Email burdened by management role

By Ted Smalley Bowen , Technology Research News

By now, our computing lives were supposed to be anchored in personal information management software, groupware, Web browsers, or any of a number of specialized packages that would organize our time and information better than was possible off-line.

In a case of make-do evolution, however, the humble email program has become a primary organizer, haphazardly covering a far broader range of functions than it was originally designed for.

Email has taken on this information-central role largely because it is a primary communications conduit. Computer users tend to stretch the functions of email programs to organize information where it accumulates rather than shifting it to more specialized software.

Because of this, email's practical uses have mushroomed to include organizing and transferring files, managing work flow and scheduling, and even organizing to-do lists. People also share Web pointers using email, making it a point of departure for going online.

A pair of researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center are taking a look at how people use email in an attempt to improve it to meet these greater demands.

The researchers conducted case studies at three organizations: their own 300-person office, a 150-employee multimedia production firm, and a group of six design consultants.

They interviewed 28 people who had used email for an average of 11 years. The subjects had used their current email programs an average of three years, and sent an average of seventeen messages a day, and received 42.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that email tends to be overextended.

People use it to organize reams of data and transfer file attachments even though its relatively primitive file management abilities do not include the ability to specify different versions of files, said Xerox PARC research associate Nicolas Ducheneaut, who is also a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley.

These file transfers are often slower than if they had taken place over a network. People also use email to schedule meetings, organize project details, and even do audits, even though it is not specifically designed to handle those tasks, said Ducheneaut.

The researchers found that 72 percent of the interviewees sent to-do lists to themselves, and 83 percent of the group said they left messages in their in boxes as reminders.

Despite their computer experience and heavy use of email, the sample group did not customize the software to suit their needs, he said. "It seems email users are strongly influenced by the first interface they are presented with and then stick to it. Options [that] are frequently buried deep inside menus [do not] encourage experimentation."

More experienced emailers tended to use more folders. The most common number of folders was 27, and the average 91. One inbox bulged with more than 400 folders. Previous research has found that using more than 30 folders to organize messages is of debatable benefit, however, said Ducheneaut. Simply counting folders did not reveal how many were in common use, he added.

Workers generally categorized folders by organization, project and personal interests. They also sorted through messages in order to find something rather then using a search tool, probably because it's faster to sort than to start up a search engine, said Ducheneaut.

Sixty percent of the users eschewed filters either because they were not accurate enough or they were too difficult to use. "Sorting and foldering were used more than searching, but there is still space both for traditional foldering and searching in email," Ducheneaut. Searching, however, should be more closely modeled on users' practices, he said.

Even an email package that addressed these limitations wouldn't automatically reach the masses, Ducheneaut said. About 40 percent of the interviewees were required by their organizations to use a certain email package, and training was generally not provided. This institutional inertia will not necessarily be solved simply by building a better mousetrap, he said.

Lack of training could explain why people do not tend to experiment with email options. "We know very few computer users look at their software's documentation, so there is a strong tendency for them to use only the tip of the features' iceberg, so to speak," said Ducheneaut.

The study found that email use is only somewhat affected by the physical layout of an organization's workspace. Although some of the office spaces offered ample opportunities for face-to-face exchanges, people still preferred to use email to exchange documents and URLs, probably because it serves as an electronic paper trail, said Ducheneaut.

The study also showed that email patterns reflect some basic organizational structures.

For instance, Xerox PARC mail folders tended to be organized by project, multimedia production firm folders by department, and design consultant folders as either personal or professional.

People at Xerox PARC sometimes toted laptops to meetings and tapped out email during the proceedings, but used email less to assign tasks. The consulting firm relied less on email to document activities, which the researchers took to reflect the nature of a small start-up. And the two larger organizations did more email broadcasting.

Email use also varied according to which rung on the corporate ladder a person occupied. Managers, for example, tended to fire off more meeting agendas than other workers.

Given email's critical role as communications hub, it is likely to continue to gain uses, and should be re-tooled with this in mind, said Ducheneaut.

The case studies showed a need for better ways of organizing folders, quicker ways to get to recently accessed items such as to-do lists and reminders, ways to track different versions of documents, and the ability to manage URLs. The research also raised the issue of tailoring user interfaces to individuals' roles within an organization.

The study is interesting and the findings sound, said Ned Kock, a professor of information systems at Temple University.

But studying the effectiveness of email also means considering video and virtual environments, Kock said. "The way to really make email better is to make it more face-to-face-like without giving up on its advantages." One way to do that would be to "allow people to share a virtual context, so cognitive effort is reduced," Kock said.

Using video as that shared context, or even exchanging video clips, is difficult today for many reasons, including the large amount of bandwidth required and the lack of uniform video and audio standards, Kock added.

The practical short-term solution is to improve people's ability to organize and exchange pointers to online content, Ducheneaut said.

Ducheneaut's research colleague was Victoria Bellotti of Xerox PARC. They published the research in the September/October issue of the Association for Computing Machinery magazine Interactions. The research was funded by Xerox.

Timeline:   Now
Funding:   Corporate
TRN Categories:   Applied Computing
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Email as a habitat, An exploration of embedded personal information management", the Association for Computing Machinery magazine, Interactions, Volume 8, Issue 5, September/October 2001 >


January 2, 2002

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