I don’t particularly like e-mail, not because it is bad per se, but because we have made it into a one-size-fits-all collaboration and communication tool. I have particular dislikes for the misuse of the cc button and the very existence of the bcc button, something I have written about before.
Even those dislikes pale into insignificance when compared to my public enemy number one, the infinite-loop mail. This is where person A sends an e-mail, say, to eight people named B to I. B drops A and C from the conversation and adds J and K. C meantime adds J as well, but drops B and brings A back.
This seems to happen regularly in large institutions, and we create all kinds of horizontal bureaucracies as a result, looping endlessly.
Kishore Balakrishnan, commenting on an earlier post of mine, mused about implementing ticketing systems for e-mail in environments where everyone could see the size of the queue, open items, turnaround times, the lot. Others have tried paying for attention at the same time as dealing with spam, using techniques like Seriosity suggests.
Some of these issues came up in conversation today, and it reminded me of some principles I tripped over many decades ago.
The first was in a world before I had corporate e-mail, I’m talking about 1981. [Others may have had access to such things, but my first memory of using serious corporate e-mail was in 1986 at Data General as part of their Comprehensive Electronic Office (CEO) offering. While I had played with personal e-mail, I did not have a computer at home, so it mattered not.
So, in this world before e-mail, someone old and wise decided they’d teach me a bit about office politics and how to survive them. Things like: Don’t appear in announcements, they’re just like drawing large Xs on your back and saying “Kill me”. Try not to have an office, it confuses the daylights out of the plotters and schemers. Smoke (it was OK in those days).
When it came to interoffice memos (the pieces of paper you sent around in those bright orange envelopes with 20 address boxes and, occasionally, a string you had to tie round a circular tab thingie) the advice I was given was as follows:
1. Memos are always to be drafted by the recipient. She is the person who knows best what to put in the memo.
2. The recipient also chooses the sender of the memo. Again, she is best placed to decide.
3. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to convince the chosen sender to sign the said memo. This is usually done by offering to trade. In exchange for the signature, you offer to get him a memo (drafted by him, of course) and signed by the person he chooses.
Sound overly cynical? It’s not meant to be. Just observations about enterprise life.
Today, when I recalled this, some other thoughts came into my mind. A separate conversation, this time about EDI and Edifact and SITPRO, discussing the evolution of automation of trade documents. Again in 1981, another wise person said to me, as if we were in a murder mystery tale, “who stands to gain? Who benefits from the standardisation and automation? Find the beneficiary and you will have someone motivated to implement the application. For it to work, EDI must be beneficiary-led.”
Who benefits? Who stands to gain? These are questions we have to ask ourselves as designers. But actually we know the answer. It should always be “the customer”. So now we have to keep asking ourselves “How does the customer benefit from what I am doing?”.
As we get better at answering that question, we will build systems that are genuinely designed from the customer perspective.