For most these days, email is a nuisance, if not an outright problem. Which means there’s a big opportunity for a mobile mail app to help us mitigate the daily flood. Mailbox, founded by a former IDEO designer, has been one of the most promising attempts to do so, introducing a smart swipe-based interface for rapidly sorting messages and a "snooze" feature for putting off messages 'til later. The app is based around a single, sound concept: Our smartphones are better suited for email triage than full-on engagement. A new app for the iPhone—actually called Triage—takes that principle to its most ruthlessly efficient extreme.
There are basically just two things you can do with Triage: Keep a message in your inbox or banish it to an archive. Messages get displayed one by one, as little square cards, with the oldest unread messages appearing first. You assign them to the appropriate place simply by flicking up or down on your screen—up to archive, down to keep. The app lets you do a bit more than that, if you must—there’s barebones functionality for replying to a note, and you can set the upward flick to 'mark as read’ or delete instead of archive—but in the main, Triage is all about, you know, triage.
That stripped-down approach will be too stripped down for some, I’m sure. But Amnon Ben-Or, the app’s lead designer, says his team was always aware that it was creating a complementary e-mail app, not a primary one. "What we wanted to do was shed most of the baggage of traditional email clients," he says, "and focus on what we really wanted out of an email app that you use on the go: a way of quickly checking new messages, and at the same time, taking the stress out of your inbox by making a decision on the spot about whether each message requires further action or not."
The point Ben-Or makes about the essential nature of email triage—deciding whether a message requires further action—is an important one. A good deal of email overload simply stems from the volume of messages we have to process at any moment, not necessarily the effort it will take to actually process them. Much of the stuff that clutters our inboxes can be dismissed without a second look—newsletters, deal offers, incessant updates on our Twitter followers, etc. It’s just that they can seem like a lot of work when they pile up.
Triage addresses that problem in two main ways. For one, it ditches the standard inbox view and presents messages one at a time. That might seem exceedingly inconvenient to power users, and it is irksome that the app doesn’t offer a way to flip to a list view, but the single message presentation does go a long way toward eliminating the paralyzing effect that can occur when you find yourself staring at a dense list of untamed messages. When you’re just given the oldest untouched email in your inbox, that’s all you have to worry about. The UI is sort of like horse blinders in that way. There’s no need to panic, it assures you. Don’t get distracted. Just deal with the message in front of you.
The second key to Triage’s approach is the interaction for dealing with that message: a simple vertical swipe. It’s still incredibly satisfying, even as we’ve seen it crop up more and more frequently in our smartphone apps for uses more productive than flinging birds. "It’s whimsical, and it doesn’t feel like work in same the way that tapping does," Ben-Or says of the humble swipe. "It requires less concentration and coordination."
Triage’s particular brand of the gesture is especially simple, and Ben-Or points out that a vertical swipe is a little bit easier to execute than a horizontal one, only requiring you to hinge your thumb on its knuckle, rather than moving the entire digit side to side. The vertical axis also made a bit more sense based on the functionality it was being used for. "There’s something fitting about flicking something away from you to discard it, or toward you to keep it," Ben-Or points out. "It’s almost as if that mechanic removes a layer of abstraction from what you’re doing."
The app’s all about removing layers from mobile email, putting you in a more intimate inbox environment where you can quickly process one message at a time. It’s not going to be full-featured enough to replace your go-to mail app—it ignores whatever system of labels and folders you might currently employ; it doesn’t let you search through your inbox to find messages, or see all your emails at a glance, or, frustratingly, deal with them in chronological order (there’s a reason I’m letting those old messages languish!)—but it does offer one powerful, well-honed tool for getting things under control.