Thursday, February 19, 2009

The guys who think tech will solve the email problem get it wrong again (who funds these companies?)

These guys are barking up the wrong tree. It never ceases to amaze me how these approaches to email management are conceived and then turned into a commercial offering. I have done a lot of work in this space (read til my eyes bled)


Research into email management possibilities has explored:


• A 1992 prediction that organisations would remove email systems once the negative effects on productivity were proven (1).


• The categorisation of email messages without imposing a requirement to create and maintain rules, allowing for prioritised email reading (2).


• Email perceived as a metaphor - namely (A) email is a filing cabinet that extends human information-processing capabilities, (B) email is a production line and locus of work co-ordination, and (C) email is a communication genre supporting social and organisational processes. (3)


• The role of the inbox in task management. Concluding that the inbox is a poor place to co-ordinate the management of tasks resulting from the email it contains, changes should be made to better support the tasks that result from email received. The author, a PhD candidate, concluded that getting control over email is 'a daunting task' (4).


• In 1997, the potential for the use of visualisation based on 'time of arrival' as the principal arrangement to display email (5). This research was carried forward in 2002, when it was concluded that visualisation of tasks across time aided the efficiency in finding information in messages related to tasks (6).


• Researchers from Microsoft in 2001 proposed new email viewing arrangements 'by threads' (which was introduced in Outlook 2003 (7)). Comprehensive work subsequently undertaken in 2005 (8), also involving Microsoft researchers, revealed that the concept of grouping emails by thread was not proving of great use. Out of a study population of 233 subjects, 27% didn't know of the 'group threads by conversation' feature inside Outlook, and 26% knew about it but didn't use it. Those who did use threads, according to the study, did so only 'occasionally'.


• Factors other than the importance of the message determine how people think about and handle their email. Email usage appears to reflect differences in how a message is perceived, depending on the personality of the reader, the demands of work and the relationship between the sender and the recipient (9).


• 2003 research concluded that the inbox experience should be rethought not in terms of messaging, but in terms of the activities that people are trying to accomplish (10).


In their comprehensive 2005 review of the existing email-related literature, Nicolas Ducheneaut and Leon Watts assessed the research undertaken to date and agreed that, whilst building an effective email system should draw down on empirical analysis and design, there had been little research to date into the theory surrounding email software interfaces.


They took the view that the theory that might best apply to the research would depend on the researchers' views as to what email actually is. Is it a communication tool? An archive? A collaboration tool? Is it a problem of attention allocation? They urge a real debate on what email actually is and does (11).


I concur. Once you clear away the smoke and mirrors of obfuscation caused by the nature of email technologies and the approach to their development, certain realities become self-evident:


• Email is merely a communication medium. It is the way most of our work now reaches us.


• The inbox is just the gateway to our working life.


• An email itself is not in or of itself 'work' per se. Our work is what we actually do. Email is merely communicating to us something we need to know or consider in relation to our work.


• As a discrete piece of information, each email can have a decision made in relation to it that will allow us to progress our work forward.


• Considered merely as a discrete piece of information, each email can be actioned according to the needs of our work, whereupon it becomes 'context-relevant'.


• In making a decision about each email and engendering a 'context-relevant' outcome from that decision-making exercise, we 'organise' our work and create a personal workflow-management methodology.


• There are only 10 'context-relevant' actions for any email received. These are:


i. Transfer to the deleted items folder.


ii. Prioritise and treat as 'super-urgent'.


iii. Delegate the work resulting from the email to another person.


iv. Keep email close to hand to accommodate a short-term filing requirement.


v. Put the email away for good to satisfy a long-time filing need.


vi. Associate the information with appointments and meetings you need to schedule or have previously scheduled.


vii. Associate the information with today's tasks to be completed.


viii. Associate the information with future tasks to be completed.


ix. Associate the information with, or as, a matter 'pending'.


x. Collect the information, categorise it according to need and then save it away for active reference.


• These 10 context-relevant actions occur as we 'triage' our email.


• In the context of Microsoft Outlook, the definitive triage outcomes are achieved through the adoption of the 4D decision-making methodology.



1 Pickering, J.M. & King, J.L. (1992). Hardwiring weak ties: Individual and institutional issues in computer mediated communication, Proc. CSCW 92, 356-361.


2 Balter, O., Sidner, C.L., (2002) Bifrost Inbox Organizer: giving users control over the inbox. ACM ISBN 1-158113-616-1/02/0010


3 Ducheneaut N., & Watts L.A. (2005). In Search of Coherence: A Review of Email Research. HCI, 2005, Vol 20, pp. 11-48


4 Gwizdka, J., Reinventing the Inbox – Supporting the Management of Pending Tasks in Email (2002). CHI, April 20-25 2002 Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA ACM 1-58113-454-1/02/0004


5 Yiu, K., Baeker, R.M, Silver, N., & Long, B. (1997). A Time-based Interface for Electronic Mail Management. In proceedings of HCI International '97. Vol 2 Elsevier, 19-22


6 Gwizdka, J., Future Time in Email – Design and Evaluation of a Task-based Email Interface (2002). c.f.


7 Venolia, G.D., Dabbish, L., Cadiz, J.J., Gupta, A. (2001) Supporting Email Workflow, Microsoft Technical Report MSR-TR-2001-88


8 Neustaedter, J., Berheim Brush, A.J., & Smith, M.A. (2005) Beyond 'From' and 'Received': Exploring the Dynamics of Email Triage CHI 2005, April 2-7, 2005 Portland, Oregon USA, ACM 1-59593-002-7/05/0004


9 Dabbish, L.A., Kraut, R.E., Fussell, S., & Kiesler, S. (2005). Understanding Email Use: Predicting Action on a Message. CHI 2005, April 2-7, 2005, Portland, Oregon, USA, ACM 1-58113-998-5/05/0004


10 Bellotti, V., Ducheaneat, N., Howard, M., Smith, I. (2003). Taskmaster: recasting email as task management. Palo Alto Research Center


11 Ducheneaut, N., Watts, L. (2005). In search of coherence: A review of Email Research. HCI, 2005, Vol 20, pp 11-48.

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