Communicating with email

by Greg Lehey
Last update: $Date: 2008/08/22 02:19:13 $
Draft for review

This document has not yet been completed, though the contents as they are are probably sound. If you're interested, I'd appreciate some feedback.

Electronic mail, or Email, has been around for decades. Increasingly, people are relying on it for business communications. How well does it work? Well, it's fast; a mail message can get through in seconds, whereas more conventional written communications seldom happen in less than a day.

But what about the content of the message? How well does it convey what the writer wants to say? In the case of a reply, how well does it address the issues to which it replies?

On the face of it, email has amazing advantages in this area. Consider the following message:

Date: Wednesday, 5 January 2005 at 13:13:40 +1100
From: A.  Angry Customer <aangry@frobulate.org>
To: complaints@foogizmos.org
Subject: Your last delivery of gizmos

I have never in my life received such a terrible delivery of gizmos.
The packaging was so damaged that it appears 5 gizmos got lost; the
remainder were oozing gobubble, and even those which appeared to be
undamaged would not frobulate correctly.

Please ensure that this shipment is replaced by Friday and indicate
how you intend to ensure that these problems will not arise again.  If
we do not get satisfaction in either of these points by CoB Friday, 7
January, we will be forced to reconsider our business relationship.
In times gone by, you might have started a written reply with: “In reply to your letter of 5th inst, where you refer to the alleged poor quality of our gizmos...”. Nowadays it's trivial to quote the original text of the message and reply to it point by point:
On Wednesday, 5 January 2005 at 13:13:40 +1100, A.  Angry Customer wrote:
> I have never in my life received such a terrible delivery of gizmos.
> The packaging was so damaged that it appears 5 gizmos got lost; the
> remainder were oozing gobubble,

Please accept our sincere apologies for the problems.  We have
recently identified issues with one of our delivery partners and are
currently working with them to ensure that such problems will not
occur again.

> and even those which appeared to be undamaged would not frobulate
> correctly.

Foogizmos has always warned against attempts to use damaged gizmos;
please see the warnings supplied with each shipment.  Attempts to use
a damaged gizmo can be dangerous; apart from the danger of gobubble
leakage (which you mention), a damaged gizmo may frobulate completely
out of specification.  This can cause significant damage to the
environment, not to mention interference to other gizmos.

> Please ensure that this shipment is replaced by Friday

A replacement shipment is on its way and should arrive tomorrow.  The
tracking number is 47110185BZT/CU.

> and indicate how you intend to ensure that these problems will not
> arise again.

As mentioned above, we are currently working with our delivery
companies to solve these issues.  We will ensure that until we have
solved these problems, we will ship any further shipments with an
alternative partner.  The Board of Directors will consider further
steps.

> If we do not get satisfaction in either of these points by CoB
> Friday, 7 January, we will be forced to reconsider our business
> relationship.

Foogizmos values Frobulate Inc.  as one of our most important
customers.  One of our customer relations managers will contact you by
Friday midday to explain the current state of our investigations.
This message answers each of the issues. By putting the text after the original to which it refers, it makes it easy to understand the context. It also ensures that nothing gets forgotten. By prepending each quoted line with a > character, it's clear who wrote what.

Unfortunately, by default many mail user agents write something like this single line per paragraph rendition, which is on a separate page to avoid confusing some browsers.

This kind of message is so prevalent that many MUAs automatically wrap it, in contravention of the Internet standards. For example, Microsoft “Outlook” renders it like this:

Reply formatted by 'Outlook'

This is more readable, but it's still too wide. Why? This is from my Microsoft system, which I use to view a lot of different kinds of messages. Some messages need to be that wide (tables, for example), but it's too wide for normal messages. Without any formatting information, there's nothing else that the MUA can do.

More to the point, though: did the second message address all the points. No, it didn't. Can you see which one it forgot to reply? The answer is here.

This is a contrived example (obviously), but the issues are all too real. The ability to quote originals also brings with it a temptation to quote everything, resulting in a real mess. Here's a summary of typical problems:

  1. Replies that leave an entire message but only reply to part of it. At the very least they bloat the message, making it difficult to decide whether the rest is relevant. This problem is made worse by the next point:
  2. Replies that put the reply text a long way from the text to which they're replying (see the gizmo example). This causes three problems:

    1. It's not clear what the reply is referring to.
    2. Even if it's clear, it's difficult to correlate the reply with the original.
    3. Frequently (not necessarily in the last couple of days), the person replying has suffered from problem 2.2 and missed the point when replying.
  3. Replying out of sequence. This is really part of problem (2). In normal conversation, a reply comes after the statement to which it replies. Why should this be different in email? It's confusing there too. For example:

    A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
    Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
    A: Top-posting.
    Q: What is the most annoying thing on a mailing list?

    “Top posting” is only part of the issue, of course. As the gizmo example shows, it would be no better to “bottom-post”
  4. Replies that make it difficult to recognize who wrote what, either because attributions have been removed, or because there is no clear distinction between the original and the reply. In many cases, the format of the original makes it very difficult to reply coherently.

There are other problems too, but they're not as bad.

What's this business of width, anyway?

In a couple of places I've referred to text that's “too wide”. Too wide for whom? For me, obviously, but what difference does that make?

Go to a bookshop and look at the vast majority of publications on sale there. Almost without exception, the text is formatted to be not more than a certain width. Newspapers are wider, but they invariably divide the text into columns. There's obviously a tradition here.

So why not break with tradition? Sure, some people do. But they don't rebuild their heads to do so, and that's where the problem lies: eyes can read up to a certain width without moving, a feature that speed-readers use: they can read an entire page of a book with only a couple of “fixations” (in other words, eye positions). That's several lines per eye fixation. Even if you don't speed read, you almost certainly don't move your eyes more than once or twice per line.

Make the columns wider, though, and everybody needs to make multiple fixations per line. That slows things down by an order of magnitude. In all probability, you're reading this on a web browser adjusted to show not more than about 80 characters per line. Many web designers limit the width of their web pages for the same reason.

So why not just adjust your MUA window to display 80 characters maximum? That would almost work, except that sometimes you need more than 80 characters. A good example are tables and many computer outputs. Wrapped tables are one of the most difficult things imaginable to read.


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