Online collaboration platform Asana is introducing a major new feature today, called Asana Inbox. What Inbox wants to do is get users out of their email inboxes and into a more productive environment, where they can also enjoy a contextual overview of things related to the messages they exchange, as well as automatically create tasks, distribute responsibilities and update team members all from a single central location. It sounds like the holy grail of work efficiency, but email is to productivity what Microsoft Office is to enterprise publishing and data aggregation: not necessarily the best option out there, but firmly entrenched and hard to wean users way from.
Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein thinks that Asana Inbox has the right mix to help lure users away from a tool he says wasn’t originally designed to be used for the kind of constant back-and-forth and collaborative communication it’s used for today. Rosenstein and his co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are both ex-Facebook, and they learned there that in order to be more efficient, the way forward was to eliminate “work about work.” Rosenstein said Asana Inbox is the next logical step for Asana, which is a task management platform that’s designed to keep everyone informed on a project or department’s progress.
“We’re basically eliminating these pieces of work about work that slow teams down and dampen their output, but there’s historically been one area left that we haven’t tackled,” he said. “It’s a huge area, and that’s email. Email is this enormous time-suck, that people spend compulsively hours and hours a day just trying to make sure that they’re up to speed, and that there’s nothing falling through the cracks.”
To improve on email, which Rosenstein goes so far as to call a “counter-productivity tool,” Asana came up with Inbox. It’s still deeply integrated into the core Asana product, but aimed at “processing new information,” Rosenstein said. That means that like a social activity feed, it can flag new inputs in real-time, so that users are all kept up-to-speed instantly, without requiring that someone take the time to follow-up on an email and input that information back into a backed project or task management tool like Asana. That means no duplication of effort, no rework because of updates that weren’t processed in a timely manner, and no switching in and out of tools to accomplish internal communication about key project information.
Asana Inbox targets a few of the pain points of email specifically, including providing contextual information around messages so they aren’t just coming out of nowhere, including relevant documents and comments from others. It also marks things as read and archives them by default as you browse your stream, letting you instead flag things as unread if you so choose. That alone eliminates the time spent in trying to get to inbox zero, Rosenstein says, since Inbox moves automatically to that state as you use it.
And while Asana is mostly useful for managing internal communications, which are the worst offenders in terms of clogging up a traditional email inbox, it also lets users loop in outsiders, too, so that if you’re moving from a purely communicative conversation with a client or contact, you can bring them in on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard claims of a product aiming to get around the limitations of email by replacing it. Google Wave was a noteworthy example that fell flat, and others like Socialcast and Yammer are hoping to mimic Twitter’s success with a social stream model of internal team communication. But Rosenstein believes that Asana Inbox is essentially different from other approaches.
“We believe, and based on our own experience, this literally replaces more than half of your work email,” he said. “We didn’t bite off the entire thing at once [in terms of replacing email], but we’ve taken a major step forward in upgrading a really huge portion of the email that’s going on today and putting it into a better format. We see Asana as building the first credible post-email solution.”
The main competitor for Inbox is email, Rosenstein says, and while there’s been a lot of attention paid to products like Socialcast and Yammer, he thinks there’s been “a lot of intellectual confusion happening” based on the popularity of social networking tools, leading some to believe that’s the right model for productivity tools, too. That’s not proven to be the case, Rosenstein argues. “Fundamentally, social business software is a bit of an oxymoron,” he said.
Asana is a young company with a strong pedigree and strong investment. Variations of its tool helped Facebook become the company it is today, and Asana Inbox is a bold move forward. But Asana Inbox still has to prove what no one else has really yet been able to: that there’s a real demand for a successor to email, and that it has found the right formula to provide that. No one yet has found that formula, but Asana certainly has the right DNA to do so.