E-Mail is Still Broken

Chris Bowler asks if email is broken:

The problem is what we do with email. We communicate, for sure. But many people use email as storage, not for communications. They store documents in their email client. They store things they need to do in their email client. They store reference information in their email client. And, like iTunes, once an application has to meet more than 2,3 vital tasks, it becomes cumbersome in and of itself.

I feel like this has become a bit less true than it used to be. People have realized that with the volume of e-mail we get this just isn’t feasible. But that doesn’t mean that e-mail isn’t broken.

The ways which people use e-mail is what is really broken. What am I about to write is probably not new to most people, but until it changes it’s worth re-iterating over and over again.

Primary/Only Form of Communication

I am guilty of this sometimes. I hate talking to people on the phone. But using instant messaging is OK with me. For some people though, it seems like e-mail is their chosen form of all communications. This includes things from blazingly urgent to an invite to an event 6 months from now.

There are way too many people who expect an e-mail response in minutes, when in reality they should expect one in hours, or even days. Sure e-mail delivery is virtually instant, but with the volume of e-mail alone that most people receive responding this quickly is difficult. Add to this that some people don’t have notifications setup, or don’t always have the ability to check their e-mail every minute and this just doesn’t make sense. Most people need to get better at deciding when/when not to use e-mail versus something faster or more direct.

Reply to All and CC’ing the World

Nothing is abused more in the technology than the “Reply to All” button and the “CC” field. If I ran a company, I would force people to use these things sparingly and their end of the year rating would factor in how frequently they abused them. Nothing contributes to e-mail overload more than these two things. I would estimate that 80% of the e-mail I am CC’d on is totally irrelevant to me. Over the last six months I have stopped using both of these things as much as I could and I haven’t noticed any issues, or missed communication that caused problems.

Lack of Better Collaboration Tools

I really thought Google Wave had potential. I think things like the 37signals suite of products have potential, but aren’t mainstream enough. The problem is that people use e-mail for having quick/short conversations, sharing documents and as Bowler said, storing information. There are great singular tools out there. There are great chat apps. Great calendar apps. Great “todo” list apps. But there isn’t yet a system that is great at encompassing all those things together. As a result, e-mail continues to be this catchall.

At some point some ambitious person is going to figure out the answer. They will find a way to fit all the key information in one place, make it easy to use and e-mail’s use will be transformed back into an old school “pen pal” type system. In the meantime, e-mail will remain broken.