Monday, June 11, 2007

Information Overload Hacks, part 2

In my last post in this thread, I wrote about a corporate cry for help- the internal '24' campaign at a big-name branding agency, designed to create a sense of urgency around emails and voice messages that reference the numeral '24.'

I by no means blame the individual or organization for succumbing to a social hack to solve the problems of information overload, as the issue they're grappling with affects all of us in the connected world. Fred Wilson went so far as to declare email bankruptcy- the public admission that he could not keep up with the constant flood of emails that trickle in throughout the day.

The root of the problem is not that our society is flawed, or that people are workaholics and send too many emails. I blame email itself- the medium, and the technology that expresses it. Like an aging trolley system in a burgeoning metropolis, email has failed to keep up with the task at hand.

The problem with email is that the presentation obscures the important information. We each receive emails of wildly varying importance and urgency each day, but aside from some incredibly minor interface elements (a tiny '!', or language in the subject line ('URGENT' or, at the company I mentioned, '24'), there is no immediately obvious way to differentiate the noise from the truly important emails.

Instead, you begin to methodically examine each email:

- who is the sender? Is it an important colleague, client or loved one?
- if one of the above, does the subject line reference anything I am especially interested in, or does it de-escalate the message urgency or interest?
- assuming the message passes one of the tests above, you then need to open the email, read and evaluate the contents, and then make a decision- reply? Trash it? Defer it for future action?

While the three steps above are simple in themselves, the true cost comes from the frequency and variability of the action. Making hundreds of such evaluation / decision loops a day would be fairly easy if you were inspecting identical flower pots on an assembly line for defects- the work would become automatic, and you might even describe it as mindless. That's because you would be able to focus on the small set of possibilities in each decision set- is there a crack in the pot? Is the rim malformed?

With corporate email, the scenarios you need to instantly load into local memory, evaluate, and render a decision upon are fairly endless- anything (in my case) from obscure automatically generated emails informing me of a forgotten contractor's building access expiring or some helpdesk in India failing to receive my expense receipts, to cloaked cries for help from a staffer unhappy with their job and their relationship with their coworkers. The danger I find is missing the latter in the flood of the former- but ignoring the 'noise' brings its own risks (I've suffered the wrath of the expense receipts department before, and I dare not repeat).

The constant mental switching is what tires us out and frustrates our desires to find continuity and focus in our daily lives. I hear it all the time when staffers feel like they are being unduly buffeted by administrative or procedural requests- 'I just want to come in, sit down, and do my job.' They (rightly) don't consider the constant peppering of emails from all points of the compass to be part of their core duties, and they fear it endangers their ability to succeed at what they were hired for.

Ok, I promised a solution in the last post, and I'll deliver- I think the problem can be mitigated by rethinking what e-mail is, and how email clients work. Obviously, changing a piece of software is not going to alter patterns of behavior that have emerged as part of the information economy, but it will prevent email from taking a bad problem and making it much, much worse.

The core of the problem lies in email's weak answer to the question of importance sorting- the current framework puts the onus on the sender to indicate importance to the receiver. How in the heck is someone external to me, possibly by thousands of miles and several organizational rat mazes away, supposed to know what I'm most concerned about in any given moment?

Email, and all similar messaging, must change to be more user centered- to be more aware of the context in which the receiver is evaluating the messages. It must give the user control- not to sort, delete, or search emails, that stuff has already been developed within its limitations. Email must evolve to the next stage, where it becomes a partner to help you understand and evaluate the incoming information, and provide clarity and control over your precious decision making time and mental bandwidth.

In my third and final post on this topic, I'll outline what a next generation email application that performs these functions might look like, and what it's going to take to get us there.

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