If computers are so powerful, why aren’t they more helpful?

This might seem to be an odd question. After all, most people in the industrialized world take the power of the computer for granted. Longtime technology pundit Mitch Ratcliffe said some years ago that “A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history—with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.” Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right; that leads naturally to questions about why we still see so many people who are overwhelmed by email and have difficulty keeping up with the flow of information into their Inboxes.

There are many possible causes for email overload, ranging from personal over-commitment to interruptions that prevent people from efficiently plowing through their Inboxes. What I’d like to know, though, is why my email software isn’t smarter about helping me manage my Inbox. Exchange and its clients let me create rules that automatically take some actions with messages based on various properties of the message. These rules are useful, but rigid. For example, I get several daily email newsletters from various places. It would be helpful if my client would automatically file these for me, but doing so requires a rule that I’d have to update every time I added or dropped a subscription. Instead, wouldn’t it be handy if my email system recognized these newsletters by their common characteristics (e.g., a fairly invariant subject line, daily frequency) and managed them for me?

There are many other potential examples. Lots of people at Microsoft have rules that filter mail so that only messages addressed directly to them land in the Inbox, with Cc or Bcc mail going elsewhere. That sounds like a useful feature that could be incorporated directly into a client, and there are others. For instance, how about a “do not disturb” mode in the client that shows only important messages? Microsoft Office Labs has an Outlook plug-in called Email Prioritizer that implements a timed Do Not Distrub mode, which is a good start.

Expecting an application to recognize important messages raises the question of what constitutes “important” in this context. Our email servers already know quite a bit about our interactions via email, and it’s possible for the server to use some of this information—judiciously, of course—to make some kinds of decisions on our behalf. For example, our servers know with whom we correspond, and how often. Thanks to Active Directory, they can know how our correspondents relate to us within the structure of an organization: as peers, managers, direct reports, and so on. They know when people are out of the office so, for instance, they might choose to treat a message sent by someone on vacation as having greater importance than it would if that person were in the office.

Having automated tools to better filter and manage communications carries some risk. Think back to the animated Office Assistant introduced in Office 97, then imagine having Clippy popping up with pseudo-helpful advice or shutting off your inbound email because you seem too busy. There are definitely pitfalls to be avoided, but I’m nonetheless optimistic that we’ll get better tools to help us manage email flow. What do you think? What features would help you deal better with your email? Drop me a line or post a comment and let me know.