Taking Email Etiquette to the Next Level

June 6, 2011

When working with others in the office, most know
it is better to approach a colleague who is relaxed and drinking a cup of
coffee versus a frazzled co-worker buried under a pile of paperwork.

Unfortunately, email doesn’t offer users the
same social cues – until now.

Georgia Tech Assistant Professor of Computing Eric
Gilbert has developed software called courteous.ly, a service that shows current
user email loads in real-time.  

“I think we’re really good at the etiquette
part when we have the cues that allow us to be polite,” said Gilbert, a faculty
member in the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing. “Courteous.ly
helps manage expectations and lets people choose to send mail when it’s best
for you.”

Available for download, courteous.ly currently works
with Google-based email, such as Gmail, which is used by 160 million people
worldwide. Roughly 3 million businesses also use Google-hosted mail. Signing up
for courteous.ly is as easy as entering your email address and verifying a few
links. 

Once courteous.ly has access to a Gmail
account, it periodically checks the user’s email load based on specific measurement
parameters chosen by the user – unread messages in your inbox, total number of
messages in your inbox, or how much mail you’ve recently sent. After an initial
12-hour analysis, courteous.ly determines the user’s email habits and what constitutes
“light,” “normal” or “high” e-mail amount. It then updates the user’s status of
email volume level every 10 minutes, which is reflected in an individualized
courteous.ly link.

The primary way to distribute a courteous.ly link
is through the user’s email signature. To see how busy a user is, an individual
looking to send an email would just need to click on the courteous.ly link –
but even this extra step may go away in future iterations. For employees or individuals with high daily levels
of incoming email, this tool provides another level of email management. For
marketers and others trying to get the attention of a particular email user, courteous.ly
pinpoints the most opportune times to send an email, affording the best chance
of cutting through the clutter and having an email read.

In the future, Gilbert said he may develop blog
widgets that allow users to put their courteous.ly links on their blogs or
websites. He may also color-code Gmail messages based on how overwhelmed a
user’s inbox is for easier awareness.

Gilbert started courteous.ly to infuse email
with more social consideration. But now he’s also studying whether the software
could actually reduce email loads by monitoring the users’ accounts over
several months to test its impact.

Gilbert hopes this is just one way to improve
e-mail.

“Email is the Internet’s first and most
prolific social medium, going back all the way to the 1960s, and it’s often
overlooked and under-analyzed in comparison to newer channels,” Gilbert said.
“That makes it an attractive place to do research because everybody uses it but
not a lot of innovation has happened in a long time. There’s definitely room
for improvement.”