Archives for January 2016

January 26, 2016 - No Comments!

Your Startup Needs a Coxswain

On a small team, everyone’s rowing. There are no “managers” — there’s only room for rowers.

First, understand that rowers face backwards (the joke on our team in high school was that crew is the only sport you win by sitting down and going backwards). Rowers do not see where they are going.

Second, understand that you win a race not on any individual’s skill; the team whose rowers are most in unison will win. Watch a few clips in this video if you don’t know what I mean.

See how they must be perfectly in sync to beat the competition.

As a startup founder, I’m rowing with my team every single day. And I think that’s an important part of being a good leader. But I cannot forget, even when there’s a million things to be done, that my team needs a coxswain.

The coxswain fulfills two very important functions: steers the boat, keeping it safe and on track, and sets the pace to keep everyone in unison, providing motivation to push harder as needed.

A boat without a coxswain would not be in sync; and rowers out of sync will lose the race.

But the coxswain is also the only person facing forward — the direction to which the boat is quickly moving. Without a coxswain, rowers would only know where they were rowing to once they got there.

As a team leader, it’s up to you to identify leading metrics and project into the future to see, in advance, when your team is headed towards a crisis that could be avoided entirely with a slight change in direction now. A team without a coxswain is just like a crew without a coxswain: the team only knows where they were headed once they get there. Crises have a way of sneaking up on these teams.

It’s also up to you to set the pace, keep the team in unison, and ensure everyone is properly motivated. This gets harder as your team grows; poor communication causes different team members to execute towards slightly different goals.

Who is the coxswain on your team? Are they taking enough time out of the day-to-day to be the team’s coxswain, facing forward and looking far along your current trajectory?

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January 22, 2016 - 1 comment.

The Toilet Method for Product & UX Design

Here’s my secret trick to product ideation. It applies equally well if you have a technically superior system that needs a bit of “UI/UX magic”.

For any problem we want to solve, I ask:

  • What would the simplest solution look like, for the user?
  • What would the best solution look like, technically?

Then we marry the two: the user should experience the simplest solution in the interface and interactions, and under the hood, it should be implemented as the best solution, with the “glue” in between as necessary for the simplest solution’s interface to power the best solution’s engine.

Think of the toilet. The easiest solution for the user is a simple button to flush. The best solution, technically, would avoid the need for pumps and power, instead using a siphon. The glue is everything in between: when you push a lever, it pulls a chain that lifts a stopper filled with air, so that it then floats on top of the water until the tank drains, causing the bowl to fill, triggering the siphon like a Pythagorean cup, flushing the toilet without pumps or power. All from the push of a lever. The toilet is actually a genius piece of work.

This is how we think of everything we’ve made at Mindsense: Mail Pilot, Throttle, and a few forthcoming projects. Here’s an example.

With Throttle, we were trying to figure out how to identify newsletters or mass-mailings in your inbox. We do this in Mail Pilot, but it has always bothered me that it’s not air-tight. Even the best algorithm can’t be. So we brainstormed, and went down two threads.

The simplest solution.
First, I said it would be ideal, for me as the user, to just click a button next to all newsletter signup fields that could pop up part of an app that would allow me to tell it that what I’m signing up for is a newsletter. Sort of like an authorize button you might use on websites to sign in with Twitter or authorize a 3rd party website to have access to your Facebook or GitHub data. Just a dead-simple, drop-in authorize button. Technically, however, we knew that wasn’t possible. That’s just not how email works. Once you give someone your email address, anyone can send to it, not just that domain. So it still wasn’t air-tight. Not a win.

The best solution. 
And then it hit us — the best technical solution would be if you gave every sender a different email address. This way, you could segment out their emails from your inbox and collapse them into a daily digest, you could shut down any specific sender’s access to your inbox as needed by turning off their unique email address, and you could see if someone stole or sold your email address. In terms of UX, however, generating a new email every time they want to sign up for something isn’t feasible.

The former is the simplest solution, the latter is the best solution. Neither are winning solutions, because the former isn’t technically possible and the latter would be unusable for people.

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The Magic.
How do you marry the two? It hit us pretty quickly. All we had to do was put an authorize button in all email fields that would generate a random email address and fill it into the email field. This is the glue. You get the UX of the simplest solution — just click an authorize button in the form. And you get the best solution under the hood — every sender has a different email address, so you get all of those benefits.

Would we have to contact all publishers? Would we have to get MailChimp on board, etc.? Nope: we could just build a browser extension to detect those fields and add a button to them.

The marriage of the two is a winning solution, and we knew it when we were sitting on it. We just didn’t know how much. When we talked about it with others we quickly found out just how much this solution would mean to people. So we zeroed in on the idea, and worked it from idea to launch in a matter of months. It’s actually such a winning solution that since originally writing this article, it has become one of the top launches on Product Hunt of all time.


Here’s why this process works: it ensures that you end up with a technically superior system, as measured by whatever metrics matter most for that product. It’s cross-compatible, or it’s air-tight, or it’s not a resource hog, etc. You end up with a technically superior system given what is technically important.

Second, it ensures you also end up with the easiest solution for the user to get on board with; one that is not bogged down by major technical complications, and that’s not dragged away from being ideal by either a compromised solution or a solution that ignores the user entirely.

This method isn’t easy, because you have to have the creativity to come up with “the magic” or the “glue code” that binds together the interface of the simplest solution with the technical underpinnings of the best solution. With Mail Pilot, that involved figuring out how to get our advanced functionality to work on a standard, old IMAP server. With Throttle, that involved the browser extension, generating lots of unique email addresses, and building our own email server.


If you use this method to come up with anything, I would absolutely love to hear about it. If for nothing else, I’d love to cite it as an example, or at least just find out how it’s doing for you.

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January 21, 2016 - No Comments!

What Happens When You’re #1 on Product Hunt

Last week, we launched a new thing. We were hoping for the best, but we didn’t anticipate how big “the best” would be.

Most notably, Throttle took the top spot on Product Hunt for the day. Ever wondered what happens when something takes the #1 spot on Product Hunt for a day? Read on.

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The Takeaways

Comments & Community Quality
This is one thing that amazed me the most. Whenever we’ve had a post that did really well on Hacker News, Reddit, or anywhere else, the comments are dismissive, hyper-critical, sometimes rude, and often wildly misinformed. To some degree, we have learned to dread the comment sections of most sites.

The Product Hunt community must be a totally different slice of the internet. Besides plenty of totally positive comments, there were critical comments, but they were well-informed, and often asked questions for us to clarify. Many suggested ideas for interesting directions we could take the product that we hadn’t considered.

Some examples of the positive and productive community on PH. Top: An interesting idea — in the email space, I’ve often heard from parents of the need for a “safe email” service for their young ones. We never thought of Throttle’s impact it could have there. Bottom: Hokie Nation sure does love (or hate?) email, and being on the connected community, we were able to open discussions to what would usually be a lofty request for partnership.

Some examples of the positive and productive community on PH. Top: An interesting idea — in the email space, I’ve often heard from parents of the need for a “safe email” service for their young ones. We never thought of Throttle’s impact it could have there. Bottom: Hokie Nation sure does love (or hate?) email, and being on the connected community, we were able to open discussions to what would usually be a lofty request for partnership.

When I wrote back to reply to anything critical, the commenter usually responded, in a constructive way, or to just say “thanks” for my response. The comment section on Product Hunt is positive and productive.

For a “comment section” on the internet, it was really, really weird. But what a refreshing, constructive, and positive community they’ve got over there. It’s phenomenal. This is probably largely thanks to their restrictions on who can comment — you can’t just sign up and start commenting on day 1, so they’ve managed to grow a ton but still scale a positive and productive community. Most communities just put in a downvote button and hope for the best, but that doesn’t solve the problem at all — most people are probably afraid to write a comment because of the backlash they might get for minor nitpicks.

Tip #1 on Product Hunt: Engage in the comments. Answer questions. The community appreciates and rewards it.


Traffic
Here’s a brief overview of our data, 1 week after launch.

Referrals from Product Hunt: 6,058 (reported, actual number could be up to 9,000; accounting for over 25% of all visits). That beats out every other referral for our launch week, including the Mail Pilot website (1,644), being on the Hacker News front page for a few hours (1,499), and The Next Web’s article (539), and Twitter (348) — (See the full table of data at the bottom of the post).

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Product Hunt brought in far more visits than any other referral, and surprisingly without a shorter session duration, as is usually the case with high-volume referrals, in our experience.

Again, amazingly, despite Product Hunt bringing in a volume multiple times larger, there was very little variance on the quality of the visitor here. Note: bounce rate (blue) lower is better, pages / session (green) higher is better.

Again, amazingly, despite Product Hunt bringing in a volume multiple times larger, there was very little variance on the quality of the visitor here. Note: bounce rate (blue) lower is better, pages / session (green) higher is better.

The bounce rate was slightly lower and the time spent on the site slightly higher than the traffic from Hacker News, which suggests a higher quality visitor. That was confirmed by the number of customers that came from Product Hunt — the margin of error is too large to put perfect numbers on it, but Product Hunt visitors converted into customers at a much higher rate.

To sign up, Product Hunt traffic resulted in a 5x higher conversion rate. Not 5x more signups — 5x higher conversion rate. It is normal, in our experience, for conversion rates from sites that swing large chunks of the internet around to be lower, and this was the case with Product Hunt. But the conversion rate didn’t drop nearly as low as it usually does.

The majority of PH visitors first went to Throttle’s page on Product Hunt before visiting the site, which isn’t usually the case with social news sources. There is a high value on the community within PH. We engaged there, answering everyone’s questions, which helped build on the buzz. Unlike Hacker News, the comment to up-vote ratio didn’t seem to be used in the ranking algorithm, meaning I could respond to every comment without hurting our placement (we’ve found the opposite to be very true on HN).

Tip #2 on Product Hunt: Give Product Hunt visitors plenty of content. They’ll stick around for it.


The Big Value
Interestingly, the big value wasn’t the signups — we had 9,000 during our soft launch last year, and only brought on an additional 1,000 in launch week.

The big value was proof of product-market fit, in a really visible way. Our conversations with press, investors, and industry partners have been much easier since. In fact, we had a few journalists, investors, and potential industry partners reach out when they saw Throttle on Product Hunt (some of whom we had unsuccessfully tried to cold email before).

Never before has a big feature resulted in this many inbound leads. We’ve been on TechCrunch, in the New York Times, and plenty more, but I don’t remember any one of those single-handedly bringing in this many contacts. The only exception is probably Hacker News circa 2012, when being in the top 5 for a day won us a good handful of important contacts that helped us launch our business. But we’ve been on the front page a few times since, and the quality of what comes out of it has been quickly draining. I was surprised at the number of prominent figures in our industry that browse Product Hunt regularly — I got emails from far more than I expected, most with a simple “congrats on the placement.”

In fact, The Next Web article was published without any help from us. Usually, when a big site is covering us, like TechCrunch, we know about it well in advance — we send lots of resources, we answer lots of questions, we provide early access to our software, and so on. But Ben Woods (@TheNextWoods) at The Next Web got the article up before I even knew about it.

Tip #3 on Product Hunt: Leverage the public proof of product-market fit with those that need to see it.


Actionable advice or lessons learned?

  1. Build a great product
  2. Get featured on Product Hunt
  3. Engage the community in the comments section
  4. Enjoy meeting a bunch of new people

A full breakout of the data visualized above, for reference, and to check me on any visualization errors or misinferences (that’s not a word, but it should be).

A full breakout of the data visualized above, for reference, and to check me on any visualization errors or misinferences (that’s not a word, but it should be).

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January 11, 2016 - No Comments!

We Caught Our First Scammer

One of Throttle’s most intriguing features — detecting when someone sells your email address — just proved itself in a big way.

We’ve been waiting on the edges of our seats. We even set up an email alert so we’d all get pinged when it happened. And it finally happened.

One of our Throttle users signed up for an account on a website, and that website proceeded to sell their email address to spammers. After it triggered the alert, we subscribed to it ourselves, to see if it was legit (or rather, illegit). Sure enough, they sold ours too, and we got to gather some data.

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The stats as seen in Throttle’s Access Control panel.

The number of messages received as a result is in the thousands — 5,167 messages from 3,784 senders in 128 days — that’s 40 messages per day. Update: As of 4:30 pm the day I published this, the account has already received 173 messages today alone. The volume is growing exponentially.

What would have been a huge issue plaguing this person’s inbox for years to come, until he gave up and got a new email address, was solved with the click of one single button.

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Luckily for this person, they used a Throttle generated address to sign up for the website. Thousands of emails are now safely kept away from his inbox. His email address is safely kept away from the scammers. And clicking “Revoke Access” shuts it all down instantly — no one that bought, or ever will buy, his email address will be able to send him email.

What about the site? It’s a website that helps you search public records on a person, and it requires your email address to sign up. From there, they apparently then sell your email address off to folks with poor intentions.

What about the 5k+ emails? Many of them advertise services that I’m pretty sure are illegal. But most of them are designed to trick receivers into thinking they are real emails from AT&T, FedEx, Amazon, and other big companies many likely have been customers of at one point. They’re classic “phishing” emails, looking to trick receivers into giving up personal details or sending money. In Throttle, it’s easy to spot, because received messages also show their “source” — what website the user signed up on to receive that message. The mismatch is obvious, the signup didn’t happen on Amazon, so the message is illegitimate. This pairing of data has never been possible until now, thanks to Throttle.

We’ll continue to keep you posted on our search for these kinds of scams. In the meantime, sign up for anything using Throttle without fear; it’ll help us find and stop more of these scams for Throttle users like you! And you won’t have to worry about any damage to your inbox, Throttle has you covered.

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January 5, 2016 - No Comments!

Mindsense: 2016

It’s about time. I owe you — our fans, followers, and customers — a big status update on all things Mindsense. I’ll kick it off with our successes and challenges of 2015, then talk about where we’re headed with Mail Pilot and Throttle, and give you a few company-level updates.

Mail Pilot

Many have asked, inevitably, if our time investment into Throttle means we’re abandoning Mail Pilot. Not at all — quite the opposite.

Successes in 2015
Heading into the year, we were putting finishing touches on Mail Pilot 2 for iPhone + iPad. We had a record high of four developers on the project for months.

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We were elated after having achieved goal #1: get good ratings

We rewrote the thing from the ground up. We totally reimagined the navigation system (the bedrock every mobile app needs to succeed) to leverage how users live in the inbox and primarily just triage on the mobile. We designed new interactions for quick organization. We made it super customizable. It was the third email client we had built from the ground up, so we felt pretty good about the basics. We went to a ton of effort, spent a ton of time and cash, all with one primary goal: get good ratings.

The success? After releasing version 2.1 to address a few minor issues, we averaged 4.5 stars in the App Store. This was a major victory.

We also launched Mail Pilot 2 for Mac with Dash, an all-new view that users have written in to let us know it has already become their default view. It was a bit of a passion project; something no one was asking for, but something we’ve always dreamt of and sketched out. We wanted to get it into Mac 2 because it’s fun for us and the users, and it continues to break out of the mold of what email clients “should” look like.

Dash in Mail Pilot 2 for Mac

Dash in Mail Pilot 2 for Mac

Challenges in 2015
As we would learn from our admirees (what’s the word for that?) at Panic, mobile just isn’t the way to go for us, either. Maybe it’s our category (productivity). Maybe it’s our target market (productivityists). But one thing is for certain: the revenue just isn’t there. Under a third of Mail Pilot revenue is from mobile. Specifically, it’s at 30% to date.

Unit sales and revenue breakdowns for mobile versus desktop sales of Mail Pilot.

Unit sales and revenue breakdowns for mobile versus desktop sales of Mail Pilot.

While almost half of our unit sales have been mobile, under a third of our revenue has been on mobile. To make it worse, people regularly tell us our iOS app ($9.99) is too costly, and our Mac app ($19.99) is too cheap. Our numbers aren’t as dramatic as Panic’s we’re, but the lesson is the same: people looking for what Mail Pilot provides want to invest in their desktop email experience, but not nearly as much in their mobile.

For about the entire first month of Mail Pilot sales (our biggest revenue period), we only broke even on paying for an outside contractor to join our development team for the last few months of the project. This was a big loss for us, and a hard-learned lesson: the numbers just aren’t there on mobile for us.

This makes it really hard to justify investing into mobile for Mail Pilot. We want to; we’re incredibly proud of the product we put together for mobile, but the numbers just aren’t there. Going forward, we’ve been looking at mobile offerings for future products being more like mobile “companion” apps than full-fledged clients with feature parity. But note that nothing here is set in stone; we’re always eager to learn and adapt.

Where to in 2016
We’ve got some really incredible ideas and prototypes for where Mail Pilot is going next. We’re working on some really cool stuff that no one has attempted before; it takes even more leaps and bounds ahead than the initial Mail Pilot concepts did in January 2012.

These new innovations and directions will make up the third generation of Mail Pilot, but I don’t think it’ll be called “Mail Pilot 3” — I have a feeling it’s going to get a totally new name, though still under the Mail Pilot umbrella.

When will we start unveiling the third generation of Mail Pilot? I have no idea. In many ways, our prototypes have been too ambitious — we’ve put together 3 functioning prototypes already to date, each of them very different, and each of them very ambitious. The hardest part is figuring out how to scale the concepts back so that it’s shippable.

In the meantime, we’ll still be shipping updates to Mail Pilot 2. Most recently, we launched update 2.3 for Mac to fix a ton of crashes, mostly related to Dash. We really dropped the ball on ensuring stability on it, because we rushed the feature out too quickly (for that, I am sorry). But we combed back through it and put it on a much more stable foundation in 2.3.

Throttle

We unveiled our first product outside of the Mail Pilot brand mid-year. It’s a really exciting product, because it brings a lot of firsts to email users. In particular, it solves email’s biggest problem in a totally air-tight way for the first time.

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Why Throttle?
It represents exactly what we’re all about: solving unsolved problems in innovative ways to improve people’s lives. We’ve come up with plenty of interesting ideas, but usually there’s someone ‘close enough’ or already solving the problem pretty well. It’s the unsolved problems that intrigue us; these are the problems that get us up and motivated to get to work each day. They’re an addicting challenge, and they’re so ambiguous that it requires deep empathy, thinking from many different angles, and a-game brainstorming. When we came up with the core concept for Throttle, we knew we hit one of these for the first time since Mail Pilot’s inception. While many interesting ideas are on the scrap floor at Mindsense, we knew we had to breathe life into Throttle immediately.

Why SaaS?
It represents the kind of relationship we’d prefer to have with our customers. With our Mail Pilot sales on the App Store, we’re selling one-time paid apps in a market where customers expect apps for free or $0.99 with support and updates for life. If a customer buys our app for $10, we take home $7. If they email support just a handful of times over their lifetime of using Mail Pilot, we lose money on the whole thing. So the incentives are backwards: we’re financially disincentivized to tend to a customer after a sale is made, which is the exact opposite of what we want to stand for.

We want to be a good steward and an equal partner in our relationship with our customers, and SaaS is a great way to flip the motivation. With SaaS, you worry about keeping retention up, so you’re constantly incentivized to tend to all of your current customers. Instead of losing money, you make the money you need to continue to operate by caring for customers, offering great support, and shipping innovative new updates. SaaS makes being a good partner to our customers sustainable. And if we can’t pull it off — if being a good partner can’t be made sustainable; if going the SaaS route doesn’t work — we don’t want to be in the relationship in the first place; we’d rather go out of business than be a poor team to have a relationship with.

Where to in 2016
A lot of things are on the horizon: first, we will launch out of soft launch, then we’ll start to release Throttle Pro, Throttle Mobile for iPhone & iPad, and a few other interesting products into the Throttle ecosystem. We’ll give early access to the first thousand customers that request the Throttle Mobile and Throttle Pro betas.

Keep an eye on Throttle this year, and let me know if you have any thoughts and ideas on it; we’re iterating quickly.

Making Mindsense

Finally, at the end of 2015, I doubled-down on that whole ‘content marketing’ thing. I never touched it because I didn’t want to do it simply for marketing’s sake, I needed a better purpose but didn’t have one.

That all changed when we sat down for a “Built to Last” style company retreat and refocusing, where we set a 20-year BHAG to become the company known for being the best at innovating; the best at solving really hairy unsolved problems in innovative ways to improve people’s lives.

Making Mindsense, a new behind-the-scenes look at Mindsense

Making Mindsense, a new behind-the-scenes look at Mindsense

At making.mindsense.co, I’ll be regularly publishing project updates and articles on innovation, design, productivity, small business, and leadership. Much of it will be a behind-the-scenes look at how we do things at Mindsense, such as in my most recent article on how we innovate.

Team & Company

We’re still in the two-room suite we moved into in 2012 and expanded in 2014 in the VT Corporate Research Center, just behind our alma mater’s campus (and, more importantly on six Saturdays in the Fall, Lane Stadium).

We’re still a strengths-based team, and our purpose is still the same. But what’s new in 2016 is that we’re intentionally making the move from being a product to being a business — a lasting, sustainable company. It’s a shift I only hope we do with some amount of grace.

We’ve always been incredibly fortunate to have you, our biggest fans, who read all the way down to the bottom of what I can only assume are increasingly dull blog posts, and who stepped up to make Mail Pilot a reality nearly four years ago on Kickstarter when no one had heard even of us. So, in a big way, thank you. And happy New Year!


Here’s to 2016.

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January 1, 2016 - No Comments!

Behind the Navigation Structure in Mail Pilot 2

One of the first major differences you’ll notice in Mail Pilot 2 is the navigation structure. The navigation structure is one of the first things we designed. On a mobile application, we feel that the navigation structure is the foundation of any app, and if it’s not right, nothing else will be. When we’re using software, it is important that we know where we are, where to go, and how to get there.

In a navigation structure for a typical app, you get something like a decision tree.

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The inbox is what we want to see when we launch the app, but that means that when we launch the app, there is already a back button, even though we haven’t gone forward at all yet.

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More problems appear when you navigate to any other folder. It requires more levels of hierarchy than the mobile can handle, more than are represented here, so we end up tapping around way too much just to get back to the inbox.

Navigation is cumbersome, and communication from the interface breaks down. On the mobile, we live in the inbox. We primarily triage. So when I launch the app, I want to start in the inbox. But we need a back button to the list of accounts; we’re launching into the middle of a navigation stack. So when we first open it, we already have a back button, even though we haven’t gone forward at all.

Then, once you navigate to another folder, you usually just want to go back to the inbox. But in this navigation structure, that’s not easy. It requires far too many interactions just to go back to the inbox.

In Mail Pilot, we create a z-axis for the navigation structure. Instead of having to navigate something akin to a decision tree, you can simply slide the inbox to the bottom of the screen to access anything else. And when you slide anything else to close it, you’re right back at the inbox.

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In Mail Pilot 2, the navigation structure uses the z-axis to allow you to simply slide the inbox down to open anything else, and to slide anything else off the screen revealing the inbox.

A typical mail app could take 9 taps to get from the inbox to an archived message and back. (Inbox > Back to accounts list > Open an account > Open a folder > Open a thread > Open a specific message > Back to thread > Back to folder > Back to accounts list > Open unified inbox)

In Mail Pilot, it takes 4. Or rather, it takes 2 taps and two swipes. (Slide to backscreen > Select category > Open message > Slide inbox back up).

This is the perfect design for the mobile because we spend most of our email time on the mobile in triage: we’re in our inbox most of the time, but when we’re not, we usually just want to go back to it. So in Mail Pilot, it takes one swipe to get to everything that’s not in the inbox, and one swipe to get back to the inbox, no matter where you are.

In the message lists, there is a friendly down arrow to remind you that to close the folder, you can slide it down, but you can actually use this gesture no matter where you are — another folder, a message, the compose window, etc. In fact, in compose, you use this gesture to instantly save a draft of the message you’re typing and close the window, returning to the inbox.

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