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Die, E-mail, Die! – Or Getting Rid of E-Mail Chaos

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A decade ago it was still nice to be in a work environment, where people knew how to communicate by e-mail, but nowadays it’s more of a curse. E-mail should damn well die and depart as the main communication channel when working, especially when there are so many better and more appropriate alternatives nowadays. Here are some I’ve found – more hints are welcome!

From since day one, when I’ve had to actually work and accomplish anything via e-mail, I’ve had one one maxim: if there are more than 100 e-mails in my inbox (read or unread), I’ve lost the control of my life. Even in the times of Pine and dinosaurs I had pretty efficient filtering systems that divided all the numerous e-mail lists into their own folders and kept my inbox as a sort of “to-do / to be reacted” list. As the years passed, the amount of e-mail just kept on escalating, and I ended up having 3-4 different e-mail accounts with a steady stream of stuff flowing in, 90% of which was just total crap. I signed out of all e-mail lists where there is actual conversation, and now that I joined two of them after a long time, I remembered how much I hate them.

I’ve tried to find alternatives to e-mail, but for some reason even many tech-savvy early adopter types are reluctant to try new things, especially new web services. “E-mail is just so much handier!” No. No it’s fucking not. The fact that you are used to using it doesn’t make it actually handy – after all, you can cut boards with an axe pretty well with enough practice.

The Problems With E-Mail

E-mail is a total damn mess when you have to organize anything bigger than sending a short note to a person for five main reasons:

  1. The sheer volume. There is just too much of it going around right now, which leads to problems with filtering and organizing it. If you have an e-mail conversation with 10 people, the sheer amount of messages that can fly around during a day is simply daunting.
  2. No proper way of threading conversations, which leads to no coherent conversation history. Yeah, theoretically there is a kind of threading and Gmail is doing something with this, but the system is still messy and inflexible. Even being able to clump conversations together in a flexible way would help here, but so far I haven’t found a satisfactory tool to this, plus it’s just a band-aid.
  3. No way to summarize things properly. I think we all have been in a situation where 10 people have tried to agree or argue some point, arrange a trip or whatever, and ended up in a situation where all the snippets of information are spread around in an e-mail pile 50 messages deep – mixed up with other such conversations.
  4. Moving around files of documents is a nightmare. You can’t, or shouldn’t, e-mail anything bigger than a few megabytes, and collaborating on a document by e-mailing doc-files around is a sure way to create a total version confusion and chaos.
  5. Technical problems. People are still using POP-email, which fetches the messages to their computer. So if the computer crashes, all the messages are gone, or in a best case scenario there’s just a total confusion of e-mails between the different computers the person uses. Then, of course, there’s the problem with smtp-servers for outgoing mail.

The result: a massive information overload and a ton of valuable time spent browsing the inbox up and down like a cylon who’s eye was mistakenly installed vertically. Yeah, yeah, you can correct some of these things by properly configuring the e-mail and doing this and that – but a tool shouldn’t be useful only after a shitload of tinkering, but more or less out of the box. People don’t want to – and shouldn’t have to – make hobbies of fixing their tools.

Recognizing the Different Needs for Communication

One big problem with e-mail is that people are trying to use to it handle everything out there, when in reality it’s a communication tool that fits only certain purposes. This is kind of understandable, since people are generally stubborn and lazy motherfuckers, who’d rather crawl through a roomful of broken glass than risk feeling stupid by having to learn something new.

In order to get rid of the tyranny of e-mail the first step is recognizing the different ways we communicate, and the different needs for sending out messages. Here’s a short list, not by all means inclusive, but reflecting the needs I’ve had as a very active freelancer and communicator.

  1. Sending out short notes, asking short questions that requires a quick answer, casual conversation. “Are you at home now?” “Did you get the contract?” Just chatting with people.
  2. A serious multi-person conversation about some issue, where people are trying to reach an agreement or make a point.
  3. Organizing and assigning tasks and following their progress.
  4. Scheduling something.
  5. Sending out files.
  6. Collaborating on a document.

As you can see, these are wildly different ways of communicating that can lead to bottlenecks and total chaos in the inbox. No wonder some people think having only 1000 unread e-mails in their inbox is a good situation overall.

Here are some suggestions to addressing these different needs. The list is by no means comprehensive and the tools here may not be the best ones out there, but this is just an example of options that are available. Depending on the company, using open tools like this may be against the policy or suspect from a security point of view, but as far as I know, many of them have some kind of non-web installable alternatives. I personally used to have a rather tight tinfoil hat about using anything I don’t administer or install myself, but the more I’ve had to work in different kinds of environments, the looser that hat has become under the pressure of realities. Even if there’s a free, open installable tool, there’s necessarily no budget in a small company to hire someone to really administer it. In situations like this you just can’t control everything and do everything by yourself.

Short Notes and Casual Conversations – Phone & Skype

If you need a quick reply to a simple question, pick up the damn phone. Yeah, I know – I personally hate and loathe talking on the phone myself, but this is a skill that is good to learn again. Or send an SMS, that’s far less intrusive.

Even better, download Skype and set it up. The good thing about Skype is that you can create persisting multi-person conversations that don’t vanish when you shut down the program or the computer, which makes it handy for teams to communicate. If one person is away for a moment, he can see the conversation that took place during his absence when he launches Skype and logs in the next time – so they are kind of IRC channels or chatrooms which you can create easily.

In my current job, where people are working in different cities and even different countries, Skype is hands down the most important communication tool I have, and it has saved us a ton of totally useless e-mail. Plus it ties the team together in a really nice way.

Skype, of course, enables voice and video calls for free, which are great for a more personal chat, interviews and even telepresence in events.

Long Multi-Person Conversations – Internal Message Boards

The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’d like the idea of company internal message boards. The simple reason for this is that they preserve the conversation history, make the conversation easier to follow and don’t get cluttered. The conversation threads stay nicely together and with a suitable message board software you can create private, semi-public and public areas for conversation for different teams. Setting up a simple phpbb-board on your company website takes about 20 minutes and that’s it.

This solution is not without its problems and there is still no ideal tool for this, as far as I know. The thing that seems to be missing from most of these is a chance to create impromptu forums for just a few people. Say, a few employees want to talk with their boss about a problematic person in their team – surely they’d like to keep this private and not send a message to the whole team about it. These are solvable problems though – why not meet the boss face to face or talk this over on Skype?

Organizing Tasks and Following Them – Basecamp and Teambox

Trying to organize an follow tasks via e-mail is a real fail boat situation waiting to happen, but there are quite handy tools to solve that problem – and they are even free or at least cheap. Two good examples on this category are Teambox and Basecamp.

Teambox online collaboration software from Pablo Villalba on Vimeo.

In the simplest forms these collaboration or project management tools are just to-do lists where you can write up a task, give it a deadline and assign it to a person, who can then mark it as “done” when the task is complete. You can create different projects into these services, see with one glance who is doing what at each given moment, whose plate is full and whose plate is empty, and most importantly, what pending tasks you yourself have. When you are using a system like this, you don’t have to read through dozens of messages between your team members about something that’s not really relevant to your tasks, on the off chance someone has forgotten to change the subject of the e-mail he had asked you to do something in middle of that conversation – and then yells at you when it’s not done. *Cough*, not like this has ever happened to me.

These project management tools also offer extra functionality, such as integrating with your calendar, the chance to share documents and files, internal message boards, etc., which of course increases their value as a communication tool.

Scheduling Things – Doodle

I’m an active role-player, as is a big chunk of my circle of friends and acquaintances, so trying to arrange a date that fits the schedules of ten hyper-busy people is a common problem. This is an another task that’s better handled with a suitable online tool. The first one that got widespread attention is Doodle, where you can create date based polls which you can send to a group of people. Just try it out – makes agreeing on a day far easier than a zillion e-mails sent back and forth.

Finnish readers may want to take a look at sumpli.com.

Sending out Files – Dropbox

One of the biggest problems that face ordinary net users is how to share files that are slightly too big to send by e-mail. So far the easiest solution I’ve found is a free service called Dropbox. It’s basically an online disc drive that gives you a few gigs of space for free, and 50 gigs for a reasonable price of $9,99 per month. You can create private folders of files which you can share with people you specify, or a public folder where you can share files to whoever you like. What makes Dropbox really handy is that it’s not only a net service, but it can synchronize its contents on your computer. Essentially it creates a folder on your hard drive, and to share an item to people you just need to copy it there. Dropbox has saved my sanity for more than once, when I haven’t had to go and figure out which server can I upload a file on for sharing.

Collaborating on Documents – Google Docs

Collaborating on a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet by e-mailing it back and forth is a sure way to a version control hell, where nobody is soon sure which one is the latest version of the file, plus it creates a ton of unnecessary and heavy e-mail traffic. A good and handy alternative to that whole hassle is Google Docs, Google’s completely free office program suite that works on a web browser. It offers tools for creating text documents, spreadsheets and so on, and sharing them to either everybody on the net or just the people you specify. It also makes it easy for people to collaborate on the document: multiple people can edit the same document and you can see clearly what they are writing and doing, real time. Google Docs makes it also possible to upload and download the documents in many formats, including Microsoft Office.

Google Docs is probably the single biggest sanity saver for me during the last five years of my professional life.

What about wikis, you say? Well, I love wikis personally, but there’s the small company problem in here: who will install it, upgrade it and administer it. Nevertheless, in a bigger company with a dedicated IT budget and a proper IT support, a wiki is a wonderful option for generally sharing structured information.

The Biggest Problem: People

Finding usable services is all well and good, but the biggest obstacle is still ahead: getting people to use these. Generally people are resistant to change, stubborn and unwilling to learn new things. When you try and implement any of these, you’ll get to hear that it’s just too confusing, it’s been tried but people just don’t use it, there’s no sense in diversifying e-mail to million platforms, things like this just don’t work, this is a different and non-technical corporate culture, this is useless since people should be able to organize their own stuff, and since leeches were good for my grand-grand-father, they’re good for me – and blah blah blah. Really often, when you get people to use these things, they end up being happy to use them and you might even get a grudging thanks for introducing them to this stuff. Some people are diehards, though, but can’t catch them all.

Of course, there are valid reasons for not using stuff like this, like information security, legal reasons or just there being no reason to change a working thing for something new just because it’s new. It really pays to listen to that criticism, but sometimes it’s hard to tease these out from mere suspicion.

E-mail – What’s It Good For?

In spite of the inflammatory subject and tone of the blog post, the problem here is not e-mail in itself – just the fact that it’s in many places used in a suboptimal way. There are still uses for e-mail, and it’s a good overflow system for many of the tasks mentioned in this blog post. It’s a good way for an unknown person or a new client to contact you, getting notifications from other services, as a way to identify you when registering into on-line stuff, and so on. It’s by no means useless, but neither is it an one-size-fits-all tool like far too many people are currently using it. By funneling tasks to more suitable services e-mail might again reclaim it’s usability and find it’s niche as a nice, flexible messaging service.

I’m also not suggesting that anyone just starts to use all the services I mentioned in here. They are meant to be examples and illustrations of things that are available out there, and that may answer some problem or need in the organization or the process. If something works really well by e-mail, there’s no need to touch it – don’t fix it if it’s not broken. If, on the other hand, the project is continuously struggling when collaborating on documents via e-mail, or trying to keep tabs of a tasks and project flow that’s handled on mail, or people are just drowning into their inbox, maybe it would be worthwhile to check what other tools there are.

Hints and Tips Welcome

The services here are just some I’ve ran into, used professionally and in hobbies, and found very useful. If you have any suggestions, critique, points about legal or practical stuff about using third party services commercially, or anything like that, please drop a note in the comments section and share the info with everybody – don’t just comment the link on your friend’s Facebook wall :)

4 Comments

  1. Mostly not disagreeing you with the basic problems with email and organizing things, and I definitely see what you’re aiming for here. However the proposed solutions have problems of their own. On a small scale, they do not matter, but taken a bit further they carry serious implications.

    Email is a protocol for sending electronic messages. The key point here is that it is a protocol – an agreed-upon set of rules for machines to deliver messages. This means that nobody can own it, anybody can implement it, anybody can use it.

    Most of the described alternatives are products provided by a single company. They are not protocols and they have no aim of becoming such. This means that they are controlled by a single entity. There are numerous problems caused by this. Starting with the most obvious, if the provider goes away, everything you’ve invested in the service might as well. At the very least you will have to move your data out of that service and into another, which is something of a chore.

    An additional problem is that products will never become standards. They might become de-facto standards for a time (e.g. Facebook), but if a comptetior springs up, they will likely not communicate with each other. If you want to leave a service, you will have to export and import your data, and there is no guarantee that standards for this are available.

    Most importantly, I have no wish to become a customer of (or more accurately, an item to be marketed by) company X in order to be able to do Y. Admittedly this is a personal bit of being difficult (although I do find it fairly Dickian whenever somebody says to me basically that if I’m not a customer of Facebook then I cannot with them) but it has more severe implications in a professional environment. Whereas you, as an individual, might trust Google to do no harm with your shopping lists and the like, a business or an academic institution probably shouldn’t be as trusting.

    “I personally used to have a rather tight tinfoil hat about using anything I don’t administer or install myself, but the more I’ve had to work in different kinds of environments, the looser that hat has become under the pressure of realities.”

    The reality that you started out with — that of email being the blunt instrument wielded for everything — is something that really should change. However, I do not think that a series of discrete tools that do not communicate with each other and are owned by discrete interests are the answer. Professionally I’ve found it easy to replace some functions of email with an IM sytem and a collaborative document editor – but they’re ones that I administer and that are not dependent on any outside party. Privately I like to do this as well, but this is a admittedly a geek-only option. I have no final answers, but I do not think that using different non-communicating services owned by discrete interests in their own walled gardens is the way to go.

    “Generally people are resistant to change, stubborn and unwilling to learn new things.”

    Here’s a thought experiment: How many new (internet-based communication and/or collaboration) systems should a slightly-better than average peson be willing to learn per year? (My professional opinion: a maximum of one, and even that will be pusing it.)

  2. You know, I agree with most of what you said here – this situation is not far from ideal and I have an active dislike of proprietary de facto standards also.

    But the point about realities is, what options are there currently? This is a honest question? I did spend quite time looking for usable open source and freeware options based on open protocols, but I’m starting to believe such things don’t exist. Please prove me wrong.

    The thing is, certain tools are needed to keep things functioning. So far the situation is subobtimal in the sense that those tools are third party proprietary solutions. Then there’s the question of resources: if you have a small company, who’s going to install, update, upgrade and administer all the systems?

    If someone knows of an installable and self-administerable open source management system, I’m all ears!

  3. What we run at work to organize stuff:

    – Active Directory for username and password management. If I had to do this for free, I’d use OpenLDAP. One username and one password for users.

    – MediaWiki as a documentation platform. (I dislike MediaWiki myself, and prefer WikkaWiki, but basically any wiki will do. It can be set up to authenticate from our Active Directory or from an OpenLDAP-service – proof of concept is there, just not used yet. No new passwords or usernames required for users –> they will use it. With authentication can be used from all over the world.

    – OpenFire server for Jabber IM protocol (earlier I ran IRC, but it was too scary for some). Essentially Jabber is IRC. I’ve gotten my team of 12 to use it for simple “hey, what’s up with this service not working” and “let’s move the meeting from Room A to Room B” with no hassle. Easy to use from within and without. Authenticates with AD / OpenLDAP.

    – EtherPad for collaborative document editing. Only from the internal network, no authentication. Possibly could be set up to authenticate.

    What we don’t have but need:

    – Scheduling. Doodle it is, but I dislike having to rely on a separate service. Then again, nothing vital goes here.

    – Task organization and project management. Have looked into some of this, but nothing satisfactory has turned up yet.

  4. Temperament not suited to blog postings. Concisely recapping notions mentioned elsewhere:

    SparkleShare (http://sparkleshare.org/) looks like something that might (eventually) answer the impromptu file share problem. Currently not quite there, and not suited for support staff that’s not familiar with deploying SSH RSA keys or git repositories.

    Handwaving and speculation with colleague produced an idea of setting up an XMPP robot client that follows users by request into impromptu, subject specific chat rooms, logs the results, and publishes the dialogue in a wiki/other publishing system. Add to this the capability to store, offer, and keep record of file transfers, and some of the crucial bits of the traceable, searchable, referable discussion/knowledge base are there. Practical problems to solve are integration with authentication systems (easy for in-house staff, a bit more involved for e.g. customers with limited access rights), publication systems (perhaps doable with a JCR compliant service?), and so on up to more work based tasks such as editor duties to refine generated content into something more suitable for general audiences. Not aware of a pair of easily configured self-hosted services to accomplish this. Will pounce the moment such a combo makes an entrance.

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