How we've integrated collaborative features in our email client

Collaborative features are missing from modern email clients. Here's how we're fixing that with Front.

Mathilde Collin, CEO & Co-founder at Front
7 August 20205 Min Read

Collaborative features are missing from modern email clients. Here's how we're fixing that with Front.

We’ve entered the collaborative software era. But the mail client is still in the Stone Age.

Collaborative features are missing from modern email clients. It’s not necessarily true for our own private email addresses but it’s definitely missing for our professional shared addresses such as support@, hello@, jobs@, press@ etc.

Here is a tour of Front, still in Beta, and how we have integrated comments, assignments, and an activity feed in it.

Shared Inboxes

Addresses like support@, beta@, contact@, hello@ are created to be shared between teammates. However, with traditional email clients, it’s a pain to know who answered what or to check whether all incoming emails were handled.

What is lacking is the entire concept of "team inboxes" or “shared inboxes”: a central place in your email client where everybody could see not only the incoming messages but also what the others are answering.

This idea of a collaborative inbox works like this in Front:

  1. You import a company group address (ex: support@…) in Front.

  2. Front acts like a normal email client: incoming emails arrive directly in it and you can answer them on the fly.

  3. You invite your colleagues to join Front.

  4. They download the app and when they launch it they have access to the shared support@ address.

  5. From now on they see exactly what you see. Everybody receivse the same emails and sees what others are answering.

  6. Each group address can be shared with different teammates (bugs@ address can be shared with the dev team only for example).

This is the Front main interface, composed of 4 panes:

The left pane displays all the group addresses you import. For instance, at Front, we are sharing beta@frontapp.com and welcome@frontapp.com to onboard our beta testers and collect feedback. These two addresses are used by every teammate:

The second and third panes are used to display conversations. Conversations are organized by contact rather by email subject. So all emails exchanged with a contact are gathered in a unique conversation thread. On the very right you can see the list of the people who are sharing this inbox. It means that all of them see exactly what you see:

Comments

Comments are one of my favorites features in Front. The problem with emails is that often, before answering a customer request you need to ask questions. And most of the time you end up doing that either by writing more emails or by asking your colleagues on other channels like on your chat system (Skype, Hipchat, Gtalk, Yammer etc…). These solutions are only patches and actually increase the noise.

We decided to integrate a commenting system directly in our email client. Each message of a conversation can be commented.

To illustrate the relevance of comments within an email client, here's a real example:

Unfortunately we still write in French. What happened here is that a beta tester had a problem to login. So he sent a message to beta@frontapp.com asking Matthieu for help. Matthieu is the biz guy and doesn’t really know what is going on so he directly asks Laurent (our CTO) in a comment (and via a @ mention so he is sure that Laurent is notified in real time) how to fix the problem. Several comments later Laurent decided to directly answer our dear beta tester.

There are two huge advantages of using comments directly in your email client:

  1. You avoid doing dirty Bcc’s or other hacks to communicate with your teammates

  2. All comments are centralized directly under the message it concerns. Better organized. Cleaner.

Assignments

An obvious feature when you collaborate on your group addresses is to be able to assign conversations to people.

Let’s say that you receive an email from a lead. You want to be sure that Mike, your best biz guy, will take care about it. You can assign this particular conversation to him. Two things happen:

  • first he is notified in real time that he has been assigned to a new conversation

  • second this conversation is added to his “Assigned” inbox which centralizes all his important conversations.

Assigning a conversation to a teammate is fast and easy.

Notification Center / Activity Feed

The last important set of features I wanted to talk about concerns the ability to easily stay informed of what’s going on.

When you receive many emails, and that you are not the only one answering them, it’s really easy to get lost. You don’t really know what is going on, whether all emails have been answered or not. If new messages were received and handled by your colleagues. If some of them added interesting comments etc.

To solve this problem we implemented about two features: the notification center and the activity feed.

The notification center is a list of the latest notifications you have received. These notifications are for actions which are related to you (a new message arrived in a conversation you are assigned to, somebody mentioned you in a comment etc…)

The activity feed is a feed of all actions which happened in Front recently. The difference with the notification center is that you can see actions that are not necessarily related to you. For example when colleagues had a discussion via comments, or when somebody answered a conversation you were not assigned to. It’s a good way to be kept informed of what is going on globally.

As you can see, we use different icons for each type of action (@ for mention, comment bubble for comments, a paper plane directed to the right for outgoing emails and directed to the left for incoming emails).

Written by Mathilde Collin
Originally Published: 3 December 2013
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