Stanford Brainiacs’ Answer to Email Overload

Email Valet takes over for those of us who can't afford a personal assistant

It’s estimated that every day, worldwide, there are 145 billion emails sent.

So many of them now reach us no matter where we are: in bed, standing in line, even work emails hitting the inbox relentlessly – as you sit in a meeting!

Well one group at Stanford University’s Computer Science Department have come up with what it calls the perfect solution: EmailValet.

It’s a form of crowdsourcing, the practice of tapping into a large group of people to get services and content, much like Wikipedia.

Nicolas Kokkalis, a PhD student, Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor, and Scott Klemmer, an associate professor, decided to use crowdsourcing to solve the problem of email overload through EmailValet.

It’s a program that allows a remote assistant, an actual human, to go through someone’s emails and extract the tasks.

On the left hand side after signing in, the user is able to see all of the original emails on the left hand side.

To the right is a “to-do” list of the tasks clearly spelled out for the user to check off. But first, you’ll have to hand over your access.

The group decided to test the idea: would people give strangers access to their emails in order to save their own time, and maybe get things done more quickly?

“We actually validated that it was indeed a crazy idea,” said Kokkalis, laughing. In fact, after a randomized survey of 600 people, less than four percent said they’d be willing to give up their passwords. One of the people who shared that sentiment was Anish Patel, a graduate student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

“I think privacy is an issue,” said Patel. “I think particularly as I think about applications to the workplace.”

But Patel changed his mind after a ten-day EmailValet study. He learned that the program has some privacy safeguards built into place, including a feature where you can restrict what the remote assistant is able to see, as well as a way to track what the assistant does while logged into someone’s email.

“You can blacklist anything that contains any keywords like ‘bank’ or ‘password’ or ‘credit card. Or, even white list any particular element, only things marked as ‘important,’ that kind of thing,” Bernstein explained. “We actually keep track of what the crowd worker has done. Have they read this email? Have they created a task out of it? Or not?”

The group’s study used three conditions: the use of EmailValet, the user actively trying to work faster extracting his or her own tasks out of emails, and the control condition. Kokkalis said the study showed EmailValet actually doubled the user’s productivity.

Patel agreed it was successful, especially after he said other computer-driven email-help programs fell flat for him. “I toyed around with some of these email technological solutions and none of them have really worked for me,” said Patel. “This hybrid of having someone as an assistant but sort of remote – with a limited set of features – I was kind of intrigued by it.”

Klemmer agreed that using humans at this point is better than computers. “People are extremely good at this difficult task of taking free-form stuff and converting it into a more structured format. That’s just beyond the level of what a computer can do today,” Klemmer said.

He added extracting tasks from emails may seem like a trivial step, but in fact, holds many people back from maximizing productivity.

“By converting every time you scan your inbox, something that has a title you need to figure out and re-read that three-page-long message for the seventeenth time, instead it gets you a crisp, actionable item," Klemmer said.

So how much would you have to pay for this service? Kokkalis said it would come in at less than two bucks a day. “That compared to a $3,000 salary of a real executive assistant!”

So far, it’s just a research program that was funded by the National Science Foundation – not yet picked up by any companies – but the group of believes it’s well-worth the time, energy and money. In the meantime, the three men are working on creating more technological solutions, many of them caused by technology, itself.

“We’ll leap ahead of where the world is by one, three, give, ten years, and we’ll live in that world for awhile,” Berstein said.

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