Search in Outlook 12 - "It changes the way you work"

As I mentioned in my initial post, a lot of people spend a ton of time in Outlook figuring out what they should do next. Sometimes that’s not too easy, not because you don’t know what to do, but rather because you can’t find the thing that you need to work on.

In Outlook 12, we’ve made this much easier. It’s part of the “Manage your time & information” theme. We’ve overhauled our Search feature to make it fast, flexible, and completely integrated.

First, a digression.

There are really two different scenarios that people call “Search.”

Scenario #1. I’ll call this one “Search.” This scenario is when people need to get information (the answer to a question, a fact, etc.) and they don’t really know specifically what they’re looking for. So they want to do a database query to return all of the items that match some criteria. For example, if you want to find out when Isaac Newton’s birthday is, you type “Isaac Newton birthday” into your favorite search engine, and you find out what he was born on January 4th, 1643 (Gregorian calendar). (Hey, that’s my dad’s birthday, except for the 1643 part!)

You don’t really care what page returns the information, as long as it’s accurate, and you might even be searching for something that you’re not sure exists. You just want to see all of the things that match your criteria. These are characteristics of the “Search” scenario.

Scenario #2. I’ll call this one “Find.” This scenario is when you want to find a specific thing (mail message, document, even web site) and you just want to get to it as fast as possible. For example, I remember that my mom sent me that recipe last month. How can I get to it as quickly as possible? I know it exists, and that there’s only one of them. This is the “Find” scenario. It’s more about filtering than querying.

A careful reader will notice that there can indeed be some overlap between these two scenarios. But the important point here is that the scenarios pursue different ends, and it’s reasonable to think that you should build different tools to solve each scenario.

Outlook has long had tools to address both scenarios. For the Search scenario, we have Advanced Search and the “Find Strip.” Unfortunately, both of these are traditionally pretty slow, so they’re not widely used. For the Find scenario, we have sorting and “type-down,” where you can sort a list of mail messages or tasks or whatever and then use the keyboard to scroll quickly to the desired items.

In Outlook 12, we’ve built new tools that can be used for both the Search and the Find scenarios, and we’ve updated the old tools we have to make them much faster and useful.
The Search improvements in Outlook 12 span all of Outlook’s “modules” (Calendar, Contacts, Mail, etc.). My discussion here will focus on the Mail module, since that’s the one that most people live in most, but the Search tools work everywhere.

There are two qualities I want to discuss briefly about the Outlook 12 Search experience. It’s fast, and it’s integrated.

It’s no secret that Search in previous versions of Outlook wasn’t fast enough. We didn’t have an index for items in the mailbox, and this means that older versions would have to check the properties of each item in the mailbox. Some of this was optimized, but in general you could count on waiting 30 seconds or more (sometimes a lot more) if you wanted to search for something.

Many customers deal with this by being very diligent and careful “filers” of their email. They very carefully move items into subject-specific folders, and then they can find items quickly by looking only in the appropriate folder. Really good filers can go straight to the item they want, but most people aren’t very good filers, so this system often breaks down quickly.

Outlook 12 can find any item in your mailbox virtually instantaneously. Often the results list is shown in less than a second. Outlook 12 uses the same indexing technology as Windows Desktop Search and Windows Vista to keep an always up-to-date index of all of the information in the mailbox.

Perhaps the most important design point of the Outlook 12 Search feature is that it’s completely integrated into the Outlook experience. (Hey, what in the world does that mean?) This means that it just feels like Outlook. It’s not “on the side” or “out of band.” When you Search for something, you get a list of things that match your criteria, and they’re shown to you just like any other list of Outlook items. You can do anything with the items in this list that you can do elsewhere in Outlook. Reply, Forward, Delete, Move to Folder, etc. all “just work” in the results list. It feels really natural once you’ve used it. No separate windows, no reduced functionality.

Enough already. What does it look like?
Here’s a single screen shot that shows a lot of the Search experience in Outlook12.

Notice the filtered list shown in the Outlook list view. Notice the “hit highlighting” that shows where the Search terms were found. Notice that it just looks like Outlook!

The primary interface for Outlook 12 Search consists of a box at the top of the “mail list” that provides the Search tools. The simplest way to perform a Search is to just type in the box. The results automatically show in the results list, where your all of your email is normally shown.

If you need to do a more precise Search, you can drop down the expanded “Search Pane” to search in particular fields.


Typing in this expanded Search Pane will also train you to Search more efficiently. For example, if you type “Michael” in the “From” field, then Outlook automatically puts “from: Michael” in the Search box. Soon, customers figure out what they can type things like “from: Michael subject: XML” to see all items from anyone named Michael with the string “XML” in the subject. This is super powerful and it feels really natural.


So I’ve introduced the Search experience in Outlook 12 at a very high level. There’s a lot more to say about Search, so I’m going to turn it over to Michael Affronti, one of the Outlook designers who is working on the Search feature. He’s got a blog that talks about Search, among other things. He’ll discuss some of the finer points of Outlook 12 Search.