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Email triage, focusing on not important and learning to use tools effectively

I used to blog papers I read, but over last few months it wasn’t that much. Here is one from yesterday:

Neustaedter, C., Brush, A., and Smith, M., (2005) “Beyond “From” and “Received”: Exploring the Dynamics of Email Triage.” CHI 2005 Short Papers.

Abstract. Email triage is the process of going through unhandled email and deciding what to do with it. Email triage can quickly become a serious problem for users as the amount of unhandled email grows. We investigate the problem of email triage by presenting interview and survey results that articulate user needs for email triage. The results suggest the need for email user interfaces to provide additional socially salient information in order to bring important emails to the forefront.

Of course I didn’t know the word triage and I was surpised that to find out that it is “a process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment” (more details at Wikipedia).

The paper is 4 pages, so you can get an impression of the main findings byt yourself, but there are a couple of things that I find pretty much corresponding with the insights from interviews on information overload we did at work.

What we found most interesting was that the interview participants using the multi-pass strategy would routinely use a first pass to handle emails they consider to be not important or junk. This pass would involve finding emails they could quickly delete or get rid of.

We didn’t look at email handling directly, but it comes heavily while talking about information overload. When talking about their email handling strategies several people noted the same. I wonder why. I guess next to the fact that getting rid of not important stuff is easy, but probably also because endorphin release upon completing the task 🙂

But what I’ve also heard from our participants that sometimes cleaning and organising emails takes so much time that, although properly sorted, important emails do not get much time to be read or acted upon…

The second thing from the paper is one of the recurrent themes, not only in this interview round, but also in other studies on whatever technology for communication and knowledge sharing.

Regardless of the user type, we found that most people felt their strategy was pretty good, but realized there were likely other, more efficient strategies.

What I find out often that technology training people get are often stops at a level of functionality (“if you want to send email click this button”), while usually there is not much discussion about productivity, your own and others (“think before emailing – may be a colleague is next door and would actually enjoy a coffee break instead of one more message in a mailbox”). We are often taught how to use tools for what they designed, but not how to use them to make our life easier and more fun.

Anyway, what would be practical implications of it? Apart of reshaping existing technology trainings I’m thinking of ways to share personal effectiveness tricks and establishing shared communication practices that make life of everyone easier. Those probably could help, but then there are questions about starting the process:

  • moving out of your own comfort zone (“if it doesn’t break don’t touch it”)
  • finding ways to talk to others about practices which are usually hidden in our personal interactions with tools
  • getting convinced that there is a value in comparing personal effectiveness tricks (this is a big issue – it’s easy to say “do it like me”, but most likely answer is “it doesn’t fit because I organise my work differently”) and figuring out how to pick up something that could be useful in spite of differences

Of course, you can design better tools, but I’m not convinced it would help – many times it’s not about having a good instrument, but about knowing how to use it in a good way 🙂

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2005/06/23.html#a1593; comments are here.

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