I'm working on a client's app that uses a messaging system. The whole concept has been approved last week, so it's not a big deal now, but I was wondering about this: is there any research that explains wether to show the amount of unread messages is good or bad?

I mean, when I see I have 100 unread messages, I know that I need that information, but it's also a distress factor. I know several people not using certain services (mail, Facebook, Slack) because they can't face the "guilt" of having so many unattended messages, so they simply "bury their heads in the sand" and stop using the services.

So my question is: is there any studies about the importance of displaying amount of unattended messages? And as a secondary question, is there a way to lower the impact of this distress factor? I know how to use a positive inforcement on certain cases, but I'm wondering about big amounts of messages where you have no way to "spin" the truth with just affirmative actions and positive messages


There doesn't seem to be a study that focus solely on how people feel about when the amount of unread messages creeps ever higher. I'm sure there are studies in psychology on how amount of unattended/unfinished tasks affect on person's emotions. Probably they have something to do with motivation and what motivates us.

There is a somewhat classic study by Whittaker and Sidner on email overload: Email overload: exploring personal information management of email.

We demonstrate that email overload creates problems for personal information management: users often have cluttered inboxes containing hundreds of messages, including outstanding tasks, partially read documents and conversational threads. Furthermore, user attempts to rationalise their inboxes by filing are often unsuccessful, with the consequence that important messages get overlooked, or "lost" in archives.

The study suggests that people have different kinds of methods to cope with the amount of messages (emails) received. Unread messages are sometimes used to remind users on something that needs to be done.

At least two studies exists that have looked into if the results of Whittaker and Sidner still holds:

From Grevet et al:

This suggests a possible connection between feeling unorganized and having many unread emails. Some of our participants offered their sentiments about their unread count when asked about how they felt about the number of emails in their inbox. They describe feeling of being overwhelmed by these unread messages[.]


We do not find an indication that a large number of [unread] emails in the inbox corresponds to a strong sense of disorganization. Most of our participants with large inboxes (over 1001 emails in their inbox) feel fine or indifferent about the number of emails in their inbox[.]


Rather than categorizing people based on number of emails in their inbox, we could look at whether users can be categorized based on the number of unread emails in their account and strategies they use to keep this number low. We saw that our participants with high unread counts felt the most overwhelmed, future email studies could focus on this category of users in particular.

So there are still things to study in the field of unread messages and their effect on users.

Attending to Email by Hanrahan, Pérez-Quiñones and Martin might answer some questions. From abstract:

We found that participants attended to email primarily based on notifications, instead of the number of unread messages in their inbox.

Number of unread messages might have an effect on email triaging, when user decides when and where to start triaging messages. From Beyond "From" and "Received": Exploring the Dynamics of Email Triage by Neustaedter, Brush and Smith:

As discussed, email triage involves deciding what to do with "unhandled email," yet prior to the study it was not clear what this entailed. We found in our interviews with [high volume] triagers that they do not often look at the contents of folders when triaging; rather, triaging is primarily performed on unread emails in the inbox, with some people also looking at read items.

Google Scholar search on "unread messages", without patents, can also yield some useful results.

  • thank you locationunknown and @Gautham, both answers are really good and complement each other. By this answer, I got some insight and some paths to follow (for example, I already gave this to a psychologist), and with Gautham's answer I already figured out some alternative paths to test. I don't know if there will be other answers, but I'd really consider both answers so far as the correct answer, in the meanwhile voted up both of them and if I get some data from the reserach I'll do, I promise to post it here – Devin Jun 2 '15 at 17:01

Question 1: Is there any studies about the importance of displaying amount of unattended messages?

No luck Googling! Please update this question if you find some study about this later

Question 2: Is there a way to lower the impact of this distress factor?

If unread mails have to be shown, the numbers can not be sugar-coated. But, they can be divided! Gmail does this by categorizing all the emails under separate tabs. This way, a big problem is broken down into solvable chunks. Most users usually declutter first before proceeding to read mails. By this I mean, subscriptions, social network updates and the like are the first ones that will be deleted.

I don't know if the messaging system you are building for your client has mails that can be categorized like mentioned earlier. There are other design patterns like chunking relevant mails into one group, collate subscriptions or mass unsubscribe (https://unroll.me/), Instant archive (Instead of deactivating your account), etc.

The number can also be divided as follows:

"3 messages today"

"2 important mails".

Prioritizing a few mails, instead of revealing the whole number.

I guess the only solution available right now is "Divide and Rule"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.