Thursday, October 26, 2006

Information in E-Mail

I was thinking recently about information stored in e-mail. We all have large inboxes. We keep groups of messages around for different reasons: from legal reasons, receipts, information we need to keep but not refer to often, important documents, etc. The problem is how easy is it for people to find information in their e-mail? One of the problems is storage but the more interesting problem is findability of information.

The first problem has been solved. Storage of e-mail, certainly through the online [web-based] players has made it possible to easily store all your e-mail online. In the last year we have seen all the major players, lead by Google increase their customer’s storage space up to on average of 2GB/user. Yahoo and Microsoft quickly followed suit. This has allowed people to keep all their e-mail online and with a indexing engine such as Google one can easily search across all their e-mail.

The main problem with e-mail now becomes a question of finding information. We can certainly search for text quicker then ever before but finding a keyword or phrase is not the same as finding a piece of information. We’ve all sent e-mail where we have asked a few questions and later got back a response where only a subset were answered. So our day-to-day scenario is sending out e-mail asking questions, reading a response, memorising what we consider is the ‘key’ ideas and filing the e-mail (worse-case by leaving it in the inbox). The problem occurs when 6 months down the road you’ve forgotten some of those things you, “memorised” and now need to find that information. Though some systems allow for the categorisation of groups of messages (e.g.: by creating folders or labels) this is too primitive a system. This is a manual system and these tools exist in the real-world [outside of e-mail] and have failed to organise our personal/professional information. I propose a different solution.

When we send e-mail we typically create paragraphs of information, perhaps include attachments and propose some questions or ask for something to be done. The problem is people receiving the message might miss individual items. Perhaps they answer one or two of your questions but missed the important one or are going to respond to that one later. You receive back a wordy message which you have to read and understand. You have to search if/where your questions are answered and this therefore becomes a time consuming task. And even worse every time you need to refer to this e-mail you have to go through the same time consuming process.

One of the problems with e-mail is how to ask the questions to your audience such that its clear what questions are being asked and how important a particular question is. The system that I’m proposing would allow for an ‘add-in’ to e-mail systems allowing one to ‘tag’ questions as such. An auto-generated sequence number [perhaps a displayed as a graphic] would be inserted before all questions. For those items that are not specific questions but, “to do” items a separate marker can be manually inserted (e.g.. Please send me the latest financial spreadsheet). The appearance of these markers would appear in such way that it would be clear at a glance the number of items being asked [each marker would include the seq. #]. E-mail applications receiving such a message could interpret the e-mail in a different view. This custom view would brake out the items, displaying them in their own view pane. Recipients can view the original e-mail above while clicking individual [marked] items below and responding to each one. The new system in no way prevents any of the standard response methods from being used. The user has the choice to still include standard message responses such as full text paragraphs, attachments, etc.  Once the response is sent back the senders e-mail package can display the original questions followed by the responses below from each of the recipients. This will allow people to easily see which items have been responded to and who has responded. These ‘summary’ e-mails can appear as part of any related e-mail or can be viewed in a separate view pane. The advantage is now to the person who needs to go back and look at this information – they can quickly see the original items and how/if it was resolved. Entire threads of e-mail can be quickly and automatically summarised for later review. People can also refer to items by sequence number and, ‘to do’ items can be parsed and presented for automatic inclusion on user’s favourite to do list manager

By simplifying the use of how e-mail and information snippets are stored and retrieved we can see the long term benefits such a system would bring. People would become much more efficient at responding to such e-mail and therefore more likely to respond. As well once they have responded one can quickly see what the next action item would be. Working smarter not harder!

Implementation Details:

– Show a numbered graphic to display the marker;
– Each type of marker would have a unique colour (e.g.: Questions in Green, To Do items in Red, etc.)
– Using a custom SMTP header e-mail clients can quickly recognise e-mails which include these new markers
– For parsing and displaying in non-rich e-mail clients markers are internally stored as XML.