OWA Gets Search Refiners

But What the Hell are OWA Search Refiners?

I’ve been waiting for the “Refiners on Outlook Web” described in message center notification MC664093 (1 August 2023) to show up in my tenant. Now that they have, I can report that the update (Microsoft 365 roadmap item 141109) isn’t very exciting at all. Rollout is under way and you probably have refiners in OWA now, even if you didn’t realize it.

The history of search in Outlook clients has had its ups and downs. That’s a polite way of saying that Outlook hasn’t always delivered the most reliable search results, especially when using the Outlook desktop client. OWA tended to be the best client because it performs searches online, so anything that improves OWA search seems like a good thing. According to MC664093, the refiners “appear after a user completes a search. These will allow users to filter down their search results further to find their emails easily.”

And that’s about it in terms of the description of what the change is all about (obviously, the folks responsible for writing MC664093 don’t have access to Microsoft 365 Copilot to smarten their text and improve its clarity and content). The accompanying figure doesn’t reveal much either.

Using OWA Search Refiners

Let me fill in the gaps and explain what search refiners are all about. Imagine that you do a search. Figure 1 shows a search against my mailbox for the term “TEC 2023.” A bunch of messages are found in different folders.

Results for an OWA search
Figure 1: Results for an OWA search

Refiners are no more than the ability to select a folder from the mailbox to target the search on just that folder. Figure 2 shows the drop-down list of folders to select from. Inbox is selected, so the results displayed by OWA are the items found in the Inbox. If you select a folder that doesn’t include any items matching the search term, OWA tells you that you’re silly to have selected that folder and displays the full set of items found in the mailbox.

OWA search refiners
Figure 2: OWA search refiners

Seeing that we’re discussing “refiners,” it would be much better if OWA “refined” the folder list and only showed the users folders that actually contained some search results. But what do I know about UI design…

OWA Search Box Improvements

In an apparently associated notification (MC663633, also published on August 1, Microsoft 365 roadmap item 151024), we learn that:

The interface of Search Box in Outlook is being upgraded, making it more prominent and discoverable, with higher color contrast on the input area, border, and font, along with fine tunes on all themes, as well as light and dark modes.”

Microsoft provides two images to show the difference. I extracted the relevant parts to create Figure 3. The difference between the two search boxes is stunning (Figure 3).

Old and new OWA search boxes
Figure 3: Old and new OWA search boxes

Apparently, the magnitude of the change contemplated in MC663633 is so large that we won’t see it until early September. Quite why Microsoft couldn’t have combined MC663633 and MC664093 into a single update is beyond me.

For the record, the latest version of the Outlook Monarch (“New Outlook”) client includes search refiners. The search box in Monarch looks as if it’s received the snazzy font-and-border makeover too. However, as I’m not a graphic artist, I find it difficult to tell the difference without really concentrating on what I’m looking at.

No Action is Needed

As Microsoft notes in MC663633, “No action is needed in preparation for the update.” That’s fortunate, because I don’t quite know what action is appropriate to greet these changes. They might just be updates that pass me by without causing any disruption.

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3 Replies to “OWA Gets Search Refiners”

  1. In addition to the folder that you can select when starting a search, the search result list surfaces at the top additional quick filter buttons (‘Has attachments’, ‘Unread’, ‘To me’, ‘Mentions me,’ ‘Flagged’, ‘High importance’.
    Were these buttons available before the update?

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