Email Has Got Some Serious Issues!

We all have at least one email account, right! We all have mobile email apps handy at all times too. If this is so, then why are we not using email as the core communication tool? Why are people declaring email bankruptcy and using many other products to supplement the email experience?

Many products like Inbox from Google, Wunderlist (acquired by Microsoft), Quip (acquired by Salesforce), Asana, Trello and others cross the borders of collaboration, task management and email/messaging. All of these products tried to improve our relationship with Email. Why?

Slack is the most visible success of a collaboration/messaging solution that has done a good job of reducing internal email volume for enterprises. It’s already worth $4 billion.

Slack did a lot of things right but still, all of us are still using email. Actually, I think our communication stress levels are even higher than before. Slack is now just another messaging channel to worry about.

The rise of mobile introduced a lot more tools for synchronous messaging. That did not help reduce my email problems. Like Slack, it added more channels to keep track of.

Too much messaging cognitive overload at this point. Having more tools is not helping me avoid email, its causing more of it. Here is my stab at identifying the underlying problems that I have with email and how they impact us:

1) Inconsistent user expectations and behaviors

Timing expectations

Email users are split in their time expectations around email into two main groups.

The first group of users have a heightened sense of urgency associated with their emails. They expect almost immediate replies from their email recipients as if they were making a phone call or sending a WhatsApp or an Instant Messenger chat.

These users are often disappointed when replies to their emails are not received within a few hours of sending them.

The second group of users don’t associate emails with timely communication. These users are OK with leaving unopened emails in their inboxes for hours, days, or even weeks before they get to them.

This variation arises from treating email as a synchronous (group 1) or asynchronous messaging protocol (group 2).

Utility and Semantics

Many knowledge workers use email as a list of tasks and things that need to be accomplished. Traditionally, email started to allow users to place files on the recipient's’ hard drive to deliver a message without caring much about the semantics of the message itself.

Email today does not differentiate between a super urgent email from the user’s spouse and a silly cat video comment reply on YouTube or Facebook.

Since the message content and communication protocol does not focus on the importance and urgency aspects of the message, it forces the recipient to do mail triage on all incoming emails.

2) Sender control and lack of user status

The sender has all the control on setting critical parameters of the email. The recipient has no say on when a message is delivered or how a message is classified before it gets into their inbox.

Email is just a messaging protocol. It has no concept of a user being busy, traveling, sick or unavailable for any other reason.

3) Standards are not evolving

SMTP and other standards are not evolving to support more user-friendly features. On top of that email providers offer a fragmented experience that only looks good on a subset of clients.

Email protocols contain fields that could be utilized to deliver urgency/importance indicators. However, unless all clients and servers standardize on those fields, it won’t make sense for one client to utilize such fields.

Standards are also not keeping up with the significant increase of email volume and the various new use cases for email usage (ex. 2nd factor authentication, account confirmation, password recovery, social updates, digests, receipts…etc).

4) Email Volume

Many knowledge workers and consumers are struggling with the sheer volume of email they get everyday. I have seen several users declare email bankruptcy.

Here is an email bankruptcy auto-reply message from one of my professors at Stanford:

Unfortunately, I only see about half of the 300–400 emails I get every day.
If I have not replied to you within 48 hours, chances are that your email is lost in my inbox. The best way to reach me is to call or SMS my cell: +1 XXX XXX XXXX. If you have sent an email with attachments, to be sure I see it, SMS my cell your name and the date you sent the email. Ex: John Doe.11.11.11.

Many email users spend more time triaging messages than doing actual productive work. While I was at Google, I had over 200 filters to auto archive and triage my email. Despite all these filters, I still spent a lot of time triaging and archiving messages.

5) Outdated and duplicate content

Since email is an asynchronous communication protocol, files or messages sent by email can quickly go out of date. The most typical scenario is file attachments; where collaborators on the same file keep sending newer versions of the same file back and forth. The files shared can quickly go out of sync.

File sharing and collaboration systems like DropBox, Box and Google Drive help a lot with this problem. However, the primary notification tool for file sharing and collaboration is still email.

Comments and suggested edits on collaborative files as still being communicated by email. Given the dynamic nature of these files and the frequent changes that it goes through, one change or comment that is sent now may not be valid 10 minutes later.

6) Tracking

There is no way to keep track of the status of an email thread. When you send a request to someone by email, you have no idea what will happen. It goes to a void that you hope will be filled within the time frame that you need.

This is why a number of Chrome extensions add reminders and status tracking to email threads (check Mixmax, Boomerang, and Streak).

Receipt notifications don’t add a lot of value and I view it as an invasion of my privacy so I always decline to confirm receipt of an email. The fact that someone read your email doesn’t mean they agree to do what you are asking from them.

7) No support for business workflows

Businesses rely heavily on email for most of their communication but the actual work is not done within the email client itself. Lawyers work on contracts, software engineers work on integrated development environments (IDEs) and code files.

Marketers on the other hand, work on advertising, web campaigns and conferences to promote their products, support staff communicate with customers through ticketing systems.

Then we come to sales who uses the customer relationship management (CRM) software to track and accomplish their work.

All of these tools involve working with email but are outside of the mail client experience causing a lot of context switching.

8) Security and Privacy issues

Spam, malware, worms, phishing attacks and viruses. SMTP does not integrate security out of the box and therefore, there is a huge industry around security and identity authentication of emails.

Manipulating message headers in SMTP is incredibly easy for spammers and phishing attackers.

Another common malicious behavior is called “email bombing,” where a malicious attacker sends large volumes of messages to a target address causing the inbox to become unusable and may even crash the mail server of the provider.

Privacy of emails has become a big issue for many users. Email messages are not required to be encrypted in SMTP and the message has to go through many intermediate systems before it reaches its final destination.

This makes it easy for others to intercept and read messages at a very low cost. Even with encrypted and secure emails, email providers are required to present user data to government entities if asked.

To overcome privacy concerns, several countries require cloud providers to have their citizen’s data hosted in that country. That way, they can limit access to their user data (we call that data location in enterprise contexts).

9) Mobile email experience is still lacking

Despite the tremendous increase in mobile email access, the current email experience on mobile devices is sub-optimal to say the least. Firing off a one-line emails is easy. However, writing a well-researched email with the proper links and pointers for more information almost always requires a laptop, desktop or a web-mail client.

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