Use of email: does it change over time? - KTH

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Department of Numerical Analysis and Computing Science TRITA-NA-P9905, IPLab-160

Use of email: does it change over time?

Ann Lantz

Interaction and Presentation Laboratory (IPLab)

Ann Lantz Use of email: does it change over time? Report number: TRITA-NA-P9905, IPLab-160 Publication date: August 1999 E-mail of author: [email protected]

Reports can be ordered from: Interaction and Presentation Laboratory (IPLab) Numerical Analysis and Computing Science (Nada) Royal Institure of Technology (KTH) S-100 44 STOCKHOLM, Sweden telephone; + 46 8 790 6280 fax: + 46 8 10 2477 e-mail: r[email protected] URL:

Abstract A lot of empirical studies have been performed using email as the application but longitudinal studies are not that common. Here a longitudinal study collecting data 1994, 1995 and 1998 is presented. The research questions were How do persons use of email change over time concerning experienced problems with email, flow of messages, time to handle mail, and, ability to give and receive answers to mail? Which media are use for communication? In which way are the electronic nets (Internet and intranets) used? Results show that experienced problems with email decreased during the five years. Flow of messages was constant. The time for the respondents to reply an email message changed from immediately to in a day or even in a week depending on the complexity of the content of the message. The expected report on experience on Internet as an open and intranet as a closed net was not reported. Nor did the respondents feel a need for publishing reports on the electronic nets. Key words: Email, longitudinal study, problems, communication, reply and silence.

Introduction Many empirical studies on email have been performed but what do we know about the use of email over time? Is flow of information, experienced problems with handling mail or the way to reply to email messages (i.e. how fast you send a reply or how fast you receive one) changed? Early performed empirical studies on email addressed the technical aspect of different email applications. have been performed, using email as the application. Technical questions were addressed at first. Natural, since there was a lot of problems with enabling the communication among systems on diverse platforms. A small and nationally isolated, but still problematic issue, discussed by Bälter (1998), is the use of national characters (e.g. Swedish letters å, ä and ö). The technological level is the first level entered in empirical studies of “new” technology. It has to be solved before more social or human aspects can be studied (Sproull and Kiesler, 1992). In connection to the technical aspect is the theory of critical mass (Marcus, 1990). A certain amount of persons need to use the technology to make it usable i.e. it is not meaningful to use email if you are the only user. More specialised questions concerning cognitive aspects of information handling is presented during the eighties. Aspects such as information flow, need of help, need of functionality and commands are in focus as well as task allocation (see for example Hjalmarsson, Oestreicher and Waern, 1989; Waern, Malmsten, Oestreicher, Hjalmarsson, Gidlöf-Gunnarsson, 1991). Later, when the graphical interface were introduced to the public, questions like position of information, number of folders, order of presentation of information, select and sort incoming information and filtering of information arouse (see for example; Barreau, & Nardi, 1995; Bälter 1998; Lantz, 1998; Mackay, 1988; Mackay, Malone, Crowston, Rao, Rosenblitt & Card, 1989; Malone, Grant, Turbak, Brobst & Cohen, 1987). In Mackay et al (1989) the researchers regard the selection and storage of messages as filtering strategies of different kinds. The study concerns the usage of rules to support the users of e-mail systems to select messages for reading or for automatic storage. The filtering categories described are cognitive, social and economic filtering of both incoming and stored mail. Similar results have been presented by Bälter (1998) who report this effect independent of the e-mail system used. Users experiencing problems seem to have more mail stored in the inbox than users not experiencing problems. In Jones, Bock and Brassard (1990) users felt overwhelmed by the amount of mail received and were uncertain as to the structure of the folders. Whittaker and Sidner (1996) and Lantz (1998) report similar results. In Lantz (1998) also time for handling email was discussed. Handling email was reported not being included explicitly in the respondents work time. The respondents have problems organising their folders, even though they did not experience being overwhelmed by incoming mail. This suggests that the organisation of the folders is in itself a problem. Also communication among people via email, focusing on many different aspects has been presented. Aspects such as physical distance and silence have been discussed. The physical distance between communicators is one out of three factors suggested by Caldwell, Uang & Taha (1995) to be involved in the communication process while the other two are message content and urgency of the message. By email it is possible for one person to send a message to several persons at the same time. According to Severinson Eklundh (1994) "silence" in e-mail due to the lack of immediate feedback is the most salient feature which distinguishes email from spoken media with respect to the conditions for the


dialogue. In Severinson Eklundh (1994) user aspects such as uncertainty or ambiguity are discussed. When a conversation ends in silence it may, according to Severinson Eklundh, be taken by the user as a sign of a problem or a breakdown in the dialogue. There is general uncertainty about when to expect or give feedback and may cause disturbances in the communicative process. These problems are especially relevant in situations when one of the participants is a heavy user of e-mail. In such a situation, the case of no response might simply be explained by the fact that the heavy user may not yet have had time to answer, or has simply forgotten the message. Another explanation may be that the user has deliberately postponed a reply in order to await more information on the subject matter, a strategy common among heavy users in order to economise on the number of messages. In Severinson Eklundh & Macdonald (1994) the results of a study of communication strategies show that 51% of the users reported that whenever possible they read mail as it arrives. In Lantz (1998) respondents reported that email do interrupt other work activities but that it is experienced as positive, it is always fun to receive mail. It has also been suggested that people feel obliged to answer a message as soon as they receive it (Bannon, 1986). According to Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire (1991) the availability of instantaneous electronic communication might lead people to expect immediate responses. Sometimes a comparison of different media for communication can be seen. Questions like when is telephone, video, paper and so on used, for what purpose and with which effect on performance and communication. Now the integration and use of email, the web and intranets are arising. On the electronic net the conversation can be of a more or less personal setting (a conversation among two or several persons) depending on if the conversation is over Internet or intranets (closed v s open communication). In Lantz and Severinson Eklundh (1997) is reported that the interviewed subjects experienced that "being on the intranet" was as being surrounded by walls, not being able to communicate freely with anybody. Another side of the coin is when knowing who have accesses to the intranet and its information might lead to a more freely, open and frank conversation. In a field study described in Sproull & Kiesler (1991) teams that used email did not communicate more (in total) than other groups did. The email group spent less time in meetings and on the telephone. They concluded that electronic communication need not increase the total time groups need to complete a project or to do it well. Theory of adaptive structuration Poole and DeSantis 1990 in Fulk and Boyd, 1990) treating technology as independent of the user. Research has not included technology in a context, it has ignored the situations in which it is used. They argue that technology use is a social process involving the construction and recreation of context and social world. Their theory is designed to eloquently capture interactions among technology, context, group processes and social structure. In Lantz (1998) it was suggested that more longitudinal studies of email should be performed. Since cognitive and communicative aspects of handling mail can be regarded as a process the research must be performed using several measurements. Otherwise we can never study how the work context and work situation influences us in our daily work activities. But, longitudinal research of email is not common but Bälter (1998) report on a study of how managers develop from novices to experienced email users when it comes to organisation of email messages. The data was here collected during four years. In Kraut, Mukhopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, & Scherlis, (1998) longitudinal research about the households use of Internet has been performed. In Kraut et al (1998) a study of use of Internet in homes is presented. The results show that the participants in the study preferred using email to the web. Email was also accessed before they accessed the web. Also an examination of the number of personal messages and number of web sites visited each week was performed. Results say that both email and web use where stable over time but that stability was substantially greater for email that for the web. This means that one can predict a participant’s current email use from his or her use in the prior week much better that one can predict a participant’s current web use from his or her prior web use.

The longitudinal study Data have been collected at three different occasions in 1994, 1995 and in 1998. Two questionnaires and one interview in combination with a demonstration of the used email system were used to collect the data. Questionnaire 1 The questionnaire in 1994 aimed at identifying heavy users of email and what problems they experience when handling their mail. This questionnaire was distributed via email (n=54).


Interview and demonstration A semi-structured interview and a demonstration of the used mail system were performed in 1995 (n=10). The aim was here to investigate if: - Other work activity is disturbed if the e-mail system is accessed continually? - Norms and rules for how quickly to answer a message are used? - The amount of time involved in handling mail was experienced as sufficient? The semi-structured interview and demonstration took place in the subject's office and lasted for about one hour. At the end of the interview subjects were instructed to give a short demonstration of the mail system, its inbox and the structure of the folders. During the demonstration the subjects were asked to think-aloud. The interview and demonstration were tape-recorded. For a complete presentation of the questionnaire and interview studies see Lantz (1998). Questionnaire 2 The purpose with the questionnaire distributed in 1998 was to collect follow-up data from the ten persons included in the earlier studies. The follow up data concerned background information such as tools used, work situation, control over tasks and time, problems with email, ways to communicate, to respond and how to receive responses on email, and, different ways to learn at work (n=6). In this report data concerning the following questions will be presented. - How do persons use of email change over time concerning: - experienced problems with email, - flow of messages, - time to handle mail, and, - ability to give and receive answers to mail? - Which media are use for communication? - In which way are the electronic nets (Internet and intranets) used?

Results The structure of the text below will follow the research questions, presented above, but first some background data is presented. Ten respondents were selected from the questionnaire study 1. In the study performed in 1995 the aim was to get as broad as possible view of the subjects situation. The strata were based on the variables for work category, flow of received mail and problems handling mail. Six of them are included in the data from 1998. Four left the organisation and could not be found. The ten respondents and their representation of work category are presented in Table 1 below. Table 1. The ten respondents, their representation of work category in 1998 and participation in the three studies. Work category 94 95 98 1 Manager X X 2 Manager X X X 3 Constructor X X X 4 Manager X X 5 Tester X X 6 Manager X X X 7 Librarian X X X 8 Manager X X X 9 Manager X X X 10 Constructor X X A manager can work with planning and co-ordinating the work, but also with staff training, activity investigation, and alterations. The work task for constructors is mainly to develop software and hardware. A librarian constructs and develops icons and a library of icons to be used in different applications. A tester is controlling errors and quality in products during the development phase and at delivery.


The six persons participating in the 1998 study have not described any great change in profession or work tasks during the last five years. One person changed profession from constructor to manager (8), number 9 changed from middle level manager to lower level manager, one have still the same profession and work task's, and, the three others have got more responsibility within their work but are still in the same work category. The experience of using mail, in 1994, varied in the group from 3 to 10 years (m=5.5). All respondents during the first and second measurement used the mail system, Mailtool. Still, in 1998, two of them have the same mail system (3, 7). The managers (2, 6, 9) have changed to Netscape mail (one of the managers use Memo for windows, 8). How do problems with handling email change over time? Respondent number 2 and 6 had both some or severe problems handling mail in 1994 and 1995. These persons have changed mail system but no change in work situation is reported 1998. In 1995 respondent 2 gave the following explanation: "..much mail comes to me and I have to forward it to other persons". For respondent number 6 the case was the following: " much arrives, problems with sorting and saving and finding again". Non of the respondents experience problems with handling their mail 1998. Another respondent (8) report the same development but this person have changed work situation from being an constructor to in 1998, work as a manager. A comment given in 1994 and 1995 by this person is: "..hard to find stored mail, store now after time and not as before after subject, sender or topic". And in 1998: "Its better today than in 1995. Due to, partly, that people communicate less with email, partly, because the email system used today have a limit on how many messages that can be stored in the inbox. This forces you to clean up the inbox regularly". This person uses today a new mailtool, but not the same as the other two above. Another example very much like respondent number 8 is number 9. Also this person reported problems with mail during 1994 and 1995. Now uses a new mailtool but have got less responsibility at work since measure number one and two. The problems experienced here were: “Have problems finding time for reading and answering mail. It is heavy and one has to clean up carefully. The messages have not decreased but I have tried to cut down the number of meetings. This leads to more time to go through the mail too.” Respondents number 3 and 7 have not reported any changes in work category or, mailtool, neither in problems with email. They have never any problems with email. How do flow of messages in email change over time? For the respondents both number of received and sent mail have been rather stable. Ten or fewer messages are sent every day and up till 40 messages per day are received. How do time to handle email change over time? The respondents were asked in 1994 and in 1995 to estimate how much time, during a workday, they spent on handling mail. In Table 2 below the respondents estimations are divided into the three categories: low (less than 15 minutes per day), medium (16-30 minutes per day), or high (more than 30 minutes per day). They were also asked during the three measurements, if they experienced this time as being enough or not. Table 2. The respondent's estimation of amount of time per day used to work with the mail system and if it is experienced as sufficient.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Work category Time Time enough Manager Low Yes Manager High No Constructor High No Manager High Yes Tester High Yes Manager High No Administrator Medium Yes Manager High No Manager High No Constructor Medium Yes

Of the seven users spending more than 30 minutes a day only two users think the time is enough. One person thought in 1998 that the time was always enough: “It is always enough. In my present mission the tasks are initiated seldom via email, since all in the project and the colleagues are working in the same places. In my previous mission it was exactly the opposite, since I then worked in a large international project where the communication mainly were via email” (8). In 1998 the six respondents say that their time to handle email was sufficient during some periods but not always. How do persons ability to give and receive answers to mail change over time? In the first questionnaire the following question was posed: How do you select messages, of the incoming? The most frequent alternative used was that they were read in the order the messages were presented. The question might seem irrelevant to be brought up here in connection to give and receive answers. To decide which message to select for reading can though be regarded as the first step towards answering a message. In the interview some examples are given: “Often I stop other activities if an important message arrives. If I have time I read the messages as they arrives. If I have to go through a number of messages i.e. after a vacation I try to first find them that seems to be most urgent or most important. Then I might choose to read them that entertain or interests me the most. It can depend on both sender and content. Last I read the long messages and the ones with for me less important content”(8). “I rather read in the order they are presented to get a continuity in the exchange of mail but do occasionally jump over mail that are printed out and read at home"(9). In the latest questionnaire more straightforward questions concerning strategies for responding was included. Results from the question: How fast are received messages replied on? Showed that it is direct or within a day depending on it's content. "The messages I can answer directly, that do not demand any form of investigation, I answer directly" (1, 2, 7). "When it is busy days when you hardly have time to read mail than it can be delays. When I work with tasks not too urgent I answer messages directly. It is as a service to the person questioning" (8). "It depends on how problematic they are, in worst case it can take a week. Most often I try to answer within a day" (9). An exception is described by one of the respondents: "If one can not give a complete answer within 24 hours one can send a reply and explain that a more complete answer will arrive within a week" (5). Before 1998 the respondents said that they answered email directly (1, 7) or within a day (3, 9). In 1998 no one says: direct, they say within a day or even within a week.


The respondents descriptions of how others answer their mail Five of the respondents are in 1995 quite positive with how others answer their mail. "Relatively good. About 70% of my messages get answers. It is often messages with easy questions that get easy answers. It can take a couple of days" (6). “There are people that have enormous inboxes and they do not care much but often if you say that you would like to get the information before the deadline then you often get a reply” (9). "It varies some are very good at answering other just run out in the sand" (2). Experiences, in 1998, for four of the subjects are that they receive a response within a week. "Email within the own organisation, replies often don't turn up, with external correspondence replies are given within a week" (8). One person explains that within a day is most common but: "Reply is delayed, Reply don't turn up..It varies a lot. I try to inform when I need answer" (2). "It varies between immediately, within 24 hours and within w week" (9). The respondents explanation to why others do not answer their mail In 1995 the explanations given by the respondent were concerned with that a person was stressed and had lack of time or due to that the respondent did not like to use email. "A very stressed project leader you know you get a lower chance to get an answer. Their inboxes are over flown with mail from people wanting their attention. And there might be other persons that are, hmm, yes less anxious" (4). "The most common answer is that they have seen the message but not have had time to answer it. In some cases they don’t even have had the time to read the message" (8). "Some people are not that keen on using email systems and to them it is easier to make a phone call" (6). In 1998 the explanations follows the patterns as the ones given in 1995 but also technical aspects and lack of memory is included: "It can be due to some server that do not function or a bad interface"(7). "They do not have time, it is forgotten or it is gone"(2, 9). Which strategies do you use to get an answer? Both in 1995 and in1998 the respondents report that they tend to send a reminder as a copy of the previous message or pose a question if it has arrived. To make a phone call and ask is also used. One person says that if it is internally the contact will be face-to-face. One of the respondents in 1995 is more sophisticated: “Either you send a reminder or send a reminder and include people you thought should know about that the receiver have not answered your mail. It may get the effect that the persons receiving the copy start to ask the receiver what this is about or if the receiver have handle it yet” (5). Which media are use for communication? Email is only one way to contact other persons. Above we saw that face-to-face and telephone is used when trying to receive a reply. All subjects communicate today by face-to-face meetings, telephone or email. Three of the persons also use cellular phones, telephone conferences, fax and web sites. Only one uses videoconferences to communicate with others. "Medium is chosen depending on receiver and subject of matter"(2 uses all medias included as alternatives).


The respondents are pleased with communicating via these media. But when asked about how they would like to communicate in a for them optimal way the answers received are: "More direct meetings and possibly video to build a relation. This facilitates communication later via email and telephone"(2). "To have as many alternatives to communicate as possible"(7). In which way are the electronic nets (intranets and Internet) used? Internet is understood by the respondents as the World Wide Web and the respondents started to use it sometimes in between 1994 and 1996. The respondents started to use Intranet in between 1993-1997. The respondents use both Internet and intranet with the same frequency, from constantly to several times a week. As working in an organisation with developing products the employees are not allowed to present themselves or any information outside the company. They use Internet for: "Mainly to search information in the area I work, to guard the development and check up competitors. During purchase the first step is always to search on the web"(8). They are very pleased with their use of Internet but when asked about how they would like the Internet to function in an for them optimal way following examples were given: "The web has two sides, information and entertainment. When it comes to the information part more focus should be placed on content, less on presentation. But, at the same time you have to utilise the possibilities the web gives and not directly transfer old information without any cultivation"(2). "To develop such good tools that they could enable guard services that gives you automatic information as soon as interesting information was published on the net" (5). Via the intranet the respondents are allowed to both receive and leave information. They are very pleased with using the intranet. On a scale from 1 to 5 where 5 is very pleased their medium rating is 4.5. Intranet is described to be used for: "Internal information, telephone catalogues, booking of conference room……….Apart from searching information and utilise some services I publish information there"(2). When asked about how they would like the intranet to function for them in an optimal way the answer from respondent number 2 summarise it well: "More thought about what the user is going to have the information to. Today it is very directed towards what I would like to say and not so much on what the user could be thought to look for. Many home pages on intranet are like advertisements that do not have any substance. If it is overwhelmed with illustrations without any direct meaning it only makes the user unsatisfied. Another aspect on this to think about is who the user is which can result in pondering bout how to publicise information in a format that the user can read. A common problem is that you publish different office-documents, Word, Excel, PowerPoint. But, all can not read these documents if they do not have access to a PC. Better search functions and indexes. Move administrative functions for example purchase, travelling-expenses account, and time report on the intranet to reduce all paperwork "(2)

Discussion For the respondents the handling of email work better in 1998 than the previous years. This could of course be due to change in mail tool used. Less communication is mentioned and also a limit in number of messages to store. Since only one respondent mention the decrease in communication and the respondents uses different email systems and some still use the old one this explanation is not satisfying. A more probable explanation is that the respondents are more experienced email users today than five years ago and that they might have learned how to cope with the previous problems. Time is an important factor and some comments of the character to change work habits in order to rearrange work time one respondent mentioned as a solution. Time for handling mail is probably more influenced by the respondents work tasks. Since the intensity in the work task varies the time for handling mail do to.


The flow of email has not changed during the five years for the respondents. This can be connected to the fact that no great changes have been occurring in work situation or in work tasks. Messages are answered if the questions posed are possible to answer directly. If the respondent have to ask someone else or have to look for more information the answers are delayed. To answer within a day was the most common answer in 1994 and 1995 and some saw it as a good service for the sender of the message that a quick answer was received. But, in 1998 the respondents say that replies are sent within a day or even within a week. They do not report more problems, the flow have not increased so maybe it is the norm of how fast to answer an email that have changed? The respondent's descriptions of how others answer their mail or why they not get answers and strategies for receiving answers are the same after the three data collections. However, the sender of the message might attribute the silence to some particular cause (the message did not arrive, the receiver was not planning to answer the letter or may be dissatisfied with its content) on the basis of expectations derived from the norms of spoken communication. If others do not use email the individual user don’t benefit form using it either i.e. the critical mass theory. The electronic nets for these respondents are a closed system, not to be used for non-employees and an open net, not to be used by the employees. On Internet the content of the information is said to be very important and that a need for automatic filtering systems are experienced. The intranet presented information is suggested to be more users adapted both concerning content of the information and the used format of the documentation presented. It could have been expected that the respondents should express feelings of being locked up behind bars not being able to present information outside the companies own intranet. This was not reported. On the contrary, the respondents were quite pleased with the way they used the electronical nets. On, the other hand the respondents might not feel any need of publishing information open. What happens at the other end of the line would be of great interest. What do people, heavy loaded managers, actually do and how do they chose among different media? It can though, be a problem observing these people. To walk around and observe them might not be accepted. It is also probably so that the explanations are not only connected to the used medium but to find in these persons whole work situation.

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