This post is the first in a series exploring what’s wrong with email. Email is a productivity killer, as many people know through experience. In the thick of keeping up with it, however, we can’t adequately reflect on what’s wrong with email and why it affects us the way it does. This series aims to help you take a step back from the chaos of email to think about what it is, how it is designed, how we use it, and ultimately why so many people hate email.
Who Pays for Email?
Who pays the cost of email? I’m not talking about server costs, the cost of supporting a business’s email, or even monthly subscription fees for premium personal email services. I’m not even talking about the cost in terms of us, the users, being the product for free email. I’m talking about the cost in time and energy of dealing with email.
Who pays the cost in time and energy when a typical email is sent and received?
The answer is the recipient.
Typically, and especially in the work environment, email messages come with the expectation that the recipient will do something for the sender, as Renaud notes (2006). The recipient might have to gather information and reply to the sender with a summary of it, such as confirming the date and time of a meeting or answering a question about what a particular client wanted. Or the email recipient might have to carry out a specific task, such as get back to a client or file a report.
In other words, an email is often a task request, and the recipient bears the cost of doing it. All the pressure, and therefore cost, goes to the recipient.
It’s especially true when there is a power relationship between the sender and recipient, as Renaud also notes, such as a boss and employee.
In that sense, emails are often obligations, and that’s not necessarily what email providers had in mind when they designed email services.
Some email services, such as Outlook, have adapted to try to better handle how messages are sent, received, and interacted with when they are task requests. But for the most part, email services have taken the stance that they were not designed to handle task management, and it’s really your fault, the user, if you use email in that way.
There are plenty of task-management applications that are indeed better than email for handling work and workflow, and it’s only in the last few years that organizations are beginning to understand how to move work that has traditionally been handled in email to a task-management platform.
Look for a future post in this series for more on how email’s original intent isn’t at all reflective of its current state of use. I’ll also write in a future post a little more about task-management apps and their relationship to email.
Renaud, K., Ramsay, J., & Hair, M. (2006). ‘You’ve got e-mail!’… Shall I deal with it now? Electronic mail from the recipient’s perspective. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 21(3), 313–332.
Image by gajman, CC.