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Gmail Priority: A Sad Tragedy

Thursday, September 2, 2010 by Robby Slaughter

Robby Slaughter

The latest news from Google is an upgrade to their popular email service, Gmail. Now, instead of just one Inbox, users get to have two. This is a terrible idea.

Before I explain to you why Priority Inbox is the worst idea since Google Wave, allow me to reference one of the countless sources that covered the story. Here’s the overview from an article in Mashable:

Priority Inbox is Google’s attempt to solve the e-mail woes of Gmail power users. At its core, the feature is an algorithm; Priority Inbox uses information such as keywords, the people you e-mail the most and your e-mail habits to select the most pressing e-mails in your inbox. Those e-mails are brought to the top of your Gmail and marked as important so you deal with them first.

At first, this might sound helpful. After all, so many of us overwhelmed by email. A quick glance at a screenshot makes this seem like a friendly and practical new offering from Google:

Plus, Google has a cutesy video explaining the service, complete with a jazzy soundtrack and cartoon emails (direct link):

To explain why I despise this new service, we only need to look at the description from The Official Gmail Blog:

Gmail has always been pretty good at filtering junk mail into the “spam” folder. But today, in addition to spam, people get a lot of mail that isn’t outright junk but isn’t very important—bologna, or “bacn.” So we’ve evolved Gmail’s filter to address this problem and extended it to not only classify outright spam, but also to help users separate this “bologna” from the important stuff. In a way, Priority Inbox is like your personal assistant, helping you focus on the messages that matter without requiring you to set up complex rules.

In essence, Priority Inbox is conflict-avoidance for email. Google recognizes that people “get a lot of email that…isn’t very important.” But instead of encouraging people to actually deal with the real problem (unimportant emails) they just try to hide these messages.

Tragically, reviewers across the web continue to swoon for the darling/juggernaut that is Google. Over at Slate, Farhad Majoo writes:

We also get all kinds of annoying messages that aren’t technically spam. In your inbox right now, you’re likely to find friend requests from people on LinkedIn or Facebook, CNN alerts about breaking news, and a message from someone in your office letting you know there’s cake in the kitchen, followed by several responses letting you know that the cake is gone.

Yes, we do. Hey Farhad, unsubscribe from those email updates already! You’re going to visit Facebook anyway and see new requests, so why get them in your email? And if people are using email to communicate about office cake status, isn’t it time to have a conversation about the role of email?

Being productive with email doesn’t require fancy tricks or advanced filtering software. Instead, we can become more efficient with email by changing our perspective. We should not need Gmail to decide which messages are important. Instead, we ought to use our own judgment about what newsletters and notifications we request and how we communicate with others.

All of this may sound bad, but it gets worse. Email marketers are already talking about how to ensure they get into the Priority Inbox. This is a terrible feature that will only further our codependent relationship with email. Come be back next week when I explain Google what should really should have done instead of creating Priority Inbox.

If you’re ready to move beyond silly hacks like this and take control of your email, join us on October 6 for The Battle For Your Inbox: Managing Email Productively. Register now!

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

What Google Should Do - Last week, I explained why Google’s new Priority Inbox feature was a terrible idea. This week, I’ll explain what they should do instead.
Read on »
I Hate Out Of Office - Last month, I ranted about Google Priority Inbox. So this month, I’m taking on another “feature” of email I despise: the out-of-office message. Read on »
Desktop is King - Still can’t decide which email system is better: desktop or web-based?  Robby Slaughter recently tackled this subject on The Marketing Tech Blog. In his view, there are several main reasons why desktop email reigns as king. Read on »
Want to learn more? Register now for the 2011 Productivity Series

7 Responses to “Gmail Priority: A Sad Tragedy”

  1. Sean Reiser Says:


    Where I understand your points about unsubscribing, I think you’re allowing that one issue to blind your from what this can do. Let me give you an example from this week.

    On Thursday, I got back from lunch at 2PM and saw the following emails in my inbox:

    - One from my local drupal user group inviting me to a BBQ on Labour Day
    - Three from a listserv I’ve been on for 10 years with a number of close friends discussing a birth in the group
    - One from a client asking for some information by 5PM
    - One from a lady I met the previous weekend
    - One from my bank with my monthly statement
    - One from my mom with a recipe I had asked about
    - One from someone who found my resume online asking if I can provide a service
    - One from newegg that an item had been shipped

    You can see I want all 10 of these emails, I just don’t want to address them all at 2PM on Thursday. I obviously want the 5PM deadline and request for my services to bubble to the top of my inbox. Eventually, I want to reply to my mom, potential date and congratulate my friend; I want to know that the product had shipped so I could inform the client about it; I want to have my bank statement so I can do my accounting over the weekend; and it might be useful to stop by the BBQ to make some new contacts. There’s nothing to unsubscribe from.

    Gmail correctly analyzed that the email from my client was high important and flagged it. I already had rules in place to apply a yellow bang to any email sent from my resume website, which I use as a “to do” list. The other email in my list weren’t flagged in any way.

    Actually, I want all of my correspondence in one place. Email, fax, voicemail, messages from social networks, IM messages when I’m disconnected, etc. To me Facebook, twitter, etc are leisure time activities which I’ll skip for days at a time, but if someone on those networks wants to talk to me, I want to know so I don’t leave them hanging. Without email notification I find myself looked at twitter and facebook several times a day, instead of just when I’m free.

    In the past I used filters to handle some of this by filtering on email address, subjects, etc. It’s just going to the next level by having the computer scan the text and determine if something is important, based on my prior behavior.

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks your comments, John.

    It’s particularly interesting that you have a client who is sending you an email sometime just before 2PM and expects an answer by 5PM. We have a different philosophy on email. If someone needs an answer from you within three or four hours, relying on a passive, asynchronous medium like email is unwise. Instead, the client should pick up the phone and call.

    I can appreciate wanting to have a unified inbox for all communication. However, I think automatic sorting mechanisms only encourage us to drown ourselves in email. If I had received the ten messages you described, I would have immediately taken of the non-urgent messages and dropped them into a single task for the following morning.

    The most important question is not what you do with ten new messages you receive after lunch, but rather how many other emails are waiting in your inbox. If there are dozens or hundreds more to process, features like Priority Inbox are just enabling behavior. We shouldn’t be trying to manage thousands of pieces of correspondence at one time, no matter how much technology can help with ordering.

  3. Sean Reiser Says:


    I think you and I have might have similar work habits with email. I do 3 sprints through email a day at points that it won’t interrupt my work process: first thing in the morning, right after lunch and right before I’m done for the day. During the sprint I process my email as follows:

    - an email I can reply to immediately in under a minute (which I reply right then and file)
    - a todo that requires an answer within a business day (give it a red bang for an existing client and a yellow bang for non-client requests)
    - an informational email which requires no reply (I tag and file it)
    - personal correspondence (which I tag and reply to in my personal time)

    After my morning sprint I clear out all the Bangs, red first then yellow. Honestly, occasionally I’ll clear our the red bangs after my night pass, if I have early meetings scheduled the next morning.

    My clients know that my turn around for email is one business day and they should call me with priority items. However, if I happen to see an email needing something sooner, I don’t wait for the panicked phone call 5 minutes before a deadline, I process it then and there, mostly because I don’t want the agida.

    Anything that’s “Bacon” (mailing lists, social media notifications, etc) which I want to look at my leisure never hits my inbox, it gets filtered into a folder which I’ll read while commuting, at a cafe or relaxing. Granted, this is email is not “important” but it never gets in my way and only seems to eat into my recreational web surfing / RSS reading time.

    This was a slow week because of the holiday but the average day I receive 50-60 emails which I process this way, takes my less then 30 minutes out of my day. Because I do it in 3 small chunks, I’m processing I am at inbox 0 as far as my professional email is concerned 3 times a day. I’ve been using filters to pre-process my mail for years, first with procmail when I self hosted my mail server and now at gmail.

    I’m not the guy with 100s of unprocessed emails in his inbox and I understand how priority inbox can be a crutch for them. But I still feel it might be an interesting feature for people who can process their email efficiently.

  4. Matthew Says:

    I too disagree with your article. I pride myself on keeping my Inbox “clean” (having been one of those people with 1,000 read e-mails in Inbox) but it’s also useful for me to be able to see the “important” e-mails and work on them first, leaving the less important e-mails for later.
    Your argument seems to that because these e-mails are less important I should eradicate them, which in my case I find unacceptable.
    When it works (and I admit I’m having problems training it, but that’s a different issue) Priority mail handles the “first pass” through my new mail finding the stuff I probably choose to look at now and the stuff I can look at later.
    The world is full of people who seem (to me) to be incapable of managing their e-mail, and for them Priority mail might be a crutch, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also useful for people who can manage their e-mail (and yes, I self-select into that group .

  5. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Matthew!

    There’s no question that a feature like Priority Inbox might be useful for people who already have healthy email habits. My concern is that most people are terrible with email. Studies show that people spend a third or more of their time on email. In our experience, it’s often more than half of their day.

    An essential component of changing your perspective on email is to stop keeping old emails. Every email should be processed and trashed. Email is like spoken conversation; what’s important is usually not the words that are said, but the actions that are taken.

    Priority Inbox only further enables bad email behavior for most users. We need to encourage people to be smarter with this technology. That’s why I suggested what Google should do instead of Priority Inbox

  6. Inspiro Assistant Says:

    This is a great way for sorting out emails. Gmail team did a fantastic job. I can filter my emails and focus on the important messages without setting up rules. Cool!

  7. Riley Jenkins Says:

    Gmail or let’s say Google is always a genius when it comes to usability and cost effectiveness. The new fave of Gmail helps me organize my email and can easily sort out which one to read first or keep.

    Mortgage Gallery Rockingham

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