Friday, March 21, 2008

Clear Context: The Killer Apps' killer app?

For several months I had been playing with Visual Basic scripts, teaching myself on the fly as I came across something that I wanted Outlook to do for my GTD system. I had created several custom buttons such as FILE TO REFERENCE, TASK FROM ITEM, FOLLOWUP TASK, and Category tasks for my top customers. When suddenly I stumbled across – I say suddenly because I had repeatedly been reading about this wonderful Outlook add-in program in my Google Reader, but never made the connection to what it was doing.

I’m about 3 weeks into my 30 day trial of ClearContext IMS (Information Management System) and I have to admit that I am digging it so far. I’ve been using my hybrid version of GTD and TWC (Total Workday Control) over the last 3+ years. With a few minor tweaks to my habits, I was up and running.

Here is what I am digging, and what I would improve for future releases.

DEFER: I love pushing something off, purposely, for a period of time. I am pretty hardcore about having my inbox clear once a message has been read, so this gives me a chance to defer items that I don’t want to take action on right now.

Future Idea: I tend to defer items to specific times repeatedly, usually 8am tomorrow, 1pm this afternoon or 4pm today. But the interface for doing that can be cumbersome since it defaults to tomorrow by default. What about an option that lets you set favorite times that can be chosen with a mouse click? Wow – instant time saver!

DELEGATE / FOLLOW-UP: Most people I know do not use the task pad, or do not use it effectively. So when delegating a task to somebody on my team thru task pad, it is most assuredly lost or forgotten. In fact, I have received completion emails for tasks that were assigned years ago, because that person was just getting around to reviewing and cleaning up their Outlook. Delegate to the rescue! By just clicking the DELEGATE button I can send an email, and create a task in my Waiting For bucket and be confidant that my task is landing in their inbox and won’t disappear with the click of the ACCEPT button.

TOPICS: I wasn’t sure how I was going to use this at first. For quite some time I had been using the TWC method using a Reference folder that was sorted by categories thus allowing everything to be dumped into one place. That was great for simplicity – it was a no-brainer and Outlook rules could handle the tagging of most of the categories for me. I liked that I could have multiple categories for one email, effectively duplicating it in several spots. There were very few drawbacks to this method.

When I was introduced to TOPICS in Clear Context, I was a little hesitant to throw away something that was effectively working for me up to this point. But then I said, what the hell – I tweak everything – let’s give her a go. I work in sales with a set of accounts that doesn’t really change so each customer account got one folder and then a “.Reference” folder for everything archived that isn’t tied to a customer account. I have found that it is just as good as the TWC method of one folder tagged by categories. Since each customer has their own folder, everything still has distinct edges.

I love how you can tag one email in a thread, and the whole thread gets tagged by that topic. Then I read that last email in the thread and FILE TO THREAD all the emails at once. It’s naice!

However, here is where I am having issues with TOPICS. Most people put no thought into what the subject line of their email is. Since I work in sales I get the obligatory subject: “Quote” or “Quote Request” or “Question”. I use the rules to tag TOPICS/CUSTOMERS by their domain (ie: gets tagged as XYZ Co topic). As I stated my love of the thread tagging above, it is here that it breaks down. Even though customer A and customer B send an email with the same subject (“Quote Request”), and are completely distinct threads, the system will tag the email incorrectly based on who sent it first. I suppose the overwrite function alleviates this, but I wish that it would work that out on its own and know the subject is a different thread.

CONCLUSIONS & FUTURE IDEAS: Overall it has been a great tool and I’ve been recommending the hell out of it to my co-workers. The demo online does a great job of showing what ClearContext does in just 2 minutes. And the stability has been unparalleled in the arena of Outlook add-ins, unlike say, the add-in.

Here is one idea I would love to see in this tool – customizable Out of Office. One that would let me do things like send an OOO that doesn’t say “Out of Office”. I’d love to let my customers know key information about my availability (at lunch, in a training, expect long response times, etc…) but if they are not in my contacts list, it could respond with a different OOO or none at all. And one that doesn’t send a reply every single time. Just like OOO, it is not an endless loop.

I'd love to hear how others are using Clear Context in a sales environment!

ClearContext team, great job! Keep it up.

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