Software

Keep Outlook users organized with categories

Users keep a lot of important data in Outlook. The problem is that they often can't seem to find items when they need them. To cut down on their calls for help, read this Daily Drill Down by Jim Boyce on using categories effectively.


One of the main advantages Outlook offers is the ability to organize personal data, whether that data is in the form of messages, contacts, calendar, or other items. Two features in Outlook that can help users further organize their data are categories and types. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll explore both so you can help your users get better organized.

Working with categories
A category is a data tag assigned to an Outlook item to use for sorting and organizing data. For example, assume a user is working on several projects, one of which is Project Red. He would like to be able to easily locate all of his contacts, e-mail messages, or other items associated with the project. He can create a category named Project Red and assign it to each item either when he creates it or afterwards. Then, he can filter the Current View to sort items by category, which groups all of the Project Red items together. Creating a category can save a user a lot of time hunting down specific items.

Note
This Daily Drill Down contains techniques to manipulate Outlook categories and types by making changes to the registry. Proceed with caution before making any changes to the registry and always perform a complete backup.

Outlook defines a default set of categories called the Master Category List (MCL). The MCL is hard-coded in Outlook and can’t be changed. You can, however, modify a user’s personal copy of the MCL to create new categories or modify existing ones, something you’ll probably want to do before users start assigning categories. Outlook stores a user's personal MCL in the registry key:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\10.0\Outlook\Categories

You don’t have to fumble through the registry to modify the MCL. Start by reviewing the existing MCL to decide which existing categories you want to modify and which new ones you need to add. Select any Outlook item and choose Edit | Categories to open the Categories dialog box. You can assign a category simply by clicking the check box beside the category name. You can also click in the text box beside the Add To List button, type a new or existing category, and click Add To List.

To customize a user's category list, click Master Category List on the Categories dialog box to open the Master Categories List dialog box. If you want to delete categories, select them from the list and click Delete. To add new categories, type the category in the text box and click Add. Use the Reset button when you want to reset a personal MCL to match the hard-coded MCL. This action restores deleted default categories and deletes custom ones. Keep in mind that when you delete categories, either by resetting the MCL or by manually deleting them, you don’t affect any items that have that category assigned to them. For example, if you delete the category Project Red from a user's MCL, any messages, contacts, or other items that already have that category assigned to them will continue to have that category assignment. If a user decides to change a category, therefore, he or she will need to change the category assignments for all items on which the old category is used. One of the easiest ways to do so is to filter the view by category, which will instantly show all items within the assigned category. Then, the user can simply modify the category assignments for those items individually to include the new category instead of the old one.

If a user needs to modify a category that is applied to several items, the Advanced Find dialog box offers the easiest means for changing the items. On the More Choices tab, the user will enter the old category name and click Find Now. In the results, the user will select all of the items whose categories are to be changed, using [Shift] with a left mouse click and [Ctrl] with a left mouse click to select multiple items. In the Item(s) Belong To These Categories list, the user will highlight the category he or she wants to change and retype it. When the user clicks OK, Outlook will reassign the new category to all of the items.

Your users can also create categories on the fly when they are creating an Outlook item. For example, have them create a new contact and, with the contact form open, type the new category name in the text field beside the Categories button on the form. When the user saves and closes the item, Outlook adds the new category to the user’s MCL. The main drawback to creating categories in this way is that users might not be consistent in the way they enter the category, resulting in multiple categories that are essentially the same, but appear different in the MCL and therefore don’t sort together. So, for consistency, the better method is to create the categories in the MCL and then select them from the list when needed.

Organizing categories with the By Category view
Many Outlook folders include a By Category view. When a user selects that view from the View menu, Outlook organizes the view so all items with the same category assignments are grouped together. The view shows each category as a collapsible list.

You can easily add a By Category view for a user on any folder that doesn’t already have one. Choose View | Current View | Define Views to open the Define Views dialog box. Click New and enter the name for the new view: By Category. Select the type of view the user wants (table, timeline, etc.) and click OK. In the View Summary dialog box, click Group By. Choose Categories from the first drop-down list and click OK. Specify other properties for the view, such as filtering for specific types of items (unread messages, overdue tasks, etc.), and then close the View Summary dialog box. Click Apply View to view the items organized by category.

Sharing categories
Your users can share custom category lists with others in their workgroup or department who need to use the same categories. The users have two options for sharing the categories: having you export the registry key that contains their MCL or broadcast an e-mail message that contains the categories. The registry method replaces a recipient's MCLs with the user’s exported registry key, removing and replacing any previous custom categories of the receiving user. The e-mail method allows users to retain their own custom MCL and add the new categories to it.

If you choose the registry method, open the Registry Editor on the user’s machine and select the key:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\10.0\Outlook\Categories

Choose Registry | Export Registry File. Specify a path and name for the file and verify that the Selected Branch option is selected. Then, click Save to save the registry file. Before you provide the registry file to other users, you need to verify which version of Outlook the other users have. If you open the registry file you just exported, you’ll find that the file references the key where the registry settings will be imported, which matches the key you exported. This works fine as long as everyone is using Office XP. If any users in your organization have a different version of Outlook, you need to modify the registry script to point to the appropriate key. For example, Office 2000 users need the script to point to:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\9.0\Outlook\Categories

So, create a copy of the script file and modify the key accordingly, and then save the file with a new name. Provide the appropriate script file to each user and have them double-click the file to enter the Registry values created by the export process in the registry. You can place the registry file on a network share and send the users an e-mail with a link to the file, or e-mail the file directly. If you choose the latter option, be aware that unless the Exchange Server administrator has modified the Level 1 list of blocked attachments, the users won’t receive the registry file because Exchange Server will block it.

If you choose the e-mail method to distribute categories, start by creating an e-mail message addressed to all recipients who need the categories. Click Options on the message form, assign all of the desired categories to the message, and then send the message. On a receiving system, select the message and choose Edit | Categories. Highlight all of the categories in the Item(s) Belong To These Categories list, and press [Ctrl]C to copy them to the Clipboard. Click Master Category List to open the MCL, click inside the New Category text box, and press [Ctrl]V to copy in the categories from the Clipboard. Click Add to add them to the list.

An extra tip to working with types
The Journal provides journal entry types to define the purpose of a given journal entry. The default entry types are Conversation, Document, Phone Call, Meeting, Letter, Task Request, and so on. When users create journal items, they select the entry type from the journal item form. To view the default list, open the Journal folder, create a new item and, in the item’s form, click the Entry Type drop-down list to view the available types. You can organize the Journal folder to show items by type by choosing View | Current View | By Type.

Outlook provides no means for creating additional entry types, but you can modify the registry to add new entry types. Open the Registry Editor and select the key:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Shared Tools\Outlook\Journaling

Right-click Journaling and choose New | Key. Rename the key to the name of the new type, such as Unplanned Meeting. Then, open the Unplanned Meeting key and create a new string value in it named Description. Open the Description value and set its value to the name you want to appear in the Entry Type drop-down list in Outlook. For example, set the value to Unplanned Meeting if you want that text to appear for the type in the drop-down list.

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