Saying Goodbye to

I have decided to switch away from the email service by Basecamp. I started using it because I wanted a good independent provider that was not from Google, and I’ve been trying out several different alternatives over the years. Plus, it was from the folks at Basecamp, and I’ve always liked their minimalistic UIs and product thinking. I’ve used Hey for the last year or so, but recently decided it’s not for me. Here’s why:

The Screener

One of the headline features of Hey is what they call the Screener. It’s definitely a new concept in email, where you personally have to vet emails from new email addresses you receive. A better name for this would have been the Bouncer, because that’s exactly what you find yourself as: forever at the start of a never ending queue of spam or unsolicited email. In fact, this feature is just ass backwards: Hey’s spam filter seems to let in more email than any other service, and it’s just ridiculous the amount of email addresses you have to vet and manually categorize.

Instead of having one place to check for new mail (your inbox), you now have 2 places: the Screener queue (where you read the mail and move it to the Imbox), and your actual Imbox where you hopefully receive most new email. To add to the thoughtless design, any new mail that you read and move to your Imbox in your Screener queue is again marked unread in your Imbox, prompting you to read that mail again. Some days, it’s just infuriating.

Only Three Folders For You

Hey has three buckets by default, the previously mentioned Imbox, and then Paper Trail and The Feed. It is honestly a decent enough classification, and takes care of the majority of a normal person’s email needs. There is however, absolutely no other flexibility. There are no tags, or labels, no other folders or any other buckets of organization.

In addition, most of the work of organizing your email into these buckets falls unto you: so there’s no automatic organization here, and that brings about another burden of classification: what should I put in Paper Trail? Is it all non-human communication? What about important items like my Bank OTP emails? Should I put my blog comments notifications in the Feed? It’s honestly a lot of hand-wringing and useless decision-making that should either be obliviated by a smart computer that does auto-organization (the Gmail approach), or: a more flexible tagging or labelling system that lets you group email in multiple buckets (the traditional IMAP approach). Hey has neither, and this weird opinionated system of just 3 folders doesn’t work for me.

It is Slow & Ugly

So much of Hey’s interface feels slow. Clicking through email threads, searching, opening up attachments, the Electron wrapper Web application, the clumsy mobile apps, all of them feel just slow, clunky and ugly. How much of this is Basecamp’s insistence on SPAs being bad is a question for another day, but it’s a low bar when I say that some days it feels slower than Gmail. And to add to that, the absolutely horrendous color choices. Especially in dark mode.

So Many Crucial Features Missing

Custom domains: Hey took such a long time to release custom domains, and when it did, it did a shoddy job on its personal plan. For a privacy preserving, anti-lock-in alternative, Hey is surprisingly locked in. There is no concept of multiple identities in the personal plan, and when you add aliases, you are not sure if the email the identity was sent to is the one you’ll reply from. There is also no way to set up a default identity.

Proprietary Clients: You cannot use your own email client to access Hey. The stated justification for this is just lazy imo. Even Gmail which launched with a then unique labels and smart organization still allows IMAP support. The Screener could very well have been a mapped IMAP folder, and you could just move to Inbox to accept new emails in. When you build on top of an open protocol and then refuse interoperability, it reeks of an old Microsoft playbook.

So Many other Features that You Probably Won’t Need

There are some thoughtful features in Hey: the ability to find any file in your email for e.g. is useful, or bundling multiple senders into one identity that I hope other email clients adopt. But a surprising number are just innovations for the sake of doing something new. Here’s a few of them:

I can go on, but some of the redesign and rethought really seem to be because-I-could pat on the backs rather than having any actual user utility. Which brings me to the last reason.

It’s Easy to Switch

Hey has a free forever email forwarding service for anybody who subscribes even once, so it’s easy to switch to a different provider.

The Controversy

You can’t write a blog post about Basecamp’s products without thinking of the controversy, but I jotted down the notes for this one way before the current kerfuffle. Frankly the product is dismal by itself, and doesn’t need further buttressing from Basecamp’s political stand.

If you are looking for a good alternative, I recommend Fastmail, another independent provider that has been around since 1999. I’ve used them since ~2006, and they are fast, reliable, spam-free, and just a no-nonsense email provider. Less opinionated of course, but you get more work done.

3 responses

  1. Interesting review to read. Note that more than three folder are available because you can Label (tag) each email to send it to a custom folder. I’ve created 15+ so far and it’s really nice. I agree about the speed and diminishing returns on the Screener, though. I hoped by the end of my first year of the service that they would have fixed that. I guess it’s a matter of personal need considering that I weigh the design and ease of use more strongly and have been happy to switch from Gmail to Hey. Maybe Superhuman might be a good choice for your needs…

    1. > Note that more than three folder are available because you can Label (tag) each email to send it to a custom folder.

      Ah that’s interesting! I could never find a way to create labels, and I can’t really find the feature in their tour page too.

      > Maybe Superhuman might be a good choice for your needs

      It’s too expensive. I think Superhuman skews towards people who really spend their day writing email.

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