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Fixing E-Mail

Experts at Defrag believe e-mail can benefit from lessons learned on the social Web.

Wading through e-mail is one of the primary woes of office workers everywhere. Despite many theories on how workers should process their incoming messages, most people still seem to feel buried in the flood. This week at Defrag 2009, a technology conference in Denver focused on tools and technologies for handling online data, experts suggested that the best strategies for fixing e-mail might rely on information and strategies drawn from social Web technologies.

“E-mail is kind of this giant, endless task list, and you’re really the slave to a lot of stuff that comes to you,” said Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s future social experiences labs. She believes that incoming messages need to be organized and sorted in a more automated fashion.

Particularly within a corporation, Cheng noted, there’s a lot of data that could be used to process e-mail more intelligently. Corporations have access to instant messages, desktop searches, and e-mail messages, on top of external information from social networks such as LinkedIn or Twitter. That constellation of information could be mined to organize e-mail within an in-box around certain projects, or certain groups of contacts.

Just as importantly, she added, it could be used to deemphasize less important e-mail. Cheng said her group found that about 70 percent of the e-mail people receive is information they don’t actually need to read, though many like to have it on file. Her group built a prototype that created a different section of the in-box for this type of e-mail and extracted a daily summary of it that could be displayed to the user.

E-mail needs to be put in a lot more context, echoed Michael Cerda, founding CEO of cc:Betty, a system designed to help organize group discussions. “Let’s wake up the data,” he said. “Let’s bring it to life. If there’s a place, give it an address.”

Services do exist that attempt to treat e-mail more intelligently. Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, for example, extracts mentions of dates and times from e-mails and offers to move them to a calendar. Xobni, a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, provides statistics and social data on the people with whom a user exchanges e-mails.

But even Xobni co-founder Matt Brezina believes that more can be done to put e-mail in context. “We’ve just done the basics,” he said. Adding location information to e-mail could be particularly powerful, he said. Clients could, for example, extract information posted on social networks and use that to display where a contact is currently located. This could help facilitate common tasks such as scheduling meetings with people from different companies.

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?”

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