Clutter evolves to become more useful - but still only for Office 365

Clutter evolves to become more useful - but still only for Office 365

Over the past few months I have valued the impact that Exchange Online's Clutter feature made on my Inbox. Lots of annoying communications from various companies containing offers that I couldn’t really be bothered with snuck past spam folders only to run smack into Clutter. The upshot was that several thousand messages never made it to my Inbox and remain unread and unwanted in my Clutter folder. I check the folder once or twice daily but have left most of the messages to fester there.

Along with some other improvements announced earlier this week, Microsoft has just made Clutter one of the default mailbox folders, which means that you can create an explict folder tag to instruct the Managed Folder Assistant how to process its contents. I've created a folder tag to remove items from the Clutter folder after 30 days. It seemed like a good thing to do and the code is simple:

New-RetentionPolicyTag –Name "Remove Clutter after 30 days" –AgeLimitForRetention 30 –Comment "Folder retention tag to remove items from the Clutter folder after 30 days" –RetentionEnabled $True –RetentionAction DeleteAndAllowRecovery –Type Clutter

Microsoft has also recognized that some messages should simply never go near Clutter. The story is that some companies have complained that Clutter does a tremendous job of filtering company communications, all of which are mission critical, so users never hear about the important statements and insightful thoughts of senior leaders. So a transport rule condition has been introduced to allow companies to override Clutter. This example creates a rule that allows any message that contains "NB:" in its subject to bypass Clutter and arrive safely into user Inboxes where the message can be deleted unread as before. Note that the value contained in the header used to bypass Clutter is case-sensitive and must be set to "true".

New-TransportRule –Name "Enable Clutter Bypass" –Comments "Enable Clutter bypass for messages containing VP in the message subject" –SentToScope InOrganization –SubjectContainsWords "NB:" -SetHeaderName "X-MS-Exchange-Organization-BypassClutter" -SetHeaderValue "true"

The last change to Clutter that's just been made is to allow Office 365 tenants to customize the notification messages sent to users to announce that Clutter is busy filtering their mailboxes. Apparently the arrival of such a missive causes fear, doubt, and uncertainly in the eyes of the receiver (and in their brain too!), so you can now create a notification mailbox to dispatch these messages. The intention is that the display name of the mailbox is used to convey information to the recipient. Creating the mailbox is a little special because you have to assign a specific email address. Here's the code that I used:

New-Mailbox -LastName "Clutter Notification Mailbox" -DisplayName "Contact ext. 827-2264 for more information about Clutter" -Name "Clutter Notification" -Alias "Clutter" -MicrosoftOnlineServicesID [email protected] -PrimarySMTPAddress [email protected] –Password (ConvertTo-SecureString –String "Testing123!" –AsPlainText –Force) –ResetPasswordOnNextLogon $True

You don't have to assign an Office 365 licence to this mailbox. Notice the display name - that's what's shown to end users when they receive the notification.

If you want to change the display name, simply run Set-Mailbox to set the new value. To see whether everything works as expected, disable Clutter for your mailbox and then re-enable the feature. This will force Exchange to send you a new welcome notification and if everything goes well, you'll see the text you input for the display name.

Microsoft also plans to allow tenants to add logos to notification messages. However, you won't be able to change the text in the message body.

One nice side-benefit of using Clutter is that the arrival of far fewer messages into the Inbox reduces traffic to mobile devices and removes the distraction caused by the buzzes or beeps that usually announce that new messages are in the Inbox. You can always open the Clutter folder on a mobile device to check out what’s there but the Inbox is the focus for mobility (with Calendar and Contacts being also ran) so moving unimportant messages from the Inbox means that when new messages show up you know they deserve some attention.

On the downside, the lack of any administrative features to manage the Clutter feature, including no  way for an administrator to enable the feature for a user’s mailbox, means that (unsurprisingly) Microsoft doesn’t provide a report on who’s using Clutter and how many items have been marked as unimportant. PowerShell can provide some insight by scanning for users who have a Clutter folder in their mailbox (evidence that the feature has been enabled) and reporting on what’s found there. For instance, this code is slow but it works:

Get-Mailbox –ResultSize Unlimited –RecipientTypeDetails UserMailbox | % {Get-MailboxFolderStatistics –Identity $_.Alias } | Where-Object {$_.Name –Like “Clutter” } | Format-Table Identity, ItemsInFolder, FolderSize –AutoSize

PowerShell aficionados might like to improve or enhance this code. I’m not proud…

I know that some are having less success with Clutter than I am. A lot depends on the mix of messages that arrive into your mailbox and your personal method to dealing with messages. I guess my approach of disabling all Inbox rules and attention to “training” Clutter by moving unimportant messages from the Inbox to the Clutter folder has been successful in providing a large enough set of signals to enable Clutter to be able to sort messages effectively.

Following Microsoft’s release of the ex-Acompli clients as Outlook for iOS and Android, some have asked whether their “focused mail” feature complements or clashes with Clutter. My view is that Clutter is client-agnostic and works on the server to perform the filtering there. Focused email as implemented in the Outlook apps is a client-side feature because it is based on messages retrieved from the user’s Inbox by ActiveSync and those messages are, by definition, already sorted. So Outlook should receive messages that are already prioritized. Focus builds on filtering, or something like that.

Finally, I note that MVP Glen Scales has posted an interesting snippet of Exchange Web Services code to help you locate the Clutter folder in a mailbox. I'm sure someone could figure out how to use this code as the basis of a program to analyze the Clutter usage across a set of mailboxes.

My experience with Clutter confirms my feeling that this is a feature that would be popular with on-premises users. Unfortunately all the signs are that it will remain an Office 365 exclusive, even after Exchange 2016 appears later this year. Oh well…

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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