Q: Is there a way to help users avoid sending angry or thoughtless email messages from Outlook?

A: I've seen many requests over the years for certain user control of outbound email content. It seems some people compose email messages as a form of therapy, or they type out what they really want to say, but then add a semblance of decorum just before they hit Send. Some users want outbound messages to sit in a queue or in the outbox for a period of time before getting delivered in case they have a change of heart and decide to edit the message or cancel the delivery. For information about how to send delayed messages with Outlook, see "Q: Is there a simple way to delay delivery of an Outlook email message?"

There's a new Outlook add-on, currently in late beta stages, called ToneCheck for Outlook that helps alleviate the hassle of delaying messages by validating the tone of your email message before you hit Send. ToneCheck is an Outlook plug-in that leverages a web service to evaluate text to determine if it might somehow offend the recipient. ToneCheck is one of a set of products from Lymbix, who have developed what they call Sentiment Analysis technology. Lymbix claims that the Sentiment Lexicon is adaptive—improving with use and feedback.

The company has an API that lets developers connect to its service to analyze content provided by the developers’ own applications. Lymbix’s API can be used by applications written in Ruby, Python, PHP, Microsoft .NET Framework, Java, or Javascript. The Lymbix web service returns information on how emotionally charged a section of text might be. ToneCheck for Outlook does this for email messages.

To use ToneCheck for Outlook, you need to first register at ToneCheck.com. The username and password you choose on the website will be needed within Outlook a little later. ToneCheck, currently in beta and free to test, is a simple installation. It downloads as a 2.5MB .exe file that decompresses and launches ToneCheck for Outlook.msi. The EULA discloses that you're using a remote service, not just a local application. If Outlook is open during the installation, it will need to be restarted in order to pick up the new add-on. ToneCheck is a 32-bit application, but it runs on both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Outlook 2010 as well as Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003.

When you open Outlook for the first time after installing ToneCheck, you might be prompted to install the associated .vsto file, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1: The .vsto warning when you install the ToneCheck beta

Presumably, ToneCheck will sign their .vsto package so this alert does not appear with the final release. ToneCheck adds a tab to the Ribbon in a new message in Outlook 2010 and a toolbar in Outlook 2007. It also appends an expandable ToneCheck pane at the bottom of messages you're composing. As you type, ToneCheck validates your text against the Sentiment Lexicon and advises you of varying degrees of potential concern regarding your choice of words.

As Figure 2 shows, at first use, you'll be prompted to log on to the service in order to use it.
Figure 2: The ToneCheck logon screen

Figure 3 shows an example of a message using this very article as the message body, with text identified by ToneCheck as Concerning, Upsetting, Humiliating or Aggressive.
Figure 3: Email message with ToneCheck analysis (click image to enlarge)

ToneCheck does have some flexibility in how strict it is when assessing content. Within a new message, select the ToneCheck tab, and then Settings to open the ToneCheck Configuration dialog box that Figure 4 shows. You have three settings to choose from for Tone sensitivity: Less, Normal, and More.
Figure 4: Setting Tone sensitivity in the ToneCheck Configuration dialog box

You can also whitelist phrases that you want exempt from ToneCheck's analyses. For example, here in Las Vegas, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, qualified for the NCAA US College Basketball Tournament. Some locals are passionate alumni who like to include the school motto in their email signature: "Go! Fight! Win!" ToneCheck identifies this phrase as Aggressive. You can select the Ignore List button in the ToneCheck Configuration window and add this text, as Figure 5 shows.
Figure 5: Whitelisting a phrase to exempt it from ToneCheck analysis

I think this product has some potential for use or integration with future email clients, and other communication media. The value of this service could be significant to a business where one misinterpreted message received by a sensitive client could prove very costly. A business that doesn't have the resources for an assistant to review certain message text before sending could also benefit from a technical analysis such as this.

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