This post is from January 11, 2014

Email is awful. It tries to do too much:

  • Work communication
  • Distribution lists
  • E-commerce confirms
  • Calendar invites
  • Casual conversations
  • Keeping in touch
  • Notes to self
  • Planning and logistics
  • File sharing

Each of the above has a different level of urgency, length and level of detail. But all are transmitted via the same carrier, email. We are left on our own to determine who to include, how to write the subject and what to put in the body, knowing full well that the different people to which we send these emails have expectations for the platform that differ greatly from ours! As the extreme example, I remember a McKinsey Director who didn’t carry a computer and had his assistant manually print out all of his emails; communicating with him was a challenge! It’s no wonder that so many emails are never sent, missed, ignored or receive reactions not intended by the sender.

Lucky for us though, email is on the decline. A recent study at Purdue University tracked college students for a semester and found that they used email for only six minutes a day. Even though no one email killer exists, this article will cover how email affects our brains and why many smaller and more specific platforms have gradually relieved email of many use cases.


The steep psychological cost of email’s flaws

Email’s failure is a problem of design. Email is efficient for machines and networks – in fact it was a truly innovative technology in 1993, but the creators failed to understand psychology. Logic trumped human behavior and Human-Centered Design, and we’ve been living with the problem ever since.

Email causes anxiety. Modern humans process a volume of data that is hundreds of times greater than that which our brains evolved to handle. This data overload swamps our amygdala, convincing our primitive brain (the amygdala is part of the limbic system, which dates back to early mammals) that we are under threat – fast data streams usually signified danger for our ancestors. Though certainly our only danger is information overload, email regularly triggers our fight-or-flight response. This response then prevents us from acting on any decision reached by the neocortex – suddenly our brains have subconsciously, but intentionally, cut off higher level thought processes. Daniel Goleman coined the term ‘Amygdala hijack’ to describe this process in his book on emotional intelligence. As this process pertains to email, the exact centers that we need to understand the diversity of the modern inbox are shut down by our inboxes!

What we want in our communication platforms

Platforms need to cue behavior – we want platforms that focus our cognitive load. This doesn’t have to be a linear set of choices and rewards, but can be free expression bounded by very limited but deliberate rules – think Twitter with its 140 character limit, Pinterest’s method of pinning, or Snapchat’s limited but central photo capabilities.

The addictive uncertainty of email – there are scary parallels between the psychological response of going through your inbox and pulling a slot machine – remains in these newer platforms. On Twitter and Pinterest, try not to scroll, and on Snapchat try not to view an unopened snap. But gone is the anxiety of how to process and create information on these platforms. The platforms simplify choices and cue how we should behave. We’re not spending as much effort thinking about group formation (who to include) and how to communicate (length and content are more standardized).

The future of email

I predict that there will be no one ‘great’ email killer, at least given current technology. Referring back to the list at the beginning of this piece, email does too much to be replaced by one platform. Any one platform that tries to replace email will suffer from the same disadvantages and cause the same psychological toll as email does today. Instead, we will continue to see beautifully designed, very specific applications steal away individual responsibilities from email. While this means that we will manage an increasing number of channels in our electronic communication, each channel will have a very specific use, and we will behave on that channel differently than we interact with other apps and channels.

The future will be increasingly filled by apps and platforms that take advantage of design principles and features like pattern recognition, beauty/delight, appropriate compulsion loops, limited choice and status creation. The future is bright!


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