To email or not to email. That is the question



We are all accustomed to receiving emails from automated services, such as our social media accounts, mailing lists that we’ve opted-in, e-shops that want to keep us updated about their new offers etc. This activity may cause an avalanche or overload of activity in our inbox. I guess each of us has pondered over overwhelming inbox traffic and has probably decided to opt-out from some services…

For some of us, there is also another source of inbox traffic: automated emails sent by our core business application (such as a CRM, ERP and the like). More often than not, applications send automated emails to keep us updated about recent events that are of interest to us and have been logged inside each application. For example, a workflow requires our attention or approval to move to the next level, our supervisor has approved our leave of absence etc. Apart from overloading our inbox, an additional problem is that new emails “ring our desktop bell” with a sound or visual sign that instantly takes our focus from the task at hand. The problem is that when you see that you’ve got new email, you can’t know whether it is truly important or not until you switch to your email window and check it. But the focus has already been lost! Some will argue that you don’t need to check your email every time that you hear or see the “new email” sign; do it every couple of hours or so. But then, you may miss something important!
There is no doubt that we should somehow be kept up to date for these events and sending a preconfigured email in our inbox is one way to do it. What I’d like to explore in this post is whether alternative ways to be informed are preferable to email.
  • Popping up messages from within the application: Instead of the application sending an email, it can popup a message for you, on your desktop. That way, you will be instantly informed of important updates as long as you are logged on to the application. Of course, some would see this as a drawback – why do I have to be logged in the application to see the notifications that I’m supposed to? That way, I will probably lose some important update that requires immediate action exactly because I was not logged in. On the other hand, how often is there an automated email that requires your immediate attention? How often is it just a derail from what you’ve already been doing? Popup messages are a good alternative because you receive notification if you are already working in the same context and that notification will probably not be undesired. For example, if you are working on your accounting, it is not out of context to be asked to provide an approval for an invoice payment. If you are reviewing staff records on your HR, it is not a derailment to be asked to review one more applications for leave of absence and so on.
After all, for really important updates there is always the good old email. Only, this time, it will be sent to you by a human who will most likely explain why it is so important and so-to-speak “persuade” you that it needs your immediate action.
  • I am ready to admit that there is no golden rule to decide for each process whether email or popups are the best solution for each case and that’s why I’d like to see each user having the option to select between “email” and “popup” for each kind of notification that his/her applications support. Imagine a kind of control center where the user would see all the available notifications that the application has to offer and beside each, a selection between “email” and “popup”.
  • Ability to “mute” notifications: Regardless of the debate of email vs popup message, I would find it very useful if users could set themselves “unavailable” for automated notifications, email or any other kind. That way, one could temporarily isolate oneself, when there is some important work to be done and does not wish any interruptions. Notifications of any kind can be set on hold and released to the users when they make themselves available again. Emails will come pouring in and popups will fill their desktops; only this time the user will have allocated the time to read through and process each of them, without being pushed to act immediately, without experiencing that annoying every-ten-minute notification and consequently without raising his/her anxiety levels. Because that is what it is all about: repeated interruptions prevent you from devoting yourself to the task at hand and therefore making your work more difficult, making you less productive and, at the end of the day, raising anxiety levels.
In the world of B2C or B2B sales portals, news web sites and a whole lot more, Customer Experience is something that is widely discussed and focused on. Part of it is eliminating all these features or functions that can potentially drive users away. A core-business SaaS product should be no different in that area; especially if we take into account that its users usually remain logged on for quite some time, every time.

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