Your alarm goes off at 5:30 AM and you reach for your smartphone, which cheerily notifies you that overnight you received 54 emails. And you only went to bed five hours ago. After a quick glance, you reply to a couple and get up to start the day. After arriving at the office you’ve suddenly receive another fifty, and so you take the first hour of the workday to sort through them and respond to those that you can. A 9 AM meeting cuts you short, but you continue to tap out a couple of replies during the boring bits. All throughout the day your laptop is dinging and popping up notifications about new and urgent request from colleagues to get them those numbers for the report, or to figure out where the best place is to get sushi. You receive several hundred emails throughout the day, and despite your best efforts, your unread count consistently hovers around 1,200 or so. Finally, quitting time rolls around and you head home, only to later take an hour or two away from your family and rest in order to try and tackle a few more in the futile attempt to get down to inbox zero.
Sound familiar? This is the doom loop experienced by many people, especially managers and executives who are suffering from information overload. No one is immune to a complete glut of messages, information, reminders, and group communications. Yet the email system we employ remains generally the same as it was over 30 years ago, when email was invented. Well, believe it or not, technology has come a long way in the last 30 years, and I believe we are finally at a point when we can begin tackling this issue head-on and improve the work lives of many people, subsequently giving them more time to spend with their family and friends.
Why doesn’t our email client tell us what needs to be done in the next five minutes? Why do we still treat inboxes like massive lists of equally-weighted unique messages? Why are we not using the resources of the cloud to apply more machine learning to the conversations we have to allow us to be smarter about them? Which behaviors are bad when it comes to communicating, and which are beneficial? Though not exactly declarative of what the future will really be like, perhaps we can glean some good ideas on communication from this video:
It is the final semester of my masters program of Information Systems at BYU, and we are enrolled in a capstone course where we have free reign to choose a project that melds all of the material we have learned over the past several years into a culminating show of knowledge. I followed a Ph.D. prep track during my degree and therefore wanted to incorporate and hone the research skills I gained in those classes. I’ve been searching for a project that would be more than just building a web app or creating a marketing plan; I truly want to start changing the world. When I saw businessmen and women who are also husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, taking unreasonable amounts of time out of their day just to try and keep the beast that is email in its bursting cage, I found a problem that finally fit the bill.
As I am still formulating the exact streams of research I want to pursue and the deliverables I want to create over the next three and a half months, I am operating at a general overview level. As such, let me just share with you some notes that I have been jotting down as I’ve explored different ideas. There is no real organization to this, and it may just be my own thoughts hastily copied down. However, I will be honing my concentration over the next few weeks and will include more detailed, knowledge-rich posts as I go. In the spirit of open knowledge, I will include all my research here for public consumption. For now, here’s what I’m thinking:
- Email is a huge timesink for executives, and they never ever catch up
- It represents huge inefficiencies introduced by…???
- What do we need to do to fix it?
- Some are beginning to claim that “email is dead” and that social will overtake it. Email will not die, but it will evolve. I want to be a part of that evolution.
- Introduce natural language processing to automatically categorize and sort messages based on their content (what project is an email referring too, what actions are required in it, is it just an announcement, etc.)
- Apply contextual clues to the email, like the org chart and where the person and other people lie in it to assign weight
- Remove emails out of the “line item” view, and into more a natural, project group view
- I should be able to look at my email client and have it tell me what I can get to next, what I need to do.
- People don’t want to spend time building filters, categorizing, or sorting. Facebook taught us this. (Can we use a social graph to add context like they do?)
- Labels are way better than folders. What is better than labels?
- Does Gmail’s priority inbox work for some people?
- How do you solve the issue of a new message always popping up and distracting you from an existing task? (Well, don’t have a popup or a sound notification)
- What do plugins like Xobni bring to the table?
- What exactly are the inefficiencies? (I’m guessing research has covered this before)
What has been covered before?
- IBM Remail project – http://www.research.ibm.com/remail/ – circa 2003 and Lotus Notes
- Focused on building a new client. Resembles Outlook if you ask me, or a lot like Gmail today with integrated chat, pulling calendar items out of email contexts
- One thing I liked from their screenshots was the lack of exact timestamps (6:30 pm, 9:00 am, etc.) which removes the odd urgency that feels required
- Some really fantastic base research and publications at http://www.research.ibm.com/remail/publications.html
- “Affordance” is the technical term for a lot of these ideas in IS research.
- Check out Asana for any new tricks they’ve come up with
- This guy covers a couple of different action-based ideas for email clients: http://blog.gaborcselle.com/2006/07/how-researchers-are-reinventing-mail.html
Topics to research
- Natural Language Processing (NLP)
- What efforts have worked before?