Blog Post

Five Ways to Improve Email

On Friday, Sept 26 (tomorrow)  I'll be on NPR's "To the Point" with Benjamin Gottlieb talking with Matt Richtel (A Deadly Wandering) and David Greenfield (Director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction) about distraction.  I'm downloading Matt's new book on the terrible tragedy of the two scientists who were killed in Utah by a young man texting while driving and how that is a metaphor and emblem for the technology distractions of our era.  


Per usual, I come in on the "techno-pragmatist" side of this issue: "Sure, technology is distracting.  LIFE is distracting.  So what are we going to do about it? How are we going to change education to help students of today deal more successfully with these challenges and take advantages of these opportunities?  Technology is going to go away so how can we (a) make sure the technology is better and has a much more human HCI (Human Computer Interface)?  and (b) how can we have a range of digital literacies that help equip us for the world we live in now?"  Yep, that's a techno-pragmatist . . . and an education activist.   I tend to think a lot of the obsession with "distraction" is distracting us from the roll-up-your-sleeves hard work of institutional transformation.  We have a lot of apparatus designed for the Industrial Age that doesn't serve us well at all right now.


I don't believe in handwringing about technology.  I believe in digital literacy as a road to digital activism.  I don't care much for hand wringing about some golden age of the undistracted past.  I want to change things to make a better future.


Period.  Full stop.


That said, when Benjamin Gottlieb asked me about a technology I thought was most needing changing I said email and recalled, a few years ago, an assignment I gave my students in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," a course I teach that is equal parts cognitive neuroscience, digital literacy/activism, engineering, and technology history (I don't believe you can understand "now" unless you realize how we got here).   My assignment to my students was to work in interdisciplinary project teams and come up with a better system of email.   Their number one solution (voted #1 by the class):  ignore it.  It's a stupid, time wasting form so just don't bother with it.


Well, welcome to the world.  You can't ignore it in the workplace.  So here are the ways they came up with to solve it.  Developers out there:  Listen up!  Please!


1. Help to make the sender more responsible for writing in a more convenient format.   (Right now all the burden of bad email falls on the receiver.  Make the sender more responsible.  It'll cut down the amount and the length and the efficiency.)

   Before I file this blog post, this Drupal powered system forces me to choose from a list of pre-selected tags and then I have the option of adding some of my own.  I cannot publish this without doing it.   Email could have the same requirement.

    Before I hit "send" I could have to answer questions:   does this need an answer?  by what date?  what is its level of importance?   All that information ccould be coded in the subject line.


2.  Make receivers rate senders.

For #1 to be effective, receivers need to rate, like on Yelp, maybe with stars, whether  the sender did a good job with the answers to the questions.  If a sender has an inflated idea of her or his importance, and says dumb things are "urgent," give them low credibility stars.  Future readers will see that "implausibility rating" when they receive an email from the person.  The person will work to improve his or her score.  Reputation systems work.


3.  Make the sender choose the format--but create text boxes to make this easier for everyone.

Say I check a format "questions and answers."   I should write my question in a 200-word text box.  If I need more space, I should have to do something.  Maybe "click here and type in why you need an additional text box to type a longer question."   Something not too hard, but annoying enough to reward pithiness.   The receiver should receive the short question with a text box right beneath it,  for a short answer, right there, with a longer available under the same conditions.  Visible, easy, restricted, pointed.   If you don't answer a question you have been asked, it doesn't send.  If you don't have an answer, you can write "TBD" or "Later."  But you cannot return it without someone addressing each (short) question asked in a (short) responsible way.


4.   Senders need to choose respondents.  Always.            

Get rid of the "reply all" button.  For any message with multiple addressees, the receiver should have to go through and click on each person who receives the response. 


5.  Embed url's for long informational messages

Make it very easy to send people out of the email--but make it clear you are losing people and may not get them back.  It's a choice.  The sender should make it.


Bonus:    Offer email writers templates for good emails--the way you do with eVites.   It's amazing how many things can be "templated" where you simply fill in information.  This is how you make conventions.  Conventions are great because you know them, you recognize them, you skip over them unless you need the information embedded in them. 


All of these address the current major problem of email:  we have no conventions for it.   Is it a postcard or a business letter, a voice mail, a text, a contract?   A friend once said we send emails as if they are quick notes and read them as if they are legal documents---and everyone gets mad.   Old fashioned business letters had lots of conventions (date on line 15, etc) and you could skip over those.  No one knows how to skip.


Do I "hate technology"?   Yes and no.  I hated VCR's.  I think dish washers are pretty wasteful and silly.  I despise email and I write and receive a lot of it (NB:  I am an offender!  I treat email like business correspondence and write too long).   So, someone, out there:  help me!  Save me from myself!  Please invent a better email system.  Please.  Please.





I would like to add my two cents to the $100 dollars of very insightful and interesting points that have been said:

  1. Embedding answers into a sender's email.    Make sure to mention that your anwers are embedded if you choose to anwer them that way. Once I had replied to an e-mail without realizing that my questions were answered but they were embedded.
  2. Trimming older messages. Unless keeping older messages is of legal or business importance, trim the older messages in replies.

I LOVE this post, and just shared it with my students (#wsp101 on Twitter), who are thinking about how learning is changing in the Web 2.0 era. In the class, I keep emailing them updates, so I am definitely the worst offender!

To your excellent list, and the suggestions above, I'd add a default "run spell-checker before sending" to the business email templates, and not to the templates for informal messages.

Despite spell checkers' many evils, it is a default way of reminding senders to pay attention to conventions for different types of audiences.





Do we have conventions for social media? I found a blog from Lucy Marcus who suggested the following:

  1. "Learn the rules of the road" - each media platform has its own language and  rules
  2. Read it before you send it
  3. Be authentic
  4. Be "sender" and "receiver" - listening to others is as important as sending your own messages