E-mail overload and enterprise attention management

Craig Roth has a great blog post up on e-mail overload and how “attention management” technologies can help reduce the burden on us puny humans. I thought I’d take a stab at describing how Outlook, Entourage, and Exchange 2010 implement attention management technologies. (You’ll probably want to refer to this map as you read the below points). I’ve taken Craig’s bulleted list and added notes about how Exchange + Outlook support (or don’t support) each proposed attention management feature.

  • Scheduled delivery: Outlook and Exchange have supported scheduled sending for some time; you can schedule a message to be sent “not before” a certain time, or just in the next send/receive. However, there’s no built-in way to schedule receiving. This would be fairly simple to implement via an Outlook plugin (or Entourage AppleScript) that switches the client to offline mode until it’s time to pick up new mail.
  • Maintain whitelists to bypass blocks and delays: this would be tricky to implement if scheduled delivery were implemented using my crude method of going offline, and I’m not sure how useful it would be anyway.
  • “Move to discussion” greys out “reply”: A “move to discussion” feature would be a great addition to Outlook, and (from Microsoft’s perspective) would be desirable as a way to drive people to SharePoint.
  • Automated routing and prioritizing: this is a wicked-hard problem. Microsoft’s solving it by letting you build workflows that manage e-mail, so that organizations can build workflows to handle incoming e-mail, IM, and voice traffic according to whatever rules make sense. This isn’t really an end-user-targeted capability, though.
  • Un-bury turning off or freezing of “toasts”: I prefer to work with toasts turned off altogether, but I understand that some people want them. Craig’s right, though, that it should be easier to toggle this functionality. One easy thing for Microsoft to do would be to integrate “do not disturb” mode in Communicator with the Outlook equivalent. This already sort-of-works (e.g. during a full-screen PowerPoint presentation you don’t get toasts) but it could be made better.
  • Enable e-mail hyperlinking: does anyone remember the Exchange 2000 Web Storage System? Every item in the store had its own uniquely addressable URL, but this turned out to be pretty much useless in the real world. This is less an attention management issue than an e-mail data management issue; there’s little storage penalty to forwarding messages once they already exist.
  • Enable role-based profiles: Craig’s idea is to provide a mechanism for defining standard profiles that control attention-related policies. Based on my experience, I think this would go over poorly, as most executives insist on having highly personalized workspaces. Regardless of what I think, though, Microsoft doesn’t provide a way to do this at present.
  • Enable sender tagged e-mails: this is one area where the tools available in Outlook and Exchange far outpace their actual use. I need to do a separate post on message classifications, retention tags, and all the other sender-tagging goodness.
  • Stop attachment abuse: Outlook already supports sending documents to a document workspace or shared library, although this feature is buried somewhat (and Entourage doesn’t have it at all, sadly).
  • Presence-enable recipient lists: Outlook already does this, in spades. The below picture shows a number of Outlook’s built-in presence capabilities, including automatic display of presence icons for presence-enabled users, enhanced status (like “away for XXX” or out-of-office messages), and click-to-communicate with multiple communications modes.
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  • Enable group-based rules: Exchange and Outlook don’t currently do this, although you can simulate some aspects of it with query-based distribution groups. Honestly, though, this strikes me as only marginally useful; I’d probably rank it close to last in terms of which features I’d rather see first.
  • Turn e-mail into generic small-content tool: Not a bad idea, although I think you could use a much lighter-weight tool like the excellent Windows Live Writer to do this more easily.
  • Manage multiple inboxes: this is a tremendously useful feature of Entourage, which has long supported multiple Exchange accounts. Outlook 2010 is reported to support multiple Exchange accounts too; I’ll post a more detailed article on this once Microsoft releases publicly-available bits.
  • Provide inbox analytics: this sounds like the kind of cool but not-very-practical feature that analysts love 🙂 I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but it’s not clear to me that having analytical data is actually going to change anyone’s use or misuse of e-mail.
  • Token systems: see previous bullet. What if you run out of tokens? Do you just quit work for the rest of the day?
  • Remind sender if no reply: I have to do this manually, either through CRM or a manual task, so I’d love a button that would automatically create a task to remind me to follow up if no reply is received by a certain date. This would be simple to script in either Entourage or Outlook.

There are a couple of Outlook and Exchange features that Craig didn’t mention that I think fit into his taxonomy. Chief among them is the new “Ignore” functionality in Outlook 2010 and OWA 2010; when you ignore a thread, the client silently creates a server-side rule to automatically delete messages in the same conversation, so that you just don’t see them. (An alternate name for this feature, the “mute button”, better describes it IMHO). It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft makes a move to include more attention management functionality in future versions of Office and Exchange. I bet they will, given MSR’s investment in this research area, but we’ll have to wait for Office/Exchange v.Next to see for sure.

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