Tagging versus categorizing emails

Word is Yahoo will soon be coming out with its OddPost inspired version. Ethan Diamond, one of the Oddpost founders, now working on Yahoo mail thinks that users are more likely to use folders than tags to organize emails. I tend to agree. I like the controlled messiness of del.icio.us tags for my bookmarked urls. And the social discovery of others’ bookmarks is very compelling. But for something as personal and important as my email archive – I prefer either a combination of folders and robust search.

Pretty much every other week, I organize my emails – archiving them into folders, clearing my inbox. At the end of it, I get the feeling I get when I organize my bookshelves. There is a little bit of self-discovery (I learn what I have been focusing on recently). And feeling of satisfaction that only a clean inbox with archived messages can give.

(Disclaimer: I use Eudora for all my mail. I signed up for Gmail, but never used it since I dont like its Privacy policy).

What about you? If given the choice, would you prefer using folders or tags to organize your mail? Do tags work for organizing emails? I would love to hear about experiences using tags to organize emails.

15 thoughts on “Tagging versus categorizing emails

  1. I like the ability to change the physical location of messages by putting them into folders. This is quite intutive. From a usability stand-point, I would love to have tag capability available in addition so I can see all messages in context of a specific tag regardless of their physical folder location.

    I don’t think Search is a good enough substitute for this feature. With tags to organize messages virtually, I can find messages based on the tags (i.e. concepts/topics) I assigned. Keyword search is blunt and will not have this kind of finesse.

    So, in summary, I want both — folders for physically organizing messages, and tags for making it easier to find messages.



  2. The reason that I want search is that often I will remember a distinctive word that should be in the email. For example, searching for a name coupled with a book is quite likely to bring up an email regarding the book.

    In a manner of speaking, these words I search by, are tags that my mind has assigned to the email. And when I want to retrieve the mail, I use those words.

  3. I dearly love Gmail’s tags. I can use tags as folders, but I can also tie more than one meaning to each e-mail, which is one failing I have found with every e-mail system I have ever used. Most e-mails have more than one place that I want to tuck them for easy grouping. I have some that are topic facets, others that are action based, some for my own personal project ontology, and event related.

    Oddpost always bugged me as it was close to Outlook 2000 and earlier, which had poor interaction properties for my usage. On a day-to-day usage the Outlook 2000 interface limits functional use. Later versions included categories (including multiple categories, but the multiple categories have been buggy).

    Nearly all of the developers that I work with have Gmail accounts and are huge fans for the spell check, search, storage, and tags. Nearly every person loves their tags as they feel they can group things more openly than tucking in folders. Most have not grown up with physical file folders in their workspace and they like things more visible.

    There is no need to have to limit an interface to just one type of interaction metaphor. A combination of tags and folders could be easily done and provide a formal hierarchal structure for those that want and need that in their life and tags for those with that predilection. I can not imagine the level of effort to provide both interfaces was that difficult, I know network filing systems that do it and the systems we knocked out in mere hours and they work for both tribes and can be used to augment each other.

  4. I dearly love Gmail’s tags. I can use tags as folders, but I can also tie more than one meaning to each e-mail, which is one failing I have found with every e-mail system I have ever used.

    It sounds like the way you are using tags is like a flat category scheme (no hierarchy) which does not require that one item live in only one category. Also, the different types of tags you describe kind of sound like facets (time, event, person) etc.

    Also, a question – do you tag each and every email in Gmail? I am ok with archiving them in categories since I have setup filters etc., and I use shortcuts or at the most drag and drop to put them into folders. I cannot imagine having to tag each mail with multiple tags. It would be great for retrieval – I just cannot imagine making that much effort at time of tagging.

  5. I, too, use folders, and largely for that sense of… accomplishment. Organizing stuff into appropriate folders usually suggests that I have completed my desired task with it.

    However, I think that if tagging were well-designed in Apple Mail, I could easily move to it. Because I, like anyone, have had those moments where I can’t figure out exactly where to put a certain message…

  6. As some have already talked about, I really like the tagging feature provided by GMail, and after using it, find it a bit difficult to live with Yahoo!, etc. Though not more than 10% of my emails have multiple tags, I find it necessary for me to have this feature. This happens many times when there is an email about more than one thing. Agreed that the search feature can solve many problems, but there is no problem in having tags for the same job. It makes me more comfortable given the fact that sometimes the tense of the thing talked about will not matter if I used tags.

  7. So, the ability to apply more than one tag seems to be crucial. From a cognitive perspective, that seems obvious. Cognitive psychology definitely shows that human categorization involves putting items in more than one category. An “item in one category” is definitely an articifact of library science thinking.

  8. Screenshots I grabbed from Yahoo, Oddpost, Gmail, Thunderbird, and Outlook reveal how the interfaces look exactly the same.

    You can see the screenshots on my blog:

    * http://thinkingandmaking.com/entries/61

    Tags don’t work in gmail the way they work in del.icio.us. They work more like folders. The difference is that when “moving” an email to a “folder”, you have the ability to move it to more than one folder.

    I agree with Thomas, that there’s no need to limit email to just one folder.

  9. Tagging would be a great feature for an email app. Of course a successful app would reduce the amount of effort needed for tagging each email.

    In the psych lit there’s evidence that these ‘thematic’ relations (tags) are as useful as hierachical relations.
    Lin, E. L., & Murphy, G. L. (2001). Thematic relations in adults’ concepts. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(1), 3-28.

  10. A paper by Gregory Murphy! Thats a real blast from the past. Long time since someone cited Murthy to me.

    I took a look at the paper. Interesting that he mentions that thematic relationships show up more often in children’s concepts.

    I think that tags really have a hybrid nature – they can be from a “category”, or have a “thematic” or “ad hoc” relation. In fact, its almost as if these are simply associations – and the specific nature of the association is left upto the user.

  11. Thomas Vander Wal:
    Nearly every person loves their tags as they feel they can group things more openly than tucking in folders

    Thomas’ comment reminds me of a statement in Bruce Mau’s excellent Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

    25. Don’t clean your desk. You might find something in the morning that you can’t see tonight.

    I think for me that’s the essence of it. I don’t want to tuck things away and forget about them; I want to chance upon them again. Show me everything and give me the tools to navigate the information. A decent search, tagging, date separation etc. Plus, I’m lazy and filing things seems like work. (And I’ve still got to remember where I put it.)

  12. “What about you? If given the choice, would you prefer using folders or tags to organize your mail?”

    Actually, what about NOT us? Who cares what a bunch of nerdy interaction designers prefer? Yahoo’s target is so totally not us. It seems sort of self-evident that users like us who are hyper-sensitive to the organization of their data would have sophisticated, idiosyncratic, and probably conflicting preferences.

  13. Good point. I have been wondering what kind of adoption these companies have been seeing of any tag-based organizing options. Though, they are not likely to directly share that information – it will reflect in their strategy though.

    Seems like tags with Gmail have been successful. Though I would think that Gmail is at the early adoptor stages yet.

    One way to get an answer would be to do a survey of “not us” types who might have been exposed to some sort of a tagging scheme.

  14. First I was confused by the gmail tag system. Then after I discovered with the use of tags and filters I can imitate the folder system and also take advantage of the tags. First I created a tag called incoming all the mails received and not belonging to any other folder are filtered to arrive here. It’s possible to do the way google evaluate filters. The last filter created applied last. So if no other tag applied (-label:num1 -label:num2 ) I apply the incoming tag. If later I want to “move” a file manually i delete the incoming tag and apply the folder tag. I planning to code this process in grease monkey if somebody can help me in this please contact me.

  15. I think tagging of emails is an idea whose time is coming. You are correct in stating in an earlier comment that the work involved in tagging emails does seem to be a heavy price to pay for an easy search later. However, in my case it would be worth it for some emails. I work in an engineering role and will see 10’s of dozens of emails roll by relating to a new product or platform in it’s development phase, it’s implementation phase, and finally it’s public trial and support phase. I diligently categorize the emails that appear valuable in various folders and subfolders based on the way I think. For me it’s usually a once or twice a week job that takes an hour or more.

    I don’t do this as I first read them because often times the category structure does not become clear when I first start reading about a new project. However, the first time I see an email I always have a few associations in my mind about the project. It really would not take me any longer to tag these emails as they came through when I’m first reading them. And then it would be another step to review them later in a flat tag fashion as opposed to remembering what folder structure I had hid them under. Tagging would also allow emails to appear under a multitude of tags instead of a single folder hierarchy.

    But I agree with others here, regular tagging of email is not going to become the norm until there is as simple an interface as the “Tag This” button for del.icio.us


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