Sparrow and Inbox Zero Don’t Go Together

I do my best to practice Inbox Zero. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, it is the brainchild of productivity guru Merlin Mann. It is considered by many to be the gold standard for efficient email management. The basic concept is that you process email in batches, meaning you check it several times a day instead of constantly.

During these processing sessions, every message is either replied to, deleted or moved to a folder. If the email is something that can be quickly replied to quickly and immediately that is the best case. Messages that require no action and can be absorbed and discarded should be deleted. An example could be a simple response to an earlier inquiry.

If the email doesn’t meet that criteria it is moved to a folder. Everyone has a different set of a folders, but the general concepts are the same. One is for emails that require some sort of action that is more than a quick reply, perhaps some research or a more though out reply. Another folder is for things that will definitely be needed later or in cases where other people have to do something first. The last is generally some sort of archive for things that don’t meet the previous criteria but shouldn’t be simply discarded. This could be like receipts or something. The idea is to get to no messages in your Inbox, hence the name, “Inbox Zero”

On the Mac, there is a great plugin for Mail.app called Mail Act-On which makes processing e-mail quick and painless. It does this by allowing the user to configure keyboard shortcuts to execute specific e-mail rules, such as moving an email to specific folder. Since OS X 10.7, Mail was redesigned. This created ways to more quickly process e-mail by allowing folders to be added to a “favorite bar” and then have keys that could move emails to these folders. This method doesn’t work all that well with multiple e-mail accounts though, so I continue to use Mail Act-On. But at least there are options.

The iPhone’s version of Mail is actually very good for processing mail. When viewing an individual message, there are buttons at the bottom for moving or deleting/archiving a message. Clicking the move button displays a list of folders associated with the account the message belongs to. Clicking one of these folders moves the message to that folder. Mail then takes the user to the next message in the Inbox (or whichever folder the message was in). This makes Mail for iOS extremely effective at processing mail. Most of my use of Mail on iOS is just for processing, and then I go through my action folder when I have access to a better keyboard.

Sparrow, a very popular 3rd-party mail client for Mac, was recently released for the iPhone. There was a lot of excitement around its release and most people sung its praises. I purchased it, despite it’s $2.99 price tag being above my normal “impulse buy” threshold. Sparrow does look good, but it’s not terribly intuitive. Worst of all, though, it’s downright awful for processing mail.

Although it is possible to select multiple messages from the Inbox and move them to folders, there are two fatal flaws. When viewing an individual message, there are no ways to move to the next message or move the currently opened message. This means processing messages after opening it requires two additional steps over iOS Mail, going back to the inbox and swiping the message, before the move button is available. This adds up over time. The mass moving function could have been an ample replacement, except it’s not possible to move between messages without returning to the Inbox.

As pretty as Sparrow is, and it does have lots of creative design decisions, this is just too much of an inconvenience to make it a suitable replacement to iOS’ Mail. My suspicion is that this will addressed at some point. It seems like an oversight that can be fixed. And at that time I will give it another chance. But for now, Sparrow is just nice to look at.