Sunday, 28 July 2013

The uses of email

The success and failure of email arises from its versatility. We use it for purposes that it's imperfectly designed for, but as it's "good enough" we continue to use it despite the inefficiency.

To design the post-email world it's important to understand what functions email currently covers. At a high level, here's what I think email covers:

  • Transmitting information (to one, or to many)
  • Assigning a task (which can include the provision of information via a reply)
  • Arranging meetings (physical, voice, video)

Within each of these broad categories, there are numerous subcategories. Commonly assigned (or requested) tasks include:

  • Reply with information
  • Review and provide sign-off/approval
  • Comment on or modify document (document collaboration)

Types of information transmission include:

  • Passing on news (information on what has happened)
  • Passing on plans (information on what is intended to happen)
  • Making a suggestion
  • Offering an opinion

There are some niche cases, which overlap with the three broad areas listed above:

  • Telling someone you're going to do something: i.e. assigning yourself a task, and communicating it some a group of people
  • Compound emails: e.g. assigning a task, and providing information in one email

Calendar and task management systems are pretty well advanced, although the integration of the latter with email is frequently limited. However, on the information provision side, much of the information that is to be transmitted should be stored in databases.

It's worth noting that there's a cultural issue to overcome around people assigning tasks to other people. Whilst asking politely for information is an email is culturally acceptable, raising a task for someone to provide information appears more demanding, and more too.

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