Outlook has replaced how you search your emails…two useful shortcuts

Have you noticed Microsoft has made a change to how you search in Outlook? This won’t have happened across all users of Outlook yet, but for those with a standard Microsoft 365 for Business it is likely to be live now.

There are many benefits of the modern ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) subscription model,  but one of the challenges can be updates which arrive and disrupt the day to day practices you do on autopilot. I’ve got a couple of hints below to help you adjust your workflow.

If you didn’t up until now use ‘search’ please scroll down to the last section of this post for some advice on trying search instead of manually looking for emails. 

So firstly, what is the change?

Previously in Outlook there was two search boxes visible on the main view of your inbox:

  • One search box at the very top of your window used to locate different actions or functions within Outlook – essentially a quick way to find those buttons not immediately visible on the main view
  • Another search box directly above your emails which was used to search within your inbox for particular emails

These two types of searches have now been merged. The one search box at the top can search within your emails and also to find actions/get help using Outlook.

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In this post I am discussing email specifically, but this is the new search across all of Outlook so it also applies to calendar, people and tasks.

So what is the issue with this change?

Search worked differently in each of the previous two boxes. Now change is not always bad (see below for why I think this new search does have potential), but it does require adjustment.

For example, you now need to press enter before it undertakes the search. I always liked that when you searched for email it started to search as you typed and you could often see the result you were after before you had to type it in full. So for now I need to prompt a little mental reminder to hit enter.

At first I couldn’t see how to search with multiple criteria e.g. if you want to find an email from a certain person, which has attachments and was received in the last month. I understood how to ask for this directly from the old search box for email. It left me feeling like when the regular customer service person you deal with has gone off sick and now I’m stuck interacting with a temp who doesn’t know what I’m asking for much less how to find it for me!

Then I realised you hit the ‘current mailbox’ expansion not only to change the search location but also to access the other advanced find and multiple criteria options. I feel a little silly for not realising this, but this wouldn’t have happened if this was called ‘options’, ‘search options’ or similar. In my rush at the time, I assumed the drop down contained only the options for where I wanted to search (and the old search had a similar looking button which did exactly that). I knew I wanted to search in my current folder so why would I open this expansion?

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I would love to be able to insert a hyperlink here from Microsoft to an instructional video or set of steps as to how this all works. I just can’t find one which is pretty unusual as I didn’t think there was anything on the internet these days without at least one ‘how to’. At this point if instructions are available, they must be buried under an avalanche of other results which contain discussions from people not so happy about this change. And I am not just relying on Google results – I did search directly on Microsoft’s site and in Outlook help.

What can I do if I need to search for an email now?

If you come across this change as I did when trying to find an email in a rush, remember to click ‘current mailbox’ on the right of the search box to get the options. When you have more time on your hands, you can also click ‘Add more options’ to customise what searches appear based on those you use most often – this will be a time saver.

If you prefer the old interface, use advanced find instead. On most programs Ctrl F opens up search but remember in Outlook this is accessed with Ctrl Shift F. There you can search with the usual categories of search criteria in a more familiar format.

If you are finding the search position up on top in the title bar is the issue (as you preferred it right there in your inbox), you can open the search bar with keyboard shortcut Ctrl E.

Does this change have potential?

Yes, I think this change does have potential. Not enough people use search to save time working with email. The old way of searching email did involve remembering how to format your request (see here – for example to search for an email with attachments you typed “hasattachments:yes”). I understand remembering all these “search operators” and using them intuitively was not a user friendly interface.

Looking at what this new search does, it is essentially replacing the need for those old search operators. Instead it is allowing people to ask in a less structured way and then Outlook suggests the right “search button” for that search operator. I can see that this could be more useful for a wider audience of users, but it is a shame it could not be done in a way which allows for the standard practice up until now to continue as well. Or at least with a decent set of instructions pinned to it.

What if I didn’t use ‘search’ to find emails before?

So the above was really directed at those who already use search and have to adjust to a change in something they do on autopilot. The good news for you is this change is making search more accessible to those not already using it. 

So instead of inefficiently looking up and down lists of emails manually, try out the new search. You don’t have any ‘baggage’ and may be surprised with the flexibility of the search options.  Whether you scroll through your emails to manually look, or use a bit of help by first sorting your email by the relevant search criteria (e.g. sort by ‘date’, sort by ‘from’), search can offer you a time saving on both of these manual options.

In the search box, use the ‘current mailbox’ expansion to access the search options. A good one I noticed is the ability to search for a term within the content of the email attachments rather than the email itself. You can also customise what options you see here based around the searches you use most often. To understand more about searching email, this post on how to refine your search is still helpful as it shows the multiple ways Outlook can structure a search. And you won’t have to be so exact in how you express this with this new search box.

 

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