Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chained To The Mailpost

 When I was a young developer learning his trade, I would look forward to receiving email on my official account. Email that shared important information, made me feel important. Email that asked for opinions, made me feel my opinions matter. Email that asked for help, made me feel I have an opportunity to be altruistic. That was when I used to get 10 emails a day.

Now things are different. I have been shouldered with responsibilities beyond just writing software. Email is now a massive sink-hole where your workday can go to die if you let it. Somehow every update about everything is now relevant because ... oh, you lead a team, and you never know what information might be useful to you.

Hook, line and sinker

"Some systems and services in Antarctica will be down this weekend". Why the hell would I care?

"Announcing the launch of a spanking new version of that product you never heard of". Whatever happened to

"Upgrade your mail-client now. Please do this before 18 September." But, it's only 18 May today.

"I am desperate. I need help finding how to write an asynchronous controller. Any examples?" Wow, you actually decided to email everyone on the team.

"Here's an idea I decided to dream up in my sleep last night. Let's discuss this over an email thread. It's only 4000 characters long." Sparks fly, and then everyone starts reply-all-ing. My mailbox just became someone else's open forum.

"I will be WFH today. My dog pissed into the garden hose." Please cc your neighbours as well, just to be certain. They ought to know there's a hose-desecrating mutt around. And while you're at it, please tell us whether you plan to flush the garden hose clean, or flush it down the garbage chute.

How does one sort through this mess without actually having to put some effort into the actual sorting of the mess?

The only thing a sender can do today is mark an email "Priority" or "Low Priority". But if you only look at Priority email, soon enough, people will figure you out and every email in your Inbox will flash a "!".

If you want my attention, show me you really want it

The Inbox needs to be turned on its head. It should not be trivial to just grab someone's eyeballs. Perhaps we made email too straightforward. Enough for someone to start feeling it is their personal radio station. 

I'm not here, in my Inbox, to entertain myself, but to see if someone is trying to tell me something I should know, or if someone needs me to go do something. If you did not put in adequate effort ensuring your email is designed to help me decide how to prioritize it, you don't deserve my time.

We need the ability to mark every email with a "sell by" date. If you read this after 18 September, it's too late. The closer the expiry date, the more likely I am to prioritize reading and acting on it.

We need the ability to tag each email. "Vital Information", "Immediate Action Required", "To Do", "Help", "Update", "Discussion" and of course, who could forget "WFH"? Better still, tag this separately for recipients who are simply copied because they "Need To Know".

A grown-up's mail client

Now, dear email client, give me the ability to filter by tags. Show an expiry date in the email summary, and let me order by it. Force me to tag each outgoing email, and encourage me to separately tag the ones on CC.

Hopefully when we do that, Discussions go where they ought to - online forums. And Updates go where they ought to - online announcement boards. WFHs disappear because people realize everyone has a delete filter for them, or reach only those who really "Need To Know".

Or better still, we figure out how to bring all the social features found in modern corporate social media to our mail client. Or maybe take our email to a more social platform. Now all those discussion threads, announcements, personal and team-wide To-Do lists, calendars, are right next to your other "Need To Know" and "Vital Information" email. Next to, not intermixed.

It's time to get the excitement back into working with email. Official email need not be a chore. It's OK to let a "Ding. You have mail!" be a heart-fluttering moment.

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