Gavin Basuel
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MARCO POLO- A.I For Outlook email

This is a story of how we used machine learning to promote team collaboration in the outlook email app. 



I participated in a Global AI Hackathon in Seattle this summer.  We had 48 hours  to develop a machine learning application using the Microsoft Graph API.  I was a complete beginner on the subject of machine learning, and I learned a great deal about how we could use machine learning word parsing to improve outlook email application.  My team was composed of 4 programmers, and I was the main UX designer.  Because this was a 2 day Hackathon, since we were focused on winning, I honed on the use case of our application.  I knew that if we got this right, we could improve our chances of winning.  We ended up getting 3rd place out of 20 teams in the Seattle!

The Challenge

Our challenge was finding a way to promote collaboration and communication in the outlook email application across an organization.  There is an opportunity to use machine learning in the outlook application.  

My role

UX Designer, Front-End I designed and then created the front end out this project.


Microsoft (Fictional)


Microsoft, and large companies that use outlook on a daily basis for communication and scheduling.

Product Description

Marco Polo makes it easy to find collaborators in a large workplace. A user can input a description of the project that they're working on, and will receive a list of people in their company who are working on similar projects.

One of the turning points for communication in the workplace was the invention of email. Historically it’s been the easiest way to make contact in any business relationship – short, pointed conversations with the teammates you work closest with, or quick messages to people you’re communicating with for the very first time. The notion that email is also a good channel for team collaboration is what’s holding us all back.

Scrappy research

I didn't have much time to go in-depth for research given the nature of the Hackathon. So I look only for problems with email and its lack in ability to promote collaboration. This is my use case I developed for our Marco Polo outlook prototype.


Why does Email hurt productivity in the workplace?

Email is excellent for communication but does not promote collaboration

Email is an effective means for communication, but when it comes to collaborating with your team on projects and getting work done, it’s a major hindrance to your team’s productivity.

  • Group conversations grow unwieldy too quickly

  • Keeping track of the most current version of an attached document is the modern-era’s needle in a haystack

  • It’s nearly impossible to maintain clarity about what needs to get done, and by whom

At the end of the day, when it comes to collaborating with your team, email wastes A LOT of your time.

  • Group conversations grow unwieldy too quickly

  • Keeping track of the most current version of an attached document is the modern-era’s needle in a haystack

  • It’s nearly impossible to maintain clarity about what needs to get done, and by whom


1. Email inbox is a lot like quicksand

You receive a ton of email each day (yeah, like you didn’t already know that!) – some of it’s important, some actionable, some is SPAM, and some is unavoidably pointless. As a result your mornings go wasted in your attempt to reach inbox-zero. It’s a losing battle. Each time you take a step forward, you take two back. You’ve likely tried all the organizational features your email client has to offer to control your inbox – labels, filters, multiple inboxes, smart inboxes – but at the end of the day, your morning consists of at least an hour of unavoidable email ground-and-pound. You also probably manage emails when you get home at night and even first thing in the morning when you wake up just to keep your head above water.

The fact is that this is the norm these days and hardly leaves you anytime to get real work done.

2. Your email inbox silos your team’s tacit knowledge

Email is regularly used to share and discuss work, but that doesn’t mean its supposed to. Attaching files and documents or linking to them via shared network drives makes for a complete mess. Countless versions of shared files and relevant follow-up conversations are trapped in email inboxes everywhere. Your inbox is a graveyard for valuable tacit knowledge, knowledge that gets buried deeper and deeper every minute of every day. It’s truly criminal.

Email serves as a mean for simple communication, not discussion, and not collaboration either.

3. Switching context between work and email wastes a lot of time

The rate at which most people check their email is astonishing – it’s practically become a nervous twitch.  The problem with checking your email so much is that you rarely have a solid block of time to get any real work done. Take into consideration that if you’re actually checking your email 36 times an hour, and it takes 16 minutes to refocus after handling an incoming email, your workday is basically non-existent.

Switching contexts is distracting, if not annoying, and your email is the number one culprit – destroying the focus you need to get your job done well.

There’s a better way to collaborate: How Marco Polo works

1. Each user profile is made through use of the Microsoft Graph API to access connects of various work projects in a OneDrive account or specific sent emails from projects that the user chooses.



2. The contents of selected items are vectorized using TF-IDF Vectors



3. Using Non-Negative Matrix Factorization, users are group based on similar interests


4. When a users enters a snippit of their current work into the text box on our web-app, the recommender system will show users who are working on similar projects. This allows for easy collaboration between like-minded individuals.