Taking a look at Hey

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Hey! There’s a hot new up-and-comer to the stagnant, atrophied email space!

I follow the creators of Basecamp – David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried – on Twitter, and a few months ago I saw they were launching an email service in the summer. I had been using Gmail for over a decade and thought it might be time to look into what other options are out there – is someone doing email better than Google and Microsoft? Hey’s features looked enticing, so after I got the invite code so I wanted to give it a try.

Let’s compare: Hey vs Gmail

TL;DR: I’m still on Gmail, but probably not for much longer

I tried Hey a few weeks before it became publicly available, but from what I can tell it’s largely the same as what was shipped to the public. What was shipped to the public? An exceptionally well designed, thoughtfully opinionated, new take on email.

Hey nailed the basics one would expect – apps for all platforms that work well, 100GB of storage which is more than enough for basically everyone, functional spam filtering, labels/filters, etc. Where Hey shined – and where it didn’t click for me – was in their unique additions. I had mostly positive things to say about Hey, a few minor issues, and one big dealbreaker. Let’s start with the great stuff:

The Positive Things

Several unique or useful built-in features

Control over who emails you to begin with

Signing up and setting up forwarding from Gmail was easy, and I instantly loved the Screener feature. This puts emails from people who have never contacted you before in a special queue, and you can approve or deny them from hitting your imbox – you can even auto-categorize them with one click. This is a pain at first but very quickly helped keep my inbox clean, and would have prevented the situation I found my self in recently where someone used a bot to sign my email up for literally thousands of email marketing lists.

The Screener infinitely better than Gmail’s AI-powered Categories (which I have disabled because they suck). Of all the features of Hey, this is the one that clicked and I saw the value of instantly.

Simple features everyone uses and wants

Another feature I took a liking to as soon as I saw was the Clips and Notes features. Clips let you highlight snippets of emails and save them; Notes let you add private notes to an email. These are both very simple features that are also immensely useful. Countless Gmail extensions offer similar features, and even as Google has a side pane for the ever-ignored Keep note-taking app, they still haven’t added anything like this for reasons beyond my comprehension.

The Speakeasy code is something I don’t have a need for, but I would be very happy to have and use if I did – it allows senders to add a special code (like “Rhino17”) into their email to have it bypass the screener.

There’s a lot of other features in Hey I’m not going to cover here, but I liked (almost- see below) everything I saw, whether I used it or not.

Thoughtful, appealing, opinionated design

Hey’s design is also better than Gmail’s and light-years ahead of ProtonMail. Going back to Gmail, it really does “feel” and look like an old app – even after the re-design Gmail rolled out in the last year it still lags, features countless confusing settings, and looks like it only got a fresh coat in paint since it was created. It’s not a reflection of how people use email today, it’s a reflection of how they used it in 2004.

I won’t dedicate this post to the UX disaster that is the Gmail settings pages, but Hey made me realize how much better it could really be. Hey makes using all of their built-in groups like The Feed and The Paper Trail dead simple, and tags are as easy as any other app.

To boil it down, everything is easier in Hey. It takes fewer clicks to perform most actions; less reach of the thumb on mobile for common tasks. Hey takes an opinionated stance on some functionality, and it’s all good choices.

Killing Footers

I hate footers; they are useless. If you send me an email, I probably know what company you work for based on your domain. I know your name, you probably included it if we never spoke before and also it’s likely included in your email address anyway. Phone numbers, addresses, preferred pronouns, and other things like that should live in your contacts and not be copied on every message you send. If only someone had invented a format for easily sharing contact information. Oh wait, they did.

Killing email tracking

Hey blocks email tracking by default, which is great. Email tracking is scummy (I know everybody uses it, I still don’t like it), so I’m glad it’s on by default.

Created by accountable individuals and a company who (at least appears to) care

Hey’s manifesto also lays out their overall vision for the product, which is great for the werido techies enthusiasts who get excited about new email products. Two points that are worth highlighting – Hey’s stance on paying for their service (you pay them, they don’t sell your data – great!) and their stance on AI (you know how to organize your emails better than a machine). I would also like the PM of Gmail to read the “Workflows, not workarounds” paragraph:

Marking things unread so you don’t forget to reply later. Starring or flagging something to mean one of a dozen different things. Writing drafts to yourself because you have no where else to keep notes. The days of doing one thing to mean another are over. Hacky, roundabout workflows be gone. HEY gives you proper workflows for the way people email today.

The most popular Gmail add-ons do things like add send-later queues, better flagging mechanisms, and note-taking systems.

To close out this section, here is Gmail’s Star settings, which I will also add do not work on mobile:

Photo of Gmail stars setting

Seriously, people and support matter

I also want to mention how impactful it is to have two “faces” for a product that are generally very good about communicating to the public, being open about what they believe and what they’re trying to do, and picking fights with the bad guys when they can. Compared to large companies that force comms people to craft sterile PR statements and never interact openly or honestly with their customers, it makes me happy to see.

Considering support, I would rather wait days for a good answer to my question than get a useless response quickly. I have had almost nothing but awful experiences with Google One (paid consumer Google account) and G Suite support, and from what I hear the Microsoft side of the fence is not much better in this regard. Other, smarter, more experienced people have probably written more about this and it isn’t the point of this post so I won’t belabor the point.

The Meh

The Paper Trail / The Feed, and confusion therein

Hey includes The Paper Trail and The Feed as alternatives to your Imbox. I like the idea of both, but I had issues with both.

The Feed

The Feed says you can read everything in-line but I either didn’t understand how to enable that or it didn’t work for the kinds of newsletters I get – content was cut off in the previews. Also, it didn’t mark things as read as you scrolled.

The Paper Trail

I also don’t know why The Paper Trail is given such prominence given then I never look at receipts or order confirmations, but I realize I may be in the minority there. Also, the way some companies send email don’t really work this this kind of structure.

Free trial length and lack of monthly pricing option

I would have liked a longer trial – I didn’t feel like I really got used to using Hey after 14 days, and $99 is a lot to spend on trying something out. I would have forked over $10 to give Hey another 30 days to feel it out, but no such luck.

Lack of advanced security options

Hey doesn’t offer PGP or any fancy encryption options, but as they correctly point out, nobody uses these things for email because they are a pain in the ass for basically everyone involved. I know a few pains-in-the-asses who prefer to use things like ProtonMail or PGP so the government can’t read our emails, and I’d prefer that too, but including state actors in your security model as a user or as a product owner gets very painful very fast.

The Dealbraker(s)

Calendar (which wouldn’t be a deal breaker if not for the fact that…)

Once I realized there was not an easy way to sync my Google calendar to emails I get in Hey (if I were to use Hey exclusively) I realized this wouldn’t work. I get too many event emails to manage manually, and I hate copying in event data or manually downloading/uploading .ics files.

Gmail’s ability to auto-create events works wonderfully and I do not want to live without it. I would be willing to use a third party solution to accomplish this (or use a Hey calendar!) but…

…Hey lacks an API

Hey is committed to being open, and I don’t doubt they will eventually provide an API for Hey. But it doesn’t exist now, and that bugs me a lot.

So what?

I went back to Gmail (and am currently trying ProtonMail, which appears to be immensely worse than both in every way except security). But I’m keeping a close eye on Hey, and once the product matures, as I’m sure it will, I will be excited to give it another go. If your calendaring workflow won’t be affected and you don’t mind the lack of API, I would strongly encourage you to give Hey a shot – you’ll probably like it.

Update: May 2021: Nearly 40% of Basecamp has quit due to leadership repeatedly screwing up, so perhaps not the best choice anymore.


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