Back in my later days at BBC Worldwide in the early 2000s, I commissioned a piece of research to look at the habits that our staff had in their use of file storage and email. The work, looking back, was relatively unusual. I brought in a social scientist to do a piece of ethnographic research to understand how people worked. These days this approach is far more common. I’ll take a moment to reflect on my visionary approach, and then quickly remember that I’m a sociologist so things will always begin with a bit of ethnographic research.
The finding that has stuck in my mind from that research was a categorisation of types of behaviours which manifested in particular in the use of the email inbox. Our researcher Minna identified three predominant types of person: filers, purgers and hoarders.
Filers would be the sort of people who strived for the concept of Inbox Zero. When emails arrived, they would be filed into an appropriate category of folder as soon as possible. It wasn’t entirely clear whether there was a clear correlation between people filing, and people actually acting upon whatever was necessary from the content of the email. Filers would retrieve information by looking for it in the “right place”.
Hoarders would not be concerned with the unread message count on their email client. For hoarders, the inbox was their filing. They would be able to navigate their information through filtering and ordering – remembering an email title, sender or rough date to retrieve information when they needed it. There was no evidence that they were any more or less effective in retrieving information in comparison to the filers. Neither filers nor hoarders could understand how the other could possibly be effective in their use of email. Both hoarders and filers would store lots of data – in the days of highly restrictive email quotas, both would often ask for extensions.
Purgers were somewhere in between. Every so often (often faced with a notification that their email quota was about to run out) they would clear out swathes on information en masse. It wasn’t clear if purgers were lazy filers, compliant hoarders, or an entirely beast all together.
A decade and a half later, and I’m starting to see some insights coming from the user research that I have currently commissioned in the big project I’m working on in a government department. One thing that has come out early is that for many of the current group of users, email forms their primary place for storing and retrieving information. This isn’t too surprising – I’ve seen similar elsewhere. Especially in organisations where there is limited access to more modern work platforms, and data access via mobile is pretty much confined to email and calendar access, the inbox becomes the central place for working. Add in that exchange and collaboration on documents between people in external organisations is limited to being done by attachments, and the inbox will reign supreme.
Earlier in the week I ran a totally unscientific poll on Twitter asking the question if the inbox formed the primary place for storing information for people. In a group that I would expect to be a bit more technologically advanced than the norm, I was surprised to find 48% of the people who responded (about 50 in total) that they too saw their inbox as of primary importance. I’d have expected that to be lower.
So it’s going to be interesting to see if the filer/purger/hoarder behaviours are still in evidence today. And more interestingly if they maintain after a move into a cloud-based email environment where searching functionality becomes greatly enhanced, and storage quotas become so big as to become irrelevant for most people.
If I reflect on my own behaviours over the years, I’ve moved from being a purger to a hoarder. With the ability to reliably search my inbox, I hardly ever file anything. In the Google platform that I use for my business work, the automatic filtering of content by the tools also helps – spam, automated messages and other less important stuff gets filtered away from my line of sight. It’s mostly foolproof.
But then email is generally much less important to me these days. I manage information across multiple platforms – from the public space of Twitter, to Google Drive, to Slack to Trello to LinkedIn to… Managing platforms is a bigger concern today than managing emails (and a unified search across all of those and more would be the killer app).
Does any of this make me any more effective, though? Well, to the extent I can access just about everything from wherever I find myself, on whatever device I’m using – well, yes. Probably. But the challenges of information, task and relationship management today are very different from those that I had in the early 2000s when email was just about the only platform available.