A New Preview Feature to Highlight Search Suggestions
Fresh from the triumphs of displaying a P indicator beside the photo of people running the public preview version of Teams and the genuinely useful quoted reply feature for chat messages, Microsoft is also previewing top hits and highlighting. Let’s look at what’s happening here.
Teams and its Suggestions Well
The text in the announcement takes some reading to understand what’s going on. It starts with informing the reader that “a new section at the top of the suggestions well where the most relevant results, across domains, for a given query are represented.”
Apart from the difficulty of parsing Microsoft’s text, just what is a suggestions well? Apart from this announcement, I can’t find another page on the Microsoft site which uses this term. It seems that Microsoft uses this term to refer to the drop-down list of suggestions generated by search when a user inputs a term into the command box (the input space in the middle of the menu bar in the Teams desktop and browser clients). The command box is also used to input commands, like /busy to set your presence to be busy, but if you don’t prefix a term with “/,” Teams executes a search and begins to suggest matches based on your input. The set of results displayed by the client is the suggestions well. To see full search results, the user presses enter.
In this context, the statement about “most relevant results, across domains” probably means that search results include non-Teams data, like documents stored in OneDrive for Business or SharePoint Online.
Easier Access to Search Results
Then we’re told that: “This feature is envisioned to reduce time taken for a successful search, as well as benefit the user through better task completion, especially for result types situated lower in the suggestions well.” Hmmm… usually, time reduction occurs when users find what they’re looking for faster, which is why it’s good to use structured search queries or limit searches to a selected chat or channel. Maybe the real benefit is the “more relevant results and fuzzy matching capabilities while searching for Teams, Channel and Group chat suggestions,” together with the highlighting. It’s hard to say because the sentence structure and words chosen are confusing.
Anyway, looking past the words, let’s see what the feature does in practice. Figure 1 shows the response when I typed the word Teams into the command box. The suggestions generated include:
- Top Hits: Suggestions considered to be very likely to satisfy the user. In this instance, the suggestions include a group chat, a team (New Teams for Books), and a Word document stored in a SharePoint Online document library.
- People: User accounts matching the search term. The three shown here are guest user accounts created using email addresses assigned to channels. Users can then see the guest accounts in the GAL and use them to email messages to the channels.
- Files: Documents and other files stored in SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business.
Notice the highlighting of the terms in the suggested items which match the search phrase. This is what Microsoft means when they say highlighting: “will make it easier for a user to understand why a particular result is included in the suggestions.” Whether the highlighting will “allow them to find what they are looking for, faster” remains to be seen.
Things get a little more interesting when you use the name of a person as a search term. Teams now gets a chance to find items more relevant to it, including people with the name and group chats involving people with the name (Figure 2). Spotlighting group chats in search is a very good thing. Few people remember to give a group chat a suitable name, which means that you end up with a bunch of chats with names like “Tony and Jennifer,” derived from the first names of the participants. As obvious in Figure 2, if you assign a reasonable name to a group chat (like “IT Review Meeting 2021”), it’s much easier to understand the topics covered in the discussion.
Clicking a suggested chat brings the user to the chat. Clicking a person’s name opens a 1:1 chat with that person, while selecting a document link opens the document. Oddly, Teams opens the document in its viewer rather than respecting the choice for document access stored in the user profile. Apart from that, dealing with search suggestions is all very logical.
Inevitably, search results need some prioritization. It makes sense to tell users what Teams considers to be the top hits. It also makes sense to highlight the search term in suggested results. Neither update will fundamentally change the way people use search in Teams, but both improve the way Teams presents search information to users. That’s a good thing, even if Microsoft finds it difficult to enunciate what it means.
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