The Good In Email (or Why Email Is Still The Most Adopted Collaboration Tool)

An essay on The Good in Email written in 2006.

The Good In Email (or Why Email Is Still The Most Adopted Collaboration Tool)

Email as an online collaboration tool sucks. Everyone knows this. Everyone says it. Everyone writes about it.

And everyone agrees that its inefficient, it’s chaotic, its silo’ed and its full of spam. Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, we can assume with confidence that email is still the preferred method of ‘collaborating’ and sharing information with others.

Neither the declared “War On Email (spam)” nor the endless-parade-of-collaboration-vendors has seemed to of made a dent in the reduction of emails sent each day. A recent statistic estimated between 32 and 62 billion emails are sent around the world EACH DAY.

So, why are Collaboration Software Vendors (Central Desktop
included), keen on vilifying email and so quick to promise a practical
alternative to the chaos of email? And, if the vendor’s software is so
much better than email, than why do users revert back to email as soon
as they hit a snag in the system? Why do users refuse to adopt
collaboration software?

In short, why do we love our email?

[Side Note: I realize that few companies today are touting their
collaboration services as a complete replacement for email. But my
point revolves around the idea that most users are looking for
alternate ways (other than email) to communicate and collaborate with
their fellow business colleagues and I believe that the industry has
perpetuated the myth that their  collaboration software solution (plug
in your company or software name here (wikis, blogs, etc) as the

So, in our attempts to improve the customer experience and increase Central Desktop adoption amongst our user base, we’ve taken a closer look at email to see what we could learn from this killer app that continues to haunt us. We’ve decided to look for the Good In Email.

Below is a quick summation of what we believe is Good about Email. The list tells us why users continue to collaborate via email rather than adopting collaboration software and it also tells us what we, as collaboration software vendors, can learn from it:

Email is Easy To Understand

Virtually everyone who has ever touched a computer understands email. Maybe it
was daunting at first, but in the end, email is easy to understand.
“It’s like sending a letter through the postal service, except its electronic.” People get it. The fact that so many grandparents and young children use email to stay in contact with their families and friends around the world is a testament to its ease-of-use. Likewise, after you “learn email” for the first time, all other ‘variations’ of
it are essentially the same. The learning curve for switching email interfaces is virtually non-existent.

By comparison, most collaboration software solutions are difficult to understand. Many provide such a different user experience (wikis for example) that the
learning curve becomes another hurdle of adoption.

In the words of Steve Krug, “Don’t Make Me Think.”

Email is Universal

99.9% of all knowledge workers use email. Understanding and using email has
become synonymous with ‘using the telephone.’ Email crosses the boundaries of Language, Country, Creed, Geography and Origin. Everyone has it. Everyone uses it. This is largely because email enjoys the industry standard protocol of SMTP. The “SMTP Pipe” ensures that any user in the world can participate and interact via email, no matter what email client software they are running.

There isn’t a collaboration software vendor that holds a substantive market share
today that is on par with email. Talk to three different companies and they are all ‘collaborating’ on different platforms. Today, instead of supporting an industry standard, collaboration software vendors each attempt to lock their users into their proprietary platform and interface. Everyone is using a different package and our industry lacks a “standard pipe” to hook into. Michael Sampson wrote heavily on the topic of closed collaboration solutions late last year.

RSS is providing us with some hope in this arena (and is beginning to show
promise), but in its current form, is still lacking interactivity. Not to mention that RSS suffers from neglect because it is still virtually unknown to business users and severely lacking in general user awareness.

(Because of sheer numbers, Microsoft’s Sharepoint is the clear leader in the
collaboration industry, but the number of businesses that actually use Sharepoint is probably statistically unknown. Just because software is bundled with something else, doesn’t mean people are using it, much less understand it.)

Email is Accessible from Anywhere

You can read and access your email from anywhere without having to jump through rings of fire.

For the corporations that restrict email accessible to the office or VPN, ask yourself why every business user also has a Gmail, Yahoo Mail or Hotmail account. The surge in Blackberry, Treo and other mobile devices (primarily acting as email interfaces) speaks volumes to the point of accessibility.

Collaboration Software is still difficult to access. This is mostly for good reason as business users are, and should be, concerned with security; but the accessibility of
collaboration software often falls prey to the IT department’s insatiable appetite for restricting, controlling and limiting employee access to mission critical tools. To date, even the most advanced collaboration solutions only provide limited mobile device access and functionality.

Email Can Be Personalized

In spite of its crudeness, email is personalized.

Email provides the luxury of knowing who sent the message (activity alert) as
well as who else is participating in the activity. And, because of email’s inherent features of carbon copying and blind carbon copying, the message and alert system is relatively prioritized. The importance, or weight, of the email message is often measured by the number of people included in the carbon copy.

Its also just as easy for the user to quickly include or exclude participants based on the activity or task at hand. With email address quick-fill, alias mapping and email groups, broadcasting activity alerts and messages becomes very personalized.

Most collaboration software really starts to breakdown at this point. The “easy-to-use” collaboration products simply avoid personalization. Most enterprise collaboration tools provide highly personalized features…..but who uses them? Its too much work or costs too much money to be viable.

Email is Manageable/Configurable

In addition to being personalized, email is manageable and configurable.
Both novice and intermediate level email users can create rules for filing, routing and managing the data flow of email. Email has enjoyed a renaissance recently thanks to products like Gmail, Sproutit’s Mailroom and Yahoo web mail; all which provide richer tools for managing and configuring email.

Collaboration software vendors usually fall into one side of the ditch or the other
when it comes to providing a balance of simplicity or configurability. Email has the unique qualities of being simple enough for beginners but configurable enough to accommodate advanced users. This is something every software vendor strives for, but rarely achieves. Fortunately for email software vendors, the simplicity is inherent to the medium, not the interface.

Email is Searchable

The sudden resurrection of desktop search by Microsoft, Yahoo and Google (and
others) finally solved the common of ‘I never delete email’ syndrome that plagues more email users than any of us care to admit. Gmail clearly leads the pack in this feature; but lets not forget the little company that Microsoft quietly acquired last year, LookOutSoft, which provided the simplest and fastest way to search your Outlook PST files.

Some early players like Enfish were ahead of their time when it came to combining search with collaboration. New collaboration software vendors are finally starting
to understand the tremendous power of search combined with collaboration. Most collaboration software is about ‘fixing’ the broken systems that business teams are struggling with to collaborate: such as document management, file storage, revisioning, share weblinks and bookmarks. The value of each of these systems is increased exponentially when a powerful search component is layered on top them.
Search tools in Collaboration Environments MUST provide FULL document text search for all popular file types such as Word, Excel, PPT, PDF and HTML. Anything less is useless to the user and begs them to return to searching their own email boxes for answers.

Email is In Your Face

Perhaps the single biggest reason why users reject collaboration software and
revert back to email is that Email Is In Your Face. Like Instant Messaging, email is highly disruptive, but it works.

Dovetailing into the previous points of Personalization and Manageability, each
user can determine the level of attention they want to allocate to email and alerts. A user might check email every 30 minutes or every 60 seconds. The user can then determine how they want to be disrupted by either displaying a systray alert or a pop-up window every time a new email arrives (or if you are on a mobile device like a blackberry, you can set it to vibrate, flash lights or sound an alert upon receipt of a
new message). In other words, email is “in your face,” “intrusive” yet, highly personalized and configurable.

Most collaboration software vendors completely miss the mark on this point. Many vendors send an email alert every time an activity occurs (thereby creating more spam for the business team). This solution RARELY works because the tool isn’t providing the users with the same level of personalization and manageability that email provided them in first place! Other vendors error on the side of caution by not providing any email alert system or by not providing an RSS feed of activities (such
tools are doomed to fail from the beginning). While some provide RSS feeds about group activities the feeds are usually of low value to the business user. Low value meaning, lack of security (few vendors provide SSL or Authenticated RSS Feeds), confusing or meaningless titles, no user interaction with the feed, not personalized (receive all activity information or none) and impossible for novices to understand or grasp.

Email Just Works

Let’s make this really simple. Email just works. It’s chaotic and
overwhelming, but it works most of the time and there is no learning curve. A new employee can sit down at their new desk and they can immediately start sending and receiving messages, participating in email thread conversations, stay apprised of events and even delegate tasks; all without having to learn, navigate or configure a new interface. And, if that person wants to retrieve information from previous projects or historical data all they really need to do is open and search their Gmail or Yahoo account which they were probably forwarding most of their email to anyways.

So where does this leave us? This short examination of email reveals that there are a
number of hurdles that continue to plague the collaboration software industry. In spite of its shortcomings, email continues to be the de facto standard for team collaboration. Is there a need for advanced collaboration tools in business teams? Yes. Will business teams continue to rely on email as their primary means of communication? Yes. Is there room on the business desktop for collaboration tools? Yes, but the tools better be simple and they better be easy to use, and, they
better just as easy (or easier) to use than email. Central Desktop has taken steps to address each of the points listed above (and will continue to address them in the future), but I’ll reserve those details for another post.

Am I suggesting that we all abandon our collaboration dreams and submit to email? Absolutely not. As a fellow collaboration software vendor, though, I think we’ve got our work cut out ahead of us. Mass adoption isn’t around the corner. In order for any of us to succeed beyond the outer rings of the blogosphere, we must look closely at the single most successful medium to enter the business world in 25 years. We must take a closer look at this killer app and apply the same rules of simplicity and ease-of-use to our own products if we ever expect to become more than a cottage industry. To succeed, we must look back and learn and apply what we’ve come to understand as the Good In Email.

This post was originally written April 3, 2006

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