Microsoft's research arm released a free tool to help users slog through email messages in their inbox in the order of importance, according to one of the researchers who developed the software.
Created within Microsoft Research, the Social Relationship and Network Finder, or SNARF, is an application that uses the same database as a user's email client to count the number of times users send and receive emails from people, a researcher in the community technologies group at Microsoft Research, A.J. Brush, said.
Calling this kind of email triage process "social sorting", researchers worked with graduate students, at least one of whom wais studying sociology, to come up with the tool so it would help email users prioritise the emails in their inbox based on how often they sent and received emails from contacts, she said.
"One of the core SNARF notions is that it's about people," Brush said. "We are really trying to remember information about the people in my email rather than on a per-message basis. Then SNARF will know it's that message from [for example] Julie, I talk to her all the time, so it will put that higher in order of importance."
In an email message, Bernie Hogan, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto who worked with Brush as an intern during SNARF's development, said that modern email clients don't take into consideration aspects of face-to-face interpersonal contact that people use to organize their daily interaction with others.
Tools like SNARF would help researchers develop more intelligent software that streamlines email communication, he said.
"I want to help interpret the complexities of email, so that we can design tools to help individuals work smarter, not harder," he wrote. "This involves understanding communication in social context - communication, is after all a social activity - and discovering what social patterns in communication are meaningful to users and how we can present these patterns clearly, and effectively."
SNARF is available as a free download from http://www.research.microsoft.com/community/snarf/. The software requires Microsoft Outlook 2002 or 2003 as a Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) source, but also has been tested with Exchange and MAPI servers, Hotmail and e-mail clients using Post Office Protocol (POP), IMAP and the OL Connector (for Lotus Notes).
The tool runs simultaneously next to an email client and allows a user to look at unread email in three views: Unread To/CC me, Unread Mail and Unread Lists.
The default sort mechanism ranked email messages in those categories based on how many times a user emailed an address or person on the list, Brush said. SNARF also provided email notifications.
Users also can change this default setting, but she said researchers found this was the most efficient way to order emails in terms of importance. "If I send you a lot of email I probably care if you send me e-mail," she said.
One practical application of SNARF could be as an application for retrieving email on mobile devices, Brush said.
Because those users often were checking email on the fly, a tool like SNARF could help them quickly see which emails they would want to read and which they could save for later or delete, she said.
Microsoft Research hoped that by distributing SNARF to the public, other researchers could learn how people use email so they could devise new and better ways to help users manage messages, Brush said.
"Email gets a bad rap as being the communication tool that's gone out of control," she said. "The goal is to really help people rein it in and make the experience of e-mail more productive and satisfying."