The 10 most important things to teach your Outlook users

Outlook is complex enough to confuse your users and create support headaches. These basic concepts will give them a better grasp of how things work.

Training users on Outlook is often as simple as showing them how to download their mail. But some users push Outlook to extremes and need to know quite a bit more than that. If you want well-informed users, be sure they understand these key concepts.

1: Outlook comes in various configurations and flavors

Users should know that they might encounter different features as they move from one machine to another. For instance, when using Outlook or Outlook Web Access at home or offsite, they might be confused or frustrated when Exchange-specific features or options aren't available. In addition, Outlook Express is only a mail client. Knowing the differences isn't necessary — but knowing there are differences should ward off a few support calls when favorite features aren't available.

2: It's all too easy to make embarrassing mistakes

It's easy to do things wrong, regardless of the email client being used. Perhaps the most common mistake users make is to click Reply All when replying to just the sender. (Fortunately, this isn't as easy to do by mistake in Outlook 2010.) Good training is the only way to prevent such errors. You can head off other types of mistakes by creating a policy regarding appropriate use of company email. That way, users won't be confused about what they can and can't do. The following links should help your users avoid potential disasters and use email more effectively:

3: It's essential to protect against viruses, phishing, malware, etc.

Keeping Outlook users safe from nasties is easier than it used to be, and this is really a job for IT personnel, not the users themselves. On the other hand, well-informed users are your first line of defense. If you give them the information they need, your job will be easier. Here are a few basic guidelines to share with users:

  • Don't open email from unknown sources.
  • Don't open attachments from unknown sources.
  • Don't enter your company email address on Web sites.
  • Don't turn off your virus protection software.
  • Keep your virus protection software updated.

If you think the first three are impractical, you're right. In fact, in many organizations, those guidelines would be impossible to follow. The more practical approach is to help users recognize and respond to potential threats — phishing and malicious email messages that appear to be legitimate — as they arrive.

4: The interface can be customized

Outlook has a lot going on: email, contacts, tasks, calendar. Most users will want to tweak the interface to work more efficiently, and every user's needs will be unique. You could spend a lot of time fine-tuning the interface for each user, but instead, teach them how to customize the interface themselves. You'll save time and ultimately, your users will be happier.

5: Email is stored locally

Perhaps the most important thing for your users to remember is that email messages downloaded to an offsite system will be saved on that machine; those messages won't be accessible to other machines. If they need a message at work, they can forward it to their work account before logging off. Exchange Server and other mail servers have other options, but administrators don't always support them.

6: Data files can blow up

Outlook data files (.pst) are susceptible to corruption if they grow too large. To avoid trouble, train users to keep an eye on the size of their data file. The limit is 2GB; users should regularly delete unwanted mail and archive old messages long before the .pst file reaches that size.

7: Data files can be repaired

When corruption does occur, users can run Inbox Repair Tool to diagnose and repair the error. If that fails, users can run the crop tool. Doing so will reduce the size of the data file, resulting in some data loss, but it should get Outlook back on track. Exchange users should contact their administrators for help before running the crop tool; it might not be necessary. Here are a couple of other useful resources:

8: Data files should be backed up

Knowing how to regularly back up Outlook data files is the best protection against corruption. When the worst happens, your users can still access their backup files. How often depends on the users, but every day isn't too often for users who do a lot of work in Outlook. Show them how to back up everything, including their calendar, contacts, journal, and tasks. Exchange users should contact their administrators because the administrator may be backing up all files already. If that's not the case, the administrator can provide specific instructions for manually backing up data files.

9: Archiving is a good practice

Outlook can archive mail automatically, and most users will probably benefit from this arrangement. Determining how often Outlook archives mail will be up to you and your users (or dictated by a department policy). They should know how often Outlook is archiving their mail. They also need to know where their archived mail is stored and how to recover it if necessary.

10: There are ways to avoid spam filters

Users don't want their messages filtered into spam folders. There are a few dos and don'ts your users can practice to avoid triggering these filters:

  • Avoid using words and phrases that trigger spam filters. Use the phrase "spam keywords" in your favorite search engine to find current lists of problematic text.
  • Use plain text and avoid HTML, images, and links when possible.
  • Write a detailed subject line.

Additional help for Outlook users


Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

Editor's Picks