email sucks

I’ve been using email for twenty years, and have been part of developing commercial email clients for at least twelve. Sadly, nothing much has changed over that time. How we have learned to deal with email clients has clouded our ability to accept improvements in how we communicate. There are many problems which have persisted over time, from hierarchical foldering of messages to the lack of a ubiquitous authentication system (which only SPAM has caused us to recently address).

For now I’m going to focus on a simple paradigm which almost all clients share: The Inbox versus The Sent folder. A typical email client places all received email in Inbox, and all sent email in a Sent folder. This drives me crazy. Why do I want to separate these messages based on their direction, in-versus-out? Is it not clear to me when I look at a message whether I sent it or received it? I’m fairly sure I’m not unique in my ability to know, maybe with a few clues, if I authored a message.

When do I care about messages I sent? When I want to find the response. Most of my outbound email falls into three categories: answer someone’s question, tell someone something, or ask someone a question. Clients have a solution, albeit very crude, to the first, known as ‘reply’. You initiate a ‘reply’ to a message and the client has the ability to know this message is a response. Sadly there is no way to differentiate the later two. In the case where I’m asking a question, I’m eagerly awaiting a response, and would like a way to connect my question to the answer. Searching through my ‘Inbox’ is a hammer-smashing approach to solving the problem.

So, what do I suggest? Glad you asked.

  1. When sending a message, I should be able to tell my client that this is a message to which I expect a reply – basically, my message is a question.

  2. The client should be able to present me a view of ‘question’ emails which are unanswered. This gives me a quick way to know who is ignoring me.

  3. Once a question message is answered, I should be able to easily find the answer message from the question message.