1999 Email Research is Still Timely and Relevant

As I dug through academic papers on the topic of time management over the past few days, I came across a journal article that was simply amazing in its prescience.  It was written by Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner of Lotus Development Corp (now part of IBM.) It was published in 1996, and they also happen to be the authors who coined the term “email overload.”

In their paper entitled “Email overload: exploring personal information management of email” they quite rightly take note of the fact that professionals around the world are using email Inboxes to manage what their tasks: what we at 2Time call “time demands.”  They start off the article with a major assertion in their Abstract:

Email is one of the most successful computer applications yet
devised. Our empirical data show however, that although email was originally designed as a communications application, it is now being used for additional functions, that it was not designed for, such as task management and  personal archiving . We call this  email overload. We demonstrate that email overload creates problems for personal information management: users often have cluttered inboxes containing hundreds of messages, including outstanding tasks, partially read documents and conversational threads.  Furthermore, user attempts to rationalise their inboxes by filing are often unsuccessful, with the consequence that important messages get overlooked, or “lost” in archives. We explain how  email overloading arises and propose technical solutions to the problem.

What is amazing to me is not the point they are making, as it’s one that’s been echoed here at 2Time many times, especially in my posts suggesting ways to improve Outlook.  Instead, what’s startling is that no-one seems to have paid any attention.

Not only have Outlook and other email management programmes failed to offer anything new, Gmail didn’t even exist at the time this article was written, and it committed the same design mistake by not recognizing that existing email management software isn’t fashioned around its most common use — task and time management.

As I have mentioned before, there is lots of room for someone to create a breakthrough software product that changes a users relationship to to the tasks that come at them each day — many of which come at them via email.

This article certainly points solidly in that direction, as does my own research and intuition.  let’s see who gets there first!