Outlook’s alternative to Gmail’s Priority Inbox

Some options for making a Gmail like ‘Priority Inbox’ in Outlook.

Google’s Gmail service continues to innovate with the addition of a Priority Inbox feature. This feature (being gradually deployed to all Gmail users) puts ‘important’ emails into a special view above the standard Inbox.

What is deemed ‘important’ changes over time as Gmail watches your email behavior and you mark messages as important or not. One starting assumption is that people you regularly email with are more important than occasional correspondents. The system also looks at terms included in important messages as well as other indicators like replying, ‘stars’, archiving etc.

Microsoft Outlook doesn’t have such a ‘learning’ system though the company has been working on it for many years. Way back in 2004 we saw a staffer at Redmond with Outlook enhanced with an Inbox organizer that arranged and prioritized emails according to the users actions and preferences. Nothing from this in-house trial ever made it into Outlook.

These automatic and learning systems are necessarily incomplete. They work best for people with a lot of email use with common behavior patterns. High frequency correspondence doesn’t always mean high importance. For example you might not often exchange emails with a General Manager or Auditor but those few messages are certainly important.

In this article we’ll look at some options for highlighting emails from important people in Outlook.

You have to decide who is important – Outlook doesn’t have the smarts to work that out for itself.

But once you’ve decided who is important, Outlook has many different ways to highlight them using Rules to tag or mark incoming messages.

Incoming Rules

Outlook has rules which are checked against incoming message. If a message matches the rule the actions are taken.

Bespite some cosmetic changes in Outlook, the basics haven’t changed for years. Delayed sending is setup in the email rules.

In Outlook 2002 (XP) go to Tools | Rules Wizard

In Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007 go to Tools | Rules and Alerts

Outlook 2010 go to the Home tab | Rules | Manage Rules and Alerts | New Rule

However you get there, start a new rule for ‘messages I receive’:

Outlook - Rule on message I receive.jpg image from Outlook’s alternative to Gmail’s Priority Inbox at Office-Watch.com

Then select the people (senders of messages to you) that you want the rule to apply to:

Outlook - messages from specific people.jpg image from Outlook’s alternative to Gmail’s Priority Inbox at Office-Watch.com

Check the ‘from people or public group’ box then click on the ‘people or public group’ link in the Step 2 box and select the people from your Contacts list or Global Address List in an organization.

Note: for senders with multiple email addresses you might need to use the ‘with specific words in the senders address’ to catch all their messages.

The next part of the rules wizard tells Outlook what to do to the matching incoming messages.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Assign to a category (make one called ‘Important’)
  • Flag message for follow up
  • Display a Desktop Alert

You could mark the message with High importance but that would overwrite an importance tag used by the sender – so you would not be able to tell if the sender though the message was important.

We like the Category or Flag options because you can easily apply (or remove) a category or flag from individual messages as well as automatic rules doing the job. That means an important message from anyone can be quickly added to the ‘Important’ list.

Displaying Important Messages

Now you have incoming message marked as ‘Important’ how to display them?

Outlook has Views – different ways to display lists of items.

As with Rules, Outlook Views have been around for many versions of Outlook and while the immediate interface changes the Manage views dialog looks much the same:

Outlook - Manage Views.jpg image from Outlook’s alternative to Gmail’s Priority Inbox at Office-Watch.com

As you can see we’ve made a new view, based on the standard Inbox view called ‘Important msgs only’. Click on Modify to change the view settings. Under the ‘Filter’ button you can limit which messages are shown. In this example we’ll only show messages marked with the Important category and are unread:

Outlook - filter important messages.jpg image from Outlook’s alternative to Gmail’s Priority Inbox at Office-Watch.com

You could do the same for flagged messages instead or leave out the ‘unread’ condition to show all messages in the ‘Important’ category – read or not.

Once the view is created you can switch to it at any time from the Outlook menu or leave the view open in a separate Outlook window.

Conditional Formatting

Instead of, or as well as, a separate view you can apply conditional formatting within a view.  In the Advanced View settings, go to Conditional Formatting.

There you can set special formatting (larger type, different font) in the message list for messages that match certain conditions.

Search Folders

In Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 you also have the choice of Search Folders. These are special folders you can setup with a specific search, choose that Search Folder and the results of the search will appear.

Right-click on the Search Folders item in the folder list, choose ‘New Search Folder’ then choose ‘Mail from specific people’. Then you can choose multiple people from your Contacts or Global Address List to show up in that search folder.