Overdue calendar reforms and conversational breakdowns

Calendar programs let you schedule meetings, and e-mail programs have long let you reply to messages and forward files. E-mail programs now let you follow conversations. But a more nuanced approach is needed for all of these. After years of calendar and e-mail programs, I can’t understand why the programmers haven’t gotten these very basic things right.



Pet peeve number one: Travel time

You can’t add travel time to a meeting.

You arrange, or someone sends you an invite to, an off-site meeting. It takes 15 minutes to get there, but the only way to allow for this is to add appointments immediately before and after the meeting. But what if the meeting time changes? You would have to move three appointments on your calendar.

Why can’t the travel time buffers be locked to the meeting and move along with it?

Oh, yeah, the invite is wedged between two meetings at your office because your schedule showed that time as available?

Ideally, the calendar system would store the travel time between your office and the meeting location, then automatically add travel buffers before and after the meeting, and move those buffers along with any changed meeting. Similarly, if you had two meetings back-to-back at the same remote location, it would remove the travel time in between them.

It would also be smart enough to use each attendee’s individual travel times to the meeting location to determine whether they had a conflict with the time of the meeting.

Pet peeve number two: Setup and takedown time

You’ve sent a meeting notice to 20 people for a meeting from 10 to 11 a.m., and you’ve reserved a conference room that is synched with your calendar. Oh, but you’re using a projector and laptop. And someone is providing refreshments. So you need the meeting room for 15 minutes before the meeting and 15 minutes after.

Again, you could add a buffer appointment before and after the meeting and just invite yourself and the folks who are helping you set up (or just those other folks if you’re lazy or the big boss and aren’t going to help set up) – oh, yeah, and the meeting reservation system – and take down. Once again, we’re talking three appointments to set aside time for a single meeting.

And Microsoft help you if the reservation system won’t let you reserve the same conference room for set-up and takedown that the meeting is being held in.

Again, what if the main meeting time changes? Once again, you have to move three appointments on your calendar.

Why can’t set-up and take-down time and people be entered with a meeting, be used to calculate conflicts and room reservations, and move along with the meeting if it moves?

Pet peeve number three: Forward vs. Reply and attachments

Now let’s move from calendar programs to e-mail. Say you receive an e-mail to several people along with an attachment. You want to respond and keep everyone in the conversation, but you realize someone was left out and you want to add them.

You have two choices, forward or reply all:

1) The file comes along for the ride as you add the missing recipient.
2) But you have to copy the previous recipients’ names from the original e-mail to the new e-mail.

Reply All:
1) All the names stay on your new e-mail and you can add the new recipient.
2) But you have to copy the file from the original e-mail to the new e-mail so the new recipient gets it. (And everyone else gets it again.)

Why not have a Combo Reply All and Forward?
1) Retains all the names
2) Automatically sends the file to any new recipients but not to folks who already have it.

Pet peeve number four: conversation handling

In the last few years, e-mail programmers have come up with the smart idea of organizing e-mails by conversation or thread, the way they’ve long been on message boards. But the implementation is half-baked, often based on the subject line. This ignores several realities:

1) Many people stink at writing good subject lines. Let’s make up one for example, say, “Urgent!”. So, to maintain my sanity, I replace the subject line with a more detailed one, say “National Zoo Pandacam Shutdown” before I respond to it. But in the meantime, others who were copied on the original message chime in and there are now two subjects traveling around, “Urgent!” and “National Zoo Pandacam Shutdown” which the e-mail program will identify as two separate conversations.

Ideally, the e-mail program would be smart enough to follow the chain’s DNA and identify both subjects as being part of the same thread.

2) Many people start a new thread with a new subject line if it’s been more than a day or two since they wrote or received a response to their old one. So, if I haven’t responded and they want to check whether I read it, they might start a new thread “What About the Pandacam?” Again, the e-mail program will identify this as a separate conversation and in this case, it’s reasonable for the e-mail program to have done so since there’s no DNA to trace.

Similarly, some people send a file directly from Word or Excel rather than saving it and attaching it as a reply to the e-mail that requested the file. In this case, the subject line will be the file name.

Ideally, the e-mail program would let me say this thread and that thread are actually the same thread and from that point on treat them as a single thread and track their respective DNA strands as a single strand and file them as a single conversation.

3) In the meantime, someone else has sent an e-mail with a subject “Urgent!” which would more appropriately be titled “Panda Kindergarten Kidnaps Xiao Liwu…Again!”

The e-mail program mistakenly identifies the #1 Urgent and the #3 Urgent as being part of the same conversation. If the e-mail program used the threads’ DNA, this conflation wouldn’t happen and the e-mail program would identify them as two different threads automatically.

4) For that matter, at least within a single e-mail system such as Outlook Exchange Server, if someone is starting a new thread and uses a subject that the recipient already has multiple threads of, then Exchange would respond “You might want to use a more specific subject line.”

5) Then there’s the dreaded topic drift. I respond to “Urgent” (as in “Panda Kindergarten Kidnaps Xiao Liwu…Again!”) with the revised subject line (“Panda Kindergarten Kidnaps Xiao Liwu…Again!”) and they respond a day later with the new subject line (“Panda Kindergarten Kidnaps Xiao Liwu…Again!”) and the message “You’ll be happy to know that Xiao Liwu has been reunited with his mom Bai Yun. They have been inseparable since. Oh, and by the way, and What About the Pandacam shutdown”?

Topic drift is a fact of life. An e-mail program would give me a way of splitting the threads so that my reply goes back into the pandacam thread and I have all the pandacam stuff under one pandacam conversation and the Wu kidnapping stuff under one Wu kidnapping conversation.

6) And don’t get me started on blank subject lines, not that I’m innocent. Why don’t e-mail programs prevent that?

7) And while we’re at it, why don’t some e-mail programs *cough* Outlook *cough* let you hide read and delivery receipts from all subject threads?


Thanks to my sister’s The Panda Chronicles for subject line inspiration in order to protect the guilty.

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