Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Reality of Information Overload

Information overload is a feature of modern life for knowledge workers.  Our productivity depends on how well we can create and recall information, but we deal with far more of it than anyone can hold in their memory.  The result is often frustration and lost productivity.

In the tech industry, we talk about information overload a lot, but there's surprisingly little hard data on what drives it, who has it the most, and what you can do about it. 

Everyone's overloaded, but in different ways.  In January of 2012, we did a survey to explore computer users' information overload problems.  We found that information overload is widespread but extremely variable.  Although almost everyone experiences it sometimes, it's a much bigger problem for some people than it is for others. 

The causes of information overload also vary.  For some people it's e-mail overload, for others it's having more contacts and meetings than they can keep track of.  In many cases, the issue is managing the enormous archives of files that people have built up throughout their careers. Here are some statistics:

  • More than 40% of the respondents said they feel overwhelmed by the amount of information in their lives.
  • About half of the respondents experience information overload several times a week, and about 15% experience it several times a day.
  • 20% of the respondents receive more than 25,000 e-mails every year.
  • A quarter of the respondents receive more than 100 text messages a day.
  • A third of the respondents have saved more than 100 gigabytes of business files in their personal archives.

In this post I'll give you the details on the different forms of information overload, and what I think it all means.

Understanding information overload

Almost everyone has information overload, but some have it a lot more than others.

The first thing we wanted to check in the survey was how many people are experiencing information overload.  We asked about that in a couple of ways -- what info overload-related problems do they run into, and how do they feel in general about the flow of information through their lives.

Let's start with the problems.  We asked how often people experience four situations:

  • You can't find a document that you know you stored somewhere
  • You can't find something you saw on the web
  • You don't know the context for a meeting you're about to go into, and
  • You don't remember your context with a person

Everyone has those problems sometimes.  But about half of the people surveyed said they have one or more of those problems several times a week, and fifteen percent have at least one of the problems daily.

Are those big percentages or small ones?  This is one of those "glass is half full" situations where you could make an argument in either direction.  But from my perspective as a product guy, I think it means there is a large group of people who have a problem that needs to be solved.

How often do you encounter one of the four problems?

The chart below shows the frequency of each of the specific problems.  It's important to keep in mind that not everyone has the same information overload problems.  Some folks are more concerned about finding files, others about remembering people.  For example, I've had some folks tell me they can't believe that anyone could be about to go into a meeting without remembering the meeting's purpose.  But more than ten percent of the respondents said that happens to them several times a week.

How often do you encounter the following situations:

Feelings about information overload

To get a second test of the extent of information overload, we asked people to agree or disagree with a series of statements related to it.  More than 50% of the total sample said they agreed strongly with at least one of the statements.  The broadest agreement was with statements that talked about information overload in general: About half of the respondents said they feel overloaded by the information in their lives, and a third said they would be more productive if they could manage their information better.  More specific statements, like "I'm overloaded by my e-mail," had lower rates of agreement.

As we saw in the first question, it looks like different people have different info overload issues, rather than everyone sharing the same single problem.  That's why the general questions get higher agreement than the specific ones.  I think this also helps to explain why the problem persists even though there have been a lot of products aimed at solving it. I don't think any single product can solve all the issues that people have.  We'll talk about those products later.

How strongly do you agree or disagree with the statements below?
Percent who agree with a statement (those who answered 5 or 6 on a 1-6 scale, with 6=agree strongly, 5=agree moderately, and 1=disagree strongly).

Many of us are Information Savers

The single most popular statement above was "I hate throwing away information of any kind."  About half of the respondents agreed with it.  We did some followup questions about that, and it turned out that many of us are systematically saving our old files for future reference.

That is one of the sources of information overload: How do you make use of that big personal archive of documents and files? It's a problem that feeds on itself -- the more successful you become in your work, the more files you accumulate, and the harder it is to navigate the archive.

Some of the info archives that people are creating are truly huge.  About 40% of the respondents have saved between 10 and 100 gigabytes of information, a quarter have saved between 100 gigabytes and one terabyte, and almost 10% have saved more than a terabyte.  To give you a sense of how much information that is, a single gigabyte can hold the text of more than 2,000 English-language novels uncompressed, so a person with a one-terabyte archive has saved information equivalent to about two million novels.

Here's the breakdown of archive size:

About what quantity of work-related or school-related computer files (documents, e-mails, images, etc) do you have stored on your computer(s)? Please include files from both current and former jobs.

Of course not all that information is printed text.  Other types of files consume much more space (for example, if it were all video, a terabyte archive wouldn't be very big at all, depending on the resolution of the videos ).  But most archives aren't videos. The files saved are the same types of files people use in business.

The most broadly-saved document format is, no surprise, PDF files. About 95% of the respondents said they have saved old PDFs.  That is followed closely by Microsoft Office documents, and then image files.  Here's the chart:

Please select all the types of files you have saved
(The chart shows the percent of respondents who say they have saved a particular type of file in their archive)

I should add that there are several other file types that we didn't ask about directly, but were mentioned by some respondents.  They include source code, notes, sound files, and video.

How far does the archive go back?

The typical personal archive has files dating back about 10-15 years.  About a quarter of the respondents have saved files going back 20 years or more.  As you'd expect, age of the respondent correlates to age of the oldest files.  It looks like many people are saving files that date back to the start of their careers.

What is the creation date of the oldest file you've saved?

Why we save files

We asked people why they had saved the oldest file in their archive.  They gave a mix of practical and emotional reasons:

We also gave people an opportunity to add their own comments on why they save files.  Some of those responses stood out to me:

"Because storage is free, but my time is not."
"Save in case I can leverage in next job."
"Why not? Why delete it?"
"Record of work for use in professional portfolio."

And my personal favorite:

"It's like a little time capsule of my life that someday I will open again."

For many information savers, I think that nails the issue.

What causes information overload?

Information overload isn't just driven by your old files, of course.  Many people are also dealing with a river of incoming information every day.  To get a handle on how much info they're dealing with, we asked them about their volume of things like e-mails and text messages.  As you'd expect, many people get a lot, but once again there's a huge variation from person to person.  Here are the specifics:

E-mail.  The typical respondent has four e-mail accounts, and receives about 13,000 e-mail messages a year (in case you want the statistical details, I'm using the median here rather than the average because the heaviest e-mail users skew the average). 

Speaking of heavy e-mail users, the top 20% of respondents said they get more than 25,000 e-mails a year.

How many e-mail accounts do you personally have?

About how many e-mails (including both personal and work mail) do you receive on an average week day?

Text messaging is also a huge source of incoming information, although its impact varies tremendously from person to person.  The typical respondent receives about 4,000 text messages a year (including tweets, instant messages, and phone texts). But as you can see from the chart below, the numbers are all over the map.  Some people are very heavy text consumers while others hardly use them at all. About a quarter of the respondents said they receive four or fewer texts in an average week day, while another quarter said they receive more than 75.

About how many text messages do you receive on an average week day?

Number of contacts.  The typical respondent has about 200 contacts on their computer and phone, 100 friends on Facebook, and 100 connections on LinkedIn.  LinkedIn had a slightly higher rate of membership than Facebook, which I think reflects the ubiquity of LinkedIn in business, especially the tech industry.

Including information saved on both your computer and phone, about how many people are on your contact list(s)?

How many people are you connected to on Facebook and LinkedIn?

(Be careful reading this chart.  It makes it appear like there's a spike in the number of people with 250-499 contacts, but that's an illusion created by the change in segment sizes at that point.  In reality, this is a very extended longtail curve, in which the number of respondents goes down steadily as you go up in number of contacts.  I apologize for the poor question design here.)

Meetings.  This is another surprise.  I expected most people to have a lot of scheduled meetings (maybe because Silicon Valley is so meeting-happy).  But in the survey, about a third of the respondents said they average less than one meeting a day, and most people had just a couple.  On the other hand, the top 20% of respondents have more than five meetings every day. 

I think this helps to explain why some people have trouble remembering meeting context and others don't.

About how many scheduled meetings and appointments (including in-person meetings and scheduled calls) do you have on an average week day?

What to do about information overload

There are a number of computer products that help with parts of the information overload problem.  In the survey we asked which ones people use.  Evernote is the most common, followed closely by Google Desktop (which, ironically, Google just killed).

Please choose the answer that best describes your current use of each of the following applications / web services:

These products all work in different ways, and many of them solve different problems.  For example, Xobni helps you sort through email, while Google Desktop and X1 index your hard drive.  So really you're looking at a lot of different market segments here that were grouped together because we make the mistake of thinking of information overload as a single thing.

I think the one common theme in these responses is that a lot of people have tried different products for info overload, and haven't necessarily been satisfied.  Note the relatively large yellow bars for many products -- those are people who have tried a product and stopped using it.  You don't generally want the yellow bar to be bigger than the blue one.

Finally, we asked people if they would be interested in a new software product that attacked information overload.  The response was strong.  Usually in this sort of question, you'd be very happy to get a fifth of the respondents in the top two interest categories.  In this case, 50% of the respondents were in the top two. 

There are all sorts of caveats that need to be attached to that number.  People always respond better to a theoretical product idea than they do to an actual product.  And this survey wasn't based on a sampling of all computer users, it is weighted toward the tech-aware people who read my blog.  In other surveys I was involved in at Palm, we did talk to the general public, and we found that around 15% of the population responded very strongly to the idea of an info management product.  That's probably the real market size, at least in terms of who would be an early adopter.

Based on this survey, and the ones I did in the past, I think it's fair to say that a lot of people have an unmet hunger for better information management.  To use a Silicon Valley phrase, there really is a pony in the stable.*

I'll talk about the pony next time.

We're working on a product that will help people recall and re-create the context around any piece of information in their careers -- a name, event, message, word, etc.  How interested would you be in getting a product like this, on a 1-6 scale (with 6=extremely interested and 1=not at all interested)?


This was a voluntary survey of readers of the Mobile Opportunity weblog.  It is not a statistically meaningful sample of the general population, but I think it does reflect the opinions of tech-savvy knowledge workers.  When I worked at Palm and PalmSource, I did other surveys on information overload, using statistically balanced samples of web users in the US, Europe, and China.  The findings of those surveys were directionally consistent with these results.  (In other words, when the general public was surveyed, the percent interested was smaller but the findings were similar. Those survey results were released to the public, so I am comfortable talking about them here.) 

This survey was 30 questions, most multiple choice, and was hosted on SurveyMonkey.  There were 446 respondents with an 81% completion rate, a very good response considering that we didn't offer an incentive.

What do you think about the survey results?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Where do you fit relative to the results?  And do you have anything to add?  This is a complex subject and I don't think we have all the answers, so we'd welcome your comments.  And thanks!


*It turns out that the pony joke isn't necessarily known worldwide.  There are a number of different versions, with slightly different lessons to them, but the version I prefer goes something like this:

A young boy was an eternal optimist, always seeing the bright side of everything. His parents decided he needed to learn that life isn't always fun, so they decided to expose him to some unpleasant situations. One day they took him down to a horse stable and showed him a stall packed to the roof with manure. He squealed with glee, grabbed a shovel, and started digging out the stall.  "What are you doing?" the boy's father asked.  The boy replied, "With all that manure, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere."

The phrase "there's got to be a pony in here somewhere" is used in Silicon Valley (and in much of American business) to refer to people who believe there are good prospects in a market just because everyone else is targeting it. The joke was reportedly a favorite of Ronald Reagan (link), and Kara Swisher famously used it to summarize the entire history of AOL (link).

In this case, I'm using the phrase to acknowledge that many of people have claimed they can solve information overload, without a lot of success.  But with the help of the survey, I think we know where the pony is.