E-mail clients have been around for over forty years, yet the ability of this medium to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of business communications has been hampered by how we’ve used it. This is symptomatic – our ability to find creative ways to shoot ourselves in the feet has been the driver behind the evolution of many mainstream technologies.
Here are a few behavioral challenges experienced with e-mail usage which might benefit from automation.
- Extinguishing flames. While we’ve all been guilty of starting or participating in an e-mail-based argument, our tendency to want to get the last word in often overcomes the rationale of stopping the back-and-forth in favor of a live discussion. While discussion threading capabilities have made it a little bit easier to detect when a flame war is underway, it would be better if an e-mail client could have a customizable threshold which, when exceeded, would cause it to prompt a user to confirm that they really, really need to send that message and provide some statistics on the number of volleys completed in the “tennis match”. Sometimes, all we need is that little bit of encouragement to stop the madness…
- Reducing excessive processing. We know it’s a good practice to only review and process an e-mail message once. Reading an e-mail multiple times without doing anything with it is usually a sign of procrastination. Why not have an e-mail client track how often we’ve clicked on an e-mail message and after a customizable number of reads, prompt us to either file the e-mail or delete it?
- Automating Miss Manners. Whether it’s misguided efficiency or just laziness, we often compose e-mail messages without a salutation or a closing greeting. If we were to use the right tool for the right purpose, one line messages or replies are better suited to an instant messaging client. Having the ability for an automated identification of the absence of social niceties within a message before it is sent might help to make the medium a bit warmer.
- Taking a time out. This one is a stretch, but I’m confident that context-conscious parsing has improved sufficiently that it should be possible to have an e-mail client prompt a user before they hit send on a reply if the tone and content of their message is likely to make a bad situation worse. The prompt would ask whether they really wanted to send this message and would provide options to save it as a draft (the default), delete it, or send it as is.
- Encouraging efficient usage. We know how addictive e-mail usage can be, but other than being aware of some productivity tips, there aren’t that many automated solutions. Couldn’t an e-mail client help by estimating how much time has been spent using it per day, and then leveraging gaming practices to encourage better usage? Having a visual indicator to warn me when I’ve exceeded a customized threshold and awarding virtual brownie points when I remain below that threshold could be one way to influence the right type of behavior.
With mature technologies, feature-based differentiation is very challenging. Innovative, well-designed automation which can overcome the pitfalls of human nature could be one way to build a better e-mail mousetrap!