Microsoft’s Research Revealed Email Problems Back in 2000

This must be the week for research and reflection, because I am once again writing about a piece of research that I have found that has some interesting findings.

This article is entitled “Supporting Email Flow“and it’s authored by Gina Danielle Venolia, Laura Dabbish, JJ Cadiz and Anoop Gupta.

It’s a little dated, as it was published back in 2001 by Microsoft Research, but it has some interesting findings that I believe are echoed by what I see today in the actions of professionals everywhere. The majority of the questions in the study were answered using a 5-point Likert scale where 1 = “strongly disagree” and 5 = strongly agree.”

Finding #1:   The median response to the statement, “When I’m at my computer and a message arrives, I immediately look at it” was 4 or “agree” (avg=3.7, sd=0.9).

Not too surprising, but I wonder if this number has changed because of the number of email messages that we receive each day in 2010.  I believe that that  the underlying habit has not changed, but it’s success as a tactic for handling email has been undermined.

Finding #2:   “When I get to work in the morning, the first thing I do is check my inbox” was 5 or “strongly agree” (avg=4.8, sd=0.4). The median response to “When I get back from a meeting, the first thing I do is check my inbox” was also 5 (avg=4.7, sd=0.6).

Finding #3:  6 of 10 interview participants used email messages as their to-do lists, and on the survey, the median response to “I keep messages as reminders for later action when I owe a response” was 4 or “agree” (avg=4.3, sd=0.7). People also kept messages that they needed read later (median=4, avg=4.1, sd=0.8) and messages for which they were expecting a response from someone else (median=4, avg=3.9,

Finding #4: “If a message needs action but I can’t do it right away, I move it to the Outlook Task list”. The median response was 2 or “disagree” (avg=2.4, sd=1.3).  When users were asked, “I can easily tell which messages I have kept as reminders,” the median response was 3 or “neutral” (avg=3.2, sd=1.3).

The fact that this was and is happening was not addressed by the researchers.  I was surprised at this, because it highlights the fact that Outlook was not being used as designed.  In other words, I surmise that the intended flow of activity in Outlook was that a user would convert an email into a Task, and add it to a list.  Obviously, this was not happening.

Some may argue that I go too far in supposing that the designers of Outlook’s User Interface (UI) had any use-process in mind, and that it’s up to the user to employ the tool in a way that makes sense for them.

I’m no expert in UI,  but I do know nonsense when I hear it.

It’s no accident that the majority of users gravitate towards Outlook’s Inbox in order to read their email first.  The program was designed as an email management tool, first and foremost, and its design encourages users to “do email” first.

The results show that this is exactly what happens in reality.  Those who know better, and instead spend time planning and scheduling their day before downloading email must create a novel habit for themselves that runs counter to Outlook’s design.

Given the fact that this research was undertaken and the results were made known to the public as far back as 2000, I have to ask… why, 10 years later, has nothing changed in the way that Outlook is designed?  Improved techniques for email processing such as the Zero Inbox as widely seen an antidotes to email overload, but Outlook’s design has done nothing to help, even when the data shows that a group of researchers in the bowels of Microsoft knew that the program’s design was failing in a critical, core function.

There are  some other interesting findings that would interest the historians of email, but I was intrigued by the following result which was included as a bit of a side-note.


This graph shows what happens once a user receives an email, in order of preference for each activity.  The most popular activity was “Leave in Inbox.”

What’s remarkable is that the article never once predicts what might happen in 2010 or 2020 when the volume of email messages increases, and the most popular strategy, leaving email in an Inbox, turns out to be  detrimental.  There are users who have tens of thousands of email messages in their Inbox, simply because they adopted a technique in 2000 that turned into a burden in 2010.

What an avoidable tragedy.