We’re more or less stuck with email, so Mailbox decided to try and make it more useful

Plenty of startups over the years have tried to replace email by convincing users to adopt a different platform or service, but the problem with that approach is that too many people have to use email, because all of their friends and/or co-workers still use it. So the founders of Mailbox decided to spend their time trying to improve how the traditional email inbox works instead, co-founder Gentry Underwood told attendees at Gigaom’s RoadMap conference in San Francisco Wednesday.

The Mailbox team originally tried to make a smart to-do list that was fast and easy to use, and had communication features built in, and many users liked it. But Underwood said that the drop-off rate in usage was still extremely high, and eventually the company realized that it was because even its most dedicated users kept getting sucked back into their email inboxes.

“The mistake we made was expecting that people would move entirely out of their inbox, but the fact is that no one is going to stop using email until everyone stops using it at the same time. No one uses email because they want to — they use it because everyone else uses it.”

What eventually became Mailbox was an attempt to re-engineer the way we interact with our email, Underwood said, but in a familiar-enough way that it would integrate seamlessly with the way most people are already used to using their email. One of the most difficult things with designing services like Mailbox, he said, is not to get too far ahead of where your users are, because then you risk losing them. Instead you want to “create something that’s better, but still familiar enough for people to understand.”

In the same way, he argued, many of the advancements of the iOS 7 user interface would have seemed strange or foreign to users if Apple had introduced them right away when the iPhone first came out — users had to be introduced to touch first, in ways that made it seem familiar, before the company could lead them into newer areas or experiences that were less familiar.

Check out the rest of ourĀ Roadmap 2013 live coverageĀ here, and a video embed of the session follows below:
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A transcription of the video follows on the next page