Jun 9, 2006

Folderless Outlook

This is a reply to an email I have received from Mark of CNXN fame, the one that made del.icio.us and Reddit with his No-Folder tutorial as a feedback to my post. The text has been edited slightly to better fit blog.

First a quote:

As illogical as this sounds I find this very valuable info. When I first started using Outlook without folders I had the “fear” as well until I kept at it and realized that it was unfounded. The realization came when I started looking at WHY I started using folders in the first place. For me it was generally to shrink the list of things I needed to look through so I could reduce the fear. That fear was directly proportional to the size of the list. Gradually though, that fear went away as it sunk in that the list did shrink conceptually by sorting the fields.

But this concept has to be learned, which takes effort, which takes time, which is something people generally have very little of. I hate drilling new habits as much as anyone, but my inconsistency with and distaste for filing necessitated that I do.

So back to being delighted. We’re developing an email tagger for Outlook in order to address some of the short comings of not using folders. Even though we strongly believe that people could get away with 95% less filing, there is undoubtedly a need for SOME type of categorization.

The fear you described is the most important factor in designing a functional UI for the email tagger - how are people going to react to 10000 messages in one place?

We’ve posed a number of questions to stimulate product suggestions, but the best feedback we’ve rec’d to date comes from saying to people, “Do it this way” and they tell us why the don’t want to.

I suppose the matter is not solely filing vs. not filing. A significant part of the issue is a tool at hand. When I use Gmail I do not, per se, file anything – Gmail is a proof enough that your approach is quite valid and can be used. However, what is very important in case of Gmail is that the way all communication is handled, whole efficiency of it. Conversations/threads are preserved and tracked well. Search is almost instantaneous. Rules can be used to efficiently tag/archive messages. What this does is that you are not feeling intimidated by the length of a scroll bar, a counter of messages in your inbox (let alone by the number of unread ones!).

What is interesting is that at that Gmail borrows well from Pine, Mutt, Elm. I would not mind to use mutt as my email client if I could at work! I am more than certain I’d be lots more efficient.

About tagging. From what I know, there are several Outlook tools that attempt to do just that. Take, for instance, NEO. It is a great tool – allows you to categorize your mails easily, groups it for you by different views (by contact, by dates, by categories, etc.). It is fast and does rely on the same keep-it-all-in-one-place approach. If I were looking at a tagging solution – NEO would definitely be an app to look at closely.

Another alternative is ClearContext, although it does look more at tagging. Yet another is GTD Outlook add-in. It also allows you to tag (assign t projects and contexts).

Now, as far as tagging goes what it really requires s being easy to access and unobtrusive. You can categorize mail even now, but it requires way too much clicking around. Either a keyboard shortcut, or a drop-down list on the toolbar, or a small text box where status bar normally sits would be the way I’d go. Another good way, but I am not sure it is easy to do with Outlook, would be to do what MailTags does in MacOS Mail.app – an extra side bar that lets you set a few things, tags inclusive.

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