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Why E-Mail is Failing Us

E-mail. No-one thinks of it as a social app. It’s hardly what we think of as Web 2.0, yet it’s the most social piece of software most of us use each day.

Oh, and it’s broken.

Suw Charman-AndersonThat, at least, was what Suw Charman-Anderson suggested at one of the keynote sessions of the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin today.

She pointed out that e-mail has gone from something you needed a business case for a decade ago, to the first thing you get in a new job. And that’s creating a problem:

• 13% of people are getting more than 250 e-mails per day
• 56% of people think they’re spending too long on e-mail.
 
The reality is worse than that, she suggested, because we tend to underestimate our e-mail use.

The fundamental problem is that e-mail alerts interrupt us – there’s a cost to that.

It takes us 1m 44 secs 64 seconds to get our train of thought back after we deal with e-mail. (The 1m 44s figure is for how long we take to process the alert. Thanks for the correction, Suw) We can’t afford to spend a day a week figuring our what we were doing.

Psychologist have a term that describes our relationship with e-mail: operant conditioning – when we check e-mail, sometimes we get a nice one.That starts to create an emotional relationship with checking e-mail.  Scientists explore the idea by feeding rats when they press levers. Rats will press a lever five times, if that’s how often it takes to get food. But they get obsessed with lever-pushing when the food reward is random. That’s exactly relationship we have with e-mail. We keep checking it, in the hope that an emotionally-boosting one will come through.

Coupled with that, e-mail has become a proxy for work. Web working makes it difficult to judge how productive people are. If send lots of e-mail, clearly they’re doing lots of work – or so goes the thinking.

Together, these responses are rapidly eroding our productivity. So what’s the solution? You need to thhink about other ways of doing the same tasks – but with different tools.

Document collaboration – doing this via e-mail, and merging it all at the end is one of the most soul-destroying ways of doing it. Using wikis is easier.

Sharing Information – Don’t e-mail it. Publishing blogs and make sure everyone uses RSS. There need to be RSS readers for everyone in the company –  a step that is often forgotten.

Short Conversations – use IM and chat for instant communication. E-mail makes conversations go on too long, as everyone feels need to be polite. IM conversations tend to be quick and to-the-point.

You can read a summary of a more detailed version of Suw’s talk at her site.