Do you hate your inbox? Join the club. Even people who work at Google do. Or at least these three Australian ex-Googlers did. Dhanji Prasanna, Cameron Adams, and Jochen Bekmann were part of the team that built Google Wave, but quit the company after watching that project go south. The product they’ve built on their own, called Fluent.io, is a replacement interface layer for Gmail that transforms Google’s venerable email product into something more like a Facebook or IM stream.
The big idea with Fluent is to toss out the whole "inbox" paradigm. Let’s face it: the "mail" metaphor of asynchronous, sometimes-lengthy missives being sent to and fro like physical letters is just not how most people use email anymore. For better or worse, email is now more like Twitter or IM: short messages batted back and forth in semi-real-time. (Have you responded to your dinging Blackberry or Growl notification in the last 60 seconds?) Does this always-on method of using email rot our minds and tank our productivity? Probably. But unless you want to pull a Neal Stephenson, you have to deal with this reality.
And so instead displaying an intimidating list of unread subject lines, Fluent shows incoming messages as "conversation"-esque bursts of text in tidy little rectangles next to the sender’s avatar, much like Twitter or Facebook. Yes, you may still have jillions of unread messages; but Fluent’s interface hacks your psychology in two clever ways to make it feel less daunting. One, the status-like display primes you to think of incoming (and outgoing) messages as short and sweet—something you can glance at for a few seconds and get the gist of. Two, highlighting the sender’s visual avatar reminds you that there’s an actual human being on the other end of the message, not just some infernal robot trying to waste your time.
"It’s radical and yet it’s somehow familiar," Jochen Bekmann tells Co.Design. "The rise of social networking and stream-based interaction in other areas means that people are used to this style of communication. They 'get’ it. It’s more comfortable and more approachable than your standard inbox." The interaction design primes you for action, too: replying to or starring emails makes them auto-archive (i.e., disappear), which creates a feeling of forward motion as you flow ahead through unread messages.
Poke around a bit in Fluent, though, and you’ll find that all the basic features of email are still there. You can still call up an "inbox" of unread messages, you can still search easily, and you can still see starred messages, drafts, and attachments. (Priority Inbox,
though, isn’t integrated yet; if Fluent wants me as a user, they’d better fix that is integrated, but in a so-so way: you have to click on the "Labels" icon, which exposes an "Important" label containing your high-priority messages. It would be more useful if you could tell Fluent to display only these messages by default, which would preserve the original point of Priority Inbox.)
But what about our productivity-murdering, always-on email experience in general—if that’s really a problem, doesn’t an app like Fluent exacerbate it? "The temptation is there to push email further towards the IM end of the spectrum," Bekmann admits. "But our interface is aimed at removing the clutter from replies and letting you respond quickly and easily. While this can result in back-and-forths around particular topics, it mostly has the effect of Getting S**t Done: relieving you of the pressure to fill out your communication with 'hi’s, 'bye’s and signatures. This is a win-win for both sides of a conversation: less typing, less reading."
At the very least, Fluent’s velvety gray interface design provides a soothing alternative to Gmail’s own jarring facelift late last year. Fluent is free to sign up for; you can take it for a spin and flick back to standard Gmail whenever you like. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but if you’re a heavy email user desperate for change, Fluent might be worth experimenting with.