Email Use in a Multi-Account, Multi-Device World

Email is far from dead; in fact the volume of messages exchanged daily, the number of accounts per user, and the number of devices on which email is accessed have been constantly growing. Most previous studies on email have focused on management and retrieval behaviour within a single account and on a single device. Being able to access email across multiple devices brings numerous benefits such as flexible working practices. However it can also have negative stressful consequences such as increasing email overload and the blurring of work-home boundaries. Yet, there is still little understanding on work and personal emails using different devices impact work-home boundary management.

We therefore examined how people manage and retrieve email in today’s ecosystem through an in-depth qualitative diary study with 16 participants. We also conducted an exploratory study that extends the current understanding of email usage by investigating how different professions at a university manage email across work-home boundaries.

We found that personal and work accounts are managed differently, resulting in diverse retrieval strategies: while work accounts are more structured and thus email is retrieved through folders, personal accounts have fewer folders and users rely primarily on the built-in search option. Moreover, retrieval occurs primarily on laptops and PCs compared to smartphones. We explore the reasons, and uncover barriers and workarounds related to managing multiple accounts and devices. The Stanford Scholar initiative created a video summarising our findings.

Our findings also lead us to identify two user groups: those with permeable boundaries (primarily academics) and those who have more rigid ones (primarily professional services employees) and that there are differences in when, where and how they manage their work and personal emails. In particular we found that some participants use micro-boundary strategies to manage transitions between work and personal life. Micro-boundaries correspond to small moments of friction in the interaction that in this case the user creates to avoid cues to interaction that might not align with ones values.

Findings from both studies have informed a series of design recommendations on to better manage and retrieve email, as well as account for personal and professional differences in managing work-home boundaries. The short version of these is listed below:

  • Better email integration for work purposes.
  • Learning from other communication tools (e.g. Slack).
  • Designing for short-lived and long-lived content in the inbox.
  • Optimising smartphone search.
  • Setting contextual notifications based on locations and account type.
  • Automatically tagging email with device icons based on where they were first opened
  • Tailoring company email policies to reflect professional group.

Publications:

Cecchinato, M.E., Cox, A. L., & Bird, J. (2015, April). Working 9-5?: Professional differences in email and boundary management practices. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3989-3998). ACM.

Cecchinato, M.E., Fleck, R., Bird, J., & Cox, A. L. (2015). Online vs. Offline: Implications for Work Identity. In CHI 2015 Workshop Between the lines: Reevaluating the Online/Offline Binary.

Cecchinato, M.E., Sellen, A., Shokouhi, M., & Smyth, G. (2016). Finding email in a multi-account, multi-device world. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM.

Cox, A.L., Gould, S., Cecchinato, M.E., Iacovides, I., Renfree, I. (2016). Design Frictions for Mindful Interactions: The Case for Microboundaries. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM.

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