Email as a platform

Google just announced Actions in the Inbox.

By adding some markup (Microdata or JSON-LD) to the HTML emails you send out, Gmail can now display quick action buttons next to your email.

Some might see this as simply another random extension, or a Gmail gimmick à la Gmail Labs extensions. We rather see it as part of a trend in which communication channels and devices are changed into platforms supporting an entire “ecosystem of apps”. Mobile phones used to be for calling, emails used to be for sending someone a text message (and I guess sunglasses used to be for just protecting your eyes :). Not anymore. All these things have turned into platforms with many apps running on top. All this added functionality makes it much more interesting for consumers, and more exciting for developers to hack new apps on top of. The companies behind them of course know that they can win the real battles by having the better ecosystem (would you switch to Windows Phone if it doesn’t have your favorite YouTube app, or to Hotmail if it doesn’t have your Movies Info app).

Many people would agree that email as it works today just isn’t good enough anymore. People try to use it for much more than it was originally intended. It’s no longer just a way to send people a message, it’s also a todo list, a CRM application, a help desk, a way to organize events, split bills, and much more. Because of this, the way email works desperately needs to be changed, at least extended.

One approach is to completely reinvent email as we know it, Email 2.0. We think this is a step in the wrong direction. One famous example of a very cool but failed attempt is Google Wave. It’s exciting to work on these projects, and of course developers love to completely rewrite and reinvent things, but let’s not forget email is already very popular and it’s hard to make everybody switch. It’s also not needed, which brings us to the other alternative: there are many ways email can be extended with new (open!) standards. It’s called Actions now, but it might look more like complete “email apps” in the future. We already know people want to use their email more effectively, and in fact using some clever hacks, some “apps” were already built and proven to be popular (Rapportive, for example). Plus, as a platform, it’s already used before as a “human API” to build services on (like sending an email to trigger some action like creating a blog post, an invoice, or – like with a weekend project of ours – create an online form).

One of the reasons email is so popular is because it just works, everywhere. So of course we need to deal with things like mobile views and graceful degradation to make sure that remains to be the case. But a player like Gmail is big enough to take the first step into allowing developers to build more apps around email, using new, open standards. And I believe that with us many other developers would be happy to write them, and make email much more powerful and effective than it is today.

Papyrs Blog

Just a quick note — to better structure our blog posts, we’ve launched a separate blog for Papyrs. If you’re looking for new Papyrs features announcements, tips and related intranet news: you can find it at blog.papyrs.com.

Improving intranet engagement

One of the main hurdles you face when setting up an intranet is user engagement. You have to get people to actively use the systems you put in place. Even if everybody is on the same page and believes that getting organized with an intranet will save time in the long run the motivation may not be there to explore new software and to change old habits.

You set up an intranet and then, after a couple of months everybody has reverted to their old style of working and the company is back at square one. Different versions of files are emailed back and forth like before. Every now and then important documents get lost. There is no clear overview of what’s happening in the organization and the company spent a bunch of money on an intranet solution that didn’t stick. This is a large (and very frequent) problem today.

We’ve been thinking a lot about this problem because we have an intranet product (Papyrs) and it works on a subscription basis. This implies that as long as companies actively use our intranet product they will renew their subscription and we make money. When employee engagement drops off and the intranet stops getting updated with new information the value of the intranet decreases rapidly and the subscription inevitably gets canceled.

This, by the way, is one of the big advantages of subscription software. The software company (that’s us in this case) only makes money for as long as value is provided to the customer. Given that aquiring new customers is much more expensive than keeping existing customers happy (typically by a factor 10) keeping our customers happy is absolutely crucial. This in stark contrast with old enterprise-style intranet packages where the big sale happens up front. After the software company cashes the check it doesn’t matter much whether the customer is still happy 6 months down the road. And so, unsurprisingly those intranet systems are often delivered over time, over budget and to make matters even worse, they match the needs of the people in the organization so poorly that they are then left unused.

So to summarize the problem: An intranet is only valuable when lots of information is stored on it and when this information is kept current. This in turn means that user engagement is vital. Otherwise the company will revert to their ineffective old ways and we’re back to square one.

Engagement

So what keeps people more involved with your intranet? We’re going to look at all these issues from our perspective (as the creators of Papyrs), but the insights apply to intranets generally, and to other forms of social software where user engagement is critical for success.

1. Let people get involved easily

  • User friendly interface
  • Straightforward functionality
  • Users shouldn’t be able to break anything

2. Keep everybody on the same page with email

  • Let people choose the subjects they get emailed about
  • Make it clear who will get email updates and when

3. Encourage everybody to contribute to the intranet

  • Set permissions liberally (your coworkers really aren’t going to vandalize pages)
  • Encourage everybody in your organization to make changes and improvements wherever they see fit

4. Make everything look inviting and appealing

  • Keep all pages organized with a sensible structure.
  • Split up pages that get too large
  • Add links to related pages

5. Fast universal search

  • The more data on your intranet the more important search becomes
  • Find-as-you type search helps a lot
  • It must be fast & reliable. Many intranet solutions have a search box that don’t always return results that you know exist

6. Access from mobile devices

  • So people can access important documents and discussions on the go

We designed Papyrs with the issues above in mind, so our users don’t have to worry at all about most the above. Of course it’s still up to our users to write quality content for the intranet and to keep everything organized but Papyrs does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Setting up an intranet for a business isn’t easy. If people refuse to use the intranet software the intranet will fail. If people can’t easily find important information or easily contribute to the internet the intranet will fail. A lot has to go right for an intranet to become a central activity hub for your organization. So when you create an intranet make sure to vet it on the aforementioned points. Or just take the easy road, and sign up for a free Papyrs trial.

New in Papyrs: Navigation Widget, Google Calendar and more!

We’ve been working on quite some new features for Papyrs, time to introduce some of them!

Category Navigation widget

If you’re using categories to organize your Papyrs intranet pages, you might want to navigate your pages by category. At the Pages Overview, you can already find an overview of all your pages by category. We’re now releasing a new feature that allows you to add category navigation directly to any page. Different pages can show navigation controls for different categories. For example, if you have a page with information about a certain project, you can show “related pages” by adding a navigation widget that shows the other pages and (sub)categories in the project’s category.

You can add the Category navigation widget by adding a Navigation widget, and selecting the Categories option.



Updated Google Calendar integration

We redesigned the Google Calendar integration, and we think it looks really pretty now!

Quick reminder: you can add a Google Calendar by adding a Media Widget to your page, and then going to Google Widgets and selecting Calendar.

With Papyrs you can add Google Apps calendars and personal (gmail) calendars. Just authorize Papyrs to connect to the Google Calendar and we’ll take care of the rest.

The new calendar!



Calendar overview for the entire month (click to enlarge)

 

Viewing the week overview

Viewing the daily agenda

Time picker

We added a new control for time inputs on the forms you create with Papyrs. As before, you can type in the time yourself, but you can also quickly select one using the time-picker.

Search filters
You can now filter search results. This is handy especially if you have a lot of documents and files on Papyrs and you know what you’re looking for. If you’re only interested in pages, you can type "page: meeting notes" (without the quotes) and Papyrs will show matching Pages. If you’re looking for a file (a pdf file or word document perhaps), then you can simply type "file: idea" and you’re going to get a list of pdf files.

Here is the complete overview of the search filters Papyrs understands:

page: Search within pages
file: Search for attachments (attachments on pages as well as attachments on forms)
contact: Search for contacts and profiles
feed: Search for comments
form: Search for matching forms

I’m sure some of you noticed this these filters are exactly like the search filters in Google and GMail. Most people are familiar with filters like these already, so we think most people will get the hang of it quickly.

Sorting checklist filters

A small improvement to Checklists: you can now re-order the items on your list. Especially useful if you want to prioritize the items on your lists!

That’s it for today
Hope you like all the new features. And as always, more improvements are on the way!