A year ago I published Three Hypotheses of Human Interface Design which in short provided some analysis that demonstrated that the simpler and faster a user interface is, the easier it is to use. The response has been quite amazing, with over a hundred blog posts and comments across various sites (Digg, Reddit etc.)
I was particularly humbled that Ev Williams incorporated a summary of the three hypotheses in a few of his talks last year: Web 2.0 Summit (referencing slide) and LeWeb 3 conference (see video discussion starting at 6:00). Ev is the rare "serial entrepreneur" that can be proud of that label, having successfully founded and sold two innovative ground-breaking companies (Blogger, Odeo) and now working on Twitter, a feat far more impressive than a few hypotheses in a blog post.
Last year when I posted The Three Hypotheses, they very much helped me explain why I was finding email so much less useful/usable than instant messaging (IM) and Twitter. Since then, I have found that while I can keep up with more people contacting me over IM and following more people on Twitter, email has simply become less and less usable, but not for reasons of interface, as I'm using the email application now as I was a year ago.
I'm probably responding to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, even fewer of those that are sent to a set of people or a list. The usability of email for me has deteriorated so much that I exclaimed on Twitter recently: EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.
I think there are a number of factors why email is failing for me while other communication methods such as IM and Twitter are scaling. However, I think two specific reasons in combination account for most of the problem.
All forms of communication where you have to expend time and energy on communicating with a specific person (anything that has a notion of "To" in the interface that you have to fill in) are doomed to fail at some limit. If you are really good you might be able to respond to dozens (some claim hundreds) of individual emails a day but at some point you will simply be spending all your time writing email rather than actually "working" on any thing in particular (next-actions or projects, e.g. coding, authoring, drawing, enjoying your life etc.) and will thus experience a productivity failure. The obvious solution is to push as much 1:1 communication into 1:many or 1:all forms such as public blogs and wikis. My CommunicationProtocols wiki page describes this preference.
However, while 1:1 email is not scaling for me, I feel like 1:1 IM is scaling which would seem to refute the above reasoning. There are two reasons why this is not so:
The second reason that I think email is becoming a worse and worse problem is directly due to its higher usability barrier, that is:
Email requires more of an interface cognitive load tax than IM (as compared to the time spent on writing the content itself), thus people naturally put much more into an email (perhaps in an unconscious effort to amortize that interface tax overhead across more content). People may feel that since they are already "bothering" to write an email, that they might as well take the time to go into all kinds of detail, and perhaps even add a few more things that they're thinking about it. Such natural message bloat places additional load on the recipient, both in terms of the raw length of the message, and in terms of the depth and variety of topics covered in the email. This results in a direct increase in processing time per email thus making it even harder for people to take the necessary time to process and respond. I know I've left numerous emails grow stale because there were simply too many different things in the email that required a response, and I didn't want to send a response without responding to everything in the email because then I would inevitably receive yet another email response without being able to file the original as being processed and thus have the situation worsen!
I don't have answers to all of these problems. I do have some suggestions that appear to be helping, though I'm far from solving the larger problem of scaling communications in general.