Using categories

Categories in Windows Live Mail 2011/2012 are a powerful aid to organizing contacts as well as helping with addressing messages to distribution lists. There can be as many categories as you like, and any contact can belong to any number of categories. However, membership of a category is not recorded in the individual contact’s data, so there are some shortcomings of the category mechanism. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of categories and for working around the shortcomings.

To set up a category, switch to the contacts window by pressing Ctrl-3 or clicking the address book icon at the foot of the folder pane. In the New section of the ribbon, click Category and fill in the form that appears.

Naming categories

It’s tempting when creating a new category simply to give it the obvious name – Work, say. While this makes sense for naming contact groups or folders in other programs, it’s not particularly helpful in WLMail. When addressing a message, clicking To… will produce a picker list of all contacts and categories in alphabetical order, so the Work category would appear near the bottom of this list between William Wilberforce and Worley Meadow Association. And even when you’ve found it, all you can do is select it, which means that all its members are inserted into the To… box.

There are few restrictions on the form of a category name, except that it cannot exceed 60 characters – that’s quite a lot of text. I give my categories names that start with (unique) numbers. This has several advantages:

  • Numbered categories will sort neatly in the left-hand pane of the contacts window.
  • When you click the To… button in a message compose window, categories will be at the top of the list.
  • To address a message to everyone in a category, just type its number in the To… box.
Numbered category list

A numbered category list

You might find pseudo-sub-categories useful, too. A category called ’33 Choir’ could include all players, but ‘335 Basses’ only the big boys. Type 3 in the To… box, and you’ll include all your Church contacts; type 33 and you’ll only get choir members, and typing 335 will show only the basses.

Preserving category affiliation

A recurring complaint is that there is no straightforward way to preserve category data when exporting contacts for backup, say. Unfortunately, most users don’t realize this until it’s too late. One way to make it possible to reconstruct categories after a contacts list has taken a tour through the export-import mill is to insert some indication of category affiliation – a key – in a contact data field.

Taking the Church example above, I would add the three-digit number at the beginning of the Notes field for each contact. Because the Notes field is searched by the address box word-wheel, typing ‘3’ into the To… box would not only list all the Church categories, it would also list all of the members of those categories. Again, type the next digit to restrict the list to choir members and the third to reveal only the basses, both as a group and individually.

With the key in the Notes field, the information will be included in the file when contacts are exported. This means that when those contacts are imported, you can make use of the key to re-create categories.

In the contacts window, click View as > List so that the contacts fields are displayed in columns. You can change the order of columns by right-clicking on a column heading and selecting the one to show. Clicking once on the Notes column heading will sort all the contacts by key, making it easy to select those that belong together in a category. Just click on the topmost, then hold Shift down and click on the bottom one to select those that belong to a category, then right-click to copy them to the appropriate category.

This is fine for new contacts, but adding something to the data for existing contacts will be very tedious for a long list, because each would have to be opened, edited and saved. If you can find your way around an Excel spreadsheet, you could automate this process to a certain extent. It only has to be done once, though, and you then have a contacts list with built-in category information.

Windows Live Mail 2012 has a fault that makes using categories slightly problematical for some users. There is a tried and tested procedure that avoids the fault with a few extra keystrokes:

  1. In the message compose window, click the To… button. A dialogue headed Send an Email opens.
  2. Select a category and then one of the To->, Cc-> or Bcc-> buttons; the category name will be displayed in the corresponding field.
  3. Click on the “+” beside the category name.  All the names in the category should be displayed in the entry field.
  4. Click OK. The dialogue will close, returning focus to the message compose window with a fully-populated address list in the appropriate field.