The War on Email

Maybe “I can has cheezburger” isn’t for work.

Everyone has, at some point received unwanted email, I don’t mean spam, I mean being included in the cc of an email you don’t want to deal with, or receiving those chain letters, or the latest internet meme.

The nice people at have created a handy decision tree in an appealing infographic format to help you answer the question “Should I send this email?” which includes a nod to one of the most famous internet paradoxes – millions of people do fantastic work and post it online, but it’s pictures of cats that get sent and viewed millions of times.

I like the idea, and I’ve written before about efforts to manage or limit email. But while it’s true that email can be a drain on our time it remains a great tool for many tasks. It also has the advantage of being much less disruptive than phone calls or visits. Yeah, it’s sad, I like email.

But that comes with a couple of provisos. Emails need to be clearly written, sent to the right people, work-related. That work-related means that the email should contain information I need to do my job, or something I need to act on.

I also like having conversations with my colleagues, and I’ve noticed that “coffee meetings” can be very effective – they rarely last more than 30 minutes and so people tend to stick to the point. Plus at our office they’re in an open setting so it’s easy to move away when the discussion is done, rather than be stuck in a meeting room because it’s “booked for the hour”.

Anyway given that people work in different ways I created my own infographic “Should you send me an email?”

(Thanks to land of web for the twitter coffee cup)

Google Perception

I heard a story about a company that changed the presentation of the search engine on their intranet site. Originally it was a simple text field with a search button.

After the technical team had finished making the updates there was a simple and obvious change to the text field.

Apparently without implementing Google Search Appliances, or indeed signing any contract with Google. The result was a marked improvement in the feedback of intranet users.

The story may be apocryphal, but if not it shows the remarkable positive brand value of Google.

Coffee With Benefits

Last year a coffee corner was introduced at our office. It has real coffee, a range of coffees and a real barista.  It got the seal of approval from our Italian team mate and quickly became popular with the whole building.

During the period B.C.E.(Before Coffee Era) there was an eternal shortage of meeting rooms, as most of our office space is open plan. Using the restaurant was a last resort, partly because it was a big empty unfriendly space and partly because there was no coffee.

So now we’re in the C.E (Coffee Era), between 8am and about 3.30 we can buy real coffee. It’s still popular six months after the introduction and there have been a couple of unintended consequences.

(1) we will now choose to have meetings in the restaurant, and because there’s plenty of space to spread out it still feels like you can discuss things openly at your table. Suddenly there’s no shortage of meeting rooms.

(2) I see lots of colleagues from other teams/departments who I never used to see, and have been able to catch up with them on work things more easily. We’ll chat, we’ll schedule “coffee dates”.

I’ve been in meetings with some very bright people discussing how to break down organisational silos to increase knowledge sharing and collaboration; turns out all we needed to do was serve up some quality coffee.

image Caffè Lattè /rport/ CC BY-NC 2.0

Usability in Action; Banks

Years ago, more than 10 years ago, I withdrew my rent money from an ATM, as my automatic payments hadn’t been set up. I got the receipt but not the money. Obviously I was a bit concerned, but the bank happened to be open so I went in to try to solve this. The teller told me that it was a Good Thing I’d kept the receipt because it helped them track my transaction, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything until they reconciled the machine’s balance at the end of the day.

Well eventually it was resolved and since then I’ve always chosen the “with receipt” option when withdrawing money.

The process of cash withdrawal at ABN Amro

That’s probably more than a thousand receipts. Think of all that paper. And the only reason I’m doing it is just in case the machine doesn’t give me my money. (Never had a problem since but I’m still cautious).

Well ABN Amro’s machines here in the Netherlands have made a very simple change to the process of withdrawing money. They now ask you whether you want a receipt AFTER you’ve taken the money. Now I choose no. No more receipts. I bet others do the same.

It’s one of those blindingly simple changes to a process that helps the customer, saves money and saves the environment.

I think we should all look at design, including process design from the user’s perspective. We should ask ourselves not just what we want the user to do, but what does the user want out of each step. In this example someone at ABN Amro has worked out that a lot of people get the receipts “just in case” the machine gives them the wrong money. So they’ve moved that step to after the cash step.

We need to take time to re-examine a lot of processes, I bet there are more smart ways to improve design of machines, objects, websites and processes.

image ATM

Usability in Action; Streets

We respond very well to visual clues on how something should be used, in fact we probably respond more to visual clues than to any other sort of clue


I was reminded of that this week when crossing the road – the one shown in the picture. It’s a little difficult to tell, but it’s a crossing and then a traffic island. On the other side of the traffic island – beyond the bicycles – are tram tracks. You can see it on the google satellite map.

Until recently that traffic island used to be a forest of bicycles and you really had to weave your way through them. It annoyed me, I really wanted to just kick the bicycles out of the way and under a passing tram (for the record I did not do this).

When I went through the city on Thursday I noticed that someone has painted a large white rectangle across the island with an ‘X’ in the centre of it. Marking it a no parking zone, and that’s all it took for cyclists to park their bikes in a way that leaves space for pedestrians.

There’s no sign saying that people may not park there, there’s no indication that the painting on the ground was even done officially, it could have been done by a similarly frustrated pedestrian in the wee hours for all I know.

But I’m fascinated that one visual clue is enough to trigger the mass of cyclists to change their behaviour.