About two and a half years ago, Microsoft rolled out a new mail-sorting feature called Clutter. It was intended to use machine learning to filter important mail from newsletters, shipping notifications, and other… well, clutter, leaving your inbox filled only with mail that required your attention. It was a great idea, and, although it had a few bumps in its implementation, soon evolved into a useful and dependable feature. Now Clutter is gone, and Focused Inbox has replaced it. How’s that working out so far?
First some history: in 2014, Acompli introduced what they called “Focused Inbox” in their mobile client. This represented a different take on inbox cleaning; machine learning would still be applied to sort important mail from clutter, but the important and unimportant mails wouldn’t be logically separated into different folders. This had the advantage of working across multiple email systems. Fast forward to today: Acompli was purchased by Microsoft in December 2014, the former Acompli team has been crushing it with their Outlook Mobile app, and key ex-Acompli folks have taken over some key positions on the Outlook team. Focused Inbox has become the new sheriff in town, and Microsoft is rolling it out to Office 365 tenants. One of my tenants was recently upgraded, so I wanted to write about my experience working with it as an end user. (Keep in mind that, as I write this, Microsoft’s January 26 announcement that they didn’t have a firm timeline for rolling out Focused support for Outlook for Windows is still in force.)
I use three primary clients: the Outlook Mobile client for iOS, Outlook 2016 for Windows, and Outlook 2016 for Mac OS X. I mostly use the mobile client to triage mail while away from my desk– I can quickly respond to important items and delete or file stuff I don’t need. In that role, I’ve been depending on Focused Inbox for a while, and I got used to the disparity between what I’d see on the Focused tab on my phone versus what showed up in my inbox– the desktop inbox showed all my messages, not just the Focused ones, but that wasn’t a big deal, as I was usually grooming my inbox by throwing away or otherwise dealing with the contents of the “Other” tab frequently enough to avoid ugly buildup.
When your tenant’s enabled for Focused Inbox, OWA and Outlook for Mac will display a prompt telling you so; when you click to acknowledge it, you’ll see the new Focused and Other tabs in the UI, just like in the mobile app. Here’s where the fun starts.
First up, Clutter is turned off when you accept that prompt, and it’s turned off permanently… so every message formerly filtered into the Clutter folder now goes straight to your inbox. That means you’ll get a notification (if that feature’s enabled) for each new message, much more frequently than you’re probably used to. I’ve long had mail notifications turned off on my phones, but now I have to turn them off on my Windows machine too.
Second, the mobile client doesn’t currently have a way to focus or unfocus a message– so now that Clutter isn’t filtering my inbox traffic, I get crap that I want to mark as “other” but I can’t until I get to a desktop. This is the exact opposite of what I want, and it breaks my normal triage-on-the-go workflow. Alert reader Dang Le Duy pointed out that you can focus or unfocus a message from the mobile client– tap the “overflow” icon (the three little dots) and you’ll see a popup that lets you change the message state, like this:
Third, the Mac version of Outlook has long had a feature that combines the contents of the Inbox folder from each account into a single über-inbox (which the team calls the Unified Inbox). IMAP, POP, Exchange, gmail, whatever, all your messages appear in a single handy list. Unfortunately, you only get Focused Inbox in Exchange Online accounts that have the feature enabled– so when you switch back to the Unified Inbox view, all those messages that were neatly tucked away in the “Other” tab come back into your message list. When you select an individual account that has Focused Inbox enabled, you see what you’d expect to:
However, if you go to the Unified Inbox view at the top level, you get something completely different– 6 of the 20 displayed messages appear when they would normally be hidden in the “Other” tab of their parent account:
This to me is a significant loss of utility. It’s a complicated problem, to be sure; trying to figure out the right behavior for a mix of accounts (some with Focused Inbox, some without) is tricky. I hope the Mac Outlook team is working on a solution.
With these gripes, you may believe I’m down on Focused Inbox as a feature. I wouldn’t say that’s true. It is useful, and it has tremendous potential, especially when coupled with other machine-learning-driven filtering and prioritization capabilities. But the current client-side implementation takes away some of the utility we had with Clutter, and I want it back. Hopefully we’ll see not only a return to feature parity, so that all my unwanted messages stay tucked out of sight, but improvements that make Focused Inbox clearly superior.
(edited 2-8-17 to reflect that you can, indeed, focus or unfocus messages from the mobile app)