Tom Chi  

Email Reloaded

May 18th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Email, which was developed decades ago so researchers could send electronic letter to each other, has grown incredibly. Especially in the last 15 years, it has gone from rarely used to daily necessity. With this growth has come folders, categories, threading, rules, autorepliers, notifications, spam, spam filters, and on. A fascinating question is where should it all go from here?With the rise of IM, we have a generation (the one 10 years younger than me) which is less and less reliant on email. Instead they can orchestrate 20 IM conversations simultaneously, navigating the informational, interactional and social complexities therein. IBM’s latest Remail prototypes show significant integration with IM, and before that, Outlook added presence indicators for MSN Messenger. How will IM affect the evolution of email? How will things change when this generation reaches the workplace?

As the difficulty of managing a flood of email rises, there is an impetus to find other ways of doing things. Plogs (project logs) are being developed as a way to allow ad hoc project managment, and consequently cut down on having key project data trapped in circuitious email threads. IM and SMS are eating away at the less than 10-word end of the email spectrum (e.g. “lunch? pizza good?”). Yes. Pizza good.

So where will email be in 5-10 years? Will it become progressively less relevant as other more suitable systems take its place? Or is there a “sweet spot” for email communication? i.e. a type of communication that email is uniquely suited for? What email client do you use are your biggest gripes about it today? Do those problems lend themselves to exploring other systems, or would they best be handled by revising email?

3 Responses to “Email Reloaded”
John S. Rhodes wrote:

Honestly, I think that nearly everything is going the way of the Ghost.

Dave wrote:

John, that “ghost” idea is very interesting. Thank you for thinking so far ahead. How far ahead do you think that is?

To Tom,
I do think IM helps a lot w/ the e-mail issue (but it also brings up problems).
I don’t think I’m 10 years younger than you, but I can handle about 8 IM conversations at once. ;) The import of IM is that it is in “instant” but it is also by itself inconsequential. The point being is that what is beign said in an IM conversation is usually just of the moment, and is not usually generating things that require saving for future retrieval. It is more like a phone call than a phone message.

that being said the biggest problem of IM is that it is not always obvious how to capture what is indeed not inconsequential and convert it to a digitally relevant platform for later retrieval. I often ask friends to e-mail me stuff during an IM conversation such as directions and phone #’s and really hate it when friends do what they think is appropriate and just IM it to me. My e-mail is a better repository, so then I just have to end up e-mailing it to myself. Yucko.

The other tool I use is “notes” in Outlook. It would be great to have a button in Trillion that on selection doesn’t assume a copy to the clipboard as it does today, but gives you a context menu of either copy or create note. Notes can be further categorized like e-mail.

the last issue around IM is about compliance w/ more and more digital communication regulations. This will be the death of IM in the corporate sphere if it becomes too much of a burden on the users. I mean, people don’t have to record their phone calls at a Pharma or Financial shop, why their IM chats?

— dave

Tom Chi wrote:

I agree with your points to an extent. The way IM works today, it is not ready for “primetime” — there needs to be a way to have IM conversations archived, indexed and referred to as easily as email.

But as to the point that you made around inconsequential vs. consequential: email used to carry this burden and now IM does. Email used to have threads like: “pizza?” “yeah, nice” “how about california pizza kitchen?” “nah, i don’t like that place” …

My assertion is that the messages that used to be in email are getting eaten up by IM on the low end, and project logs and management tools at the high end. Thus, the most interesting question to me is whether email has a place in the long term. Is there something about that format, or the size of the data chunk communicated that make email occupy an interaction sweet spot? Or is it popular because it was first, and these other technologies will eventually rise to replace it? I guess the 3rd option, which is happening in a number of email clients is the possibility that it will merge several messaging modalities into a giant info nexus entity.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?