Email As a Bridge or a Wall

People who know a lot more about the future than me tend to predict that someday soon that we’ll use software through voice command or even through dimensional gesturing in the style of “Minority Report.” Maybe that will happen and maybe it won’t. But my favorite alternative — or rather supplement — to the windows, mouse and pointer paradigm of controlling software is here today and it’s underrated: messaging. SMS on my phone, for sure, but definitely email.

Like most people, I’m sure, I spend the majority of my day in front of my email program. So when I can do something outside of the natural capable boundaries of email using that same, highly familiar interface, it feels like a real win.

Have a Nice TripIt

This is why I like TripIt so much, the travel planning Web application that really jolted me in that uncommon, “Eureka!” fashion that really good software tends to do. Basically, TripIt accepts the fact that most trips are planned using a variety of tools — Google Maps, rental car sites, Travelocity, etc. Rather than trying to usurp or intermediate those tools, the site tries to tap into their power, most notably by using email as a conduit. It counts on the fact that when you book a hotel or car, the vendors are providing you with the information you really need in the form of emailed confirmations of your bookings, and why not make the most of that?

So to start using TripIt, all you really need to know — seriously, this is it — is their email address: Using your own mail software — the system you already know and use constantly — just forward the email confirmations from those services to that address, and the TripIt application parses the information for you and sets up an itinerary. You can even forward emails without having an account in place or without ever having visited the site before; TripIt will simply set up an itinerary in a temporary account and invite you, via a reply email, to register and activate it.

Earlier this year, I traveled to California and used TripIt for the first time (on the recommendation of my friend Nate). I sent my confirmation emails from the airline, hotel and rental car company to TripIt, and it set up an itinerary for my trip within moments, collating the various kinds of check-in and -out dates into an easily understandable and coherent schedule. What’s more, along with my dates for pick-up and check-in, it also provided Google-powered maps and directions, and a weather forecast. It was the most organized trip I’d ever taken.

Bridges vs. Walls

You can think of this use of email as a kind of bridge between a remote application and your desktop. It’s arguably primitive, but its power shouldn’t be underestimated, mostly because its learning curve is virtually zero. If there’s one skill we can count on in this medium where we can count on virtually nothing, it’s that people know how to send an email.

Contrast that bridge building with the approach that many social networks take, in which email is co-opted, rather than extended. Send a message on Facebook and your entire conversation takes place within its limits. That’s all well and good, but unless you spend enormous amounts of time within its confines (I prefer not to), it’s a real hindrance. Flickr’s messaging system works the same way, and I recently discovered messages sent to me from other Flickr users that had gone unanswered for months. In effect, these email features have been walled off, and any messaging benefit they provide, for me anyway, is dramatically less useful to me than they’d be if I could just use my own email program.

I accept that social networks tend towards walled gardens, and in part that’s why they’re often not my cup of tea. But I think even in that respect, application designers of all sorts would do well to recognize the underrated power of email as an interface. Flickr, Facebook and others can certainly justify keeping their poking, favoriting, commenting and other activities closely held. But please, just let me email the way I like to email.

  1. Posterous let’s you post to a blog through the use of email. I’ve found it very useful in quickly posting my thoughts that are longer than 140 characters.

    It is also very intelligent about how it displays files you attach to the email or link to in the content of the email.

  2. My concern about email (or any sort of messaging) as interface is that we end up with an almost command-line experience. ‘@jimramsey’ on Twitter is one example. That’s not too bad, but I’m going to freak out the moment I have to send an email that has something like ‘-zxvf’ in it.

  3. I’m guessing you are aware of They use email as a blogging tool. Email is a great way to make an app’s UI invisible.

  4. Email applications serve a lot of folks as de-facto file servers, office suites, and to do lists.

    The fact that all of your emails (even the ones you send to yourself) are in a nice list, sorted by date, with a big dumb ‘subject’ tag makes it easy to work with.

    I sent that yesterday right? Oh. Yes. There it is.

    Users never worry about file management or organization in email because emails are ‘in your email’

    I think other types of applications could really benefit from this.

    Imagine an office manager application which presented you with a nice tidy list of documents which you could browse by date, subject, type, etc. You don’t have to dig around on your hard-drive to find them…they’re just ‘there’

    Google Docs does this already. Adobe’s ‘Bridge’ application does this in a way too…

  5. I couldn’t agree more about social networks. I have friends who use Facebook religiously and the only way I can communicate with them is by logging on. I just don’t have time to remember one more password to connect with two friends.

    Twitter on the other hand is great because I can post my thoughts or what I’m doing with my cellphone via SMS or via e-mail and it updates the sidebar of my blog without me even having to turn on my computer.

  6. Fantastic recommendation. My travel agent’s (yes, I occasionally use one) company uses something called VirtuallyThere for their itineraries. The email just has a link to the itinerary. Impressively, TripIt follows the link and parses the data on that page.

    Technically, it’s not that much more difficult than parsing the email, but it feels like magic to send an email with a link and nonsense text and end up with a well-designed trip page.

  7. With a bit of effort, even social networks could keep their walled garden but still integrate with normal email:

    Imagine clicking on a link to message another member, which is a mailto: with a special email address from their site. When you send the message, it goes through their application, which in turn resends the contents of the message to the email address of your intented conversation partner.

    Who can answer the email, which again goes through their application etc. Instant combination of ‘walled’, since you wouldn’t even have to know the other person’s email address (which is sometimes desired), and the convenience of integrating with ‘normal’ email.

  8. what about contact managers like Highrise or Wrike?

    they do project and contact automation through email prompts and forwarding.

  9. I think Basecamp uses a similar approach to their posts now. Instead of having to log into BC all the time, you can reply in email to someone’s post and it gets auto posted.

    Probably increased my efficiency with that program by 2.

  10. Sandy works like this, too. It’s supposed to be an email ‘personal assistant.’ It’s been hit or miss for me (I mainly use it for reminders, and it doesn’t always remind me), but I know some people who like it very much.

  11. I work at TripIt. Thanks for the love.

    One thing to also note is that beyond being a bridge, accepting itineraries this way is an excellent user experience because the end user doesn’t have to interact with any interface widgets. Manual data entry of trip data, especially when my other option is to print emails, sucks.

    One thing you might not have realized is that you can also get your itineraries into iCal, gCal and iPhone.

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