News Streams and email trouble, Part 1

In the last post, I went on at length about Picture Managers. At the end, I mentioned that Instagram is functionally a News Stream, not a Picture Manager, even though its medium is photography. Its purpose is not to curate, but to share what’s new via a time-based stream of content.

That’s a News Stream in a nutshell. And like Picture Manager, you probably know exactly what it is, even though you may not have put a name on it. A News Stream application or site delivers a stream of current content to its users, with the latest at the “top.” It’s a big and ever-growing list, in reverse chronological order, of items from (usually) multiple people or sources. It serves the drive-by user, the casual reader with a wide subject interest, the Twitter user who wants to retweet an interesting story, and anyone who reads email.

(You can read the News Stream pattern if you’d like. It’s one of the new patterns in Designing Interfaces, Second Edition.)

These are some of the News Streams I use regularly:

  • My “home” email
  • Gmail, for certain high-volume mailing lists
  • Facebook
  • Twitter, via multiple clients on desktop and mobile
  • Assorted blogs, general news sites, special-interest news sites, etc.

For now, I want to focus on the personal types of News Streams: email clients, Facebook, Twitter, RSS readers, and other streams in which users assume direct control of what and when they read. We choose what to put into these streams, and we use them like lenses — to collect, combine, and focus the vast amount of digital content of interest to us into one small place. In fact, I have a hunch that most people see the Internet through these lenses most of the time. We collectively spend a heck of a lot more time on Facebook than at most other popular websites, for instance, and we reach a lot of external sites by following links that people send us in our News Streams.

In short, these streams are really important to our experiences of the digital world. But I don’t think we’re collectively very good at using them.

This is a hunch, too, and I wish I could support it with real research and not just anecdotal observations. Still, it seems to me that email alone bedevils a lot of people. And not just infrequent users, either — the most intelligent and competent software engineers I’ve worked with have trouble coping with a high volume of email. They have trouble sorting it, tagging it, archiving it, purging it, keeping track of important messages, responding to them, converting them to action items, keeping their inboxes down, and simply spending an appropriate amount of time on email — not too much, not too little. For many of us, email is a beast that threatens to eat up all our productive time. And for me, at least, Facebook’s no better.

(Another anecdote: I informally polled some of my friends about their older children’s use of email and social media. I asked them how old their kids were before they could manage and administer these personal News Streams effectively. The answers I got were frequently jokes: “Never.” “42.” “At least 38, but I’ll let you know when I get there.”)

Why is it so hard?

We don’t want to miss anything. Many of us are terminally curious. So we overload ourselves with sources: mailing lists, social media connections to friends and family, news outlets, causes, blogs, podcasts, vendor programs. All that stuff comes through our lenses and gets combined into one concentrated, fast-moving stream. I know I have trouble coping with it already, and yet when I find another source of useful information — or, say, another group of old friends that I didn’t know was on Facebook — I happily subscribe, knowing I’m adding to my daily burden. Whatever. I want that knowledge or connection, and I honestly don’t think much about the cognitive price.

We aren’t good at ignoring attention-getters. Hey, look at the title of that email that just came in: “Killer Compost!” I have to go read that now; excuse me. . . . Okay, was that email more important than writing this blog post? No, but it was entertaining and I learned something. It could have been put off until tonight, though. As always, the fun things distract us from the important things.

The items in my single “inbox” stream have diverse meanings and consequences. I mean, take a look at all the different types of email messages that I get, and the different actions and decisions that might arise from each type:

  • Personal messages. I tend to not delete these, and often they need thoughtful responses, in which case I feel obligated to respond promptly.
  • Action items. These get converted to items in my to-do list, and some require prompt attention. Sometimes I need to keep these messages around for archival, sometimes not; often I don’t know which it will be until later.
  • Responses to my own messages or posts. These might result in action on my part, or I might need to respond to them in turn.
  • Time-critical news of personal or professional import, such as local real-world events (the preschool is letting out early today) or news about a client or vendor that I use (like connectivity problems with an ISP).
  • Deeply involved conversations among people I care about. I may get involved in these conversations, or not, but I want to read them in any case.
  • Articles, well-written posts on a topic, question/answer threads, and other information that I keep around for future reference. They don’t need to be read now, but I may read them later.
  • Entertaining news, humor, and other lightweight items. Again, these can be postponed, though I occasionally need a mental break and read these as they come in.
  • Receipts and other noncritical ecommerce-related notices. Important to look at briefly, then archive.
  • Ads and sale announcements. Mostly I barely even look at these, but very occasionally, I act on one of them.
  • Spam.

Email isn’t the only channel for these, either — Facebook now serves both my personal and professional needs, and so does my Gmail account. Usage evolves unpredictably. Anyway, each item needs to be triaged, which means classifying it according to this list (more or less) and deciding what to do next with it: read now, read later, respond now, respond later, act, tag, move, archive, forward, star, delete, postpone a decision, whatever. That’s a big cognitive burden, when you sum it up over all the day’s messages. But it’s made harder by the next problem…

The frequency of a source’s messages may not match its personal importance to me. I might get fifty messages a day from mailing list A, five a day from list B, and one a week from list C. What if list A’s messages are far less interesting than the others? That doesn’t matter — the list fills up my inbox relentlessly, claims my attention and time, and swamps the more relevant messages from the other lists. That’s a problem. Likewise for other media, especially Facebook and Twitter — some Twitter users that I follow produce two orders of magnitude more tweets than others. And on Facebook, I once “liked” Mashable because I really do enjoy some of its articles. But it flooded my Facebook stream with eight to ten posts per day (more at one point, I think). So I dropped it. Sad for me, but sadder for Mashable if they lost a lot of followers that way.

We are social beings. When someone we know and trust takes the time to send us a message, we pay attention. If a friend sends me a link to an article about hilariously overpriced kitchen appliances, for instance, I’ll tend to follow that link, so that I can read what my friend is reading and maybe respond to him. (See the “Personal Recommendations” pattern in Designing Interfaces.) Social modeling plays a part, too. If we’re involved in an online community that follows a strong pattern of social interaction — like immediate short responses to Facebook posts — then we’ll tend to follow suit, even if it takes our time and attention away from other items in that news stream. Finally, reposting or retweeting something to our followers is a fun way to get attention, and we tend to do it immediately upon reading something worthwhile.

Some of us have trouble getting rid of sources from our news streams. Unsubscribe, unfollow, unfriend — all very unhappy words! And they sound so final, don’t they? Even when we get past the negativity and decide that a source really isn’t worth our time anymore, we need to make a special effort to go and unsubscribe. It may be hard to figure out how, or it may not work, or it may require a password that we don’t remember, or we realize that we don’t want to offend someone, or we may decide it’s easier to just ignore that source right now rather than drop it entirely.

It’s easier to read a News Stream than do actual creative work. If I’m having trouble getting into a flow state on the work I should be doing, then I can always catch up on email and Twitter and pretend I’m being productive, right?

Really, it’s remarkable that anybody gets anything done when email and social media are involved.

To close this first part of a two-part post, let me point out one of the root causes of these problems with digital News Streams: executive function. It’s a set of high-level cognitive skills that develops in our late childhood and early adulthood. We have varying degrees of talent and maturity in this area, which means that we vary in our ability to plan, meet deadlines, keep track of things, multitask, ignore tempting stimuli, stay on task, form good habits, break bad ones, and generally manage our attention and time effectively. If I practiced certain EF-related skills, then I imagine I could get better at managing my own News Streams!

But as a designer and maker, I have to meet people where they’re at. Not everyone is good at executive functioning, and it’s not my place to require users to be good at it, nor ask them to get better at it. So that leaves us the other root cause of this laundry list of problems: tool support.

My next post will talk about the design implications of News Stream management. With some idea of what the problems are, how can we design tools for people to handle their email and social media effectively?

2 Responses

  1. I’d be happy with just 2 news streams: email and RSS.

    Email is point-to-point, when someone wants to get in touch with me. Email is personal, relevant, and deserves attention.

    RSS is for when a person or organization wants to broadcast. I even get my TV through RSS (Hulu has a pretty good feed). RSS is fleeting, unthreaded, easily skipped, and generally requires no follow-up action.

    Mailing lists break this pattern. I wish there were some way to pipe my spammy mail lists into RSS.

  2. That’s what I currently use Gmail for, to an extent: high-volume mailing lists that don’t usually require immediate response. I can search messages easily there, too, and I don’t worry so much about privacy or local access (possible downsides to Gmail). Another thing that Rich and I have done in the past was to route high-volume mailing lists into an old-fashioned net news reader, for fast threaded reading. Kept that stuff out of our inboxes.

    But I can see your point about RSS — that’s a mechanism you already use for those types of streams, and why should you have to set up yet another when your RSS reader works well already?

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