Email IA for the overloaded

A multitude of small postboxes in rows, all with little locks.For those who get a large volume of email, you probably know the pain of trying to balance reading, sorting, and acting on that email. After several years of battle, I’ve settled on a particular filtering method that will probably work for anyone that receives email from several internal teams, and many project lists. Do you need to use Information Architecture (IA) on your email?

I get over 100 email a day that I should read (i.e. not spam, which I get much more of). This is simply too much to read and do work. So how do you cope? I used to get interrupted all the time, checking lots of email. When I got annoyed with that, I’d miss email that I was supposed to respond to.

So I fell into a system that let me differentiate the ones that I should read soon, and those that were ‘FYI‘. Using this system can also help to enforce a little email best practice in other people as well.

Some people will probably think “well, that’s obvious”, but I know many people struggle with this, so perhaps a quick ‘how-to’ will help someone.

Folder structure

How you categorise things will depend on your email, but I split things into email about projects (folder per client) and internal email (non-project specific work email, folder per team). You might consider a folder per person, but if there are more than about 10 I would suggest grouping them by business function / team.

I’ve assumed the use of outlook, but most email clients should be able to do something similar. I’m also assuming each project has a group email list that you can use to filter those email.

That leads to a folder structure similar to this:

  • Not to me
  • Clients
    • client 1
    • client 2
  • Teams
    • team 1
    • team 2
  • Other folders

The ‘not to me’ folder I’ll explain below, and other folders could be any that don’t get that much email.


There are several layer of rules, most should ‘stop processing more rules’ once it has run:

  1. Spam (move anything with “[SPAM” or equivalent into the junk folder).
  2. From me (anything sent by me is marked as read. This applies before the other filters, so don’t set ‘stop processing more rules’.).
  3. Client/Project emails (anything sent to list for “Client x” is moved into the Client x folder, except if my name is in the To or CC box, or it’s marked as high importance. Set ‘Stop processing more rules’).
  4. Team emails, (anything sent to “team x” is moved into that folder, unless my name is in the To or CC. Set ‘Stop processing more rules’).
  5. Internal people emails (anything sent by person in “team x” is moved into their team’s folder, unless my name is in the To or CC. Set ‘Stop processing more rules’).
  6. Not to me (anything where my name is not in the To or CC, except if it’s high importance).

This has the effect of filtering anything that isn’t sent directly to me (also preventing the pop-up by the system tray in Outlook). Therefore anything that is sent to me, is worthy of looking at soon. Everything else can be left until I go through project or team emails.

Projects are dealt with before internal email simply because it’s more important to deal with. If you think about the filters, if colleague X sends you an email, it will go to a project list if it’s about that, their team folder if it’s not sent to you, or your inbox if it is.

This has also been quite helpful for getting others to think about how they address emails, as they quickly work out I will reply promptly if it’s sent to me rather than (or as well as) a list.

The ‘not to me’ folder gets any email that isn’t sent to a project list, from a team mate, and isn’t addressed to you directly. That catches a lot of miscellaneous email like discussion lists you haven’t dealt with, or spam that’s BCCed to you.

Favourite folders

Whilst emails are pre-sorted into the appropriate folders, it also really helps to read across many folders, like cross-section indexes on a website. I tend to have these ‘favourite’ folders:

  • Inbox
  • Today (a search folder that aggregates everything sent today)
  • Unread email
  • Sent items
  • For follow up
  • Junk email (so it’s always in view, and I can drag things into it easily).

These enable me to go through all the recent or unread email quickly if I’m using a block of time to deal with email. I’m sure there are many other ways and tricks, but this feels right for now.

5 contributions to “Email IA for the overloaded

  1. Thanks Mike, that’s a nice tutorial, I’d made a bit of an assumption that people knew that stuff already 😉

    I guess I also didn’t say that this doesn’t really try and cover list email, which for myself I’ve separated onto gMail, but could be treated the same way as above.

  2. i got no website as for now but i want to ask a question concerning usability and filtering? how do this two work together? and in your case about the email, if i wanted to access an email that is a year old, what is the fastest means to get to get to it considering usability?

  3. Hi Delk,

    Usability is an attribute of something, so in the case of filtering, it would be how easy to use that filtering system is for particular users with particular goals.

    Regarding your email question, it really depends on your application and what criteria you can use to get to it, but I’d start with the advanced search.

  4. I’ve started using Gmail which doesn’t use folders but ‘labels’ instead. This allows users to tag emails with multiple labels, the equivalent of having the same email in multiple folders.

    It takes some getting used to, but I find it a much better system. For example, two labels I have are ‘online shopping’ and ‘freelance work’. When I buy a hosting package, for example, I use both labels for the confirmation email.

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