Email is crap: The past is yours, the future’s mine!

Human-Machine Interaction is one of those multi-disciplinary fields that tries to adapt things to the way people work. Whether that’s User Interfaces or physical knobs and levers or design metaphors, the goal is to make the thing more useful. When a command-line interface was the only way to make a desktop computer do useful things, the appeal was limited. Adding a graphical interface to the computer begged the question how do we structure things so people don’t need months of training to use it? Xerox PARC adopted a Desktop metaphor for the graphical environment. Things were structured like your office, with a desk, trashcan, filing cabinets. Email similarly is structured in a format that allowed people to use it without too much training, but it carries with it some legacy design decisions that benefited limitations of the earlier Internet age. Time to shift metaphors I’m afraid.

File this!
File this!

Considering the evolution of email and the Internet it’s a wonder we cling to it so tenaciously. The original Internet was slow, unreliable, and had a small number of actual users. Email was a messaging mechanism allowed communication to occur asynchronously over a slow unreliable network. And the mechanims used to transport it prior to the ever popular SMTP server was something called Unix to Unix Copy Protocol. Your messages to people would get copied over the network as files to another Unix computer. Eventually they would get routed to the mail spool on a machine your recipient had an account on. He could then read the message and reply to it. Kind of like telegrams back and forth. So what if you got a telegram with no subject line? Or a telegram with all kinds of tasks for different projects all wrapped up into a single message?

Dan Dube @ complains that Filing Cabinets which approximates the desktop computing metaphor are not good. The extra work required to make the Filing Cabinet work outweighs the benefit of the activity the email is helping take place.

Each email is a file, so each email needs an informative, relevant title.  Look in your inbox — I would guess there are almost no emails that fit that bill.

Nobody uses subject lines. I get blank subject lines from people. Or they put the vaguest subjects in the subject line.

Emails don’t happen in a vacuum, people reply to them, are added and subtracted from the distribution list, change the content, etc.  Yet we still treat each email as a singular file.

That’s the truth, especially for group projects, or worse committee projects where people come and go. You don’t know sometimes where a requirement or task ever came from because you don’t have the original text in an email from the person that proposed it. There’s no trail or flight data recorder for what transpired in that email message.

Emails don’t always categorize nicely.  If they fit in more than one “folder”, the filing cabinet metaphor will fail.

I couldn’t agree more. If you have a boss who starts using ‘bullet points’ in the email you know you will need to file that thing in more than one spot. I have a boss that does this often and it takes a few minutes to parse out the tasks that are expected to be accomplished. Once that’s done, which “project” do you file that email message into?

Emails are extraordinarily redundant, with the original message copied hundreds of times in long conversations.

Oh the insanity of quote all. And worse yet I think Outlook turns it on by default. Occasionally I will go back through that really long message and delete everything except my own contributions so the email is physically shorter in length and easier to read.

Files can be emailed, which immediately forks the original file and makes any further edits a synching problem.

This happens all the time rather than copy and paste the text of another file into the medium of the email message, the immediacy of ‘attaching’ just makes it too appealing. Someone is ‘dumping’ the task off on you with the minimum effort necessary, and that means they attach the file that has the exact same text they could have included in the email. Worse yet, sometimes those attachments are PDFs! Useless,useless,useless. Try keeping track of that mix of files.

All of these gripes apply to the file system of the computer, too.  Regular files (mp3, doc, html, etc) all have the same shortcomings.

Again it’s hard to associate files in a wide range of ways that make sense for a variety of projects. None of us are limited to one file type in all the projects we do. We might have pictures, audio, video, text, etc.

Now Dan mentions Google Waves. And I wrote a quick blurb about Google Waves about week after the Google demo in San Francisco. Waves is by design, very different from email. It’s not copying files from one server to another over an unreliable slow network. It is meant to give you realtime text based communication in whatever collaborative style you prefer. And it keeps a record of everything, so you can step back through a document at each version or stage of editing.

It’s kind of like chat too. You just start a connection with one other person, start inviting in participants as you go. And as part of the record of the ‘Wave’ or wavelength, you have buddy icons of all the participants. And everything is a reference to that original wave. So file it wherever you want, open it from wherever you want, it all points back to the original and will edit that original file for you AND all the participants. Because like I said, there is but one original, one index everyone’s client points to that same EXACT REFERENCE. That’s the genius of the wave format of communication and collaboration. Waves is a giant shared workspace, nobody really keeps private copies and edits them. They always edit the shared copy no matter what. And so the mailbox/cabinet metaphor is broken at last.

So if it’s not a filing cabinet we’re looking for, but Google Waves, what’s the metaphor? Instead of a filing cabinet in my office, I now use a big giant bulletin board that sits in the hallway in my building. And everyone posts there and edits there and nobody keeps copies of anything anywhere on the bulletin board. The original bulletin is there with all it’s edits recorded, all the participants in the document are recorded for all to see. Scary isn’t it?

Author: carpetbomberz

Technology news & commentary all-in-one!

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