Category Archives: Email Research

I’ve had the chance to use Inbox for the last couple of days, and so far it’s been a good experience. I’ve been deep in the email space for several years now, even helping organize an email conference in the Bay Area next week, at which Google will be there to talk more about Inbox. I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on what I’ve experience thus far.

Inbox basically takes a large majority of the research that’s been done in human computer interaction, productivity, and email over the last 15 years and tries to roll it into one. As such, they actually have succeeded pretty well.

Bundles:

For example, the grouping feature is similar to the idea of thrasks put forward by PARC (Palo Alto Research Center, research arm of Xerox, invented the GUI and internet) is actually one of the most powerful components of the app. Similar types of messages, bundled by content and by thread, should in theory be able to be dealt with together with minimal context switching costs. And if you have several threads related to the same topic, finding a previous conversation inside of a thrask/group should be much easier. Inbox implements these in a half-automated way, so things like Travel or Social get grouped together, and you can make your own groups as well, which basically equates to creating a new label in Gmail. The other cool thing you can do with bundles/groups is to have them appear at certain times. Want to deal with all of your Social emails at night, after work? Set it to only appear then, and you won’t be bothered by those emails during the day.

Snoozing:

And that brings up the timing options, which have been popularized by apps like Boomerang, Mailbox, and Boxer. Yep, Inbox does that too. It also takes some of it to the next step with Pinning. Pin a few messages that are important and they stick around, much like a task would. It’s more proactive than just leaving your messages (which really are tasks) in your inbox, and it lets you more actively deal with them.

And in the email as tasks mindset, which research has shown again and again is the case for nearly everyone, you can set Reminders based on time and location, much like iOS’s Reminders.

Contextual Info

Inbox does a pretty good job of pulling out relevant contextual information from an email and making it very prominent. For example, I received a hotel booking email, and at the top, separate from the actual email, was the address for the hotel that I could click on to open in a map. Inbox recognized that as the address for the hotel and pulled it out for me, pretty nifty.

Reducing Overload:

Often the main objective of any of these types of apps or researched techniques is to give you time back and reduce your email overload. The most impactful technique is batching the times you check email, and not reacting constantly throughout the day to popups. Inbox sort of covers this: you can do constant checking via push notifications (handy and a battery saver!), or you can turn them off and just check manually. Unfortunately there’s not a full inbox batching mode yet–it can in part be accomplished by scheduling your groups/bundles, but not on a whole. So it’s an either/or situation right now. (Though don’t tell anyone, but I’m starting to lean away from wholesale batching as an effective technique… “He’s a witch, burn him!”)

A large interface caveat:

This is 100% a mobile application, and doesn’t translate well to desktop yet. It is very neat that the web component uses Material Design (big hat tip to +Mike Denny!) but it’s obvious that the desktop/web version is still a second class citizen, and is mostly just the mobile version scaled up. There is a huge amount of innovation that could be present here as well, but as it stands, I’ll continue using the regular Gmail interface on the desktop and Inbox on mobile.

Multiple Accounts

Unfortunately, Inbox doesn’t really know how to do unified messaging, which a big bummer. Even amongst three Gmail accounts you still have to switch in and out. No Google Apps support yet, though history has shown that will come, if late to the party. And of course (though it makes complete technical sense), there is no support for third-party accounts through other services, including Exchange. The answer there, of course, would be to proxy that email through your Gmail account. For now, though, I’ll just use Mail.app or Boxer for my other accounts.

Summary:

All in all, it’s very impressive to see the number of features, all with pretty direct backings in established research, making it into v1.0 of a product. Whereas many other apps and providers have had a few here and few there, it’s fun to be able to play with them all in one, and interesting to see how each one individually is effective.

I have a good contact who runs an email-related startup, and I think he said it really well:

“Overall, Inbox feels analogous to Perl. It’s a collection of clever, interesting, useful features, some of which have never been seen before. And, like Perl, there’s not just one way to use it, which makes it difficult for new users to understand how to use it best.” – Alex Moore

Inbox will evolve over time, and I think that it will help move email management forward in general just as Gmail did. Should be interesting to see how it continues. There are rough edges and things that don’t work well just yet, but I’m sure they’ll improve.

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In some exciting news, the New York Times reports that work done by Microsoft Researcher may be working its way into Outlook, among other products. The work would use machine learning algorithms to examine a user’s behavior and the emails they receive “to suggest whether a user wants to read each message that comes in.” This could be a fascinating improvement to the most popular desktop client in the world.

Horvitz has produced an amazing body of work since starting at Microsoft in the 90s, and a good deal of it has dealt directly with information and email overload. For example, Iqbal and Horvitz’s 2007 article “Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: field study, analysis, and directions” is a great example of determining real-world costs to task switching.

Adding intelligence to email clients, especially in the form of identifying user behavior and trying to determine message value, would be a huge step forward. Also important is that this would be implemented in the client that many middle- and upper-managers are using—the people who experience the most overload.

Now of course we don’t have anything more specific yet, but this news is very exciting to those of us interested in email overload, and sounds very positive. Great to see Microsoft continuing to innovate in this sphere, and hopefully bringing some of the excellent ideas of the future into reality.

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Recently I have had a curious question nagging at me that would have profound impacts on the way that we work with and around information. How do we determine the value of information, or what heuristics do we use to evaluate the worth of some information to us? Whether it be valued in terms of time, money, health changes, etc., we certainly make subconscious decisions regarding the ROI to consume a bit of information. I am wondering what facets others use to make this judgement call.

If you have personal anecdotes, thoughts, or resources, I’d love to hear of them. In the meantime, I am going to be looking into what has been uncovered in this area, and pursue what we can discover going forward.

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Whew, graduating, moving, and starting a new job all take an incredibly large amount of time! There is a ton of material that I still want to get up regarding the information overload research that I did in my last semester, but I just haven’t had the chance. However, I can at least get my final presentation up so that others can at least peruse it.

Now this presentation is really meant to be accompanied by my narration, so it won’t be nearly as rich just reading through it as it currently exists. However, it should at least give a starting point to the conversation, and include some good resources to jump off from.

Please let me know what questions you may have, and if you need the narration along with it. I’m happy to discuss any and all of this material!

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Over the last several months I have been pouring over as many different research articles as I could in order to get a handle of what has already been done, discovered, and discussed in relation to information overload and email overload. Luckily, some fantastic researchers both in academia and industry have been busy studying out the problem to a great extent.

I want to share at least some of the best snippets I have found, and especially the particular papers that I have found helpful. I’m not exactly sure how I want to disseminate this information, other than I know that I want it out there, so I’m going to start with a very simple PDF file and text bibliography. I may expand it in the future if I can find a better way to communicate it. For now, I hope that others looking for good, solid research will be able to use this as a good resource for information and email overload. Oh, and for now it also includes my personal notes and thoughts, so you can just ignore that column if you want. :)

Email Overload Literature Review (PDF)

Bibliography:

Ayyagari, R., Grover, V., & Purvis, R. (2011). TECHNOSTRESS: TECHNOLOGICAL ANTECEDENTS AND IMPLICATIONS. MIS Quarterly, 35(4), 831-858. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/skin/frontend/default/misq/pdf/appendices/2011/AyyagariGroverPurvisAppendices.pdf

Bellotti, V., Ducheneaut, N., & Howard, M. (2005). Quality versus quantity: E-mail-centric task management and its relation with overload. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 89-138. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466574

Dabbish, L. A., & Kraut, R. E. (2006). Email overload at work: An analysis of factors associated with email strain. CSCW ’06 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 431-440). Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180941

Ducheneaut, N., & Watts, L. A. (2005). In search of coherence: a review of e-mail research. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 11-48. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466572

Fisher, D., Brush, A., Gleave, E., & Smith, M. A. (2006). Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” ten years later. CSCW ’06 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 309-312). Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180922

Gupta, A., Sharda, R., & Greve, R. a. (2010). You’ve got email! Does it really matter to process emails now or later? Information Systems Frontiers, 13(5), 637-653. doi:10.1007/s10796-010-9242-4

Gupta, A., Sharda, R., Ducheneaut, N., Zhao, J. L., & Weber, R. (2006). E-mail Management: A Techno-Managerial Research Perspective. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 17, 941-961.

Hemp, P. (2009). Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review, 87(9), 83–89. Harvard Business School Publication Corp. Retrieved from http://ocvets4pets.com/archive21/Death_by_Information_Overload_-_HBR.org.pdf

Hogan, B., & Fisher, D. (2006). A scale for measuring email overload. Microsoft Research, 7-9. Retrieved from http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:A+Scale+for+Measuring+Email+Overload#0

Iqbal, S. T., & Horvitz, E. (2007). Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: field study, analysis, and directions. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 677–686). ACM. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1240624.1240730

Paul, S., & Nazareth, D. L. (2010). Input information complexity, perceived time pressure, and information processing in GSS-based work groups: An experimental investigation using a decision schema to alleviate information overload conditions. Decision Support Systems, 49(1), 31-40. Elsevier B.V. doi:10.1016/j.dss.2009.12.007

Tyler, J. R., & Tang, J. C. (2003). When can I expect an email response? A study of rhythms in email usage. Proceedings of the eighth conference on European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 239–258). Kluwer Academic Publishers. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1241902

Wattenberg, M., Rohall, S. L., Gruen, D., & Kerr, B. (2005). E-mail research: targeting the enterprise. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 139–162. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466575

Whittaker, S. (2005). Supporting collaborative task management in e-mail. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 49–88. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466573

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