Dealing with Inbox Clutter – with or without vacations


The news that Daimler has decided to implement software that deletes email received by users when they are on vacation might make other companies believe that such a course is a very good thing. After all, you’re not supposed to be thinking about work when you are on vacation. Right?

I’m not so sure. But then again, I am someone who attempts to operate a “zero latency inbox.” In other words, email is processed as soon as possible after it arrives by being assigned to a folder for later processing, ignored, or deleted. The idea is to prevent an accumulation of messages in the Inbox. I admit that this technique was much easier to use in the days when not quite so much email circulated, but it’s something that I have done for thirty-odd years now.

Arriving back from vacation to find hundreds or thousands of messages demanding attention in an Inbox can be depressing. In fact, it can be hard to know where to start to work through the backlog. What messages are most important? What contain information about problems that are long since solved? Or information that has been superseded by developments since? Or notice of meetings and other events that have happened in the interim? Not to mention the detritus found in all mailboxes formed of auto-replies, out of office messages, service items, and so on.

Microsoft is attempting to solve the problem in two ways. First, they have the People View feature that is now implemented in Outlook Web App (OWA) for Exchange Online (Office 365), but not yet for on-premises Exchange. The idea is that Exchange identifies the correspondents that are most important to a user and then filters messages that arrive from those people so that they show up in a set of special views displayed by OWA. Behind the scenes, an agent analyses inbound traffic to the Inbox and figures out the most important correspondents on a regular basis. Thus, when you arrive back from vacation, OWA can show you neatly sorted lists of messages that should be important to you.

I’ve been using People View for three months or so and find it an interesting and worthwhile feature that will assist people who receive a lot of email. However, I consider the “Clutter” feature much more interesting because it will discard a lot of the rubbish (the clutter) that obscures really important messages. Clutter does this by using a mailbox assistant to learn about your email habits. For example, if you always respond to messages from “Jane” and tend to ignore those that come from “New company announcements”, then Clutter knows that Jane is important to you and that her messages should be prominently displayed whereas it’s safe to shuttle company announcements off into a holding folder. Those messages can still be accessed but they are removed from view until required.

Of course, when People View and Clutter are operating in tandem, they will be able to provide a filtered list of important messages from important correspondents and hopefully reduce the hundreds of messages that arrive during a vacation (or even overnight) into more digestible chunks of prioritized communications.

Clutter won’t be with us until the end of 2014 and the signs are that this will be a cloud feature that might not make it to an on-premises version anytime soon, for such are the complexities involved in the machine learning algorithms that attempt to make sense of user behaviour.

Neither feature will reduce the stress that some people feel when their mobile devices birr, whirr, or buzz to announce the arrival of new messages. Turning off the device is one solution but that can be hard when a single mobile device is used as the fulcrum of private and business communications. The temptation always exists to have a quick look at what’s happening back at the office, the latest state of inter-departmental politics, who is stabbing whom in the back (in the nicest possible way), or what deep and dark plot is being hatched against competitors. Some business email is actually fun and informative, but most can be depressing when you’re supposed to be on vacation.

I’m not sure that Daimler is right to suppress all email for holidaying employees. I’m sure that they made the decision in the best possible way after some in-depth studies, employee questionnaires, and so on. But I wonder what will happen the first time some executive misses an important opportunity because software quashed their email…

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
This entry was posted in Cloud, Email, Exchange, Office 365, Outlook and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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