Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

Summary: Carefully organized email boxes, with dozens of folders named and tagged, are a waste of time. Here's why, according to researchers from IBM and Microsoft.

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TOPICS: Collaboration
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In their paper, Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding, they looked at 345 long-term users who made over 85,000 refinding actions.

Conclusion? People who create complex folders "indeed rely on thee for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success."

Search is the curse of the thinking classes. The researchers considered 2 classes of search: prepatory, defining and sorting email into folders; and opportunistic, scrolling, sorting or searching that doesn't require preparation. The prep time can be significant: one study found that people spent 10% of their total email time filing messages assuming the effort would expedite retrieval.

That strategy may have made sense 20 years ago. But modern email clients include important search features such as indexing every word in every email and threading, which automatically structures emails into conversations.

Refinding The research sought to understand actual human behavior "in the wild." So the researchers focused on emailers from many different roles - marketers, engineers, execs, admins - using a Bluemail prototype email system developed at IBM's Almaden research lab by several of the authors of the paper.

Only results from people who had used Bluemail for 30+ days and had used each of the search features at least once were included. They measured daily access behaviors including:

  • Sort. Clicking on header fields like sender, date. etc.
  • Folder access. Whenever a user opened a folder.
  • Tag access. Clicking on a tag.
  • Open message. Whenever the user opened a message.
  • Operation duration. Subtracting the timestamp of each operation from the timestamp of the next operation.

Results The table shows that opportunistic searches dominate with 87% of accesses. Scrolling - 62% of all accesses - is most popular. Preparatory searches (folder and tag accesses combined) are just 13% of all searches.

Folder accesses took about a minute, over twice as long as scrolls, with both searches and sorts being relatively short (around 15s).

High filers found messages using fewer operations but this did not equate to faster searches, as they took longer searching. Folder-accesses take much longer than searches and sorts.

Do high filers find the target message more often? Nope. High filers were no more successful than low filers.

The Storage Bits take Computers are good for something after all. Who knew?

As masses of data accumulate at an accelerating rate, the limiting factor to utilizing our data is our ability to access it. Search is a key problem of massive data.

The research shows that building human-centered search strategies into info-heavy products like email makes a real difference in how efficiently the wetware at the keyboard functions.

Data-heavy trends are still in their infancy. App designers have a long way to go to improve the interface between the awesome human pattern matching capabilities with the computer's text processing mojo.

And yes, it felt good to have my favorite email strategy validated. I was right to ignore the occasional pangs of guilt over my bulging inbox.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. The paper is available here (pdf).

Topic: Collaboration

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18 comments
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  • Your Milage will Vary

    True for some, humbug for others.
    WebSiteManager
  • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

    Judging from the description, it looks like they chose a very narrow group with a large number of requirements to get qualify for the group. If that's the case, there's no reason to assume the results would be similar for a wider range of practices.<br><br>We have one person at work who has <b>everything</b> set up as "just dump everything in a single folder/directory and use search." It's an absolute nightmare finding anything. <b>And</b> she regularly has problems with crashes, slow searches, etc. It can't be the particular computer because she has had the same problem with <b>every</b> computer she uses, both at home and at work. And of the 20+ computers we have at work, hers are the only ones with such problems.
    Rick_R
    • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

      @Rick_R

      It's the people who have an inbox with thousands of e-mails in them who keep failing to respond to things you asked them before today.
      WebSiteManager
    • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

      @Rick_R <br><br>Some people hoard everything. They have to save every bit of scrap crap from the last 20 years or so because their lives won't be complete if they don't know what happened to them on a certain day back in 1989 or whatever. <br><br>Time to clean out her inbox and if she can't get her act together then it's time to bring it to management's attention.
      ScorpioBlue
      • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

        @ScorpioBlue

        Unfortunately, it pays to have "every scrap" of email. In case you get an underhand boss who tries to pass the buck to you. Or for other cases where you need to "prove" something (say from customers, etc).

        If there is no policy in the company contract for HAVING to clean out your inbox, then you're a bully by asking to bring it to management attention, unless you mean the lack of clear guidance.

        I wouldn't like you as a boss. Little Hitler.
        Bozzer
      • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

        @Bozzer

        I rarely keep email for no longer than a year or so. I could care less what happened before that and if you have no life and have to hoard everything, then I hope you waste the hours away creating your silly folders and sub folders and sub sub folders in Outlook (or whatever else you use) along with 500 rules to guide them to the proper spot. Me, I got better things to do with my time.

        [i]If there is no policy in the company contract for HAVING to clean out your inbox, then you're a bully by asking to bring it to management attention, unless you mean the lack of clear guidance.[/i]

        Gee, sounds like you get picked on a lot. Maybe you shouldn't suck your thumb all the time. Don't you know you can get buck teeth doing that?

        lol...

        [i]I wouldn't like you as a boss. Little Hitler.[/i]

        You never know. I might truly be your boss and you'll see it on your next performance evaluation.

        ;)
        ScorpioBlue
  • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

    "People who create complex folders 'indeed rely on thee for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.'"

    Complex, maybe not. Simple, certainly. Keeping a simple system will improve retrieval greatly.

    "But modern email clients include important search features such as indexing every word in every email and threading, which automatically structures emails into conversations."

    Neither of which has impressed me as being blatantly superior in the least. I've had searchable mail for well over 10 years, and no it has not helped me. And as this may be a YMMV thing, good luck convincing me otherwise.

    "They measured daily access behaviors including:

    Sort. Clicking on header fields like sender, date. etc.
    Folder access. Whenever a user opened a folder.
    Tag access. Clicking on a tag.
    Open message. Whenever the user opened a message.
    Operation duration. Subtracting the timestamp of each operation from the timestamp of the next operation."

    There's lies, d**n lies, and statistics. Stats tell you what people tend to do - but they don't tell you why people tend to do them that way. And they certainly are not telling us if these behaviors can be combined in ways that improve over a single behavior alone.

    I'm not convinced that search is the BEST thing out there. It's a crazy game of "GUESS THE RIGHT SEARCH TERM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

    [b]I HATE SEARCH. IT'S TOO UNRELIABLE! GIMME SOMETHING BETTER![/b]

    "Folder accesses took about a minute, over twice as long as scrolls, with both searches and sorts being relatively short (around 15s)."

    What are they using, an email client written by a two year old?

    WOW that is a slow email client.

    "Not Found

    The requested URL /~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf<br /> was not found on this server."

    Heh, you broke the article.
    CobraA1
    • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

      @CobraA1
      In addition to that, if you have thousands of e-mails in your inbox, I want to see you use a web client that pulls in a couple screens worth at best per scroll to get to an e-mail from three months ago. No way you're faster than a well-organized folder structure.
      WebSiteManager
      • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

        @WebSiteManager Gmail search bar. Bam. Email in a few seconds. I still use it to look up passwords to websites I registered for years ago.
        Aerowind
      • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

        "Email in a few seconds. "

        Email in a MUCH LONGER period of time after playing endless word games with the search engine.
        CobraA1
  • I think it depends on what you're searching for, too.

    If you're searching for "what's his name's email address", then yes: using a search function, or clicking the "sort by Sender" option, will find it much faster than combing through your folders.

    However, if you're looking for a particular email on a particular topic, then the search option may not be able to find it quickly. Do you remember who sent it to, & when? Do you remember what the subject line was (depending on if you're searching subject lines only or full text searches)? Do you even remember if the subject of the topic was mentioned in the email, or was it one of those "Hey, here's the link to that site I was talking about earlier" that we get all too often from our friends? The more ambiguous your search terms, the more searching through your Inbox is going to resemble a web search: full of "close, but no cigar" or "not even on the same planet" results you have to sift through anyway.

    Now, with my email account, I receive the occasional messages from friends & family members, emails related to organizations I'm affiliated with on my spare time, & newsletters (like ZDNet's & TechRepublic's) on topics that might be of interest to me... along with, of course, the usual spam and close-to-spam messages. When I read them, I do 4 of 3 things with the message:
    -- mark as spam anything that slipped through the filters;
    -- delete messages that I don't need to keep, either because the information isn't important, or I've since bookmarked the site it's referring to;
    -- move the message to a folder I already have set up, based on the topic and/or sender; or
    -- keep it in my Inbox because a) it's really important for me to have it immediately available, or I haven't decided which folder to move it to.

    Over 90% of the time, after checking my email, I have less than 50 messages in my main Inbox; since I can see every message on a single page, I don't even have to use a Search function to find that particular message. For the topic-based folders, I usually go through them every couple of months, so that I can keep them at no more than 100 messages (preferably 50 or less), usually by deleting older messages that have been superceded by newer ones.

    As for the time needed, I spend way more time reading the messages than sorting the keepers. Probably because I end up keeping less than 10% of them anyway, and all I have to do to "sort" a particular message is use the dropdown box to select the right folder & click the "Move to" button.
    spdragoo@...
  • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

    I use Outlook 2010 and organize all the e-mail messages into folders that I need to retrieve. For folders that I frequently access, I put them in the favorites which is in the top left corner of Outlook (Amazon, Bank of America, my mom, and my brother).

    Looking at my mailbox size, I'm using 169.16MB out of 3GB (with 5,616 items). I've been using Sherweb about 3 years ago. To me, that's not bad, as I won't be running out of disk space for a very long time.
    Grayson Peddie
  • Filters

    No need to file each email messages.<br>Just set the Filter once and all of your messages will be moved to the correct folder even if you're away from your machine.<br><br>I do use the search feature in web emails due to limited emails being displayed per page, and clicking next, next, next, next, next page will take me ages. So even if I have subfolders in my inbox I still use search. <br><br>But I won't use search feature if all of my emails are displayed in just one page, as "ctrl + F" on that page will do the trick.
    Martmarty
    • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

      @Martmarty filters are the greatest thing ever
      lifeguardernie
  • End of contract --> the big email delete binge

    As a contractor, at the end of each contract I have to go through all the emails to make sure that whomever is responsible for what I have been working on has any important ones.

    However, there are many that are now redundant, and it is immensely satifying to delete so many emails about topics that I used to have to worry about!

    But in relation to this thread, while searching may be fast, it doesn't do much for helping do the occasional 'destroy the evidence' purges. An organised email folder structure does help. An over-organised structure does chew up time with its micromanagement.
    Patanjali
  • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

    This kind of nonsense "research" and reporting is pretty darn useless. Every person is different. My wife receives and sends thousands of email messages per year. For legal reasons, she need to keep most of them for several years. Most email clients choke when there are tens of thousands of email messages stored in an inbox/outfox, or even in a folder. She has a strict date-based folder hierarchy for keeping her messages.

    This article raises my bloodpressure because I'm sure the same generalizations about people and their computers are behind Apple's continual dumbing down of Mac OS. They can justify what they are doing because "most people" are pretty clueless about their machines. Yeah...let's all base what we do on the lowest common denominator.
    noibs
    • RE: Lazy emailers win: you're most efficient!

      @noibs Agreed. They pretend something that's very situational can be summed up in an overgeneralized statistic. Some people work better organized, others don't. Some organization systems work better than others. Your mileage may vary. But they ignore that completely.
      CobraA1
  • Not surprised

    1982: "A tidy, well organized desk is the sign of a sick mind".

    2012: "A tidy, organized email inbox is the sign of a sick mind."

    Context changes with time ... the principle's timeless.
    thx-1138_