The Deep Psychology of Email

The science behind email behavior is extensive, I’m sure, and not something that I purport to know much about, from a factual standpoint. Most of the email-based thoughts and assumptions I make throughout my day are driven by a fair bit of intuitiveness — with a dash and a half of instinct and a peppering of intelligence gathering.

I would hazard a guess that most people fall into my category — that is, if they think at all about email as anything more than simply a communication medium.

But not Kaitlin “Ducky” Sherwood. You can click on her name to read her full bio, but I’ll give you enough information to establish context. She’s written two books on overcoming email overload, was the first Webmaster at the University of Illinois (during the Mosaic creation days) and just recently earned an MS in Computer Science.

I got to spend an hour on the phone with her, aggressively asking for her opinion on email and cautiously tip-toeing into her thoughts on Email Center Pro.

Sherwood speaks with confident conviction about all manner of topics, but, for my purposes, focused most of her energy on email. Much of what was said centered around the idea that, as yet, the perfect email system doesn’t exist. And the reason for that is that no provider is meeting all of Sherwood’s standards — many of which have to do with efficiently and effectively moving through email in a reasonably organized way.

She chuckles at the notion of “Inbox Zero,” the popular concept that basically mystifies people into thinking they’ve properly dealt with all of their messages just by clearning their inbox. But, have they? Have they adequately addressed that communication channel, or have they simply shifted it from one place to another so as to better manage the guilt associated with 100 unread messages?

Sherwood argues for the latter, asserting that the psychology of seeing “0” as an Inbox tally is given disproportionate weight in relationship to proper management of email as a communication vehicle — creating a false sense of security, if you will.

Much of that, Sherwood continues, is driven by the passionate pursuit of perfect filtering. Users constantly seeking to compartmentalize the various buckets of information flowing into their Inboxes chew up time that can’t possibly be recovered through the convenience associated with “more easily” scanning through those folders.

In essence, filters/folders/etc. are not effective means of organizing data — given the existence of an uber-powerful search function. With the reality of virtually limitless data storage, it no longer makes efficient sense to try to organize things the way we needed to when filing cabinets held all of our pertinent paper work. Without proper paper management, I might lose a week looking for a single document. Now, I type “2006 tax returns” into the search bar and PRESTO!

In light of that, it’s comforting to know that an advanced search functionality provides the infrastructure for version 2 of Email Center Pro, which is scheduled for release in the next couple of weeks.

So, do the psychological aspects of email resonate with you? Do you struggle against the rising tide of email overload? What is your method for managing your inbox?

Jason Gallic
Product Marketing Manager
jason@paloalto.com

 

4 Comments on this post »

show or hide Comment by Cale Bruckner on 2008-10-01 11:24:09

“In essence, filters/folders/etc. are not effective means of organizing data — given the existence of an uber-powerful search function. With the reality of virtually limitless data storage, it no longer makes efficient sense to try to organize things the way we needed to when filing cabinets held all of our pertinent paper work”

Right on.

I stopped using folders to manage my personal email years ago. I have an Inbox folder, a Sent Messages folder, a Saved Messages folder, and a Follow-up folder for messages that will require more than a few minutes to address properly.

I use advanced search features to dig up old messages. In my experience, using folders to organize messages is the wrong way to go. If you rely heavily on folders to organize your messages, as opposed to using search features to find messages, you’re much more likely to miss messages because you’re relying on your organizational skills to file messages as opposed to the computers ability to find messages based on search criteria. Additionally, advanced search features, can do a much better job of making full use of the rich meta data in in your email or document to find the right messages.

Tags are a great way to add additional meta data to an email messages. Email Center Pro (ECP) makes it easy to tag messages and internally we rely on the tagging methodology heavily to add an extra level of rich meta data to the message that can be searched for at some point in the future. For example, we tag all emails from ECP customers that include a feature suggestions “feature request” to speed our search for these types of messages in the future – it works really well, especially in ECP.

ECP makes it really easy to used the advanced search feature to build some really interesting searches. ECP 2.0 also makes it really easy to save a search that you build for future use – we call these Saved Searches.

If you really get good at using search to find things you’ll soon be tossing your folders because they start to get in the way of using search.

— Cale

Senior Vice President, Product Development
Palo Alto Software Inc.

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