Hands-on: Microsoft Teams fails in its debut

Once again, Microsoft cuts corners on user interface, functionality, and cross-platform support. Will it ever learn?

Hands-on: Microsoft Teams fails in its debut
Credit: pmbbun via Pixabay

For months now, we’ve been hearing about Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s much-heralded Slack killer. It’s now in public rollout, so Office 365 Enterprise subscribers’ IT admins can turn it on and have users test it for themselves. That’s what InfoWorld’s parent company has done. Sadly, it’s clear the hype is unwarranted, at least at this point.

We all know Yammer was a massive failure, and Teams is meant to bury that corpse and present us a replacement. But in the meantime, Slack has gained a strong following, thanks to being a great product that works well, is highly capable, and runs on any device you might use. It’s very easy to get addicted to Slack, and it’s set a high bar. (Atlassian’s HipChat is capable, but nowhere near as well designed as Slack.)

The Teams rolled out now is technically a public beta, though you can easily miss that fact in its marketing. But even as a late-stage beta, it isn’t anywhere as good as it should be. It doesn’t hold a candle to Slack, in fact. I’m reminded of Windows Phone, which debuted a few years after the iPhone but seems to have been designed as if BlackBerry was still the competition. Teams feels like that in the face of the now-several-years-old Slack—it’s the Windows Phone of business chat.

By the time it becomes a production-class product, Teams had better be as good as Slack. Microsoft is the underdog here, and relying on its installed base would be a dangerous strategy—as Microsoft should know from its Yammer, Windows 8, and Windows Phone debacles. Microsoft's imprimatur no longer guarantees a product’s adoption. It needs to actually be good.

What Microsoft Teams does right

Before I get into what the Teams beta lacks, I want to point out what it has going for it, besides its inclusion in the Office 365 suite.

Teams is cross-platform. For one, it’s available out the gate for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, evidence that Microsoft is serious about its all-platforms strategic shift.

Microsoft Teams beta (Windows) IDG

Microsoft Teams is now in public beta, with a clean if basic interface but welcome integrations with Exchange calendar and Skype for Business.

Teams integrates with other Microsoft services. As you’d expect, Teams integrates with the Exchange/Active Directory ecosystem, so you no longer have to worry about departed employees still having access to your corporate chats. Although you still have to manually add users to individual teams, it’s easy to do so if you’ve already set up security groups in Exchange, as you can add all of a group’s members in one action.

Another benefit is Teams’ integration with Skype for Business, so you can conduct audio, video, and screen-sharing chats easily from your Teams textual chats. Skype for Business could have been another Yammer, but Microsoft finally made Skype for Business work across platforms, so now it can truly be your standard internal communications tool. I’d like to see Microsoft skip Skype for Business’s “almost failed” step when it comes to Teams.

The integration with Exchange calendar is also nice, so you can see and join meetings when within Teams. Skype for Business has the same capability, but it’s good to see Microsoft propagate it elsewhere.

Teams’ document tabs are handy. There’s also a truly innovative feature in Teams: the ability to put documents in a channel’s list of tabs, similar to adding sites to a browser’s bookmarks bar. That way, relevant documentation, status reports, and the like can be easily accessed by members of a channel. Even better, you can link your OneDrive files to the channel, so the current version is always available to users, not a copy you have to keep updating manually in Teams. Note that your channel can have more files than those pinned as tabs; the File pane shows all uploaded files available.

Microsoft Teams beta pinned files (Mac) IDG

Microsoft Teams has a cool ability to pin document to the top of a channel, including documents stored in OneDrive.

What Teams doesn’t do well (at least not yet)

Keep in mind that Teams is a beta product, so any or all of its deficits might be addressed before it goes into production mode later this year. But Microsoft has tended to let flaws stick around for several versions, so don’t count on it—the joke that version 3.0 of any Microsoft product is the one that works is from the 1990s, after all.

Critical features are missing in Teams. Private channels are not yet available, so managers, HR, lawyers, and so on can’t speak openly and honestly in their own channels, and rank-and-file employees can’t close the virtual door to do their jobs without busybodies listening. Having private channels is a key benefit and fundamental need for distributed work teams. A chat tool without private communications won’t get real usage. (Direct messages are private, except of course to IT admins.)

Microsoft says private channels are coming, some day. It’s bad enough to launch a chat tool without such a basic figure, but it’s criminal to do so when private channels has been a frequent and persistent request from the initial beta testers for months. Was Microsoft not listening?

Well, sort of. Microsoft notes that the teams in Teams are private, so only members of a team can see the channel discussions within it. That sounds like private channels, but it’s not really. Teams’ approach will cause organizations to create lots and lots of small teams where privacy is an issue, fragmenting discussions and hindering cross-communication. It’s sort of like making every team work in a separate building, instead of providing private meeting rooms and offices in a common building.

Still, the fact that Microsoft is promising private channels while suggesting its current teams approach fulfills the same need tells you that Microsoft knows it doesn’t really do that.

Also promised but not yet real is the ability to add external users, such as contractors and business partners, to Teams. Yammer had that, so it’s strange that Teams didn’t have it out the gate. 

Teams’ notifications are lacking. Per-channel controls over notifications don’t exist, which means you have to choose between get pinged all the time or not at all. Most people will choose not at all and, thus, be more apt to be out of the loop where it matters.

Messaging features in Teams are basic. The messaging options are also quite limited compared to Slack: no follow, mute, remind, pin, mark unread, or other such options in Teams.

Teams does provide the essential capabilities. It’s easy to type in messages and see your thread. You can edit and delete messages after the fact, and of course you can add emoticons. You can name-check people in Twitter’s @-style to alert them of an incoming message (so they get a notification). You can add files to channels. And you can see users’ activities elsewhere in Teams, though I suspect the benefit is more for managers checking whether a person’s commentary is broadly questionable.

The user interface in Teams is very poor. Then there’s the human factor. As one of my Teams co-testers put it, “I do wonder about usability.” For good reason—Microsoft is bad at user interfaces. They’re too complex, too simple, or simply too inconsistent. Microsoft’s UI ineptitude brings to mind the stereotype that white men can’t dance. It’s true enough for enough of the time. Skype for Business is both unintuitive and a confusing mess, for example. OneDrive has only recently started to make sense operationally, but still has a ways to go. Windows Vista and Windows 8 are the most obvious examples of Microsoft’s lack of human factors how-to.

Teams is a little confusing like OneDrive and a little primitive like Skype for Business. As an example, taking pinning (aka favorites). In Teams, you pin favorite channels in the Teams window. You pin favorite direct-message users in the Chat window. The Teams menu shows you channels, but you can’t tell which have new messages at a glance. The separate Activity window shows you new messages, but divorced from their context (channel or conversation).

By contrast, both Slack and HipChat have a unified pane for channels and users, showing you with an indicator where you have new messages. On the desktop or on a tablet, that view is always there, so you can always know something new with a simple glance (and who’s away or muted).

In Teams, your messages are split across multiple windows, so you have to look for them: direct messages in the Chats window, replies to channel threads in the Activity window (oddly called Alerts in the mobile clients), and the whole channel threads in the Teams window—seriously. In other words, the designers didn’t focus on the user behavior and context but on Teams’ internal organization of the communications.

Another example of a clunky UI: Teams has an interesting feature for adding Office documents to a channel’s tabs, so they become sticky lists of documents. But you can’t simply add a document directly to the tabs; you first have to add them through the conversation in the channel. Then you add them as a tab from the Files window. That’s two steps, where one would be better.

Also, when you create tabs, the UI presents the tabs as icons for Microsoft apps, so you quickly assume you’ll have a tab for each file type (Word, Excel, and so on), with perhaps multiple files in each. No, each tab is actually a document. Choosing the app simply narrows the list of available documents to that file type. Again, the approach is more complicated than necessary, made more confusing by emphasizing the file type in the tab when it is not focus of the tab.

The desktop apps also tend to sign you off after you've been idle or have also used other devices. That means you no longer see any notifications on new messages. That’s not a smart move in a tool that tends to be used on demand on multiple devices, both simultaneously and at different times (like at home and at work).

Teams’ mobile apps are crippled. Then there are the mobile apps, which are clearly afterthoughts to Microsoft. There are too many windows to navigate on a smartphone, and the tablet apps don’t take advantage of their larger screens, so messages take the whole width of your iPad screen, rather than reserving a sidebar for navigating among Teams’ windows as the desktop app does. I mean, come on!

Microsoft Teams beta (iPad) IDG

The beta version of Microsoft Teams for iPads and Android tablets doesn’t use the available screen real estate to provide the same navigation bar as the desktop app does.

Mobile users are definitely treated as second-class systems when it comes to functionality, too. You can’t create channels or manage team members, for example. Nor can you add files other than images, not even from OneDrive or Office, both of which run on iOS and Android ... or add channels or users as favorites.

Plus, the mobile apps have none of the Skype for Business, Exchange calendar, or OneDrive integration of the desktop apps. That’s stupid: People communicate heavily on mobile devices, and they must be at least as capable of their desktop clients. Yet Microsoft seems to believe it’s still 2006 when all we had were text-oriented BlackBerry communicators and flip phones for communicating away from our desks.

Finally, Teams’ iOS app is inferior to the Android app (it’s usually the other way around for Microsoft). For one, it lacks the Recents tab that the Android (and Windows and MacOS) clients have, so you can’t see all your recent messages in one place, which is one of Microsoft’s touted advantages of Teams over Slack or HipChat. All you can see in Alerts in iOS are messages from people who name-checked you, in the Notifications tab. Also, the iPad version of the iOS app reverts to portrait orientation after your iPad has gone to sleep, even if the iPad was locked into landscape orientation—a nit to be sure, but another example of its unfinished state.

Teams doesn’t work in Safari on the Mac. Finally, it always frosts me as a primarily Mac user when a cross-platform service doesn’t support Safari. Teams doesn’t, though that support is promised. (It does work in Chrome and Firefox in both Windows and MacOS.) It’s not even smart enough to open the Mac Teams app when you try to access it in Safari, even though if you try to open the Teams URL in Safari in iOS Teams does open the native app automatically. Argh. At least the Mac app seems to be treated as equal to the Windows one.

Bottom line: Teams isn’t yet a serious competitor to Slack

All these complaints are fixable, but they shouldn’t exist at this stage of the game. That’s what is so upsetting about Teams. It’s still a marketing promise, not a real product, but it’s being rolled out as if it were real. Worse, it’s nowhere near usable.

I can see one day switching from Slack to Teams as our default messaging tool, but Microsoft isn’t giving me any reason to believe that day will be soon.

Please, Microsoft, prove me wrong; after all, we’re paying for Teams in our Office 365 enterprise subscription even though it’s not up to snuff. But if you can’t pull it together, that’s fine. Slack is great, and no one needs Teams to replace it.

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