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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.


Posted by WillKennedy | 13 Comments

Let’s Start Again: Account Configuration

This seems like a good place to start, since this is how many of our customers first become acquainted with Outlook.

One of the themes for Outlook 12 is “Connect across boundaries.” For many customers, the first boundary they encounter is between them and their email account.

Configuring Outlook (and other email clients) is just too complicated for many people. (Keep in mind, you digerati who are reading this blog all grok how email account setup works.) (You probably even know where the word "grok" came from.) Account setup is a huge support challenge for Microsoft. It also costs ISPs a ton of money and time to helping their customers get connected.

Let’s consider two examples.

Example #1. I checked out the online instructions for my broadband provider at home. They have instructions for how to set up Outlook Express (but not Outlook) on their web site. One wacky thing is that you have to log in to their web site to find the instructions. Hmmm. That’s a blocker right there.

The instructions have 7 different steps and 6 screenshots. 7! 6! Not too simple.

Example #2. Here’s the POP account setup dialog from Outlook 2003:

(Shown smaller than actual size.)

It’s bad form to ridicule the current version of my product in this blog, but let’s see how this works. Put yourself in the place of someone who doesn’t do computers for a living:

Your Name: OK, I know what that is.
E-mail address: My ISP gave me that somehow.
User Name: Wait, I thought I just typed in my name.
Password: My ISP gave me this, too.
Incoming mail server: Uhhhh…
Outgoing mail server: Uhhhh…
SPA: What?
More Settings: I hope I don’t have to go in there.

Notice the “Test Account Settings…” button. We put that in Outlook because it’s so hard for regular users to tell if they got it right.

Our support folks see a variety of problems when people try to set up their accounts. They swap the POP3 and SMTP servers. They don’t know the difference between e-mail address and user name. They don’t know they need to turn on SPA. The list goes on and on.

So, what have we done to make this simpler?

In Outlook 12, we’ve added a feature that will make this easy for the majority of our customers. We're calling it Auto Account Setup. It comes in a couple of parts:

Part 1: Exchange Accounts. For customers who use Microsoft Exchange “12,” Outlook will automatically detect your account information from the Active Directory and an Exchange 12 web service during account setup. This information tells Outlook your Exchange server name, your email address, any configuration options your admin has set for you, including RPC over HTTP settings, etc. Outlook can also detect basic account information from older versions of Exchange, as long as the customer’s computer is in the same domain as the Exchange server.

This makes Exchange configuration really simple for most customers. No more server names. No more arcane settings.

Part 2: POP & IMAP Accounts. While the account configuration details are often confusing for regular users, they’re pretty predictable for experts. For example, if your email address (given to you by your ISP) is john_doe@isp.com, then there’s a good chance that your POP3 server is something like mail.isp.com and your SMTP server is probably something like smtp.isp.com.

With Outlook 12, the customer needs to just type in his or her name, email address, and password. Outlook then tries several predictable combinations of server addresses, SPA, and server ports (995, 993, and 587 for secure connections, 110, 143, and 25 for unsecure connections) until it finds a configuration that works. It tries the combinations in a prioritized order, so for most ISPs the correct combination is often detected very quickly.

But what if an ISP uses a non-standard (or hard to predict) configuration? For example, some ISPs use different ports, even for POP3 or IMAP accounts, for largely historical reasons.

These ISPs can deploy a XML file in a predictable location on their server (e.g. isp.com/autodiscover/autodiscover.xml, among other places) that includes information about the correct configuration settings for POP3 and IMAP accounts on that domain. Outlook downloads the XML file and uses it to automatically configure the customer’s account. We figure out where to look based on the email address.

Before Outlook 12 ships, the format for the XML configuration file will be available for ISPs everywhere.

Hopefully ISPs will be able to save tons in support costs by deploying these XML files or by using predictable configuration settings. Our goal is to make sure that we can autoconfigure for the largest ISPs around the world by the time Outlook 12 is released.

Hopefully, our customers will be able get up and running a lot sooner than before. They’re just getting started with Outlook 12, and they’ve already connected across a boundary.

More later.

Posted by WillKennedy | 14 Comments

Let's Get Started


It’s time to blog about Outlook 12! This space will be dedicated to sharing news of the upcoming release of Outlook, part of the Office 12 suite. I’ll talk about what we did, what we didn’t do, how it fits with the rest of Office, and some of the process we’re using to build Outlook.  


First, let me introduce myself. I started at Microsoft in 1991 as a programmer on Microsoft Word. I was the development manager for Outlook 2002 and Outlook 2003, and I’m currently the General Manager of the Outlook team. By some odd quirk of fate, I’m also the acting lead of the Outlook design team, which handles the feature design for the product. (These feature designers are called “program managers” inside of Microsoft.)


But enough about me. Outlook is the star here.


I hear from customers (and my friends, relatives, co-workers…) all the time about how they spend tons of time in Outlook. Clearly it’s a widely-used app. It’s a huge thrill to work on it every day, but it comes with a bunch of responsibility, too. Our job is to be super careful to deliver features that will really solve customer problems.


In Outlook 12, I hope we’ve done just that. There are three major themes to the work we’ve done in Outlook 12:

  • Manage your time & information
  • Connect across boundaries
  • Remain safe & in control

Over the next few weeks I’ll discuss each of these areas and the features we’ve done to support each one.


I hope that by the time Outlook 12 ships that I’ll get a chance to discuss work we’ve done with the Outlook Calendar, RSS subscriptions, Tasks, Search, SharePoint synchronization, new user interface, attachments, Exchange Server, account configuration, the offline experience, IMAP improvements, sharing, electronic business cards, etc. It’s a long list.


By the way, I’m going to try really hard NOT to use the word “user” when I refer to people who use Outlook. (I remember hearing 20 years ago that only two industries have “users:” drugs & computers.) I’ll try to use the term “customer” since these are indeed the people who buy our products. Please forgive me if I slip up and user the u-word.


With my next post, I’ll start talking about some of the specific problems we’re trying to solve with Outlook 12.

Posted by WillKennedy | 3 Comments