Sunday, March 23, 2008

How to escape email tsunamis

Mike Arrington at TechCrunch is crying like a baby Scoble, as he faces upwards of 2400 unread emails.

How did we get here?  And how to get out of this mess?

There are two aspects here: human psychology and technology.  Email was designed with the wrong metaphor in mind:  email was designed as a way to send letters.  But the cost of sitting down and writing a letter and sending it through the post office was way higher than writing up an email and pressing send.  

The right metaphor for email is workflow.  And instead of one inbox, each of us should have something like 15 different inboxes, which should help, and show to others, our workflow (and how much we are behind).

How long does it take to read and handle 2400 emails? All eternity, of course. Looks like we've finally found a reason to be immortal, after all.  

But how long would it take to fill up 15 spots for a job, given 2400 applications?  About three to five hours, most likely.  As soon as you take a look at the applications, psychologically, you know what you don't want, so that speeds up the process enormously.  You are on job applicant reviewing mode, and that focus your attention and effort.  It is an entirely different thing than reading and replying to email.

Mike says there's a real opportunity for entrepreneurs out there; and here's my reply.  Here’s what you’re looking for: 90% of anyone’s inbox can be classified into 5, 10 or 20 different issues. For instance, someone might:

(i) want an interview with you
(ii) want to discuss a “serious” issue in a published post in TC
(iii) want you to know about their “hot” startup
(iv) want to invite you to speak/participate at an “key” event

…and on and on it goes. Your decisions come down to the evaluation of what “serious” really is, or how “hot” the startup is, etcetera.

REAL friends might be sending out the stupid youtube links and photos and such, but most people have these categories. Which the user can determine, and create forms for. 

So, I go into gmail and type Mike’s address. Gmail puts me on hold: “gathering Mike's workflow requests for you”. Then a list of, say, 15 items like the above comes up. Then if I want to “invite to speak/participate in an event”, I fill out a form with the fields you have defined. If I still want to send an email, then I do it knowing that I’ll be breaking your workflow and you may never reply/read.

Whenever you have the time, you can review all such requests. And software could even rank the requests based on your own settings.  If a field in the form is amount, it is quite probably important.

This would improve workflow tremendously. Most of the time we would be on “review of interview request’s mode”, or “review of employee travel request mode”, or “review of relevant hilarious stuff not on Digg”, or review of something else mode.

Strict workflow categories, and user-designed forms, might even reduce spam, as spammers would have to target an individual's form, instead of the free-for-all that is email. 

Finally, users could also define post-mortem actions on forms.  For example, if one of your forms is "employee travel request", when you review those, that could even generate another form for your boss, or for the accountant. 

Please god Google, go build it; then make it a web standard. 

I really need it.


J.A. said...

Not bad. Not bad at all. I like that idea. It's the way email should in the year 2010 (hopefully). I saw Arrington's email rant, and filtered through some of the comments - and discovered yours. Let's see how many people will take your idea and formulate a new, advertisement-rich, Google infused start-up. It's coming...
- j. arterberry