Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

November 2004

Things that Stay Us from the Swift Completion of Our Appointed Tasks (Revisited)

It has been long known that since 1665 the number of scientific journals has been growing exponentially, doubling every 15 years.

Clearly there has to be a limit to that growth, unless one day we will all be publishing our own scientific journal (and 15 years later 2 scientific journals, and ...) But wait a minute! If we drop the word 'scientific', maybe we are approaching a time when nearly everyone does have their own publication. Isn't that what blogging is about?

Being involved in computing, we know a lot about exponential growth: disk and memory sizes, computing power, network bandwidth. How about amount of mail?

In 1995 I wrote the following in the SIGCHI Bulletin:

I know many other people who receive lots of email, and it is clear that several of them are swamped, and can't really cope with the amount they get (at least, I assume that's why they never reply). Ten years ago I received at most a dozen mails a day. Now it is an order of magnitude more. We read regularly that the net is growing exponentially with a doubling time of 8 months. This means that in ten years time (or will it be 2 years time?) I can expect to receive 1000 emails a day. One mail every minute and a half spread over a day. One mail every half minute spread over a working day. How will anyone be able to cope?

This was part of a plea for more attention to be paid to the usability of mail readers. At the time many people seriously doubted that what I predicted would ever happen. So, did it? It most certainly did! Of course, humans didn't manage this task unaided: they employeed computers to send me, and everyone else, emails about subjects that don't interest us in the slightest. Furthermore, they sent many of those emails pretending that they were from me, so that when receiving machines decided that for whatever reason they didn't want to deliver that mail, they too sent me mail telling me all about it. One bad day recently I switched on my computer and received 7000 emails in one go...

So have email user agents improved in the decade since my first article? Not really. Certainly not by an order of magnitude, which is surprising, since in 10 years the computer I use has become 100 times more powerful (and over the two decades, 10,000 times more powerful), so there are lots of extra cycles available to help me manage my email task. There are some signs of a few usability improvements, some user agents do one or two tasks excellently, and another does something else really well, virus filters are keeping some of the most harmful email back, learning spam filters are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff (though I'm still forced to review every mail classified as spam to retrieve the ones misclassified).

I believe that email programs are designed and written on the whole by people who don't receive immense amounts of email, and who have certainly never done a task analysis of the email reading and writing process.

See you in ten years.

First published in ACM/Interactions, November 2004

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