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Cyren Security Blog

The Cyren Security Blog is where Cyren engineers and thought leaders provide insights, research and analysis on a range of current cybersecurity topics.

Automated mailbox sorting – the good, the bad, and the “where’s my mail?!”

Wouldn’t it be great if an all-knowing hand would sort through your inbox, highlighting all the important messages, hiding the spam, and somehow marking newsletters and low priority email? This is the tactic employed by many free email providers starting in the last year or so. Google calls this “Priority Inbox,” and marks what it decides are important messages with a yellow arrow. You can choose how you want your inbox to appear, by clicking the small arrow to the right of the word “inbox”, highlighted in the screenshot with a red arrow. This opens various inbox types: you can see just your important messages first (what Google decides is important), unread first, and so forth.

Facebook calls this the “other inbox,” and this concept achieved some notoriety recently in a scathing personal account by Elizabeth Weingarten in Slate, who shared the painful story of how she lost her laptop in the back of a NY taxi (distressing enough on its own), followed by the fact that she completely missed the Facebook messages sent to her by the good Samaritan who found it, since they were routed to her “other inbox” which she never knew existed (argghhh!!!! just makes you want to strangle someone, right?). Facebook, of course, says that this is a feature designed to increase usability for its users, separating out the important messages from the unimportant ones, the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

I bring up both Google priority inbox and Facebook “other inbox” in the same post since these are really two different implementations of the same feature. Google made the user-centric choice to keep the default inbox the same as it always was, and to allow the user to select how he or she wants the inbox to appear. As you can see from the image taken from my very own Gmail inbox, I am a traditionalist at heart, and simply like to view all my emails in the order in which they came, so it’s classic inbox for me. Facebook, on the other hand, decided to roll out this feature for all of its users, changing the way the inbox behaves, either without communicating it, or communicating it in such a way that the majority of users missed it.

As a corporate communicator I have had the unfortunate experience of wondering how it is that after bombarding customers with announcements about a new feature, new product, or new anything (when I say bombarding, I mean: a press announcement, newsletter article, email blast, blog post, webinar, and who knows what else), they still claim complete ignorance when our sales rep brings it up in a meeting. (“You have that cool new feature? Wow, if I’d known that I would have signed this PO ages ago!”) So I can sympathize with the Facebook situation, but I can also say with authority that the “other inbox” feature was not communicated well, as evidenced by disappointed customers venting their frustration all over the Internet.

In the email protection industry, “other inbox” and “priority inbox” were widely talked about last year, since they are a kind of extension of traditional anti-spam filtering, but for the uninitiated user, the Facebook feature was rolled out without so much as a quiet drum-roll. In fact, even though I was well-aware of the Facebook change since I am definitely in the thick of the email protection industry, I never checked my “other inbox” until after Ms. Weingarten’s article, and sure enough, I found some stuff I would have liked to have seen, well, about a year ago. However, just because a feature is poorly implemented or poorly communicated, doesn’t mean that the idea behind the feature is not a good one. Most people get tons of mail, way too much to sort through manually in an effective manner. My method is to just leave the unimportant stuff unopened, sitting in my inbox. Would it be better to hide it away in a folder somewhere? Probably.

Of course this automated folderizing (or even deleting) is the thinking behind anti-spam algorithms – there is too much spam in the world for email users to sift through all the spam manually just to get to their legitimate messages. Anti-spam was automated years ago, so why not do the same thing for automating other types of sorting processes? Makes sense, IF you implement it wisely and let your customers have some control over how or if they view the tagged or folderized messages.

This type of automated mailbox sorting is not limited to the free providers – Commtouch customers can provide their customers with a similar feature using Commtouch’s “Mail Sort” feature, which automatically distinguishes between personal emails from valid mass mailings such as newsletters, to enable better inbox management. If you do decide to implement this feature, however, I suggest you learn a lesson from Google and Facebook about how they implemented mailbox sorting, and how they communicated (or didn’t communicate) the new feature to their users.

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