May 312019

I’m curious how many people identify with this scenario – to check all of your emails you have flip between at least 2 accounts, maybe even 3. And that’s just emails. There’s also calendars – again 2 of them, maybe 3 if you have a family. Most of us have multiple “identities,” each with basic services associated with them, like email, calendars, sometimes phones and/or some form of instant messaging. It’s the type of thing that’s been done by so many people in so many places that it’s ingrained in us as “normal,” but the more I think about it, the less sense it makes.

The issue here is that the standard practice at most companies is to issue a new account to employees for things like email, calendars, etc. That’s on top of the accounts we have personally have. If you get married, you now have 2 people with individual accounts, and sometimes things that both people need, like certain emails and some calendar events (things the whole family is attending, or at least appointments the other spouse should know about). That means either inviting your spouse to events on your calendar like a meeting at work (for the people who try that – good luck in divorce court), or a joint calendar and email address. Congratulations, you now have 3 digital identities you have to deal with.

Now in theory, having multiple digital identities helps preserve a good work/life balance. After all, you can always refuse to check anything associated with work after hours, in theory. In reality, not checking a work-based communications channel is more of a reflection of one’s attitude and philosophy of work/life balance than a function of any technical profile setup. So the real question is, just what benefits are we getting from how we’re doing things now?

Before we can answer that question intelligently, let’s look at what the other options are. The best alternative to the multiple accounts for everything is probably how Facebook’s business manager is implemented. Facebook doesn’t like “gray accounts,” so you can’t really do much with a shared, generic company account. Rather than tell thousands, if not millions at this point, the world over they need to create another Facebook profile that would ultimately be useless for their ad business and clutter their databases, Facebook created a system where users could create a business group and add existing Facebook users to those groups. When an employee leaves a real-world business, someone just removes that profile from the business manager group. It’s an extremely accurate digital representation of how the real world works.

The Facebook approach recognizes that we’re the same people at work that we are at home. That means, in theory, I should be able to just use my regular email account, my regular calendar, etc., instead of having to cycle through 3 different accounts to get the full picture of my day. When I see the unread mail notification icon on my phone, I don’t have to look up which “me” got the message. I don’t need to get a third-party app and log into 3 accounts to see everything in 1 place. My voice assistants can tell my wife and I about everything on our calendars instead of just the things on the 1 account it allows you to hook up.

Facebook isn’t the only company that’s caught on to this fact. Google is acknowledging this with its Families program, where members are added with their individual accounts and get a shared calendar for events relevant to everyone. There’s still no way to automatically share certain emails through the program, but it’s a good blend between individual privacy and sharing important information. It’d be incredible if they let you add your personal account to a G Suite company account too, but progress has to start somewhere.

Now that we’ve looked at an alternative to multiple accounts for everything, and the advantages it brings, let’s go back to the question of what good multiple accounts bring us. The answer is natural contextual separation. Switching between accounts in an app may be annoying, but knowing that every message sent to my work email address is work-related is convenient, while every message that comes to my personal account isn’t is also handy. That natural separation also works well when grouping emails in a third-party email client. Just because I’d like to see all my messages in 1 app doesn’t mean I want them all jumbled together.

While it’s possible to use multiple accounts in 1 app, it’s usually a third-party app that may not be as good as the service’s application (as an example, Gmail doesn’t seem to respect snoozing messages from third-party email clients). The good news is that 3rd-party apps tend to be service-agnostic (the default calendar works with my personal Google calendars and work Microsoft calendars), but you can’t integrate those 3rd-party apps with other services, like voice assistants (e.g. Amazon Echo or Google Home).

I think there’s a lot of value in the “just use your existing personal account everywhere” approach, but it does come at the cost of being able to naturally segment different parts of your life and selectively disable them. In theory that can be solved with a good bit of filtering, or maybe a more specialized “sharing” feature like Google’s family calendar setup. Either way, it’s an approach I hope more companies iterate on and start using in the future.

 Posted by at 11:45 AM