Sunday, July 24, 2011

Email Dysfunction – Information Overload

Dysfunctional email

How long did it take for automobiles to standardize somewhat their controls, the way you drive them? Although it was long before my time, Charles Duryea built a three-wheeled automobile in 1893. This was not the first automobile (in 1803 Richard Trevithick of England built and ran a steam-powered carriage, called the Puffing Devil).  Antique cars today are generally considered to be those 45 years old or older. Still, if you get into an antique auto you can easily figure out how to drive it. Email of one sort or another has been around nearly as long as the automobile, if you consider digital Morse Code telegraph messages. You could consider the first widespread use of email to be Unix mail in 1972. I remember using a similar Data General email system in the late 70s. You could argue that the adoption of email is far greater than the adoption of automobiles. So why is each version so different? Comcast email does not look or work the same way as Google Gmail by a long shot. Delete one message in a related group ("conversation") and you delete the whole group. Use the Microsoft Outlook client, and things are even more dissimilar. Download Gmail to Outlook and you get lots of surprises – "sent mail" appears in the Outlook inbox. Use the Gmail Outlook client and things are similar but differ in important details. Are these differences due to each vendor wanting to maintain a competitive advantage? Why this dysfunctionality?

And all that just deals with usability. There are other "oops" events. Email vendors losing email. Differing SPAM policies so you either don't get email or you find it –well after it is of any use. Come on guys and gals, take a hint from the automobile industry (or kitchen appliances or house paints or… any modern product you can think of). You don't need to read the owner's manual to drive away a rental car. After nearly 40 years, this communication medium should be easier and consistent to use, and far more dependable.

And then there's information overload

I get about 200 emails each day. Some are due to "subscriptions" I never initiated; some are spam; most are authentic and worth reviewing. Fearing I may want to use some press releases, I create a full-text searchable collection every six months of over 1,000. SharePoint in my day job has become – to use AIIM's expression—a digital landfill. Government Computer News in October of 2010 wrote an article "You want the data? You can't handle the data!" GCN quotes a joint Avanade-Accenture study of over 500 C-level executives. 62 percent said they are "frequently interrupted by incoming data." 56% feel overwhelmed. Yet in the same study, 61% said they want faster access to data. How about those 20,000 search results from every Google query (delivered in .1 seconds, no less)?

A work colleague bragged to me recently that she had over 850 LinkedIn connections. I asked her if she was joking, and she said "absolutely not." She was proud of this achievement, and I'm guessing soon she'll be bragging that she has hit the millennium mark. My RSS reader shows 50 or so articles I might be interested in.

I think we are all addicted to information, myself included. There is no way we can consume all this information, much less pick out every critical needle in the haystacks. Luddite solutions may be part of the answer. I recently disabled text messages from my cell phone. At a recent company meeting, we were asked to vote on an issue via our cell phones, and those of us who couldn't do that were asked –a joke—to walk the "hall of shame" to come up and use a paper ballot. It was surprising how many fellow-luddites made the walk.

As with any addiction, curing it or at least making it manageable is painful. Maybe one way to start is to "just say no" to some of these information channels. We can always say we didn't get the email.