June 21, 2020•1,042 words
With the large majority of my career being either directly attached, or at least generally related to email, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the new email client created by Basecamp, née 37signals, the eponymous creators of the project management tool of the same name.
The launch, shrouded in Apple-based controversy, was otherwise a love letter to an Internet-era I had assumed was long-gone. Namely: not just being excited about a new email client, which that in itself is bizarre in the modern world, but actually seeing a rabid base of fans buying, selling, and generally acting like sharks in chum-filled waters attempting to snag one of the invite codes that would unlock entry into Hey.com. The parallels to Gmail’s launch in 2004 are obvious to make, but beyond that, it felt a little bit like a tiny sliver of the Internet of the past had come back, if only for a moment.
So... What reason did people have for this enthusiastic response to an email client, of all things? Frankly, there have been numerous companies in the past, and even the present, who all claim or claimed to have “solved” email. In my eyes, the issue with nearly all of these past attempts is that in order to actually tackle the problems we have with email today, the solution has to be the full package.
As an example, Spark is an application that claims to be similarly “revolutionary” and highlights how it makes email distraction free, etcetera. The problem with this app, and countless others, is that when you are simply an IMAP/POP shell, you cannot solve the underlying problems, and, in my opinion more importantly, you are shackled by the speed of these decades-old protocols.
Meanwhile, HEY controls the end-to-end system, and even sheds the historical baggage that is IMAP and POP support. This means you can’t use your old favorite email client, but that ends up being just fine. The new proprietary multi-platform application is a thing of beauty, both in a literal sense in that it looks great, and also in a technical sense in that it is lightning fast, and lacks the code bloat that usually comes with email applications.
When I mention speed, I’m not just talking about the UI of the app itself; I am also referring to the speed at which you can send and receive messages. Again, because this system doesn’t use IMAP or POP, the common lag between hitting send and the email actually sending is gone. Gmail and Outlook share this same send speed, but their applications are so bloated that the rest of the experience still feels slow. HEY is streamlined in both the front- and the back-end, and thus always feels snappy when you use it.
There are plenty of other places to read about the specific new features that HEY provides, so I am not going to list them all here. However, I did want to touch on just a few of the stand-out features and concepts.
The first is a decision the HEY team made from the start: You are in control. You know better than an algorithm as to what you want to see, and where you want to see it.
HEY’s own literature talks at length about separating messages into three categories, and how that makes it easier to digest. Before actually trying it, however, I was extremely skeptical. Basically every email application claims the same thing. The aforementioned Spark, and even Gmail have a similar concept. The difference between Spark, Gmail, etc., and HEY is who is in control.
At the very core, HEY is a story about consent. Changing the paradigm that just anyone who has your email address is capable of emailing you. You decide who can and cannot email you. You decide what newsletters are worthy of your time, and what are not. You decide everything. This makes the initial setup time of HEY pretty substantial. However, this time sink becomes absolutely worth it, once you get to the other side and recognize what is perhaps a new, or at least long forgotten, feeling. The feeling of being excited about getting email.
With HEY’s “Feed” section being carefully curated by none-other than yourself, what used to be the intentionally avoided “Promotions” tab within Gmail has transformed into a news feed to peruse at your leisure, similar to scrolling through a social media stream... if all the racists somehow disappeared.
This “Feed” section shined light on another core thing that I thought was set in stone about email. I have long said, professionally speaking, the theoretical “fold” of the email is a lie. A silly concept taken from the physical media world, and applied to the digital era. It has been proven. People scroll, even if it barely looks scrollable, and thus making sure things are “above the fold” is a fool’s errand.
... or... that used to be true. You see, with this feed view in HEY, as I mentioned above, you scroll through it like a social media site. In fact, you see about the first 400px or so of each email, and can expand to read more if you so choose. Thus... there is almost literally an “above-the-fold” area of each email that really does affect whether or not someone may read more.
Does this revelation mean I’ll change my professional recommendation to ignore the fold? No. Absolutely not. Don’t be ridiculous. HEY, even though it's the Internet’s favorite tech company right now, is, and probably always will be a niche product that will not make up more than (or probably even reach) 1% of email opens for any given send. Having said that, it did make me pause and think about what my emails’ (that is to say, the corporate emails I am responsible for) “pre-fold” looks like for a moment.
I think that that feeling is a pretty good representation of my experience with HEY as a whole. It probably isn’t going to actually change the entire email world as we know it. However, it does make one second guess a lot of concepts that I thought were long set in stone, and it does so while you experience actual enjoyment while rifling through your emails.