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There’s No Such Thing As A Perfectly Designed Email App (And That’s Okay)

“Innovative” email apps have become like Instagram filters for your inbox: novel, swappable, and disposable. This is a good thing.

“Nobody wants to run two email clients,” Javier Soltero tells me. “Nobody sane, anyway.” Soltero should know—he’s the general manager of Microsoft Outlook, one of the most popular email apps on Earth. He also co-founded Acompli, a mobile email startup that became an instant tech-world darling in 2014 before getting acquired by Microsoft (and rebranded as Outlook Mobile) less than a year later.

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Soltero wants his email app to be your only email app. Erik Lucas, founder of Geronimo—another mobile email app that launched in August—wants the same thing. Geronimo couldn’t be more different: Where Outlook’s design is formal and no-nonsense, Geronimo is intentionally quirky and videogame-like, full of unfamiliar gestural interactions and easter egg features. Lucas describes his app as an “innovative experience” inspired by real-world physics, not merely a messaging tool.

In between these two extremes lie dozens of other email clients—Inbox, Mailbox, Hop, Boxer, just to name a few—and they all want what Soltero and Lucas want: One email app to rule them all. Reviewers make the same assumption whenever they render judgments about the “best” email app for this or that platform. And if one is the best, why would anyone ever want to settle for the others?

But what if Soltero is wrong—what if it isn’t insane anymore to want, need, and actually run more than one email app? Or, for that matter, more than one photos app or calendar app?

Paradoxically, Soltero may agree. “You can’t please everybody. You have to have a point of view,” he says. Outlook itself has even launched an alternative mobile email app called Send. So is he endorsing his own breed of so-called insanity?

Not really. What Outlook, Geronimo, or any other email client really offers now is just what Soltero described—a point of view, a specific filter on a stable corpus of personal data. In other words, contemporary email apps are like Instagram filters for your inbox. Now that the cost of adding or changing these filters approaches zero—in other words, when it’s trivial to install and invoke different apps that interface with your Gmail account in distinct ways, like effects on an Instagram photo—why shouldn’t users give themselves multiple options?

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Adopting this stance toward email apps totally changes how one evaluates the design of any particular app. Take Geronimo, for instance: its physics-based UI metaphor essentially reimagines your email messages as little Lego blocks that you can grab, stack, toss, and sort like tangible objects. The hardware gets roped in, too: tipping, twisting, or flicking the iPhone in different directions causes Geronimo’s interface elements to behave like things subject to gravity and friction.

Quite frankly, Geronimo is bizarre. And if I were approaching it with an attitude of “could this be my one-and-only email app?” I’d have to say no. But considering it as an “Instagram filter” for my email changes things. Does it add anything meaningful to the other “filters” I already use? Or could it, in some context I haven’t encountered yet? Sure, maybe. Why not keep it? Or not. After all, if I ever do find myself in a situation where I wish that I could treat my email messages as toylike “bricks,” Geronimo is just a few taps away in the App Store.

Same for Outlook Mobile. Or Hop. Or whatever neat new email client gets invented next week. Bring ‘em on! There’s room on my phone (and my iPad, and my laptop) for everyone.

As it turns out, treating email apps as contextual, hot-swappable “filters” is damned liberating. Forget just two: now I use half a dozen. On my laptop I tab multiple times a day between Gmail Inbox (for triaging incoming stuff) and Gmail “classic” (which is better for power-querying my years-long email archive like a database). On my phone I use iA Writer (a text editor that hooks up to iOS’s default Mail app) to push emails out without letting any in (this keeps me from checking my phone incessantly). In a pinch, or if I’m super lazy, I’ll just use iMessage to ping someone’s email address. And I use Outlook’s all-in-one command center on my iPad, so that when I’m commuting to and from work on the bus I can get serious email “work” done without lugging my Macbook Pro.

Within this regime, the more “opinionated” an email app’s design is—to use Soltero’s phrase—the more likely I am to consider trying or keeping it, if only for a very specific use case. I don’t have to love it, and it’s not like my other apps will get jealous. Or maybe they will—who knows, maybe Soltero, Lucas, et. al. are bummed out to hear that I’m not monogamous with their respective apps. But who cares? As an infamous slide deck from the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy once remarked, 72% of Pepsi drinkers also drink Coca-Cola.

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The upside for users of these apps is that while there will never be one perfect email app, there doesn’t have to be: the perfect email app for your needs in some specific context probably exists already. The upside for designers is less clear, since (as Geronimo’s Erik Lucas told me) creating a functional email client from scratch is a decidedly non-trivial endeavor. But then again, he and Soltero have aimed their design efforts at the “big problems” with email. Outlook (née Acompli) wanted to make email on a phone as power-featured and enterprise-ready as email on an IT-issued desktop. Geronimo wanted to make email on a phone less, well, predictable. But what if someone just wanted to design a simple, single-task-focused UI to wrap over someone’s email account for a particular context—similar to the way that text editors seem to spring up by the dozens to suit every possible personal whim and niche?

I’m no engineer, so that might be an apples to oranges comparison. But the point is that there’s no way to win at email, so why design the apps as if there were? I used to roll my eyes at every new attempt to fix emailreally, another one?—but now I look forward to them. So what if Geronimo doesn’t make sense to me? It does for someone, somewhere. You do you, email app designers, and I’ll just keep playing the field. Everybody wins.

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.

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