The following is from guest blogger and fellow PM, Hank Leukart. Enjoy!


Greetings!  My name is Hank Leukart, and I am a Program Manager for Microsoft Office Outlook.  I have worked on Outlook 2001 for Mac, Outlook 2002 (XP), Outlook 2003, and Outlook 12; I’ve been involved in designing – among other features – Search Folders, the Mail Views, the Navigation Pane (originally called The Wunderbar), date-based For Follow Up flags, the To-Do Bar, The Daily Task List, the new Calendar’s visual look, and Calendar Overlay.  Today, I’ll talk about the new Color Categories feature and how it improves information and time management in Outlook 12.  Then, I’ll brace myself for your feedback to learn how much you love or hate me (or more importantly, this feature).

During the time I have worked on Outlook, I have heard reams of customer feedback.  I usually keep an Outlook Note (am I the only one who uses these?) containing feedback and feature requests to which I refer back when I’m thinking up new features. When I set out to design the Color Categories feature for Outlook 12, I found some of these nuggets in that little yellow Note:

  1. “I wish I could label my flag colors!”
  2. “Six For Follow Up flag colors is not enough.”
  3. “I wish I could assign multiple flags or labels to an item.”
  4. “I love coloring my Calendar!”
  5. “I like to group Mail and Tasks by project.”
  6. “When I want to label or file an item, it’s hard for me to decide whether I should use a Folder, a Category, a For Follow Up flag, or a Calendar Label.” 

In my experience, software companies (including Microsoft) are good at adding great features to their products but not always as good at reconciling how new features work with existing features, sometimes resulting in a confusing mess.  We usually do this for the right reasons – we don’t want to make anyone unhappy by removing or changing existing features they’ve come to love – but often the outcome is not optimal.

Outlook Categories are a great example of this.  First, Outlook 97 had Categories and Folders, two features unrelated to each other.  Most people used Folders for Mail but Categories for Contacts and Tasks.  Then, customers wanted to be able to color their calendars, so we added Calendar Labels, a feature totally unrelated to Categories.  Then, customers wanted to be able to follow up on their mail with multicolored flags, so we added that feature – also unrelated to Categories.  Including Automatic Formatting and Note colors, Outlook 2003 gave customers six different ways to label or color an item.

Thus, for Outlook 12, my mantra was, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”  I imagined a world in which one feature could be used to label and color items of any type.  That feature became Color Categories.

In concept, Color Categories are simple.  With one or two clicks, you can add a color and text label to any item in Outlook.  For me, my categories usually relate to projects upon which I am working.  Thus, my Inbox workflow tends to work like this: 1) flag an incoming message with a date, 2) right-click on the message’s category column to assign a category that corresponds to a related project, and 3) arrange my To-Do Bar by Due Date when I want to focus on due dates or by Category when I want to focus on projects.  I also categorize appointments with the same categories, based on which project a meeting is about.  The same goes for Contacts; the people with whom I work on certain projects are categorized with the corresponding project categories.  I even categorize my Notes by project. (I know, I’m the only one.)

Right click on category column to categorize an item

Some people I know prefer to use Color Categories exclusively as a way to mark items for later review.  They tend to use the “Categorized Mail” folder to see all of their categorized items.  Others use categories both to mark items for review and also to associate them with projects, which is possible because more than one Color Category can be assigned to an item.

Once you have categorized items, you can also search by Color Category in any module by typing the category name in the Instant Search pane.  For example, you can type “Personal” or “category:(Carson Project)” to search for items to which those categories are assigned.  If you’re feeling especially motivated, you can create a Search Folder for mail messages with a specific category by clicking File/New/Search Folder, selecting “Create a custom Search Folder,” then specifying the category as part of the Search Folder’s criteria.  We’re hoping to make this process easier for Beta 2.

Search within a category with search syntax

Because I also have been involved in many of Outlook 12’s visual changes, some of my fellow Program Managers have joked that I am the “pretty colors PM.”  Maybe for Outlook 14, it’ll be shapes.

Tip #1 for advanced users: you can assign a Shortcut Key to any category for easy assignment of your most-used categories.  I use Ctrl+F12 any time I want to use my “Important” category.

Tip #2 for advanced users: if you right-click on an item’s Categories column and click “Set Quick Click…,” you can select a category that will be instantly assigned to any item when single-clicking on the category column.