An inbox that only contains important messages

We’ve just launched a new kind of task management tool called, the world’s first task messenger. It’s a communication tool with the look&feel of an e-mail client, but the messages are not simply texts, but rather structured task descriptions. People can use it to organize work and have conversations about the work in progress.

Here is why I think that the next-generation task management tools are actually communication systems. 

You might have read Paul Graham’s post about “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas”. PG says that e-mail today is like a very bad todo list and that it “seems unlikely that people in 100 years will still be living in the same e-mail hell we do now. And if e-mail is going to be replaced eventually, why not now?” And if you find a way to replace it, people will be willing to spend a lot of money on your solution because it will help everyone save a lot of time every day. 

What is in your inbox?

Let’s start with an analysis of the last 1000 e-mails in your inbox. 

If we don’t count our private messages and all the reminder/confirmation/info messages from mailing lists, productivity tools and social networks, then the remaining e-mails will be all about information, cooperation and delegation of tasks between people who are working with you. For example:
- You delegate work (“Please call Mr. X”), 
- your co-worker replies with information (“I called Mr. X, but he is on vacation”), 
- you ask for further information (“When will Mr. X be back from his holiday?”) or 
- you send document attachments in preparation for a work task or 
- you receive documents with work results.

Is the next e-mail system really a todo list manager?

So when people talk today about replacing e-mail, we can assume they mean “replacing e-mail in the context of organizing work”. This is why everybody seems to think that the best way to replace e-mail is by creating a new kind of todo list. Even PG says that “E-mail is not a messaging protocol. It's a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and e-mail is the way things get onto it.”

There are literally hundreds of todo list managers on the market and once a year I try one or two of them but after some time I stop and leave my open tasks deserted. Why is it so? 

Here is the problem: Whenever we are building a tool, we implicitly define a method how that tool should be used. This method is not readily apparent to the user, but she will find out sooner or later by trial and error whether the method works for her - and if not, she will stop using the tool. 

Organizing work is a communication problem

The core of the problem is that there is no single “right” method to organize work, or on a broader scale, how to manage a project. The reason here is that organizing work is mainly a communication problem. This means: Organizing work is not about managing todo lists. It is more like a conversation between people who are working together to achieve a common goal.

And this is why e-mail works so well, even with all of its problems. E-mail is a very good tool for communicating asynchronously with a group of people and e-mail gives you maximum flexibility to use it your own way.  That is why people are still using e-mail to get things done and not todo lists. To paraphrase a famous quote from Winston Churchill: E-mail is the worst tool to organize work except all the others that have been tried.

If we want people to switch from e-mail to something else, especially for organizing work, what do we have to fix first? The first three problems that I would pick are the “carbon-copy problem”, the “metadata problem” and the “inbox problem”.

The carbon-copy problem

When I address three people, for example, I create three copies of my message. When the recipients reply, they create not only three more copies, but even three versions of the copies. And the longer the conversation, the more difficult it gets to keep track of important information. We might think that this is a relic from ancient times, when paper was moved physically through the departments of large corporations and the recipient of a memorandum received a carbon-copy, but even until today you “cc” people in your e-mail. What a mess!

A better solution would be to have exactly one version of the message at any time. But you still want to be able to work offline, so you need versioning and merging of messages. This needs to be simple and transparent to the user. 

What about comments? Comments create long, nested threads of information in addition to a message. This means that most of the time you have to read the message plus all the comments to really get your head around it. This is why I think that comment threads are wrong here. Why not just edit and extend the message description itself and let the versioning take care of it?!

The metadata problem

Today, messages cannot contain any metadata. But imagine if they could: Metadata could be used to describe the content or to enhance it. You could use it to define who is responsible and who is just involved. You could use it to add a due date, to categorize the message with labels/tags, to assign it to a specific project or any other context and to keep track of the status of the message. I have a gut feeling that it would be best if all metadata were human-readable and included in the message text - like the #hashtags and @mentions in Twitter - instead of being hidden inside the protocol stack.

The inbox problem

What ends up in my inbox is decided by the sender and all messages in my inbox have the same priority. I have to read each and every e-mail to find out what kind of action is needed based on the textual content.

A better solution would be for the system to decide, based on the metadata, what ends up in my inbox. Then the system could even suggest an appropriate action. This would save time, as I would only get important messages in my inbox. It would be an added bonus if messages could not only be sent to persons, but also to projects (or whatever you want to call a non-person entity that represents a changing group of people).

Why can’t a todo list just work like a very good e-mail system? 

Everybody already knows how e-mail works, and people are used to it. Why don’t we create a new kind of tool that works exactly like e-mail, but without all the problems mentioned above?!

If we agree that organizing work is a communication problem that needs some kind of messaging to enable conversations around tasks between groups of people who are working together, then why not simply use the e-mail metaphor?!

This new kind of tool would handle todos but would otherwise have the look&feel of an e-mail client. When I explained the idea to a friend, she said: “Oh, what is it? Let me think. It is something new. It is not just a todo list and it is not just a messenger. It’s both. It’s a Task Messenger!” 

Now, we have built a “Task Messenger”. We call it and we have been using it with a large group of people for over a year now. We are not finished, have lots of ideas and now we need more feedback. This is where you can help. Please sign up here, create a team, add a project and start sending task messages to your co-workers. Just like e-mail. Your recipients are automatically invited to 

Experiment with it and use the feedback button to tell us what you think. And guess what: Your feedback generates a new task message that is sent to the inbox of the development team.