Microsoft has released a free tool to enable users to prioritise mail from their most frequent correspondents.

The Social Relationship and Network Finder, or SNARF, is an application that uses the same database as a user's e-mail client to count the number of times users send and receive e-mails from people, said AJ Brush, a researcher in the community technologies group at Microsoft Research, who developed the tool.

Calling this kind of e-mail triage process "social sorting," researchers worked with graduate students to come up with the tool so it will help users prioritise e-mails based on how often they send and receive mails from contacts, she said.

"One of the core SNARF notions is that it’s about people," Brush said. "We’re really trying to remember information about the people in my e-mail rather than on a per-message basis. Then SNARF will know it’s that message from [for example] Julie, I talk to her all the time, so it will put that higher in order of importance."

In an e-mail message, Bernie Hogan, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Toronto who worked with Brush as an intern during SNARF's development, said that modern e-mail clients don't take into consideration aspects of face-to-face interpersonal contact that people use to organise their daily interaction with others. Tools like SNARF will help researchers develop more intelligent software that streamlines e-mail communication, he said.

"I want to help interpret the complexities of e-mail, so that we can design tools to help individuals work smarter, not harder," he wrote. "This involves understanding communication in social context -- communication, is after all a social activity -- and discovering what social patterns in communication are meaningful to users and how we can present these patterns clearly, and effectively."

SNARF is available as a free download. The software requires Microsoft Outlook 2002 or 2003 as a MAPI source, but also has been tested with Exchange and MAPI servers, Hotmail and e-mail clients using POP, IMAP and the OL Connector (for Lotus Notes).

The tool runs simultaneously next to an e-mail client and allows a user to look at unread e-mail in three views: Unread To/CC me, Unread Mail and Unread Lists. The default sort mechanism ranks e-mail messages in those categories based on how many times a user e-mails an address or person on the list, Brush said. SNARF also provides e-mail notifications.

Users also can change this default setting, but she said researchers found this was the most efficient way to order e-mails in terms of importance. "If I send you a lot of e-mail I probably care if you send me e-mail," she said.

One practical application of SNARF could be as an application for retrieving e-mail on mobile devices, Brush said. Because those users often are checking e-mail on the fly, a tool like SNARF could help them quickly see which e-mails they'd want to read and which they can save for later or delete, she said.

Microsoft Research hopes that by distributing SNARF to the public, other researchers can learn how people use e-mail so they can devise new and better ways to help users manage messages, Brush said.

"E-mail gets a bad rap as being the communication tool that’s gone out of control," she said. "The goal is to really help people rein it in and make the experience of e-mail more productive and satisfying."