• 10.31.11

How “The Email Game” Improved Its UI, To Make Your Inbox Less Hellish

Or, why smiley faces are more motivating than points and badges.

How “The Email Game” Improved Its UI, To Make Your Inbox Less Hellish

I’m lucky enough not to be drowning in email, so keeping my inbox clean doesn’t require zen-like discipline. But for everyone else out there for whom “Inbox Zero” is a fantasy at best, there’s a handy web-app called “The Email Game,” which uses clever game mechanics to — as I previously put it when we first covered the product — “make email your bitch, not the other way around.” But the game’s creators haven’t been sitting on their laurels since then: they’ve just released an updated version of the game with a better design.


The original Email Game used a badges-and-points system for gameifying your slog through the CC: wasteland. The game would present each message to the user one at a time, along with a timer, and the faster you took action on the message–any action–the more points you racked up. The insight behind the game was that email overload doesn’t come from too much email, necessarily–it comes from a learned helplessness about dealing with individual messages. Even ruthlessly deleting an email based on the subject line alone is better than letting it limply linger in your inbox, read but un-attended to.

But The Email Game is supposed to a means to an end, not an end unto itself (which many games can become). So Matt Taube and his team buried the points for a more ambiguous “emotional feedback” system that rewards decisive action with a cartoon smiley face. Sound silly? Who cares–apparently, it works better. “We experimented with a few different feedback mechanisms and the emotional nudge seemed to be most effective in changing habits within a session (i.e. taking more actions),” Taube tells Co.Design via email. “The points seem to be working before, but people were focusing too much on the points rather than appreciating the actual benefit of developing good email habits and having a better managed inbox.”

The points aren’t gone for good, though: Taube says they’re still “effective for social competition and for tracking performance across sessions,” so The Email Game now only reveals them at the end of a message-blasting session. During the gameplay itself, the user is egged on by little more than an anime-influenced emoticon, which gets happier and happier the more emails you kill (and regresses into a flat-mouthed stare if you dawdle).

Taube says his team was inspired to use this tactic by Richard Thaler, author of “Nudge,” who “highlights one study in which emotional feedback on electricity bills helped to dramatically reduce usage.” But there may be more going on: studies show that a pointing a pair of eyes, even cartoonishly fake ones, at someone while they make choices can dramatically influence their behavior. Either way, the new and improved Email Game will probably make your inbox a less soul-crushing place.

[Try The Email Game for free]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.