The recent weeks and days have shown a lot of movement in the email space – with IBM announcing Verse and Microsoft buying accompli recently.

It’s simply fascinating to me that the piece of software being used most by users, spend most time on is still… fundamentally broken. Yes email gets the usage and adoption, but that is largely because we have to use it. Ask anyone if 20, 30, 60 minutes of email have been a joyful experience? Could we come to the point were doing more email makes users happier?

So some musings on it:

One size fits all dilemma – The same user interface and interaction paradigm has to work for all users, across all generations of digital proficiency, across all usage expertise and even email volumes. Couldn’t – or even shouldn’t – my email look different when I have to look at 3, 100 or 1000 new emails? Or answer my business vs. my private email? For the amount of time we spend doing email, the user interfaces are remarkably rugged, inflexible and standardized. And while it certainly helps that actions like reply, reply all, forward, etc. are common across all emails systems, it also makes them equally dull to use. It looks like email providers are stuck in the list, detail and common action paradigm. Innovations we saw in the multichannel hype in the early 2000s – like make an email from a selected user a vmail or call to my cell phone – have come and gone.

UIs are only driven by technology, not user need – The main UI design challenge seems to be how many emails can be listed in the most efficient way. And efficiency (doing things right?) is paramount in email system design. Fair enough as no one has the time to work with an inefficient email system… but the vendors need to ask themselves the question – how is email handled effectively (are we doing the right thing?). If you look at the UI evolution of email clients, it can easily be connected by the advent of larger screen sizes and resolution for workers. The old list to pop-up paradigm is gone and we mostly see the folder / list / one detail email view across the board. Hardly the result of good UI work, but the fruit of cheaper LCD displays…

Simple things, don’t see much adoption – Even simple innovations do not see much adoption. I am sure each / many email systems have tried some innovation, but one of the reasons I use a Blackberry as my smartphone (yes – be shocked) is, that it is more productive to do email on it. And I don’t refer to the keyboard (it’s better – but that’s another post) – the Blackberry email system suggests likely recipients to – me so I don’t have to search for every entry. It also remembers that I file emails from certain recipients, topics always in the same folder and suggests the folder when I want to file the email (Yes I am a ‘filer’ that’s another blog post, too). I am faster filing emails on my Blackberry than in Outlook and Yahoo! – the other two email clients I labor in these days.
And simple thinks like inviting all recipients of an email to a calendar invite – have all not found themselves in other smartphones (yet). And they may well have – but that e.g. my desktop mail in Outlook doesn’t remember / suggest folders is something that baffles me. How can that be done on a smartphone and not a desktop – baffles baffles me.

Analytics haven’t proven themselves (yet) – Innovative vendors trying to help us winning the battle with exponentially growing email have come and gone. Remember the ideas and good functionality of XOBNI (Inbox spelled backwards). Not much adoption. And there is some low hanging fruit. Like filtering out the time consuming ‘Yeah’ / ‘Good job’ / ‘Let’s go’ and ‘Thanks’ emails that clutter our inboxes. So that’s not rocket science… Time for vendors to do something…

Interaction channel silos – There is more communication than email. We meet in person, over video conference, collaborate on shared screens, talk to each other one to one or many etc. etc. But these channels are highly silofied – there is little information salvaged across them. And many / most are initiated by email. Ever witnessed the issue of getting a 10 digit conference call ID typed in when walking through an airport? Mission impossible. Thanks to whoever invented the link to launch something else, but without it – we are back to the stone age of human interaction enablement. And Microsoft has acquired Skype how many years ago? May 2011 it was. And we still can’t smoothly start a video conference from an email with contacts.


So why is there so little innovation in email? Measured by the amount of time and eyeballs it gets everyday – email is probably the most neglected application we use, in regards of usability improvements of the last 10+ years. Good to see IBM trying something with Verse – but if it will start an all out email innovation war – I remain skeptical. What’s your view why there is so little innovation in email? Please share…. (and you don’t have to email it!)

More Musings
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  • How Technology Innovation fuels Recruiting and dsrupts the Laggards - read here
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