Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.

Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

Another design decision they launched with was the absence of email signatures. You simply could not set one, and they explained this stance in their manifesto with the words, “Don’t contribute to footer crap”. I didn’t see a problem with this as I haven’t needed or wanted to use an email signature on a personal account in years. Needless to say, the HEY team didn’t see any issues with this either.

As it turns out, some people have very good reasons for needing an email signature, and not knowing about those needs was seen as a lack of diversity in the team, a lack of research, and a sign of privilege. And while we aren’t in America, that’s not at all to say that these considerations are unique! We encounter similar problems here when designing for broad sets of users, and blind spots can start from very early on in the process, even as the initial opportunity is being defined, or research is planned.

The page has now been amended to offer a less abrasive explanation of why signatures can suck — no more “emails that end with steaming piles of legalese”, just “emails loaded with endcaps of legalese” — and a promise that they’re working on a better way to show some personal info.

And this last one to me is just a consequence of moving fast and breaking things. They built the randomized email address feature last weekend to get past the App Store review, and I imagine leveraged an available dictionary to grab or generate word pairs. If they’d had the time to think through a list of problematic words to exclude, with input from a wide enough group of people, all sorts of racially connected words would probably have made it. All together, HEY has responded really well and moved fast to address all this feedback, and perhaps first putting out a version that felt true to them and then shaping it with a paying base of committed users is exactly their intended approach. Another company may have preferred to do that in private.

How HEY doesn’t work for me

Okay, now just a bit more on my evaluation and why I don’t think I’ll be sticking with HEY, as much as I like my address and the idea of a new email experience.

One, it gives me pause that HEY is an integrated platform, not a server and a client. If I ever found a dealbreaker in the way the interface works, I couldn’t just pick another client and access my mail via IMAP the way I can with Gmail and many other providers. For many services, that’s a given and acceptable, but email is an internet protocol that’s fundamentally open and interoperable.

Two, it’s for someone else. I wanted so much for it to fit like a glove, but who am I kidding? I’m no email power user. I don’t “run my life out of my inbox”, and don’t do a lot of personal correspondence over email anymore. Most of my email time is spent in Outlook for my day job, and there’s NO chance the company will be adopting HEY for Work. I’m totally down for the rebirth of thoughtful letter writing, but I don’t know if that’s a plausible future. And if we ever do get there, Gmail will do the job too. For a casual user like me, HEY might be to email what a Montblanc pen is to writing. It stands for something, it announces an intent, and it can make the thing feel more enjoyable, but it’s a luxury.

Three, it puts my stuff in a corner. As above, most of the mail I want to see is newsletters and updates. HEY puts these in The Feed and Paper Trail screens respectively, because it’s designed for people who deal with a lot of other important mail first. When you launch HEY, it starts in the Imbox every time. I’ve found myself switching screens (on mobile, this is two taps each time, not swiping between areas) to check if anything has come in. As someone pointed out, it’s possible that a message about a late payment from my electricity provider would silently land in Paper Trail because HEY treats it like the other usual receipts from them.

Let’s take a look:

HEY’s interaction model is one of single-tasking, with Imbox, The Feed, and Paper Trail treated as separate spaces you need to toggle between by going into a menu and choosing another. When looking at one, the others are hidden. I spend every session starting in the Imbox, and then making a roundtrip through all of them, including the Spam folder because I’ve twice now found emails in there that I actually wanted. If HEY thinks an email from a new sender is spam, it doesn’t go into The Screener, so you’d never know they were trying to contact you unless you check in Spam regularly (which nobody wants to do).

This diagram above is how HEY is laid out, if you think of each column as a screen. In the Imbox and Paper Trail, each email is a single line item, while they are larger previews in The Feed, which is designed to give a peek into newsletters so you can decide if you want to expand and read them. Deleting newsletters and marketing mails from The Feed is actually not encouraged, and not easy to do. This doesn’t work for me because I don’t want to keep all of Graniph’s new product announcements, but I do want to see them. Under unread emails in the Imbox, the list of Previously Seen emails stretches down off the page into infinity.

And this is an illustration of how I’d prefer to handle my email. A single inbox view encompassing important emails and personal letters, newsletters, and updates/receipts/notifications from other services. This can be done if the Seen area is moved to a separate screen, which is effectively the Archive in most email setups.

Spark, which I also referenced in my earlier review as having a better email renderer than HEY, is the closest thing I’ve found to this. I’ll be giving it another try, and comparing the two experiences over the coming week to make a final decision.

As a YouTuber might say, “What do you think of HEY and will you become a paying member? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe!”

2 responses to “Hold up, HEY”

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