An Animated Look at Why E-Mail Is Broken

The interactive animation below accurately describes the state of my e-mail situation, in this, my 13th year with the medium:



Over the last couple of years, I’ve gone from someone who returns 99% of e-mails — and relatively quickly — to someone who routinely takes days, weeks, and sometimes even months to return certain mails, recently resorting to instant deletion just to avoid the buildup.

I’ve tried to figure out how to best express the dynamics of the situation in words, but an animated illustration seemed to get the point across much better, so this weekend, I whipped out Flash for the first time in about a year. The end result is kind of soothing actually… turn spam off, slide the top to “Fast”, and slide the bottom to “Manageable”. Now that’s e-mail nirvana… something I’ll never achieve.

Thanks also to professional mathlete Tom Laramee of SongStage.net for helping me even out the slider effect with an exponential decay equation.

42 comments on “An Animated Look at Why E-Mail Is Broken”. Leave your own?
  1. Keith says:

    Hey bro. Happy Holidays.

    Anyway, I’m still pretty good about returning my e-mails and I’m pretty quick at it, but it’s getting harder every year. I imagine you get more e-mail than I do, and my guess is that is the #1 factor to why you have a big problem.

    I really try to keep my inboxes totally, 100% clean at the end of every day and that, while taking a bit of effort, does help keep things easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

    Having said that, I’ve noticed more and more legit e-mail getting marked as junk, so I’ve recently been having to tinker with that so I don’t miss anything good.

    One thing that almost always get’s right into the trash — those damned IKNFL conversations… ;0)

  2. Mike D. says:

    Yes, it’s definitely a quantity thing. When your quantities are manageable, email is fine. But as soon as you hit that breaking point, it just gets worse and worse. I’m cooking up a separate post about this, but the crux of the problem is this:

    More so than any other medium probably in history, e-mail suffers from the worst time/value exchange. Meaning, you can spent 30 seconds writing me an e-mail which may take 15 minutes or more of actual typing to respond to. I can’t think of another medium like that. Not the phone, not text messaging, not in-person meetings, not even handwritten letters. All of those methods of communication require a roughly equal time commitment from each side.

    More on this soon…

  3. Keith says:

    Totally true. I don’t know how many times (at least 2-3 a month) I get an e-mail from someone I don’t know wanting a quote, to ask me questions for a school report, advice, etc. I do appreciate why I get those things, and I’m happy to respond, but the amount of effort required to respond is usually disproportionate to the effort put into the actual request.

    Anyway, I’m interested to see what you’ve got to say about it.

  4. I can just about keep on top of my work email, but when it comes to personal email I’m lousy.

    I just don’t have the time or motivation in the evening to write more than a few quick sentences, especially if it’s been an email-heavy day.

    And when it comes to work inquiries that are one sentence long… well, mostly they get deleted. Not the sort of client I’d probably want to work with anyway.

  5. gb says:

    I don’t get anywhere near the amount of email (well, at least personal, direct email… I get more spam than Hawaii), but I’ve worked hard on prioritising what I do get, mostly because a lot of it is now being forwarded to my blackberry, and the incessant new email noise is driving me nuts. First thing was to get some serious spam filtering (either through a first stage of Gmail’s filter or Spam Assassin on my local accounts, then a second stage of Spam Sieve on my mac), which has made a very noticeable difference. Then I set up two smart folders in Mail.app to show only Today’s Mail or Yesterday’s Mail. From there I either read and respond, read and delete or use MailTags to mark a priority and save for later (Those emails show up in a third smart folder, which I check look at on a daily basis). But even more importantly, I’m starting the daunting task of weeding out the emails I don’t need: the advertising emails that I signed up for when buying something online, the update/newsletter type stuff that I can more efficiently deal with via a feed, and short conversation / question emails that would be best sent via IM or a text message. I’ve got my fingers crossed that this will make email more useful and direct, and hopefully when my freelance workload picks up it’ll be easier to deal with.

  6. Dan says:

    Off topic…I’m trying to learn Flash by example. Feel like posting the .fla?

  7. Eric Meyer says:

    I hear ya, brother. My situation is, unfortunately, about the exact opposite of your Nirvana scenario: for me, “Spam” is checked, the speed is maxed at Fast, and the load is just two or three ticks below Overloaded– I do get off occasional replies.

    The only difference in my case is I don’t throw out anything legitimate. Instead, it all just sits in my Inbox (or one of dozens of folders to which filters auto-dump the stuff) to remind me how far behind I am, and how I’ll never, ever catch up. So to reflect my scenario, all the spam would get dumped in the Trash, and the incoming would just keep piling up and up and up and up and…

    This is why I’d love to see e-mail postage rates adopted, using a system where everyone could set their own rates. That way we could all just crank up our incoming price until the incoming mail dropped to a manageable level, and leave it there until it needed to be raised again. Hell, just for that, I’d volunteer to contribute most or all of my e-mail postage profits to charity.

  8. Sid Upadhyay says:

    Mike, that flash example is the shit!

    But on the topic at hand, I used to have a small problem about not replying certain emails. I think I actually once marked something as unread just so I would get to it later, later ended up being 2 months later… Now one I just make practicing the inbox while at school so I have a better idea of how much time I would need to set aside to actually reply and deal with things. I could help to also break it up into multiple emails all going to one account. So that lists and such go to one account, personal stuff to one, work related to one, and finally a public addy for the world to know. Then just have them all go to one main account and be sorted into folders, so you have a bit more order to it all. But that requires too much effort initially ;-)

    Best of luck with the madness!

  9. Don says:

    Well that explains why I haven’t heard from you … ;-)

    I find that having a couple of boxes really helps me. I drag the reply to’s to a box that will get replies. I instantly delete almost all jokes, etc.

    Spam filtering helps a lot. But like anything else, you need to invest the time where it matters and communication with people matters.

    Consider a priority email address for the hot projects or special people.

    I never have a problem responding to some kid wanting some info, but I usually answer much of it with a question … why ask me what you can find on google? If you want me to do the work for you … well, I probably won’t. On the other hand I think I have a pretty good sense when I am legitmately being asked for help by someone who needs a little. I’ve been helped by plenty of people over the years.

    Don’t write the long response right off. Send a quick one back that asks a follow-up question on context, etc. Answer the second one when it comes back.

    If someone asks you twelve questions, consider answering one or two and ask them if they can send them a couple at a time in the order of importance to more fully get answers. Amazing how that will get them off and running on their own.

    Those are a few of my tips Mike, but like asking what people think about the real estate market and getting people who answer, you just made a withdrawl … did you already have enough deposits? It’s how the web and the world are to my way of thinking. Do unto others as … well you know the saying.

    Have a great new year and you promised an update on your running …

  10. evanm says:

    This is sort of off-topic, but I’m still getting your ads even clicking through via bloglines. A mystery!

  11. Mike D. says:

    evanm: Do you have cookies blocked maybe?

  12. Jason Beaird says:

    If you were to:

    • Change the white planes to RSS Symbols
    • Change the green planes to comment bubbles
    • Change my Inbox to “Google Reader”
    • Add a “Marked as Read, but probably not…” sticker to the trashcan

    …then you’d have a good illustration of the way I feel about my RSS subscriptions now.

  13. Greg P. says:

    I used to work with a project manager who would email me something constantly (usually a stupid question) and then immediately walk over to talk about it – wanting to know if I had any questions about it (and I hadn’t even received the emails yet).

    This happened reguarly 10-15 times a day and usually started around 8:15am. It got old real quick.

    I feel your pain on abuse of email. I eventually just turned off my email client and only checked it a few times a day. Didn’t stop him from walking over though since he was only 2 cubes away.

  14. Isaac Lin says:

    Email isn’t unique as a way to have an unbalanced conversation — your boss can send you a request by phone, email, fax, instant message, or in person to, say, report on the suitability of technology X versus Y for project J and you can end up investing a lot more time producing the report than the requestor will spend digesting it. However, written communication is most effective for these types of requests (to avoid ambiguity), and email is for most more readily set up for archiving the requests than other methods.

  15. Matt Simpson says:

    That animation could describe my email situation too, if there was a slider to increase the amount of spam, anyway.

  16. John says:

    I have switched to gmail this year, since lots of spams. Gmail can save the spam emails in the spam folder, this function is very good. Just like there is no spam:)

  17. tommy says:

    How may I get a copy of the .fla???

  18. Sharaf says:

    i recommend adopting an email hours just like office hours. So people know you will check your email at certain times during the week, instead of expecting an instant reply. Say, 11 am-12:00 pm daily…something like that.

    one of my professors set an email office hours, which I thought was fair, since students could be emailing at all odd hours all week and waiting for a response.

    otherwise this email thing gets out of control…

    just my 2 cents…

  19. Mike D. says:

    Dan and tommy: Sure, you can grab the .fla here.

  20. Jason says:

    I think this is where the young teenage generation is going to win. Ask any teenager if they still use email. I don’t know the exact numbers but recently read that… well, not many do any more. They either use IM or send messages back and forth on sites like “myspace”. It will be interesting to see how this generation communicates electronically when they start entering the “real world” of “work”.

  21. Don says:

    Good point Jason! Have you worked with http://basecamphq.com/ yet? It or other products may be the answer.

  22. Call me naive but I love email.

    Compared to postage, it has the advantage of being speedy and free – standing up is not required. Although I guess receiving an email will never be as sexy as getting a letter; lawyers and lovers still prefer the commitment of putting ink onto paper.

    Compared to the telephone, it has the advantage of asynchronicity: it gives one the time to consider what one really wants to say and to “get it all out” before one is interrupted (although email loses the emotional cues of out-loud communication).

    Compared to fax… do i need to go on here?

    Compared to instant messaging, it has the advantage of higher emotional bandwidth (i.e. there isn’t the sense of “keeping someone waiting” forcing you to type sloppily and abbreviate crucial sentiments and ideas into irritating, smiley-sized nuggets), and the advantage of optional immediacy – one knows immediately an email has arrived but one is not expected to reply within seconds.

    Compared to myspace, blog comments et al. emails all percolate through to one central location (RSS notwithstanding I suppose), where they can be tackled, destroyed or procrastinated one-by-one as the whim dictates. I’m waiting for the RSS client with a “reply” button.

    The email client (and recently the lovely gorgeous gmail) has become the communications hub for, dare I say it, everyone in the professional world. I have faith that as spam filters become more sophisticated less time will be wasted.

    But let’s not forget, all communications media are subject to spam: junk mail and faxes spew onto my floor, TV ads interrupt my films, carpet sellers and “investment consultants” call me at strange hours of the night, and even good old person-to-person co-located synchronous verbal interchange has been spammed for millennia by street traders, office jokers and that ubiquitous old buffer sitting next to you on the bus (plane / ferry / camel train) who can’t accept that you’re reading a book and are therefore not interested.

    Let’s not give up on email yet.

  23. anon says:

    lets go postal

  24. Chris says:

    Sharaf in comment 18 wrote:

    “i recommend adopting an email hours just like office hours”

    This is the crux of the problem. Email is usually left on all the time we use our computers, so we are constantly waiting incase an important email comes in. But we’d never spend all day waiting for a new letter to arrive, would we? The post happens once or twice a day and that’s that.

    Considering the massive amount of spam that went round at the end of 2006, it’s clear that email is swamped to the point of being a lost medium. I came back from the Christmas break at work and had to wait several minutes before Outlook would even let me view any emails. It was processing over 800 new emails, nearly all of which were junk. Some mornings all my emails are junk. We must find a better system than this.

    Has any other medium in history been ruined by too much noise?

  25. Baxter says:

    Chris, I’ve got you beat… After one week away, I came back to more than 1,400 emails. About 90% were spam and immediately routed to trash, then it took me a full day to get through the rest.

  26. Don says:

    Chris you say

    I came back from the Christmas break at work and had to wait several minutes before Outlook would even let me view any emails. It was processing over 800 new emails, nearly all of which were junk.

    Of course you should! Get rid of Outlook. Try Thunderbird (free at Mozilla.org). It has an intelligent spam filter that learns over time. Then go to tools -> options -> find how often you check for mail and set it to every four hours. Now you get mail two, maybe three times during your work day. That will remove much of the urgency.

  27. Chris says:

    Ah, we have to use Outlook at work. I use Thunderbird at home!

    I’d love to set longer email checks, like you suggest, but we’re always emailing stuff around the office, so we need it as soon as possible. When the email system we use is very slow, we resort to memory sticks to copy files across! Our email is currently set to check every 5 minutes.

  28. Don says:

    Somebody makes that silly decision … go explain why it will benefit the company in saved time to make a switch to a different product. There are hundreds of time studies that can demonstrate the value.

    If you are checking for email every five minutes, no wonder you are slow. You are all banging on the server constantly.

    Even outlook supports double accounts. Create internal accounts distinct from your external account and check them on different schedules.

  29. Chris says:

    5 minutes is just what the settings were left at by the installation guy. We use a drive image that contains all the important programs such as Office and so on. If it were up to me I’d use Thunderbird. I did look into it but found it lacked one key feature, so no good.

    It’s not just us banging on the server either. We share it with hundreds of other staff in other buildings, along with a lot of students during term time.

    In fact we can use any email program we like, but [b]ONLY[/b] Outlook is officially supported. So if there’s a problem, there’s no help for other programs, though they may try to assist you. Since we get plenty of problems with Outlook, it makes sense to keep using it incase of a major problem. (Though likewise it makes sense not to use it!)

    The fact remains: if there was no spam, everything would probably run smoothly. Just think how much extra strain all these unwanted emails are causing on the internet! I hope one day it stops all the email servers working. Only then will something be done about it. Maybe people will move on to IM or website-based tools.

    The problem with leaving email altogether is that you’re likely to get an email out of the blue from a potential client. If you run your own internal system, it might not work for anyone else. (Due to browser or OS problems etc.) And you’d still have to advertise your address, so spammers could just invade that too.

    The only solution is a fixed list of people who can use the system. Right now, that wouldn’t work for us because new contacts are emerging every day from people who have heard of us, who might want to send us an email.

    Replacing email with telephone would be no use: we’d be swamped with calls. Replacing email with IM would be no good. A majority have never heard of it, and those who have would probably have to be taught how to use it. Again some systems might not be compatible with ours.

    I vote for a return to postal letters. It’s great fun writing them by hand, and now we have word processors and laser printers. Spammers are less likely to send junk mail through the post [b]as it will cost them[/b]. I get some junk mail at home, but it’s easy to drop it straight in the bin. And the volume of junk mail to wanted mail is never too much to cope with.

    Has anyone got any other ideas for a flexible, open system to replace emails? It needs to be private enough to stop [i]all[/i] spammers getting in. But open enough for unknown and new contacts to use it.

    Personally I think email formatting sucks anyway. Everyone’s system is slightly different, so HTML emails soon become a mess. Even text emails soon degenerate into a mass of extra lines and spaces and indents when sending replies. Who invented this rubbish? Why do we still use it?

  30. Don says:

    What key feature? Have you checked for available extensions?

  31. Chris says:

    Yes, I did at the time. Maybe things have changed since then, but I can’t see the whole office switching to a program just because I like it. Once it gets going, Outlook really ain’t that bad. All email programs are much the same.

    Our mistake (well, mine I guess) was to publish our main email address on our website. Spammers obviously got it from there. I’ve since used Hivelogic’s Enkoder to obscure any email addresses. I’ve no idea if that method really works or not, but at least I’ve tried.

  32. Chris,

    How could any system at once be private enough to stop spammers and open enough for “unknown and new contacts” to use?

    Either we keep our email / phone number / whatever private and only give it out to trusted contacts, or we advertise it to the world (normally to attract new business or friends) and risk marketeers using it to attempt to sell us things.

    I think the medium itself is irrelevant. The increase in the number of businesses which rely on cold contact marketing is the problem.

    The solution? I have no idea.

  33. I hate email!!!!!!!1

    I think email is a lazy and rude method for exchanging data. It puts processing responsibilities on the recipient that should be done by the sender. I can see it as a useful tool for staying in touch with Grandma, but it’s a poor method for assigning tasks or providing data that must be retrieved later. I’d like to see standards emerge for ticketing style communication that integrates with other apps, like calendars, address books, password vaults, etc.

  34. I agree that email falls down when used as a project management tool. It works best (in my life) for:

    a) admin / arranging mtgs / courtesies etc.
    b) discussing project details with clients prior to agreement
    c) placing orders with suppliers
    d) personal communications

    It is less use when it comes to disclosing data and assigning tasks. I hate it when clients attach thousands of badly named image files and word docs full of content; it wastes my time and theirs.

    A bulletproof format for sending and receiving task and appointment information would improve my life, as would a better way of requesting and transmitting files. I’ve considered FTP but my clients are either too busy or too IT illiterate to manage it, so they inevitably resort to attaching stuff without a thought for the state of my inbox.

    Anyone have any ideas?

    The funny thing is I don’t really have a problem with spam. All my company email is forwarded to Gmail and Outlook picks it up from there. This has the added advantage of storing all my incoming emails online so i can get to them from anywhere.

    Gmail seems to filter out most of the unsolicited emails, Outlook kills a few more, and the one or two survivors are easy to weed out myself. I use a contact form on my site instead of publishing my address so 90% of the spam I get is a result of giving my email address to florists and trading posts and suchlike.

    Why are you guys getting so much? How do these people get your addresses?

  35. W^L+ says:

    If you have to use Outlook, turn *off* the preview pane. Another idea (if your company supports it) is to use webmail (Outlook Web Access if your mail server is Exchange). I came back to work after a month off, and it took Outlook about twenty minutes to open. In the mean time, I couldn’t do any other work either. But if I just use the webmail interface, it is *much* faster, because it isn’t downloading anything.

  36. Tom Copeland says:

    I’m starting to use indi for all my important stuff… of course, I still subscribe to a bunch of lists, but all my small groups are getting their own channels.

  37. Tom Copeland says:

    And note that indi’s UI in Flash, too… proving that Flash is good for nifty animations and for big apps as well…

  38. Don says:

    I don’t quite get it. I went to the about pages in indi and you have to click a dozen more times in an effort to even get a basic understanding of what it might be and how it could help you. Plus it requires a download … kind of contrary to web 2.0 thought I think. I’ll stick with basecamp for a while longer for collaboration I think. Maybe you can give an overview of indi to get me to see more clearly, but I give up.

  39. Tom Copeland says:

    Sigh, yup, that web site isn’t as effective as we hoped. I think the idea was that folks would watch/listen to the videos, but it just takes too long and folks don’t want to hassle with it. We’ve got some guys working on another rev now.

    Yup, it’s not exactly web 2.0 in the sense of readable URLs and REST and all that. But it’s more about communication via secure channels. For example, I have a “family channel” through indi and my folks and my wife’s folks are in that same channel. When we want to share pictures of the kids with them, my wife drops pictures onto the channel and they get sync’d out to everyone. If there’s something new on a channel, they know that it’s from someone in the group.
    It’s like email, except without the spam… and without the message size limits… and so forth.

    I don’t think it’s a replacement for Basecamp. But it sure is handy for a way to communicate between the members of a small group.

  40. Indi looks like it’s cost some to develop but it’s interesting how it’s taking a web 1.2 offline flashdisk approach to something that should really be all nice and online – shouldn’t it? if it works it works but Tom, do you always remember to bring that flahsdisk to work with you?

  41. Tom Copeland says:

    Hi Tom – Yup, I think our main target now is just running indi on a good old desktop machine. We do still have “dock” and “undock” functionality if you want to transfer your indi over to a USB drive and tote it around, but the focus now is enabling spam-free communication via channels.
    One of the nice things about using Flash for the user interface, though, is that it’s cross platform – so in a pinch you can undock it from a Windows machine, plug it into a Mac, and you’re up and running. We’ll have Linux support soon… I’m plowing through GTK window API calls even now…

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