Why email often sucks

inboxOf all the systems we use at work, we probably spend more time in our email than anything else. I’d honestly say that at least 50% of my work is spent reading and responding to email. I’d wager that for some of you that percentage is even higher.

So, we spend a lot of time emailing, and this depresses people. Reading and writing email doesn’t feel like proper work – it ought to be a tool to let us do our work!

So why does email suck so much?

1) There is too much of it

This can’t be put down to just filter failure. There is too much email. The curse of the carbon copy is part of the issue here – for a number of reasons many people feel the need to copy all and sundry in on emails – often as a way to cover their own backs.

At the same time, most people working in big organisations have tiny mailboxes available to them. Regular users of services like Google Apps, with its vast 40GB mailbox size might be surprised to learn that some people in big organisations are only able to store 10MB of email at any one time.

The constant mithering about deleting email and reducing inbox size doesn’t help and only adds to the frustration.

2) People use it to do the wrong things

Here are a few examples:

  • Sending a short note to just one person? Maybe it would be better to send an instant message.
  • Can you see the person you’re emailing? If so, why not go and talk to them instead?
  • Sending a file round to lots of people to have a look at? Maybe it would be better to use a file sharing service like Dropbox.
  • Emailing a bunch of people to arrange a meeting? Maybe a scheduler like Doodle would be more effective.
  • Keeping an email because it has an important file attached to it? Save that file somewhere accessible where you can easily find it again
  • Emailing a group to have a discussion about a topic? Why not use a system that properly threads a conversation, so it’s much easier to see who is saying what to whom?
  • Hanging onto an email to remind you to do something? Use a task manager instead


3) Email software is often a bit rubbish

Big corporate email systems often don’t work terribly well, and sometimes encourage bad email behaviour.

One of the major problems is with search – hunting down a particular email is often very difficult. How many times have you seen an email covering previously agreed ground, because the email in which the original decision chain appeared in can’t be found?

A lot of modern email applications are seriously complicated too. Outlook for example has its fans as well as detractors, but nobody could suggest it features an uncluttered interface.

Given how much time we spend in these applications, it’s a real problem that they aren’t that bit more intuitive to use.

4) Lack of context

Once you get past one or two replies to a conversation, email conversations lose their thread pretty quickly, especially when different people get added halfway through.

One of the innovations in the last few years to help tackle this problem is conversation threading, where all the messages relating to a specific thread are kept together. However this is usually implemented – as far as I can see – using the subject line as the key for the thread, which means that unrelated emails that use the same subject line get caught up in the net.

Also – how many people do you know who just hit reply to an irrelevant email to send one on another topic, without bothering to edit the subject line?

5) Vague etiquette

While nobody would ever admit to not knowing how to use email, there are some vague areas where it’s pretty hard to be sure what you should do.

How about:

  • if you are cc’d (or even bcc’d) on an email, does that mean you should reply, or are you included just for info?
  • Is top posting allowed these days, or ought every reply be inline?
  • Is it acceptable for someone replying to an email to add people to the distribution, or even take them off?
  • When should you reply all, and when not?


…there’s nothing wrong with email itself. It remains a tremendously helpful way of sending information from one place to another in a speedy way, where an instant response isn’t required.

Often it is just poorly used, and that’s probably because the right tools for the job just aren’t available. More on that in another post.