Review: Office 365's Delve, Sway and Planner fall flat

Microsoft's latest productivity tools – now including the Planner mobile app for iOS and Android -- have a few compelling features but integrate poorly with Office

Review: Office 365's Delve, Sway, and Planner fall flat

Microsoft really, really wants to own all of your office work, so it keeps finding new tools it hopes you will add to your Office 365 portfolio. (All require an Office 365 account to use.) The latest is today’s announcement that its Microsoft Planner mobile app is now available for iPhone and Android phones. Microsoft said on its Office Blog  that current Planner users can use this companion app to view and update their plans on the go. 

Microsoft plans to to add push notifications, the ability to create new plans from the mobile app and integration with Intune.

Last September, Microsoft added Delve for file discovery, Sway for modern-style presentations, and Planner for task management. But are they any good? 

Microsoft's productivity tools have long been the standard for word processing (Word), spreadsheets (Excel), presentations (PowerPoint), and email/calendar/contacts (Outlook -- on Windows, anyhow). Office 365 extends those tools across users and devices in truly handy, if complex ways.

Microsoft also tried to own business collaboration, though several of its tools (Yammer and Outlook Group) fall far short, and others (Skype for Business, Outlook, and OneDrive) are only now starting to become usable across all devices.

Sadly, the new Office 365 tools are more like Microsoft's inadequate collaboration tools than its productivity standard-bearers. If you want to be kind, think of them as works in progress. But don't rely on them in your standard workflows.

Let's take a look at the promise and gaping holes for each.

Delve: An incomplete overview of documents

It's hard enough to keep track of the documents on your computer. It's nigh impossible to track those in your OneDrive cloud storage, SharePoint sites, and email, too. Delve is supposed to help by collecting documents from all of those sources -- including documents shared to you by others -- in one place.

You access Delve from the browser on your PC, Mac, iPad, or Android tablet after signing into your work or school Office 365 account. There's an app for iPhones and Android smartphones, but it's essentially useless (more on that later).

Microsoft Delve in a browser

In the Home window, you see the most recent documents you created in Office 365 and that were shared to you via Office 365, Exchange email, or SharePoint. You can mark a document as a favorite and/or add it to a board, which is like a bookmarks folder, for easy access later. You can also tap the names of people to see what documents you've shared with them or they've shared with you. And you can open and share documents from the tool, as well as see with whom you've shared documents with.

That's all good. But quickly the limits appear:

  • You can't see all documents, only recent ones and those tagged as favorites or added to boards. That means you can't really build a library in Delve to make it your central document interface.
  • You can't filter documents, such as by file type. You can only search for text in their titles.
  • You can't rename boards once you create them, nor can you reorder them in the list.
  • The UI shows only so many users in the People list, and you can't show more. Worse, the number of people shown is smaller on a tablet than on a computer. You can change who appears on the list by going to the Me window and scrolling down to the Click a Person to See What They're Working On card. If you click a person, he or she appears at the top of the People list, pushing down the others on the list. (You'd think that the People label would link to this card, for easier access.) If you want to see who has shared documents with you, click the Discover Documents from People Around You card in the Me window.
  • Delve doesn't integrate with OneDrive or Office 2016, both of which have poor file-management UIs themselves. Office 365's file manager can't sort content by type or date (though it has a reverse-chronological Recent view), nor search for files. OneDrive doesn't show shared files in the native MacOS or Windows views, though it does in the native Windows, iOS, and Android apps, which also have search and sort capabilities. Neither OneDrive nor Office 2016 show Delve's favorites and boards. Outlook, even on mobile devices, shows the files you received in email, but it has no hook to Delve for the rest.
Microsoft Delve on iPhone

As for the smartphone app -- what's the point? All it does is show cards for the most recent documents, which you can open or mark as favorites. You can also search the recent documents' title text. And you can tap the name of a person in a document card to see more from that person -- but only for people whose recent documents show up. The card approach is ungainly, taking up precious space that could have been used to expose other Delve capabilities, like boards. Fortunately, you won't likely use your smartphone for document work, so most people won't be aware that Delve even exists for smartphones.

Delve feels like a feature, not an app. It should be integrated into OneDrive and the connection should come from Office 2016 and Outlook, so you have one central view of your documents via OneDrive and can get to that view from all of the Office 365 ecosystem components that deal with files.  

Sway: iPad-style presentations that are hard to create

People are horrible with PowerPoint, stuffing it with endless text and bulleted lists for incomprehensibly dense presentations or going nutso with videos, animations, and other superficial effects. I've long prided myself on being a presenter who doesn't need -- and rarely uses -- PowerPoint to engage the audience.

PowerPoint is also clunky to use, compared to its only real competitor, Apple's Keynote app for MacOS and iOS. 

Perhaps understanding that PowerPoint is not very modern in its presentation or its user interface, Microsoft now has Sway, which you can work with in Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android browsers, or in the native iOS app.

Microsoft Tasks in a browser
Microsoft Sway for iPad

Sway for iPad, in preview mode.

Sway presentations are simpler than those in PowerPoint, and they're designed to be swiped through tablet or e-book-style. You won't find all the formatting, transition, and shape options you get in PowerPoint, which keeps Sway cleaner.

You can assemble a new Sway presentation from scratch or -- except on Safari for MacOS -- Sway can import Office documents to create a base document. If you import a Word file, for example, you get something akin to an e-book presentation rather than a typical slideshow. If you import a PowerPoint, though, all bets are off. Sway does very odd things to imported slides, rendering those with images and videos largely unusable.

Working with Sway is difficult. In a browser, it's difficult to navigate within Sway's editing screen or to figure out how to close a document (click the Sway label at upper left). I got lost constantly, unable to find my way back to the tray of options.

Sway's native iOS app bears a different user interface, but it is also confusing in that it hides key features, like how to insert images. Even once you figure out how (the buttons are at the bottom of your document), it's difficult to place images exactly where you want. Sway seems to place them at the bottom of the page breaks it creates on its own, rather than where you intended.

Whether you use a browser or the more limited native app, the program incessantly interrupts you with hints that get in the way. If I want your help, I'll ask.

Basically, Sway is a nightmare to use, especially for creation and editing. But if Microsoft were ever to get serious about it and really work through the user interface, it could one day be a nice replacement for or an adjunct to PowerPoint.

Planner: Simple workgroup task tracking but with no integration

Keeping track of tasks across a workgroup can be difficult. There are plenty of tools to track your own work -- even the tasks feature in Outlook for Windows, MacOS, and browsers, and the Reminders app in iOS that can sync with Outlook tasks. But your options for workgroups start to get complex, such as using the not-so-simple group modes in Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, or highly complex tools like Atlassian's Jira that are designed for sophisticated scheduling and tracking.

The browser-only Planner app offers a simple alternative for basic workgroup task management. It's a very simple interface that lets you create baskets of tasks, assign people to them, add attachments and basic details, and track their status (open, in progress, or complete). You can get a progress view to see tasks based on status, or you can look at the baskets' lists in what's called the board view.

Microsoft Planner in a browser

Planner's board view.

Planner relies somewhat on Office 365's iffy Outlook Groups service, in that it stores tasks in Exchange-based groups. But you can't get to those tasks from Outlook Groups itself in the iOS or Android Groups app, nor via Outlook groups in the Windows Outlook client. (Microsoft's Outlook client for Mac doesn't support Groups.) You can't get to those tasks in OneNote -- not even the shared OneNote records also stored in Outlook groups. And you can't get to those tasks in the personal tasks stored in Exchange and made available via the Outlook Task app in browsers, the Outlook client in Windows and MacOS, and the Reminders app in iOS.

Thus, although Planner makes it easy to create and view group tasks, Microsoft hasn't bothered to integrate those tasks with the personal tasks it also manages, nor let users see a unified view of their tasks from the various apps that handle tasks. With a test service, I can understand that limitation, but for use in production environments, Microsoft has to make Planner work in the big picture.

It’s easy to see how Delve, Sway, and Planner could become useful parts of the Office 365 toolkit. Office 365 sorely needs a unified task tracker, a modern complement to PowerPoint, and a complete view of documents via OneDrive, SharePoint, and all of the clients. So far, though, these extras don’t even begin to fill these needs.

This story, "Review: Office 365's Delve, Sway and Planner fall flat" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon