Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox

I was not one the pundits who heaped immediate praise on Priority Inbox, an e-mail management feature that Google added as an option in Gmail last August. TechCrunch instantly labeled it “fantastic,” TheNextWeb called it “outstanding,” and Venturebeat said it “lives up to the hype.” I was hopeful about it, but cautious. Having been burned in the past by other systems that promised to help me manage e-mail overload, I wanted to give this one a good long look before saying what I thought.

Seven months is probably long enough. I deactivated the feature a couple of weeks ago, having concluded that it ultimately raised, rather than lowered, my stress levels surrounding e-mail.

Mind you, I’m not blaming Google. I think Priority Inbox is a credible attempt to go beyond simple spam filtering and help people identify the truly important e-mail amidst the mountains of not-so-important messages. But for me, it just wasn’t effective; it caused more problems than it solved. I figure that sharing my experience might help others decide whether to try the feature or turn it off, and might even help Google refine it. I’d also love to hear about other people’s experiences with Priority Inbox—so please share your thoughts in the comments section. (By the way—although today is the seventh anniversary of Gmail and the occasion for yet another Gmail April Fool’s Day prank, my post is sadly non-humorous.)

If you’re not a Gmail user or you haven’t tried Priority Inbox, here’s the quick scoop. When you turn on this feature, Gmail creates a new inbox, parallel to your regular inbox, that’s divided into sections. The software begins screening your e-mail for signals like whom you correspond with most regularly and what keywords have been turning up in the messages you’ve opened recently. It puts new messages with those signals into a section called “Important and Unread.” It also creates a section for starred messages, another for important messages that you’ve already opened at least once, and another for “Everything Else”—stuff that Google presumes it’s safe to ignore, or check later.

That’s about it. Over time, Gmail gets better at deciding what’s important and what belongs in the “Everything Else” bin, and you can help train it by marking specific messages as important or unimportant. You can also customize the names of the sections, turn off certain sections, and set each section to show more items or fewer. But the basic idea is to “help you focus on what really matters,” as Google puts it.

The truth is that I detest e-mail. It’s obviously a huge improvement over phone calls, faxes, and snail mail, but its very ease means that it gets used indiscriminately, to the point that most of us are overwhelmed with messages—I get at least 200 every day, not counting spam. So to me, what really matters is spending as little time as possible in my inbox. Priority Inbox wasn’t helping me do that—in fact, just the opposite. I think there are three big reasons why.

The first reason: platform conflicts. Simply put, Gmail isn’t e-mail. For me, it’s just one of the clients I use to I manage my e-mail, the other main one being the native Mail app on my iPhone and my iPad. Because I’m away from my computer a lot, my iOS devices are often the only way I can get at my e-mail. And the Mail app has no Priority Inbox feature—it just shows you everything. Which would be okay, except that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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9 responses to “Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox”

  1. Steff says:

    I turned off priority inbox in the first hour I tried it… hope +1 will survive a little longer than that

  2. For me Email = Anxiety, OR, when in a good mood,
    Email is like “Space Invaders” with a “don’t shoot the good guys” feature — totally LOVE:HATE!
    Great article, Wade —

  3. Sean Mc says:

    Wade, good article, great analysis!

    You are right. There should be an additional “Important, Requires Action” category, not just “Important & Read”. And yes, the convenience of the inbox as a “to do list” becomes almost self-defeating because of its simplicity. But your final point hits the bulls eye.

    The reason why Priority Inbox fails to live up to admirable expectations (and indeed can detract from inbox productivity as you, I and others have found) is that it fails to hit the 100% accuracy mark. It creates a situation similar to “please check your spam box in case anything important has been inadvertently drafted there”. So if you can’t rely on it with 100% accuracy and certainty – you end up having to compensate via manual intervention! This is the bit we all hate – that causes so much stress and that costs untold time and effort to overcome.

    If the benefit balance of relying on automated techniques (such as Google’s Priority Inbox and ‘conversation threading’ in Microsoft Outlook 2010) becomes outweighed by manual compensatory effort, then it is time to try something else – or revert to familiar tried and tested (manual ) techniques!

    Priority Inbox: Good attempt, needs more work.

    Sean Mc (Kilkenny, Ireland)

  4. josh says:

    wade, try sanebox. i didn’t like priority inbox either but i tried sanebox and aftr a month I just signed up for a year. (and FYI I am not affiliated with the company) /josh @jdsboston

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Alex Moore of Baydin tweeted to remind me about, which looks like a fun way to rip through one’s Gmail inbox…I’m going to try it out.

    @Sean – There’s actually a way to set up custom categories in Priority Inbox using filters, but I’m not sure having yet another category would help, since as you note, the problem is some messages would still go astray and would have to be tracked down manually.

    @Josh – Just checked out Sanebox briefly. At first glance it looks pretty much the same as Priority Inbox, but on more platforms. Why did you like it better?

  6. Angelina says:

    No new mail! There’s always Google News if you’re looking for something to read.

    This is the message I get, even when I have lots of new emails sitting in my inbox.

    hope this bug fixed… or this feature useless