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]

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  • Chris

    I downloaded Mailbox shortly after its release, but because I was not eager to switch my email from the stock Mail app I unfortunately did not even open Mailbox until a few days later - this found me enter the line at around 480,000. Seeing this actually filled me with anticipated. I thought, 'what is so good about that app that almost 500,000 people are waiting in line'. Within a week I had only progressed about 100,000 places and my anticipation was building. Now i was checking in a couple of times a day just to see how far I had moved up. For me this was brilliant. When access was finally granted my fingers had a little party as I danced around the new app and setup my email. Love it!

  • krzystoff_oz

    this Mail waiting list reminded me of the Waiting Room in Beetlejuice.
    I have had many similar experiences with apps and phone features not being accessible or working out of the box within a short period of installing and testing -- ultimately, it ends up being deleted and an alternate found in the case of apps, or the device is replaced in the longer term with one from a competitor that doesn't suffer that same issue. 
    humans are habitual and often stubborn -- once you have an idea to change something in your life, you will commit to doing it, usually in the face of mounting evidence that the change comes with it's own negative consequences, or even if the original issue that triggered the idea has been fixed.

  • Claudio Paredes Q.

    If the value is to make you more efficient with mail handling why mailbox isn't that efficient on providing the service... I won't wait a month for it.

  • lostpixel

    I checked it every day for nearly 2 weeks before I got in. I remember getting a wee thrill when it went down by thousands, and I eventually got an impression of how many days it'd probably take to get in (which I actually ended up overestimating by quite a bit). Certainly less boring than your usual wait-for-the-email experience.

  • Jacob Taylor

    I think the best thing to do would be to at least tell me WHY I am waiting.
    As someone who doesn't do development, I have no idea why they can't just increase the server size (or whatever it is) and let everyone in.

    This 'line' is just confusing.

  • Clint Tabone

    Same for me. Waited 3 weeks. Deleted after 2 days. There's no way I'm gonna through thousands of emails. I don't know what the hype was all about. Not to mention that Gmail's interface still looks better.

  • Gab Scali

    Am I too malicious, or rather than aiming for transparency they have made an awkward attempt to leverage 'scarcity' as a driver of persuasion, trying to replicate the pathetic scenes common on the sidewalk in front of Apple stores around the world? 

  • tdhurst

    What in the hell is so hard about downloading an app and then ignoring it until it sends you a notification that it's ready?

    Seriously, I want to know.

    What in the hell is wrong with you?

  • aamanatullah

    It is like skeuomorphic interaction. Replicating post office queue in real world. Up next is stamps.

  • Carlo Poso

    Took a course of Gamification on Coursera last year.
    One of the first thing I learnt was the PBL (points, badges and leaderboards) mechanism.
    As far as the leaderboads are concerned, the best way to turn down new users is to compare them with long-time gamers. There's a sense of discouragement in seeing there's still a long way to go to reach the top.

    I think this same feeling emerged in the case of Mailbox. No tools for the users to get better and reach to top, though. They made users feel powerless. Now I go and download the app, though. Does this mean anything? Don't know.


  • Tommy

    I like the idea to show how many people are in front of you. Kinda make sense to me. But at the same time, it can be really depriving. 

    When I signed up, and downloaded the app, I was inline as no. 60-some-thousand. Got in about 5 - 6 days after, and I thought it was a long wait. I can't imagine how it feels to be number 700.000+.

    So is it good? To be honest... I really don't know. I haven't used it that much yet, due to no imap support. Yes, I know I can setup Google to handle my imap accounts, but its not possible for my work mail... And to be honest, I don't want to go through the hazzle of setting up my private- and freelance accounts to Google Apps. 

  • jonsenc

    I finally got off the wait list yesterday, but still haven't used the app, not am eager to use it. I only downloaded the app because everyone else was, so good job on getting me excited to want what everyone else wants.

    I'll probably get around to playing with the app over the weekend, but not being a email power-user, expectations are not high.

  • rncmvp

    For every day that someone waits for the app to be unlocked, they are that much more likely to keep waiting. Waiting in line is an investment of one's time, and it is human nature to value things that we have invested in. While the author might be more strong-willed or sensible than most people, my feeling is that many, many people are more likely to stick with this app simply because it took so much effort to procure.

  • David Kart

    Mailbox is awesome and worth the wait! It has made digesting email more manageable and give me more peace of mind. Inbox zero = ZEN!

  • wheelyweb

    Last week I downloaded the app, pressed register and saw a very large number. Today I went back to the app and it asked me to provide my registration code, which I scoured my (desktop) email app for. No email, no code. Then I remembered that The "registration" is to download the app. I went to the signup screen and now the number is now larger than it was back then, so I'm somehow at the back of the queue again. No opportunity to restore the place I was in the queue before. The app failed to hold my place in line. 

    Apps notoriously lose your login data when you upgrade or sometimes even turn off the phone. Surely some token system where we register an email address as the UID for the token to track to so that if something goes wrong, we can restore our place in line. There is a question in the FAQ's that asks: "Can I lose my place in line?" with out answering it. The answer is "yes" and there is no way to restore that place since the only tracker is the app and if the app loses your place, tough luck. In terms of customer service, I call that a failed UX, since there is no clear way to restore your original place in the queue (the line). It seems to me someone thought they could use an iCloud account to track the place in line but that obviously was a coder, not a UX practitioner, running the idea. Doesn't leave me with enthusiasm for the product from this (very distant) vantage point, so it will now need to be extra awesome!

  • Michael

    I do believe that the UX design of the reservation page is decent. It's clean, to the point and consistent with the Mailbox design language. It helps mitigate the waiting pain. (Check my blog: for more details)
    The problem is the waiting itself, not the UX. No matter how great the 'Waiting UI' is designed, it will get boring and frustrated if the waiting time is too long, or you checked and checked and line seems to not moving at all. 
    Maybe a better way of doing this is to introduce some gamification elements, and you unlock something or get a badge/achievement each time you reach a milestone (like 'Under 30,000' ahead of you'). But again like John said in this blog, they are in a rush, so that may not be a feasible solution for them to begin with. 
    I still have 500,00+ people ahead of me, and I just leave the app there and check back whenever I remember, but overall not bothered by it.