Email Keeps Us Hanging On

Adobe just released its Consumer Email Survey Report. And one line from it immediately jumped out at me: “We’ve seen a 28 percent decrease in consumers checking email messages from bed in the morning (though 26 percent still do it).”

Good for you, you 28% who have a life. I, unfortunately, fall into the pathetic 26%.

So, what is it about email that still makes it such a dominant part of our digital lives? It’s been 46 years since the first email was sent, from Ray Tomlinson to himself -- yet, it’s never gone out of vogue. 



In fact, according to this survey, the majority of us (about 85%) see our use of email staying the same or increasing over the next two years. Even the rebellious Generation Z – the post-millenials who are rewriting the book on tech behaviors -- color inside the lines when it comes to email. Forty-one percent of them predict their use of email will increase at work, and 30% of them foresee themselves using email more in their personal lives.

Email is the most commonly used communication channel for work, beating actually talking to other people by a full 11 points.

What was interesting to me was when and where email was used:

This suggests some interesting modality variations. I’ve talked about modality before, including a column a few weeks ago about devices. Personally, as a UX geek, I find the whole idea of modality fascinating.

Here’s the best way I can think of to understand the importance of modality as it applies to behaviors. Say you have to stay late at work to fire an employee who has become a train wreck, becoming increasingly hostile to management and bullying her co-workers. It does not go well, but you get it done. Unfortunately, doing so makes you late for your 10-year-old daughter’s birthday party.

Consider the seismic shifting of mental frameworks required so you don’t permanently traumatize a roomful of giggling preteens. That’s modality in action. It becomes essential when we’re talking about technology because as we step into different roles to accomplish different objectives, it seems we have predetermined technologies already assigned to the tasks required.

Email seems closely linked as a communication channel perfect for certain behavioral modes: If you want a quick update on a project, are delivering feedback or asking a brief question, email is the preferred communication channel. But for anything that requires more social finesse -- asking for help, pitching a new idea, letting your boss know about an issue or even calling it quits -- there’s no substitute for face to face.

Here we see why email has not faded in popularity. it's the Occam’s Razor of factual communication. It does just what it needs to do, without unnecessary complication. It allows both the sender and receiver to communication on their timelines, without disruption. It provides an archival record of communication. And it’s already integrated into all our task flows -- no extra steps are required.

Many start-ups have promised to abolish the inbox. So far, none have succeeded.

What email doesn’t do very well is convey emotion. Emails have a habit of blowing up in our faces in delicate situations, for all the same reasons as stated above.

But that’s OK. We know that. That’s why most of us don’t use it for that purpose. But note, according to the chart,  even for delicate situations, email is still usually the next most popular choice after face to face. For example, eleven percent of survey respondents would still choose email to tell their bosses to take a flying leap.

As email approaches its half-century birthday, logic tells us that someday it will become obsolete. But it’s outlasted VCRs, fax machines, eight-tracks and a veritable junk heap of other discarded technologies. In fact, it’s hard to think of one other thing that has changed so little over the decades and is still such an integral part of our lives.

Say what you want about email, but it does appear to have legs.

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