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Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook's View, But at a Cost

    Outlook is a well-established presence on the business desktop, providing millions with their email, calendar, contacts, and tasks. It’s such an institution, in fact, that when Microsoft radically revamped the Office suite’s interface in 2007, it left Outlook largely unchanged.

    Although it’s big and sluggish, there’s no denying that Outlook does what it’s supposed to do. Not quickly or with style, but consistently and effectively nonetheless. The thing is, though, that we have moved beyond just email as our major form of business communication. In the increasingly real-time and social world, a big ol’ email client seems a little… old-fashioned.

    Xobni is an attempt to bring Outlook into sync with the socially-networked world. Available in a free and paid “Plus” versions (the paid version offers advanced search capabilities and calendar functions), Xobni adds a new pane to your Outlook window packed with information about the sender of whatever email you’re currently viewing or the contact you’ve selected.

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    Working with Xobni

    20091111-Xobni-screenshot

      The image to the right is what Xobni looks like on my system. I’ve selected one of my own emails from the “Sent Mail” folder and obscured some of my personal information, of course.

      At the top is a “business card” view with my phone numbers and email addresses, as well as my title and the company I work for. Below that is a graph of how many emails I’ve sent and received to and from this contact (which is me, which may be why the numbers are odd), but that’s just the default – the five buttons above that chart allow me to select different functions. If I click the orange button, I get actions I can perform relating to the contact – make an appointment or send an email, in this case. The other three buttons open the contact’s LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter profile. (You can pick and choose several social network functions – other options that I did not choose are buttons for Skype and Hoovers company search.)

      • LinkedIn gives you their location, current company and title, and number of connections, plus a link to their full profile.
      • Facebook gives you your contact’s “Wall” and a link to their profile.
      • Twitter gives you your contact’s status updates, plus buttons to view their profile and follow them – you an also post updates through Xobni, though it’s far from a replacement for a full-featured Twitter client.

      Basically, the top of the Xobni window is devoted to information about your contact. The next part is about your relationship with that contact.  The “Network” part is the most mysterious to me; according to their website, Xobni analyzes the “From:”, “To:”, and “CC:” fields of incoming emails to determine who among your contacts the sender also has some connection to. For instance, if I have the CEO and the CFO of a company in my address book, and I get an email from the CFO that’s CC’ed to the CEO, Xobni knows that the two are connected.

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      “Conversations” condenses all my previous exchanges with that contact into threaded discussions. Click on a discussion and you can read the messages in the thread, see who was involved in the conversation, and pull out any files exchanged. (You can also hover the pointer over a discussion and a pop-up will preview the first few messages in the thread.) A slider at the top allows you to move from the first line or two of each message to full messages. Click a message in the thread and the message itself opens in the Xobni bar, with buttons to reply or forward, or to open in an Outlook window.

      Finally, “Files Exchanged” is what it sounds like – a list of every attachment the contact has ever sent you or that you’ve sent to them.

      At the very top of the Xobni window is the search bar, allowing you to search both contacts and email messages. The results are broken into 5 categories: People (contacts with your search term in their name, company name, email address, etc.), Messages (any email with your search term in it), Files Exchanged (any attachment with your search term in the filename), Appointments (any appointment that includes your search term; this is technically a “Plus” feature – clicking an appointment returned in search in the free version will open an upgrade pitch), and Tasks (again, any task with your search term in it).

      Verdict: Is Xobni useful?

      Xobni helps uncover a great deal of information, most but not all of which is particularly useful. I can’t imagine what use it would be to know that a particular contact tends to email me in the afternoon more than the morning, but it’s kind of interesting to look at. The social networking features are the most useful part, I think – already I’ve discovered profiles for and added on LinkedIn and Twitter a client that I’ve just started working with.

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      Much of the usefulness of Xobni is hampered by the fact that, like Outlook itself, it’s fairly slow and resource-intensive. For example, it took nearly a minute hovering my mouse over a discussion with 24 messages in it for the pop-up to populate with message previews! Searching takes significantly longer than Google Desktop’s Outlook plugin – and even longer than searching the whole desktop from the Google Desktop sidebar.

      Now, that could have just been my PC – it’s a few years old, with a 2.4 GHz Athlon x64, a gigabyte of memory, and Windows XP with Office 2007. Hardly a speed demon! But a search for “Xobni” on Twitter reveals that I’m hardly alone in finding Xobni too slow. Here’s a sample of messages just from the last couple of hours:

      • “all xobni did for me was sloooooow down outlook. didn’t keep it long.”
      • “installed xobni… again… we will see if my laptop can handle it this time”
      • “I had xobni. it’s heavy, and not really effective or accurate. had many issues with that.”
      • “Xobni is a Really good product but occasionally it stalls outlook for a while.”
      • “my biggest problem comes when I try to read the conversation between some of my contacts with xobni.”

      To be fair, there are positive mentions, too, like this one from an obviously pleased user:

      • “I’ve been using Xobni since around Feb. 2009. Kind of hooked on it. “

      (Incidentally, the Xobni team is quite active on Twitter; comments about Xobni are often replied to by @xobni within minutes!)

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      Xobni creates its own index of your email, so it definitely needs a lot of resources. It is possible that it’s not Xobni’s fault that it tends to be slow – perhaps Outlook, as big and ponderous as it is, just isn’t a good platform for third-party applications – but it is Xobni’s problem. While it provides some useful information and functionality, especially related to social networking, none of the information it provides is worth waiting for, especially if I can get the same information quicker just by Googling it.

      People with older machines — or lower-end new machines — just aren’t going to get much out of Xobni. If you have a more powerful computer, though, Xobni might well be worthwhile. Fast searching, threaded discussions, and social networking interface all make Xobni a useful product, provided you don’t spend time waiting for it to respond.

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      Last Updated on July 17, 2019

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

      What happens in our heads when we set goals?

      Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

      Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

      According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

      Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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      Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

      Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

      The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

      Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

      So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

      Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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      One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

      Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

      Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

      The Neurology of Ownership

      Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

      In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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      But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

      This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

      Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

      The Upshot for Goal-Setters

      So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

      On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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      It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

      On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

      But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

      More About Goals Setting

      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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