In a 2012, Paul Graham, co-founder of venture capital firm Y Combinator (which has invested in Dropbox, Airbnb, Stripe and Reddit, among others), wrote a blog post describing truly ambitious startup ideas, one of which was to fix email.
"Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now," wrote Graham. "Email is not a messaging protocol. It's a todo list. … But it is a disastrously bad todo list."
At the time, Dave Power was working on UX for Telefonica and Kevin Kavanagh ran a software development company. Acquaintances with a shared passion for technology, they decided to take on Graham's challenge.
"Email causes a lot of stress," Power told eWEEK, explaining that people have subscribed to an idea, or a fear, that everything that comes into their inbox is something they need to take care of.
"In reality, only 10 percent of emails are something you need to do something with. And 40 percent are poorly targeted—maybe you get stuck on a cc list," he added. "Cc's are a scourge in any large company."
Power and Kavanagh collaborated to create Hiri, an email platform for Microsoft Office 365 and Exchange that, in its design, seeks to make teams more efficient and more effective—in part, by using email less. It's less an inbox than it is an organizing force. It's both subtly different from and a complete reimagining of email.
For starters, when you open it, you see your schedule/to-do list; anything you've already accomplished (say, an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting) remains present but crossed off.
Hiri is based on the four D's of time management that Microsoft has championed. When an email comes your way, you either do something about it, delete it, defer it or delegate it. There are actually four small buttons at the top of the screen to do exactly these things.
If you choose to defer an email, you can choose when you'd like to deal with it ("tonight," "tomorrow," "4 p.m.," etc.), and it'll disappear and reappear as designated. If an email is something you need to do something about—something that can go in the day's to-do list—you can drag it aside and it falls into a to-do list on the right of the screen, showing a photo of the sender, the title of the email and a little circle to tick off when the action is completed.
Here, too, once the circle is ticked off, the subject line gets crossed out, rather than the item disappearing, so at the end of the day, one can see one's accomplishments. Using design subtleties to nudge behavior changes is quintessential Hiri.
Even the photo of the sender is intentional, said Power, noting there's a reason that Darth Vader wears a face-obscuring helmet—it makes a viewer less sympathetic.
Power's hope is that the photo reminds us, particularly when we're frustrated or upset, that there's an actual human on the other end of the email.
"If you see the person, you'll be gentler in your approach," he said.
Also in the subtle-but-major camp: The subject line is at the bottom of the email. Because if you write the subject after you've gone through the process of thinking through and writing the email, "you'll write a better one," said Power.
Still another: The "To:" line is designated as "Action," while "Cc" is called "FYI."