After taking a short break in order to release SpeedFiler for Outlook, I’m back. For a totally new product, with zero marketing effort so far, it’s been much more successful than I originally expected, and things are progressing nicely.
I am now concentrating on future products that will help alleviate a wider range of email overload problems for more people. One of my basic guiding principles is simplicity. Even though I love technology, I am always attracted to a simple solution rather than a sexy hi-tech one. In this context, simple means easy for the end-user to grasp and use and also (but not always) cheap to develop and maintain. I’ve often found that if you attack a problem head-on, the solution you devise will tend to be much more complex and less effective than if you take the take the time to understand the root causes and contributing factors, and address each of these instead. They are often quite far removed from the observable symptoms, and usually much simpler to fix.
Microsoft and others are working on solutions to email overload (e.g. SNARF, ClearContext). These solutions use complex algorithms to analyze our accumulated email and watch how each of us interacts with the rest of the world. The aim is to help us handle our incoming email more efficiently, by highlighting what they guess is important to us. They are using some innovative ideas and cool technology, but I still view this approach as a brute-force attempt to alleviate email overload.
One problem with this technological approach is that we humans are most definitely not consistent and predictable. Tools that learn from yesterday’s actions and attempt to guess the correct priorities to assign to tomorrow’s email will only be able to get it right for some of the people, some of the time. Predicting our future behavior is not as easy as solving a mathematical equation, especially if using convenient approximations for inconvenient properties (“consider a spherical cow”). Each of our individual equations are extremely different, with different variables, and any approximations to the way humans think will tend to have a butterfly effect on the resulting answer.
What about email processing rules? Most people find it hard to formally describe the decision-making process they go through when deciding how to handle a piece of email, let alone translate this into the tens of rules it would take to do it automatically (if this is even possible). Let’s not ignore the fact that such a set of rules would have to be continually tweaked as our work changes from week to week, if not from day to day. Today’s notion of email rules just does not match the dynamic way we think and make decisions.
At the end of the day, much of the stress we experience due to email overload is attributable to our lack of training and discipline in handling our email. Although tools alone cannot eliminate the problem, there is plenty of room for tools that help us make better decisions and gently steer us towards a more efficient way of communicating.
In the coming months, I’ll be focusing on solving some of the root causes of email overload.