Posey's Tips & Tricks

Getting a Handle on E-Mail Clutter in Office 365

Office 365's Clutter feature looks to simplify your inbox by recognizing which e-mails are not important to you based off of behavior.

Every day I receive an almost overwhelming volume of e-mail (as I'm sure you do too). Some messages are obviously important. For example, writing assignments from my editors or travel reservations from my wife take a high priority.

Other mail is much less important. There are the e-mail newsletters that I never signed up for (but somehow still receive), notifications that it is time for my vehicle to get an oil change, and let's not forget the daily status updates from the mobile device management software that I once wrote a review on, but can't seem to unsubscribe from. Of course there is no shortage of spam either. Hardly a day goes by when I don't get at least one spam from a particular florist (even though I have never ordered from them) or another company that specializes in strawberry desserts (even though I am allergic to strawberries).

My point is that I waste a lot of time every day sorting e-mail. I have put an elaborate set of message filtering rules into place to help me to distinguish between important mail and spam, but for whatever reasons those filters do not always work. Even when the filters work perfectly however, e-mail filtering isn't an ideal fit for the way that I use my e-mail.

The problem with traditional e-mail filtering is that the filter takes a black and white approach to e-mail management. Either a message is spam or it isn't. There is no in between. In the real world however, things aren't always quite so cut and dry. Sure, I get plenty of spam and I also get messages that definitely aren't spam, but what about messages that are unimportant but aren't necessarily spam? For example, I like getting periodic e-mails about the concerts that are coming to town, but I don't need a concert update every day. I don't want to blacklist the concert update messages because I do occasionally read them, but I don't want daily concert updates cluttering my mailbox either.

Thankfully, Microsoft is trying to get a handle on this problem by introducing a new feature that is aptly named Clutter. For right now Clutter is only available for Office 365 and is exposed through Outlook Web App (although there is a chance that the feature may show up in the next version of Outlook).

The Clutter feature works by adding a grey area between spam and not spam. Messages that aren't really spam but that aren't important either can be designated as clutter.

Clutter is not enabled by default, but can be enabled by individual users. To enable Clutter, open Outlook Web App for Office 365 and then click on Options. From there, navigate through the console tree to Mail | Automatic Processing | Clutter.  Once there you can choose to separate items that have been identified as clutter.

Enabling the Clutter feature causes a folder named Clutter to be created beneath your Inbox folder. This folder works very similarly to the Junk Email folder in that Outlook Web App monitors inbound messages and then makes a determination on which folder the message should be placed into.

Of course this raises the question of how OWA is able to determine which messages are clutter. Clutter works by monitoring your behavior. When I first ran the feature, my Clutter folder was empty. The reason for this is that I just enabled Clutter and it hasn't had time to learn which messages are clutter and which are not.

OWA makes its determination based on your behavior. Suppose for a moment that there is someone who e-mails you several times a day and you always respond relatively quickly. Well, that person is obviously someone whose messages are important to you (boss, spouse, BFF, or whatever). On the other hand, if someone spams you every day and you always delete the message without even opening it, then your behavior says something about the importance of those messages. Your behavior within OWA speaks volumes about the importance of various messages. Clutter monitors your behavior and begins to take action once consistent patterns begin to emerge.

Because I have only recently enabled Clutter I am unfortunately able to give you a firsthand account of how well it works. I do plan to eventually write a follow up post once I get a better feel for how clutter does in the real world.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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