E-mail Overload: No Cure, but Enterprise Attention Management Can Shed Some Light

June 10, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Posted in Attention Management, email, Information Work | 7 Comments

The most popular “overload” topic in offices today is e-mail.  But after all these years of incremental improvement to IBM Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, surely there can’t be any low-hanging fruit left to pick to help people manage inbox overload.  Or is there?

The Enterprise Attention Management Conceptual Architecture to the rescue!  Rather than relying on a set of personal pet peeves or specific annoyances that have happened in recent memory, a model such as the EAM conceptual architecture provides a systematic approach for analyzing the attentional characteristics of a system.

The EAM architecture is intended for use by organizations to examine individual technologies or whole systems (such as the information worker desktop) that are suspected of causing explicit (information stress) or implicit (poor decision making, slow reaction to new information) information handling problems.  With systems it can be used for gap analysis.  Here I use it as an intuition pump to reveal a set of potential enhancements to e-mail software that would improve its attentional characteristics.

Click on the thumbnail below and scroll around to see the ideas that came out of my informal analysis of e-mail. Also, here is a quick summary of the recommended improvements (going clockwise from the upper-left of the diagram):

  • Scheduled delivery
  • Maintain whitelists to bypass blocks and delays
  • “Move to discussion” greys out “reply”
  • Automated routing and prioritizing? Not yet
  • Un-bury turning off or freezing of “toasts” (alerts)
  • Enable e-mail hyperlinking
  • Enable role-based profiles
  • Enable sender tagged e-mails
  • Stop attachment abuse
  • Presence-enable recipient lists
  • Enable group-based rules
  • Turn e-mail into generic small-content tool
  • Manage multiple inboxes
  • Provide inbox analytics
  • Token systems
  • Remind sender if no reply

EAM e-mail

Caveat: I’m not an e-mail expert.  It’s possible that some e-mail systems can already do these things outright, with some configuration, or with simple coding.  If so, great, although they should be no more than one click away.  In the meantime, my inbox is filling up as I wait for these capabilities in the next version of e-mail programs.



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  1. Craig,

    Great article. So little attention has been paid to user cognition in the design of email client software that any initiative which actually enquires as to what might be useful/needed for the software user is a good step forward.


    Stephen D Barnes

  2. […] June 13, 2009 at 6:41 pm | In Attention Management, IBM, Information Work, email | No Comments In my last posting I listed 15 ideas for improving the attentional characteristics of e-mail (in other words, […]

  3. […] Enterprise attention management can be used as a lens to analyze how various technologies and programs will impact the attention of information workers.  One recent example of applying this architecture is the “EAM for e-mail” posting I did here. […]

  4. […] Attention Management, Information Work, communication, email | Leave a Comment I recently posted a set of ideas for improving e-mail from the point of view of enterprise attention management.  It listed 15 ideas that would help […]

  5. […] But isn’t there more to this issue?  Can’t questioning a few overly used assumptions yield some new avenues of exploration?  If one assumes that information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions can apply. Take a favorite culprit: e-mail.  Assuming e-mail overload is due to evolutionary maladaptation leads to half-jesting self-discipline solutions like Google’s “Take a break” feature.  But if you get past that and consider that users can apply rational responses, you can find many tweaks that get beyond pop-psychology and have a chance of making a real difference (see my posting “E-mail Overload: No Cure, but Enterprise Attention Management Can Shed Some Light“). […]

  6. Steve Z. Jacob

    E-mail Overload: No Cure, but Enterprise Attention Management Can Shed Some Light | KnowledgeForward

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