It wasn’t until I heard that a colleague had nuked his personal email account–on purpose, for good–that it hit me: Email is the most reviled personal technology ever. Mat Honan, the San Francisco bureau chief at BuzzFeed, was so fed up with email that he did the 21st-century equivalent of unlisting his phone number and ripping the cord out of the wall. (He couldn’t do the same at work, but I suspect he wanted to.) This abject fear and loathing of a telecommunications technology, and the radical step Honan took to escape it–not mitigate, not reframe, not “fix,” but escape–got me curious about how we got to this point. What are the actual, fundamental design flaws–if any–with email? What makes it such a huge target for “fixing,” yet so resistant to it?
I started by reaching out to Don Norman, the renowned interaction design expert and author of the classic handbook The Design of Everyday Things. Email is just as “everyday” as coffee pots and doorknobs, but most people don’t fantasize about throwing their espresso machine into a black hole or sawing the knobs off all their doors. Norman himself has no love for email: “The problem is in trying to make email do everything when it’s not particularly good at anything,” he says. To Norman, even seemingly accepted solutions like Gmail’s threaded conversations–which first brought order to unruly inboxes 15 years ago–are just crude Band-Aids that don’t treat the disease (and cause problems of their own). “Gmail conversations are horrible,” he says. “People always reply to the wrong subject, and as the discussion continues it moves off topic, so the thread becomes useless. It’s the wrong mechanism, badly done.”
What’s the alternative? “I. Don’t. Know,” Norman says, hitting each syllable with bemused resignation. Email, he says, occupies a vast no man’s land between synchronous text messaging (like SMS and IM) and offline word processing, a territory that affords “developing an argument” but also creates a context where attention goes to die. “It’s the office memo turned cancerous, extended to home and everyday life,” he says.
Justin Rosenstein, co-founder and product chief at Asana–which bills itself as “teamwork without email”–agrees, comparing email’s fundamental experience design to that of paper faxes. “When it’s simple [as an incoming fax], email’s fine,” he says. “It’s a standard protocol; it’s a legacy technology that’s very well understood.” But what if you were expected to use the fax like a telephone–waiting by the machine, scrawling out replies by hand, like Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider? The messages would quickly pile up, of course. You’d be doing nothing but faxing, all day, every day. The few important documents or memoranda that did come through would be buried in the blizzard, and if you did surface them, you’d be too stressed out managing the relentless volume to respond meaningfully.
This is what email has become for most people: a faster, cheaper fax machine (with all the attendant paperwork-processing overhead), but used like a telephone (with all the potential for constant interruption). And it lives in our pockets.
Email began, Norman says, in the early 1970s as “a kind of hack” between scientists and engineers employed by DARPA, the U.S. Defense Department’s R&D division. The precursor to the Internet, known as the ARPANET, connected DARPA’s various computer networks scattered around the country. Sending messages along for the ride made sense. “It was basically programmers trying to make their lives easier,” Norman says. They couldn’t imagine that the basic messaging protocols they were baking into the very substance of the Internet would, within a few decades, be groaning under the weight of hundreds of billions of emails per day.
But once they got it, everyone knew email was a game changer. When former Intel CEO Andrew Grove’s 1983 bestseller High Output Management was reprinted in 1995, Grove included a special introduction largely dedicated to the impact of email. “He basically said, ‘Everything I’m telling you in this book is still true, but let me tell you about this crazy thing called email, which is going to revolutionize everything,'” says Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack, another business-messaging app designed to replace email within organizations. “If you were the first company in your industry to have email and no one else did, you would kill every one of your competitors.”
The ’90s also saw the rise of the World Wide Web, which made hypertext documents and email–formerly the domain of the military, academe, and unusually prescient businesses–go mainstream. If you were “online” (maybe with one of those handy AOL CD-ROMs?), you had to have an email address. It was like being listed in the phone book, but with the personalized cachet of a ham-radio handle. If email was destined to become “the office memo turned cancerous,” to use Don Norman’s quip, then this was its first serious metastasis.
The second arguably sprouted in 2003, when a Canadian telecom concern called Research In Motion released its first BlackBerry smartphone with “push email” functionality. Now, instead of being confined to a “mailbox” that lived inside the beige box on your desk, email could follow you around and tap you on the shoulder whenever it wanted. For doctors, lawyers, politicians, media bigwigs, and their support staff–anyone who was accustomed to being “on call,” “important,” or both–this email-mediated always-on-ness was a kind of status symbol. (Remember the term “Crackberry“?) Then the iPhone hit in 2007, and we all wanted in.
Which brings us to the weird love-hate dynamic everyone seems to have with email. We’ve let it seep into every nook and cranny of our lives, and we resent its presence. But we also crave it. I asked psychologist Larry Rosen, who specializes in studying our evolving mental relationship with technology: What the hell is up with this?
“Email has become an approach-avoid conflict for us,” Rosen says. “We know there might be a gem in [our inbox] somewhere right now, but we have to sift through all the crap to find it.” Rosen explains that the accessibility of email and its unpredictable pleasures stimulate our brain’s “seeking” circuits. These circuits are mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps the brain assign incentive salience to stimuli that might provide a reward.
In other words, we may despise our inboxes (and 99% of what’s in them), but we’re neurochemically compelled to make sure that there isn’t something potentially important or pleasurable lurking in there this time. And then five minutes from now. And then again. And again. “The internal stimulus is the one that gets you,” Rosen says. “On balance, [email is] maybe 10% pleasure and 90% fear of missing out.”
As Aza Raskin has written here, solving intractable design problems means reframing them so that they become tractable. So what is the problem with email, really?
Modern attempts to deal with email head-on don’t try to boil the ocean of incoming messages. Instead, they accept it as a given, and instead try to assist or automate our hapless, dopamine-driven efforts to “process” it. Gmail Inbox and Mailbox take this stance. With quick gestures, snooze buttons, and smart labels, they try to reduce the cognitive load of sorting the email wheat from the chaff. The trouble, Rosen says, is that “the triage is a never-ending process. You have to constantly attend to it, or just let your email pile up and say, ‘Eh, if i miss something here and it’s important, they’ll get in touch with me some other way.'”
Most email is work-related, owing to its ARPANET origins and memorandum-like format. But email on the job has too many jobs: project management, to-do lists, group discussions, file transfer, document editing–it’s endless. “Email is so generic, it’s not specialized,” Asana’s Rosenstein says. “We’re using email for things that it intrinsically sucks at.” Asana and Slack aim to lighten your inbox by offloading as many “things email sucks at” as possible. Slack replaces interoffice mail and group message threads; Asana replaces team status-tracking and project management messages. The goal is to “box in” email to the tasks only it (and not some nimbler, newer tech) can do well. That basically means any kind of external communications, which is still a lot. “I spend four or five hours a day on email,” admits Slack’s Butterfield. “Its virtue is that it crosses organizational boundaries, it’s the lowest common denominator, it’s the lingua franca of computer-mediated communication. It’s how we set up this conversation.”
“Email is great! People are broken,” writer and programmer Paul Ford tells me (via email, natch). “If you tell me you hate email,” he asserts, “then you’re telling me you don’t have control over your own life. A lot of times you don’t; and no one has total control over every aspect of their life. But on some level it’s on us.” The solution to this problem isn’t one of design, technology, or even psychology, he says: it’s essentially philosophical, almost existential. How do you want to live? What matters? Where do you want to put your attention, day by day and moment by moment? And how does email support or degrade that? Call it the This is Water approach (to cite David Foster Wallace’s famously succinct how-to guide for living a meaningful life). It’s heavy and it may come with significant social consequences, but it works. Just ask Neil Stephenson. Or Mat Honan, for that matter. (I tried to schedule an interview with him for this article via phone, SMS, Twitter, and even email, but somehow we still weren’t able to connect.)
Email isn’t going away. “Maybe by 2080,” Slack’s Butterfield jokes. “It’s got decades left at least.” The bad news is that, because email is so ubiquitous, idiot-proof, and just plain useful, there will never be a “solution” for its shortcomings in the general case: not design-wise, not tech-wise, not socially, culturally, organizationally, psychologically, ergonomically or biologically. Email is just too many things to too many people, all at once, everywhere–and as Don Norman says, “technology hardly ever goes away.” We can’t roll back what email has become.
The good news is that your email “problem”–unique to you and your experience–is probably solvable, if only because, as Paul Ford observes, programmers will never, ever stop trying to rethink, refactor, re-engineer, or just plain re-do email. Furthermore, the lack of universal, stable email norms means that you have a semblance of cover for adopting almost any stance you want toward your own email. Hell, if a prominent tech journalist like BuzzFeed‘s Honan can hit the ejector seat on email and get away with it, you’ve got lots of room to maneuver.
Perhaps the most effective solution to the problem of email comes from that saint of communication design, Charles Eames. And that is to design email anew each time you do it. I don’t mean that you should literally pull out a sketchpad and start rethinking the system every time you open your inbox. I mean adopt the designer’s stance, which, according to Eames, is merely “a method of action”: address yourself to the need at hand; “recognize as many of the constraints as possible”; and have a “willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.” In other words, be mindful. Forget “solving” what email “should” be for, or about. What is it for, or about, for you, here, right now?
Maybe it’s about respecting your recipient’s time. Maybe it’s about inviting authentic connection. Maybe it’s about making sure you don’t miss that thing you’re anxiously waiting for. Maybe it’s about maintaining the public record (or not). Maybe it’s about bookmarking. Or self-help. Or teaching yourself something. Or paying someone.
Here’s what makes email the most reviled technology ever, Stewart Butterfield says: “There’s a billion fucking things you have to do in your life, and email is the distillation of the other stuff that other people want you to do.” So maybe the solution to email is just what Paul Ford said: taking, if not full control of our lives, then at least fuller responsibility for them. Not passing the buck (which, not coincidentally, is something that email is great at enabling). If design isn’t about solutions as much as it is, as Eames said, “an expression of purpose… a method of action,” then perhaps the question any designer interested in email should ask is not “What can we do about it?” but rather: “What will I do with (or without) it?”
And then maybe things can be different right now, not just in 2080.