Taking Email Etiquette to the Next Level

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.

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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.  

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.”