ClearContext vs. Outlook Rules

We had a post in our forum a few weeks ago questioning the value that ClearContext provides over built in Outlook features.  On the surface, this is perfectly understandable.  After all, Outlook provides the ability to prioritize and color code the inbox, a method for the categorization of messages, and a very robust rules engine for identifying and processing messages.  That said, ClearContext’s value is in the way we simultaneously enhance these native Outlook features and simplify the setup process to make revolutionary changes in the efficiency of the Outlook interface.

Complex Prioritization

Through the creation of rules, Outlook can provide simple categorization and prioritization of email by a single message characteristic (i.e. sender, directness of email, etc.).  ClearContext enhances this capability by analyzing each incoming message on several weighted characteristics (including sender, message priority, directness of the address, and whether or not the user is participating in the message conversation) to create a composite score for the message and order and color code appropriately.  This is automatically setup on installation of ClearContext and weighting of each factor can be easily adjusted, giving the user a far more complex prioritization system that is much easier to implement and maintain.  For more detail on the patent pending ClearContext prioritization process, see ClearContext Design: Message Prioritization.

Threads, Not Messages

One very important distinction – everything ClearContext does applies to message threads (or “conversations”), not individual messages.  On the surface, our topic assignment behaves a lot like category assignment in Microsoft Outlook.  However, when a ClearContext topic is assigned to a message, all current and future email messages in that thread are assigned that topic.   This saves the user the time and effort of assigning a category to every message that is received.  Additionally, topics are automatically assigned to sent mail associated within a conversation and, optionally, sent mail is automatically moved from the Outlook Sent Mail folder to the appropriate ClearContext Topic folder.

ClearContext AutoAssign vs. Outlook Rules

As the post cited at the beginning of the article mentions, ClearContext AutoAssign appears to duplicate some of Outlook Rules’ features.  We believe that the Outlook Rules engine is a very robust and useful tool and our intent in developing AutoAssign was not to replicate all of its functionality. Rather, it was to support ClearContext specific features such as topic and priority assignment, and provide a simpler and easier to use interface for the most common rules scenarios. Ed Bott highlighted this in his review of our product:

"I had done some of this stuff with Outlook message rules, but the ClearContext Auto-Assign rules are much easier to create. Likewise, it’s possible to file messages into Outlook folders, but this add-in makes it much easier."

We have plans to provide integration for ClearContext functionality within the native Outlook rules interface in the near future. We believe this will provide the best of both worlds – our AutoAssign interface for ease of use, and access to the Outlook rules engine for creating more complicated rules that take advantage of ClearContext features.

What Else?

Those are the main points we’d like to make, but to highlight a few other enhancements ClearContext makes to Outlook:

1.    ClearContext default views group prioritized messages by conversation.  Outlook can show a prioritized view.  Outlook can display a Group By Conversation view.  Outlook can’t display a Prioritized, Group By Conversation view. 
2.    Once a topic has been assigned, ClearContext provides File Message, File Thread, and File Topic functionality for quick manual filing of Inbox messages into the associated topic folder.  Outlook requires the user to take several steps to file a message into the appropriate folder and, outside of Group By views, does not provide an easy way to file all messages in a thread or category.
3.    When setting up prioritization rules, the most important factor to many users is sender.  ClearContext automatically ranks senders on setup via a patent pending algorithm that analyzes email history.  To duplicate in Outlook rules, the user would need to manually create this information for each contact.
4.    ClearContext allows the user to adjust the priority of email, which changes the placement of the entire email thread within the prioritized inbox.  Native Outlook allows a priority change, but this doesn’t affect placement and it doesn’t apply to the entire message thread.

ClearContext not only provides functionality that can’t be duplicated in native Outlook, but our setup process, customized views, and toolbar buttons often makes it simpler to take advantage of these advanced features than the associated techniques in Outlook.

We’d welcome your feedback – if any of you Outlook Power Users out there feel that we have mis-stated Outlook’s capabilities, please send your feedback our way via comments on this site or direct email to info (at)