What's ahead for Gmail Priority Inbox?

A top Gmail designer hinted at some possible upcoming refinements for the service's powerful recent upgrade at a recent presentation in Zurich.

Priority Inbox, unveiled by Google about a month ago, is a new way of sorting email. It uses mathematical algorithms similar to spam filters to determine which of your email is most important, filtering the top email into a special inbox and leaving the rest until later. As with spam filters, Priority Inbox gets smarter as you teach it; when it mis-categorizes a message, you press a button to mark low-priority mail as high priority, and vice versa.

Priority Inbox works very well, and has helped me speed through email more quickly.

Ario Jafarzadeh, experience designer on the Gmail team, spoke about Priority Inbox before a group in Zurich recently. At a Q&A following the presentation, Jafarzadeh dropped some hints on how Priority Inbox may evolve.

Priority Inbox solves the problem of important email being buried, but creates its own problem: Once important email has been directed to the Priority Inbox section, and dealt with by the user, other email has a tendency to pile up. Lower-priority e-mail still needs tending to, Jafarzadeh said, and Gmail is working on expediting that process.

Google might also create tools to automatically sort email into "buckets" based on common factors, Jafarzadeh said. For example, the tool might automatically separate personal mail from business mail. Switching between personal mode and work mode -- reading a message from your father followed by one from the company marketing department -- slows down email processing. "There's a mental cost for all that task-switching," Jafarzadeh said. "If you could group all the messages from Mom and all the messages from marketing, that would be appealing."

Users can sort mail now using labels and filters built into Gmail, but most users don't bother using those, and just deal with all their email in one undifferentiated stream, Jafarzadeh said. That was the motivation behind Priority Inbox; to automate, at least partially, the differentiation that labels and filters provide for power-users.

Google will probably add support for marking messages as important and unimportant to IMAP, so that other mail clients can fully integrate with Priority Inbox, Jafarzadeh said.

Another possible feature suggested by the audience of Jafarzadeh's presentation: Priority Outbox. Often, you write an email to someone, don't get a reply, and have to nag them to respond; it would be very useful to have an automated tool that goes through your outbox and automatically flags messages requiring attention for follow-up. Jafarzadeh responded that might be a tool that would be tested by Google's enterprise customers first, who would be most likely to find it useful.

To find out more, including insider insights on how Google communicates internally, and the history of Priority Inbox, watch the video of Jafarzadeh's presentation here.

My top feature request for Gmail: Add Priority Inbox support to the mobile Web interface, so that I can more easily access the Priority Inbox from my iPad and iPhone. Right now, Priority Inbox is pretty much unsupported on the mobile Web interface. I'm heading out on a business trip Monday, and so, dear Google, could you take care of that upgrade before then? kthxbai.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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