Automated bad process is still bad process

Google has a new technology in Inbox called Smart Reply:

Smart Reply suggests up to three responses based on the emails you get. For those emails that only need a quick response, it can take care of the thinking and save precious time spent typing.

You might think that this is a brilliant idea, when I read it my heart sank and my head screamed “NO!”

This post is my attempt to unravel that emotional response.

In the early days of the BlackBerry my boss at that time took to responding to every email he received from his mobile keyboard. If you sent him an email you would receive a response in a few seconds, or not at all. The problem was that none of the responses were of any value. They would be quick responses, they would be short responses, but they rarely dealt with the questions that I needed a response to in enough rigour that I didn’t have to send another email for further clarity. I soon learnt not to send him emails with more than one question in because he would only ever respond to the first one. Smart Reply would have been his best friend, and my worst nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong it’s not the technology of Smart Reply that I have a problem with but the human behaviour that it facilitates. It automates what I regard as poor process, for me email isn’t the medium you use when you want a short reply.

In the GIF above that shows Smart Reply working the examples replies show my issue. These are the replies to the question: “Do you have any documentation on the new software? If not maybe you could put something together, it would be really useful for onboarding.” This is a sensible, valid, email question.

Let’s look at the available responses:

  • “I don’t sorry” – This would be an extremely frustrating answer because it only answers half of the question. The complete answer should be something like “I don’t sorry, but it is on my list of activities to do and should be available by next blue moon.” Getting half an answer is neither use, nor ornament, it’s just frustrating.
  • “I will have to look for it” – This is, again, an incomplete answer.  When are you going to look for it? Why can’t you look for it now?
  • “I’ll send it to you” – This is the chosen answer, but in many ways it is the worst answer of all. Why didn’t you just send it to me? Or, more appropriately for a Google focussed answer why didn’t you just share it with me? Now that you’ve replied and got it out of your inbox my suspicion is that you’re going to forget to send it to me. Why didn’t you just wait to respond when you could send it to me?

Rather than sending me a short incomplete answer I’d rather wait for a slower but complete answer. I’ve sent you the question on email so I’m not expecting an immediate response anyway. Rather than automating poor process I’d rather encourage good process.

I’ve not had chance to look at how Smart Reply works in production. Reading the description and looking at the mock-ups it shows that the Smart Reply is only the start of a message for you to build from, which is great, my concern is that the start might not lead to a complete response, just a response.

The rapid-fire-mobile-emailer can shoot out hundreds of responses an hour and leave anarchy behind them. My concern is that Smart Reply helps them fire quicker a just increases the anarchy.

I’ve used these words from Peter Drucker on several occasions:

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”

I think they sum up my emotional response.

On a more humorous note: Seven Sinofsky suggests that Smart Reply is kind of what Microsoft were trying to do with Clippy all those years ago:

Now let me see:

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