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Can You Use a Collaborative Inbox for an Enquiries Email Address?

Google Groups have added a few new flavours of group recently. As well as a regular Email List, you can now make a Web Forum, a Q&A Forum and a Collaborative Inbox - all slightly different takes on the same thing.

As part of the move to Google, one of the biggest challenges are  what we call "non personal email accounts", for those accounts like Traditionally the handling of these accounts was done by a number of people, all sharing the log in details. In a Google-ized world, having accounts that can't be audited is "not the done thing".

Our first trawl for non personal accounts found thousands of them. This included accounts for projects, conferences, departments, etc. With many of them, nobody knew who was replying ( or not ) to any enquiries.

Gmail has the ability to delegate access to your account to someone else, but this still doesn't solve the problem. Essentially we need some accounts that nobody really owns ( maybe the department), that named administrators can administrate.

Collaborative Inboxes To The Rescue?

So, our initial look at the new Google Groups features suggested that the Collaborative Inbox feature was EXACTLY what we wanted for creating a email address.


At this point it's worth pointing out that although there are four different types of Google Group you can create ( Email List, Web Forum,  Q&A Forum, Collaborative Inbox) that they are essentially ALL THE SAME THING but with a collection of settings and options tweaked in different ways. For example, I think the Web Forum defaults to have Tagging switched on and email delivery set to off. There is NO SUCH THING as a Web Forum in Google Groups really, it is just a collection of attributes that makes it more Web Forum-y than Email List-y.

This is a big problem. Given that there's no such thing as a Web Forum in Google Groups really, it'd be good to know what the difference is exactly between a Web Forum and a Q&A Forum. What get's switched on, what gets switched off? Is there anything you can't do in the other? Do they look the same?

I think the answer is that very little changes, with a Q&A Forum you get a "Mark This Post as Best Answer" button. That may be it as far as I can tell. But we could do with a matrix of features / Forum type so we know exactly what the differences are without having to create a group, get 5 people to populate it with discussion BEFORE we realise that feature X changes in Forum Type Y.

There are so many permissions, for membership, email delivery, moderation, posting that you'd think anything was possible. We certainly did.

And so, on to the need for, an email address that prospective students, visiting lecturers, other departments might send any type of question that someone in the department might deal with. So we created a test Collaborative Inbox called Silly Questions, and hoped that people could post their silly question and receive a response from a team of members giving silly answers.

This sort of thing.

So Mike posted silly questions and I ( being one of the silly answerers ) posted answers. I marked questions I felt I'd answered with suitable silliness as "Completed". It was all working beautifully. I could even choose to respond as the group, rather than as me.

But here's the thing. Because of the way settings are organised. You can "allow posting by email" and make that available to all members of your organisation ( or even "Anyone") . Brilliant! That means you can publish the address and everybody can post to it.

BUT. Even though I replied to Mike's question, Mike doesn't receive my reply BECAUSE HE ISN'T A MEMBER OF THE GROUP.

The settings are wired so that if you are a member, you can both SEE and POST on other people's messages. This is exactly what a collaborative inbox isn't. I wouldn't expect my questions to be visible by everyone else... and definitely I wouldn't expect a reply from someone else who was only there because they, like me, were asking a question too. That'd be like getting a prescription from the person coughing next to you in the doctor's waiting room. 

It would seem that Collaborative Inbox is a mis noma. But then, all the nomas are mis... None of the Group Types really are the thing they say they are, they are just a bit more like the thing they say they are.

This isn't a pure technology failure, it's a failure of Google to communicate what their technology is and does. It's bad usability in that system understanding and affordance and expectation are all left dangling in a suck-it-and-see world. I'm not even sure I'm 100% right about all of this. And that's the problem.

Anyway, I don't think a Collaborative Inbox does what we need it to do. 


  1. Tom,

    Can individuals have two Google accounts of the same domain? If so, why not solve the non-personal accounts problem by the team leader having a second Google account (with appropriate alias) which is then delegated to the rest of the team?

    So long as we worked out what to do when the team leader left, wouldn't that work?


  2. I think the Collaborative Inbox approach offered the hope that you could easily see what other people HAD ALREADY replied to something, and ASSIGN a message to yourself or someone else. Requests can also be marked as COMPLETED, which is handy

    I think I'm right in thinking that a delegated approach would a. Depend on people checking that inbox and b. Not share "the right" answer with other answerers and c. Not have the lovely features above.

    I may be completely wrong on this, we're still trying to work out if we're even right. It keeps feeling as if there must be a way of doing what we want. Surely.

  3. I was wondering whether the project email issue had been resolved earlier today. It is a pain to have to go to outlook to check those emails.

  4. "I think I'm right in thinking that a delegated approach would a. Depend on people checking that inbox and b. Not share "the right" answer with other answerers and c. Not have the lovely features above."

    It would certainly require checking of that Inbox (though alerts could come via Google Notifier), but I don't think that is a problem. However, if conversations were threaded and flags used consistently, it would be better than the current Outlook arrangements.

  5. Which "project email issue" Mary?

    A collaborative inbox flavoured Google Group would IDEALLY suit a project email. It's as simple as creating a regular Google Group and adding people to it ( like a regular group ) but it has the extra ability to be able to "Take" or "Assign" messages to yourself/other people.... and mark them as Completed.

    These are handy project-oriented approaches. Of course you don't have to use these extra features...

  6. Ooh, good news! From Jordan at GA for Education...

    >There will be a feature for this, so it should be coming soon to all domains.


  7. Hi Tom

    In our business, we have around 100 "functional" (i.e. non person-specific) mailboxes (e.g. customerservices@). We have been using delegation to provide access to the staff who work with them (who all have their own person-specific accounts as well).

    This is fine, but does use up 100 Google Apps for Business mailboxes (at a cost per mailbox) which it would be great to avoid needing. The new Collaborative Groups thing sounded like a perfect solution, but (like you) gets more and more confusing the more we look at it, and we are not yet entirely convinced that it will do the trick. Especially, the reply problem is a concern ... we think!

    When you say ">There will be a feature for this, so it should be coming soon to all domains." ... what feature for what, specifically? And do you have a date when we might expect it?

  8. Hi Ian,

    sorry for the delay replying... The feature we expect soon is the ability for a non-member of a group to be able to receive a reply from the group... which effectively enables a "proper" collaborative inbox.

    Here's hoping...

  9. when i "Assign messages to yourself/other people". no notify email send to she/he. i think it is not good

  10. Working as a consultant in a Company that lives from selling Google Apps and Support I can confirm that the new groups are very close to reach the state of a nightmare. There are many issues.
    Printing (you can not print a whole Group thread)
    Limits in dimensions of pictures
    When a group member deletes a mail, it is not deleted in other users view. It is just marked as read and goes to the bottom of the other users view.
    And much more....

  11. hi,
    but why when i assign a task to someone in the groups doesn t send any email to him to allert that the task was assign to him?

    And if i want costumize differnt email massage for user do u think can i do that?
    for example, for a help desk sistem id like that who post recive a message "thanks we will responde soon" while at the manager: "hi, a new task is open".
    is that possible?

    thanksss guys

  12. I want to set up a new group as a collaborative inbox but I cant find where to enable the collaborative inbox features.
    I am using the following link

  13. Bobo try this:

  14. Hi Tom, firstly great article thanks. Unfortunately it's also a great summation of the issues I came across post migrating email to Google Apps today. I was stupid enough to assume a 'Collaborative Inbox' would offer the base functionality many would expect, and a Google product.. how could I go wrong! Have you found a replacement solution yet? Thanks, David.

  15. Dave,

    I've found that the issues now work as they should. We have a few departments trialling it, but no results back yet.


  16. I have setup a google group, and in the beginning, I used to be able to mark "Best Answer", however, something changed, and now I can only mark questions as completed. I want people to be able to use email to respond to question without having to launch the UI to respone (as needed for Q+A). Is this possible through Collaborative inbox? Here is the goal:

    - user (within the organization only... This is internal company use only!!!.... ) asks a question via the web or email to the group.
    - members of the group can reply to via email, and it will be posted to the group, as well as all members receive the reply.
    - later, the manager, (or others) can mark it as "like" as well as "best answer"

    right now, all I can mark is "completed"... Which type of google group do I need?

  17. Hi Tom,

    Have you found your perfect solution yet?


  18. Alice, it depends.

    I don't think there is an ideal. Most of best solutions I've seen have been about people getting together and working out what they want to achieve then using whatever they have to hand. The perfect system is one that works, and often it's about finding the simplest acceptable solution.


  19. Try out our product GrexIt - It lets you share Gmail labels. Its a really simple way to achieve what you're looking to do.

    With our solution, you can:

    1. use Google group to distribute the email to everyone.
    2. Add a filter in any one inbox to label the emails sent to this group with a certain label (say GROUP_LABEL), and share this label using GrexIt. This would mark these email conversations in everyone's inbox with this label.
    3. To assign an email thread to someone else to answer, add a label like "TODO: Mike". Mike can answer directly to the person outside the group who emailed to the group, and GrexIt would sync the Mike sends to everyone's inbox.

    We have more than a 1000 companies using our product, so we know we can really solve this problem. You can sign up at for a trial, and you can email me at niraj [at] grexit _D_O_T_ com if you need any help with this.

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