Why GMail Priority Inbox Won’t Work

It seemed like good news at first — GMail has come out with a new way of helping its users to manage their information overload using a handy innovation called Google Priority Inbox.  Here’s what the GMail page describing the service has to say:

Get through your email faster

Email is great, except when there’s too much of it. Priority Inbox automatically identifies your important email and separates it out from everything else, so you can focus on what really matters.

It sounds impressive.

According to the Nick Bilton over at the New York Times, he found that it “definitely eased the pain.”  (How it did so was not detailed.)

If these claims were true, we’d be pretty lucky, because the volume of messages that the average corporate user receives averaged almost 150 per day in early 2010, and many people now get a lot more than 150 emails, text messages, Facebook messages and tweets.  Many are complaining that they they get too many message, and that they need help.

The number of late or un-returned emails testifies to the fact that users are unhappy with their email inboxes, and have complained for years that the problem must be that they get too much of it.

This new tool promises to fix that problem.

Using a new algorithm, GMail will identify which mails are more important than others and tag and categorize them in a way that allows a user to process them first.

That’s it.

I have no problem with Google’s algorithm, which I’m sure will work fine, and get better over time as the algorithm learns one’s preferences.

The problem I have is that this will do nothing to reduce email overload.  It also won’t help anyone to “get through their email faster.”

It’s not the fault of Priority Inbox, and what it’s designed to do.  It will certainly add some convenience that’s kinda nice, as all the urgent-looking email presents itself at the top of the Inbox in its own category.  I could imagine that some users will even choose to forward that high priority email to Outlook or their Blackberry so that they can process them immediately.

Certainly, important email that appears as a higher priority will receive a quicker response.

The problem lies in the rest of the email that is sitting in the Inbox — the “low” priority stuff.  The “Everything Else” that Google says is below the line in the graphic from the video. What exactly should be done with all that other email?  After quickly dispensing with those high priority items, what’s next?

The burden of low priority messages

In the beginning, ,ost users won’t trust GMail Priority Inbox to properly sort their email into high and low priority items perfectly, so the service will be of little use to them.  They’ll be forced to glance at every piece of email at least once in order to make sure that they aren’t missing something important. That’s what they do now — triage — in order to focus on the highest priority items first.

As the program gets better, (or even perfect,) they may decide that it’s so trustworthy that they don’t need to look at their low priority items at all when they are short on time.  After all, isn’t that the purpose of the program?  It encourages a new habit of working on the high priority items immediately, and punting all other messages until later… when the user has more time.

You may guess what happens next.

More time” is one of those things that has a nasty way of never coming along.  (Or maybe we just have a habit of filling up “more time” with more stuff!)  In either case, the low priority email does what is often does — it up piles in our Inbox.

As it does so over time, it creates a psychic burden as the mind starts to wonder to itself… “What’s in that pile of low priority email?  Is there something that might get me in big trouble because a low priority has become a high one due to the passage of time, or my lack of response?”

The only way to know this is to process each piece of email.  The single method that works is to deal with the time demand and/or information embedded in each and every message in a way that allows it to be removed from the Inbox entirely.  This can be done in GMail by properly tagging it so that the essential time demand or information is embedded safely in other locations in the user’s time management or filing system.

In other words, each message that is received requires a certain amount of time to deal with it, and there is no avoiding the fact that putting that time off over and over again, leads to an overburdened Inbox that people find stressful.

Unfortunately, Google Priority Inbox is actually making it easier for a user to put off processing the low priority email.  Each day, as the number of unread low priority emails increases, stress increases.  The sense of information overload expands.  Overwhelm deepens.

Google Priority Inbox will actually do the opposite of what it’s intended to do because the problem it’s trying to solve does not lie in the software that GMail or Outlook has created.  Instead, it lies in our habits.

It appears that Google does not realize that by attempting to get into the time-saving business, it is now working with people’s habits, and that the innovations that lie in Priority Inbox will encourage bad habits rather than good ones by giving them a good reason to ignore low priority messages, until they become a mountain that cannot be ignored.

Complex time management problems don’t lend themselves to simple software solutions.

While I admire this attempt, it won’t work.

P.S. I do have some quick ideas of how Google could reshape GMail so that it actually promotes the right habits, such as the Zero Inbox. I’ll summarize them in a new post.