Despite the advances the Internet has made over the years, email has remained stubbornly 1.0. Messages arrive with unreliable speed at random intervals, all demanding attention at once. It’s a chore sorting the important messages from the rest. Inboxes, designed to mimic old filing systems, become overwhelming if ignored for any stretch of time. Indeed, email is increasingly identified as a productivity drain. It now chews up 28 percent of the week for high-skill knowledge workers, according to a July 2012 study by the McKinsey Global Institute. As Jenna Wortham wrote in The New York Times last weekend, email has become a “virtual nightmare.”
Email is ripe for revolution. One of the newer approaches comes from the mobile app Mailbox, which is being rolled out on an invitation-only basis. It allows for quick sorting of important and unimportant emails, along with the ability to “snooze” messages so they appear at a later time. .Mail, an app in development, is designed around “Actionsteps” that help users prioritize e-mails requiring attention. Mailer, also in development, sorts emails by sender, making prioritization easier. Gander.io allows users to drag and drop mail into various sections (such as Read, Skim, Respond), and Boomerang can schedule emails to be sent at a later time and resurfaces emails that don’t get a reply.
Some new services employ novel visual interfaces to help users organize messages. AOL’s Alto email product sorts messages into easy-to-view stacks, enabling users to go through less important emails at their leisure; searches and attachments are displayed in a Pinterest-like board to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. ZigMail takes a similar approach, mining accounts for “transactional emails” and sorting them into tiled categories (like receipts or deals).
Email change may end up coming as much from the systems as from the people using them. Some users are adopting strategies for limiting time spent on email, such as pledging to keep messages to three lines and asking recipients to do likewise. As Wortham notes in the Times, etiquette and expectations still need to be established for email, just as a telephone etiquette evolved over years of usage.
Image credit: Mailbox