Email Triage: Why People Delay Replying To Messages

Here’s a hint: People put off responding to 37% of incoming emails that need a reply.

That’s according to Characterizing and Predicting Email Deferral Behavior, a new workplace study by Bahareh Sarrafzadeh of the University of Waterloo Waterloo, Canada, and Microsoft’s Ahmed Hassan Awadallah, Christopher H. Lin, Chia-Jung Lee, Milad Shokouhi, and Susan T. Dumais.

The authors interviewed 15 Microsoft employees -- including product managers, researchers, software developers and interns -- all of whom use Microsoft Outlook on a daily basis. And they found that simple triage leads to procrastination.

The authors define email triage as “the process of going through unhandled email and deciding what to do with it.”

Email deferral occurs “because people have insufficient time to take an immediate action or they need to gather information before they can act on a message,” the study adds.

Among the questions they typically ask when they are deciding whether they have the time to answer a message are:

  • Do I know the answer?
  • Does it require any task to be done?
  • What is the complexity level involved?
  • Does it require context shifting?
  • Can I handle it independently?



In addition, people sometimes delay because many other people are copied in and they assume someone else will deal with the issue. They also tend to put off answering emails containing attachments that will require careful reading. 

The study does not address marketing directly, but these findings have a bearing on email response. If people are deferring important internal emails, they are bound to do the same with sales messages, or any emails that end up in their promotions folder.

Employees are likely to respond to messages there is a deadline specified in the email, and if there is a deadline for the task being discussed. 

A sample of logs of one popular email client shows that 10% of all messages receive a Reply, a ReplyAll or a Forward action, but that 26% of these actions are taken at a later time.

Email marketers know this all too well. Reminder and follow-up emails are staples of modern marketing, although the sender has to walk a fine line to prevent annoying the recipient.

What is the solution to the deferral problem? Recipients would benefit from a reminder system that would reduce the time they need to spend re-finding emails. Indeed, such a tool might also help them avoid forgetting about messages altogether. Another would be modeling that could predict deferrals .for companies. 

The authors conclude: “Understanding email deferral could have implications on understanding how people interact with their email and designing email clients and intelligent agents to help people with managing and organizing their messages."

Next story loading loading..