Planning for our upcoming TechLines video event has got me thinking about how I'd like email to fit better into my work life. Here's five areas where I'd like to see improvements.
5. Better rendering across devices
HTML might be a default mail display standard of sorts, but rival email software still renders it very differently. Even when it works, often it's just meaningless decoration. I'd like to be able to click on a button in my messages to strip out all the formatting and just display the text — because, in my experience, that's where the real meat is. It would also be helpful if we didn't need to resort to weird formatting tricks when sending links to others.
4. Intelligent handling of time zones
Within Outlook, appointment times shift if you change the time on your local system or mail server — sensible if you're co-ordinating a meeting across multiple time zones, hopeless if you're entering your own details for (say) an overseas trip. Many other calendar systems have the opposite problem: you have to work out the time difference issues before you can schedule anything involving other people. OK, that's not strictly a mail problem, but given how integrated email and calendaring are these days, one can't be solved without the other.
3. Get rid of urgency tags
Someone who is efficient at replying to email is going to get back to you as quickly as is feasible. Someone who isn't will ignore your message anyway. At this stage, I find most emails flagged as urgent are anything but, so I think it's become a meaningless symbol, often deployed without any thought. Let's get rid of 'em all.
2. A choice about threading
If you use Gmail, you have no choice but to adopt to threaded conversations. If you use most other platforms, you have no choice but to view messages one by one. Given that email messages are essentially just information in a database, it should be possible to offer both versions, letting users switch as their needs dictate.
Outlook 2010 is one of the few email platforms that offers the option of switching between conversation and standard view (and even then, it sometimes makes a pig's breakfast of the job). Letting people choose from either version is an obvious step that hasn't been properly addressed by anyone yet as far as I can see.
1. Proper email training in the workplace
As we've noted many times before on Lifehacker, the biggest problems with email often aren't with the technology, but with how people use it. However, few businesses have any documented rules and procedures around email, or take time to explain them to new staff.
What are the expectations around how quickly replies should be sent? Which conversations should take place on email to ensure there's a record? Can alternative systems be used with the same archiving potential? The answers to these questions will be different for every business, but most businesses don't bother to ask them in the first place, or do so within a narrow compliance culture, not one that actually looks at making email a truly useful tool for productivity. That needs to change.
Got your own thoughts on how email could be better in the work environment? Share them in the comments, and we'll take note of them for the upcoming TechLines event in Sydney. If your comment really inspires us, you could also win a pass to be in the live audience for the event.