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Ask HN: Please review my site "Smoke Signal" (getsmokesignal.com)
143 points by mtgentry on Oct 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

I appreciate a good hack, but just can't get past the idea that this is a solution in search of a problem.

2 Reasons I would never consider using this:

1. I don't want anyone to have any idea "how busy I am". Maybe I'm old fashioned, but the size of my inbox, like many other things, is no one's business but mine.

2. This effectively makes the sender the gatekeeper for deciding what's important. I want to be my own gatekeeper. I would much rather have everyone send everything when they would normally send it and let me decide when or whether to read it. I can't think of any good reason why losing control and losing data would be advantageous. I'd rather figure out ways to manage my time and my inbox than wonder what I'm not receiving because someone else made a decision "on my behalf".

"I appreciate a good hack, but just can't get past the idea that this is a solution in search of a problem."

I had exactly the same reaction: good hack, where's the problem?

The solution to the problem of too much email already exists, and that solution is ... email. Email is asynchronous, and you get to decide when and what to do with it.

Overflowing inboxes are the problem. Perhaps we should have provided more context about what we're trying to fix : )

These guys do a good job: http://emailcharter.org

We're trying to provide a framework around that first rule of respecting the recipient's time.

But respecting people's time isn't about knowing how much e-mail the person you're sending to has...

It's about sending only important e-mails/"not spamming". So, regardless of whether the guy I'm sending to has an empty or an overloaded inbox, I should always send the e-mail, because it's important.

I don't have an overloaded inbox, but for those who do, it seems to me that they're mostly overloaded with stuff that was sent to a group rather than to them as an individual.

If the sender is even thinking about the question "Does this particular individual have time to read this email?" then the chances are that this email is already far more important than average.

Great point. That's why theres a line underneath "unbearable" that says "please only send if it's urgent."

Also to your point, I'm not sure if this is a good product for workplace email exchanges. In that setting you're sort of forced to send things to people wether you want to or not.

"Overflowing inboxes are the problem." Exactly, maybe you can hack a simple "remove reply all button", so people need to think before they actually add more names to the CC list!

I know lots of people who could get a ton of use out of this. VC's, local startup facilitators, generally people who are probably getting a ton of emails from people who they don't know. I think this could be really useful for these people. Hell, even middle managers at large corps who are buried in mail.

Basically, if you're not getting a ton of email, you don't need this.

2) I can understand why you would want to see each and every email. Although I think some people get so much email that they would happily place some of the burden on the sender in exchange for the time savings.

I don't have this problem as I just leave emails I'm not immediately taking action on in the inbox. But maybe an auto-responder is a better solution for those that have this problem. It could explain that you're busy and hint that the sender can add the word "URGENT" to the subject to grab your attention in emergencies. You could then, with a few simple rules, manage your inbox without giving an external service access to your inbox.

Anyway, as far as anyone is concerned my inbox is always swamped. It's usually true, but if it's not I might get away with reading a few extra articles on HN without anyone knowing my inbox is screaming for some action.

2 Reasons I would never consider using this

I'd never use it either, but I'd also wouldn't post nearly as much information on facebook as most of my friends do.

Ones own preferences might not always be a good indicator the public's preferences.

The design of the site is very, very good. Within a couple of seconds I knew EXACTLY what this does. Not usually the case with a lot of startups out there. That text under the logo is very good.

Having said that, unfortunately I'll join others in saying I won't use this. I'm one of hte "searchers" - my inbox is always full, but I search for right emails, instead of filing into folders and deleting.

It's true that you know exactly what the service does, zavulon... but evidently that's only half the battle. You know what it does... but you don't know WHY you need it. Nobody knows that. Because it's not written on the page; it's implied. (Never good when your brand and solution are new!)

A part of the problem here comes down not to the service you're providing, mtgentry, but what you're saying or not saying about it. So my feedback is about your customer-facing copy.

Although I love the clarity of the headline, I'd recommend you consider fleshing the headline out to address a key benefit or the single biggest point of value, possibly in a nicely sized subhead. Something like:

"Broadcast Your Inbox Health

When your team or family sees you're swamped, they'll only send you critical stuff."

A few other thoughts:

1. "Broadcast" is a scary word. It's clear and noticeable, but it's scary. Reconsider?

2. What's the pain you're eliminating? It's not making it so people are "less likely to email you", as you put it. We still need communication. It's just that, when we're busy, we don't want the emails we don't need. The pain you're eliminating is unnecessary emails. It seems obvious to me, but it's nowhere on the page. (Of course, I may be totally wrong!)

3. You write about what senders/recipients can see (i.e., "It allows anyone you email to see the size of your inbox"), but you don't write about what people can't see. That's important. The details that stay hidden from others - like subject lines and sender names - are even more important, in the sensitive world of personal and business comm, than what's shown to them. Tell potential customers exactly how private their inbox will remain.

4. People don't want others to know how jam-packed or empty their inboxes are because that says something about them. (Others have noted this already.) Assuming your product addresses this issue elegantly, you'll want to message this on your home page or in easy-to-read FAQs.

5. An 'ideal for' line would greatly help. People need to identify. Help them.

6. Why is Smoke Signal better than an auto-responder? Why is it better than IM statuses? Why is it more efficient or effective than the solutions the HN community is throwing out? A testimonial from a customer that covers off these sorts of things could do some serious heavy lifting here.

Sorry if that's going too far. It seems to me that there are a lot of great objections and anxieties rising to the surface in this thread. You can totally address them easily on the page.

Nice site, clearly written and straight to the point. However I agree with the sentiment that, if it indeed addresses a problem, it tackles it from the wrong angle.

The problem this introduces is that it's useless unless people only email you by replying. If they're replying to you it's probably important, and you don't want to tell someone not to reply or to reply later. And to expect someone to do that is unreasonable.

If someone emails you direct, they don't see your signature. So it doesn't fulfil its purpose then.

Finally, an overflowing inbox shouldn't be the responsibility of someone trying to contact you. Things like labels, filters and priority flags are all tools used by email clients to allow the user/recipient to establish a system to manage large amounts of email that is most suitable for them.

You can't expect the sender to help you manage your time better. And thus if this servie is useful to you, I'd be more inclined to think your email client isn't being worked hard enough.

Visual nitpicks: your title tag says "SmokeSignal" while the rest of your site uses "Smoke Signal"; and "all others click here" should probably be "all others sign up to be notified" or something.

You can probably also safely reduce the number of fonts you're using.

Isn't this effectively a way to stick a button at the bottom of my emails that says, "I'M INCREDIBLY DISORGANIZED"?

Now, within teams, I can definitely see the use - particularly if it also picked up tasks from bug trackers, tools like Remember the Milk, etc. But maybe as a Rapportive-style dashboard (and at-a-glance team page) rather than a signature - so when I email my colleague, it warns me that he's late on 3 tasks and has a lot of unread email.

Agreed. If you have nothing in your inbox, it looks like you have nothing going on, are not successful and are unimportant.

If your inbox is overloaded, then you are unproductive, overwhelmed, unhelpful, flustered.

If you are in between, it says almost nothing about you and therefore would be pointless.

I think this was probably a fun little project, but I see absolutely no sense in it- at least not the way the author intended anyway.

Despite whether of not I'd use this service I must say your site explains it very clearly, directly, and in terms anyone can understand so I'd say job well done.

There are two huge problems with this service: trust and privacy.

Trust: a one page website is asking for access to my Gmail account. As far as I can tell, this means it gets access to everything 24/7. EVERYTHING. Holy crap. Because of the way that web security has evolved, my email inbox (not Gmail, but that's beside the point) is now the master key to my life. No way in hell am I handing a service like this the master key to my life.

Privacy: I'm assuming this is inserted into the email as an HTTP reference ("signature updates throughout the day"). If that's the case, then most correspondents won't see the image because modern email clients block 'beacon' image requests by default. If that's not the case and the image is embedded as a MIME object, then the tool is kinda useless, because who knows when a correspondent will read my reply?

If anything, the real solution is already described in the website header: "It's kinda like the AWAY setting on instant messenger, but for email". Most IM software, including Gmail, already has "online presence" notification. Perhaps that's where the real solution lies.

They are onto something. Usually great stories start with a narrow, pin-point of a problem that many people have.

http://blog.getsmokesignal.com also shows laser focus, sparse and reflective pieces.

Their simple refocus on sender is refreshing and quite cunning.

Keep up the good work.

Another take on the same problem is to send an automatic reply saying

  Your email has been received.
  There are %N emails in my Inbox before yours. 
  Your email is important to me.
  The estimated wait time for the response is %M days.
  Thank you for your patience.

If two people both used that automatic reply, and one of them emailed the other, it would result in the world's funniest arms race.

The big email provides should already have loop detection. This is no different than a vacation email or an NDR.

If I ever were to get an email from anyone saying that, I guarantee I would never email them again. So incredibly annoying.

Well then, it may have served its purpose!

Seriously though, there's maybe a dozen ultra-important people in the world for whom I could tolerate a reply like that. But anyone that important really should have their secretary sorting through their email anyway.

A reply like that from someone of lower (or even equal) status would be incredibly rude.

The problem with this approach is that I would not want to auto-reply to every message, particularly not group lists or important people who expect their stuff to be read on time. I think smokesignal is a lot more subtle.

The site looks very nice, and the idea looks interesting. Another small typo: "Also until we get create a proper login system".

How do you determine what are "healthy" and "unhealthy" amounts of email? If I ignore a bunch of mailing-list type email in my inbox by just glancing at the title, I may have hundreds of "unread" messages but that doesn't mean I'm totally flooded with email. Thoughts?

Great point. In future versions we may only ping your Priority Inbox, instead of everything. Would that be a more accurate reflection of your "busyness"?

There are a few shortcomings here

Having filters: Most users may use Inbox as the fall through location for emails. But a lot use filters as a way to move stuff out of the inbox to specific folders as a means to prioritize responses.

eg. My wife, business partner etc, might make it to folder important, my 2nd level priority emails go someplace else, mailing lists elsewhere and so on.

Inbox is whats left and is least priority. How do you account for whats important. What if I don't use priority inbox? What happens when I don't read the email in my inbox at all since it isn't critical to my day to day function.

This also doesn't account for a mail client use or mail forwarding from Google. Since Gmail provides a way to use a mail client or forward mail options, it means that I might read mail on my client but not report back to gmail or just read all the mail from another account.

Anyway, some thoughts to ponder over. May not be a mainstream problem since most users might not be doing what I suggested.

The "Learn More" should be on the front-page. Or actually, the image on the stats should be. To decide on wether I'd use this, I must follow that extra link, filter some copy I don't care about, then look at the image to figure out "unbearable" means a puny number to me, making the product a bad fit.

20 emails is far from "unbearable" in my mind.

Also, making it obvious that this is based on unread emails would be helpful. My immediate reaction was this was for zero-inbox-nazis, of which I know a few among friends, but the "unbearable mental weight" of seeing a list of read emails just doesn't impact me the way it does them I guess. ;-)

Other than that, yes, clever hack. But honestly I'd be afraid of the impression I'm making by broadcasting to everyone that I'm constantly swamped. "Unbearable" has some pretty overly dramatic connotations.

I have one rather large gripe : The sentence "We use Oauth to look at the amount email in your inbox, nothing else." is _immediately_ followed by "Also until we get create a proper login system, we may use OAuth to get your email address".

I understand that this is a temporary situation, but you probably shouldn't say "nothing else" and immediately deny it.

Otherwise, the idea is cute, and the site is nice. However, I have a feeling that people won't want to broadcast that much information to just anyone. It's a little like adding "my desk is really untidy (or tidy, or whatever) right now" as an email signature.

I love looking at new sites like this, I think it's great to get the chance to see what others are working on. It tries to tackle an important problem but has a few forseeable side effects.

The most important points I can think of...

It's placed in the signature, it doesn't apply to anyone composing a new message, which is probably a large portion of mail.

It relies on the person sending the message to decide if their e-mail is urgent or not (everyone thinks THEIR message is urgent)

Anyone replying to your mail is probably someone you are waiting for a response from, so really you NEED them to e-mail you, so you can get work done.

It would probably lead to a lot of 'queue jumping', getting phone calls starting "I saw your mailbox is swamped so I thought I'd just call to ask XYZ..."

I do love that it auto updates so that you can see the current status even on an old mail.

Maybe it would be more useful to display an auto updating sig beacon that contains autoresponder info. Your frequent contacts can see what you're up to, if you're about, at a different site, on hol etc. That's closer to the "Away" button on messenger. It would save people typing out a whole e-mail to just get a bounceback message.

I wouldn't use it, but the site (which is the thing you wanted us to focus on) is clear and original. Overall, well done.

There might be a typographical error in the Privacy section: "We use Oauth to look at the amount (of?) email in your inbox, nothing else."

(I don't mean to nitpick, but we want your site to be the best it can be!)

This provides a greater benefit to the recipient than the sender.

Jack wants to send Jill an email and using SmokeSignal can send it when there is the least noise in Jill's inbox. SmokeSignal is a utility for him not her. Devise a way to implement/market SmokeSignal to Jack, in which he persuades Jill to use it.

Well, the product assumes Jill is really hot. And she gets lots of email from not only Jack, but Tom, Dick & Harry as well.

We think Jill would want to use it to decrease the number of cock pics in her inbox.

Good Luck!

There's a little typo - "We use Oauth to look at the amount email in your inbox, nothing else." - missing OF after amount.

On the learn more page there's an extra apostrophe - "email signature that let's other"

It looks really neat. How do you deal with "out of office" situations, where people are likely to have full inboxes?

Ha, I'm sure there are other typos as well!

If someone gets a full inbox while on vacation, I'm guessing they would still want others to know their inbox is full, no?

Well, you would probably want the person to know you are out of office/on vacation/not checking email, not that you have a full inbox.

This favours people who check emails all the time (24/7 if you get international emails), and says nothing of those who read all their emails, then goes through all the work created by them, then repeat (as my mum does all day).

Honestly, I like this service. While I agree with everyone's sentiments as to it addressing a problem but not fixing it, I believe it's a great alternative. There's not a "one size fits all" solution to email overload, and this allows a user another channel to express their availability.

I would only suggest allowing a user to set their own alert levels for each category-- my emails constantly go upwards of 100, 200, 300 unread at a time, but I still consider that manageable. Allow it to be customized and you have an interesting project that has some great potential.

This is just a trick to be able to build some sort of social network graph based on 'reads' of email isn't it?

Nice use of google/gmail api nevertheless.

I installed it to see if it works/because it looks fun but will probably uninstall it tomorrow when i start freaking out about the privacy/security/my-outgoing-emails-being-blocked implications.

Also it said my inbox is 'unbearable' straight off the bat so presumably you just check total unread or total inbox messages not the ratio - I have a massive inbox but no recent messages that are not read right now so I feel it's very 'bearable'.

I think this is really clever, I love it!

2 Suggestions: 1. A way to control which emails this gets attached to. If I'm emailing a client, I don't want them to ever feel I'm too busy to be contacted. 2. Allow for other measurements. In the same way most phones have a DND button, I would be great to have a manual override for days I'm busy. Also for me it would make more sense to measure how busy my calendar is vs my inbox.

Additional variation: It might be interesting to post an average response time to expect vs ples/tol/unb.

I believe that in GMail, when you compose a new message your signature is just at the bottom and you can select and delete it.

I can't say much about the service; I wouldn't use it having little email use. But the site itself is broken and severely overlapping for me, even when zoomed out. (mobile opera)

This is a completely serious question: does mobile opera have a large enough user base to include support for at the MVP stage?

I would love the ability to set the basic colors - specifically background color (including transparent).

For now at least, I find it more useful embedded on my site than in email.

Very nice, but is it customizable? Could I set it up myself to say that I'm busy now, and probably won't be able to reply soon, regardless of the amount of e-mail I have in my inbox? Or maybe could it somehow relate to the how many e-mails I have sent/read in the past few hours to understand if I've been going through them? Like "he has been to his inbox for x hours now, so please don't expect a quick answer right now..."

Great design and bravo for actually shipping code. But I don't think I would use it because there are definitely more than 7000 emails in my inbox but I always reply emails immediately that I know are important. What if I include some key-phrase in signature and people who send me emails with that key-phrase in subject are more likely to get a quick reply? But this is a deviation from your original idea.

As mentioned in another thread, maybe there could be an algorithm that uses multiple data points to determine availability? So it would take into account that you haven't opened that 5,345th email from a year ago, and you're unlikely to any time soon.

My friend Eric's courteous.ly (featured on lifehacker and mashable a few months back) does something similar except it uses rolling data points to determine what "normal" is for you, as opposed to a single absolute scale for everyone. The advantage of Smoke Signal is that it has a real-time meter as opposed to making a recipient click on a link to get the status of your inbox.

I actually reached out to Eric about the idea originally but didn't hear back, so we just went ahead and built it on our own : ) The only thing I'm not crazy about w/ coutreous.ly is the stats live outside email ecosystem.

Buster Benson is doing cool things too with http://howsmyemail.com. He provided some encouragement early on.

What does "size of your inbox" mean? I have over 22K messages in my inbox, does that mean I am too busy? I don't use my inbox as a "to do list," so I really don't care how many messages are in it. But, apparently, there are a lot of people who do. Regardless, I think it is totally cool you guys wrote an app that you think is useful and that you shared it with HN!

I get the feeling that this is a MVP or feature test for something bigger. Because truth be told, I don't see why people would care about someone's inbox health, especially since people use their Gmail account as a garbage dump+todo list+backup. I've seen inboxes with THOUSANDS of unread email and most people I know don't archive anything at all.

Yep, MVP indeed!

Our core idea is that email interactions should be based on one's availability. More thoughts on that here: http://blog.getsmokesignal.com/post/10660730744

An interesting idea, but one I'd disagree with almost completely. Email works extremely well for me because I can receive it regardless of my availability, and respond to it when I have time. Your blog post notes that email interactions don't match real life; I agree, but I'd consider that a feature. I can easily solve the "important people" problem by using filters to call attention to email from those people, but I'd only need to do that if I couldn't keep up with email in the first place; currently I can see at a glance who my email comes from, and optionally cherry-pick mails to respond to first. Otherwise, to the extent email becomes more like real-life interactions, it becomes less useful to me.

> I've seen inboxes with THOUSANDS of unread email

Is(n't) this 'bad'?

I avoid email in some circumstances because people don't seem to use it well (Admittedly what is meant by 'well' can be subjective). Most of them have hundreds/thousands of unread emails.

I've seen inboxes with THOUSANDS of unread email

This is me, for years.

Just the thought makes me uncomfortable ;) I get stressed out with more than a dozen of email in my inbox, read or not...

Maybe the solution to this is an algorithm that pings multiple data points to determine your availability.

You mean like this one?


Cool idea but I tend to glance through every email as it comes in and either respond, do nothing or mark them for a later action (flagging, etc) so it doesn't quite fit into my workflow.

On the other end of this, there are definitely times where I've wondered how busy someone I'm emailing was. I'd enjoy being able to quickly gauge their status.

I must be a truly mean person. My first thought was "I can know when I have spammed them exactly enough"... I think I would personally make a game out of trying to keep people's inbox completely full. Like I said... I'm prolly just a mean spirited person.

The chances of me typing my Gmail password into a page with that many typos are extremely low.

I think this got a lot of attention because a lot of people here have a ton of email but ultimately this doesn't seem like a solution to that problem.

I'm curious. Out of the total amount of people you surveyed before building this, what percentage raised their hands and said they would use it?

We're counting hands now on HN. It's very much a MVP.

What does MVP mean in this context?

So you built it and then surveyed?

I'd find this useful if it would update my IM status rather than adding a postscript to outgoing emails.

Completely unrelated, but how does that Museo Sans render so nicely on Win/Chrome? Usually font rendering on Chrome is horrible. Now, checking Typekit, it seems some fonts have nice anti-alias, while some not. Where's the difference?

I believe that is due to the work they explain in this blog post: http://blog.typekit.com/2011/07/26/new-from-typekit-improved...

This and the fact that Jos, the Museo designer, has always been very web-oriented and paid a lot of attention to the rasterization issues. His fonts are all really well hinted to begin with, and then there is Typekit's conditional .ps serving on top of that.

Thanks a lot, I think that's exactly what's happening here.

You may want to consider asking this on Stackoverlfow.com

I'd pay just to have it always say: my inbox is unbearable.

Haha. The problem with this is people would get used to it always being unbearable. And they they would't trust it.

Solid work guys, I'm in

i like the site. i would prefer a more passive indicator, that indicates my status in a less strident tone.

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