Larry Conrow


Email is the most successful computer application invented yet. As email communication continues to thrive professionals are running into similar problems time and time again. Email overload has been estimated to be costing a loss of productivity in the U.S. of millions or even billions of dollars due to time spent reading, organizing and saving emails. As stated in New York Times in 2007 by Steve Lohr, "$650 billion figure is an estimate of the cost of unnecessary interruptions in terms of lost productivity and innovation". These interruptions which add to the information overload problems is a total of several activities that technology workers perform in their business day such as email, instant messaging, blogs, etc. In 2005 Bellotti, Moody, & Whittaker stated "it is used by millions of people to carry out their business each day" (p. 2). Research studies have demonstrated different ways in which people use email. There have been studies done on the way people use email, manage their email, classify, store and retrieve email. Prior research has identified two different types of strategies used by people that use email. Researchers have named these two groups in slightly different ways; filers and pilers, prioritizers and archivers, no-filers and filers, cleaners and keepers (as cited in Tungare, M., & Pérez-Quiñones, M. A. 2009). Other studies of email users have identified a trend where people will take time and organize their emails on a regular basis, or people will not and just leave emails in their in boxes. Nathan Zeldes a computing productivity manager from Intel states one of the biggest problems he thinks leads to over emailing, is "mistrust" (Overholt, 2001). Managers feel the only way to find out what is really happening is to be included in almost every email so they can find out what they need to know. Nathan's answer to the overload of emails being sent led him to create a class where co-workers at Intel learn proper techniques to manage their emails. These techniques are listed below and are called "The 10 Commandments of Email According to Intel" (Overholt, 2001). The 10 Commandments of Email According to Intel: 1. Don't use your inbox as a catchall folder for everything you need to work on. Read items once, and answer them immediately if necessary, delete them if possible, or move them to project-specific folders. 2. Set up a "Five Weeks Folder" that deletes its content automatically after five weeks. Use it as a repository for messages you're unsure about, such as that email you want to delete, but you're not sure if the guy's going to call you tomorrow and ask about it. 3. Assist colleagues' inbox-filtering efforts by agreeing on acronyms to use in subject lines that quickly identify action items and other important messages. Sample acronyms: < AR> , Action Required; < MSR> , Monthly Status Report. 4. Send group mail only when it is useful to all recipients. Use "reply-to-all" and "CC:" buttons sparingly. 5. Ask to be removed from distribution lists that you don't need to be on. 6. To cut down on pileup, use the "out-of-office" feature of your email, in addition to your voice mail, to notify people when you are traveling. 7. When possible, send a message that is only a subject line, so recipients don't have to open the email to read a single line. End the subject line with < EOM> , the acronym for End of Message. 8. Graphics and attachments are fun, but they slow down your ability to download messages when you're on the road. Use them sparingly. 9. If you're sending an attachment larger than 5 MB to a large group of recipients, consider putting it on the company's Web site or intranet instead. 10. Be specific. If you send a 20-page attachment, tell the recipient that the important information is on pages 2 and 17. (Overholt, 2001) According to the user feedback from the employees at Intel, the tips and techniques are effective. They have also seen the quality of emails from other co-workers improved. Through field research, surveys, and observation this study will try to identify patterns or a series of patterns or themes commonly used by people within an office setting to sort/organize their email. These patterns or themes will be the basis for creating a taxonomy of the predefined hierarchical folder structures for storing emails. This study approach is intended to help users that do sort and organize their emails, define a folder structure in which they can sort their email into. This predefined structure will be designed for a specific user role, (but in the future could be adopted by other roles). The structure will be set up so that it can be easily learned and adapted. Once learned the decision of where to store an email, what level to store it, what name or naming structure should be used to name the folder should a new folder be created or not. Also will the name a user uses make sense to the user in the future so to enable a trigger that will provide a cue as to what email is stored or saved in this folder? These types of decisions will not be needed with this proposed taxonomy, allowing a simpler less cognitively taxing solution. Upon the completion of the ethnographic study a final folder structure will be proposed. This structure will be tested against the following research questions: RQ 1: Does having a predefined folder structure speed up the process of sorting emails that need to be saved or deleted? RQ 2: Does having a predefined folder structure improve the accuracy in recalling the placement of the emails within the identified folder taxonomy? The first part of the study used ethnographic field study and observations techniques. These data collection techniques included participant observations, interviews, and questionnaires. The second part used the empirical method to derive a conclusion. The study collected data through experimentation and the formulation and testing of the hypotheses. In the ethnographic filed study participants were recruited by word of mouth to take part in a study. A total of 5 IT professionals were selected to take part; three males and two females. To start, the participants were asked to create a picture of where they send and receive emails from. A series of direct and open-ended questions were asked to each participant. These question and answer session was video taped for later reference. Once an interview was completed a card sorting exercise was done to see how this sample population would sort and organize their emails. The participants were asked to sort a series of 75 cards. After the completion of the field study it was decide to use the following folder structure to test. The folder structure that was tested was created from the following folders: Archive, Projects, Personal and To Do The empirical study was conducted using a total of ten participants. The participants were recruited by word of mouth over a week period. Once the participants were identified they were randomly assigned to one of two experimental groups. One of the groups was classified as the Treatment Group 1 Pre - Assigned Named Folders (PA). This was the group that was given a folder structure to test. The other was Group 2 they were the Self Named Folders (SN) group. This group was not provided any folder structure so they needed to create their structure from scratch. The time-on-task was tracked for each participant the test and results are summarized below (Figure 1.Data Analysis Summary). After the completion of the task the users were asked to complete a 20 question survey. The survey was to acquire qualitative data on their preferences of the task they had just completed. The last 11 questions were used to test recall of placement of files within the folder structure. Figure 1: Data Analysis Summary The results showed that having a predefined folder structure did have a significant, positive impact on time-on-task. The findings seem to indicate that having the folder structure in place, for a specific user group had a significant difference in the time it took to complete the task. All the participating users had no problem, objections or request to use additional folders to sort the emails into the provided folders. The results also showed that having a predefined folder structure did have a significant impact on accuracy in recalling placement of email for Group 1 Pre - Assigned Named Folders (PA). The study observed that a longer amount of time-on-task was needed and a high error rate occurred for Group 2 Self Named Folders (SN). Users struggle to deal with the increased amount of received email in their in-box. This study looked at a way to provide a small target population a way to simply sort and organize their email. As one participant explained that had a high number of folders said, "I could not keep up with filing emails". This study provided only four different locations in which to look for emails. As another participant explained the down side of a large folder structure "I had 257 folders: It started to get too confusing trying to decide which folder to place it in. Would it go in this one or that one, and then I still could never find it." Also observed was one participant that identified them self as someone that save all or almost all emails and had over one hundred folders. Even though they spent a lot of time organizing their folders they had still had a project folder with over a thousand emails in it the one folder. This user still had to rely on the applications ability to sort and search for emails. The multiple folders made the participant repeat the same search method over and over with in multiple folders instead of just one. The results also showed that having a predefined folder structure did have a significant impact on accuracy in recalling placement of email for Group 1 Pre - Assigned Named Folders (PA). The study observed that a longer amount of time-on-task was needed and a high error rate occurred for Group 2 Self Named Folders (SN). This is similar to the results studied by Boardman's (2001) that showed the current way in which people organize and maintain their email is expensive in terms of cognitive effort and time. The findings identified that one of the most common errors observed by Group 2 Self Named Folders was the ability to recall the placement of an email. During the ethnographic field study the biggest problem that was observed was time. If someone did take the time to organize and sort their emails in to multiple folders using a self created hierarchical folder structure it took an incredible amount of time to manage it. Also if someone did sort and organize emails into multiple folders they usually ended up not being able to keep up with the constant flow of incoming emails so they would abandoned sorting and organizing. They would try and do it similar to a spring cleaner, rereading larger amount of emails at one time and try and organize and delete emails in one overall long session taking several hour if not days to complete. What type of criteria does a user use to process or archive their email? Most user saved emails that contained important information that they felt they would need later. The data showed that the users in Group 1 (PA) had a 4.46 times greater percentage of recalling the placement of a email then the users in Group 2 (SN). Would participants be willing to use the predefined folder structure? When asked on the post test survey if they would use this structure during a normal work day? The results showed that the users in Group 1 (Pre - Assigned Named Folders (PA) 3 out of the 5 participants said they either agreed or strongly agreed with this question. Overall the folder structure worked well, people in Group 1 were able to learn the purpose of each folder and sort the emails from the task in a very fast time. The folder structure that was tested was created from the following folders: Archive, Projects, Personal and To Do. The results of this study suggested a possible solution for future investigation of applying this taxonomy to different job roles. The findings are clearly targeted toward a small population and neglect a larger population of working professionals. Any future research should investigate different populations or work roles. Also, research should complete studies of a longer duration and if possible a larger test population to strengthen the results of future studies. The way in which we manage it is an important subject that needs continuous research. BIBLIOGRAPHY Bellotti, Moody, & Whittaker. (2005). Introduction to this special issue on revisiting and reinventing e-mail. In Human-Computer Interaction (Vol. 20, pp. 1-9). doi:10.1207/s15327051hci2001&2_1 Lohr, S. (2007, Dec. 20). Is Information Overload a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy? The New York Times. Retrieved from Overholt, A. (2001 Feb. 28). Intel's Got (Too Much) Mail. Fast Company. Retrieved from Tungare, M., & Pérez-Quiñones, M. A. (2009). You Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours: Combating Email Overload Collaboratively. In CHI 2009, April 4 - 9, 2009, Boston, MA, USA. (pp. 246-7).

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Electronic mail messages--Classification; Electronic mail messages--Management; Personal information management

Publication Date


Document Type


Department, Program, or Center

Information Sciences and Technologies (GCCIS)


Rozanski, Evelyn


Note: imported from RIT’s Digital Media Library running on DSpace to RIT Scholar Works. Physical copy available through RIT's The Wallace Library at: TK5105.73 .C66 2010


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