Hey email launched in mid-June to generally positive reviews, but coverage of the product itself was largely overshadowed by a fight between HEY and Apple regarding HEY’s monetization strategy.1 I’ve been using HEY now for about a month, and it’s a fantastic product, great enough to justify its $99 per year price tag (and I hate subscription apps). So what exactly is HEY, and why is it worth paying for email when there are so many free email products out there?
Hey is a new email product from the makers of Basecamp.2 The pitch is blatantly immodest: “Email sucked for years. Not anymore — we fixed it.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I’m willing to say that I love the product, and it’s without a doubt my favorite email solution. HEY turns email from a sender-focused to a recipient-focused communication form. I like that change in focus, and I love HEY for three reasons: workflow, organization, and privacy. I’m going to discuss those features here and explain why they work so well for me. If you’re interested in finding out more about HEY and its features, there’s a description of the features on HEY’s website, a long manifesto about HEY’s philosophy, and a 30 minute video tour of HEY hosted by Basecamp’s CEO.
I should mention that HEY includes all of the features you’d expect from a modern email app: spam filter, contacts management, labels, etc. This review is about the other features that make HEY special.
HEY suggests a workflow based on the assumption that there are essentially three types of email:
- Emails from people you know or that need to be read immediately (personal communications, critical notifications, etc.),
- Receipts, shipping notifications, marketing emails and similar communications that are good to have but you don’t actually need to read, and
- Newsletters and similar content that you like to peruse when you have time, but don’t require a response and aren’t time-sensitive
Each type of email goes to a different place in the application.
1. The “Imbox”
Important or time-sensitive emails go to the “Imbox” (sort of like inbox, but with a gesture to “important”—get it?3). Unread emails appear at the top (with the label “New for You”), and read emails appear in chronological order below (with the label “Previously Seen”). It’s easy to flip emails back and forth between the two sections. If you’re into “inbox zero,” HEY probably won’t be for you (that chronological chain of read emails is always there).
When you open an email, you can of course reply to or forward it just as you would in any email app. But you also have two additional options: “Reply Later” and “Set Aside.” Choosing “Reply Later” adds the email to a queue of emails that need replies. When you’re ready to write some emails, you can open up that queue, which fans out on the screen. You can either pick an email to reply to individually, or you can open “Focus & Reply” mode, which shows you a list of all your “reply later” emails with a textbox next to each for you to write your replies. This feature allows you to pound out a bunch of replies quickly, and I find it’s a great way to organize my emails and to be productive.
The “set aside” option is sort of similar: it adds the email to a queue you can fan out with a button at the bottom of the Imbox, but it won’t offer the focused reply mode. These are emails that you need to keep handy (sort of like starring an email in Gmail or marking an email as important in Outlook), like a confirmation number or an email that requires some sort of follow-up other than a reply.
2. The Paper Trail
The second type of emails—receipts, non-time-sensitive notifications, marketing, and similar emails go to the Paper Trail. This looks sort of like a traditional inbox, with a chronological list of all these emails. You can open it up and check it whenever you like, but these emails won’t clutter your Imbox.
3. The Feed
Newsletters go to “The Feed.” It’s designed to look sort of like a social media feed on Twitter or Facebook. A preview of each newsletter appears chronologically, with a button at the bottom you can click to view the entire email. I really like this feature. Like the Paper Trail, it’s great to keep newsletters from cluttering the Imbox, but the presentation of newsletters in The Feed is great. It looks nice and it’s user friendly, and I love opening up The Feed whenever I have a free moment to browse the news.
Other Notes on Workflow
HEY’s tripartite classification system fits the way I use email extremely well. For each sender, you choose whether their emails should go to the Imbox, Paper Trail, or Feed by default, but you can move emails around individually if you like. I don’t know whether HEY fits me so well because my workflow is pretty universal or because I happen to use email similarly to HEY’s developers, but that doesn’t really matter to me—I think it’s great. If this doesn’t sound like the way you use email, HEY probably won’t be for you.
HEY is also silent by default. That is, you won’t get any notifications for emails when you install the app. But you can pick senders whose emails should get notifications, or you can choose to be notified for any new email in the Imbox. This is similar to Gmail’s priority notifications, except that you’ll only get notifications from senders you want, instead of whenever the AI thinks an email is important.4 Again, this works great for me. I turn off most notifications on my phone; I only get notifications for text messages and (when I used Gmail) important emails. So HEY’s default silence wasn’t jarring or problematic for me, but it might be concerning for people who like to know whenever they get emailed. This fits with HEY’s general philosophy that your email should be about you, instead of about the sender. You should check your email on your schedule, not on the sender’s.
HEY offers a number of fantastic ways to organize your email, and again, each of these fits well with the fundamental idea that your email should conform to your preferences, not the sender’s. Here are some of the key organizational features that I love:
- Edit subject lines: if someone sends you an email with no subject, or with an unhelpful subject like “Question,” you can rename the email thread to something memorable and that will come up when you search for it. Only you see this change, and your replies retain the original subject, so replies to the sender won’t be affected on their end.
- Combine threads: when you’re dealing with multiple email threads on the same topic, you can combine them in HEY so that subsequent replies in any thread go to the same place. Again, all this happens invisibly within HEY, so it doesn’t affect anyone else on any of the email chains.
- Open emails in batches: when you have a bunch of emails you want to read in sequence, you can select them and open them together. They’ll appear in a sequential feed so you don’t have to keep flipping back and forth between your inbox and each email.
- Save clips: When an email contains a bit of information that you want to remember, like a URL or confirmation number, you can select it and save it as a “clip.” The clip will be highlighted when you open the email, and you can open your clips whenever you need to review them.
- Notes to self: there are all kinds of scenarios when you might want to attach information to an email. Did you follow up by phone? Did you do some additional research you want to track? HEY allows you to attach a “note to self” to any email that will appear next to it, so that you keep this information handy.
- Bundle emails: for senders who send you a deluge of emails, you can opt to have HEY display all of their emails in a single line in your Imbox or paper trail. You can still see all of their emails, but there won’t be a million lines in your inbox devoted to the same sender.
- Files: HEY has some cool features for organizing files. HEY doesn’t want you searching for an email and then digging through its attachments. Instead, you get a separate attachment library that’s easily searchable. Additionally, HEY let’s you send large files without worrying about attachment size limits. If you attach a large file, HEY will automatically include a link to a copy on HEY’s servers, so you don’t have to worry about a third-party file transfer service.
Together, all of these features make your email experience more efficient and more pleasant.
Privacy & Security
It’s become an Internet adage that whenever you use a free product, you’re the product, not the customer. That’s definitely true of Google’s products, whether it’s search, maps, or Gmail. Gmail uses your data to sell advertisements that are relevant to you. That’s kind of creepy, but alone clearly not a dealbreaker for the millions of people who use Gmail. But, like Google search, Gmail is becoming a worse product as ads become more invasive. And that makes sense; Gmail’s customers are the companies who buy ads, not the product’s users. Like search, Gmail is optimized for its customers—people who buy ads—and that makes for a worse experience for its users. Overall, I still like most of Google’s products. I have an Android phone, I use maps and search all the time. So it’s nice that, by switching to HEY, I’ve put one (very large) piece of my digital life beyond Google’s reach. The fact that HEY is actually a better product than Gmail makes it a no-brainer (and worth the price tag).
HEY also protects your privacy in other ways. Tracking pixels are a particularly insidious privacy invasion, one of those artifacts of an early, open Web that some intelligent person turned to nefarious purposes. Someone realized that if you include an image in an email, you can tag the image with a unique code for each recipient. Every time the image with the unique tag is accessed, you can record the IP address of the device that loaded the image. This means that the sender knows when, how many times, and (based on your IP address), your rough location each time you open the email. That’s pretty scary and a massive invasion of your privacy. HEY recognizes commonly used trackers (and things that look like trackers) and strips them out of your emails. If some marketer manages to design a tracking pixel that doesn’t look like common trackers, HEY still protects you by routing the image through a proxy server, so that the sender never sees your IP address.
While I absolutely love this feature (I hate tracking pixels), it’s another example of HEY’s over-the-top efforts to shove its features in your face (like the massive “Imbox” label). Every time HEY recognizes and strips out a tracking pixel, it tags the message with a binocular icon and displays a huge banner above the email bragging that “YOU’RE PROTECTED. WE BLOCKED A SPY TRACKER IN THIS THREAD.” While I appreciate HEY’s treatment of tracking pixels, I don’t need to see that massive banner every time it finds one. It’s distracting and pushes the content of my email halfway down the screen. There should at least be an option to turn off these huge, ugly banners.
HEY also has an admirable focus on security. It requires strong passwords and two-factor authentication, and it offers strong encryption at rest, in transit, and at work. However, HEY is not end-to-end encrypted, so if that’s something you need in your email, you’re better off looking for another product.
HEY is a fantastic email product; in fact, it’s the best email product I’ve ever used. It fits the way I use email perfectly, and I love its workflow and organizational features. The only complaint I have about the product currently is the over-the-top and distracting branding on the Imbox and with tracking pixels.
There are some legitimate concerns about HEY’s future. It’s a new product from a company that, while it has a long and solid history (21 profitable years), isn’t all that well known. And you have to pay for it. I’m not hugely concerned about Basecamp abandoning the product; they’re clearly invested in HEY and they have strong track record supporting their products (and there are entire websites devoted products that Google has killed, including some beloved ones, so why should we be any more confident about the future of Gmail?). I’m more concerned about the possibility that Basecamp jacks up the price for HEY in the future. It already feels a little weird to pay for email, and what if the company increases the price to one I’m unwilling to pay? I’d lose my email address, which would be hard. At least HEY offers the ability to forward your email and export everything if you leave the service, but I sincerely hope Basecamp keeps HEY at a reasoanble price point.
I won’t go into all the details here, but basically HEY only allowed users to sign up and pay for the service through its website. Apple’s rules for the app store require paid apps to allow users to sign up through the app, using Apple’s payment tools. Developers must pay Apple a 30 percent cut of any such payments. For more information, see this article in The Verge. ↩︎
Basecamp is project management and internal communication software. ↩︎
The “Imbox” thing is kind of corny, but that doesn’t really bother me. However, for some reason, HEY loves to shove in your face the fact that they call it an “Imbox” instead of an “Inbox”—“Imbox” appears in huge letters at the top of the “Imbox” in both the web and mobile apps. That’s the one design feature of HEY that I really don’t like. Just make the title smaller and sublter. ↩︎
I should note that you can have any sender trigger a notification, no matter where their emails go. For example, the front desk at my apartment building sends me an email whenever I have a package ready for pickup. I don’t want these emails cluttering my inbox, so I send them to the paper trail. But I don’t want to miss them, either—I want to know when I can go get my packages—so I have these emails notify me, and they don’t get lost among the paper trail. ↩︎