The folder is not the message: IBM

A new study from IBM Research concludes that people who put incoming e-mails in folders are no better at finding them than those who simply use search.

The study focussed on 345 email users with a client that supports search, folders, tagging and threading. The client was specially developed for the study,

Bluemail is a webbased client that includes both traditional email management features such as folders, and modern attributes such as efficient search, tagging, and thread The study concludes, "People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding."

The IBM study attempts to aswer whether email users create folders to help them refind messages or because they need to keep their inbox manageable. The researchers concluded that people file to clean their inboxes to facilitate task management.

"This result contradicts prior work arguing that people who receive many messages do not have the time to create folders.

"We also found that the intrinsic structure afforded by threads affected folder-access. People who received more threaded messages were less likely to rely on folders for access. Threads impose order on the mailbox, reducing the need for preparatory strategies. In part, this validates our design. Threading in Bluemail draws messages out of folders and into relevant inbox threads, making people less reliant on folders for access. Threads also serve to compress the inbox, reducing the amount that users need to scroll. As a result, people who received more threaded emails were more successful in their retrievals.

“There are direct technical implications of our results. Search was both efficient and led to more successful retrieval, in part supporting the search-based approach of clients like Gmail. However in our study, other behaviors, especially scrolling, were prevalent.

"Gmail, which mainly supports search at the expense of scrolling, foldering, and sorting may be suboptimal. Even with a threaded client, scrolling was by far the most common access mechanism.

"However, scrolling is not well supported in Gmail, which breaks the mailbox into multiple pages, each of which has to be accessed and viewed separately. Gmail also does not support sorting, although this was a less frequent access behavior. Finally, folder-access was a preference for a minority of users, accounting for 12% of accesses (compared with 18% that were searches).

"Recent versions of Gmail attempt to combine folders and search. However our data argue for the opposite: users employ either preparatory or opportunistic approaches, suggesting we need to design different features or mailbox views that optimise for each population tendency."

The full study is available HERE.