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Thoughts on Hey — Basecamp's new email product

Jul 5, 2020

If you work on the tech industry, you already heard something about Hey, the new email service from the creators of Basecamp.

I've always had great respect for Basecamp founder's work and their philosophy around remote work, how to create software, and also learned a lot reading their books. If you are not familiar with their track record and way of thinking, the only thing that you should know is that they have strong (sometimes controversial) opinions, and they are not afraid to stand up for them.

With Hey is no different, on its mission to "fix email" and giving you a fresh start, they are willing to make strong product decisions.

Fixing email is not trivial. I've tried a lot of products that have promised to help me to make sense of my email noise, make me feel in control. As a person who takes email very seriously and tried dozens of email apps, I was excited to understand their take on this.

The onboarding

The onboarding is divided into three parts:

  1. Simple steps to set up your account;
  2. Walkthrough the "Screener" and make sure you get this concept;
  3. Leverage the natural core usage of the product to teach you the other parts of the product;

All along the way, from the website to the mental model behind how the product works, everything has their unique trademark of strong opinions and controversy.

The onboarding process starts with a simple UI guiding you through three simple steps, then jump right away to one of the most important concepts that they have built on Hey, the Screener.

The Screener

The Screener is their bet on how to take control of your inbox by radically changing the basic premise of how email works, and it's a great example of how reframing a problem opens up a world of product possibilities. Instead of helping you to unroll from undesired emails (most emails nowadays), it forces you (it's now optional) to authorize the addresses that you want to receive messages. It sends a clear message for its users that Hey takes your inbox very seriously.

My first impression when I saw it was a mix of excitement and fear of missing out. I could foresee the possibility to drastically reduce the unstoppable noise from my inbox but I was afraid of missing relevant emails from someone.

Once you "screened in" Hey's emails, you land on the first email on your new inbox. It's a simple "Getting Started" guide with no fancy tours or UI elements to guide you around, just the email body briefly introducing you to the triad of concepts the will be the base of your workflow on the product  -  The Imbox, The Feed, and The Paper Trail. Once you finish reading and get back to your inbox, you receive six more emails with detailed instructions to make sure you're ready to go.

These follow-up emails are an excellent and straightforward solution to finish your onboarding process without getting in your way. Allowing you to understand the other concepts of the product when you are ready but, at the same time, giving you a small nudge to explore the product.

The Big 3

The Big 3, as they call it, are the pillars of your core usage on the product. To deal with the massive amount of information that lives on our inbox, they try to solve it by breaking up the most frequent "jobs to be done" in our routine with emails.

The Feed is the place that you'll transform all the newsletters and marketing emails into a browsable feed. It is shaped for casual reading and based on the premise that your emails have different needs and goals on your routine.

The Paper Trail is where you'll keep transactional emails, following a real-world analogy of a personal archive of documents.

And finally, the Imbox. With the Paper Trail and Feed doing the heavy-lift of most of your emails that passed through your screening process, your inbox stays protected from the noise, letting you focus on the things that matter.

Prioritizing emails is not something new. Gmail does this by dividing your emails into categories (Primary, Social, Promotions, etc…), but Hey was designed to solve your core "jobs to be done."

It does that by creating a special place for stuff that you just want to browse whenever you feel like, stuff that you want to save for later and make sure that you'll be able to find it when needed, and things that really matter and should be the absolute priority on your routine.

It's fast and productive.

When you are browsing through the product, you realize how amazingly fast it is. It is possible to do almost anything with keyboard shortcuts, and it shows you clear hints on the most important ones. However, sometimes the UI and page transitions are a little bit rough.

The product design.

I love how the product is designed to make you focus on what matters, but I think that the UI sometimes doesn't follow the same principles. The spacing, typography, other UI elements, and the naming of its essential concepts are a little too much.

The biggest checkbox that you'll ever see
Humm 🤔

I know that in part it's due to their constrained resources, as they are a small independent company, and they'll probably fine-tune the overall user interface over time, but I found these details a little hard to swallow.

Final thoughts

I found it very exciting and refreshing to see a product that is not afraid to introduce new ways of thinking in a world full of products that look the same and try to solve the same problems the same way over and over. But the main reason that I wanted to write about Hey is that it made me think a lot about two things:

1. "Escape the competition through authenticity."

This quote is the best way to translate the DNA of Basecamp's founders and how they think about their products. On both Hey and Basecamp, they don't try to please everyone. They stand out in the crowd by being authentic.

They feel free to take a lot of "risks" on the product strategy and product design because they aren't aiming to be the dominant player in the market. Basecamp is well known for being a profitable bootstrapped company ($25M ARR), and the founders don't have the rush or the need to scale fast and acquire a massive amount of customers. They are focused on creating a high-quality product, with a strong point of view of how email should work and be the best product for those who share the vision.

The founders said that they're happy if they reach 100k customers on Hey (roughly around $10M ARR), just to put it in perspective, it's 0,006% percent of Gmail's massive 1.5B active users.

2. Leveraging well-established platforms

In our tech bubble, we know that the world is still full of possibilities for product innovation. You look around every day and see a lot of opportunities to solve problems 10X better than our current solutions.

What caught my attention with Hey is the numerous possibilities to innovate on top of well-established platforms. Most of the time, we are looking to create new technologies and standards, but there is a lot of room to reframe current platforms with new radical approaches.

Slack did this with IRC. Hey is trying to do a more radical take on email.