Email Isn't About Messages

Modern email clients are inadequate. I find if I don’t reply almost immediately to a message, it scrolls out of my inbox and I never see it again. And when I want to search for something, I usually end up clicking on scores of messages because the search features take too long and don’t give me what I want. We can do much better than this.

Honestly, my problem is that I’m terminally lazy. That’s why I have a computer – it’s good in all the areas where I absolutely suck (well, not all the areas). In the old days, I used to spend hours composing messages the length of novels. I would then sleep on them so I could edit them for style and tone in the morning. Of course, to achieve all of this I had to put them off until I had the time.

Now I get more email, and if I delay replying I find the message is buried in my inbox and I never reply at all. On the other hand, if I reply too quickly I’m liable to start a vicious circle of conversation which threatens to take over my life. Too often this habit has resulted in important messages going unanswered. Then when I remember what I’ve forgotten, my client pretends it has forgotten too and I can’t find it.

Email clients are middle-aged. They’ve hardly changed in twenty years. Back before computers had graphics, they displayed essentially the same three pieces of information: content of a message, a list of messages, and perhaps a collection of folders. Here’s a picture of Outlook 2000 (I really do mean to ditch it one of these days, but without the calendar I would never remember anyone’s birthday):

Outlook screenshot with navigation highlighted

I’ve highlighted part of the image because I want to make a point. All the areas I’ve coloured pink are controls that have to do with finding stuff. I count over 50 individual controls – which is great, because I have thousands of messages to sift through. Except most of the time I don’t: there are probably only about a dozen I care about at any particular time. The real reason for all those controls is that it’s so hard to find those dozen messages.

Some of those controls might help me. For a while I sorted relevant messages into different folders, but then they became even more lost. Every message could be in at least two places: the inbox, and another folder. I also tried flagging important messages. Then all it took was one click to sort flagged messages to the top of the list. But that was two clicks too many, and besides I had to remember to check for flagged messages in the first place. There are scads of other features in there. I honestly don’t know what half of them do. I do know you can practically build a database query with your Outlook inbox – which is absurd, considering all I want to do is read my mail.

IBM has done some intriguing research with a prototype called Remail. One of its features – grouping messages by day – has already made it into Outlook 2003. But it was something else which got me thinking.

One of the visualizations they show contains a grid of people’s names. Each name has a background colour, which indicates whether you have replied to that person, and if not, how long since they last sent you a message. In other words, this little doodad would let me know who I’ve forgotten to reply to.

That’s not the important thing though. The important thing is something others have found: email isn’t about the messages. Messages are only incidental – email is really about communication. It so happens that the communication is broken up into chunks we call messages, but what we’re really interested in is who we’re talking to, what we’re talking about, and when.

These three concepts should be at the heart of email, but instead our software focuses on what it works with, which is messages. There are hints of it in the software: email is often integrated with calendar, contact management, and task planning features. Yet these three things – who, what, and when – are still treated as attributes of messages. They should be the primary things we deal with.

Can this be solved without producing some kind of kitchen sink garbolator like Outlook? I have a few ideas, which I intend to talk about another time.