Keep Your Head Above the Email Floodwaters

What do you get when you study the communication patterns of over 2 million email users exchanging over 16 billion messages? 

A whole lot of data and a little bit of anxiety.

A new study from USC and Yahoo Labs, “Evolution of Conversations in the Age of Email Overload,” reveals how people react when confronted with an increasing load of email messages. This study is unique in its scale.

Besides statistically analyzing communication patterns, it also analyzed how people react under increasing loads of email messages. And while the research was limited to conversations between pairs of Yahoo email users, who are primarily consumers, the study uncovers important implications for organizational contexts, including conversations between more than two business participants.

The Takeaways

Some of the key findings from the report and what they mean, include the following:

Keep it Fresh

The findings: 90 percent of email messages received are answered within one day. Half the replies occur within 47 minutes, with the most likely reply time being two minutes

What this means: People perceive information transmitted in email messages as highly time-dependent -- it gets stale quickly and requires immediate attention. In a business context, people respond to emails quickly to get the tasks "off their plate" and to empty their Inbox so it doesn’t become a source of info-clutter.

Keep it Brief

The findings: Half of replies to emails are shorter than 43 words, with the most likely length being five words. Only 30 percent of email replies exceed 100 words.

What this means: Email is being used primarily as a channel for exchanging short messages and coordinating activities taking place outside of email. Examples include things like arranging meetings, sharing attachments like documents and photos, and exchanging contact details or links to YouTube videos or articles. 

It is noteworthy that technologies better suited to this type of interaction, like social networks, are not reducing the amount of email being sent.

The Long Tail

The findings: Longer threads have faster reply times and shorter reply lengths.

What this means: As an email thread gets longer, less information is being exchanged. Replies become increasingly "yes/no/maybe." We have all experienced trying to schedule a meeting via email. Initially, the messages describe the purpose of the meeting and who should attend. Once that’s settled, attention turns to agreeing on a time and place, which entails shorter responses that require less time to consider.

Diminishing Focus

The findings: Messages received in the morning get substantially longer replies than those received in the afternoon and evening.

What this means: We all know this phenomenon. When we check our email in the morning, we are more relaxed and focused. As the day goes on and meetings pile up, emptying the inbox becomes an exercise in "keeping the email banks from spilling over," which result in shorter, quicker responses.

Matching the Message to the Medium

The findings: Email response patterns differ by device. The smaller and more portable the device, the faster the response time and the shorter the message. The smartphone median response time is 28 minutes with a 20 word response vs. a 62 minute median response time on a PC with a 60 word response. Response patterns on tablets fall somewhere in the middle between smartphones and PCs.

What this means: The smaller the device, the more difficult it is to key in text, so this finding is not surprising. Besides, the contexts under which people respond to email differ by device. On a PC, people are usually stationary; on a tablet, they may be sitting in a café or may be on public transportation. With a smartphone, people might be at a traffic light, walking down the street or even in the bathroom. The smaller the device used, the faster one can reply, but with less capacity to focus on the response.

Strategies for Dealing with Email Overload

The study provides the following insights about how people react when email load increases:

Tread Water

The findings: When email load increases, people employ "survival" strategies to keep their heads above the email floodwaters. These strategies include ignoring an increasing number of messages, replying faster to messages and replying with shorter responses. Case in point, at high load (approximately 100 messages a day), people reply to 5 percent of messages vs. replying to 25 percent at low load.

What this means: These results makes sense intuitively: we all struggle to keep the inbox empty, so the faster the messages pour in, the more apt we are to check for new messages and keep the inbox clean. To do that, we either need to dedicate more time to dealing with email or spend less time per message. Almost all of us opt for the latter.

Age Matters

The findings: Email overload strategies differ by age. Younger users decrease their response time and send shorter messages. As people get older, they adapt to the increased load by answering fewer messages but response times and message length don’t change significantly.

What this means: We all see teens and twentysomethings constantly zapping messages on their smartphones using WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, but you don’t see a lot of people over 50 exhibiting the same behavior.

The need to be continuously connected and up-to-date is clearly an age-related phenomenon, which has been borne out in large studies such as those carried out by the Pew Research Center. So it’s unsurprising that younger people react on email the same way, with shorter responses, while older people prioritize who they respond to, rather than shortening their replies.

5 Quick Tips for Dealing with Email Overload

Here some time-proven tips for dealing with the inefficiencies uncovered in the USC/Yahoo study:

  1. Reduce the number of times you check email during the day.
  2. Use email filters to remove the clutter. Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman talks about the "novelty effect" -- whereby new information looks more appealing than what you are currently doing. This means that every new email triggers is a source of potential distraction, so filter out stuff that is not important.
  3. Rather than rely only on email, use the appropriate channel for different kinds of communication. Arranging meetings and sharing information links can now be done via social tools like instant messaging. These tools require far less time and attention to exchange information.
  4. Keep email threads short by providing very specific responses. If a thread exceeds a round or two, pick up the phone to hammer out the details.
  5. Encourage colleagues to share "FYI" information (that does not require a response) via less intrusive channels like social networks. Yammer is a great channel for these types of updates. 

Email isn't going away anytime soon, so understanding how we use it can go far in creating strategies to remain effective.