Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rehabilitating a killer app: How Gmail & Outlook help address email’s shortcomings

While email is often called the killer application of the Internet, it is not without flaws, leading a researcher to declare: “E-mail is a serial-killer application! It is seriously overloaded and has been co-opted to manage a variety of tasks that it was not originally meant to support” (Ducheneaut & Bellotti, 2001, p.37). In a seminal study by Whittaker and Sidner, they found email was “overloaded” by three user functions it was not designed for: task management, personal archiving, and conversations (Kiesler, 1997, p.278). This critique of email is applicable today. However, a critical examination of functionality currently available in Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail demonstrates that these applications offer innovative ways to address these critiques.

Task management refers to the ability of reminding a user of outstanding tasks, recalling related details, and tracking progress and deadlines (Kiesler, 1997, p.278). Whittaker and Sidner found that a crowded inbox makes task management difficult, yet users were reluctant to file or delete messages to alleviate this issue. They proposed that email software should allow the flagging of actionable messages (Kiesler, 1997, p.292) and permit users to set reminders. In a comparison between Outlook and Gmail, Outlook surpasses Gmail in this regard. Gmail allows users to flag messages by clicking on a star icon or colour-code incoming messages based on user-specified filters, not only does this help visually prioritize messages, thus allowing users to keep messages in their inbox, but draw attention to those needing follow-up. Outlook takes this functionality further - allowing messages to not only be flagged, but also permitting users to specify a due date and seamlessly integrates with a calendar and specific task management application.

Email’s second problematic area is personal archiving, which Whittaker and Sidner state is “cognitively difficult” (Kiesler, 1997, p.285). While some users studied kept all messages in their inbox or only periodically filed, this resulted in inboxes so full that retrieval became difficult. They recommended full-text search and automatic message threading. While both Gmail and Outlook offer full-text search, only Gmail makes archiving less cognitively challenging. Gmail, by giving a large amount of free storage space and by offering prominent one-touch “Archive” functionality, allows users to park messages that can be retrieved easily by clicking “All Messages”. Additionally, Gmail offers users the choice to “label” and thus group emails by one or more terms. This improves archiving by allowing users to store a message in multiple places. However, if too many labels are applied, message retrieval could be complicated.

The final issue regarding user functionality itemized by Whittaker and Sidner is conversations. Conversations may involve many overlapping multi-person, multi-topic messages that can be difficult to follow. Whittaker and Sidner cite the lack of convention in including message context; this has been addressed by Outlook and Gmail by defaulting to include a message’s history when replying or forwarding. Again, Gmail goes further by offering the ability to “file an entire thread, but leave a representative message from that thread in the inbox” (Kiesler, 1997, p.292). Gmail does this by automatically grouping messages on the same thread into one message in the inbox. Thus not only is inbox clutter reduced, but conversations can be more easily followed.

Despite this retrofitting of email applications to accommodate actual usage, I believe ingrained user behaviour will be hard to change. Users will still likely struggle with overloaded email. Users can look to Gmail and Outlook for assistance – two email programs that finally address the problems identified by Whittaker and Sidner in 1996. While Gmail is free and generally outperforms Outlook in the above functions, Outlook might be more useful to business users for its close integration with calendar and task management applications.


Ducheneaut, N., & and Bellotti, V. (2001). E-mail as habitat: An exploration of embedded personal information management. Interactions, 8(5), 30-38. New York, N.Y.: ACM.

Whittaker, S., & Sidner, C. (1997b). Email overload: Exploring personal information management of email. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet (pp. 277-295). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

No comments: