New Microsoft Tool Helps Manage Your E-Mail
Microsoft's research arm today released a free tool to help users slog through e-mail messages in their inbox in the order of importance, according to one of the researchers who developed the software.
Created within Microsoft Research, the Social Relationship and Network Finder, or SNARF, is an application that uses the same database as a user's e-mail client to count the number of times users send and receive messages from people, says A.J. Brush, a researcher in the community technologies group at Microsoft Research.
Calling this kind of e-mail triage process "social sorting," researchers worked with graduate students, at least one of whom is studying sociology, to come up with the tool so that it will help users prioritize the e-mail in their inbox based on how often they send and receive messages from contacts, she says.
More Intelligent Software?
"One of the core SNARF notions is that it's about people," Brush says. "We're really trying to remember information about the people in e-mail rather than on a per-message basis. SNARF will know [for example] that it's a message from Julie, I talk to her all the time, so it will put that [message] higher in order of importance."
In an e-mail message, Bernie Hogan, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto who worked with Brush as an intern during SNARF's development, said that modern e-mail clients don't take into consideration aspects of face-to-face interpersonal contact that people use to organize their daily interaction with others. Tools like SNARF will help researchers develop more intelligent software that streamlines e-mail communication, he said.
"I want to help interpret the complexities of e-mail, so that we can design tools to help individuals work smarter, not harder," he wrote. "This involves understanding communication in social context--communication is, after all, a social activity--and discovering what social patterns in communication are meaningful to users and how we can present these patterns clearly, and effectively."
Works With Outlook
SNARF is available as a free download. The software requires Microsoft Outlook 2002 or 2003 as a MAPI (Messaging Application Programming Interface) source, but also has been tested with Exchange and MAPI servers, Hotmail, and e-mail clients using POP (Post Office Protocol), IMAP, and the OL Connector (for Lotus Notes).
The tool runs simultaneously next to an e-mail client and allows a user to look at unread e-mail in three views: Unread To/CC Me, Unread Mail, and Unread Lists. The default sort mechanism ranks e-mail messages in those categories based on how many times a user e-mails an address or person on the list, Brush says. SNARF also provides e-mail notifications.
Users can change this default setting, but Brush says researchers found this was the most efficient way to order e-mail messages in terms of importance. "If I send you a lot of e-mail, I probably care if you send me e-mail," she says.
One practical application of SNARF could be as an application for retrieving e-mail on mobile devices, Brush says. Because mobile users often check e-mail on the fly, a tool like SNARF could help them quickly see which messages they want to read and which they can either save for later or delete, she says.
Microsoft Research hopes that with SNARF's distribution to the public, other researchers can learn how people use e-mail so that they can devise new and better ways to help users manage messages, Brush says.
"E-mail gets a bad rap as being the communication tool that's gone out of control," she says. "The goal is to really help people rein it in and make the experience of e-mail more productive and satisfying."