Composing an email – an example of foundational design choices

Observe>Interpret>DESIGN>Experiment>How does the concept of foundation design choices that I introduced in the previous blog post apply to a real design situation?  To explore this let us look at it in a context familiar to most of us – the challenge of designing an important email.  (If you do not think that writing an email is design, please keep reading with an open mind.)  As a manager for many years, a significant percentage of my time (probably more than 20%) involved composing, reading and responding to emails.  I believe the ability to compose (design) a clear, succinct and relevant email is a very underrated personal skill in most organizations.

In the previous post I proposed four foundational design choices:

  • Objective
  • Boundaries/constraints
  • Architecture/game plan
  • Metaphor.

Let us see how each of these could apply to composing an email.

Objective:  Each email will (should) have a specific principal objective.  It could be to persuade, to propose, to inform, to update, to report, to call to action, to instruct, to admonish, to praise, to entertain, to enlist, etc.  The overall objective must be determined before we start composing the email so that the entire email supports that intent and so that the intent is absolutely clear to the reader.  (I will leave aside here the question of whether an email is the best way to achieve this objective.  That is a higher level design choice that I assume we have already taken.)

Boundaries/constraints:  Any email is subject to a number of practical and contextual constraints.  They include the time available to write the email, the likely time and attention that reader will give to the email (both these constraints will influence the length of email), the confidentially of any information in the email, the level of familiarity of the readers with relevant technical terms and acronyms, the existing level of familiarity of the reader with the subject matter and context, scope of subject matter, etc.  Some of the these boundaries/constraints, such as the length and scope of the email, are within your control as a writer. Others, such as level of familiarity with technical terms and acronyms, are characteristics of the readers.  However, the extent to which the characteristics of the readers is taken into account is still a choice of the writer (designer), that is, it is still a foundational design choice.

Architecture/game plan:  The style of the email essentially defines its structure (architecture).  Possible styles include formal report style, journalistic style, ‘call to action’, conversational, and narrative.  Exactly how these styles are implemented will often depend on context.  For example, how you ‘call to action’ will depend on factors such as whether the action is mandatory or discretionary, your level of authority or influence, the complexity of the action, and the level of reader self-interest in undertaking the action.

Metaphor:  If the email is particularly complex and/or important, it may be valuable to identify a metaphor for the email before composing the detail.  If the email is instructional, a road map metaphor may be appropriate.  If the purpose of the email is to admonish or correct, picturing yourself as a coach or parent may help set a firm but constructive tone (although this may be better done face-to-face rather than use email).  If you are calling to action to address a very specific challenge, then picturing the email as a arrow may help create the required focus and emotion.

Clearly, not all emails require the effort to develop foundational design choices.  Many of our emails are routine responses to requests for information or routine elements of the business processes of our organizations.  The design for these emails are essentially determined by the business context and/or routine (best?) practice in our organization.  However, foundational design choices are much more relevant and significant when the email is part of situation that is uncertain, unpredictable and emergent. This is often the case when we are seeking to use the email to persuade and influence in the context of organizational or business change.

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