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Letter mail is here to stay and will not be taken over by electronic mail according to a newly published report by the Digital World Research Centre (DWRC), based at the University of Surrey, one of the UK's leading academic research establishments looking at how people interact with digital technology. DWRC's report "The future of paper mail in a digital age" suggests that e-mail is going to have to take on the properties of letters before it becomes accepted into daily domestic use. "We know that people readily use e-mail in the office – it's quick and easy to use, and people are sitting by their screens, but for use in the home, it is difficult to see how e-mail can replace paper mail", comments Dr Richard Harper, director of Digital World Research. He continues: "It is not simply a question of getting the right screen technologies, although at the moment they are still too cumbersome. The real issue is that e-mail tools have been designed in a way that reflects how people behave in offices, they haven't been designed for how people behave in the home. The way they use information is different and the way they manage that information is different too. The properties of paper mail are particularly important in supporting how people use information in the home. Screen-based information delivered via e-mail cannot so easily support these needs".
The research sponsored by Royal Mail threw up some interesting observations on how people interact with paper mail. The researchers found that letters do much more than their simple communication function. Brian Shatwell, head of Future Technologies Group for Royal Mail said; "Letters are used as an invaluable social tool. We have found fascinating relationships and roles that occur within the household when the mail arrives. Especially affecting women, these roles will be much more difficult in an increasingly digital age". Dr Richard Harper further explains, "After the letter first arrives on the doormat, it goes through different stages before finally being filed or thrown away. And, interestingly, these stages are dependent on the natural flow of family life in each household. Letters are used as reminders, for example bills are left on the kitchen table or bottom of stairs and bedside cabinet because they will be "bumped into" by everyone who needs to see them. Parents with teenage children leave mobile telephone bills outside their bedroom doors to ensure they see the costs and to initiate a family discussion on who is going to pay the bill. Clothing catalogues are left by a couch to be viewed later over a cup of tea. Letters that need replying to are put in handbags or jacket pockets to serve as an immediate reminder for the person leaving the house later".
Other interesting facts discussed in the report indicated that paper mail provides extra information about the sender and topic which e-mail does not. People skim and intuitively sort the mail when it arrives. Explains Brian Shatwell: "Mail is sorted through a process of "triage". They classify and prioritise letters at a glance, by using the design, branding and addressing of envelopes for clues. Currently e-mail does not offer a quick way of sorting through messages".