John Faughnan’s amazing Outlook hack (and why it matters)

Although I’ve conversed online with John Faughnan since my days at BYTE, we’ve never met, and we had not even spoken on the phone until last week when he joined me on an episode of my Interviews with Innovators podcast. It was a great pleasure to finally connect in realtime with the prolific author of thoughtful analysis and commentary on things in general, on information technology, and on resources for parents of children with cognitive or emotional-behavior disabilities.

John was a country doctor, and he retains his medical license, but he doesn’t see patients nowadays. Instead he directs the development of clinical productivity software, with particular focus on methods of knowledge representation, and on strategies for effective collaboration.

We share a passion for strategies that entail simple but often overlooked uses of common software applications. For example, did you know that it’s possible, in Outlook, to edit the subject of an email message after it’s been received, and is just sitting in your archive? Try it, and you’ll find that you can. Color me amazed. I’m just the sort of personal information management geek who’d have discovered a hack like that, but I never did.

Now, why would you want to do such a thing? It’s a defensive strategy. The message entitled “Re: Next week” probably ought to be entitled something like “Consensus reached among A, B, and C on issue X for project Y.” Which title would you rather scan, in search results, six months later?

(John would like to find, and personally thank, the developer responsible for this feature, so if you know that person, or are that person, speak up!)

You can think of this technique as a kind of enhanced tagging. It’s related to a strategy for enriching email — embodying the journalistic principle of “heads, decks, and leads” — which I described in my book and in this report.

People mainly still think of information architecture as a discipline practiced only by designers and publishers. But what John and I have always thought is that we’re all becoming designers and publishers of streams of information, that those streams can all be navigated and searched in one way or another, and that the value of those streams depends on the ability of ourselves and others to navigate and search them effectively.

We also think that effectiveness requires two things. First, obviously, software that embodies the right principles and enables the right practices. But second, a broad awareness of right principles and practices. Those, we agree in this conversation, are not necessarily intuited by Gen X, Y, or Z just because they’re so-called digital natives. This stuff needs to be articulated, and it needs to be taught.

21 Comments

  1. A problem I see with editing the subject line as y’all discussed in the podcast is that I’m only editing it for me and I’m destroying the reference that some other participant in the conversation might use, for example: “Go look at my 7/21/08 email Subj: Changing Subject lines”

    The kludge I use in my Gmail is forwarding the email to myself and modifying that subject line something like this:

    Subj: Jon Udell discussion of microcontent (was Re: Changing Subject lines)

    Gmail makes this into a new conversation. This way both the original and my meaningful to me subject lines can be searched for.

  2. While changing a subject line is infinitely useful to all of us for many good reasons, I wonder if there’s a possible downside. Is there any law against changing a subject line for companies who have to maintain their electronic records for a set period of time? Does Sarbanes-Oxley forbid subject lines from being changed? I know Eudora could do this too back when everyone was using POP mail. But in the Exchange MAPI universe aren’t you actually changing the subject on the server itself?

  3. You can also drag-and-drop an email onto your Outlook 2007 To-Do Bar’s task list and edit the resulting task name without messing up the subject line of the original email.

  4. “You can also drag-and-drop an email onto your Outlook 2007 To-Do Bar’s task list and edit the resulting task name without messing up the subject line of the original email.”

    That’s an interesting strategy! On an instant search over mail and tasks, you’d see at a glance which messages had received this special treatment.

  5. “Does Sarbanes-Oxley forbid subject lines from being changed?”

    Aw, now you’ve gone and done it. It probably never occurred to them that subject lines /could/ be changed!

    :-)

  6. “I’m only editing it for me and I’m destroying the reference that some other participant in the conversation might use”

    True. Of course as we also discussed, it is a terrible tragedy that the subject line — rather than a unique message ID — is what we’re stuck using as the reference.

  7. I confess to being a Outlook subject line editor (for as long as I can remember using the application).
    I have also been known to change the subject on long email threads, particularly when the original email title doesn’t describe the conversation :-)

  8. Hi Jon,

    Wow, you are too kind. I’m not really that wonderful.

    We should probably mention that I publish all my blogs under the pseudonym of John Gordon (Gordon is my middle name).

    I used to get some curious work conversations with people who googled my name …

    As to losing the subject line my sender gave the email — true enough, but in all my years of doing this I’ve never missed the sender’s subject line.

    Not once!

    Sure, they might miss it, but once I get the email it’s part of my knowledge base.

    Interesting from a forensics perspective of course …

  9. Wow. I wonder how many more years it will take Outlook users to “hack” their systems to perform functions Eudora has performed for nearly 20 years.

    Next up: Learning not to top-post. Too difficult for Outlook users/

  10. > functions Eudora has performed for nearly
    > 20 years.

    I don’t actually know how long Outlook has had this feature, maybe quite a while. But what interests me is whether or not it’s known, and if so, used, and if so, by how many.

    In your experience, are Eudora users aware of this function and inclined to use it?

  11. Hopefully you cannot edit the text as well!

    Our state (guess which one) has “Government in the Sunshine” laws which makes most e-mail (some exceptions) public record – and you wouldn’t want your government changing the records about what they planned, said, or did, would you?

  12. > Hopefully you cannot edit the text as well!

    This has turned into an interesting question, actually. Do such changes propagate back to the system of record, or not? If they’re only part of the personal archive, no worries.

  13. “The kludge I use in my Gmail is forwarding the email to myself and modifying that subject line” Michael Shook.

    This is one that I use, but more for the fact that you can add extra relevant information (e.g. a description or a list of key words not covered by the labels) to the message box as well.

    This makes searching for the specific email later on much easier. The functionality and design of Gmail seems more slanted towards search anyway so this seems better than just changing the Subject Line.

  14. I use this trick occasionally. To answer some of the concerns above, my understanding is that the original title is still retained.
    I don’t remember what happens when you reply to a thread after modifying the title.

  15. If someone edits Outlook Subject lines like this, the change is not carried across to the actual message header which can still be viewed. Changes of all sorts can be made to Outlook messages, including the message text and forging headers. All you have to do is export the message to Outlook Express or another mail program that allows messages to be exported as standard RFC822 text format. You edit the message in Notepad (or whatever) and then import back into Outlook Express and then Outlook. Voila, a forged message saying or modifying whatever was originally said. Scary stuff! But it’s always been present.

  16. I am not a lawyer, but from what my friends in IT say the email archiving is done at the server level, not the client mailbox, so a copy of each email is silently sent to the archive system, rather than relying on the client mailbox to store the message (which would be prone to users deleting it by accident etc..)

    From this, it would seem that you can go edit subject lines to your hearts content.

    It is similar then to hitting reply, and editing the subject line, which is commonly done, if occasionally overused.

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