Innovation

How to process email with your voice using Astro

This new third-party email client, Astro, can help you check your Gmail or Office 365 email just through listening and talking--thanks to a combination of AI and voice support.

Generally, I'm not a fan of third-party email clients. In most cases, I recommend that people use the email app made by their email provider. If you use G Suite, stick with Gmail or the Inbox by Gmail app. If you use Office 365, stick with Outlook.

Unless, you want to experience the future and process your email with your voice. In that case, try Astro. It's the first third-party app that's made me excited about email in years. As of September 2017, you'll need a Gmail or Office 365 email account to use Astro. You'll also need to install the app on an Android, iOS, or Mac device. (A Windows version is in the works.) The app is free, although the company plans to add a paid version in the future

Screenshot of messaging-style conversation for email setup in Astro

Add your Gmail or Office 365 email account to Astro with a messaging-style setup process.

Priority Email with AI

With Astro, you don't need to look at most of your email, thanks to a combination of Astro's AI and voice. The AI separates your email into 'Priority' and 'Other' messages: things you need to deal with, and things you don't, respectively. Somewhat like Google's Priority Inbox feature, the app learns over time which emails are important to you — and which aren't. You can move email to the correct category, and specify VIP contacts to make sure their emails are a "Priority."

Voice on Android, iOS, and Alexa

What I like most about Astro is the support for basic voice commands. You can triage email with your voice — without looking at a keyboard, while you're doing other things. On mobile, tap the robot Astro icon in the app, then tap the microphone. Astro will start speaking. You'll hear how many priority message you have, and how many other messages, too.

Initial on-screen message when entering voice mode in Astro on iOS.

Voice support is built into the Astro app on Android and iOS. Astro works with Alexa, too.

Then, email triage begins. Astro reads the subject and sender of the message. To have Astro read the message say "read"— or "archive," "delete," or "snooze." On mobile, you can also say "reply," dictate a short response, then Astro will read your message back to you. To move on, say "send," then say "next message."

You can connect Astro to Alexa, too. To access the skill, say "Alexa, open Astrobot." Most of the same voice commands work with Alexa as they do on mobile. However, you can't dictate freeform replies with Alexa. Instead, you'll need to stick with a smaller list of quick replies.

Other email options

The app and Astrobot offer features beyond just voice. You can use it to schedule reminders, get additional details about contacts, clear old emails, or unsubscribe from email lists. You can also connect it to Slack. And you can add a custom email signature — with formatting and proper hyperlinks — from your mobile device. (Which allowed me link to my Twitter account in my signature, without having to type out the full link.) Standard reply, forward, star, and mute features are all there, too, as is search.

Mobile sending options: schedule send later, read reply request, notify if no reply by (date/time)

Astro offers several useful email sending options, such as a send later feature. You also can ask to be notified if the recipient hasn't replied by a specific date and time.

Astro also offers a few useful send options. You can schedule an email to send at a specific date and time, and track whether or not an email has been opened. More helpfully, if you truly need a response, set the "Track reply by" option, and Astro will let you know if you haven't received a reply by that date and time.

Email + voice = new way to work

Astro's support for voice lets me process email without a screen. I find that helpful, and very freeing. I use Astro to do an initial pass through email in the morning. Then, when I sit down to work, the only emails that remain are ones that require additional action, research, or writing. The ability to process email with spoken words and my voice — while I do something else — fundamentally changes how I interact with email.

Your thoughts?

If you've used Astro to process your email with your voice, what was your experience? And if you use other voice systems for email, which ones have worked well for you? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter (@awolber).

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About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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