Mail Pilot: an Innovative, To-do Style Approach to Your Emails

For the last fifteen years that we’ve been using email clients — webmail or desktop — the basic concepts and features remained the same. Anyone may have its own workflow to deal with emails and get things done, but almost everyone has to struggle with the same old, rigid logic provided by almost all clients on the market. However, we’re doing more and more with email these days than we did in the nineties. Something, it seems, needs to change.

The Kickstarter-funded Mail Pilot web app, still in beta, aims at redefining the way of dealing with emails. Let’s see how it might help you actually get things done.

Dealing with emails is as easy as dealing with to-dos

The core principle of Mail Pilot is that you treat your emails like a to-do list. There are no read/unread status, no tags, no folders (except for sent emails). Instead, every email you receive in Mail Pilot can be assigned only one status: it is either complete or incomplete.

Incoming messages are considered as incomplete by default. What you see in the first place when you log in into Mail Pilot — what would be called your inbox in any other classic email client — is in fact your list of so-called incomplete emails.

Screenshot of the Incomplete Messages list

Hovering your mouse cursor over one of the big dark grey circles next to each mail transforms the circle into a check mark. Just click and the message is marked as complete.

If a message requires no particular action on your part, apart from discovering its content (think of FYI emails, newsletters, ads…), you can mark it as complete right after reading it. If you do so, the email is automatically archived and won’t appear in your list of incomplete messages anymore.

This is the first major difference with other email clients, where already read emails stay in your inbox until you effectively choose to move or delete them. This often leads to a cluttered inbox if you don’t methodically deal with it.

Another notable difference is that, with the largest majority of web email clients, once you open an email, it is (almost) instantly marked as read. You then have to take a specific action to mark it as unread again, should you want to keep an eye on it.

With Mail Pilot, on the contrary, until you don’t explicitly mark a message as complete, it stays incomplete and thus upfront in your “inbox”.

Screenshot showing a message read but not complete.

The selected message (highlighted in blue in the list on the left) has been read but is not marked as complete until you explicitly do so, for instance by clicking on the green round button.

I find the Mail Pilot approach makes more sense, is more powerful and frictionless. Logical steps require no particular action from your part: when you’ve dealt with an email, it won’t stay in your sight, whereas it will stay at hand until you’re done with it.

I think that if you follow the core principles of David Allen’s GTD philosophy — and even if the developers did not explicitly mention any reference to it — you should feel almost instantly at ease with Mail Pilot. The good point is that, even if you’ve never heard about GTD, you don’t need it to quickly understand how the web app works. In fact, hardcore GTD followers might even feel a bit frustrated as the app only implements the basics (decide quickly, review later). The notion of contexts is not applicable in Mail Pilot, as there is not even any tagging possibilities.

An elegant interface with innovative features within a classical layout

I won’t delve into the details of adding your pre-existing mail accounts to Mail Pilot, as the process is pretty straightforward and you’re guided along the way. You can add as many IMAP accounts as you wish. Once you’ve done this, you are presented with a really well crafted step-by-step tutorial and then you can start playing with the Mail Pilot interface.

Global screenshot of the Mail Pilot interface.

The Mail Pilot interface is based on a familiar three-pane layout but shows a distinctive, elegant design with a strong personality.

The leftmost pane, called the ‘Productivity Center’, features general controls for the application itself as well as selectors to choose which category of messages and/or which review list should be displayed in the middle pane. The Productivity center is the only part of the UI that can be hidden.

Screenshot showing the upper part of the 'Productivity Center' pane of Mail Pilot.

The Productivity Center provides access to main functions and display options.

You will also find a little box that can either show:

  • your ‘Review Calendar’ showing today’s date as well as dates when some messages must be reviewed, highlighted in blue
  • or your list of ‘Review Contacts’ (more on this later)

You can toggle between both with just a click.

Screenshot showing the Review Calendar box.

At the bottom sits a handy mini calendar providing direct access to messages assigned to a date.

The middle pane shows the messages contained in the list you selected in the left pane, and the right, largest pane shows the content of the selected message. This three-pane layout is nothing particularly innovative nor disturbing for an email client, so you should feel at ease quite rapidly.

What’s more unusual is what is called the ‘Drill Down bar’ at the left of your message in the rightmost pane. Here you will find classical functions for replying and forwarding the email as well as three round, colored buttons. These let you act on the message with the specific concepts of Mail Pilot: you can choose to mark the message as complete, add it to the ‘General Review’ list or show more advanced reviewing options (more on the latter later).

Screenshot showing the Mail Pilot 'drill bar'.

The ‘drill bar’ gives access to basic email actions as well as big round buttons for the Mail Pilot specific features.

Overall, the user interface is really pleasant and shows great attention to detail. Every functionality is easily accessible and clearly identified with large colored buttons, while less important and/or more complex features are a bit more subtly identified by black buttons on a dark background. It’s polished, has nice slide-in/slide-out animations, though it’s not too shiny or excessively eye-candy. It’s esthetically pleasing while staying functional, which is a really nice point. It really looks much more like a desktop application interface rather than a web app.

Dark background, vibrant colors… the default theme looks nice but you better like it as you can’t choose another one or simply customize it, at least for now.

Also of note is that there are keyboard shortcuts for the most important actions, and that you can choose between two predefined keyboard shortcuts configurations.

Deal with a message while it’s hot or be reminded later

It appears rather obvious that one of the goals of Mail Pilot is to make you spend the least time possible dealing with your emails. Consequently, when getting a new email, if you don’t want to instantly decide about marking it complete or incomplete, you don’t have to. Indeed, you can mark any email as needing a later review, by clicking on the ‘General Review’ button. You can even define more precise options for the review by entering the Advanced Review mode.

When you click on the big round blue Advanced Review button, the ‘Drill Down’ bar slides out and a new menu panel slides in from the top. Here can choose to review the email later: in one day, three days, one week, or at whatever specific date you choose in the built-in mini calendar. You can also add the message to a particular review list. Review lists might be the closer analog to folders found in other webmail clients. Finally, you can also mark the email as needing a response from someone: by default, you and the sender(s) of the current message are featured in the ‘Review with Contact’ list. Just check the little box next to a name and it will be added to your ‘Review Contacts’ list in the bottom part of the ‘Productivy Center’, left most pane of the web app.

Screenshot showing the Advanced Review Panel

The slide-in Advanced Review lets you configure options for reviewing a message later and adding it to special review lists.

When you assign a date for reviewing an email, this email will temporarily vanish from your list of incomplete messages but will appear back at the top of your ‘Incomplete’ emails list at the day you specified.

These special ways of dealing with emails are what makes Mail Pilot so different from any other email client.

Send emails with some inventive tricks

Clicking on the easily identifiable “Compose New Message” button at the bottom makes a composing window sliding from the bottom. At the same time, an opaque mask is applied on the background of your window, letting you focus on your message to send. One innovative approach is the order in which you type elements of your outgoing email: first the recipients and then the body before writing a subject. This is a nice one and is aimed to let you find and write a better subject by thinking about it after having wrote everything else.

Screenshot of the composing window

The composing window offers you to write your message before the subject. This behavior is reversible.

Replying to or forwarding an email also adds an interesting take on emails, in line with the core concepts of Mail Pilot. Indeed, in addition to just sending the email, you will find two other options: ‘Send & Complete’ or ‘Send & Review’. Once you have understood the complete/incomplete and the review concepts of the app, these buttons are pretty self-explanatory: the ‘Send & Complete’ is pretty much the same as ‘Send & Archive’ in Gmail and is particularly suited if you don’t wait for a further response for this email, while if you choose the ‘Send & Review’, your outgoing email will remain at hand in your Review list until you’re done with it.

Finally, a much welcome feature is that you can send attachments from files stored in your Dropbox, thanks to an in-app browser. Files attached with this method will be uploaded just as files from your computer would, they won’t appear as a Dropbox link to your recipient.

Screenshot showing the in-app Dropbox browser that lets you add files from your Dropbox account as attachments to your emails

You can directly attach files from your Dropbox thanks to an easy-to-use in-app browser. You can even have a live preview of pictures.

A few things still missing

What first annoyed me is that there is no delete function for an individual message. You have to enter a special, ‘bulk’ mode where you can select several messages to mark them as complete or delete them. But even in that case, you have to select emails one by one as there is no ‘select all’ option. I find this frustrating, especially if you’re dealing with a large collection of emails. I think the main philosophy of Mail Pilot really is to just ‘complete’ an email and then forget about it.

Screenshot showing the Bulk functions.

There’s a mode where you can bulk delete or complete messages, but no ‘Select All’ button, which means you have to check emails one by one. Frustrating.

Also, there’s no threaded view like what you would find in Gmail, though this is on the roadmap and will be added later in the development.

Conclusion

Mail Pilot is refreshing in it provides a much-needed new approach to deal with emails. The basic concepts are interesting and promising. Overall, the design is polished and the UI is easy to deal with once you’ve understood the underlying concepts. However, you’ll miss some features (threaded views, drafts) that, despite being on the development roadmap, will probably prevent you from completely switching from your everyday email client for now. Be reminded, though, that Mail Pilot is still in beta.

Another important thing to consider is its price tag: yes, Mail Pilot is not free. Though the devs provide much understandable reasons to the subscription-based pricing model, you will have to spend $99 a year or $12 a month to use their service. During the public beta period, you can subscribe for a reduced $60 yearly price; you can’t choose to try it for just a month, for now. You might not be accustomed to this if you use one of the many free web mails available on the market.

Still, the concept and the way it is implemented are really interesting. It is also noteworthy that, once out of the beta period, the Mail Pilot team will progressively release free dedicated apps for Android, iOS, Mac and Windows.


Summary

Mail Pilot is a subscription-based web app that aims at prodiving a new workflow to deal with your emails. You treat messages as todos. The concept is promising, the UI design is really polished, but there are still some trade-offs in this public beta version. Definitely worth having a look at again once the final version is released.

  • Mail Pilot  | 
  • Subscription-based: $12/month or $99/year (special beta price: $60/year)  | 
  • Mindsense
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