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.


Comments (36)

  1. ChrisC says:

    I like the way I work, so I REALLY hope there is a way to turn off the indexing.

    I expect the additional space* and the regular CPU spike will not be worth it to me – I don’t mind a 5 minute find of an obscure email, it gives me a moment for a coffee or bathroom break (or I bring something else to the forground and work on it while I wait).

    Also, I hope you’ll have an option to strip the html out of an email ("Save as Plain Text", "Reply As Plain Text", etc.).

    -Chris C.

    * = Yes, hard drives ARE cheap – but the bigger stuff is, the bigger the PAIN in the rear it is to keep a backup.

    My personal .pst file contains 12 months of data which hovers around 250-300MB with tens of thousands of files (attachments removed)

    At work it is worse… I have to use Lotus Notes; which helps me appreciate Outlook almost daily (not an exaggeration).

  2. KirkMorrant says:

    I am a big fan of Search Folders in Outlook 2003. I hope that searches in Outlook 12 will be able to be saved as Search Folders.

  3. Mantvydas says:

    The biggest issue we have with Outlook search in our company currently is inability to search within several public folders, or a tree of public folders at once. I wonder if that is going to be supported… Regards.

  4. iporter says:

    A minor annoyance I have with Outlook is that one can’t (or I haven’t managed to figure out how to…) keep a search in place while browsing other folders.  For example, I’d like to be able to search a subfolder of my inbox, refer to another subfolder, and then go back to my search results.  It could, for example, be implemented such that predefined Search Folder could hold the results of the most recent search performed.

    If some functionality exists to cater for this need, please do let me know.


  5. ckelsoe says:

    I am wondering why Outlook does not have a consistant interface with the other key Office 12 apps? Where is the ribbon? I see this causing confusion with users having to switch between the ribbon for some office apps and the standard interface for Outlook.

  6. JessW says:

    I’ve noticed that there’s nowhere in outlook 2007 where you can create your own stationary like 2003. Also when others send me e-mail with their custom stationary from outlook 2003 it shows as an attachment and doesn’t display the stationary header. Anyone else noticed this?

  7. dgg says:

    What happens if you have 2 Outlook profiles?

    I’ve used 2 OL profiles for years – one for work and one for personal mail. What happens to the search/indexing if I switch between these?



  8. dougcar says:

    I get an error message "outook cannot perform yur search."

  9. Eran A says:

    Do somebody know if the search work’s when my mail items are encrypted with S/MIME?

  10. dcicotte2 says:

    I have been having a problem with sending email with outlook via aol (imap/smtp).  I am getting the error (535 authentication failed).  i have called aol and they are insistant that the problem lies with outlook.  When I called outlook "help" they said they have no support (yet) for the beta version.  I just encountered this problem a few days ago .. it was working fine before.  Again, I can receive .. but not send.  The ports I am using are 143 and 587 (imap/smtp respectively). I tried to let the new outlook configure by itself but it could not .. it tried encrypted and unencrypted and was not successful at it.  Please help!  anyone.

  11. Darth Andy says:

    To be honest, interface aside, the new search function is a step backwards IMHO in that there is overly limited control over where you can search and what is indexed.

    Where is the ability to specify which folders to index or *not* to index?

    Where is the ability to search additional exchange accounts?

    Where is the ability to limit the search to this folder and its sub folders?

  12. anony.muos says:

    I just came to know that you guys have taken the stupidest decision of replacing the IE-based HTML engine with the Word one. Goodbye Outlook.

  13. skynarc says:

    Everyone is hearing about the MS Word Rendering engine which will be used in this version of Outlook.

    It SERIOUSLY affects many people’s businesses who send out email newsletters on a daily basis.

    As yet, I have found no answers on this blog as to why this is being done and the only reasons I could find was on this blog:

    And he is right, the only real issue we can see is a security issue which was meant to be fixed in IE7 surely, and which would surely have meant that the next version of Outlook would use the IE7 engine?

    Everyone’s been looking forward to better CSS support for email newsletters but this step by Microsoft is a massive leap…backwards!

    What does this mean for embedded content such as Flash swf files etc?

  14. mcouchman says:

    Instant search is great.. but it misses things.

    For example, it doesn’t index the contents of calendar entries (the ‘message’ field), but only the subject line, and I can’t find a way to turn it on. As I have stuff in my calendar going back three years that I need to search daily, this is a major problem. I’ve tried looking for tick boxes to turn it on, but can’t find anything. I’m about to install Google desktop search to see if that will do the job. Or I may revert to Outlook 2003 with the Lookout addin.

  15. ijudd says:

    Has anyone tried using the new Map addin for outlook? I cant say about anywhere else, but my first impressions using it for London are its terrible, completely awful.

    It cant find anything in London, not even tube stations. It forces you to get directions which again are awful and assume you use a car when the vast majority of londoners use public transport to get in, around and out of london. When all you want to do is just link to a map of the appointment location. Which I just can not find a quick and simple way to do!

    what does anyone else think?


  16. ringzero says:

    Looks like this blogger doesn’t respond to comments.

  17. agentur says:

    Good to hear that people are working to simplify Outlook. I think every effort to make it simpler and more user-friendly is a step in the right direction. Improvements are long overdue. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new version!

  18. suchmaschinenoptimierung says:

    It’s really nice to see how Outlook becomes better and better from version to version.

  19. Favoriten says:

    Thx for this "It changes the way you work"

  20. lejeune says:

    I tried using the new map – and ended up, buying a paper one in a bookstore. i think, it can handle some improovements.


  21. iPhoneKönig says:

    I just came to know that you guys have taken the stupidest decision of replacing the IE-based HTML engine with the Word one. Goodbye Outlook.

  22. iPhoneKönig says:

    Sorry Chris

  23. Teak Gartenmöbel says:

    Thx @ WillKennedy

  24. uhren says:

    is beautiful when programs are gradually more and more.

    <a href="">Thomas</a&gt;

  25. iPhone says:

    I have problem to find certain emails when I specify the exact email address within double quotes. It seems like Outlook does not index all email properties correctly.

    In a example if the address is like this

    Fist Last []

    it works if I search for "First Last" but if I search for "" it does not work at all. Nothing is found.

    Any idea if this is a bug in Outlook 2007 or if there is any solution to this?

  26. Sneakershop says:

    I just came to know that you guys have taken the stupidest decision of replacing the IE-based HTML engine with the Word one. Goodbye Outlook.

  27. Nageldesign says:

    Great stuff guys! I really don’t know how much time it takes for your guys to compile such a list of excellent resources but it takes a lot of time for me to digest it all! Keep up the good work! Thank you!

  28. tommyy says:

    Ich finde es blöde, dass Windows 7 kein Outlook hat. Hatte mich die ganzen Jahre vol daran gewöhnt.

  29. tommyy says:

    SEO Agentur in Deutschland/ Germany. Wir benutzen nur Outlook.

  30. Textildruckonline says:

    Quite informative post n an interesting read as well!!!

  31. Nelson says:

    I don't understand, what IS Outlook 12 exactly, it is a search tool integrated in Outlook, making life easier with some useful features, right? This is something already done by others like Axonic with its search tool lookeen, I think that Outlook 12 would have to be really, really, really good to get the attention of Outlook-users.

  32. Nelson says:

    So what IS Outlook 12, I am not sure I understood right, a search tool integrated in Outlook able to search mails, contacts and the calender? That's all? Most search tools available (especially lookeen) offer millions of other options, searching PST-Files, group policies for companies and so on, so what is so special about it?

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