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What’s wrong with email today?

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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 (s goog), 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

11 Responses to “What’s wrong with email today?”

  1. I believe that we use email too often. Many a times, a phone call, face to face conversation or instant messenger can save lot of emails back and forth. Many a times we do not ask people to not send an email when we are not required to receive email. We also send email to many for FYI purpose and that just adds to clutter. If there is a common filing place rather than individual emails then that would reduce corporate emails to a great degree.

  2. Karl Goldfield

    At Teambox we fight hard to get out of the inbox. Two ways we manage this effort:

    1. – A philosophy that almost every email can be three sentences. I try to always send them and when I receive an email if it is longer than three sentences, I delay it’s review. People get the picture.
    2. I try and manage as much of my communication via Teambox, Twitter, Facebook and now begrudgingly Plus. With the streams and more advanced manners of communication, I get more done.

    Since I deployed these efforts my time spent on messaging dropped from over 4 hours a day to less than 1.

  3. Using a phone isn’t the “old fashioned” way to do things. If you’re in business, it’s how you can imply urgency, get exact questions answered, and hold people accountable by giving them a look of trust or disdain as needed. I have seen people use email and instant message at work as a way to snipe and attack with little accountability and the long term effect is that they are no longer effective at getting their point across.

    And thank you for the “urgent” example. I’ve seen this abused over and over and over when a quick brief expecation statement like “can you fix this by the end of today” or “how long will it take to do this” would help coordinate timelines and manage expectations.

  4. Agreed – Email is being used and abused at present, and because the habit/addiction has grown over time, it is hard for people to break from it.

    Personally, I think the key to keeping email as clear as possible is to utilise the available technologies as much as possible – playing to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.

    For instance, I do not subscribe to any email newsletters. If I want updates from a webesite, I subscribe to their RSS feed – it is instantaneous, skimmable and isolated from my email through Google Reader.

    Notifications, where possible, I switch off. If they are needed, I create an Inbox Rule/Filter to skip the Inbox proper and archive them immediately.

    What I am left with are emails which are really emails.

    And even then I reduce them by using the good-old telephone for quick conversations rather than run the risk of a rambling email back-and-forth. If needed, after a call, I email the other contact a summary of the agreed points to ensure there is a paper trail, accountability and a shared record of the outcomes and expectations.

    Don’t work harder – work smarter.

  5. Geert DeBecker

    Good analysis, most people seem to suffer indeed because of the continuous high volume of messages sent to them on a daily basis.
    Not being able to make a distinction between important/non-important, personal/business, urgent/read later, etc… becomes thus a big issue and makes people drown in the daily flood.

    But as you say many people are working on smart(er) solutions.

    @GeertDeBecker, always open for tweets on the matter (no emails ;-)