Better Tools

Control Your Email With Hey

Hey feels like the opening salvo in a war on traditional, complacent email platforms. It's great, and I think you should try it.

Hey is a new email service from the team behind Basecamp

As a company, one could argue that Basecamp is better known for the way they think about work than the work itself. They’re opinionated people that build opinionated software. 

It’s without surprise then that Hey is a polarizing product. This team sat down and did what they’re known for, and that led to a significant rethinking of how people could (should?) interact with email. 

I’ve been using it for several weeks, and I’m going to continue using it as my primary email platform going forward. I’ve thought deeply about how I use email and the implications of a system like Hey. This piece takes aim at some of the philosophical choices made with the product design and attempts to provide a holistic view of the potential impact for the end user. 

Hey flips the optimistic prior and puts you in control 

Much of what we do with email is for other people. Email signatures are for the person on the receiving end, not us. Similarly, tracking pixels don’t enrich your experience, but they do help the sender capture data on your behavior.

The same goes for notifications — I haven’t seen a good argument for notifications on unsolicited emails. In hindsight, it seems obvious to state that notifications should be for things that I’ve chosen to be notified about, not for any email that ends up being fired in my direction.

Further, you should be aware of the incentives that you create for yourself. As a reformed inbox-zero fanatic, I can tell you that the devious little unread number can become supremely important. I’ve suffered firsthand at the arbitrary tyranny of the notification badge. It’s important mostly because it’s the only way most apps measure our email progress, and it’s a problem because it says nothing about how impactful your efforts are. 

Here lies the first line that Hey has drawn in the sand. 

Email inboxes, by large, operate from an optimistic prior. 

All emails are good until proven otherwise. That means that most senders can put something into your inbox at any time. This sets off a chain reaction of reactivity — a notification is fired, whatever you were doing outside of your email inbox is interrupted, and your attention is captured — all based on the senders request with no input from you. 

Hey begins by flipping this: any first-time emailer gets caught in your screener, where it waits for your approval.

Hey is also quiet by default, which means that there are no notifications. If you do decide that you need them (maybe you want to be notified on the arrival of an important email or response to a thread), they can be configured on the fly, individually. 

This feels right. 

At first, I struggled with screening out senders. My previous workflow was to spend a few minutes a day, methodically unsubscribing from all of the lists I didn’t want to be part of. It felt uncomfortable to know that I was going to remain on those lists, but not see the emails. In the end, I realized that unsubscribing is a poor way of dealing with this problem for two reasons: 

  • Far too many annoying senders break the usefulness of unsubscribing by creating a new list for every send. Couple that with some major senders having notoriously complex dark patterns (and multiplying your subscriptions across dozens of lists), and it’s clear that there needs to be a more reliable way of getting out. 
  • Unsubscribing is politely asking, “please don’t send me mail anymore,” whereas screening out is saying, “I don’t care if you do, but I’m not going to see it anymore.” It’s the only way you can be sure that your request is honored. 

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Hey is a ‘heuristic first’ platform 

Looking at my inbox and email habits, I’ve come to realize that I receive a surprisingly homogeneous collection of emails: 

  1. Transactional emails – these are service-based notifications: anything from receipts to privacy policy update notices, to responses from various platform-specific messaging features.
  2. Newsletters – the ones that I continue to receive are useful to me in some way. Newsletters are a convenient way to have content pushed to me from creators that I like so that I don’t miss it.
  3. Asks – things other people want me to do.
  4. FYIs – things other people want me to know, or things that I should be aware of.
  5. Ongoing threads – mostly of a personal nature, or ones where the people included, are as important as the what. 

Further, there are three distinct buckets that these emails can be segmented into: 

  • Things I need to see shortly after they are sent 
    • Things I need to reply to 
    • Things that I need to do something about
    • Things I want to reference soon 
  • Things that are actionable, but not right now 
  • Things that aren’t actionable that I can see later 

It’s easy to imagine these buckets under the Eisenhower matrix — a standard protocol for email triage. 

Hey has a few core ways of dealing with these, which it calls piles. 

Once you’ve let a sender in, you get to choose which pile they deliver to. The first and most obvious choice is the Imbox (a frustrating branded term for important inbox that many will fail to see as anything other than a typo). 

The imbox is for things I need to see shortly after they are sent. 

It’s not just any inbox, though, because it has a few special abilities. 

First, you can merge email threads. This helps combine breakout discussions around a single topic. I also like that you can re-name the email thread after you’ve merged. All of this works seamlessly, and magically, with only you knowing any of this happened. 

Second, you can bundle up emails from a single sender. This helps deal with serial emailers that might end up taking multiple spots in your inbox. I use bundling for paid newsletters that I subscribe to, or for service-based notifications that I need or want to see. Any time that sender fires off an email, it shows up as unread in a bundle of all of the other emails they’ve sent — and the best part is that they never take up more than one slot in my inbox. 

We can reserve the inbox for the things we want or need to see, and we can change the subject lines to be a better description of the contents, and then we control how much space something can take up. These are all powerful ways that Hey puts you into control. 

For the second kind of emails (things that aren’t actionable that I can see later), there are two more piles. 

The feed is where you should put marketing messages and email subscriptions. Anything that you’re ok missing and seeing days or weeks later when you get around to checking it. Based on my usage, it’s crucial not to throw newsletters you’re waiting for in here, or you’ll find yourself checking multiple times per day and suspecting that you might have missed something interesting. 

The paper trail is where you send receipts, tracking numbers, and all types of transactional emails that serve as a paper trail for future reference. 

More heuristic-driven utilities 

Hey allows you to be more productive with your email by mirroring real-world heuristics. There are two temporary piles for excavating the actionable bits from your inbox. 

Do you need to do something with an email? Use the set aside feature to add it to the pile for easy recall. 

Want to reply, but not right now? Use the reply later feature. I love grabbing a handful of emails I’ll need to respond to, and then sitting down to write a response to them all at once, using the reply at once combined view. 

Next, there are two more notable productivity utilities: 

Clips – Do you have an email sticking around because it contains a useful piece of information? Simple — clip that piece of information and let the email fall away into the ether. Clips can be collected, reviewed, and destroyed very quickly. 

Sticky Notes: You can add an inline note to any email in your inbox. It’s a great way to create some visual distinction and call out some additional context to a thread. 

Things to be aware of before going all-in

Hey is proprietary and incompatible with POP/IMAP

Hey is a proprietary platform that isn’t compatible with existing email standards. This means that you can’t use a third-party application to check your email and that there is very little to no interoperability between Hey and other services. 

You can forward mail in and forward mail out, and if you cancel, you can download your emails in .mbox format, but that’s about the extent of it. 

This isn’t entirely new for an exciting new email platform. Gmail itself didn’t have IMAP support for the first three years. Still, I feel like it’s an issue. 

I’d love to see the team build in IMAP support as an additional layer, even with severely reduced functionality, for the sake of an open internet. 

Additionally, I’m sensitive to the fragmentation that many users will have to experience due to this choice. No doubt, many Hey customers will be left maintaining multiple email apps because their corporate email can’t be pulled in and responded to properly, and their Hey email won’t work with their third-party app of choice.  

You’re going to lose your email history 

You can’t bring your mail to Hey, unless you go through and forward all of it. This means that if you’re out and you want to search for an email that came in before joining Hey, you’ll also need the app for Gmail or whatever other email platforms you were using for legacy search. Forever. 

The founders have championed this as a fresh start, but a fresh start is always an option. Removing the choice doesn’t make it more desirable, and it certainly doesn’t make it a product benefit. 

Hey is a new product with unanswered questions 

Hey is brand new. The team has been very upfront about stating this is a “solid v1,” and that there are many features that are missing but planned for future exploration.

The most apparent exception and something that will give many prospective customers pause is the lack of custom domains. Currently, all emails must be sent from your @hey.com email address. Also worth noting is that we have no idea what pricing will look like once custom domain functionality is added later this year. 

There is no public roadmap or timeline, as many of the items on the proverbial list haven’t been planned. Basecamp works in 6-week cycles and doesn’t create long-term roadmaps. 

In closing 

I’ve been using the product since the beta and have paid for it twice. I got excited right off the bat, paid for a year upfront (some part of that decision was driven by the want to secure my email address forever), and then hit the eject button after about a week. Frustrated at how different and forceful the app was, lack of open standards, and lack of custom domains, I requested a refund and closed my account. 

I began writing this piece (which looked very different), and in doing so, clarified some of my thinking around email, and the clear philosophical changes Hey was introducing. After deciding that I wanted to live in Hey’s new world, I sent an email to support and got my account back, and now I’m committed (with conviction) about using it going forward. 

I mention this because I think that it’s likely that you may feel some serious friction early on when using the product. I sure did. 

It’s an entirely different paradigm for email, and if you want to get it, you’ll need to be thoughtful and honest about your relationship to email and how Hey might be able to make it better. 

You can sign up for Hey for a 14-day free trial.

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