Instant Search – Part 2: The Find Timeline & Scoping

Our research and usability studies helped us determine where the bottlenecks where in the current search process for our users, and helped us focus our new design on a few key tenets. 

The first and most important is that of availability, where Outlook 12’s Search functionality is always available in all modules with a deterministic location and style.  The look and feel of the new UI is the key characteristic of our second tenet, simplicity.  We did not want the new speed and effectiveness of our search engine to be undermined by a complex UI, so the new Search interface is simple and easy to use with just a single box to type searches into, but allows for the use of advanced functionality through a special drop-down that exposes more features. 

The speed and power of the new Outlook 12 Search functionality are two of the most noticeable improvements, as we are now able to return sub-second results to the user over their entire mail store.  That means we are able to intelligently index and catalog all of your Outlook mail, calendar, contact, and other data types quickly at startup and keep track of new items while Outlook is running, while making a minimum impact on system performance and never interrupting your work.

The Find Timeline

To better understand how Outlook 12 improves the overall search experience for our users, it is helpful to see our strategy for addressing each step in the Find timeline, reducing the amount of time spent in each step to drive down the total elapsed time.  The Find Timeline is our model for the different stages a user goes through when performing a search in Outlook, from the initial thought in their head to seeing the results in the application.

The following diagram shows the steps in the Find Timeline for Outlook 12, as well as a comparison to those in Outlook 2003:

Underlying Interaction Model

Given the existing usage patterns stated above and the known problems that customers are having today with Find, the key to our new design for Outlook 12 Search is one of scoping. 

The ‘scope’ of your search is defined as being the range of data that you are searching; think of it as understanding that Michael Affronti’s name will appear in the ‘A’ section of the phonebook and beginning your search there.  You have ‘scoped’ your search to the ‘A’ section of the phonebook in an attempt to lower the number of entries you have to look through and reduce the amount of results any potential search would have.

Filtering Interaction Model

Find in Outlook 12 is actually a local filter (based on the current scope selection in the Navigation Pane) intended to return a focused result set, rather than a globally scoped search operation that would generally return a larger result set.


One of the obvious problems that Outlook 2003 users encounter is not getting the exact search results they are after (because they are looking within their own information, they know they’ve seen or filed it in the past). A key factor is not realizing where they are searching despite several hints found in the user interface. They often don’t associate typing in a search with being in any particular place within Outlook, which would be fine if everything and everyplace anywhere in Outlook was always searched at lighting fast speed, but that is not the case, nor is it desirable given our field research.

The solution provided to this problem in most Outlook and Web search software is put a scoping mechanism (generally a dropdown menu) next to the Find textbox to let the user control where to search before they issue the query. This does help some people, but puts additional cognitive load on the user to figure out where they want to search before entering the search themselves.

In Outlook 12, a simple, straightforward and deterministic method and conceptual model was devised to encourage users to start searching locally first in the current folder (since in field studies, it became clear that people do in fact know where they’ve put things within Outlook and know generally what folder or module to use to retrieve them).

If the user was not in the correct folder to find the desired items, Outlook 12 offers new ways to simply upscope and broaden their search within the current module. Or conversely, they can switch modules to the Folder List and upscope to look across all Outlook items.

The first method utilizes a link at the bottom of the set of search results that up-scopes to a special All Items folder to broaden the search scope. The location of this is important, as it appears right at the bottom of where the user will be looking at the results. It is both in a helpful location and worded simply enough to be useful.

The second method is to use the up-scoping link located in the Scoping Menu drop-down off of the Search Box.  In my next post I will put up some detailed pictures of our new Search UI and give you an opportunity to see this new Scoping Menu, as well as give you a first-hand look at the how and why we built the elements as they are.

The third method is to use the Navigation Pane to up-scope the search. Every Outlook user learns to use the Navigation Pane immediately to change folders and navigate around the application. It is the most common and straightforward location to place a scoping mechanism, as users must use that screen real estate to do the most common tasks in Outlook. The special All Items folder found within each module serves as a convenient click target or keyboard shortcut to invoke a broad search. The ease with which someone can switch from a local folder search to a global search is exactly one mouse click or one keyboard shortcut combination.

For those users that would like to always search in the scope of all the items in that module, they can easily enable this in the Search Options dialog.  This will allow you to have the Search Box always peform queries over all of your items in the current module. 

This approach of searching first in your current location within Outlook is contrary to what several other third-party and even internal Outlook Search solutions do – they try to search across all parts of Outlook, returning every different type of data that matches. That experience has been reported by users as being suboptimal because too many results come back, and they do not deeply embed the search experience and seamlessly leverage the Outlook user interface for this purpose as only this solution can.

Comments (9)

  1. steven vore says:

    Michael, I’m curious what changes in software between beta 1 and rtm might affect the amount of time it takes me to think before I even start to input.

  2. John C says:

    Will this functionality be built into the "Activities" tab for contacts?

    It would be mighty nice to get an instant list of linked activities. Plus, then you’re just searching and indexing on the "contacts" field on an item.

  3. I wish you can bring out all these innovations to Outlook Web Access. Because I work remotely my company forces me to use Outlok Web Access, which sucks…

    Any plans to improve Outlok Web Access?


  4. Jaspreet says:

    To answer Saptagiri’s question:

    The most recent version (unreleased) of OWA is great and incorporates many of the new AJAX features bringing it closer than ever to a desktop application. They have improved search UI and amazing responsiveness (somtimes far better than desktop applications).

    However, unlike Outlook, OWA is just a front end to Exchange and much of the improvements to the search experience comes only with Exchange 12.

    So try to get your company to move to Exchange 12 when it comes out.

  5. Bane says:

    I apologize if I missed it somewhere in the articles but will these search results be available from the windows search as well?

  6. stewart_whaley says:

    Can a user down-scope after performing an initial search? For example after searching the entire mail inbox I now want to restrict myself to a specific folder. Can I simply select the new folder and have the search results be automatically updated [eg. not require clicking a, "search/go" button] to reflect only those results found in the new [down-scoped] folder?

  7. Tobias says:

    I realy hope, the new search will be fast!

    I am so jealous about the mac people having spotlight…!

    One important thing: Please implement an instant "search in archive"! Its really annoying that I must open my archive file (which means klicking through the folder tree eacht time) to start a search in old emails…!

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