Co.Design

Actionsteps: A Simple Idea That Could Revolutionize Email And Save You Time

Sorting our email is an ongoing grind. But it could get a lot easier.

I’m a Gmail lab rat. I deploy every new feature at least once. I live and breathe Priority Inbox. I color-code emails from various accounts. And I aggressively star every conversation I need to follow up on. But it doesn’t really work. Ultimately, any email I don’t respond to immediately becomes another inbox, another queue to filter through again.

.Mail is a concept by Tobias van Schneider that revolutionizes email, not through AI deciding which emails matter but through simple design tricks that make sorting easier.

“Most people are always sending me HIGH PRIORITY emails. Everything is important, always. ASAP is the new ‘How are you?’” van Schneider writes Co.Design. “It’s a kind of ‘reactive working,’ because modern work is often based on incoming emails that demand action on our part. I struggled with this long enough and built ridiculous Rube Goldberg–like workarounds with the available tools like flags and labels. It’s not good for us, but it’s how we work now.”

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Van Schneider’s response, and .Mail’s pièce de résistance, is Actionsteps. Unlike flags or stars, Actionsteps is a three-tiered (three-square) rating system. You decide if something is high, medium, or low priority, and it fits into your queue appropriately—by importance first, then date.

Immediately, this solves the flagging problem, where every email you know that you need to respond to is of equal importance. It also makes flags and stars important again, allowing them to be reserved for friends and loved ones that so often get buried under our daily to-do lists (not to mention how cold is it that we currently sort our mothers alongside our corporate contacts).

Van Schneider admits that Actionsteps isn’t entirely different than current methodologies, but at least it’s "forcing you to DO something, to ACT on something,” he writes. And I would add, at least the actions you’re taking will make the eventual follow-up one step easier.

Click to enlarge.

The other piece of brilliance behind .Mail is a new attachment management system. Rather than finding that email thread in which your friend sent you those pictures, Schneider presents a revolutionary (though in retrospect, entirely obvious) grid system that simply displays all your recent attachments as files. While the implementation would require some backend mojo for sure, it’s the sort of idea very much within the grasp of companies like Google, which are moving all of our files to the cloud anyway.

Sadly, .Mail doesn’t exist, nor is it coming to market soon. “I wish I could call this an app. It’s still mostly a concept and far from finished,” van Schneider says. “My main goal is to keep the conversation about email alive and give something back to the community.”

It also sounds like Schneider is hoping to team up with an existing mail client to power his groundbreaking frontend designs. In other words, Google, please just hire this guy already.

[Image: dani3315/Shutterstock]

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19 Comments

  • mc

    I've triaged my emails using Outlook for about ten years... The attachments thing is innovative though.

  • SS

    pretty hard to get a quick sense of how it works based on screen shots. a demo is required. definitely a worthy design problem that we all need some buncha geniuses to help us with.

  • EmailTray

    EmailTray, a full smart email client, does most of what is suggested. EmailTray sorts email into 4 Inboxes quite accurately after indexing what you've done with the email you have in various accounts, including any Outlook installation.

    It has an advanced address book as well (better than the old technology present in Outlook or Gmail). The address book doesn't miss anyone you've ever communicated with by email and acts like xobni or rapportive in adding social media information for your contacts.

  • Alexander Dovnar

    Sparrow App has the most of the things proposed above (except of easy attachment manager/viewer), quick tagging is even better than 'actionsteps' thing. I'm curious why it hasn't been mentioned or/and included into the all the research the article writer is doing. Don't need to re-invent the wheel, but good addition to functionality of those who did -- is the way.

  • Phil

    If you provide this unique interface to the world I would be happier using email. Thanks for the thought. PHil

  • Jani

    I aggree! I find gmail trustworthy, although confusing when it comes to organising and categorising emails.
    Bring Mail to Life! Or rather, to our lives!

  • Patrick Donnelly

    I remember when Dr. Randy Pausch talked about this concept of priority email rankings in his talks on productivity.  

    I think email is part of a bigger issue on how orgs use communication over multiple channels.  Most of us now grapple with email, IMs, tweets, sms, office phones ( if you still have one ) and cell phones.  
    A larger challenge is understanding where personal preferences of communication and tool array can be effectively utilized as a system to enhance productivity instead of producing techno stress or slowing down an organizations ability to get things done.  Why is all the noise being created, and what can we do to make it better.   Its quite an interesting area. 

    @ Pdonnelly01 

  • jayki

    I'd pay for this, make it happen! Kickstarter? Get everyone to chip in $15...or get bought out by google, whatever.

  • monirom

    BEN is right "The system is a blend of 'Getting Things Done' and 'Inbox Zero' and it works almost flawlessly."

    The way you minimize being chained to your email is read once, act or file/delete the email as needed. Do this regularly and you'll avoid the bloat of having 7,000 emails in your inbox.

    Its not hard, its like losing weight, you have to want to do it — and the longer you put it off the harder it gets.

  • jmco

    I was ready to put down $40 for a copy that runs on OSX. I used Eudora for many years. But finally switched to Apple Mail some years ago. It was not better in the sense, it was not as powerful as Eudora (Apple Mail search just sucks compared to Eudora from the 1990s!). 
    But power is one thing and simplicity is another. Email has become too complex. The .Mail concept is what is needed not only in Apple Mail but also in most other applications. An application can be powerful, but the interface does not need to show all that power all at once.
    The power of a simple design solution like this is often the last thing developers consider. But it should be the first thing they do.

  • Lela Feldmeier

    I definitely think there needs to be an upgrade eventually across all mail services (Apple's 'Mail' especially) to enhance usability. But I don't think it has to do with being able to set priority levels. Instead, mail should be integrated with other services. The amount of accounts between Facebook, Twitter, Mail, Pinterest, etc. is getting overwhelming. And in most cases they act as somewhat similar services. If you could integrate Facebook messaging and email, that would be a win, win for me. Not to mention the emails notifying me about my other accounts could be consolidated down to a 'one stop shop.'

    www.thebloard.com

  • Denis

    Well, this can be an idea for a setup with Gmail or other email clients.
    Postbox (WIN/MAC) has a view for attachment.
    Yet, you need something that prompts you about prioritising your emails.

  • Ben

    The change in effective email management isn't in the software alone, it's the behaviour of the user. I receive over 200 emails a day (relevant, not spam) that require action and responses, and I have managed to control it all easily and without dedicating my life to emailing as a result. The system is a blend of 'Getting Things Done' and 'Inbox Zero' and it works almost flawlessly. 

    Gmail is fantastic, and could definitely be improved, as many other clients could as well, but at the end of the day it's how WE manage our email that makes the biggest difference.

  • conbdebolio

    There's this current obsession with fixing the way e-mail works. A lot of people are proposing new ways to make it easier for us to handle mail, but I think the solution has been here years ago: we should promote task manager apps. Like Asana or Smartsheets.

    If adopted by the companies we work for, the number of emails sent to and from us would be lower, thus bringing some relief to this subject.

    Not to say making better looking, better design and, overall, better though UIs to e-mail isn't a good thing. I'm just talking about the real problem here, which I think is the overload of e-mails we get thru the day.

  • johantangen

    Seems to be a fantastic system!

    It would be great - however something to think about is that really good artist do NOT make their best work when employed - i DO think this guy should be hired - but as a consultant.

  • Nick Sloggett

    Um tobias works for f-i... 

    And this isn't an ad.. its an article showing thought through design.. kind of what this site is about?