You know that person, right? The one with folders, upon folders, upon folders – nested in (seemingly) super-organised inboxes with a place for every email, and every email in its place. Well next time you need to rattle their cage, show them IBM Research’s study, Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding.
Diving headlong into one of the greatest pain-points of email (filing and data retrieval practices), IBM Researchers looked at how different approaches to email management impact our ability to recall (or ‘refind’) emails in the future.
Given that the whole point of filing is to allow people to retrieve information with ease – at some future date – the findings of this study prove pretty interesting… and they might just turn your current filing practices on their head.
Preparatory vs Opportunistic Approaches
The study looked at two specific behavioural approaches to email – preparatory methods and opportunistic strategies.
The study found some people choose to “expend considerable preparatory effort creating complex folder structures to promote effective refinding,”¹ while others rely on opportunistic methods like broad-based metadata and text searches, scrolling, filtering and conversation threading.
So how do these approaches differ?
The Preparatory Approach
Well, the preparatory approach is how many organisations and workers already manage their emails. Messages get filed away into highly-structured folders and sub-folders which, at first glance, appear to assist with future recall of that data.
The difficulty with this approach, however, is that when searching for an email at a later date, it can only be logically retrieved by approaching the search from the same perspective as was used to store it.
By way of example, let’s take XYZ Professional Services Firm. The firm files all client emails into folders on a shared network. Each client has its own folder, which is subdivided into financial year folders and then further subdivided into a folder for each individual matter or job.
This preparatory approach means the network looks highly organised. It breaks down, however, if a worker needs to refind all emails about a particular matter for a client, regardless of the financial year. It also breaks down if they wanted to retrieve all emails on a specific topic, regardless of the client, or when an email involves more than one client, or more than one ongoing job.
In this scenario, the considerable preparatory activity (i.e. the building and maintenance of the folder structure) wrongly assumes that every email has one discrete and logical location to be filed, and it fails to take into account the many ways a worker may approach refinding the message in the future.
This all results in the duplication (or triplication…) of data and storage growth for our organisations. Worse yet, it needlessly chews up our precious time for very little gain.
The Opportunistic Approach
Counter to preparatory habits, is the opportunistic approach to retrieval.
Opportunistic methods don’t worry about structure when storing the information. Rather, emails are stored in bulk, in a single location.
Without the rigidity of folders, emails can be a part of many different possible groupings at any given time; that is, an email can exist in infinite theoretical ‘locations’, without needing to be stored in several different folders, in duplicate. An email can concern both Client A and Client B, or regard Matter A and Job Z simultaneously. And, best of all – how an email is stored is open to interpretation right up until the moment of retrieval.
Emails are easily recalled based on search terms applied by the user, in the moment. And, with little-to-no human intervention required to store the information in the first instance, the opportunistic approach is also great for personal and corporate productivity.
So what were the findings of the study?
Well – next time you think about creating a new folder to stash away your emails, don’t.
The data from the IMB study strongly support the case for opportunistic access, and found that those “who create complex folders, indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success [emphasis added].”¹
In other words, whilst preparatory methods for managing email are still very common in most workplaces, they’re counter-productive; they don’t actually make it any easier to recall a message in the future – and sometimes they even make it harder.
¹ Steve Whittaker, et all. Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding. (IBM Research – Almaden). May 2011. http://people.ucsc.edu/~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf.
Published - October 6, 2016