"We think email is becoming a counterproductivity tool," Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein told me yesterday. "Each email is an isolated random string of text without any context," he said. Rosenstein launched the team collaboration and productivity tool seven months ago with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and today announced Inbox, a step towards ridding offices of "work about work" once and for all.
Asana already has some big names that swear by it, like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. These companies use Asana instead of email for everything from email status updates to project management. The web app makes it pretty easy to attach people to tasks, track comments on how things are going, set due dates, and attach files for reference later on. All keystrokes happen in real-time on everybody's computer screen, just like in a Google Doc.
"We wanted to build a holistic solution from the ground up that replaces what we do with email."
In fact, Facebook still manages internal operations using a custom version of Asana that Moskovitz and Rosenstein built while at the company. "We could've just built an activity feed," Rosenstein said, "but we wanted to build a holistic solution from the ground up that replaces what we do with email. Asana is free to use for up to 30 people in a group, and scales up by price with each batch of users you add.
Asana's Inbox looks like your Facebook News Feed, except without all the pictures, and without all the stuff that isn't deliberately shared with you. Inbox contains updates to tasks, comments, due date changes, and other status updates people would normally reserve for email. If you're on a task / thread you're not interested in, you can easily unfollow it. Instead of using email threads, you communicate by commenting on tasks. Each response from a group member is at its basest element just a reply-all message, and if a member of the task isn't using Asana, they're sent emails they can respond to. These responses are instantly threaded in to the conversation on Asana.
While Asana's Inbox is by no means minimalist in appearance like many apps launching today, it's inherently less cluttered than an email inbox because every message or comment is tied to a task within Asana. There are no stray threads picking up on long-lost ideas or tasks — a common occurrence in email. Asana is organized, but also intimidating visually. "It's about giving users fine-grained control," Rosenstein said. "Part of why we're able to do this stuff is because of our background in consumer software — especially at Facebook. How do you express all this data in a compact way?" Competitor Trello looks simpler on the outside, but Rosenstein says that isn't the goal here. "Trello is more like a dashboard, and that works great, but Asana is more about getting to the granularity of email."
"We've only gotten by because [email] is the lowest possible denominator."
So Asana has built a new communication client with tons of metadata, file storage, and organization tools, but the place most people are increasingly checking for work-related messages is on a smartphone. On a four-inch screen, Asana's three-pane architecture doesn't perform so well. "Mobile is the weakest part of the experience right now," Rosenstein admitted. "It's our top priority." Asana also isn't yet an email replacement because it's catered to team communication. Random one-to-one emails with cat picture attachments between friends don't yet have much of a place on the service, but Rosenstein says that the long term goal is to kill email entirely. "Email isn't going away tomorrow," he said. "It was originally designed to mimic the way the post office sends messages. We've only gotten by because it's the lowest possible denominator."