Archive for January, 2008

My email and inbox thesis

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I have a relatively simple thesis regarding the future of email that drives a lot of the product decisions we make at ClearContext.  A couple of recent blog posts I read touched on related themes, so it feels like a good time to toss out my high-level thoughts on email, the inbox, and email clients. 

Steven Hodson asks Why is email stuck in the 80’s?  I think that’s a very appropriate question, and the fact that it even needs to be asked is a big part of why ClearContext exists.

My core thesis is quite simple:

The volume of information that  people (people in this context refers primarily to "information workers" but is rapidly growing to include just about everyone) receive via email is far more than they can process effectively using the sequential processing of individual messages for which most email clients are designed.  At the same time, the information and the range of tasks/actions that flow through email are increasing in scope, importance, and variety.  This necessitates new means of information processing consisting of the following elements: prioritization of incoming email, categorization of information, aggregation of related information, and context-specific actions for different types of information.  This allows users to process information more effectively by taking advantage of the context of the information to provide a set of relevant actions to deal with information at a higher level than a single message basis.

Steven mentions social-networking in his post.  One point worth mentioning is that my thoughts around email and information flow revolve around the context of the information in terms of what topic or subject it applies to, rather than being contact-centric.  Social networking to me is about discovering contacts and keeping up to date with their activities.  In email, you already have a one-to-one relationship with the people you’re emailing with, so the more important information processing challenge is understanding what the communication is about and how to deal with it.

Ethan Kaplan would like to "auto-group threads of messages and group those threads according to
implicit thematics. You would be able to weight whether to group more
by sender, by subject, by lexical analysis, etc."  That’s a big part of where we’re headed with ClearContext.  We already group related threads and other information together automatically.  And we let users weight how much different email characteristics impact the prioritization of those messages.  What we don’t do a lot of yet is content analysis, but we’re already taking some interesting steps in that direction.  More importantly, we’re working on a lot of interesting features to give Outlook users (still just Outlook for now, but we’re listening!) more control about how the client deals with different types of incoming information utilizing the contextual information available.  In terms of where email clients need to get to handle the volume and nature of information people have to deal with today, Ethan is right on target.

If you’re interested in getting in on the early betas of our new releases, leave a comment or send an email.

Ethan and Steven both mention Tim Ferriss’ post on Email Outsourcing.  Having recently taken a three-week vacation from email, I know a lot of what he talks about is definitely possible.  My personal take, though, is that much of what he talks about can be accomplished by the email client itself – it just needs to get smarter!  And hopefully we’ll be successful at making that happen.

BTW, I’ve made some posts in the past touching on some of the specifics that come into play when implementing solutions in these areas – The Four A’s and The Three I’s are two good ones to start with, plenty of links within them.

Three weeks without being online? WHAT!?!

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I’m back in the US of A!  OK, well, I’ve actually been back for 3 weeks now.  But it still feels like I just got back.  Before really getting back to blogging, wanted to give some quick observations on being gone and away from all sorts of online communication.

On my family trip to India from Dec. 12 – Jan 1, even though I had easy access if I really wanted to, I made a concerted effort not to get online or do work.  I spent a grand total of zero minutes on the phone during that period and 1.5 total hours online in 3 sessions, almost all of that checking email.  I didn’t read any online news or any online blogs.  I didn’t check Facebook or Twitter or web traffic reports or stock tickers or anything.

And it was really refreshing and invigorating.

Like I said, I did check email 3 times to make sure nothing critical had come up regarding key deals/milestones/etc. for ClearContext.  But, besides that, I let my away message handle everything else.  Of course, this was possible due to planning ahead and delegating things to a very capable team.  But the main thing to point out that many of us forget is that it actually is possible.

Upon my return, I spent two days getting my inbox down from thousands to about 50 emails that required more than a one-line response.  There’s no question that the prioritization and categorization capabilities of ClearContext were a huge help in doing this.  By my third day back I was back to an empty Inbox.  I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken to get through my inbox processing everything sequentially and individually.

Perhaps even more eye-opening to me was how many blog entries and news items I read when checking every day, as opposed to when I bunch them up.  I had many RSS feeds with over 100 items that I was able to scan and only felt it necessary to read a couple of items, whereas I would have likely read a couple of items every day from those feeds if I were checking frequently.  After three weeks away, I felt caught up on both news and technology in just a few hours. I’m definitely going to check most of my feeds less often.  The same thing applies to news sites.  For most stories, I can definitely more than make do with far fewer updates.  And it definitely didn’t hurt to check things like Facebook quite infrequently.  Some things to think about in terms of where those little chunks of time go.

OK, I’ll leave you with a few cool India pictures I stole from my brother-in-law Jeff before getting back to serious blogging!


The Amber Fort in Jaipur.  Amazing.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, amazing that they were able to build things like this hundreds of years ago.  The next picture shows the scale of the Taj.2167466383_d41d3f4a12


Some white rhinos we saw in Northern India on safari.

And, of course, me on an elephant!