Only Microsoft Could Make Teams

Or, Why Slack Has Everything And Nothing to Fear

If you work at a place that even moderately resembles a modern and nimble company you have digital collaboration tools that go beyond email. That list probably includes some kind of realtime service — you know, tools like Slack, Basecamp, etc. — which means you know how these services are bringing a whole new paradigm to getting work done.

Some of you may even be using these services in your personal lives to get life done.

Last week, after a few leaks, Microsoft released their horse into this race called Microsoft Teams. It will be bundled with their Office365 offering and is/will be free for subscribers.

On the day of the launch Slack took out a full page open letter ad in the New York Times with their CEO and founder Stewart Butterfield tweeting this:

(If you’re interested in reading the whole thing, they even published it on their site here)

You can follow this from the sidelines by looking at all the supposed experts and analysts praising one and knocking down the other, or you can actually try both services and experience them firsthand to know what’s really up.

Fortunately, (or not), I’ve done the latter and I can say confidently that Slack has nothing and yet everything to worry about.

The thing with Slack is that using it doesn’t feel like work. The UI and the experience is designed to be as effortless as possible with everything feeling natural and human. From subtle things to the more overt, the service feels likable and encourages interaction and participation. Sure, it has its shortcomings — what software doesn’t? — but at the heart of it, it is truly reimagining how things get done. It keeps the computer-y aspect behind the curtain and, consciously I’m sure, delivers an experience that feels almost magical.

Yes, there’s serious stuff happening behind the scenes and serious stuff can happen when you use it right, but it does away with outdated paradigms to let you operate like you would expect to operate in 2016.

Even their TV ad is brilliantly refreshing.

Apparently that was not good enough. Clearly when the folks at Microsoft set out to design their response to Slack after supposedly failing to acquire them, they probably defined “work must feel like work has always felt” as their North Star. I’m not going to complain about the UI or the design — I’m sure enough pixels will be spilled on that — but instead focus on the underlying paradigm that the whole thing is based on.

From how they’ve approached the construct of teams and channels to how they allow folders and the built-in horrible stock “stickers”, the entire experience feels horribly anachronistic.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the new Microsoft. I’m a huge fan of Satya Nadella and I’m blown away by a lot of what he and the company has done, but this effort is horrible. Really.

To the Teams team, this was your opportunity to really rethink the meaning of how work gets done and if this is your first effort — one that I’m sure will evolve — it is so horribly off that you might want to consider going back to the drawing board for the final release.

The app has everything computer software should have: folders, tabs, rich text formatting controls, notifications delivered by email to pull you back into the app, inline viewing and seamless editing of Office files, one-click access to Outlook calendar, and more. Unfortunately that’s the problem. It leans too heavily into the past and brings along all those models into something that should instead be a fresh start.

Simply making Word or Excel work inline and in a tab isn’t rethinking and innovating the concept of documents for 2016 and beyond. Bringing along the command-and-control method of information dissemination via horribly constructed and highly restrictive models of teams and channels doesn’t break down silos and encourage collaboration. Finally, just simply having threaded replies like how they’ve always existed on the web isn’t solving the issue, it’s taking a shortcut just to check a box and crow that Slack can’t. (Hint: there’s probably a good reason they haven’t rolled out that functionality because getting it right for the modern age takes time.)

I’m sure Microsoft will sign up businesses and consequentially users by the truckload and they’ll meet the requisite KPIs to show that this is a success — defaults are powerful and CTOs/CIOs still control a lot of how work gets done — but I don’t believe this is the solution that propels work and working into the future.

It’s certainly not user-centric and definitely not user-friendly. It has no heart and will not elicit love back in return. It truly is the PC and Windows in response to the Mac and MacOS. It is 100% Microsoft and is something only they can create. While there are many things Microsoft has done right and arguably functionally superior, creating software that makes people feel good when used is certainly not one of them.

Finally, Stewart and the team at Slack are in either their weakest position or strongest, depending on how you look at it.

I say weakest because Microsoft will use the existing Office365 relationship to slipstream Teams (at no additional cost, mind you) and have it be available overnight to millions of workers. This is scary because which bean counter will want to spend $6.67/user/month for software when one is available for free; subjectivity and user-friendliness be damned!

It checks the boxes. It has all these certifications and ties into all these existing services for compliance. And to co-opt the old adage about IBM, no one got fired for choosing Microsoft. It’s a slam dunk, and I can see how it will be tempting for a lot of O365 businesses.

Next, I say strongest because this is Slack’s moment when it really rallies and laser-focuses on the user they are serving — I’d argue that they already have and that’s what brought them this far. Not the CIO/CTO, but the actual worker bee, the family or the school, or the countless numbers of ad-hoc groups who can’t imagine life without Slack. Yes, it is a long road ahead, but that focus always pays off.

They have shown that they have what it takes to build experiences that do away with vestiges of the past to define how work should get done today and possibly even into the future. As a UX practitioner, I know how daunting creating a new future is (especially when the past feels so comfortable and even natural) and I love how they’ve remained dedicated to this path.

If Apple’s success is any indication, and I’m sure Stewart and the team at Slack have a lot of their own data to back up their confidence, this will work out just fine.

Stay focused, stay foolish, and stay original. Everything else will fall into place for the best.