Archive for the ‘Email’ Category

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.

Revisiting the segmented contact network

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

I wrote about how people have different levels of contacts for use in different contexts previously on this blog.  We’ve been working on a lot of interesting projects at ClearContext around these segmented contact networks – the intersection of contact and context information I mentioned in my post on "Inbox 2.0."  We’re currently developing some pretty sophisticated features around this that are deeply integrated within people’s workflow in Outlook and the context of their actions within the email client.  However, while building out those features, we realized that the basic step of identifying groups of contacts from within sets of email folders and prioritizing them in order of their relevance to conversations in those folders is pretty useful for things like creating email distribution lists and uploading subsets of your entire contact list to social networking sites.  So we decided to release one of the building blocks of that functionality as a beta feature in our IMS product.  Om writes about it on Web Worker Daily and we’ve put up a simple ClearContext Contact Exporter for Outlook webpage.  Go check it out!  I’m very interested in hearing how people use this and what sort of ways you see this type of functionality being built out.

Wall Street Journal article on Email’s Friendly Fire

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

I was interviewed last week by Rebecca Buckman of the Wall Street Journal for her article, Email’s Friendly Fire.  Becky has covered business technology for a while and is quite a tech savvy journalist, so it was a very interesting discussion and a very good article.  I’m quite happy about the way the article turned out – and especially the fact that ClearContext was featured throughout it.

One nice thing about having many thousands of customers is our ability to provide a wide range of reference customers to speak with reporters.  Thanks to all the ClearContext IMS customers who volunteered to help us out by speaking with Becky, and special thanks to Mukesh Lulla from TeamF1 and Eric Liebeler from Honeywell, who were both featured in the article.

Mukesh spoke about his use of ClearContext inbox management features such as Defer and AutoAssign functionality to quickly process 300-400 messages daily.  Eric spoke about the contact prioritization and message prioritization features that help him identify which messages to focus on first, as well as the topic and filing functions that automatically keep his email organized.

Becky touched on a number of other interesting points. The "colleague spam" she mentions is the type of email thread we had in mind when we created unsubscribe functionality.  Other points such as the increasing volume of incoming email from sites like LinkedIn and Facebook as well as other communications mediums delivering data into the inbox are things I’ve written about in my posts on the future of email.  It’s not just increasing volumes, it’s the very nature of email that continues to change, creating an opportunity for all sorts of innovation.  Becky also mentions IT software policies as a possible obstacle to deployment of new technologies, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the freedom users have to install Outlook plug-ins on their machines. 

One of the comments from Microsoft mentions the value of tools like these for users who are completely unorganized pilers as opposed to fairly organized filers.  A large focus of ours when we developed ClearContext IMS v4 was making it useful right out of the box for even the most unorganized of email users.  In addition to introducing a simple 3-step workflow strategy that anyone can get started with immediately to help stay on top of things, we’ve really increased the level of behind-the-scenes automation we provide to users.  For example, appointments can be scheduled and to-do’s can be set up  with a single click, and all of that  information is automatically combined with related tasks, appointments and emails in a project dashboard. That level of automated organization combined with improved Microsoft search and other desktop search products lets any type of user take full advantage of our products.

It’s good to see awareness building around both the challenges and opportunities that exist in the email world, and it’s especially good to be recognized as one of the companies leading the charge to help make email a more valuable and productive tool for both individuals and businesses.  Thanks, Becky!

The three I’s of “Inbox 2.0”

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Having read dozens of blog posts and articles about "Inbox 2.0" the most common reaction I’ve had is "yawn." Now, there are a number of people who get it – I linked to a few of them in yesterday’s post.

However, most of what people are talking about when they talk about next generation email and Inbox 2.0 is really just Address Book 2.0.  Attempts at universal, always up-to-date, web-based address books have been around since I started using the Internet.  Perhaps the best-known of the latest crop of such companies is Plaxo, which has had a few takes at/around the challenge.  I remember using one really hyped one around the time was pretty popular.  It worked out so well I can’t even remember its name now.

Things have changed a lot since then, and notions of universal digital identity are becoming more realistic, and definitely more important. People’s digital identity now spans far beyond email, reaching across multiple sites with profiles, various e-commerce sites, blogs and discussion forums – I could go on for a long time.  Site like RapLeaf, Chainn, and ProfileLinker are just a few of dozens of sites trying to pull together consolidated digital identities online.  In fact, that’s actually worth a post of its own that I’ll tackle soon.

And that’s what a lot of the "Inbox 2.0" articles were all about – using email as the basis for the types of things social networking sites are doing and companies like those are doing.  But in reality, most of the people you care about emailing, you already KNOW that information.  OK, great, now I have Joe’s birthday and favorite books linked in my email address book –  value add for sure, but nothing that really drives the email experience forward.  Making the address book better with richer profiles and contact information and other social networking style info is beneficial, but doesn’t really address the main problems with email.

For that to happen, I think it comes down to three important I’s:

Information – This is the most important thing that email brings.  Every email address is surrounded by a wealth of information and context.  Yet all of this information is spread across various message threads from various contacts.  Utilizing (and storing in an easily accessible manner) this information to understand the nature and relationship of emails and contacts is a key first step.  The value of all that information in the email is pretty obvious, so I’ll skip the examples.

Interface – That’s the next big one.  Email clients are, even new web-based ones, fundamentally unchanged from email clients of 10 years ago.  Even something as new as Gmail is basically the same messaging metaphor that has been in place forever.  Yet email has transcended messaging to become something much bigger.  Is it a one-to-one communication medium?  Is it a project management  app?  Is it  a time and status reporting app?  Is it a group collaboration tool?  I could keep going, but the answer is simple.  Yes.  There’s a huge opportunity for  advanced interfaces to better support all of these activities that people do via email, as well as creating better interfaces to deal with specific types of individual messages based on the nature of the information contained in them. 

Integration – Email messages are one silo of information.  Contacts are another.  Appointments, hey over here in my calendar.  Tasks?  Yeah, here’s a to-do list.  That’s information that is often stored close to each other, but still in separate silos.  Intelligently integrating them is an important step forward.  But beyond those, there’s a wealth of external data that begs to be integrated within the context of email discussions.  In some cases that’s simply data from another communication medium – IMs or SMS or feeds.  In other cases, it’s contextually related data like maps to addresses (Zimbra/Yahoo is one company that has started to touch on that).  And this can extend to integration with other applications that interact with email-based data.

And there are plenty of other I’s like interaction, identity, and input that also will come into play in the winning solutions.

This is the opportunity for the next-generation of email applications, not just a souped up address book or email-driven Facebook clone.

“Inbox 2.0” – Email as social networking platform

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Saul Hansell blogs about Brad Garlinghouse from Yahoo calls “Inbox 2.0”.  I’m a little surprised the post is getting so much buzz, since the WSJ wrote about it a month ago.  As I wrote then, “contact priority is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
information that can be learned from looking at the context and
relationship of information stored within email.”  I’m glad to see all the excitement, though, because this is at the core of what we focus on at ClearContext.

Marshall Kirkpatrick gets it right when he writes that “We’re not talking about the number of times people email you – we’re
talking about the percentage of times you open those emails, the
keywords used in them relative to your personal/work profile, there are
metrics so crazy we can hardly imagine that are available for
determining the importance of people in your life.”

A number of others are talking about the broader opportunity here – leveraging the information and context that exists within email to make interactions more powerful.

Larry Dignan – “Increasingly, social networking is looking like a feature more than a
business. There will be big ramifications to consider as social
networking becomes integrated into your everyday applications.”

Brad Feld – “The real data lives in the gazillions of Microsoft Exchange servers
that are distributed around the world and connected to this magical
thing called the Internet.”

Om Malik – “the relationship buckets (and the level of intimacy) are already predefined and have relevance.”

Don Dodge – “Most people don’t want to leave email and jump into a separate
application to collaborate on projects. Email is where they naturally
communicate and collaborate.”

There’s an incredible amount of stored relationship information within email that is currently not utilized.  That information extends far beyond just the contacts, which is where the initial focus from Yahoo and Google lies, as they along with many others try to emulate the success of the model Facebook has utilized.

However, email is not the same as social networking, and people use it very differently.  In email, prioritization of contacts and messages is important, but all it does is identify what information is most important for you to look at.  Dashboard_screen_printTo actually build a more powerful system, you need tools to efficiently manage that information, and provide context for your information and interactions.

We’ve been working on prioritizing contacts and messages for a few years at ClearContext.  It’s an interesting problem and we’re glad to see a lot more attention being paid to this area.  What we realized a while back, though, was that the real value lies not in the prioritization itself, but in doing interesting things with that information.  Combining all of that data within the context of email (and paying attention to what people are actually DOING in the client) provides the ability do things with email that are a lot more intelligent than simply displaying a message.  With ClearContext IMS we’ve focused on combining information from a few silos – email, tasks, and appointments.  However, there are a lot more silos to tackle, both inside and outside the email world.

Email is not going to replace or become like Facebook or LinkedIn.  Those sites provide a good platform for certain types of interactions as well as linking together many different chunks of the “social graph.”  However, each individual’s personal “social graph” lives within email.  And not only does the contact information live within email, so does the CONTEXT information.  Intelligently using that information in conjunction with advanced interfaces on the client side will make the entire email experience more powerful and productive for people.  And done right, it will also make people’s experience with any email/contact based site or application more powerful, because it will be driven from a set of rich profiles full of deep context, not just a list of names.  That’s the evolution of email, not just a better Inbox.

Email dying (again, yawn)!

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Valleywag has a post on the decline of email.  A number of commenters there explain that the numbers actually show an INCREASE in total email usage, even though the percentage of Internet traffic (in the UK) devoted to webmail has dropped.  That’s no surprise, as web usage continues to expand into a greater variety of uses. This blog post links to a few more articles – surprise, surprise, email just keeps "dying" again and again.  Or, wait, is it actually sexy again? The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of people, email remains their primary medium of online communications. And how do these services that will purportedly supplant email actually notify their users of activity?  Yeah, email.

Email is sexy again!

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

So says the Wall Street Journal.   Lots of interesting info about how major providers are now looking at email:

"One experimental Yahoo service known internally as "Friend Finder"
analyzes a user’s email traffic and indicates the friends with whom a
user has strong email connections. It bases its findings on the volume
of incoming and outgoing traffic and such factors as the frequency and
speed with which the two parties respond to each other. The service
works with emails sent by non-Yahoo users as well."

That’s something we’re very familiar with at ClearContext.  We’ve spent the last few years optimizing our algorithms to determine which contacts are really important to you.  We described much of our design philosophy and decisions in this whitepaper 3 years ago.  Contact relationships mined from your email history are at the core of our IMS product for Outlook, which helps prioritize and organize not just email messages, but also tasks and appointments.   But contact priority is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to information that can be learned from looking at the context and relationship of information stored within email.  We’re currently beta testing the next version of IMS and are really excited about releasing it soon for everyone to see, as it will provide a glimpse into some of the really exciting possibilities from within email that have yet to be exposed.

Debating the future of email w/ Scoble

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Scoble is a big fan of new stuff.  Like "Web 2.0" technologies such as Twitter. 

And Robert has in the past written quite a bit about how out of control and behind he has been with email.  I don’t remember if Robert has officially declared "email bankruptcy" at any point, but he has definitely become exasperated with keeping up with email.

So it’s no surprise to see him writing at BusinessWeek about Twitter and other Web 2.0 technology unseating email.  But let’s take a look at some of his points:

"But when I left, my e-mail account was turned off. I don’t have access to that knowledge now. Neither does NEC." vs "Furthermore, anything said on Twitter stays on the Web. So your
knowledge doesn’t disappear; it stays there for your replacement at
your employer to study and learn from."

Not only can information in email be retained, transferred, and archived (and in many corporations this already happens), it has context in terms of threads, subjects, and correspondents at a level that does not exist in free-form, unstructured communication mediums like Twitter.  Having the info out there is not worth very much without good ways to actually find the specific information you need.

"With these applications, spam barely exists. If someone starts spamming
the system, he or she gets “unfollowed” and the problem is solved."

First off, these are relatively new technologies.  Spam didn’t exist when blogs first came out.  Or IM.  Or SMS.  But there’s a constant battle w/ spammers in every new technology.  Obviously, the newer and less widespread the technology, the less you’ll see spammers.  That’s just a function of time and reach.  And while the volume of spam in email is high, technology to get rid of it is pretty sophisticated.  Robert totally ignores the issue of noise, though.  The lower the cost of broadcasting a message out to a group, the more the noise.  Email has more noise "Hey guys, what’s going on for happy hour?" than phone calls do, which have more noise than face-to-face meetings.  But Twitter "waiting for bus!" and similar things put email to shame in terms of the level of noise that exists within the communication streams.

Robert has some more criticisms like "Finally, e-mail doesn’t work with groups very well. If I send a report to my boss, co-workers can’t listen in and add value." and "And you can see that people are online and answering stuff and what they are doing. " that all revolve around the idea of real-time, instant, interrupt-driven communications.

And that’s where I think the real flaw in his whole argument exists.

The benefits that Robert sees here all are largely premised on an idea that people are constantly connected and interacting with these streams.  Robert also has 5,000 Facebook friends.  And he follows 6,000+ people on Twitter.  If he’s gone for a few hours, is he going to review status updates from 5,000 Facebook friends and all those Twitter updates?  I doubt it.

Given a set of circumstances where you’re working with a specific group of people all together within a certain time period, there are many collaborative technologies that are far superior to email.  But that’s simply stating the obvious – if you need to have a meeting or a brainstorming session or need real-time feedback, then have a meeting or call/IM people instead of emailing them!  If you need to collaboratively work on a document, use a technology designed for that, not email!

But that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to replace email for the multitude of scenarios in which asynchronous communications are more effective. There is a large body of research that shows interruptions and distractions are a huge drain on productivity in the workplace and a huge source of stress to boot.  Email is a contributor to that problem, and things like Twitter only make things worse.

The problems Robert talks about are not problems w/ email.  It just sounds like Free Email Day – a reaction to a problem, not a solution. They are problems with the techniques and technologies people use with email.  The email clients of today, even "advanced" ones like Gmail or Zimbra are really not all that different than the email clients of 10-15 years ago.  Yet, the volume of email people receive and the types of things people do within email have increased dramatically. 

Email is still a great communications medium.  The fact that many Web 2.0 "sites" (sites? systems? applications? hmmm) still use the inbox as their notification point to users says a lot about that.  But as more and more activities center around the inbox, it’s true that people need better ways to manage and work with all of that information without getting overwhelmed.  The issues here parallel those I talked about in my post on the semantic web.  Just as a structured web allows for a much more useful user experience to be developed, the same opportunities exist within email.  And that’s something I’ll be talking about a lot more in the near future. 

“Gmail mute” in Outlook – deja vu!

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Well, Brad’s going to write a post about this on our corporate blog, I’m sure, but I had to dash off a quick "credit where credit’s due" post as soon as I saw this announcement this morning: New Gmail Feature (LifeHacker).

It’s good to see features we’ve been talking about for a while make it into other email platforms, since if this stuff is needed by Gmail users, that means ClearContext’s Unsubscribe functionality is quite likely needed by Outlook users!  Our users were beta-testing this feature in August and seem to love it, so I definitely think the folks at Gmail have picked a good feature to add.

But, to give credit where credit’s really due, this feature (that Googler BLADAM refers to as "murder") was inspired for us by a conversation we had with our friend Omar Shahine who told us about how he’d like to see the ThreadKiller functionality (that he had built his own addin for) incorporated into our ClearContext IMS product.  We simply took Omar’s suggestion and integrated it with our automated filing capabilities to let the user have a little extra control over where the unsubscribed messages go.

The real question is, what’s the best name for this feature?  Mute, Unsubscribe, Murder, or ThreadKiller?

Inbox: Empty

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006