The UX Thinking Behind Mailbox's 800,000-Person Waiting List

For many users, Mailbox’s iPhone app doesn’t do anything except tell them it’ll take an eternity until they can use it. Why?

I’m waiting in line behind 40,000 people to read my own email. I got in this line a few weeks ago, when I first downloaded Mailbox, the much-ballyhooed new iPhone email management app. Back then, I was in line behind 320,000 people, so I guess things have improved. (At the time of this publication, the list stands at about 800,000.) But the whole time, I’ve been wondering: What was the design thinking behind this rather odd, potentially off-putting user experience?

Like many hot new apps, Mailbox is rolling out access to users gradually. What’s different about Mailbox is that you have to download the app in order to get on the waiting list, instead of the other way around. The app doesn’t do anything while you’re "waiting in line" except … show your place in line. A very, very, very long line. (Blogger Andy Baio estimated that the length of the line, when he joined it, was over 300 miles long.)

I reached out to Gentry Underwood at Mailbox to ask why, oh why, would his company’s designers think that this was a good "first impression" UX?

"We could have just configured the app to take your email address and let you know when your account is ready. That would have been much easier and perhaps more familiar," Underwood says. "But we figured the first question on everyone’s mind was bound to be "how long will I have to wait?" and while we can’t know that precisely in terms of time, we realized we could know that precisely in terms of people. Transparency is important to us—we’re asking people to trust Mailbox to handle their email—and so we chose to be as straightforward as we could."

But is there such a thing as being too transparent? Human beings are infamously innumerate: the difference between very large quantities, like 40,000 versus 300,000, just turns to mush in our minds. Mathematically, I moved "forward" in the line an entire order of magnitude—that’s a lot of progress! But in psychological terms, I haven’t really made any progress: Several weeks later, it still feels like a zillion other people are ahead of me. Seeing such a big number every time I opened up Mailbox filled me with such a feeling of futility that, after a week, I ended up deleting the app altogether. (I reinstalled it before writing this post to check how far forward I’d moved in the line, though.)

"The design can almost certainly be improved," Underwood admits. "This is the first time we’ve done anything like this around here, and we had to do it quickly. From a UX perspective we strive to be simple, clear, and to-the-point. If the big question is "how long is this going to take?" and we believe the best answer is "there are this many people still ahead of you," then we want to make that answer sing. If we’re going to be transparent about our line, we might as well go for it with numbers that are beautiful and big, and on-brand."

The trouble is this: If being "on brand" in this way just makes potential customers throw up their hands and bail, why do it? Mailbox doesn’t seem to be in any danger of alienating its entire user base, though, so maybe my experience is an outlier. And maybe I’ll redownload the app again in another month to see if there are only 4,000 more people in front of me instead of 40,000. But chances are, I just won’t remember—or care. What about you?

[Image: Blocks via Shutterstock]