down into email. With Reply Later you just mark them for Reply Later and they also become a stack within your Imbox. When you are ready to attack your email, they are shown to you in one concentric view where you reply to each, one by one. I find this super relieving. They are empowering you to have control of your life, not letting external factors impact you as much.

You can also segment the messages that come in, into three different categories. You can do this while Screening your email or after they are in your Imbox. These categories are Imbox, Feed, and Paper Trail.

Imbox is not a spelling mistake. I see on Twitter that a lot of people are irked by this, I am not. Imbox is meant to be your important box, which makes sense regardless of the naming.

The Feed is for email you mainly just need to read, not act upon. These could be newsletters or simple account updates like your Nest Home report –keep racking up those leaves.

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The Paper Trail is perfect for those receipts and bank statements. Again, things you don’t need to act upon but potentially reference regularly.

I think these sections are pretty damn perfect. I like that you are limited to these three sections as well, too much choice is not always a good thing.

There are technically more sections, if you choose to use them. You can set your own labels, like Gmail, though nothing special here. The contact section is very powerful because it gathers all the conversations and attachments that you have shared with that contact. There are a few more obvious ones that I won’t get too into, but are worth mentioning: Screened Out, Spam, Trash, and Everything. These should all make sense, but if you are wondering more just ask me.

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Some of the most brilliant features are merging mail, renaming threads and adding notes and stickies.

Oh yes, if you get an email from that person who doesn’t know how to reply all to that original thread or the person that side emails you about something you were talking about in another thread, now you can merge those emails. For me context is everything, I need to keep a conversation in context or I will forget about something small that could matter to our conversation. This feature keeps that context in your control, when there’s that person that doesn’t respect this.

Renaming threads is on a similar note. Say, you put in a request or ticket and you get an email back that is basically a ticket number with zero context. With HEY you can just rename it, to whatever you like. It keeps the email thread working as expected, but it now aligns with what you expect it to say.

Notes to self and stickies are basically the same to me, but they have split them in two. These are straight forward enough, you can leave notes for yourself in email. Previously you would have had to forward an email to yourself with a note, but with HEY it can just be inline, as one would expect.

As you can tell, I like most of the features from HEY, but I do have a few gripes.

Firstly, like I mentioned, there is a cost. I agree that there should be a paid plan, but maybe have a free tier. I don’t think this will kill them at all, Basecamp was 100% paid for years, but this was a business product.

Secondly, this is only an email client. Not saying that this is bad, but how do you handle all the other things that go along with email, like calendar and cloud documents? If you get a calendar invite, you accept and add it to your calendar, what email are you actually accepting it under? The HEY.com email they send it to or the Gmail, iCloud, or Microsoft calendar you accepted it with? What happens when it reschedules or you need to propose a new time, etc? How do you handle those cloud docs with access required? If you get a link to a Google Doc sent to you and you have to open it, do you have to request access with another email?

In most cases yes, someone is going to email this new fancy email account with more than just pdf and images. You are going to need to do something with them. You are not going to want to share more than one email with a person to get a task done, it is just not efficient. Honestly, that person will probably just end up emailing you that doc or cal invite to that other account anyway, if only for convenience.

Am I thinking this out too much? Is this not an issue for others? For both my day job as product manager and my business as a creator, I am always dealing with calendar invites and shared documents. Having this detached from my email experience feels like unneeded friction.

Don’t get me started on contacts. They have a powerful and clean solution for contacts, but you cannot link it to anywhere like your phone or desktop contacts app. This feels like a broken experience, having separate instances for the same information.

My trial with HEY is almost up. I have been seriously torn. The email experience has been superb. I have loved the onboarding, using it daily, setting time aside to reply to emails and skimming my Feed and Paper Trail at the end of the day. But, email is more than email these days. Email is a piece of a bigger ecosystem. It is the gatekeeper to more than just text and images.

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I 100% agree and believe in their approach to email, security and organization, but the rest falls off. I did learn a lot about myself and how email impacts my day, professionally and personally.

As my trial runs up, and I will let it, I will be taking these lessons with me and applying it to my email account. I will be using my standard Gmail domain less and using my custom tsCreativ domain more, not only for business. This way I am more in control of that data. I will be using filters to emulate their Feed and Paper Trail sections, not using Gmail's default options. I will also be migrating down to one calendar for better control over my schedule.

Google’s solution is far from perfect, it could use an evolution. I don’t think they should copy HEY, but at least learn from the lesson they have taught, a lesson on security and choice.