HEY's Imbox + Reply Later stack.

HEY is a modern email service made by Basecamp. I was closely involved with the whole project from its inception.

The roots of HEY started with some ongoing communications problems at the company. They all revolved around external email: things like going back and forth with lawyers, working with benefits providers, dealing with accountants, and stuff like that.

It was too hard to keep the right people in the loop, because we’d have lots of email threads scattered around with different participants, and none of them had the complete story. It was too hard to get caught up on a project that someone else was working on with a vendor. And too hard to hand work off when someone went on vacation or parental leave. At best, you’d end up with a steaming mess of forwarded emails.

So we started by diving into that.

We were intent on studying real-life situations right away, so we collected several real email threads and internal chats that had gotten out of control. Using that source material, I painstakingly reconstructed all the conversations into seed data for a prototype. That way we’d have some proper stuff to judge our ideas against.

An early HEY prototype.

After a lot more iteration, we realized we were on to something good, but we’d have to build a whole email service in order to achieve it. There were too many new ideas to graft onto a basic email client.

So we set off on a 2-year journey to build something even more ambitious. We approached the rest of the project by deeply analyzing all the hacks and workarounds people normally use to keep up with their email, and gradually designing thoughtful workflows for each one.

For example, there are a lot of reasons people hate email, but the main one is that it’s totally out of their control. It’s a never ending flood of stuff that you might not even want, but you just have to deal with it, because that’s just how email software works. And it’s been that way for 30 years.

The Screener is the heart of HEY, giving you total control over who gets your attention.

Finally, in 2020, we launched HEY to much fanfare (and a lot of unexpected controversy) all in the midst of rampant global chaos.

We poured a lot of soul, weirdness, and playful interactions into every corner of the product. I’m proud to have been a part of it.

I worked on the core designs and ideas for many of the major features: Imbox, Screener, Paper Trail, Reply Later/Set Aside, Labels, threads, and so on. I also did production front-end implementation for a substantial portion of the app, writing HTML/CSS/JS and Ruby directly in the Rails app.

An example email thread.

About halfway through HEY’s development, I also took over management duties for Basecamp’s design team. A lot of that work was focused on synchronization and communication to get the project done, plus support for the team along the way. Building a whole new product from scratch is difficult, so there were plenty of choppy waters to navigate.

Shoutouts & Credits:

  • Adam Stoddard: Iconic visual style, color palettes, brand, art direction.
  • Conor Muirhead: inventive mobile design, pattern extraction, color theming, menus & icons, design systems.
  • Tassia Pellegrini: Tassia joined the team in late 2020, and immediately brought positive energy and wisdom into building HEY World.
  • Literally everyone: This product required the full energy of every single person at Basecamp to make it happen. Too many wonderful contributions to list.

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