Email – Searching beats filing. IBM says so

Fascinating paper from IBM Research, ‘Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding.’:

We all spend time every day looking for information in our email, yet we know little about this refinding process. Some users expend considerable  preparatory  effort  creating complex folder structures to promote effective refinding.

However modern email clients provide alternative opportunistic  methods  for  access,  such  as  search  and threading, that promise to reduce the need to manually prepare. To compare these different refinding strategies, we instrumented a modern email client that supports search, folders, tagging and threading. We carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions. Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both  search and threading promote more effective finding. We present design implications: current search-based clients ignore scrolling, the most prevalent refinding behavior, and threading approaches need to be extended.

I really enjoyed reading about the approach and results of the research effort, not least the decision to use the prototype ‘BlueMail’ application:

BlueMail

It will be interesting to see how IBM takes the research and uses the results in its own products, not least Lotus Notes and the integration of email into IBM Connections.  Definitely worth a read over a coffee!

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!