Getting things done without leaving the Office

There is an app for everything these days, but do we need all these apps?

Over the last few years the trend has been for functionality to appear more "where we need it" rather in specific apps.

A typical example of this is when I search for Zootopia in Google. I get both the show times at the theatres closest to me, and IMDB info about the movie.


Or Cortana popping up with coupon suggestion when I browse to the Staples site.


Or Cortana giving me all the info I need about Quinoa when reading a restaurant menu. (right-click “ask Cortana” in Edge)


I get the info right away instead of having to pop up another browser window, or an app. It seems like a small thing, but I get really wowed by things like this.  I don’t have to switch context and lose track of what I’m doing.

So what would be more natural than adding this context awareness to Office.

Office add-ins

If you have Office 365 you actually already have this.  They're called Office add-ins.  You can use them in Office on the web, on the desktop or in the iPad apps for now.

A really cool add-in that you can use in Word or PowerPoint is Pickit.  Pickit is an image finder. You can find royalty free pictures that you can use in your presentations (or buy as the case may be).


The add-ins exist in all Office apps, and you can download them from the office store on the Insert tab in PowerPoint for example.

Out of the box

If you use Outlook, you might have noticed that you already have some installed, but maybe you didn’t know what they were.


The add-ins show up either as action buttons or as dotted lines below the text that triggered them.

Here is an example of the action item add-in.  This add-in is triggered when you have text in the email that looks like something you should take action on like “email me pictures of your cats”.  The add-in lets you quickly scan the action items and also flag the email for follow-up if needed.


The next add-in is very similar. It is also triggered by natural language indicating that the sender wants to set up a meeting. It is pretty neat in that it parses the text and composes a possible appointment for you to add to the calendar.


And the final one shown here is an add-in that triggers when it finds an address in the email and gives you a map of the location if you click on it. Unfortunately, this only works with US addresses but when you write your own you can also trigger them on regular expressions.


Apart from the built-in ones, you can also get add-ins from the store (just click the store icon). For example, Evernote letting you save away important emails to Evernote.

Those were all “read” add-ins, but there are also “compose” add-ins that are available when you write an email.

One of the built-in ones is “My Templates”. A nice add-in that lets you write pre-canned texts that you can quickly insert into the email. When I worked in support I had a tool called can-man to pre-can instructions on how to download WinDBG and grab a memory dump etc. This would have been really useful back then.


One from the store that I really like is Boomerang. It’s an add-in that lets you schedule emails for later, or reminds you to follow up if no one answered within a given time. And the coolest thing is the way it lets you send meeting time suggestions.


Creating your own

It is actually very easy to create your own add-ins. It’s just a web page and some JavaScript.

If you want to create Outlook add-ins you’ll also need an Office 365 developer tenant but you can get one for free for a year by joining the Office Dev Program.

Simon Jäger has created a nice set of labs to get you started. Here is one of his posts on creating your first read mode add-in for Outlook

You can either create add-ins that apply to all messages or only those that contain addresses, meeting suggestions, phone numbers, contacts or URLs like you saw with the built-in add-ins. If the built-in triggers are not enough you can also add your own regular expressions to trigger on.

When you create your add-in you can retrieve all the addresses, contacts, phone numbers, meeting suggestions etc. in the form of entities and use them to do all sorts of cool things.

Maybe an add-in like this one, that shows the user all the URLs in the email so they can determine if they are phishing URLs.
Maybe one that grabs any hash tags in the email and displays the latest tweets with that hash tag.
Or maybe one that gives more info about person emailing you by doing a web search for their name?

I’m sure you can come up with all sorts of crazy and useful ideas. And if Outlook add-ins are not your bag, you can create add-ins for Word and Excel instead

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