You Can’t Replace Email if You Require Email

Google Wave was an idea with the lofty goal of trying to replace email, that didn’t work out so well for them. Facebook wants to replace email, and Twitter seems to have the same ambition too (though probably wanting to replace text messages and IM over email). The problem with every service that has been a serious contender of replacing email is these services rely on email to function.

You can’t replace pants with shorts when your definition of shorts is: everyone buy pants and cut the legs off — pants will still be a viable business (the consumer is just altering the usage). Same too with Twitter, Facebook, et al, they are still relying on email for certain parts of their service (like adding new users or sending notifications) while wanting to replace email at the same time.

Take a look at the Twitter sign up:

Here is Facebook’s:

Neither service would let me signup unless I provided an email address. Two massively important communication tools — for millions of people — will not let you sign up without providing an email address, what year is this?

If these two companies were in charge when email services were a hot commodity, you would have had to provide a mailing address when trying to sign up for an email account.

So here’s a pro-tip to all current thinkers out there: if you want to build a service to replace email, don’t require the user to provide an email address when they signup.

There are many practical reasons for requiring an email address to sign up for a new service:

  • Password recovery 1
  • Verification
  • Spam control
  • Helping other users find each other.

There are more reasons, but those four are at the core — the first being of huge importance.

Remember that when email first came about, it was not tied to anything for users — we had no way of looking someone’s email up (we still don’t). We built our email databases the old fashioned way: by exchanging business cards.

That’s not entirely practical anymore — however it’s not out of the question to assume that your user is not willing to slowly build their network. Provide robust search and have faith in the fact that users will want to broadcast their “handle” to the people they want to correspond with instead of relying on email.

Also, please make something that replaces email and fixes all of its problems. 2

  1. This is easiest when done over email, but can be done with a series of ‘challenge questions’.
  2. An impossible dream, I know.
Originally posted for members on: May 9, 2011
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