With Build 2017 starting today in Seattle, it’s going to be an interesting week for developers working with Microsoft technologies. One area that’s going to get more attention this year is Office and Microsoft Graph. They’re technologies that are ripe for use across the enterprise, building on Azure Active Directory and Office 365. Microsoft says that more than 100 million people use these services every month.
In preparation for Build, I sat down with Rob Howard, director of Office 365 ecosystem, and Larry Jin, senior program manager, both members of the Office developer team. Their focus—and a big focus at Build—was on how developers can build on top of Office 365’s social features, especially Microsoft Graph and the recently released Teams, to enable a smarter type of workflow called microwork.
What’s new in Microsoft Graph
Microsoft Graph is key to much of what Microsoft is doing with Office 365, and it’s the basis of many applications built on top of Office’s services. More than 10,000 new applications are built on top of these services every month, and most of them work with more than one service. Microsoft Graph helps those apps understand more about the data we have in our systems. Office apps don’t simply extract documents or contacts, they can bring in context. For example, with a calendar entry for a meeting, you can bring in who was at the meeting, what their roles are in your organization, and what documents they worked on while they met.
The trick to working with Microsoft Graph is, of course, building the right query. At Build, Microsoft will release of a new version of the Graph Explorer tool, which you can use to build and test queries. Earlier versions gave you a blank slate; the new release will add filters to help you segment your queries, as well as provide sample queries to help you get started more quickly.
Microsoft is also extending objects covered by Microsoft Graph, with SharePoint Sites and OneNote leaving Microsoft Graph’s beta (preview) status, and with new beta queries for SharePoint Lists, Teams, Teams Channels, and Intune added. Support for Intune is especially interesting, because it will allow you to query management objects across devices—giving you a useful tool for programmatically maintaining state among devices.
What’s new in Microsoft Teams
It hasn't been long since Microsoft launched Teams, its chat-based collaboration platform. Microsoft is now pushing its developer features at Build with a new release that makes its app capabilities more obvious to users. The new version will add an apps flyout that shows all installed apps and a link to a new Teams section of the Office Store. Admins can push apps to users, and they can block specific apps.
Bots also get their own menu, with autocomplete for top-level commands. With bots offering more and more complex features, basic help tools like autocomplete should improve discoverability and help users understand how to communicate with your services.
But it’s not only bots that can be driven from Teams; Microsoft Teams will also expose application commands in chat via compose extensions, so a conversation is simply another command line.
Actionable messages, in shape of a new card type, are an important piece of the Teams update. With interactive notifications in Office apps like Teams and Outlook, as well as rumored for the Windows 10 Action Center, there’s now the prospect of breaking down work into atomic tasks and delivering them to users through a range of channels. Actionable messages are quick and easy to respond to, and more important, they aren’t limited to specific devices. Actionable messages are simple to build, because they’re constructed using JSON markup, with a test tool available in Microsoft’s Message Card Playground. There’s sample code in the playground, with some showing connectors to apps like Trello.
One interesting example of how an interactive notification works comes from the Microsoft Authenticator app, used to deliver two-factor authentication to Microsoft accounts and to Azure Active Directory. If you are using the app on an iOS device and have the device paired to an Apple Watch, you can quickly respond to push authentications on your wrist; there’s no need to pick up a phone and unlock it and open an app. With a notification like this, you’re not breaking your flow; instead, you’re responding quickly in context. Although the Apple Watch uses Apple’s iOS notification engine, it’s a real-world example of how you can build notifications into your Teams channels without having to build a whole new application.
That’s key when using a tool like Teams for chatops or for any other messaging-driven workflow. Your company may be using Teams as a platform for collaboration, but with actionable messages driven by workflow applications your users can also interact directly with line-of-business software. If you want permission to access Salesforce, for example, you can message a bot and follow a series of card-based steps to enable your new account and connect it to your Azure AD credentials.
Getting to grips with microwork
Microsoft partner Sapho is using this idea as the basis of its microworkflow tools. With Sapho, elements of a task are broken into microapplications that can be embedded in an actionable message. All your notifications come into one place, and all of them have basic responses hard-coded (more complex interactions can be handled by a link back to the application). Initially developed for use in SharePoint and in Outlook, Sapho is now moving its micro-applications to Teams where they can be used as bots, as chat applications, and for running on Teams’ canvas in their own tab.
Sapho CEO Fouad ElNaggar says there’s no comparison with other chat-based services, like Slack, “Chat by itself doesn’t enhance productivity.” Instead, by inserting actions into a channel, where users already expect to get information, you’re not taking them out of their workflow. “You push into the places where people are expecting to receive stuff,” he says, “It keeps cognitive overhead low.”
Work has always been profoundly social. We work better together, and it’s only now that software is catching up with natural human behaviors. Using the social data from Microsoft Graph in platforms like Teams makes a lot of sense, especially when you can use it to simplify the mundane tasks that make work boring.
Shunting those tasks into actionable messages that target the right people may make them seem trivial, but it’s a way of letting people concentrate on more important tasks that require greater concentration. Turning a distracting application into a yes-or-no click could be the best thing Microsoft Office has done for the office in a long time.