What’s Wrong With Email Part 5: It’s the Wrong Tool

Why is a tool we’ve opted to use making our lives worse instead of better?

How do we use email? When you need co-workers to carry out tasks, do you ask them by email? When you start your work day, do you look at your inbox as your to-do list?

A lot of people use email for assigning tasks and managing tasks, and as a result, they end up hating email. Why? Email is not a to-do list. Email was never designed to be a to-do list. Email is not a task-assignment application either. In fact, email is very poorly designed for managing tasks.

We use email all the time for jobs it was never designed to handle. Doing so creates additional work and adds to stress (Barley 2011).

Example 1

Think about it: The person assigning the tasks has no clue when the recipients see their task assignments, or whether they’re too busy to accept new tasks. Email doesn’t easily show the assignee key information about the task, such as the deadline, the stakeholders involved, or whether anyone else’s work is being held up until the task is complete. If stakeholders are involved, they might be included on a CC line, meaning they are now getting emails that aren’t urgent and containing information they probably don’t need right away but might want to be able to access later if there’s a problem. But since the stakeholders got an email, they feel it’s necessary to read it now, wasting their time.

What’s more, the person giving out assignment also doesn’t know when the assignee completes the task, unless the assignee emails the other person back to say so, and even then, they’ll likely keep the subject line intact from the original assignment and write the important information in the body of the message, which means the task manager has to open the message and read it to get the information.

Example 2

Another example of when we use try to use email for a job it was never intended to do is to communicate in real time, or synchronously. Let’s say Jonah is looking at his inbox, when all of a sudden, he gets a new message from Lauren. Lauren is asking Jonah for information. There are other people CCed on the email so that they can have a record of the question and answer. But Jonah needs clarification. So Jonah replies back immediately, CCing everyone, asking Laurent to clarify something.

Let’s say, too, that everyone else who is CCed doesn’t have the same question (maybe Jonah processes all documents relating to X, Y, and Z, but everyone on the CC line only works on Z, and Jonah needs to know whether this particular question relates to X, Y, or Z). Now everyone is getting more email than they need to get, and Jonah is sitting there waiting for Lauren to reply. He assumes she’s still sitting in front of her computer with her email open, attentively watching her inbox from updates.

But there is nothing that guarantees she is. Jonah would have been better off using a different form of communication, something that wouldn’t have alerted all those people who were CCed, and something that would have let Jonah know for certain whether Lauren could reply right away. Jonah’s options include the telephone, a face-to-face conversation, or a messaging app that shows whether other people are logged in currently and active.

Better Tools

Email is not designed to be a real-time communication channel. It’s not a phone. It’s not an instant messaging program. It’s electronic mail.

Using email to do tasks that it’s just not designed to handle ends up costing people more time to “compensate for the programs’ inadequacies” (Barley 2011, citing Bellotti 2003 and Renaud 2006).

Tools designed for communication and productivity should make our online lives better, not worse. Is it really email’s fault for performing so poorly when we’re the ones asking it to do tasks it was never designed to do?

A slew of productivity apps that have come to market in the past five or six years claim to help get people out of email. A few of the most popular ones are Slack, Asana, HipChat, Trello, Todoist, Wunderlist, and any number of other apps classified as collaboration software, task-management apps, workplace management systems, and so forth. (As a product reviewer for PCMag.com, I’ve personally reviewed dozens apps across these categories.)

It makes a lot of sense. To manage tasks, a task-management app will have the tools someone needs to do the job effectively and efficiently. To manage workflows, wouldn’t it make sense to have a tool that’s designed to accommodate all the aspects of managing workflows? If a team needs tools for real-time communication, or a way to communication information that’s optional (i.e., on an opt-in basis), they’re better off with a tool designed for opt-in information rather than a tool designed for sending and receiving electronic letters and documents.

What Else is Missing From Email

Even though a lot of the problems of email stem from the fact that users try to pigeonhole it into doing things it was never intended to do, email still could do a better job of adapting to our needs.

A few forward-thinking software developers have designed apps that do add new functionality to email, but they are far fro being universally accepted and implemented. Some of my favorite features include:

  • the ability to snooze an email, meaning make it disappear from the inbox for now, but reappear as a new and unread message at a later time designated by the user
  • swipe functionality on touch screens, so that a user can swipe a message to quickly delete, archive, snooze, or reply to it without having to hunt for a button that maps to those functions
  • intelligent notifications, such as the ability to silence all notifications for new incoming messages, except those coming from people on a VIP list
  • tabbed sorting instead of folders and better sorting options, because the idea of putting an electronic piece of “mail” into a “folder” is completely outdated

What Can You Do?

The more we become aware of how we use email, the more we can change our work and life styles so that we use the right tool for the job.

In many circumstances, such as an office environment, one person can’t choose to stop using email when it’s inconvenient. Rather, it takes total team buy-in to switch to a different tool. You can be an ambassador of change, however, by learning about some of the alternatives to email and trying them out to see which ones are right for your team and work. Being knowledgeable about the tool or tools before pitching them to the team is much to your advantage.

On a micro level, you can choose to use face-to-face conversations, phone, web conferencing, or other tools your team might already have in place (such as Google Hangouts instant messaging for Google Apps users) to set the tone for change. If you explain to people, “I stopped by to ask a question in person rather than create excessive email for everyone,” you can nudge others to become more aware of the improper uses of email, too. They might even pick up on hints and start doing the same thing, especially if they see that it’s effective.

References

Barley, S., Myerson, D., & Grodel, S. (2011) E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science 22(4): 887–906. Retrieved Jan. 22, 2016 from http://people.bu.edu/grodal/Email.pdf

Bellotti, V., N. Ducheneaut, M. Howard, I. Smith. 2003. Taking email to task: The design and evaluation of a task management cen- tered email tool. Proc. CHI 2003 Conf. Human Factors Comput. Systems. ACM, New York, 345–352.

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.

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