Sunday, May 1, 2005

Building a complete rule-based application


By David Gewirtz

With all the mail we all get, it's becoming more and more important to use all the tools available to us to manage that flow. One very powerful and somewhat misunderstood tool we Outlook users have at our disposale is the rules engine. In this article, I'm going to show you how I use the rule feature of Outlook to manage a very specific application.

Introducing the project

One of our most popular columns ever has been the OutlookPower Answer Team column written by Francine Otterson and her fellow members of the San Diego Outlook Users Group. Readers send in questions and Fran writes up the answers, to be published in future issues of OutlookPower.

To manage those questions and to make sure they don't get lost among the thousands of emails that come in each day, we request readers place a special subject entry "OUTLOOKPOWER ANSWER TEAM" in the subject of their message. Once such an email comes in, there are a number of things that should happen:

  • The message should get filed in a special "Answer Team submissions" folder.
  • A polite reply should be sent back to the submitter, letting him or her know we got the message.
  • And, the message should be forwarded on to Francine, so she can use it in a future column.

Over the next few pages, I'll show you how I've put together this simple application using the basic facilities we all have in Outlook. I'm using Outlook 2003 for this example, but many of these features exist in older versions.

Let's start off with some prep work.

Getting the ingredients together

If you've ever watched a cooking show, you know there's a stage before cooking where the enthusiastic chef pulls together all the ingredients, chops up the little green things, and sticks them all in pretty glass bowls. I'm married now, so I've just started seeing my first cooking shows. They're not exactly Monster Garage, but sometimes, something yummy shows up a few days later.

In any case, I needed to do some prep work for my application as well. Because the rule I built needed to reference a reply letter as well as some specific email lists and email addresses, I made sure I pulled all that together before I began the rule.

Write the response letter

As I mentioned above, when a request from a reader comes in, I'm going to want to send back a response letter. I send back the response letter shown in Figure A.


This is the response we send when we get an Answer Team request. (click for larger image)