Less Programs, More Environments: Microsoft’s User Experience Woes
I’d consider offloading LinkedIn stock. Don’t get me wrong; Microsoft has been doing some cool things with hardware, wearables, and AR. But there’s a clear user experience problem that’s consistent with most recent their recent acquisitions:
Microsoft is building programs while everyone else is designing environments.
They’ve taken a variety of approaches to acquisitions, from relative autonomy to total integration. Skype for example, has remained a relatively independent product (with exception to that pesky Windows login feature), while apps like Sunrise have been completely absorbed into other apps. The shear size of LinkedIn’s community dwarfs that of any previous acquisition; integrating their social graph (if Satya Nadella’s letter to employees is any indication) across all Office products will be a massive undertaking. Microsoft’s recent acquisitions have struggled to add value to end users, and it makes a lot of sense from the program/environment perspective.
The Problem with Programs
Office and productivity software has changed massively since the first Windows (if you’re old enough to remember using computers with green text on a black screen, thanks for the company). The days of ‘open-execute-close’ programs are coming to an end.
The Case of Skype
Microsoft’s first major communications acquisition, happened at the peak of their dominance of VOIP calls and video conferencing. Competitors in both consumer and enterprise solutions markets were incomplete, clunky, and didn’t have the necessary community of users to accelerate growth. I vividly remember using Skype at all hours of the day while studying in Italy, as the only alternative was purchasing cards with minutes that were tedious and costly. That buyout was in 2011.
Skype remained relatively independent, adding minor features to connect with other Microsoft products. Although there’s still a robust Skype community, the company has done very little for onboarding users into the ‘Microsoft family’ of products (in a parallel universe you’re editing powerpoints through video-conference), which squarely has to do with minimal added-value for consumers.
Fast forward five years: there are countless communications competitors, the most threatening of which offers the same functionality in conjunction with common tasks in the workplace. Slack’s recent addition of voice calling comes at a time when plenty of startups and young companies are using it as an alternative to email and other bloated softwares. In the case of Slack, voice-calling, as are countless other plugins they’ve developed, play small but integral parts in creating the ideal digital office environment.
The ‘nesting-doll’ problem with Outlook and Sunrise
The acquisition of Accompli, the most robust mobile email application ever, was a clear win: Microsoft needed a powerful entry into iOS, with a growing and well-received product. Bringing the Accompli onboard also meant integrating successful features across all versions of Outlook (which has still yet to effect non-iOS Outlookers).
The case with Sunrise — the super-popular calendar app — is a different story.
The Outlook model would’ve made sense: adapt the great calendar and scheduling features across Office products, while retaining the core user experience as a standalone app. Oddly enough, Sunrise was instead absorbed into Outlook, eventually leaving Sunrise users high and dry.
Burying a calendar within an email app means at least one extra tap. let’s not forget the many scenarios when a user wants to see a calendar for non-work purposes: here, you’re forced to view your email before seeing what the day looks like (those terrible magazine websites that plaster the screen with an advertisement before allowing you to read an article come to mind).
The Rise of Environments
Talking devices, human-like bots, and Matrix-y dashboards
Work now falls into one of two categories: soft-work and hard-work. Creating experiences for either hinges on understanding how humans inhabit environments, whether they’re digital, physical, or both.
Soft-work happens when we react to a push notification with a swipe, voice-dictate a note to our phone, or ask voice-assistants for the weather. Most of it happens in the physical world, largely independent of consumer interfaces, which means designing soft-work products must emphasize speed and economy. In many cases, the app is no longer the central experience; users are engaging through various mediums: notifications, plugins, wearables, voice-enabled devices.
Hard-work environments pull in data from multiple sources in real-time, in a visually-intuitive interface. Apps like Trello, Asana, or Slack offer immediate access to conversations, files, schedules, and objectives — a digital parallel to the physical office environment. Users can create entire workflows atop the software foundation, utilizing plugins, bots, or hacks to achieve the right customization for the job. Hard-work environments are powerful and organized.
Build a Hard-Work Super Platform, or a Soft-Work App that does one thing perfectly. Don’t try to build both.
The success of future office technologies hinges on understanding which work environments they belong in, building more seamless, natural, and intuitive experiences.
The Future of Work Apps
From the product standpoint, LinkedIn and others will have an uphill battle in the productivity space unless there’s a major strategy shift from building programs to designing environments.
Identifying new ways for applications to speak to one another, finding solution that work in physical, digital and hybrid spaces, and understanding the changing needs of professionals would usher in a new era for Microsoft’s suite of products. Otherwise, the new breed of light, powerful, and cheap apps will continually adjust our perception and expectations of productivity.