Finding inbox meaning in a time of overload

Editor’s note: PARC contributed this post to Inbox Love (produced by 500 Startups)You can see the original post here.

Email as habitat

Email is, for many knowledge workers, a habitat: the place where they spend most of their working day online. Indeed it can be thought of as knowledge work’s Grand Central Station as far as information distribution and workflow are concerned.

Messages come flooding in with requests to satisfy, action items to complete, links to pursue, and different versions of attachments to read or work on. And the outgoing work products of many professionals and the business processes they contribute to are also embodied in email messages, attachments and links. So a major part of knowledge worker information overload is trying to manage the influx of email content in terms of prioritizing obligations communicated via email and making sure they can always locate the resources they need within all the content in their inbox.

Email Overload and…Overloaded Email

Because so much comes in and goes out via email, people have it running all day. But, as Jonathan B. Spira points out in another post to this blog, there are costs associated with such interruptions. So why can’t people leave email alone and allow themselves and their colleagues more time to concentrate on their “work”?

Well, there is a trade-off for knowledge workers: since email is deeply enmeshed with work, ignoring it means certain tasks (one’s or those of one’s collaborators) won’t get done as quickly or as completely as one would like. When a group of us at PARC who specialize in ethnography (the study of human behavior in context) examined email in the workplace, we found that senior and customer-facing people tended to be much more frustrated by the number of things they were trying to keep track of in email. Digging deeper, we saw that these people were tracking up to 30 threads simultaneously and that the more complex the threads were, the more stressed they felt. Why? Because email clients were never designed to support the work of trying to manage so many things at the same time.

In fact, email itself is overloaded with the kinds of roles it is required to fulfill. Email clients evolved for the purpose of sending messages and attachments but in fact they are used for to-do list management, task planning and prioritization, batch processing, workflow and project management, file version management, archiving, search, and more.

What Is Needed?

In order to handle the demands being placed upon it, email needs to be far better integrated with its users’ content, communication streams, and productivity tools, and come pre-armed with powerful features to support things like content organization, project planning, workflow, content retrieval, analytics and so on.

My company, PARC, addresses problems discovered by ethnographers such as those we uncovered with email by developing prototypes that can be iteratively refined in use. So after developing a good understanding of task and information management challenges in email we experimented with prototype email systems (such as TaskMaster and TV-ACTA) that embedded capabilities to help users work more efficiently. These prototypes tested well in small field evaluation studies and gave us confidence in our understanding of what was needed.

Addressing the Need

When taking prototypes to the real world as products, the main challenge for new technology adoption in this area is that people tend to stick with the email client they have, despite its shortcomings. This could be due to factors such as employer policy, dependency on legacy content, or fear of upheaval in mission-critical aspects of work.

And makers of the dominant mail clients do not seem to be highly motivated to overhaul the email user’s experience. So one path that many innovators are taking (including ourselves) is to avoid reinventing the wheel and instead develop a plug-in, usually for Outlook, that focuses on providing the missing capabilities.

number of start-ups have been popping up over the last few years, offering useful enhancements to assist the beleaguered overloaded email user. Xobni, for example, helps its users to find things more easily and Gist focuses more on helping its users to manage their contacts and their relationships with those people.

Meanwhile, Meshin (a Xerox-funded company incubated at PARC) has released the first semantic Outlook sidebar to help people work faster and smarter by using meaning and context to integrate and better leverage the content in all communication streams, starting with email.  This incarnation of the product is just their showcase of the technology, and in 2011 they plan to extend the use of semantics to other communication streams combined with email.

We can only hope that these innovators will prevail, despite the challenges of thriving in the hard-to-monetize inbox business milieu, and that email as a whole will finally evolve into a more modern communication and management platform.