Doctoral student pioneers EmailValet service

April 22, 2013, 10:27 p.m.

For people swamped with emails and looking to be more productive, Nicolas Kokkalis, a doctoral student in the School of Engineering, has a suggestion—hire someone else to manage that email for them.

That outsourcing process takes the form of EmailValet, an application produced through collaboration between Kokkalis and members of Stanford’s Human-Computer Interaction group, which allows users to connect with a remote email assistant while restricting the assistant’s access to the user’s personal information.

Kokkalis said that EmailValet’s creation was motivated by his struggles with “email overload” after founding Gameyola Inc., an online gaming platform, in 2009.

“There were a lot of people sending me emails, and maybe I wouldn’t follow up because I didn’t see the emails or I was doing other things,” Kokkalis said. “Someone would send me an urgent message and I wouldn’t reply on time just because I was focusing on something else and I wasn’t paying attention to my inbox.”

After hiring a remote assistant to manage his emails for $200 a month, Kokkalis said that he became much more productive. However, he was uncomfortable with giving his assistant access to his username, password and all of his emails, and created EmailValet as a solution to these privacy issues.

“What our system tends to do is help alleviate [user] concerns about how they can share their inbox with those assistants, because without our system they have to share their password,” he said. “The users can set their own preferences about what the assistants can access.”

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Michael Bernstein ’06, who helped Kokkalis develop the application, said that EmailValet is particularly beneficial for people who cannot afford to hire a full-time assistant.

“The vision of EmailValet is to take the notion of having an executive or administrative assistant and democratize it, [to] make it available for many, many more people than what was possible before,” Bernstein said. “For the most part, the people who we are going to be impacting are the people who don’t have assistants.”

The product is currently integrated with Gmail and is available free of charge to Stanford students and faculty, as well as to anyone not from Stanford who wants to use the system with his or her own assistant.

Though many of the Stanford users have chosen to work with one of the assistants provided by EmailValet, others have used the system with their own assistants.

Kokkalis said users who already have an assistant benefit from EmailValet because the application gives them more control over the assistant’s access to their email account. The system only allows the assistant to view the user’s last 100 emails, and gives the user the ability to block access to messages containing certain keywords.

Bernstein compared using EmailValet to giving a valet a key to park your car.

“It gives the assistant access to parts of your email but they can’t go and do everything with it,” he said. “They can read it, they can mark tasks, but they can’t reply, they can’t delete, they can’t search your old emails, that kind of thing.”

The system also monitors all actions taken by the assistant, which are recorded in log form and made available to users.

Kokkalis and Stanford’s HCI group conducted a one-week experiment on the effectiveness of EmailValet with 28 participants from Stanford. Each participant rotated through three conditions: managing their email normally, extracting tasks themselves and allowing an EmailValet assistant to extract tasks for them.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that participants completed twice as many of their tasks when helped by a remote assistant compared to normal email usage. Self-extraction of tasks, the second condition, resulted in almost no improvement in productivity.

Though 18 of the participants initially felt uncomfortable with a remote assistant reading their emails, 10 of these participants reported feeling more comfortable after continued use of EmailValet.

“Over time, with people who were concerned about privacy, they became more and more relaxed about it. They enjoyed using the assistant,” Kokkalis said, referencing one participant who initially blocked access to emails from her boyfriend but eventually changed the setting to allow the assistant to see those emails as well.

According to Kokkalis, EmailValet’s user base has grown to thousands after the service was featured on NBC Bay Area and in several other media outlets.

Kokkalis said that he plans to take the service to “the next level” and potentially transform it into a full-fledged business. He said developing a company around EmailValet would be a possibility if “the right people get together.”

“We are looking for other students or students who are graduating who want to help take this to the next level and work on it or start a company with it,” Kokkalis said. “If students are interested, then great. We can help them join the team.”

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