Software

Product Spotlight: Clear Context organizer for Outlook

Clear Context is an Outlook add-on that helps users manage email messages by organizing them into topics and getting all the items related to a topic organized for easy searching and use.

Clear Context is an Outlook add-on that helps users manage e-mail messages by organizing them into topics and getting all the items related to a topic organized for easy searching and use. There are two versions of the Clear Context add-on: a basic version (Clear Context Personal) for managing e-mail only and a professional version (Clear Context Professional) for managing e-mail, tasks, and calendar items. This post will look at the professional version.

Specifications

Supported operating systems:
  • Windows Vista
  • Windows XP
Application Requirements:
  • Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 or 2007
  • Exchange or POP3 e-mail access

Who's it for?

Clear Context is an add-on for Outlook for busy people. The goal is to help empty your inbox while allowing you to access and retrieve messages, tasks, and calendar items easily. I am a "getting things done" proponent, and Clear Context is very helpful at keeping things out of my line of sight until they need to be there. See more on that topic on the Clear Context blog.

What problem does it solve?

The biggest problem this plug-in solves is e-mail overload. Until I began using Clear Context, I was unlikely to empty my inbox very often. Taking the time to process the messages ate up my day, and I would sometimes delete messages that I would realize I needed later on. Clear Context took that responsibility on, and now my inbox is empty at the end of every day.

Because the Professional version also allows you to deal with Tasks and Calendar items in Outlook, it has more of a project-type focus. This approach allows all your related items to be grouped together by topic. For example, suppose I am working on a project with a vendor to implement a phone system. This will usually begin by e-mail as I gather some information about the products offered and perhaps see what these offerings cost; then, some meetings will be scheduled to get the ball rolling and moving down the path toward actual implementation. When the implementation begins, there might be tasks that I need to accomplish to ensure my organization is ready for the phone system.

If I create a topic in Clear Context for the vendor, I can file all items related to them in one place, and I can create a sub-topic for just the phone system project too. When I search for these items later, they will all appear together under the topic for the project.

Standout features

Clear Context professional has a few features that make the product very attractive to use. Mail management with Topics, available in both the Personal and Professional versions is great, but Deferral of items is a feature that helps me a lot.

For example, if I get an e-mail regarding the phone system implementation on Monday morning but know that I cannot get the information I need to reply until Wednesday afternoon, I can tell Clear Context that I want to defer the message until Wednesday at 1:30PM. Doing this puts the message away until the specified time, then brings it back to the inbox marked unread so I see it quickly and can act on it.

Figure A

Message deferral

I also like the ability to group all related messages. Clear Context will check for replies and related messages to the message I am looking at and display them in a pane below the message window. This can be useful when chasing down an attachment -- say the contract for the phone system implementation that I received two weeks ago but did not work with right away.

Figure B

Click to enlarge.

Related messages

Viewing topics is very simple with the Dashboard button. Click it on the toolbar, and it will show you an overview of topics and dated items for at-a-glance viewing. Enter a topic name (or partial name) in the search box filters for that topic. Click on the topic opens it in a separate tab. This tab shows related messages, contacts, and -- in the Pro version -- Tasks and Calendar items.

Figure C

Dashboard and topic overview

What's wrong?

Initial configuration can be time-consuming, depending on how many topics you start with. I think this is more a user issue than a software issue. There are wizards to help you get started and associate contacts, messages, and other items within your mailbox on initial setup.

Competitive products

  • Neo (e-mail organizer for Outlook)

Bottom line for business

Anyone in your organization who manages a lot of messages will find that Clear Context can be a great help in organizing their information and helping them work more effectively with Outlook. It has certainly been a great help in my inbox.

About

Derek Schauland has been tinkering with Windows systems since 1997. He has supported Windows NT 4, worked phone support for an ISP, and is currently the IT Manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin.

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