Smart Reply GmailIn life, we often see solutions in search of a problem. They tend to focus on a narrow subjects. The complexity tends to outweigh any benefits. When you look at the tools you are already using, you realize you don’t need it. When I read about “Smart Reply,” a new feature in Inbox by Gmail (not to be confused with Gmail), I felt like I was seeing one more solution in search of a problem.

What is Email for Anyway?

A hammer is a good tool. It allows you and me to drive nails into wood easily. A saw is a good tool. It allows us to cut that piece of wood into two pieces with a minimum of effort. If I try to drive a nail by holding the blade of a saw and striking the nail with the handle of the saw, my results will be far from satisfactory. We choose the right tool for the right job.

Communication tools abound. Here again, we need to choose the right tool for the right job. Countless articles have been written about email. In fact, you are reading one more right now. We love it because we can send as many messages as we like and send them whenever we like. We hate it because we get too much of it and it can arrive at the most inopportune times.

What makes email good?

  • Email allows us to time shift. I compose the email when it is convenient for me. I then go on with my day. You can read my message when it is convenient for you. How many times have you answered a phone call and found you did not have the time, patience, or ability to focus on that call? The timing is good for the caller, but not always so for the recipient.
  • Email allows us to research. Call me on the phone with a question, and I may not know the answer. I tell you I will “have to get back with you.” When I do have the answer, we may play telephone tag for several days before I can deliver that information.
  • Email allows us to document. Send me an email message, and I can archive that message in case the need arises to prove what was sent and when. If the message contains good reference information, I can save it in a note taking application, such as Evernote. If the message relates to a task I must perform, I can forward it to my digital task list and have the entire body of the email message available when I do the task.

Allow email to play from its strengths, and it’s a great tool. Circumvent those strengths, and you might as well be driving nails with a saw.

What is Email Not For?

If you need an immediate response, email is not the tool. Pick up the phone if you need dialogue. Send a text message if you need to deliver a quick one-way message.

Send an email expecting an immediate answer and you become part of the problem. You interrupt people in the middle of focused work. In addition to the time taken for the interruption, an even larger amount of time in required to refocus and resume the original work.

Fall prey to the trap of responding to email as soon as it arrives, and you become part of the problem as well. Teach people that you respond instantly and they come to expect it. Teach people you will respond within a day and they come to respect it. Nobody is going to look out for your time. That responsibility is yours. Welcome to the adult world.

Why “Smart Reply” is not a Smart Idea

We have already established that if you email me, I am going to respond within a day, that I am going to do so when I actually have the time the focus on a thoughtful reply, and when I have the information gathered to give you an intelligent answer. You can now relax and move on to something else.

Smart Reply is designed to help you give a quick reply. But just how much time does it save if you even want to give that quick reply? You must still read the email. Then, you select from several short answers.

Why not just use something you already have at your disposal? See the key with the microphone icon on it? As quickly as you could read and select answers Smart Reply suggests, you could tap the microphone button and speak your own short response.

Do you really want to read that “Smart Reply?” Let’s say I do reply. Now, you get to stop what you were doing…all to read a several word reply that Google prepared. I have more respect for your time than to expect you to do that.

Automation is Good, If It’s Good Automation

Yes, there are phrases, paragraphs, and even entire emails that I use again and again. I use Auto Text Expander for Chrome to do the heavy lifting. If doesn’t give the recipients a short reply. It gives them a thoughtful reply that I only had to think through one time.

If I need to know that someone received and opened my email, I don’t need them to reply in order for  me to know. Sidekick by Hubspot does a great job of letting me know the exact time someone opens my email.

The “out-of-office” or “vacation” reply is an easy way to let people know you are not in a place where you can respond right away. Whether you receive one email or 401 emails, they all get your thoughtful message letting them know when you will be back and when they expect an answer. All of that happens without your even having to look at email. These directions let you know how to operate that feature in Gmail.

I am all for solutions which make our jobs easier. Some solutions are simply looking for problems that don’t (or shouldn’t) exists. Smart Reply seems to me to be one of them.

Your thoughts may be different. Whether you agree with me or not, I welcome those thoughts. You can leave a comment below. Please considering sharing this posts with others using the social media icons which appear below this post.