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.”
Hiri Takes On the Challenge of Reinventing Email
While today most of us jump at our email alert chime like so many Pavlovian dogs, Hiri separates emails in this way so it’s immediately clear whether you really do need to deal with something or it’s information you can get to on your own time.
Well, immediately isn’t completely accurate, either.
Power has a long list of email stats (compiled by Thomas Jackson, a professor at Loughborough University who’s a board advisor for Hiri), including that the average user checks his email every 5 minutes and receives around 100 emails a day, which means potentially 100 interruptions a day. Consider, too, that it takes most people 2 minutes to recover from an interruption and get their thoughts back on track, which means 3 minutes of solid work before they’re interrupted again.
Plus, on 16 percent of these emails a user is copied unnecessarily, 13 percent are irrelevant or untargeted, 41 percent are for informational purposes only, and 65 percent fail to give enough information for a recipient to act on.
According to Jackson, only about 10 percent of emails need to be directly addressed.
Hiri’s fix is to suggest that users only check in once every 30 minutes—versus the 96 times a day, or every 5 minutes, that’s the average. Check in too early, and you see a countdown clock on your dashboard, showing how many minutes you have left. Importantly, the “you’ve got mail” chime is silent during these 30 minutes; Hiri will only sound to alert a user to a meeting.
The clock can be bypassed easily—and certainly there are some jobs that this feature isn’t right for, such as customer support. For the rest of us, the goal is to break us of the habit of constantly glancing and to keep us focused—an action with an attached ROI.
If a company has a few hundred employees, and each of them spends 30 minutes less a day on email and instead focus on work, “that’s a few million euro a year,” said Power.
Also tied into ROI is a user report. When you send an email, others can rate it, giving it a thumbs up or down in terms of clarity, length, appropriateness and other factors. The ratings are anonymized and contribute to a user’s score, along with habits, like how frequently they check their mail. (The score is reset to 100 percent every two weeks, so no one feels too dejected.)
Currently, Hiri is in the early days, with a few large companies committed to trialing it.
Basically, said Power, “We want to save people time, improve their day and improve their communications.”