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Contatta - three weeks working around the inbox

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 19, 2014
Summary:
Contatta is trying to usurp GMail, Box, Evernote and Asana with an integrated collaborative email system. Will it succeed? There's plenty to like but important gaps need filling.

[sws_grey_box [sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY: Contatta is trying to usurp GMail, Box, Evernote and Asana with an integrated collaborative email system. Will it succeed? [/sws_grey_box]

contatta compared
Contatta functional comparison

Contatta wants to free us from the tyranny of working around the inbox. It's a noble endeavor many have tried yet almost no-one has succeeded. Has Contatta made a better fist of this seemingly intractable problem? Kind of. In three weeks of working around the inbox albeit inside the public beta of Contatta, I've found just enough utility to keep me there. Whether the diginomica team agrees remains to be seen.

Most people I know have the same problem - how do we collaborate with others when we (mostly) live inside email? How do we collaborate effectively when there are now multiple communications channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on?

Approaches to collaboration

Collaboration involves a number of discrete processes that, in broad terms include: communication, most often via email, task management allocation and execution among disparate team members, sharing documents, files, data, rich content etc etc and all this inside the context of some kind of business process whether loosely defined or proscribed by other processes.

One approach is to embed collaboration inside broader business processes. That will be the way to go in most large organizations where departments have clearly defined and moderately complex processes. Examples include Salesforce Chatter and SAP Jam.

Another approach is to use something like Yammer but that is limited in scope and often sits outside processes. Yammer has become arguably so complicated that Microsoft deems it necessary to provide an implementation plan (PDF) that has a four week on ramp period. That's relatively fast track in this day and age but when you look at all the steps Microsoft suggests it quickly becomes apparent that Yammer is no longer the 'obvious' solution it once was. Is Contatta any better? Kinda.

Contatta basics

Contatta starts by taking the premise that people will live inside the inbox for the foreseeable future but that most people will work in collaborative teams. It achieves this through the concept of  flexible 'workrooms' which can cover either ongoing forms of discussion or projects that have a finite life. The idea is that admins for each workroom can invite as many or as few team members as they like with all members being able to follow the threads that emerge along with tasks that need completing. In that context you can view Contatta as a relatively sophisticated mashup of what Box (for files), Evernote (for note taking), Asana (for tasks) and GMail (for single or group email) offer.

All those activities can be kind of achieved in Google Apps. But as anyone who has used GApps knows, these are integrated in name only plus there is always the specter of Google's somewhat fluid policies. You will constantly punch in and out of apps to get things done. GApps can be augmented with other services for all the things that Contatta offers but you still end up with multiple apps and interfaces. Plus the attendant costs. When you step back, that realization can be a frightening jolt to the system in terms of time lost.

Your discipline is the key

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Many people, including myself, have trained ourselves to work with those limitations but in doing so, we are sacrificing efficiency and effectiveness. In sticking with Contatta, I've found it much easier to remember what needs to be done, keep multiple tasks in play without losing track of what I'm doing while continuing to winnow the number of emails I really need to spend time working upon. So far so good. But...you have to be disciplined enough to make the mental switch from your email client to Contatta.

That means being deliberate about how you turn email into collaborative tasks. This is not as straightforward as it might seem because you have to retrain your brain to think beyond simple respond/delete/archive as the primary email management task. Instead, you have to think in a more process centric manner which in turn requires you to be more considered in the manner in which you manage in and outbound email. That is easier said than done in a busy environment like ours but it is do-able.

At the top of this story I said I'd found 'just enough' utility to keep me interested. So what's missing?

Things needing improvement

I had a useful back and forth with one of the company's founders. These are always tough conversations because experience teaches that *my* wishlist will likely be very different from yours. Even so, we found plenty of common ground upon which to talk through issues. Here are my top items as laid out in my initial email to the company:

  1. No means to see unread email at top by default is a big one. GMail gives me that option.
  2. Insistence on the need to expand each email account section in the left hand sidebar just to see the inbox (along with all the other inbox types inherited from GMail etc)
  3. Tasks replaces calendar but I am instinctively looking for a calendar at certain points - likely my need to be more disciplined.
  4. Workroom search while inside email is a bit intimidating. I am assumed to know at least something about a workroom name - not always the case.
  5. Open opening, what I really want to see is a main screen that has a series of summaries of all the things I need to review, can navigate through, delete, skip over for email and tasks. The task notification in the sidebar is OK but only covers a part of what I need to know.
  6. Ability to have a signal that tells me which team members are available. A bit like the green light in GMessenger or Lua.
  7. Ability to know that team member is viewing or has seen shared items like Signals.
  8. No mobile app - this is a deal breaker in the medium term. I know that stuff is very hard to get right but we're all mobile these days.

All these items are on the Contatta to-do list in some shape or form. For example, the company acknowledges that a calendar is a highly requested item and noted that workroom search needs some gussying up. On unread items, they offered a workaround which requires me to enter an 'unread' operator into the search box but that will have to be replaced by a default setting at some point. On mobile, they are working on iOS first (understandably) with Android coming 'shortly afterwards.'

Oh yes - I didn't mention but industrial grade security comes as standard - as you'd expect.

My take

  • I've glossed over this solution barely covering 10% of what's inside and I am coming at this from a Google user perspective. Microsoft Outlook folk can take their own cues.
  • Contatta is not quite get up and go - it does require an investment in time but is well worth the effort, even if it does seem a tad confusing at first. That is inevitable. My guess is you can get productive in under two hours.
  • It does save time but that time is quickly expended in doing what matters - adding value. That means living inside Contatta. I don't mind having lived inside GMail for many years but being painfully aware of its limitations.
  • The company's responsiveness and willingness to invest in meaningful feedback and discussion is refreshing. I'm happy to be 'that' beta tester and build a relationship that gets me to where I want to be.
  • I'd really like to get the rest of the diginomica team on board with this solution and kick the tires hard but until there are mobile versions for both iOS and Android, that ain't going to happen.
  • I want this solution to succeed and while it doesn't have the market kudos of the brands I mentioned above, it does have the integrated functionality that I reckon will be very welcome among SMEs operating in almost any sector. That's a potentially huge audience that in the US alone accounts for some 36 million businesses. Contatta only has to capture a small percentage to be firmly in the money.
  • I have and will continue to slip back to GMail which is embedded in all my devices and is nigh on impossible to remove. Getting auto notifications from Contatta would go a long way to finally weaning me off Google.

All images via Contatta

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