Why I’m worried about Microsoft Teams deployment

Microsoft Teams is a little confusing and a little too flexible for real-world use at this point. It's also too ambitious.

Microsoft Teams beta (Windows)

I did a deep dive into the features in Microsoft Teams, which is essentially a collaborative chat application for Office users (a.k.a., a Slack competitor).

I wanted to find out what it’s like to use Teams with an actual team for actual work. Fortunately, I’ve started doing some work with a local college -- I’m mostly there to help with mentoring and development. It’s a team of around 12 people, and I’ll have more findings to share in the coming weeks, but there’s one initial concern.

I’m starting to wonder if people will “get” how to use Teams.

I set up the basic team channel and have added a few folks. I’ve shared a few files, and poked around with many of the features. A colleague has helped share files as well, and we’ve chatted several times about some of the projects we’re working on together.

Teams has one major benefit, of course. Everyone that is already provisioned to use Office 365 at the college is one click away from accessing Teams. With Slack and other apps like Convo, you have to add the user, which is not a Herculean step by any means. It takes about a minute. Yet, since I’ve used Slack for many years, I know that there are times when team members share a link to someone who is not on Slack and it leads to some confusion. What is Slack? What does it do? People don't know.

Teams is more integrated. Once, in my early testing, I shared a link out of a Teams channel, and the user was able to access Teams using her browser as though it was already installed on her desktop. All of the provisioning was in place to make it work, and to her, it all appeared fluid and easy. That’s one big perk.

However, once the user jumped into a chat, things sort of broke down. Microsoft built Teams to scale with an enterprise. In Slack, I’m part of multiple teams, but they are not connected at all. In fact, they all use a different URL in my browser. I can switch between them using a drop-down menu, but it’s still clunky and the chat messages are not related to one another. In Teams, you can have multiple teams and switch between them in a column. The chat messages are separate, though. I can be part of the marketing team and the recruitment team but the chat window stays the same. (When I asked a Microsoft rep about this, she said it was an intentional approach to help with scale.)

You might think of this as an advantage, but it has led to some initial confusion. In Slack, the chat is what I would call “in line” -- it’s just below the channel list. I can click on any name in a channel and start chatting on the same screen. When I go to my main view in Slack, I can quickly see who has chatted with me because the chat and channel links are bolded. It's quick and easy. All of my channel and individual chats are in on view.

In Teams, the chat stream is a button. I can see my teams or my chats, but not both in the same view. It might seem minor, but it's caused confusion.

Is it easy to miss a chat message? Yes. Maybe there’s more to configure here, but I’m not seeing any way to mimic the main channel and chat view of Slack. I could see teams getting frustrated when they miss individual messages. People are too lazy to click on buttons at times. Slack and Convo do a better job of showing chat messages. Convo uses a pop-up window that overlays on top of the main team channels. It’s possible Microsoft wasn’t able to mimic exactly how Slack and Convo work -- it could look like they “borrowed” that feature or just didn’t code things that way.

More importantly, I’m not loving the Teams interface in general. There’s a lot of noise. Convo and Slack, the two apps I use on a daily basis, are clean and user-friendly. Teams might be more powerful -- I love the animated GIFs and Skype calls, anyway -- but it is also more confusing. In theory, you could have as many as 25 different tabs in a Teams channel, one for Word and Excel and everything else you use. What is the difference between the Activity tab and the Teams tab? People don’t seem to know or care. Why is there are separate Files tab? I like seeing files in-line as part of a conversation, which is how it works in Slack. In Teams, you can attach files within a conversation as well, but this flexibility of using a Files tab and button could also cause a lot of confusion.

Overall, communication has to be streamlined to be effective. Slack is a glorified text messaging app, but that’s one of the reasons it is so effective and popular. Anyone can use it. In Teams, you see a chat tab, a files tab, an activity tab -- the main screen looks cluttered and confusing. There are too many buttons and tabs. I also don’t care about meetings. Few people will bother starting a meeting from teams. (Worse yet, if someone is not already provisioned on Office for your company, they can’t use Teams.)

Is it a back to the drawing board moment for Microsoft? Not really. Sometimes, what is included as part of an ecosystem becomes the tool of choice, and Microsoft will eventually iron out the problems. For now, the app is not quite working like it should.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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