Empowering everyone to read it all

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My first real introduction to email was a local BBS run be a local users group in Connecticut ~1990. In 1994, I went off to college and was, excitedly, one of less than a dozen PC users on a Mac dominated campus – email was a given and I remember being able to reach out to friends who were now scattered at other institutions. By ~1999, email was no longer my favorite medium.

My once eager relationship with my mail reader is no longer – the technology supporting email has stalled. The software community has failed to solve the real problems of information overload and left it to the users to develop information management skills – the process of scanning, deleting, staring, sorting, archiving, categorizing, building filters, workflows and, of course, reading. We have made huge improvements on reducing malware, viruses and spam before the email even reaches the In Box. However, between email, news and the million other things that suddenly have content syndication, current tooling fails to deliver necessary increases in productivity.

In November 2005 issue of Communications of the ACM, Business Email: The Killer Impact says there is no problem, with only 2% of people saying it is prohibitive to their job. I would argue that people tend not to know how productive they can be. The article is worth the read, it is a great survey of how people use and perceive email.

IBM has plenty of know how and research in the space. Contrary to popular belief, Lotus Notes is actually not an email client, but a platform on which database driven applications can be developed, it just so happens that world class email, calendaring and other collaborative tools have been built upon it. Lotus Notes email has the usual email management accoutrements (e.g. folders, filters, search etc.) and tons of other things that most clients lack. For example, wearing my developer hat, I can easily hack up my In Box view to categorize emails based on if it was sent only TO me, to me but CCing others, or if my email address was in the CC. But all of this rich customization and workflow management does not solve the real problem. At the end of the day I am modifying a client so I can filter more efficiently.

Projects like Remail (reinventing email) identified some core challenges and proposed some ideas to help induce a course correction. So, there is no lack of thinking in this space – IBM is not alone.

Google’s release of GMail highlighted at least three really important design points. First, highly interactive, simple, web applications should be what people strive for. Second, stop deleting and managing mail, just save and search. Third, and most pertinent to this line of thinking, collapse the In Box, collapse the conversation. GMail uses a "stack of cards" approach to viewing a threaded discussion, showing the most recent email only with easy access to each email that came before. In the In Box view conversations are displayed as one entry instead of individual back and forth transactions in a date/time sorted view. There is something delightful about it – different from the threaded view in Lotus Notes which has never done much for me. The tool is prescribing a best practice of helping me filter.

Google recently offered a feed reader, Google Reader, which is actually very nice. Simple, direct and lets a user scan their news quickly. It lacks any real filtering. I have to believe they will introduce some of text analytics and theme clustering aptly found in their Google News offering.

Assuming the rate and volume of information will continue to increase, the industry really needs to change the “users will learn to filter” approach. Successful people learn and build strategies to thrive in the information loaded world, but why should they have to? More importantly, instead of approaching the problem with our Darwin hat, why not enable any user, especially users who lack computer savvy and information triaging strategies, to consume thousands more new pieces of information every day. The Internet allows everyone with a PC and a network connection the ability to author. The challenge is to empower everyone with the ability to read it all.