Instant Search - Part 1: Information Overload

Over the next several posts I'm going to focus on explaining some of the methedology, user research, and design models that drove our implementation of Instant Search in Outlook 12. I'm going to start by briefly discussing the concept of information overload and some of the basic user scenarios we thought about, and in the next post I'll focus on our concept of the Find Timeline and how that drove our underlying infrastructure. 

Information Overload

Outlook has become the one-stop-shop for its users as their central point of information management. A typical user has a work email account, a personal email account, appointments, and contacts in Outlook, and with Outlook 12 they’ll have RSS aggregation and SharePoint data to contend with as well. There are five different kinds of email accounts alone that Outlook can connect to.

Our average user is dealing with information overload on a massive scale and is often at a loss for keeping up with their incoming mail. It is not uncommon for a corporate user to have an enormous amount of items in one folder, as evidenced by this user who has over 10,000 items in their inbox:

When dealing with this much information, one of the best ways to find the specific piece that you’re looking for is by using a search engine. Searching on the web has replaced traditional browsing as the first step many people take when trying to find something Internet, and searching in applications is traveling the same path.

Outlook 2003 had the concept of finding specific items in your mailbox using a search engine built-in to the application. It was not widely used due to lack of speed, reliability, and extensibility when compared to third-party solutions and even other Microsoft products.  Outlook 12 will deliver the simple and efficient means to quickly find any item within Outlook on demand, provide the ability to filter down long lists interactively and accurately display matches. 

The new Outlook 12 Search UI design is seamlessly integrated, and leverages familiar elements within Outlook to deliver a search experience that feels as if the application was designed around it.  To create a great search experience for our users right out of the box, the Outlook team conducted research and focus groups to better understand what types of information users searched for inside our application. Specifically, we attempted to determine the most common search criteria and scenarios for each of the modules (mail, calendar, contacts, etc.) inside Outlook.  Creating this list of common scenarios enabled us to create a better search experience for users by designing effective default searches and a UI that allowed them to quickly re-create these common queries in each module. This keeps the results set smaller for these queries and allows the user to quickly and easily find the right item they were looking for in each module.