burdened by management role
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
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
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
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
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
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