Mailbox is one of the best Gmail apps for iOS we’ve ever seen. Recently acquired by Dropbox, Mailbox’s super clean design and gesture-based interface make it easy to sort through clutter and master your inbox. You can quickly archive emails, “snooze” messages to save for later, and turn emails into to-do lists. We chatted with co-founder and CEO Gentry Underwood to find out how Mailbox came to be.
Where did the idea for the app come from? Were you trying to solve a problem you’d experienced, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else?
Our team has always been passionate about creating tools that simplify everyday tasks. Mailbox evolved from our first app launched in 2011, Orchestra To-Do. Orchestra addressed the fact that people use email as a (terrible) to-do list by allowing users to forward tasks out of email and into the app, then collaborate around those tasks. The app was well-received initially, but we had trouble with on-going engagement. As we looked into why, we discovered that even among our heaviest users tasks were still trapped in email. Eventually we realised the best way to tackle the problem was to transform the inbox in which these tasks already lived.
After you came up with the idea, what was the next step?
Creating a better email solution might sound like a relatively straightforward task, but as you start exploring a problem like this one, seemingly simple ideas become much more complicated. Our goal was to push beyond that complexity to a truly simple experience, and the only way to do that is through lots (and lots) of iteration.
Pictured above: The Mailbox team at work.
How did you choose which platforms to target and which to ignore or wait on?
We chose to focus on one platform, iOS, and one email provider, Gmail, as we searched for product-market fit. We think we’ve found it with Mailbox, and now we’re working on getting it into the hands of everyone who wants it by expanding to other platforms and devices.
What was launch like for you?
Launch was a blur. When we unveiled the Mailbox video in December, we were stunned and overwhelmed by the response — over half a million views in the first day. It was clear that we’d identified a real pain point for a lot of people. Since email is mission-critical, we needed to maintain a robust and reliable system as we scaled. To help with this, we designed a reservation system that let us give access to the app gradually. Shortly after launch we had over 1.5 million reservations in the queue and not enough hours in the day to process them. Long story short: we didn’t sleep much.
What was your biggest roadblock and how did you overcome it?
Scaling was by far the biggest challenge we faced. Growing a new service from a small beta to hundreds of thousands of users in a matter of weeks is no small feat. Stability is the most important thing for an email client, so it was a delicate balance of reliability and growth. And it wasn’t just the servers: we also had to scale our customer service capacities and our own team.
How do you handle user requests and criticisms effectively?
We’re lucky to have a very passionate user base that provides feedback regularly, and we always take their input into account when making product decisions. Our in-app feedback buttons and Twitter have helped us to prioritise features and design a roadmap that reflects what users want. The request we hear most often is for access on more platforms, so we’re working to expand to additional devices and email providers as quickly as possible.
Pictured above: Mailbox’s “snooze” feature.
Now, how do you split time between developing new features and managing existing ones?
Now that we’re part of Dropbox, we have the resources to keep the service stable and continue scaling while simultaneously developing new features that will make processing email faster and more delightful.
What advice would you give to others that want to take on a similar project?
Stick with it. Product design can be laborious and requires persistence and patience. Mock something up, try it out, then iterate. And iterate again. Nothing is precious, and you have to be willing see a lot of hard work on the cutting room floor. We went through literally thousands of iterations, both of the UI, the logo, and the code until we landed at the most simple, naively obvious solution we could.
Lifehacker’s new Behind the App series gives an inside look at how some of our favourite apps came to be — from idea to launch (and beyond).