Sunday, January 1, 2006

Microsoft’s free SNARF add-in can make inbox management easier


By Bill Mann

Email is a wonderful tool, but it can also be a massive distraction. Vast amounts of mail flowing in can use up hours of your day. And for lots of people, there's more email coming in than there is time to deal with it all. Triage (ranking and dealing with things in order of importance) of messages is a necessity. That's where SNARF, the Social Network and Relationship Finder, from Microsoft Research comes into the picture.

SNARF is a free Outlook add-in, currently in beta. It is designed to use the social network information that's already available on your computer to help triage your mail. In layman's terms, it uses the patterns in the way you deal with your messages to sort them for you. As you can see from Figure A, the SNARF interface is spare and unexciting. Now don't take that as condemnation. I think the interface is great for what SNARF is meant to do. I'll explain that later. For now, let's get back to the figure.


SNARF offers a plain interface that focuses on efficient handling of messages. (click for larger image)

The default configuration of SNARF opens with three views (panes) stacked vertically. The first lists unread messages that were sent directly to me or that I was copied on. The second contains any unread messages from people in the last seven days, whether they were addressed to me or not. The third lists all the messages (read or not) that I've received from a particular person in the last week.

A simple and powerful idea

The messages are listed by who sent them. This is nothing too exciting. You can get similar results within Outlook by displaying messages as conversations. The interesting thing is that the senders aren't listed alphabetically. Instead, they are listed by how many messages you sent to the other person over various time periods.

The idea here is simple, yet powerful. The more frequently you send messages to someone, the more likely it is that they are important to you. When time is short and you have to choose which messages to respond to, dealing first with those from the people who are most important to you makes great sense.

You can pick and choose among the messages in your Inbox manually, but the busier you are, and the more messages you have, the longer it takes. And spending more time sorting through messages and less time dealing with them is the last thing you want to be doing when you're already swamped by too many messages. Far better to let SNARF sort the messages for you.