The pandemic has changed the way Microsoft has had to deliver new product enhancements, but it hasn’t slowed down the respective productive teams from unveiling significant changes to Microsoft 365. Last week, the Microsoft Build conference became the showcase for several Microsoft 365 announcements, and now that it is complete, we can summarize and reflect on how these announcements will change the way we use the platform.

In this post we will look at the highlight announcements and discuss how these changes can impact your usage of Microsoft 365, whether you’re an administrator, user, or implementer.

Microsoft Lists

There is no doubt that one of the biggest announcements last week was Microsoft Lists. What this effectively continues is the trend of Microsoft taking the pieces of SharePoint and building them out across Microsoft 365.

The biggest change is that now Microsoft Lists are their own application inside of Microsoft 365 with its own landing page. It takes what we already had in modern SharePoint lists and made them available outside of just a SharePoint context. Now these lists, which are really small applications, can be outside of SharePoint or can be created inside of a Group connected SharePoint Team Site (but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available to create in Communication sites, although you can still get much of the functionality as a SharePoint list in that site design).

Microsoft Lists

These lists have the functionality we are used to like custom formatting, integration with Power Apps/Power Automate, rich filtering, and editing experiences, and more. There are some good enhancements such as a gallery (or “card”) view, a modern monthly calendar view, conditional metadata show/hide based on criteria, a conversational notification creation interface, and a lot more. Also, there are now prebuilt templates for various list types, and all of this is seamlessly available to be surfaced inside of Microsoft Teams.

The richness of Microsoft Lists will allow users to build rather complex applications with a very straight forward yet powerful interface, and when you want to do something more complex, the Power Platform will allow you to enhance them even further.

Here are Microsoft resources explaining the announcement in greater detail:

Enhancements to Microsoft Teams

While Microsoft Lists may have been the biggest single addition to Microsoft 365 last week, there remains no mystery that Microsoft Teams continues to be the darling of Microsoft 365. To that end, there are several changes that make Teams an ever more compelling product, and that is especially true as the pandemic pushes more organizations to embrace distributed work.

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There have been recent changes such as a new 3×3 video grid when in a call, “raise a hand” to ask a question and changes to the pre-join experience that allows you to set settings easier. These weren’t announced directly at BUILD, but these are important changes worth mentioning. To get an overview, see this video on Microsoft Mechanics: Microsoft Teams Updates | May 2020 and Beyond. One seemingly small but important change is that now when using the search box in Teams, it can now default to your current context such as a chat, which will have a very big discoverability improvement.

Regarding developer announcements at Build, several new changes were announced:

  • New interface inside of tenant administration to build Teams templates where you can set pre-defined channels and tabs/apps.
  • New Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code extensions to build apps for Teams.
  • Single-button deployment of Power Apps applications into Teams.
  • New Power Automate triggers for Teams.
  • Customizable application notifications using the Microsoft Graph.

The biggest takeaway from all these announcements is that Microsoft wants to provide as many avenues to quickly extend Teams whether that’s a more traditional programmatic solution using the Visual Studio family of products or using the Power Platform to enable a new class of power users that are familiar with those products.

Read more about these announcements at the Microsoft Teams blog: What’s New in Microsoft Teams | Build Edition 2020.

Project Cortex Release Date and Taxonomy APIs

While Project Cortex was announced at the Ignite Conference last year, we now know that Project Cortex will enter general availability in early summer this year, which may be no more than a month or two away. While the impact of Project Cortex will have on our Microsoft 365 implementations remains to be seen, it certainly has the promise to change the dynamic of how we do information management in Microsoft 365.

The interesting announcement that came out for developers were new APIs to complete CRUD operations on the Term Store through the Microsoft Graph. This has never been possible before, and it will be interesting to see how customers will integrate this functionality. What is clear is that if you have been ignoring either the Microsoft Graph or Managed Metadata, the time is to investigate how these opportunities can maximize your Microsoft 365 investment.

Microsoft Graph Connectors Entering Targeted Release

Like Project Cortex, this is not a new announcement, but the fact that these are now going to be more broadly available in the targeted release channel in the near future is an exciting development. Essentially, these connectors allow your organization to surface external data sources into search using the Microsoft Graph. If you’re interested in seeing the range of connectors available, check out the Microsoft Graph Connectors gallery.

Implement Today

If you are interested in more Microsoft 365 Announcements, Microsoft has released its Build conference book of news that summarizes all the announcements across all their product lines.

There are great announcements last week but digesting them can be daunting. Let AIS help you understand their impact on your organization and help ensure your investment in Microsoft 365 is being maximized. Contact us today to start the conversation.

Whether you are just starting your journey to Office 365, or you are expanding your usage of the platform, it’s important that you stop and define what you hope to accomplish in your project. User research is the most productive activity your team can do to define and shape your project. Many underestimate the value of investing time and money into user research when a team believes they already understand what needs to be built.

The Need to Define the Problem

A common misunderstanding with user research is that it’s intended to help create the solution. While it’s true that user research assists in this, the main purpose of user research is to define the problem you are trying to solve.

Often, in an attempt to save money, companies will reduce or jettison altogether user research. User research ensures a higher likelihood that your implementation will succeed and is well received and adopted. This makes end users feel like they had a voice in the project and that their unique challenges were considered. And the good news is that it’s not all or nothing. There are ways to do user research that will significantly help your project without breaking the budget.

An important distinction needs to be made that user research is not about asking people what their preferences are. While preferences can lend to insights, it is not the goal of user research. Erika Hall in her book Just Enough Research says:

“As you start interviewing people involved in business and design decisions, you might hear them refer to what they do or don’t like. ‘Like’ is not a part of the critical thinker’s vocabulary. On some level, we all want the things we do to be liked (particularly on Facebook), so it’s easy to treat likability as a leading success indicator. But the concept of ‘liking’ is as subjective as it is empty. It is a superficial and self-reported mental state unmoored from any particular behavior. This means you can’t get any useful insights from any given individual reporting that they like or hate a particular thing. I like horses, but I’m not going to buy any online.” (pg. 13)

What Can I Expect When Doing User Research?

Many companies that do not have in house user research experience are unaware of the key steps and activities used. Project goals and requirements vary, requiring slightly different approaches, but the core concepts are often the same.

The first thing that usually occurs is soliciting input from the project team or stakeholders before engaging end-users. These inputs can come in the form of workshops or interviews, but it is important at this stage to understand how the stakeholders involved in commissioning and running the project view the organization’s needs.

After gathering initial input, end-users need to be identified and interviewed to understand the many aspects of how they currently work, what their needs are, and how the various tools and processes they currently use do and do not satisfy their needs.

Below are some sample questions asked during a user interview for end-users regarding their existing intranet:

  • Is there content on the intranet you looked for and were unable to find?
  • What do you do when you cannot find the information you are looking for? Has this happened with the current intranet?
  • What are other tools and applications you need to do your work?
  • What are the most important things that the organization needs from you and you need from the organization?

The answers to these questions and the insights gleaned can be distilled to define the core issues that a new modern workplace solution needs to solve. From here, the team can work together on what specific solutions will address the issues, goals, and needs of the end-users.

AIS did this recently for the ACA Compliance Group in a project to help them roll out Microsoft Teams and Planner. Through systematic user research, the AIS team was able to identify opportunities to leverage these tools to address ACA’s collaboration and content management needs. Read more about our work with ACA Compliance Group.

Other Benefits of User Research

While the primary benefit of user research is to define the problem and help your team ultimately marry that to the correct technological solution, there are many other benefits of doing user research. Here are a few.

  1. It generates interest inside of the organization. When doing research, many people will get a chance to be heard, and often times those are the very individuals that are some of the biggest supporters as the project moves along.
  2. It helps with change management and ultimately increases adoption of the final solution. Change is hard and bringing users into that process greatly increases the odds that the modern workplace solution they receive will aid them in their work. Nothing will slow down the adoption of a new solution faster than those who receive the solution feeling like their challenges were not taken into consideration.
  3. It helps your organization communicate the value of the new implementation in a way that appeals to people across the organization. It is always more impactful to frame your new investment in terms that will appeal to users.

Start Now and Continue to Iterate

If you take away one thing from this piece, I hope you realize the value of user research and how it can bring unique insights to your project that are otherwise left untapped. User research is one of those activities that truly never finishes because an organization and its people are constantly changing, but the more research is used, the better the end result.

Nielsen-Norman Group, a well-known user experience firm publishes its best intranets every year, and it is no mistake that time after time user research is a core component of these successful projects. In this year’s report, it specifically mentions the value of bringing in outside firms to bring expertise and perspective. AIS has years of experience helping organizations do great user research. If you are planning your next Office 365 project, please reach out to AIS for a Modern Workplace Assessment and begin your journey to building a successful modern workplace solution!