Beyond simply mining the data in a single user’s in-box, e-mail could become more manageable, Brezina suggested, if clients added ways for users within an organization to share information with each other more easily. For example, many e-mails are sent to request contact information such as phone numbers. The messages may be redundant, since multiple people within an organization might request the same information. If there was a way to pool contact information, attachments, and other similar pieces of data, Brezina said, it could reduce the amount of e-mail being sent.
Sharing information stored in in-boxes is tricky, however, because people like the way e-mail allows them to control which of their contacts see what information, said Alexander Moore, cofounder of Baydin, a company that makes an Outlook plug-in that searches for files on a computer’s desktop and shared network drives relevant to the content of a piece of e-mail. Moore shares Brezina’s view that it’s important to find ways to share more data from in-boxes, but suggested that techniques borrowed from social sites like Facebook could encourage users to share when it’s appropriate for them to do so.
E-mail could have a “like” button, Moore suggested. That way, if one company employee sends out a helpful set of instructions, the recipient could signal the sender that the information should be reposted publicly.
One of the powerful things about sites like Twitter, Moore added, is that they become repositories of publicly searchable data. While people wouldn’t want their in-boxes to be publicly searchable, Moore envisions e-mail clients that could extract and summarize data from e-mail exchanges and store those items publicly. Searching the resulting database might provide clues, for example, to who in an organization was the last to deal with the copy machine repairman.
Enhancing the features around e-mail by mining it for social data and pulling in external information is a promising approach, Microsoft’s Cheng noted. But she warned that any such effort would come with thorny privacy concerns. For example, a corporation might feel justified storing data mined on its own employees, but what about frequently e-mailed contacts from other companies?
User interfaces are another tricky concern, she said, adding that “e-mail is attention-demanding. Getting the right information on screen is a really hard design problem.” And getting a design almost right isn’t good enough for an important application like e-mail. “It’s brutal to use an e-mail client that’s not completely functioning,” Cheng said.
Finally, she said, the whole purpose of making changes to e-mail is to improve productivity and collaboration, but these are hard things to measure: “How do you know if this stuff is actually helping, or if it’s just adding to the noise at work and making it worse?”