E-Mail: Tough Nut to Crack

To fix what's wrong with e-mail, vendors must listen to average users.

Much of the information coming out of the Inbox conference—held in San Jose, Calif., earlier this month—focused on how to fix what have become very big problems with e-mail. The suggested improvements and innovations make sense to me, but, in the back of my mind, Im thinking: People will make use of these new features for a while, maybe, but then theyll just revert to e-mail form.

As a person who reviews technology for a living, I have thoughts like this all the time. I see lots of new products that provide elegant solutions to problems and that could save users time and effort. Ive even been known to enthusiastically tout some of these products and their new features in my reviews and to make use of them myself in some cases.

But, there are times—and in not-so-limited numbers—that a supercool product feature just doesnt get used. And in no other product category does this happen more often than e-mail.

My own history is chock-full of evidence.

For example, I loved the Bayesian anti-spam filters when they first came out. I aggressively trained my clients to discern between spam and authentic mail. But Im not as motivated to do that anymore, and I sometimes dont even bother to mark spam that a filter has missed.

And I thought it was great when some mail clients added the ability to determine if an e-mail sender was on your instant messaging client. This made it possible for recipients of my e-mail to see if I was on IM and respond in real time in a chat session instead of replying to the e-mail. But it didnt take long before the first thing I wanted to type into an e-mail-instigated IM session was, "I sent that message in e-mail specifically because I didnt want to deal with it right this minute."

I still like getting RSS news feeds in my e-mail client, but Im already finding that Im less inclined to read them.

I think this is happening because now that Im reading news feeds in my mail client instead of in a dedicated reader application, the news feeds have become just another part of the constant information noise that is my e-mail in-box.


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Maybe its just me. However, power users are more inclined to embrace cool new features than typical users. And if ever there were a power user, its me. (My job kind of requires it.) Most average users I talk to dont bother even to try new features, let alone use them regularly.

So why does this seem to happen more with e-mail than with other applications?

One thing Ive heard from many users is that reading e-mail is a chore, and they just want to get in and out of it quickly. Also, as e-mail volume has grown, especially through the rapid increase in spam and viruses, many users have developed personal workarounds that let them quickly get through their mail. Any new feature, even one that could save time in the future, just gets in the way of this process.

Maybe the e-mail system vendors can convince company CIOs that these new features will save lots of time and money.

But dont count on it.

Michael Caton, who covers e-mail for eWEEK Labs, said a core rule for e-mail system managers is that anything that doesnt encourage users to delete mail is a bad thing. And other than some anti-spam features, just about all of the ideas proposed at Inbox will encourage users to keep their mail on the server.

So what can e-mail vendors do to change things and give mail the improvements it desperately needs? Id suggest spending a little less time with the power users and tech pundits (which, I guess, includes me) and more time with average users. Go into the cubicles and take a long, hard look at exactly how most people use e-mail.

What you see might surprise and even horrify you—from users who open a separate window for each e-mail to those who print out messages they want to get back to later. But, with this knowledge, you just might be able to pull off the important but very tough task of creating an innovative and timesaving new e-mail feature that average users will be happy to use—regularly.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.


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