Vacuuming The Inbox: MIT Researchers Test Tool For Email Users

Marketers often discuss their email automation needs. But do they ever think about automation at the other end of the chain — the inbox? 

Maybe they should. A team at MIT has found that 40% of email users can’t create the inbox rules they want using common email services like Gmail or Outlook. 

So the team developed a platform called YouPS (Your Postal Service). It’s not on the market. But the authors claim that it can help users “write custom email rules through a simple programmatic API wrapper of IMAP." This could be a challenge for brands that already have problems getting their emails opened. 

The findings are the result of a lengthy academic process. 

First, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory conducted a workshop to determine what email recipients need. Then it drilled down to mine open source code on Github see what needs have already been met by programmers.

The team also surveyed 77 people, ages 20 to 29, many connected with the university. Finally it created YouPS and started testing it, a process that is still ongoing.  



Based on input at various stages, here are some of the features that inbox users want: 

A richer data model to capture “latent structured information such as priority, topic, deadline, and need for a reply.

Automation to leverage the context of an email — i.e., time of day, characteristics of the email thread and the state of the recipient (busy, sleeping, at work, on vacation).

Ability to prioritize, assigning high priority to emails from important contacts and low priority for automated or blast emails.

The capability to automatically mark emails as read or unread, move them to other folders, hide emails until a particular time and bring them to the top of the inbox or push them further down.

Now email clients might come forth and say they already offer some of these benefits. But the study notes that “many users still manually process emails, even repetitive ones, despite the fact that current features within email clients can automate some of this activity.”

So how would a system like YouPS work? Let’s say a school wanted to the ability to not notify people on its mailing list during their summer vacation. This requires “external context that involves determining whether the arrival time of an email is during a user’s summer vacation.’” 

Marketers are able to personalize by time of day and other highly nuanced variables. But now consumers seek some of these same tools. 

For instance, email senders want a way to “leverage rich data and context to reduce load on recipients, for example by automatically delaying an email from being sent until the recipient is in a not-busy context or at a suitable location,” the authors note.

It remains to be seen whether a platform like YouPS will solve the problem. For now, the authors hope that the “needs discovered in our studies will guide future designers and developers of email clients and inbox management systems.” 

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