Software

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

About

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.

78 comments
Matthew G. Davidson
Matthew G. Davidson

I find the best education for Outlook end users is to teach them NOT to use email for File Transfers for files larger than 5MB. Also if you receive attachments: download them, delete the message and empty/archive your deleted and sent messages often.

APSDave
APSDave

Two comments on why to archive. One thing we struggle with here is people not wanting to folder items. We get users with 20k even 40k messages in their inbox (that's number of messages not size). Then they complain that their email is slow. The CEO wonders why when he resorts his 80k message inbox it takes forever. Microsoft recommends not having more than 5000 messages in the inbox, sent, and calendar folders or you will start to have performance issues. On the OST size, people with large mailboxes also have large OSTs. And, when Outlook crashes it needs to rebuild that file before it will let you back in. The bigger the file, the longer it takes to repair...

bernardmorey
bernardmorey

Partly true. If you're using IMAP it's also stored on the IMAP server and accessible anywhere. That's what I use. From time to time I delete the local pst file and re-create it from IMAP. It follows that local backup is not necessary under IMAP, unless you're paranoid about the cloud.

cquirke
cquirke

The risk indicator for emaul is not who it claims to be from, but whether it was sent by a human, as opposed to an automated process... and links whithin messages can be more dangerous than emaul attackments, as the malware may be updated on the server side in real time to always be "too new" for resident antivirus to detect. That's because malware usually sends to (and "From:") email addresses found on the infected system, so will be from a system with your email address on it, i.e. "someone you know". Users should manage these risks both in terms of how email is sent and what is "opened" when getting email. Good practice when sending email is to always write meaningful message text, if sending attachments or including links. Those who are too lazy to do so, are expecting the reader to take unacceptable risk; in essence, they are training them to do so. As such, they aren't worthy of consideration, but this is tricky when the offender is "the boss". Tackle that by explaining the issue to the boss, that they're training their staff to put the business at risk. If sending to multiple recipients, use BCC: and make it clear in your message text that you have done so. This limits the visibility of your email address (and that of your recipients) to malware and spammers. A particular problem is applications that generate .PDF and automate the sending of these, as many accounting and invoicing packages may do. The good ones will bring up the message text for further editing, which is when you'd add text that confirms you (as a human) intend to send the .PDF (important, as that's a hi-risk file type). "...but it was from someone I know!" is almost as pathetic as "I can't have a virus, I run NORTON". It takes more text to avoid perpetuating the myth.

whatzup
whatzup

How about the fact that when you type your password to open outlook that password is sent in plaintext across the wire. I'm not sure if they encrypt their passwords with 2010 or not but I know older versions were not encrypted. Since they weren't encrypted anyone using a packet sniffer could see your password.

Jordon
Jordon

Because I still get a lot of emails from Outlook users with attachments called winmail.dat.

Amin98
Amin98

I store emails on verious subjects into folders that I have defined in Outlook. Periodically, I wish to export such folder to my local drive and remove them from Outlook. When I need to refer to these filed away messages, I want to be able to retrieve and display these in Outlook. To date, I have not been able to get any advice in how to do this. Can anyone help me? Thank you.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

That point is at best confusing. Yes, the messages are stored locally. A bit of a security issue, in my mind, since they then can be accessed by other people that have access to your computer. Yes, they are also stored on the server, if you are on an Exchange system. If you are using Outlook as your email client for your hotmail or gmail account then they probably, unless you changed settings, are downloaded to the local machine and then deleted from the server. Also, if people archive (.pst) to the local machine then the message disappears from the server and is no longer accessible online. This last one is the one that confuses more of my users than any other.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

The 2 GB limit used to be true, but with 2007 it wasn't as much of a problem and with 2010 it isn't a problem anymore.

kburrows
kburrows

This article looks as if it was written several years ago. Starting with Outlook 2003, the 1.8GB limitiation went away with a new 'hypothetical' limit of 30GB (Office365 support up to 25GB for cloud Exchange and others cloud providers usually around 4GB). There seems to be a common thread in the list discussing PST vs. OST files. This is causing lots of confusion. PST files are stored on the local machine and, if you are running Exchange, are removed from the server at each sync. OST files remain on the server and the local machine syncs an offline copy of the mailbox. The file type determines the backup method. There is an add-in for local PST files that must be run on the local machine at a set schedule for backup. The OST files should be backed up daily on the Exchange Server by an administrator (if not, the admin should be replaced). No local backup is required. I also must disagree with the use of HTML, images and links to compose an email message. GIF and PNG files work fine, while JPEG will get you flagged. Good use of basic HTML is widely accepted and shouldn't cause an issue and links used appropriately also should be fine. This article needs a definite update.

ronpowell9
ronpowell9

@Matthew G. Davidson  

Do not use Outlook - use Mozilla Thunderbird - I have done for the past 8 years and never had a problem. One of my associates did have an obscure problem but it was fixed the next day !!!

" O.K. Thunderbird does not have all the "bells & whistles  that Outlook has but if you want an email client that works 110 % use Thunderbird. By the way you can still use Outlook for all the other things like calender etc (I prefer to use my handwritten diary - but if you can't write this could be a problem !!)


I am a computer support person with over 30 years experience and I love Outlook - it makes me heaps of money.


Have a good day



CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

No e-mail client was designed to be a filing cabinet. For a variety of reasons, that's what users want to do with e-mail. They don't see it as a messaging system so much as a document management / CYA tool. That isn't what the protocol or clients were designed for, but you can't stop application drift.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

Because company policy, we do not block attachments (internal) we allow up to 100MB attachments. This is crazy.

JJFitz
JJFitz

The largest inbox I have seen had 4000 messages. We try to prevent this from happening by limiting storage on the Exchange server to 500MB per account. Before the account reaches the maximum, the user gets the automated warning message that soon they will only be able to receive but not send any more messages until they contact the sys admin. After the second warning, they are blocked from sending and receiving. That's usually when they call to complain or request more space. Instead, I send a Help Desk Technician to help them delete or archive. The only time I grant a temporary increase in storage size is when the user contacts me from outside of the office (business trip or vacation). However, as soon as they return, the Help Desk Tech visits them and the standard storage space is restored.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I had real big mailboxes in Exchange (15GB) and 80k emails with no issues, but this is not recommended practice. The best practice is to have an archive software like EAS. But most companies do not have budget for that. I move mails from mailbox to PST files and try to split the psts in years.

Mr. Fix
Mr. Fix

I cringe whenever I hear or read this old adage, "Don't open an attachment unless it's from someone you know." It's like saying, "I don't actually use e-mail but I like to give advice." When I once recieved e-mail from "myself", I had to pause in reflection on all this bad advice: "Should I open this? After all, it's from 'me' and I know who I am." The aforementioned advice to always backup one's files, while still quite valid, is also painfully inadequate. As per Murphy's Law, backup copies can and do fail to meet expectations. For example, when a client phoned to complain that all her Outlook items were missing, I explained what had likely happened and asked whether she had a backup of it. She did but it didn't help her recover her Outlook items. Why? Quite simply, the backup of her old PST file had already been overwritten! Fortunately, I was able to recover most of her items from level 1 data recovery of ghost copies in free disk space but that's an expensive option with a high failure rate (particularly for such large files). I have always advised clients to never rely on a single backup copy but to regularly save a secondary backup in another safe location, such as a safe deposit box. When asked to design an automated network-based backup system for a commercial client, I took this strategy one step further and implemented the redundancy of maintaining a seperate backup copy for each day of the week, which strategy has often saved the day. Having said this, I must add that there is more to this widespread use of outdated software that self-destructs than simple economics (can't afford to upgrade). This often fits a psychological profile that includes sentimental attachment to data, a loathing to delete or even archive anything. Can it be called accommodating or doesn't it rather seem ENABLING, that Microsoft should offer users virtually UNLIMITED Outlook file sizes? Perhaps it would do some a service to lose their 2 or 20 gigabytes of e-mail messages, some perhaps as old as the Internet itself.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

One way to protect yourselves from fake email originators is digital signatures. If your policy stated that all "important" email must be digitally signed, users would know that email w/o digital signature is fake. How do you define "important" is a question. You can include, e.g., all email with links or attachments.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

If my recollection is OK, the last few Exchange versions required encryption of all traffic between Outlook and Exchange.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

there is some apps outhere to get rid of the PST password. YOu can get some help by using NTFS permissions and Encrypt the drive where the PST is located, if the data is critical. The pst password is easily hacked.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

Winmail.dat is present if the message is not "plain text". This holds the formatted version of the message.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

You didn't write how you export the messages. You can move them to PST files. Then, later access is simle (just open the PST with Outlook). You can use "Save As": if the format is ".msg", a double-click would open the message in Outlook.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

since office 2003 I had big PSTs (4, 6, 8, 12, 15GB no issues). The 2GB limit I believe was a restriction in office 2000 / XP, not 2003.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Good use being the operative tag there... sorry, but it's still a valid concern for your average user who hasn't a clue what that means. Some of you work with some very savvy users and cutting edge systems -- and that's good to hear, but it isn't the norm.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

OST files are located in the machine (locally) not the server if you use exchange and enable cache mode. There is no need to backup the OST file. The OST is a cache data from Exchange just in case your mail server is down. When user open Outlook and exchange is not available, you will see previous emails and inbox data thanks to the OST. You can download tools to convert OST to PST files too. I have extreme experience with PST files, I have about 3 Petabytes of PST files backed up in all kind of media (tapes, DVDs, blurays, etc) in my more than 20 years in IT.

JCitizen
JCitizen

We wanted to get rid of the storage on the Exchange server, but we didn't wan't the trouble of users using their hard drives for PST; so we put all user files on each office main server, and did backups of that server per office. This distributed the backup load, and made the size of the data easier to handle. Any decent server since 2005 has had terabytes of space for more than enough storage. So we weren't even running into any limits. This system worked so well; I doubt if we had any problems all the way to the end of that contract. We might as well have been running dumb terminals after that, because nothing was saved on the user station, and if anything went wrong, we just wiped and re-installed. No individual user workstation files to worry about.

jred
jred

OST files are on the local machine, it's a local cache of the email stored on the Exchange server. PSTs should be backed up, OSTs can be recreated from the Exchange server.

JJFitz
JJFitz

Only through iteration and reiteration can alien subjects be impressed upon unwilling minds.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

The nature of the business that the company does is such that a contract can be up to a decade from inception to completion. Emails are part of legal business, so have to be kept. The Exchange server is backed up, archives on hard drives are not, and are subject to corruption. ICT is there to serve the business, not to impose limits that restrict what the business can do. If there is a business case for increasing the current 1GB limit on email, then ICT will make it happen. A helpdesk tech will visit to let the user know that the size has been increased, and ask if there is anything else ICT can do. Educating users is fine - we have some great how-to documents internally on-line, including how to manage mailbox size - but don't go placing restrictions on the people who make the money that pays for your support function. ICT Support has a lot of power in the business. It has the power to empower the users who are engaged in company business to be more effective, and it has the power to control them. These two powers tend to be mutually exclusive, so the question is: which one do you think gives better job security?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It's not the number of messages that results in a large mailbox, it's the size of the attachments.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I have several users with 15GB mailboxes. and this is only 6 months of email. We allow one year of email in exchange. There is no performance issues at all.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

The problem with this scenario is PST located in the network drive is not recommended. PST must be located locally in the computer. You can keep the PST in every computer of the network, by user, and then backup pst with special tool to central location (your server) with special apps like EdgeSafe PST Backup. (http://www.datamills.com/products/edgesafe-pst-backup). This tools backup pst even if outlook is open, backup pst from local store to central server or location and make incremental backups for pst files. This keep the pst backup process simple and straight forward, without user intervension and keep your PST in a central location (and because incremental backups can be done, your save network traffics and backup time). I'm wondering how many users do you currently keep with PST locates in the server and if the server have special hard drive requirements (SSDs, NAS, SAN, RAID's, etc) because having 100 users with 10GB psts in a single server is a hard disk intensive task (and hard drives will broke in 6 months)

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

Your options and scenario is ok. But the best and recommended practice is to have just Exchange and Archive. We had EAS in the past (Exchange Archive System). With this, you don't need PST's, your Outlook mailboxes are small and users have an icon in Outlook to search inside Archive emails. This is good because keep the things simple. You as admin and your users don't need to move anything to PST files, no matter the location and you can backup your exchange and EAS files with the regular plugins in Arcserve, Backup Exec, etc.

JJFitz
JJFitz

We train our users to save their pst's to a subfolder of their My Documents folder. "My Documents" is redirected to the SAN. The heavy users have X1 desktop (an indexing and search application). We train them to use X1 to search pst's outside of the Outlook client. This set up reduces the risk of local pst storage, keeps Exchange storage down and reduces Outlook bloat which enables the Outlook client to open faster.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I agree with you. We work in IT and our work is to provide the required tools and services to our users for better efficient work. Put limits and policies to better manage the email can hurt the producitivity of some users. But Exchange is not designed as an email container. If you want to provide unlimited space in email to users and keep productivity up, you need to setup Email Archive. Is the only way to go (or have tons and tons of PSTs)

JJFitz
JJFitz

We have a 50MB limit on individual attachments. In that case, the sender and intended recipient get an automatic alert that the attachment was stripped and to contact the sys admin for further assistance.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

We have about 900 exchange users globally. In our location (Mexico) we have an Exchange 2007 server with only 22 users. In this server, we have 8 users with 10 - 15Gb and remaining users with 2 - 6GB. 15GB users don't give us any problem, my point is Exchange can easily manage and deal with big mailboxes. If you have 5000 users, you must keep mailboxes small (1-2 GB max) and setup limits, restrictions of all colors and types. Users

JJFitz
JJFitz

If you have several users at 15GB and your full back up is 200GB, you must have a pretty small number of users.. I wouldn't try that here with over 5000 users.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

Full Backup of 200GB exchange database takes 20 minutes only. We use BackupExec and a SDLT Quantum Drive (SCSI). We get crazy speeds in the backup. Mailbox size x users is being reduced as we speak, I'm moving "old" emails to an archive PST in a share raid5 drive (15 krpm disks). I miss EAS software, we had archive in the past.

JCitizen
JCitizen

The way the Exchange administrator explained it to me; is that it all stayed on the exchange server and was backed up there. Strictly web-access, kind of like using hotmail. Since it was server side, I assumed it used the same server backup data set type all Exchange servers use. I never bothered to learn. Sorry! I'm buried in so many varied technologies - I tend to jettison any information I don't need to memorize. The message folders and structure looked just like it did on my Outlook 2003 at home, where I did have control over the storage of my email. Just looking at the GUI, I could hardly tell the difference. We could manipulate and organize them anyway we wanted to. I never tried to export/import anything on board the client's side hard drive. With HIPAA, that may have been a violation. We were tight with information on mobile or remote office clients.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I understand your points and most companies today put PSTs in the central server for control and backup operation. But I see performance issues when you have too much users and PSTs in the server. There is tools to keep pst locally and backup pst to the server (incrementals)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Can you access a .PST from OWA, so you can move messages, access archived ones, etc?

JJFitz
JJFitz

a. Broadband is almost everywhere our people have to go. (and they can borrow mifi cards) b. We don't have many mobile workers - just off hours workers They can remote to their office desktop to access their archives. I hope your laptops have HD encryption & remote wipe. pst's can hold a lot of proprietary & confidential information.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

They're a minority of my users. All laptop users have .OST caching set up by default. Some have local .PSTs and are responsible for backing up those archives themselves. Others are satisfied with the current data in the .OST when they're on the road, and opt to connect to and open their .PSTs manually when they have a broadband connection. I appreciate your point that one size doesn't always fit all.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I saw the problem you described early in our deployment of Outlook. Now I explain it to the user almost exactly as you did above. Like you, I consider the ease of backup to outweigh the decreasing potential of reconfiguration.

PalKerekfy
PalKerekfy

Have you considered those users that are out of the office 95% of their time, and don't have broadband most of that time?

muto
muto

Back in the day of Outlook 2000 Microsoft recomended not putting PST files on a network share, but I have not heard that warning in a very long time, and have ignored the advice even way back then despite reconizing the risks. Network reliability has made problems with this issue largely dissappear, but the configuration can still be problematic. If for some reason the network located pst file is not available and Outlook it started then Outlook barks at the user that the file can not be found and prompts for direction on how to proceed. One of the options offered is to create a new PST file which is stored locally. When the user selects this option they find that all of their old mail, contacts, and calendar items are missing though they are able to send/receive new mail. This results in the workstation needing to have Outlook reconfigured and the mail collected in the new pst file blended into the priginal network PST file. This is just one example of the shortcommings of having the PST file on a network share. But the benifit of backup alone far outweighs the risks in my opinion.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The .PST definitely does not have to be located on the local computer. I've never seen that recommendation anywhere, but I'll welcome outside references. We've always stored most .PSTs on a network server without any problems due to it. I wouldn't recommend anyone have a 10Gb .PST, if for no other reason than it can't be written to a DVD for archival purposes.