Me this week: why is this guy chasing me for a reply today when he only emailed me on Thursday?
Also me this week: how come that person I emailed on Wednesday last week STILL hasn’t replied?
We’ve all spent time hitting the refresh button on an inbox waiting for a reply to an email we’ve sent and wondering what’s holding things up. The truth is, people send urgent emails before others and if they think a reply to your email is not urgent and is going to take them ages to write, you might be waiting a really long time!
Our frustration waiting for others to reply to our emails led us to investigate which factors influence how quickly people respond to emails and whether there’s anything we can do as a sender to get them to choose to reply to us before answering someone else’s message!The results of our study of 45 people responding to 16,200 e-mails sent over a 3 week period show that when e-mail replies are not urgent, people wait to a later time to send replies rather than responding immediately. However, when they do respond they are more likely to tackle the messages that are easier to respond to (eg needing a short reply) and those that carry the greatest importance (eg when there’s something in it for the sender). In contrast, when presented with e-mails that need an urgent reply, people prioritize these and disregard factors such as length of reply.
Our results are important for all of us who use e-mail and want timely responses. Composing e-mails that clearly signal that an urgent response is needed is the best way to ensure that the receiver will deal with it promptly. If it’s not urgent, making clear that you just need a short response will mean your email gets replied to before others.
Anna L. Cox, Jon Bird, Duncan P. Brumby, Marta E. Cecchinato & Sandy J. J. Gould (2021) Prioritizing unread e-mails: people send urgent responses before important or short ones, Human–Computer Interaction, 36:5-6, 511-534, DOI: 10.1080/07370024.2020.1835481