Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Emails (Part 2)

In my previous post I talked about the new communication world existing on the internet. Today I'd like to concentrate on Email and the way people use it.

In my line of work communication by email is essential and frequent. I always hear about people saying that they have hundreds of emails to get through. I say "Hundreds? How do you get so many?!"

They say "Well, most of that is spam."

I get plenty of spam at home, but manage to avoid a lot of it at work. I know a number of emails that come in aren't really emails to worry about. Someone might email me asking me to do something. So I do it, and email them saying "The job is done." Then they email me back saying "Thanks!" I don't have to worry about that email. It takes less than a second to read, then it gets deleted.

But I've noticed a trend in email communication that leads to my hypothesis about why people have so much darned email and I have such little. It's this:

People don't read their emails!

Allow me to explain how this leads to more emails.

I email person A with three questions, 1, 2, and 3. Two days later I receive a reply from A with an answer to question 1, and if I'm lucky, a half-answer to question 2. The half-answer is the sort of answer that shows that A didn't really read question 2, so they don't know what's really being asked. They see a couple of words, assume they know what's being asked, and answer that question. Then they leave question 3 completely ignored.

Then I get the email back. I read it and am satisfied with answer 1, confuzzeled by answer 2, and frustrated by the lack of answer 3.

So then I have to email them back clarifying q 2, and re-asking q 3. Then they reply with the answer to q 2. Q 3 is again ignored. At this point I feel like if I email them again with q 3 I'm just bothering them. After all, they already had two chances to answer q 3, but chose to ignore it. Maybe they had a reason to ignore them. It would be nice if they just said something like "I'm sorry, but I don't know the answer to q 3 at this time."

But its happened often enough, socially, in school, in most of the places I've worked that I think it's not just a small group of people who don't do well with email. The problem seems to be pretty wide spread.

I've also found that if there's any explanations that go with my emails that increases the odds of the recipient being confused. Example:

Take Joe, an imaginary software development group leader. This means he was probably once a computer programmer. As a computer programmer, it should go without saying he knows what "Windows" means, what "departmental software" is, what an "upgrade" is, etc. I shouldn't have to explain any technical terms to him. I should just say who I am, what I'm doing, what I want, and what I want from him.

My email to Joe:
"Hello Joe,

I'm working on the team that's upgrading the department's computers. Soon you'll be receiving a new computer with the latest version of Windows on it. Before we do that, we'll need to know what departmental software you require installed on your computer, as well as make backups of your 'My Documents' folder, as well as any other data you need transfered to your new computer.

Would you please provide me with a list of departmental software you need installed on your computer.

Also, would you please tell me how much storage space your My Documents folder uses?



A week later, Joe's reply:
"Hello Andrew,

I don't know why you want to wash my windows. I don't even have windows. I work in a cubicle in the middle of the floor. The nearest window to me is three rows over, and it just faces a brick wall. I don't even have a door, just an opening where the cubicle walls don't touch.

Hope this helps.

-=Joe, project leader in software development"

This bothers me on three counts:

  1. Now I have to write back, disguising my derision trying not to call Joe an idiot, or an illiterate. (Incidentally, Joe is the 17th person to write back with just as stupid a reply.)

  2. As a student I can't help but think "Why am I still a student, and how did this guy get to where he is?!" If that's the kind of knowledge and reading comprehension that gets someone to be a project leader in software development, then with my skills I should be taking over for Bill Gates when he leaves Microsoft. But I'm stuck as a student, making student wages, doing student work.

  3. He ignored my second question.

Of course, this means I have to write an email to Joe again, this time explaining in great detail everything he should know. I'll have to re-ask the second question, which will be ignored, so I'll have to ask again.

Now, it's reasonable to assume Joe handles most of his emails like this. So lots of people have to do what I now have to do with Joe. I have to write a total of three emails, when one should have sufficed. If Joe has a team of five people, and one supervisor, that's six more people he has to communicate with. In a given time period each of those people has to send him an email with two questions each, and he goes through the same process with each of them as he does with me. Where seven emails (including mine) should have been enough, 21 are actually required.

Joe now complains, along with his underlings and his supervisor, that he has too much darned email. He also might say "Since I get so many emails everyday I don't have time to read each word in every single email!" Yet, if he did read his emails all the way through, allowing for proper comprehension he could cut down his email load by a factor of three. That reduction would save more time than it would cost to read each email.

That's my theory.

Do you get a lot of emails every day? Are you reading all of each (non-spam) email, or are you just getting the gist of it? (Or more accurately, do you just think you're getting the gist of it?)

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