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Summary:

As web workers, we are often asked to help friends and relatives fix computer problems. For me, the majority of these problems seem to be related to email. It’s ironic, as email is now less popular than social networks. So why is email such a hassle? […]

atsignAs web workers, we are often asked to help friends and relatives fix computer problems. For me, the majority of these problems seem to be related to email. It’s ironic, as email is now less popular than social networks.

So why is email such a hassle?

  • It’s more than 30 years old. Email has come a long way, but its underlying protocols haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
  • It’s really three different systems. Sending (SMTP) and receiving (POP or IMAP) are totally separate functions, and are often handled on different servers. That’s why I often hear comments like “I can receive, but I can’t send” from clients.
  • It’s being used for a lot of things it was never designed to do, like send images and attachments, highly formatted messages, signatures and calendar entries.
  • It’s been overrun by spam, and even well-designed spam filters aren’t perfect, and cause unwanted side effects, like messages that get misidentified as spam, or just go away.
  • Email software is too complex. These programs that were originally built for offline use; that is, they were set up so that users could read and write messages without being connected to the internet. Sending and receiving would happen in batches. That made sense when internet connections were slow, expensive and charged by the minute. Now that most people have always-on connections like cable or DSL, that process is less necessary. Desktop email client software is a pain to set up and use; as someone who helps many people with email, Outlook is the bane of my existence.
  • Many of us connect to the Internet in more than one place — at work, at home, and on cell phones. It can be very frustrating to realize that we’ve left the message we needed to reply to at the office.
  • Many of us have more than one email address. I try to keep my work and personal email separate, plus I have a series of email addresses that I use when registering on websites that might try to send spam. And I have several email addresses that were given to me, such as the ones that are automatically created when signing up for instant-messaging services like Yahoo, AIM and Windows Live/MSN.

What can be done to overcome these problems? Here are some tips that might help you and your clients and friends be more productive.

  • Get your email on the web. Dump your desktop email software, and switch to Gmail/Google Apps or another online provider like Yahoo. If your Internet connection is unreliable, Google Gears lets you work offline.
  • Create a master inbox. If you have multiple email accounts, you can set up forwarding to receive and send email from one place.
  • Use IMAP. If you need mobile access to your email, set up your phone software to use IMAP, not POP. By using IMAP, your messages will sync automatically in all of the places you check your mail.
  • Use social networks. It seems like all of my friends under 30 don’t do email anymore, but they’re on Facebook a lot.
  • Use instant messaging. For short, simple conversations, IM can be very efficient. In a few seconds, you can schedule a meeting or a lunch date. It’s much faster than email or phone conversations.
  • Use file-sharing services for sending large documents. There are lots of such services, and new ones are popping up all the time, including Fluxiom and FileShareHQ. And Dropbox and the new Opera Unite service allow you to share files directly from your computer.
  • Organize your electronic communications. Celine wrote about this recently, and I’ve talked about it, too.

Oh, and one more:

  • Remember your passwords. This is obvious to you and me, but I’ve heard “I didn’t know I had a password” way too often. Online services like LastPass, or programs like 1Password, SplashID, or the free KeePass (Windows and phones; also available for Mac and Linux) can be lifesavers.

How do you keep email simple?

Image by stock.xchng user chris27.

  1. I’m really not convinced by that “social networks more popular than email” Nielsen study . Sure, it makes a great soundbite, but it’s really only looking at social networks vs webmail, not email as a whole. I have a post about media speculation on the death of email on GigaOM Pro (subscription required)

  2. Do we really want to “simplify” email at all? I mean Just give me Google Wave and lets throw out the antiquated system of electronic snail mail. Wave addresses all of these concerns and more!

  3. I don’t want to cause contentions with the author, because I wrote a similar topic last week for my site Mobile Ministry Magazine (MMM). But this article does nothing to address the issues with email except to create more points of connecting that people have to manage. The part of defining a solution is to display relevance by simplifying what is causing the problem. If the medium isn’t being used correctly, change the behavior, then change the tech.

    For example, last week I started forwarding all of my email to my mobile’s email address. Essentially making every email come to me as SMS. I then stated in an autoreply that the email address would be deactivated and that the person should use IM or SMS to contact me.

    This does two things: it stops the bad behavior of email, and encourages the person contacting me to think about what I can take via SMS or IM.

    After that, its a matter of trimming the fat. If you get newsletters that you don’t read. Then unsubscribe. If people are sending you 3 page emails to ask you a 2 sentence question, call or IM them and reiterate that they need to compress their message if they would like a response from you.

    Its not rude or wrong to ask people to learn the tools that would be better; but you cannot say that they should use them without giving incentive and making it relevant for both you and them.

  4. I still really enjoy sending eMails and think that it definitely has a future. While social networks are great sometimes – especially for contacting friends who aren’t online that often or don’t read eMails at all – I absolutely can’t imagine how running a small web design business should work without eMails.

    There are definitely various things which can be done to make an even better experience out of it, but for me using one main eMail account set up with Mail.app and IMAP works exceptionally well. All eMails I received and sent are usually synced across the web, my Mac and iPhone so I usually receive important information right in time.

    Besides that, apps like 1Password for example can create and manage strong and secure passwords easily so even this shouldn’t be a problem anymore.

    One thing I have to agree to though and that is that many people still struggle with setting up a desktop mail application so they can send and receive eMails – but once they understood it this usually doesn’t cause any further problems anymore as well.

  5. Dave Culbertson Friday, June 19, 2009

    “Social media more popular that email” is a bogus stat. I suppose it really depends upon the definition of “popular” I blogged about this recently. http://lightbulbinteractive.blogspot.com/2009/03/new-bogus-stat-social-networking-more.html

  6. I believe social networks are great for not formal conversations, but in entreprises and professional world email still rocks. Better saying, email is now – finally – getting mature. It has a legal value and I can even use certifications.

    And I don’t agree with reading mails only in web browsers. I don’t trust broadband connections and Google Gears enough. On the other side, Outlook sucks, and people who use it is not because they want, but I use Mail in OS X and it really works like a charm. Smart mailboxes make a single inbox for my 3 mail accounts. It’s also nice to track people, clients, projects and so on, even when I am on the go. Well, I am on the go most of the time, actually… For Windows and Linux people, I recommend Thunderbrid.

    But you are right about using IMs and the phone properly – or SMS, if what you have to say is really important. If we had to use stamps in emails as in standard papermail, people would use it smarter. Just because it’s ubiquous, quick and free doesn’t mean we have to be overwhelmed with crap.

    P.S.: that’s the first time I visit your weblog, congrats for your work. I’m now subscribed :)

  7. thisismyurl Friday, June 19, 2009

    Like most WWD’s I depend on my email everyday but you’re absolutely right, the basic structure of the medium is over 30 years old and we need to look seriously at what we’re going to do with it moving forward.

  8. Using Spaces to Manage Information Overload Monday, June 29, 2009

    [...] here, along with Dreamweaver, Photoshop, iCal, Address Book, and Mail (which I still use, despite my earlier comments, as it’s the best way to manage multiple email accounts and move messages between them). [...]

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