Why People Don't Reply To Your Emails

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A new research paper, published in the Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining, has looked into the reasons people don't reply to email. It's supposedly the first formalised study of “email deferral” in the workplace and conducted by a University of Waterloo PhD candidate. The study outlines the primary reasons people tend to put off responding to online correspondence.

The study, co-authored by Bahareh Sarrafzadeh from Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science in the Faculty of Mathematics, said the reasons for not responding to email can be summarised into five main considerations

  1. The time or effort involved in handling the email
  2. The identity of the sender
  3. The number of recipients on the thread
  4. The user’s workload and context
  5. The urgency of the email message

The researchers also noted:

The fact that a user defers an email does not imply that the message is less important. A deferred email could be very important and therefore requires careful examination and a well crafted reply. Alternatively, it could be not important enough to warrant immediate attention. Deferral could also be a result of other factors unrelated to the message such as the current user workload and the device she is currently using.

"One of the reasons we found for people deferring handling emails is that when there are multiple recipients the thinking might be that someone else will reply or it may not be clear at once who is required to respond," said Sarrafzadeh, who conduct the study during her research internship at Microsoft Research.

The research started with 15 participants who we're interviewed with the data from the interviews validated through examination of anonymised action logs of tens of thousands of users of a popular commercial email client.

"Our interviews confirmed that deferral is common, with all 15 participants revealing that they are deferring handling messages daily while in our large-scale log analysis (with 40,000 users), 16 per cent of them deferred at least one email per day".

The paper, titled Characterising and Predicting Email Deferral Behavior was co-authored by Sarrafzadeh and Microsoft researchers Ahmed Hassan Awadallah, Christopher Lin, Chia-Jung Lee, Milad Shokouhi and Susan Dumais. It was recently published in the Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining.


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