Until recently, my mom had a habit of titling her emails with only the name of the person she was talking about. Over the years I accumulated a number of emails with subjects lines such as "Molly", "Petie", "Your Dad" and "Bob." This troubled me quite a bit.
Now take a moment, and picture an email sitting in your inbox with only the name of a loved one as it’s subject. What is your first suspicion regarding the contents of this email? If you answered that your loved one is dead (or critically injured), I suspect you are most likely in the 90th percentile of all email users.
I recently asked a few friends this very question, and found that each of them expected death, severe injury or abduction to be the actual subject of the email.
One day last week, I awoke for work, started my morning coffee and fired up the old email, as has been my ritual for the past three or so years. Waiting in my inbox was a single email from my mom, simply titled, "Molly." The combination of panic, heart break, fear and anger were very powerful things to contend with so early in the morning, especially before coffee. So powerful in fact, that they seemed to over power my sense of logic and common sense that my mother would never use email as a vehicle to communicate my sister’s death.
Of course the email had nothing to do with death or critical injury of any kind. In fact, it was regarding something so insignificant that I don’t even recall what the actual subject was. I finally decided to call my mom on the matter, and clue her in on this unspoken, yet very critical email rule.
Naturally, she took my request to heart and said she would be more specific in the future. I have yet to receive an email from her with this new outlook (no pun intended—Mac people don’t have to deal with Outlook) on electronic communication.
Yesterday I received an email from my good friend Heidi with the subject of, "Chuck Warner." What was I to think, except that my beloved—and extremely influential—high school art teacher/mentor had kicked the bucket? Upon opening the email I indeed discovered that Mr. Warner had finally succumbed to a physical aliment that had taken his father before him, and one that had been plaguing him for months. As saddened as I am for all the Woodland High School students, faculty, friends and family who were a big part, or never got to be a part of his life, it was somewhat rewarding to see the unspoken email subject rule semantically applied.
I’ll admit, as a web developer, my drive to communicate clearly and effectively borders on Obsessive-Compulsive. However, this is a very critical ability for one in my position to have. Web developers that aren’t Ã¼ber anal retentive about semantics, visual communication, and order, don’t get work. There are quite a lot of things to be juggled, and minding the minute details can make the difference between life or death.
Those of you who would like additional enlightenment on effective article headlining and email subject composition, I will refer you to a classic article by Jakob Nielsen that has stood the test of time through the dark years of the internetâ€“1998.
Naturally, my sincere condolences go to the Warner and extended family/friends/students and faculty of the Woodland School District for the loss of a great mentor, talented artist and sarcastically, condescending hard ass that made so many of us brilliant artists and better people. Thanks, Chuck.