Contextual Search in Microsoft Teams Mobile

Microsoft Search, Assistant and Intelligence (MSAI) is a global, multi-disciplinary division which combines multiple research disciplines with engineering. Its mandate is to innovate within signature Microsoft products that millions of people use every day, anticipating their needs thereby enhancing their productivity.

MSAI's research areas mainly include machine learning, information retrieval, data mining, natural language processing, and human-computer interaction. Products of the team include Search, Focused Inbox, Suggested Replies, Cortana, Meeting Insights, Viva Topics, and many others. This project was about offering a new search experience in Microsoft Teams during chats.




UX Design




It all started with the epidemic. The COVID-19 has brought a surge in Microsoft Teams users, as well as other virtual meeting tools, as millions in the world started using the virtual space for school, work, and even family gatherings.

Compared with other similar products in the market, the positioning of Teams has always tilted towards professional settings. Teams also enjoys an unparalleled, natural advantage - it can create synergy with a wide range of other Microsoft products. As the epidemic persisted, we saw high demands in the enterprise search function of Teams, necessitating endeavours to improve experience.

The below illustrates the specificity of enterprise search. Their distinct features had a bearing on the architecture of the solution.

Design workshop

As all product managers and designers work on dedicated projects, they may not necessarily have the full picture of products and features beyond their portfolio. However, search, assistant and intelligence products are interdependent and influence each other. To enable a cross-cutting understanding and bridge the fragmented information, an internal UX design workshop was conducted in Q4 of the financial year.

It was a precious window for designers and product managers to intensively study user pain points and explore solutions across these 3 domains, laying a robust roadmap for product improvement plans in the upcoming cycle. Based on all the research, observation, and experience we had about the Microsoft Teams and current search, assistant and intelligence capabilities, we reflected on the pain points which may have been encountered in an epidemic-bound, intensive, fully virtual office setting, and further developed solutions.

Sample template of design workshop

Pain point in search - the "broken" journey

Among all issues and pain points identified - the " broken" journey with search topped the list. In gist, users need to switch between tabs to perform a task which should have been seamless. And it becomes a more tiring task if your memory cannot readily recall the exact location of the material but you need to do eyeball checking from various chat histories, at the risk of overlooking the latest messages in those groups/chats which unfortunately pop up at the very same second.

Enterprise users rely on Teams as the primary instant communication tool at work. Under a fully virtual office setting, users need to multi-task on Teams. As they chat with a colleague, they may need to share a file, a contact, or even a meeting invitation.

Here comes the problem - the place to chat with colleagues and the place to search for files/contacts/schedulers are separated.

Suggestion - contextual (inline) search

Here's a short video demonstrating the new search journey by a simple "@" cue:

The inline search is pre-defined by the user's context - the search suggestions are tailor-made as per the user's contact list, recent files and their immediate conversations. It maximises the utility of the limited search display areas to provide the most relevant results so that users can complete their tasks in the most efficient manner.

Another way to invoke a search is to leverage the conventional "+" cue for attachments. Here's how:

Design clearance in a mesh structure

As Teams is one of the numerous products under the umbrella of Microsoft365, design consistency must be upheld. This points to a robust design review process, requiring multiple clearances with different teams to ensure that the final design speaks the same language with its fellow products, as well as to leave space for future possibilities of extending the new features to other products.

Given that the process typically takes place over a few weeks' time, to manage the risk of having a design vetoed or substantially reworked towards the late stage, an iterative process was adopted. That was to initiate early communication with stakeholders gatekeeping the late sprints, and already absorbing their inputs and insights from their own design exploration during the earlier milestones.

Crawl, walk, run

Another key milestone along the design review process is to modulate the product with product managers towards the end of design exploration, using the "crawl, walk, run" approach.

There are two major benefits. First, it multiplies the options and utility of products for users (offering a few different paths to perform the search function). Second, execution of the different options could be done in phases in case there would be previously unforeseen resource constraints (launch the easiest option first; time is of essence in the market).


• Designers can play a leading role in driving a solution.

• Designers can be an alchemist to transcend products.

• Resilience is key to make the above two points possible.

Other work