I came across a recent study by IBM Research that asks “Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding”. The study of 345 users was contrasting the results of finding emails later between 2 groups of users - those who spend considerable effort creating folder structures and filing emails and those who rely on the alternative methods of finding emails such as search and threading.
The study found that those who spent time creating the folder structures did rely on those classification structures when locating email in the future. But all of that preparatory work didn't result in an improved retrieval success. The research found that search and threading promote more effective finding.
Research has shown that refinding an email is important because people frequently defer acting on email. This could be because they either don't have all of the information they need to respond adequately, other higher priority emails that need a response or just simply higher priority work items. Prior research also identified two types of email management strategies:
- Preparatory organization - user deliberately creates manual folder structures or tags that anticipate the context or retrieval expectations
- Opportunistic management - shifts the burden to the time of retrieval with behaviors such as scrolling, sorting or searching that don't require preparatory efforts.
Both strategies have some drawbacks as pointed out in the research. The preparatory organization effort may not pay off because the folders don't match retrieval requirements. But the opportunistic method can be unproductive as the inbox may be very complex without active foldering.
The research paper looks at the main ways that users re-access their email information based on the two above described methods and sought to answer these questions:
- Access behaviors - what are people's most common email refinding behaviors when provided with a modern email client that supports search, tagging and threads, as well as folders.
- Relationship between management strategy and access behaviors - Does prior organizational strategy influence actual retrieval?
- Impact of threads on access - Do threads affect people's access behaviors?
- Efficiency and success of management strategies and access behaviors - Which behaviors are more efficient and which lead to more successful finding?
The findings from the study included:
- Opportunistic behaviors dominate, with scrolling accounting for most of the accesses over search and sort.
- People who create folders use them more often for access.
- Threading reduces reliance on folders
- Foldering is less efficient. Table 5 in this study shows that high filers managed to find messages with fewer operations, but folder accesses take longer than searches and sorts.
I fall into the category of a frequent filer. I definitely don't keep all my emails and delete most if it isn't a record or it isn't needed to support client work. But I do organize my emails by major groupings including client, subject area and vendors. I typically know when I need to find something whether it relates to these top level folders. I have occasionally used searches, sorting and threads to find emails that I didn't file for one reason or another.
It is very interesting research and worth looking at if you have interest in the various behaviors that people use to manage their email. Email management and archiving is an area that we have done a considerable number of client projects in. This work has been at all levels of involvement, from classification structures, technology selection and implementation, email policy development, training programs and the cultural aspects of changing behaviors regarding email. Let us know if we can help you in any of these areas.