Email: We Are All Doing It Wrong

Email started in 1965 (1) and for the past 45 years (17 of which I have been using email) we have been using it wrong, terribly wrong. This is not a post designed to make people stop using email and move to a future standard – I am not trying to change the world – just you.

I am going to stray from hard facts here and instead go with common knowledge and common sense – sorry to those who hate when I do this.

Today we use email for just about everything and anything, people even use it to try and share large files (bad way to use email if you haven’t guessed). However we use email today, we mostly use it wrong – save for one very hated group: spammers.

This is in no one defending spammers (I hate them), but rather to illustrate a point. The point is: email was designed as a way to replace mail (what you may call snail mail), not to replace all communication.

If you believe that to be true – then you truly get it and can stop reading now because you already know what I am going to say (still though I took the time to write it so you can read it). If you don’t believe the above statement to be true then let me start by telling you some things that email is really bad at.

Things Email Sucks At

Planning:

We all do it, we try to plan meetings or vacations with groups of people over email. In the end it is a headache, 30% of the people don’t know what is happening and why – in the end someone ends up having to call a physical meeting or make a phone call to clarify. This is all because email was never designed to be used for this purpose – that and nobody knows how and when to correctly use the ‘reply all’ button.

Example: My friend Joe emails me and my other friend Steve to schedule a quick trip across town. I hit reply all and say that I am available to leave starting at 4p. Joe and Steve both get this email and see it. Steve hits reply and says that works for him. Now Steve and I are the only ones that see what Steve has said, often not even realizing it. An hour goes by and Joe assumes Steve is not around to do something – to which he sends out an email saying we should leave at 4p, and Steve is welcome to join if he can. In the end we all get sorted out and leave at 4p, but not without confusion and wasted time.

You can imagine just how poorly the above scenario would play out if you go from 3 people planning a trip to 10, or more – it becomes a nightmare. We have all been in these situations, most of it has to do with the ‘reply all’ button – but truly it is just a poor choice in tools.

This is where tools like Google Wave were supposed to come in and save the day – collaboration made easy. Except it still has yet to take off, and I have my serious doubts about its longevity. A better way is to use tools like Timebridge, or collaboration tools like Basecamp. Of course these tools are all better suited to a company than they are to a group of friends.

Time Sensitive Messages:

Not a day goes by where I don’t receive a message from someone that is time sensitive. Messages such as “Ben, please take care of X by Y.” This is a very clear email, but what happens if – unbeknownst to the sender – I am out on vacation or hiking in the woods. Plain and simple never send a time sensitive email to someone, ever, even if you ‘know’ they always check their emails every 5 minutes.

Email was not designed to notify people of urgent matters, it was designed to replace snail mail. Would you send someone a letter in the mail with urgent actionable items in the letter (excluding bills here – which are rarely that urgent and take into account mailing delays)?

Time sensitive messages should be reserved for face to face conversations, or better still, phone calls. Which brings me to my next point.

Phone Calls and Emails Are Different:

Don’t call someone to tell them something that is better suited to an email (marketing info, spam), likewise don’t email someone something that is better suited to a phone call (engagements, deaths, urgent matters). Even more: don’t call someone to tell them you just sent them an email. I don’t know that there is really much more that needs to be said on this matter.

One thing I will say is that people always prefer to get really bad news (death of someone close), or really good news (engagement of someone close) in a telephone call or in person – never in emails.

Sending Large Files:

Most email servers limit files sizes to 10-20mb per message, this limit is in place because email protocols were never designed to handle large file transfers. It is for this very reason that it is slower to download a 10mb file from you email than it is to do so over the web. There are plenty of web services that will allow you top upload a large file (often up to 100mbs for free) and email a link to that file (even password protected) to another person for download. Because remember, no one wants to try opening a 20mb Powerpoint presentation on their cellphone.

Making a Change

Here is a list of tools you can be using to make yours and the lives of others easier:

Instant Messaging: All the rage when I was in college, seemingly fallen by the wayside now. This is still a great tool for having impromptu conversations with with people, quickly and efficiently.

Chat Rooms: These are not the old chat rooms that you frequented on AOL in the 90’s, new tools such as 37Signals’ Campfire are amazing tools for collaborating with large groups of people.

Project Management Tools: think less MS Projects and more along the lines of shared messages, and to-do lists. I love Backpack and Basecamp from 37Signals, but there are a ton of offerings out there.

Twitter: If it can be said in less than 140 characters don’t waste and email – Twitter is faster and more efficient. It also provides a great platform for informal, impromptu conversations. Want to share a link with all of your friends, post it to Twitter, don’t clutter their inboxes and expose their email address to a ‘reply all’ “that was cool!” message.

File Sharing: Tools like Droplr make great ways to share an image or file quickly and easily. Apple’s MobileMe Gallery is a far more efficient want to send your latest vacation pictures – email isn’t.

Meeting Management Tools: Once you get 3 or more people needed in the same place at the same time it becomes very hard to manage everything. Tools like the aforementioned Timebridge make life much easier. It can read everyone’s calendars for you and show you only times everyone else is available. This is still best suited for business, but here’s hoping we can get a social version sooner.

Blogs: If I didn’t have my own personal blog my friends’ email inboxes would be chocked full of random crap I find on the web. Instead I post it all to my blog – my friends know the URL and can check out stuff when and only when they want to. Setting up blogs on sites like Tumblr (recommended) or Posterous is dead simple – go get one and give it a try.

Email: Great tool for newsletters, and marketing information.

Getting Others to Work With You

All of the above tools are absolutely great – but only if others are willing to use them with you. One reasons we misuse email so frequently is because everyone uses it, unlike many of the proposed tools above. I have found however that people aren’t averse to using newer, better tools – they are typically just lazy.

When my Wife and I were planning our wedding (OK she did the planning mostly) we would have done the whole thing over email and paper scraps if it was up to her. Instead I took the time to set up a few pages in Backpack that allowed use to collaborate far more efficiently. Even more surprising is how fast she took to using a new tool to take care of the planning.

The above holds true to most people I have encountered, setup a better way to do something and ask them to use it. More often than not they will take the time to actually use the tool, instead of the just going back to email. Let people surprise you, remember that you can’t make changes happen without trying.

[This part of an ongoing series on dealing with email, to see more posts look here.]

Originally posted for members on: June 17, 2010
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