Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Stop Organizing Your E-mail, Says Study

People who put incoming e-mails in folders are no better at finding them than those who simply use search.

  • May 20, 2011

If you’re the type to meticulously file your emails in various folders in your client, stop, says a new study from IBM Research. By analyzing 345 users’ 85,000 episodes of digging through old emails in search of the one they needed, researchers discovered that those who did no email organizing at all found them faster than those who filed them in folders.

Friends don’t let friends use folders, says IBM Research

By using search, the non-organizers were able to find the email they needed just as easily as filers. They also didn’t have to spend any time filing email in folders, putting them ahead overall.

Other results from the study (pdf) pointed to ways in which existing email clients might be improved. For example, scrolling was a big part of how users found emails, even after they searched for them, yet scrolling isn’t supported by gmail, which uses pagination instead.

The study also suggested that if you want to keep your (and others’) email inboxes tidy, you should do everything you can to keep your conversations in existing threads. It’s an automatic mechanism for grouping a conversation, after all.

The researchers involved found threading so useful that they even suggested a way it could be improved, which they call “superthreading.”

How might we impose higher-level intrinsic organization on email? One possibility is to re-organize the inbox according to ‘semantic topics’. One could use clustering techniques from machine learning to organize the inbox into ‘superthreads’ by combining multiple threads with overlapping topics, using techniques similar to [8].

Superthreading would automatically group every conversation you had with a colleague about a particular project, no matter how many exchanges it was spread across.

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