Email is the most broken technology that you use everyday

Seriously, does anyone actually find email to be usable?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Broken email
Email. It's really broken.

I've been struggling to think of a technology that we all use that is more broken than email.

I can't think of one. Email is the pinnacle of broken yet-we-all-need-it-every-single-day technology.

It seems to me that all the other stuff we use has been nicely evolving away, new cool little things popping up now and again that are genuinely useful and that move the story on. Yet email hasn't changed in a decade.


I remember a time when I loved email. I used to sit in Outlook all day and just do nothing but email. It was great. I was like a productivity machine.

But now all my email has become to me is little more than a stream of notifications delivered in the most useless way possible. I've honestly got into the position where every morning I wake up, go through my emails on my iPad, flag any that I need to do something with, and just mark everything else as read.

Thus every morning I start my day at "inbox zero", but not a good "I'm actually on top of this!" type inbox zero. My inbox zero whiffs of failure.

(And if you're wondering, yes, I do miss a good number of emails that I then have to go and find in a "why didn't such-and-such reply" moment.)

I'm pretty good with winning against spam. Only a small percentage is proper spam. A good proportion of stuff that I've ended up getting because I was signing up for something else. Case in point, I just received an email from Tesco. I bought a Hudl tablet and signed up with Tesco to activate the Hudl.

If I click on the "unsubscribe" link on that new Tesco quasi-spam, I have to go and log in to "change my preferences", which I can't be bothered to do. Even if I did, it "takes five working days to remove my email address". That's two bits of shoddy practice there. Shame on you, Tesco.

Most of the email I get is just the incoming onslaught of notifications from my digital life — various automated and semi-automated process related things from clients I'm involved with and services I use. It's just an ongoing, noisy stream of notifications.


I've found myself over the past year-and-a-bit stopping using email as the primary way of talking to people. The best way to get hold of me is to direct message (DM) me on Twitter. That really works for me — it's like IM without the stress.

Another good way to get hold of me is to IM me on Skype. If you do either of those two things, you'll get a reply quickly, and we'll both be happy.

Note the similarity between these two channels — they're immediate, and they're out-of-band. Being out-of-band means I actually see them. Being immediate means I just do them there and then, rather than thinking "I'll do that later", marking it as read, and never looking at it again until something gets forgotten, broken, or I get nagged.

Mind you, I'm just as bad as everyone else. Whilst writing that last paragraph I received an email from someone doing some design work for me. I emailed him back "thank you" — but did he actually need that? All I've done is created work for him in dealing with the message. Sure, it's polite, but saving him a distraction and ten seconds of his day but not replying is both polite and considerate.

That reminds me of something I heard the other day: "email is your to-do list that anyone can add to".

Fixing email

This brings me back to my first point. Email can actually be functional again, but no one is innovating. It's always "show a list of messages in a folder", click, "here is the preview of the message", click, "you can now reply to the message", yada yada.

What email is missing is any notion of the type of relationship that you have with the sender. I don't mind getting pointless emails from whatever LinkedIn groups I've trying in vain to get on with this month, I just don't want them glomming up stuff that's actually important.

TweetDeck — crazily — does this really well. What I wouldn't give for someone to build an email client that works like TweetDeck.

TweetDeck lets you create columns that can divide up the deluge of messages that come over the network. These columns are actually "sub-channels" within the larger Twitter channel. In the screenshot below, I've shown four channels — my DMs (which I've blanked out), my mentions (things I have to do things with), my timeline (general noise), and my "Foo" list. My "Foo" list is a slower running list where I subscribe to a subset of my main Twitter followers.

TweetDeck showing for columns, or subchannels.
My TweetDeck showing four channels that I used to transform Twitter from something noisy into something useable. (DMs omitted. I've got to have some secrets, right?!)

Why this works is that it filters the deluge of everything into little pieces that I can process more intelligently. It creates subchannels out of one massive, noisy channel.

Email for me, and I suspect a lot of readers, is just one massive, noisy channel. Taking what TweetDeck does in allowing the user to create and consume smaller subchannels seems like a sensible idea.

If someone would like to Kickstarter a better email client base on TweetDeck's subchannel idea, I'd sign up.

But in the meantime, Google spends a small fortune continually fiddling with Gmail but doesn't solve this basic problem. Yahoo seems keen on actually making email less useful. Outlook hasn't changed in twenty-odd years, and iPhone and iPad mail apps haven't changed since introduction.

Come on, people!

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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