Why I won't be switching my email to HEY

I tried out Basecamp's reimagined take on email for 14 days and, as much as I wanted to love it, I need to keep searching for an alternative to Gmail.

July 16, 2020

HEY running in full screen mode on Mac OS X desktop: it's definitely colourful

I’ve used Gmail both personally and professionally ever since 2004. It’s easy to take for granted now but Gmail was utterly revolutionary when it first landed.

It eliminated spam, had practically unlimited storage and came with Google quality search. Coming from a unimelb.edu.au account overflowing with erectile dysfunction spam and a 25mb quota (you could neither send nor receive messages at the limit), it was a whole new world.

In the intervening 16 years I have gradually transferred the entire contents of my brain into Gmail.

More than an email address, my Gmail account has a secondary function as an Evernote-esque repository of documents that are variously useless, semi-important and utterly essential, all bobbing below the surface like a tremendous iceberg of unstructured data.

Wanted: 1 x Gmail alternative

Anyone who’s even half been paying attention realises that the Google of 2020 is a different beast to Google from 2004.

I abhor their policies and practises and no longer trust them to enforce their internal mantra of ‘do not be evil’.

It doesn’t make sense to store my most important documents and correspondence with Google anymore.

I would also like to avoid giving them money.

In the past, I have entertained Gmail alternatives/ Fastmail, Protonmail, etc. but none of them has ever seemed quite good enough to justify making the switch.

HEY: “Email for the way we email today”

I have always loved Basecamp. Jason Fried, in particular, has been hugely influential on my thoughts about design and business over the years and I’m deeply enamoured by their dedication to quality, independence and leadership. Basecamp seems committed trying to leave the world better than they found it, which I respect immensely.

Over the last six months, Basecamp has released teasers about their new email service. It’s called HEY and comes with a hey.com email address.

Email deserves a dust off. A renovation. Modernized for the way we email today. With HEY, we’ve done just that. It’s a redo, a rethink, a simplified, potent reintroduction of email. A fresh start, the way it should be.

HEY is built on a tantalising premise: what would email be like if it was invented today?

Over the last few months, HEY has opened up for an intake of beta users. I sent them a message asking for an invite code back in February and I was hugely excited to receive one a few weeks ago.

What HEY does differently

Basecamp has set out to help busy people tame and organise their inboxes by rebuilding the experience from the ground up.

HEY is a counterpoint to the egalitarian inbox, where all non-spam mail is treated the same.

Automated filtering

HEY divides email up into four distinct sections:

The Imbox

Yes, it’s not a typo.

The Imbox is a filtered, opt-in version of your inbox which features people that you want to hear from. Basecamp calls it ‘consent-based’ email.

The feed

This is where you put newsletters, promo emails and other things that don’t demand your immediate attention.

The paper trail

Receipts and transactional emails.

The screener

Before email can enter the Imbox, you have to give the sender a thumbs up in the ‘screener’.

If you decline, then those messages will be available in the depths of your account, but they will not be flagged for your review in the inbox. Uh, Imbox.

The screener, screening out stuff on my phone
The screener, screening out stuff on my phone

You can give senders what they call a ‘Speakeasy code’ to allow them to skip the screener and land straight in your Imbox. It’s a password, in the old fashioned sense of the word.

If a new sender emails you with this in the subject line, they stroll right past the queue and into the Imbox VIP.

Privacy first

HEY blocks read receipt tracking pixels by default and then tells you when it does.

These tracking pixels surfaced in lots of surprising places and I was glad to have them all blocked.

Non-interruptive

You have to really check this email.

No alerts, everything hidden by default.

It feels like a deliberate and non-intrusive action. I found that checking my HEY email was a nice ritual, a bit like walking out to the mailbox.

I loved this feature.

HEY doesn’t feel pushy in the slightest.

Group threads

If you have a serious of messages which belong to a common topic, you can group them.

Adjust the subject line in the way that makes sense for you without changing it for anyone else.

Reply later

Native support for snoozing emails and getting them out of your inbox until you need to deal with them.

This is a cool feature, but one that I can access in Gmail with FollowUpThen.

Support for large files

One frustrating limitation of Gmail is the 10mb file size limit.

HEY does away with this, as it should.

Mute threads

HEY allows you to mute annoying email threads in the same way you can WhatsApp or Messenger threads.

What I didn’t love

Dinky, small interface on the Desktop app

I mostly used Hey via the Mac desktop application. The default resolution for this is 1024x768 which felt a bit small and I became tired of resizing the window on each load.

Tedious training and categorisation

During the on-boarding process, you have to manually categorise every single type of email.

I don’t expect it to know that messages from my wife should go to the Imbox, but manually categorising Amazon and PayPal receipts felt tedious and unnecessary.

Bright, colourful design

HEY felt too designed for my tastes.

Lots of bright colours and considered typography. I’d rather my email client slipped into the background a bit more.

Incompatibile with Action Based Email

I approach my inbox with the Action Based Email method.

This means that I use my email like a great big messy to-do list.

If there’s a message in my inbox, it stays there until I’ve actioned it. When I’ve finished the task, I archive the message. Tick!

When you open a message in HEY, it falls out of the Imbox whether you’ve dealt with it or not. I became hopelessly disorganised during my HEY trial as a result.

Why I won’t be switching from Gmail

HEY solves a problem that I don’t have

There are zillions of busy, high profile people in the world with publicly available email addresses and inboxes packed to the rafters with timewasting unknown plebs who want to sell them things or ‘pick their brains over a coffee’.

HEY will be perfect for them.

I am not one of these people.

My human-sent emails are from clients, colleagues and associates. I don’t want to ‘screen’ these people or send their message down a trapdoor into the abyss. I want to process, reply and archive their message from my inbox, then move onto the next thing.

It feels to me like Basecamp’s high profile founders have built the perfect email experience for their needs. But that’s not going to right for a large chunk of the rest of us.

I wanted to love HEY. I have no qualms paying USD$99/year for an email address (particularly a cool one like ollee@hey.com) but HEY just doesn’t work the way that I work.

Regrettably, I’m stuck with Gmail for the moment.

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