Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Email: Not Dead Yet (Quite the Opposite)

Email: Dead Man Walking. We've all heard this quite a bit recently. The most recent claim came from a Cisco blog titled Why Email's Days Are Numbered. While email's reign as King of online communication is clearly diminished, I don't believe that it's going away anytime soon.

Although many contemporary products provide rich, multi-media experiences that make email seem quaint (anybody remember having a pen-pal?), I contend that email is still necessary and highly useful. Before I explain why, I must digress somewhat...

I recently started reading World Wide Mind - The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines by Michael Chorost. As the title implies, this book examines the extent to which humans and machines are currently integrated (pacemakers, cochlear implants, etc.) and the extent to which additional integration may be possible (optogenetic neural implants, etc.). Many concepts are discussed in the book, including psychology, neurology, nano technology, optogenetics, etc.

One of the chapters—Breaking the Internet Addiction—really caught my attention. I've included the following passages, as they illustrate an important point:

"Of course, email does have its uses. You want to know what your friends have to say, what your co-workers need you to do, when your spouse expects you to dinner. But for many people the need to check email goes beyond bonhomie and responsibility. It's a compulsion. It takes a superhuman act of will to avoid doing it. Most people I know find it intolerable to be away from their email for more than a few hours except during vacations--and even then, they sneak looks at their BlackBerry or iPhone."

"John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, has suggested that online activity wires the brain to crave that kind of stimulation...In recent years the neurotransmitter dopamine has become a prime suspect for explaining how cravings work...we can reasonably guess that Internet use affects, and is driven by, dopamine...scientists are now hypothesizing that each email you open gives you a little hit of dopamine, which you associate with satiety. But it's just a little hit. The effect wears off quickly, leaving you wanting another hit. So you check your email again, and again, and again."

"Notice how similar this sounds to drug addiction...the brain is fundamentally a prediction machine. The brain's inability to predict the future [in this example, the content of the message] makes its dopamine action even stronger. When you see you have a new email, you don't know who it's from or what it's about, e.g. how gratifying the message will be--so you hope for that dopamine hit that you'll get if it's good. The rewards are intermittent...the result is behavior that is at the very least compulsive and at the worst outright addictive."

What is it that makes today's Internet addictive? How did BlackBerry smartphones earn the nickname "CrackBerries"? Why are Facebook and Twitter so hot? Why does IM carry such appeal?

A truly dynamic, addictive system must incorporate both push and pull. Consider gambling. You wager a bet, and wait anxiously for the result to come. The dealer or machine provides feedback corresponding to your actions. And your dopamine centers go berzerk.

Smartphones put powerful email clients right in your hands (most notably pioneered by BlackBerry, who are now trying to fend off similar claims of impending extinction); allowing you to send messages on the go and be notified immediately when new messages arrive. Similarly, the iPhone's push notifications were a big feature and are heavily utilized by apps for good reason. Facebook and Twitter both tell you--right there while you're looking at the page--that something new has happened (and note that they both also send you email notifications of the same events by default). More dopamine.

Despite modern web applications built using Comet that provide real-time updates pushed to your browser without you having to refresh, most people don't sit staring at their browsers all day; even if they do, they are often working in multiple tabs and switching back and forth between the browser and other client applications.

When you're not directly in front of your browser, you often have to go looking for feedback when what you really need is to have that feedback brought front-and-center no matter what you're doing, triggering our dopamine production, providing a quick hit of anticipation, keeping you coming back for more.

Email clients already provide push notifications to your desktop (or smartphone/tablet) without requiring the user to download and install a battery of smaller apps just to take advantage of push notifications outside the browser. Don't believe me? Why do these applications have all these email alerts turned on by default? If Email was so passe, they wouldn't even bother.

Email effectively solves a significant part of the UE/stickiness problem for modern application developers, and thus remains integral, and should remain part of your product strategy.