What’s wrong with email today?

Email overload

What’s wrong with email today? That’s the question posed to me recently on Twitter, and considering that I use email as a primary method of communication, I was happy to think of ways to help tame the inbox.

Dear Email, this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s me.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with email, but I know that the majority of my issues with it are a result of user error more than a problem with the technology itself.

User problem #1: Elaboration and niceties

At this minute, I have over one hundred emails in my inbox that need an action or response. Any time I get the nerve to tackle them, I think about having to read through paragraphs of explanation and niceties in order to get to the meat of the message so that I can take action.

As a regular sender of emails myself, I’m just as guilty of adding unnecessary elaboration and niceties to my messages as the next person. I feel the need to start with the typical, “How have you been” and “Here’s the latest this way” chitchat, followed by a detailed explanation of why I’m emailing, but as a reader (and someone with 100+ emails to process right now), I’d love to know I could open each one and find a simple and direct message that tells me what the sender needs. “Hi, Amber. I’m emailing to see if . . .” Ah, wishful thinking.

User problem #2: Deceptive and inadequate subject lines

How great would it be if everyone started using more helpful and direct subject lines? Even just adding simple lead-ins like “Quick question” or “Urgent” could help us hone in on those messages that need attention more immediately than others.

User problem #3: Abuse

We all have to pay the price for those who abuse email, like spammers, contacts who automatically subscribe us to their newsletters, and others who use this more personal and private medium for uninvited messages.

User problem #4: Poor filtering

One big mistake I make with my own email usage is not using filters effectively. There are many types of emails (messages from social networks, newsletters, and other notifications) that could easily be marked as read and archived without my ever having to touch them. The only reason they’re not is because I don’t take the time to set up filters to sort them.

User problem #5: Using the wrong medium

Instead of sending five emails back and forth to set a single appointment, it would be more effective to use another service that streamlines appointment-setting, like TimeTrade, Google Calendar, or SkedgeMe. As with this example, a lot of our communications could be cut down or eliminated, if we’d choose a better medium for them.

But what about the technology?

While user error is a big part of the problem, technology is not completely in the clear.

Technology problem #1: Poor spam filtering

Until we get to the point where spam is successfully filtered out each and every time (which, let’s face it, is not likely to happen), email will always be somewhat of a nuisance, no matter how effective we get with our use of it.

Technology problem #2: Inadequate sorting

Some messages are notifications, some are spam, and a tiny portion are actually important enough to warrant our attention more immediately. It would help if these messages were automatically separated somehow.

It would also be helpful to have smart sorting based on people (example, important people, new people, companies). When I can zoom in on emails from clients and important business contacts, I’m much more likely to stay on task and not get distracted, but by the same token, I’d also like to see a filter to sort out new people, which could help with identifying new prospects and opportunities.

Fixing the world’s email problems might be a tall order, but the good news is that developers are listening. Even better, they’re asking us what we want from the applications we use on a daily basis and how we would like to see them improved.

What suggestions do you have for fixing email?

Photo courtesy Flickr user ilamont.com

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