“Taking Email to Task” – PARC HCI research

A comment on: Taking Email to Task

This paper notes that email has morphed from simple asynchronous msg exchange to a means of managing tasks. For example, users have been observed sending themselves email as reminders, since they know that they scan their inbox several times a day. Similarly, users forward msgs to themselves to keep the msg within the visible area of the inbox. The inbox is also used as a file store — users will send themselves an email with an attachment as a way of quickly accessing the file during the run of the task.

Based on these observations, a prototype was developed that:

– Allows senders to indicate a deadline, and all recipients of this msg see a progress bar in the inbox showing how much time remains for this item

– The inbox and outbox are shown in one view, since the two together represent current tasks

– Attachments appear as their own item in the inbox, which sidesteps the problem of att’s being hidden within msgs

These features (and others) were implemented as an Outlook plugin, and a study was done across a variety of users in diff locations. The added features were found to be generally very helpful, although most users stopped using it due to the plugin not supporting the full range of Outlook features they had become dependent on.

The problem examples suggest some features that the authors didn’t discuss:

– Allow recipients to create a summary meaningful to them that would be shown in place of the subject text (in a diff color)…useful for archiving how-to info and such

– Allow senders to mark some recipients as “responsible”. The inbox would also be split into 4 bins: MyTasks, OthersTasks, Unread, and Read. Any msg where I’m marked responsible would go to MyTasks from Unread once I read it; similarly for msgs where only others are responsible, for OthersTasks. The bins help avoid important msgs falling out of the visible area (and MyTasks/OthersTasks/Unread should expand to fit new msgs until full, and then pulse).

– Items with responsible parties should also have a status: {assigned, accepted, declined, finished}…this is a lightweight form of bugtracking/task resolution.

– Changes to deadlines, those responsible, or status should cause the display of that item in everyone’s display to change

This paper fired my already keen interest in Personal Information Management tools (“PIMs”) even further.