And can your email system keep up with you?

By Dale Vile

How many email messages do you receive in the average working day – 20, 30, 50, more? And what volume of email have you accumulated over the past year – half a gig, a gig, two gigs?

Whatever the exact volumes, most of us today have to deal with a lot of email traffic, and an increasing proportion of messages come with chunky attachments. This in turn raises the question of what we do with all the messages we receive once we have read them, particularly those relating to projects, customer interactions, and so on, that really need to be kept for reference or regulatory purposes.

Of course the archiving guys pipe up at this point and talk about solutions for long term storage of emails to maintain compliance and ensure that correspondence can be dug out to support audits, law suits and other disputes of various kinds.

On a more day to day basis, though, whatever archiving arrangements may or may not be in place, each of us still has to think about the messages that accumulate in our own personal inboxes and email stores, and in this respect, people can be divided into two categories – the ‘filers’ and the ‘pilers’.

Filers, as the name suggests, are the more organised amongst us. At the extreme end of the scale, these are the people that strive to maintain an empty inbox. They can’t relax if new messages sit there without being dealt with for too long, and if they accumulate more than half a dozen emails in their inbox, they begin to panic. If you look over their shoulder, you’ll see prominent folders labelled things like ‘Urgent’, ‘Pending’, ‘Awaiting Response’, then a complex hierarchy of other folders relating to various activities.

Of course not all filers are quite as obsessive, but if you have a comprehensive set of folders relating to projects, customers, suppliers, and other things important to your work, and you put stuff in them on a daily basis, then you are most definitely a filer.

If, however, you have the folders, but only use them when your inbox gets overloaded and you have a frantic filing session to clear it (and give up at the point where 200 messages are left, figuring that isn’t so bad), then you are probably a piler in denial.

The true pilers are the guys with many hundreds or even thousands of messages sitting in their inbox, and they’re proud of it. “Go on”, they say, “ask me to find something”, then they go into the advanced search function, and….

…well what happens next depends on the email client and server they are using. If it’s an online email service with a 25 gigabyte mailbox limit, then they’re cooking on gas and will probably surface what they are looking for straight away if they get the search terms right. If it’s an old Outlook and Exchange setup with a small mailbox and a search capability with limited scope, they may have to click on one of their multiple 2 gigabyte offline folders, into which they periodically ‘dump’ older messages, and run the search again. If they are using an iPad and rely on the ‘Continue searching on the server’ function, you might as well leave them to it and go and get a cup of coffee, because that’s not going to be quick.

The good news is that the way email systems and services have evolved has delivered something for both types of user. That ‘which folder should I file this message in?’ dilemma that’s faced filers over the years when an email can legitimately be tucked away in more than one location has to a degree been solved by tagging, categorisation and virtual folders. In fact in some email environments, the concepts of folders and tagging have merged pretty much completely, e.g. when you ‘move’ a message, all you are really doing is re-tagging it. At last the filer nirvana of being able to file a message in multiple locations without having to physically copy it is a reality – assuming your email system supports such capability.

For pilers, the developments that matter the most are big mailboxes and email search functions that actually work reliably and predictably. The fly in the ointment, though, are mobile devices with their limited storage and often slow and unreliable connectivity. While the filers smugly synchronise the folders they are currently working with to their smartphone, the pilers are left struggling with often quite flaky remote search mechanisms. Active online archives can help here, but most people don’t have that luxury at the moment.

While we have been discussing user stereotypes in a bit of a tongue in cheek manner, categorising users does help to identify important use cases and related functionality requirements which can be fed into the decision making process when looking at technology options. Of course in the real world, you may want to segment users based on their role and day-to-day activities, particularly if they are involved in using email as a fundamental part of a business process. Requirements may vary, for example, depending on whether they are messaging in the context of procurement, sales, accounts receivable/payable, customer support or other key business functions.

Nevertheless, being conscious of the generic habits of pilers and filers does provide us with a baseline in terms of requirements definition. If you are looking to replace or upgrade your email system, then it would be wise to make sure that the new environment allows for cost-effective provision and management of large mailboxes, support for proper message tagging (not just flagging and categorisation), advanced search capability, and comprehensive mobile support.

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