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What Is Hey Email, and Should You Check It Out?

Hey is a new email service from the team behind Basecamp. It’s billed as a fresh take on what email can be—and a way to fix some of the problems with email.

The way Hey’s founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (better known as DHH), see it, email is broken in a lot of fundamental ways. Your cluttered inbox is filled with other people’s (and random companies’) demands on your time and attention. Anyone can email you without your permission. Marketers track when and where you open their emails. Any attempts to fix things are just built on top of the existing broken system. They’re papering over cracks with Gmail plug-ins.

Most people accept that email is far from perfect. There have been plenty of attempts by apps like Slack to “kill email”—but they’ve all failed. At best, they’ve taken some of the time people spend emailing and shoveled it into another app; at worst, they’ve just added another source of distraction and noise. What there hasn’t been, at least since Gmail was launched in 2004, is a serious rethink of what email is. Fried and DHH are changing that.

Hey has been in the news recently because of a high-profile fight with Apple over App Store rules. Things appeared to have settled down a bit, and Hey has been allowed to push new updates to iOS users.

Hey Is a Premium Product hey pricing

First things first, Hey is a premium product. After a free 14-day trial, it costs $100 a year with no option to pay monthly. One of the big objections Fried and DHH have with email is that most services require you to pay with your data rather than your wallet. If you’re not prepared to fork over real cash for a better email experience, then Hey is definitely not for you. It’s a rethink of email for people who run their lives through an inbox, not for those who check it once or twice a week.

With that said, there’s a free Hey service currently available through the iOS app where you can sign up for a free burner email that automatically gets deleted after 14-days. This wasn’t part of Hey’s original plans, but Apple forced them to add some kind of free functionality to the iOS app to comply with the App Store’s byzantine requirements. What specific rules the app broke were contested by both sides because services like Netflix are able to offer a free app for accessing a service without selling subscriptions, just as Hey was trying to do. Either way, things seem to be resolved and presumably, the burner email feature will also come to other platforms—but it’s not really Hey’s focus.

Hey Is an Email Service, Not an Email App

Hey is a totally new email platform. When you sign up, you get a new @hey.com email address. (Support for custom domains is coming later this year). You can’t check your existing Gmail or iCloud email through Hey. Similarly, you can’t add your Hey email to your Outlook or other email apps. It’s a standalone service.

And when you sign up with Hey, you’re starting from scratch. You can’t import your existing emails (although you can forward any new ones). This fresh start is what allows Hey to change things up.

Hey Rethinks the Way You Handle Email

Hey is a nearly total rethink of how you handle email. For starters, the inbox is gone. It’s replaced with four related buckets.

When someone (or some service) emails you for the first time, their email is sent to The Screener. You have the option to totally block their emails or have it go to the Imbox (not a typo), the Feed, or the Paper Trail. You have to make this decision for every new sender (unless they include a secret phrase in the subject line that gets their email sent straight to the Imbox), rather than letting machine-learning algorithms sort your emails—as Gmail does with its similar feature.

The Imbox (short for important … box?) is the closest thing Hey has to a traditional inbox. This is where emails from people you want to hear from, important notifications, and the like go. There’s no real way to clear your Imbox or get to Imbox Zero. Instead, it’s split into two sections: New for You and Previously Seen.

New for You is just that: new emails you haven’t read yet; they always sit on top. Previously Seen is all the emails you’ve looked at already. If you want to keep something on hand for reference, you can have it Set Aside—this is the closest thing to starring an email. Everything you’ve Set Aside is pinned to the bottom of the Imbox window.

paper trail

The Feed and the Paper Trail are for different kinds of emails that don’t need to go in your Imbox. The Feed is for newsletters, updates, and anything else that you can browse at your leisure. The Paper Trail is for receipts, invoices, tickets, and anything else you need to keep a record of—but don’t need to see when it arrives.

By automatically prioritizing email as it arrives, Hey solves one of the biggest problems with email: that there’s no distinction between a marketing email from a store you visited once five years ago and an urgent alert from your boss. If you’ve got five minutes to check, you can just scan your Imbox and see the big things. When you’ve time later in the week, you can scroll through your feed and catch up on the newsletters you’ve missed.

Email on Your Own Time

As well as sorting all your emails into the appropriate buckets, Hey attempts to break the screaming time demands of email.

By default, Hey sends you no notifications. If you want an alert when you get an email, you can turn it on for individual senders—but there’s no global system. It’s on you to check your email when you want to.

notification control

Hey also makes it easy to batch process your emails. Read Together presents any unread emails you want in an easy-to-scan feed, while marking an email as Reply Later sends it to another bucket. Later on, you can go to Focus and Reply and, well, focus on replying to all the emails you’ve marked.

focus reply

It’s Just Generally Better

As well as all the big fixes, Hey tries to solve dozens of smaller problems and niggles. For example:

  • You can change the subject of any email, in case the original sender used a terrible one—or worse, left it blank.
  • If someone sends you multiple emails about the same thing, you can merge them into a single thread.
  • Tracking pixels are blocked automatically.
  • All attachments are saved to a library so you can search for the file you want, not the email it was attached to.
  • You can add private notes to yourself to any email or your Imbox.
  • Hey can send large files natively, without relying on Dropbox or WeTransfer.
  • You can remove yourself from reply-all email threads.

And lots more. As I said at the start, Hey’s a big reimagining of what email can be. There is almost no built-in assumption that hasn’t been reconsidered.

Hey Isn’t for Everyone

Hey is a very opinionated product. It’s the founders’ attempt to solve the problems with email—as they see it.

Just take one of Hey’s features, or rather it’s lack of a feature. There is no way to add a default signature to your emails. Fried and DHH think the footer bloat at the end of emails is a problem, so you can’t use their service to add to it.

Similarly, Hey isn’t for marketers who want to track open rates, people who need to be alerted as soon as emails come through, or someone who wants a public inbox anyone can reach. It’s an app that solves a specific set of problems a certain way—and you don’t really have a say.

Personally, I’m a big fan of how Hey handles things. It works very well for me. But I’m hard-pressed to recommend it for the vast majority of people. All I can do is tell you to go and try out the free trial and see what you think.

The downside to that is there’s currently a 100,000 person waitlist. But go, sign up for the waitlist, and check out the free trial in a few weeks.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »