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It pays to study the habits of your email users

Spot the filers and the pilers

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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 amount, it is safe to say that most of us have to deal with a lot of email traffic and that an increasing proportion of it comes with chunky attachments. This raises the question of what we do with all these messages after 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, lawsuits and various other disputes.

On a day-to-day basis, though, each of us still has to think about the messages that accumulate in our own personal inboxes and email stores.

In this respect, people can be divided into two categories: the filers and the pilers.

Flustered about clutter

Filers, as the name suggests, are the more organised among us. At the extreme end of the scale, these are the people who strive to maintain an empty inbox. They can’t relax if new messages sit there without being dealt with and begin to panic if more than half a dozen accumulate in their inbox.

Peer over their shoulder and you will see folders with labels like Urgent, Pending, Awaiting Response, along with a complex hierarchy of other folders relating to various activities.

Of course not all filers are so obsessive, but if you have a comprehensive set of folders relating to projects, customers, suppliers and the like, and you put stuff in them daily, then you are most definitely a filer.

If, however, you have the folders but use them only when your inbox gets overloaded, at which point 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 who are proud of the many hundreds or even thousands of messages sitting in their inbox. “Go on,” they say, “ask me to find something.” Then they go into the advanced search function, and….

You might as well go and get a cup of coffee because it may take some time

Well, what happens next depends on the email client and server they are using. If it is an online email service with a 25GB mailbox limit, then they are cooking on gas and will probably fish out what they are looking for straight away provided they get the search terms right.

If it is an old Outlook and Exchange setup with a small mailbox and a limited search capability, they may have to click on one of their multiple 2GB 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 it may take some time.

Decisions, decisions

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 facing the filers 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. 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 several locations without having to physically copy it is attainable – assuming your email system supports such capability.

For pilers, the developments that matter the most are big mailboxes and email search functions that work reliably and predictably. The fly in the ointment, though, is mobile devices' 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, but most people don’t yet have that luxury.

Suits you, sir

Discussing user stereotypes in this way may seem a bit tongue in cheek, but categorising users does help to identify functionality requirements that 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. Requirements may vary, for example, depending on whether they involved in 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 definiing requirements.

If you are looking to replace or upgrade your email system, then it is 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.

In the meantime, we would be interested your experiences. Are you a filer or a piler, or do you match neither of these stereotypes? What kind of behaviour do you see across your user base and how well does your email system cope with it?

Give us your comments below. ®

  • Dale Vile is research director and CEO of Freeform Dynamics

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