Clutter arrives to impose order on Office 365 mailboxes

Clutter arrives to impose order on Office 365 mailboxes

Microsoft introduced the Clutter feature at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) last April and has featured in the Office 365 Roadmap since. At that time they said that Clutter would show up in Office 365 before the end of 2014 and true to their word, Clutter is now rolling out to tenant domains worldwide.

The idea behind Clutter is simple: use machine learning algorithms (part of the Office Graph) to assess the inbound mail stream for a mailbox and decide what mail is important to the recipient and what is not. Important mail ends up in the Inbox while the unimportant messages end up in the Clutter folder, remaining there until the user gets time to review and process the messages or they age out and are removed automatically by the Managed Folder Assistant (MFA). By constantly monitoring inbound email and observing what happens to messages that end up in the Inbox, Clutter refines its processing with the aim of making better decisions that match the way the human owner of the mailbox.

The value of features like Clutter is obviously higher to people who receive a lot of email. In other words, if you only get 20-30 new messages a day, you probably won't see much value from a feature like this - but if you receive 200-300 messages a day, you probably will. That is, if you like automated assistants to figure out the mail that you should be reading.

To get things going and give Clutter something to chew on, I took the suggestion made by one of the engineers working on Clutter to disable the rules that exist inside my mailbox. Like many people who have used Exchange for a few years, I have accumulated a set of rules that filter inbound messages into various folders. Many of the rules serve as a form of pseudo-clutter as they move items into the Junk Mail folder. Rules are unique to a user and handing over control from the precise directions established in my rule set to the automated processing done by Clutter was a leap of faith. On the plus side, it allows me to check how effective Clutter is at detecting messages that I consider unimportant.

I didn't disable all rules though. One point that you have to consider is that Clutter will only move messages into the Clutter folder. Rules that for instance direct all messages sent to a particular distribution group to a specific folder serve a very different purpose to Clutter and should be retained. Think of Clutter as the great clear-out rule that cleans up after your regular rules are finished their work.

One change made by Microsoft since they originally demonstrated Clutter at MEC is to switch from a folder view to an actual folder. A folder view is simply an index that serves to identify items in a mailbox, such as “Unread Mail.” Items shown by the view can exist in many folders. On the other hand, a folder is a specific location within a mailbox. The advantage gained by opting for a folder rather than a view is that folders are supported by almost every client that connects to Exchange, including mobile devices, some of which might not support views. For instance, I use ActiveSync to synchronize the Clutter folder to Outlook running on my Windows Phone device so that I can review the items that end up in the Clutter folder when traveling. Note that enabling Clutter automatically adds its folder to your mailbox's favorite folders list so that Outlook highlights it alongside the Inbox, Sent Items, and whatever other folders you have marked as favorites.

Another change since MEC is that Clutter is now an opt-in feature rather than being deployed to all mailboxes. I think this is sensible because not every user will like the notion of having their email examined by computers to determine where it should go. After all, if they wanted this kind of functionality, they could use Gmail (only kidding…). So after Clutter is enabled for an Office 365 tenant, users have to switch it on for their mailbox. Do this by clicking the Gears icon, then “Options”, and then the Clutter setting under “Automatic processing.”

One downside that I noticed in opting to use Clutter instead of my rules to filter out messages is that these messages now show up in Outlook's “Unread Mail” view, complete with graphics and links. When messages are moved to the Junk Mail folder by a rule, Outlook strips out graphics and other web links when it displays these items because they might include a link to a web site that you’d prefer not to visit. I guess the risk is reasonably low but it is a small downside. Interestingly, OWA doesn't show all of the graphics and links that Outlook does for a message in the Clutter folder, which makes me think that perhaps OWA performs some special processing for this folder.

Apart from actually logging onto the mailbox with OWA, I haven’t found a way to enable Clutter for another mailbox.Disappointingly, Microsoft has not made a cmdlet available to enable or disable Clutter for a mailbox. The setting is stored as a hidden property in the mailbox root but there's no way of manipulating it outside of writing a MAPI program to do so. I suppose there is some value in forcing a user to enable Clutter, but it would be nice to have some administrative control too.

The processing done by Clutter is what I would expect. The People View feature helps Clutter to identify correspondents who are important to me and no messages from those people have been “clutterized” (if that is a verb). The messages that have shown up in Clutter include bulletins from ZDNet, offers to travel to remote destinations, and offers to save vast percentages if I would only buy now, and so on. A lot of these messages are from companies with whom I have interacted in the past and are not strictly junk or spam, but they are definitely messages that I don’t care to spend a lot of time looking at during the working day.

Users can help Clutter refine its processing by marking email that should end up in the Clutter folder or conversely, by marking items that are in Clutter but should not be. Marking an item as "not clutter" moves it back into the Inbox. OWA is the only client to support these options, but you can "train" Clutter with any client by moving items into the Clutter folder if you'd like this action to happen automatically in the future. Moving an item out of Clutter into the Inbox has the opposite effect. 

I use Outlook 2013 as my regular client and the lack of the options to mark messages as clutter (or not) is a small inconvenience. Let's hope that Outlook 2016 catches up with all of the new stuff happening in OWA when it is released next year. In the meantime, I'll keep on moving messages into the Clutter folder to train the beast on its new job of keeping my mailbox under control.

Overall, I thought that Clutter did a good job of sorting my email but I can absolutely understand the reluctance of some to hand over any element of control over their Inbox to computers. In fact, similar filtering has happened for years as anti-spam and anti-virus servers remove a lot of rubbish inbound to mailboxes well before those messages darken an Inbox. Adding some intelligence to filter messages that get through message hygiene checks seems like a reasonable next step in the march to reliable automatic processing. But the cautious side of me will check the Clutter folder regularly just to make sure that all is working as it should until I am happy that it really is.

Some work needs to be done on the administrative side. Introducing a feature that cannot be controlled by an administrator is OK if you think that Clutter is simply junk mail filtering on steroids. But the old and the wise might anticipate situations where administrators need to control switching features like this on or off, if only to be better able to prepare users for its introduction and so avoid the "I've lost an important email" scenario. Cloud services introduce new features all the time on the basis that it's best to let users try the new functionality out and then refine... It's kind of a "suck it and see" principle that takes some getting used to. Office 365 Groups and Office Delve are other recent examples of the principle in action.

Microsoft hasn’t yet said whether an on-premises version of Clutter will be included in the next major release of Exchange due in late 2015 or if the next version of Outlook due at the same time will support Clutter options. Between now and then, they will no doubt refine and smoothen the algorithms that power Clutter to make the filtering more accurate. 

For more information, see my Clutter FAQ.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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