Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Organizing your Email into Folders is a Waste of Time

Here's a brand new paper from a conference in Vancouver last month:

Whittaker S., Matthews T., Cerruti J., Badenes H., Tong J. .: "Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding"

They instrumented the email client of about 345 users of Bluemail, an email client built by IBM research, and identified two subsets of users:

  1. Users that do a lot of foldering (organizing email into folders)
  2. Users that don't use foldering and rely mostly on search.

There are a bunch of great results in this paper, but let me zero in on the most surprising result.

The authors looked at operations where the user would try to find a particular email, either by starting a search, or browsing and scrolling through folders. They looked at whether the user was successful in finding the email he or she was looking for. "Success" was defined as opening an email and reading it for more than 29 seconds (the usual amount of time it takes to read two paragraphs of text), or if the user did something to the email after opening it. For example, opening an email and replying to it would count as a "success" as well.

The results are surprising: Both groups - folderers and non-folderers - found the email they were looking for 88% of the time. Non-folderers found their emails faster too: In 66 seconds instead of 73 seconds.

Organizing your Email into Folders doesn't make finding your emails easier or faster. People that put emails into folders spend more time organizing their inbox, more time searching their email, and don't find emails more often than people who just use search.