The Essentials Of The Visual Email Workflow in Flow-e

It is with great sadness that we announce the discontinuation of Flow-e for Gmail. As of 1st January 2020, Flow-e for Gmail will stop working. Learn More.

Imagine asking a busy teammate whether they would prefer to see something or read something.

What do you think they would say? The answer is intuitive – a picture is worth a thousand words. A person’s brain is hardwired to recognize and make sense of visual information more efficiently.

In fact, according to research from the makers of Post-Its, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. Also, we are almost 50% more likely to remember what we see rather than what we read.

Yet, a lot of our daily, formal communication (excluding hard copy notes and chats) is written rather than visual. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Can I get that in writing?”

Much of our professional exchange happens through snail mail and emails because we are using to writing as a more objective and, in effect, more legitimate medium.

The most common medium for business communication is obviously email, the ‘big picture’ of which is also just a textual list.

The only visual elements of the inbox are just tiny stars and flags available for tagging. Is that enough to take advantage of our visual predisposition?

The format of the email inbox is not visual enough to be optimally efficient

The layout of the traditional email inbox includes three core elements:

  • list format feed for incoming email;
  • category folders for sorting types of messages;
  • tags and labels for filtering.

These elements present several challenges to the busy professional who might receive 100+ emails per work day.

The list format feed is problematic because it does not visually separate read from unread or actionable from not actionable messages. Everything is on the same list.

The workaround for the dynamic list from point one, the category folders, hide messages and make it seem that the general inbox is empty when it is not.

The result is hidden work in progress that creates the illusion of Inbox 0. This becomes even more dangerous when automatic policies send email directly to folders.

Gmail and Office 365 users apply tags and labels as a way of navigating their large lists of messages. They often indicate priority or state of the communication (i.e requiring follow-up).

Some users maintain tens if not hundreds of tags and labels. Many of these tags and labels expire, but linger on, clogging the system with irrelevant types.


Your Gmail or Office 365 inbox needs a visual email workflow

Dividing the inbox interface between a list feed of incoming mail and a visual email workflow can provide a better way to differentiate between the stages of your communication.

The goal is to seed out non-actionable communication in the list view. What makes it into the workflow will be the actionable communication. Within the visual email workflow, actionable emails move through predefined stages but remain visible at all times.

The columns that represent these stages in the workflow are customizable to suit any process.

A visual email workflow supports the presence of sections for the various types of work in progress and their stages. This approach makes sure that ongoing communication is visible and not neglected in other parts of the inbox.

Visual email management like this eliminates much of the need for tags, flags, labels and folder and, instead, separates communication based on themes and status.

Generally, the visual email workflow is one-directional. The key policies of the email workflow dictate that any email that enters the workflow from the feed cannot return back to the feed.

In effect, this is an excellent best practice to help keep the flow of communication in your inbox streamlined.

Adding your own custom columns to the workflow allows you to make sure it reflects the process of how you usually go through emails.

step 1 create new column with Flow-e

What are the elements of the visual email workflow in Flow-e?

  • Traditional columns for the progress stages of emails in the visual email workflow:
    • To Do – individual threads prioritized for reply;
    • In Progress – emails you’re working on right now;
    • Done – emails that were answered.
  • Custom columns for progress stages of emails in the visual email workflow; these could be anything from:
    • Follow up column where you keep email threads that you need to check up on;
    • Travel columns to keep email threads related to travel arrangements visible and accessible until the day of the trip;
    • …and many others! It all depends on the type of process you keep when going through your emails already. The only difference is that everything is happening in a visual email workflow on your desktop.
  • Email message menu for actions such as setting a deadline, adding ToDos to communication.
  • Feed of incoming messages where new emails are arriving (keep this empty!).

What is the feed for?

The feed represents the entry point of all of your email communication.

It is a list format to which incoming emails get added. To navigate the feed of chronologically organized email communication, you’re used to scrolling through to go back in time.

The email feed updates in real time and provides a dynamic interface for new messages. Since the beginning of email, the feed in our inbox, in its various forms, has been the main interface of all of our communication.

But is what we’re used to exactly what we need? Now that we are getting many more emails a day than we used to, our needs when it comes to email have changed.

We need to be faster, more selective and more process-based when it comes to how we work with the inbox. Otherwise, it could start to take over our lives.

Modern applications are already successfully experimenting with how to help people navigate the loads of information they receive each day (as email or other media) and actually make it stick.

The main shift is towards visual communication. Sources suggest that visual information is processed 60, 000 times fast than text and is more memorable. So, why shouldn’t the email process be more visual from start to finish rather than a simple list?

What is the workflow for?

The next generation of email process is the visual workflow. Unlike the simple list format, a visual workflow allows you to map out your actionable email based on its states.

The visual differentiation between emails that contain work in progress eliminates the challenges of navigating email communication only based on whether something is read or unread.

The visual workflow is the natural evolution of labelled lists in your never ending feed of emails.

In general, the workflow wins out over the feed because it is directional. When a new email comes into the workflow, it shouldn’t go back. The line between workflow and feed, when crossed, represents the moment an email becomes actionable. The email is now on deck!

*If you’re a Flow-e user,  you’ve probably noticed that if you drag and drop an email from the feed to the workflow, it can’t go back. This forward-only motion keep the process flow moving towards completion by helping you commit to started work.

By processing your emails using a workflow, you commit to starting what you finish. When an email enters the workflow, it should go through all of the stages of the process you have defined before it gets to Done.

If you read an email in the feed, see that it contains a task and leave it there, the chances of this email being forgotten are high. If the email is physically moved to a separate, dedicated column related to its state, it will be in front of your eyes daily. (In the words of Nat King Cole, unforgettable!)


Try processing your emails visually as they come in using the Flow-e customizable workflow by:

  • creating process queues from the emails that you plan to read and process;
  • prioritizing by differentiating between incoming emails and the ones you are working on now;
  • moving processed emails out of the way to the done column.

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The Flow-e workflow can also support to-dos  – this will help get through the actionable emails and track not just the conversation, but also the tasks associated with it.

Learn more about Flow-e