Revisited: The shape of email to come

Early in 2009 I blogged about The Shape of Email to Come, which was about the changing nature of how people use email and what that meant for the design and function of the inbox of the future.  I predicted that it would be Google that innovated in this space, and with the newly redesigned Gmail inbox rolling out today, it looks like I might have actually been right about that.  Though I’ll admit, I didn’t think it’d take 4+ years to see it happen.  🙂

My original site crashed, but it was saved thanks to the Internet Archive.  The original post linked above as well as re-posted below.  Looking back at the generalizations I made about my inbox then, I think those same rough percentages for the type of emails received still hold up.  I suppose I might have been the oddball out 4 years ago, but for Google to make this change, they must know that more and more the inbox is shifting from the primary communication tool for most people, to being more of a filing and organization tool that integrates messages, alerts, and notifications from the web outside our inbox.

I have some thoughts about the next phase of the inbox, but I think I’ll save that post for next week.  In the meantime, I’d be interested to learn how the email habits have changed (if at all) for other folks in the past 5 years…

The shape of email to come

This is an interesting article from the Chicago Tribune discussing Nielsen research:

Here’s today’s big news in fewer than 140 characters: Social networking is now more popular than e-mail.

That’s the official word from a new round of Nielsen research, which shows “member communities” such as Twitter and Facebook have overtaken personal e-mail to become the fourth-most-popular way people spend time online (after search, portals and software applications).

This made me think about my own use of email outside of work. Just taking a quick scan of my email I can make the following generalizations:

  • 5% – Email conversations that couldn’t (yet) be done via a different medium (e.g., Dissertation work, emails from family and friends not using social networking sites)
  • 10% – Automated billing confirmations, Amazon/eBay/iTunes “Thank you for buying” emails
  • 85% – Notifications from Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking websites

Interestingly, almost all of the online conversations that I have now happen within the confines of these social networking sites. And it’s no wonder. Using Facebook as an example, all of those conversations are much more contextual than email. Conversations happen around groups, events, photos, posted items, etc. It’s a much richer user experience than email and there really hasn’t been any added complexity with the increase in functionality we see with most things in our lives these days.

Looking at my own emailing behaviors, and that of my peers, I have to wonder – what does the future hold for email? I find myself using it less and less for personal communications (that 5% figure above), and increasingly as a collection point for the myriad of notifications that I receive (95%). If I were to look back in time 3-5 years, these numbers would be drastically different. Looking at the Nielsen summary, it’s safe to say this trend is likely to continue.

So what then for email? My guess would be that there will be less time focused on refining authoring tools for users, and more attention given to the integration, classification, storage and findability of notifications/alerts. Whatever the trend is, I’ll wager that we’ll see it in Google Labs before too long…

March 17, 2009 | Filed Under Email, Social Networking

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