Digital tools such as Knowmail do a much better job of helping users tackle email overload than regular email clients do. Most email prioritization and email filtering tools turn down the intensity of the fire hose – providing ever more efficient mechanisms for dealing with the deluge.
But I come from a Human-Computer Interaction background see things differently. I feel as though we’ve paid too much attention to how computers can support humans in taking control of their inboxes, but not enough on how humans wish to communicate via email. Looking further at the later, we can design future email tools that better support broader digital communication needs.
Perhaps the entire idea of an inbox should be revisited? Currently an inbox is a metaphor loaded with baggage: having to be checked regularly, gradually filling to capacity (or overflowing), having to be sorted and emptied periodically…and seems like a burden.
But what should we have instead? The answer is – we should find out from users/research rather than making any assumptions. What are users’ mental models of email and digital communication in general? What is their understanding of the purpose of such communication and how it should work in the digital realm? We should look further at how users currently interact with such tools that aim to support email overload and how they may be improve based on their interactions. How about pinpointing the values that we long for digital communication to embody: speed, unimposing, trust etc.? Maybe we could design future technology that is tailor made for these specific values in mind.
I’m not saying we should redesign email from the ground up (that would be almost impossible). But we should design email tools from the ground up – making no assumptions of subjects or recipients, of carbon copies or read receipts. Or inboxes. And we should do so by involving email users – particularly those who face email overload on a daily basis. Let’s interview them, observe them and above all listen to them. And then let’s design future email overload tools from an entirely human perspective, with no assumptions about how that technology should look, or behave. A different approach. A fundamentally new approach. A human-centered approach.