“How’s your story on Smart Reply coming?” asked my editor, via email. After opening the Google Inbox app, which has replaced the Gmail app on my phone for over a week, I was given three options for a quick response: “It’s going good!” “Still working on it.” and “I haven’t heard anything yet.”
With two taps of the screen I was able to let her know that I was “still working on it”
Smart Reply, Google’s latest addition to the Inbox app, was rolled out in early November. It provides users with three options for simple email replies based on the content of the received email. Once an option is selected, those preloaded responses can be edited before tapping “send.”
That two-tap email reply to my editor is exactly what the Google team was striving for when designing Google Inbox’s latest smartphone feature. Responding to emails on mobile devices can be laborious, but having a quick option–or even just the first sentence of a reply already written–shaves precious seconds off the mobile emailing experience.
During my weeklong experiment with Smart Reply it was rare to receive three options that all failed to communicate what I wanted to write. I realized that most of my email replies could be summed up in the 2-5 words suggested by the application, and those that required more attention often started with one of those three suggestions. For example, if I needed to tell my editor that there was a problem with this story, the “still working on it,” option could be easily followed by further explanation.
According to Google, Smart Reply’s development was the result of a collaborative experiment between the company’s research and product development teams.
“When we started we really didn’t know whether this was even possible with today’s technologies, and I’m really excited that we were able to get something out there,” said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the Google Brain Team.
Corrado explains that Smart Reply was built atop layers of machine-learning technologies. The first layer identifies whether an email is fit for a quick response, weeding out mailing list items or lengthy emails that are unlikely to have a brief reply. The second layer scans the email and predicts the most likely responses, and the third ensures that the three suggestions are distinct.
“Even if it thought that you were more likely to say ‘yes’ than ‘no,’ it doesn’t just give you three different ways to say ‘yes,” Corrado said.
While doing my research, I noticed a few patterns with the suggestions that were provided. They often included an exclamation mark and weren’t written in my voice, but usually got the gist of the message I wanted to write.
Corrado later explained that unlike predictive text features on digital keyboards, Smart Reply does not yet harness the user’s information to better understand how the individual might reply in their own words. Instead it generates responses based on what the general population of email users would typically write.
“Things like exclamation marks are sort of capturing the diction of the general population of email users; people tend to use exclamation marks a lot in their email these days,” he said. “In the future you can imagine improving the product by making it more personalized or more reactive, so that if you as an individual hate using exclamation marks in your emails, it doesn’t suggest those things to you.”
When Google Inbox was first released on October 22, 2014, it intended to revolutionize the mobile email experience. Instead of marking emails in the usual way; i.e. read, unread, deleted, or archived, Inbox introduced a new system that allows users to “pin” emails for follow up, “check mark” them as done or “snooze” them for reappearance in their inbox at a predetermined time.
While this system might work for some, I personally subscribe to the “inbox zero” philosophy, and strive to maintain a 0 unread email balance at all times. I’ve become accustomed to marking emails as “read” if no reply is necessary or “unread” if I need to follow up on them, only to slowly whittle down the number of “unread” emails to 0 by the end of the day.
It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I look forward to returning the Gmail app back to its former position on my home screen now that this experiment has come to an end.
But there is hope for a better emailing future. As Smart Reply continues its trial run Corrado explains that its potential is still up in the air. It may be expanded, further developed, and eventually integrated into the Gmail app. It may also go the way of the dodo bird.
“The current plan is to see how users respond to it, and if they like the feature we’ll continue to innovate and grow on it,” he said.
I hope the Smart Reply feature is added to the Gmail app and becomes more personalized and intuitive, but at this point I’m not willing to completely overhaul my emailing habits just to avoid typing the first sentence of my replies.