Minimum Viable (Replacement) Product – The Teams Example

During 2020 and 2021, Intel switched from using Microsoft Skype for Business (also known as Lync) to Microsoft Teams as the primary internal calling, chatting, and conferencing tool. While (finally) Teams has turned into quite a decent communications tool, the transition started a bit too early from a feature completeness perspective. Microsoft in essence gave us an enterprise Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Not a proper Replacement Product (RP). Teams left out many rather important and useful features, degrading the user experience and value, and making my life harder. I don’t think that was particularly well handled. I can understand it as a product manager, but as a user, I don’t like it all.

Teams is bad, Skype was good

What was wrong with Teams? In short, everything that I care about when presenting slides. Which is really important (and not just to me personally, there was a lot of complaining both at Intel and in public forums).

The major missing features I noticed when moving to Teams from Skype:

  • Presenting slides without sharing screen. I really hated this. When I am presenting a training, quarterly update, webinar, or university lecture I DO NOT WANT TO SHARE SCREEN. My screen is my private space. I don’t want notifications to pop on screen revealing other things I am working on and distracting the audience. Animations should not be drawn on my computer, uploaded frame-by-frame, and then downloaded. The Skype model is the only sane model – you upload the Powerpoint file “to the cloud”, it is rendered there, and then pushed out in broadcast mode.  Much smoother, much more robust, and the resulting recordings are higher-quality. The bandwidth from my machine does not matter as much when it is just pushing audio. It took a year, but Teams did add this feature.
  • Annotations on slides. When presenting, I like to draw on the presented slides to point out important things – lines, boxes, highlighter. It gives life to the presentation and helps when answering questions (“as you can see, the box here connects to this box over there…”). Some people thought it was good enough to roam around with the mouse on a shared screen… it is not. Today, this feature is in Teams in a sufficient capacity to be genuinely useful.
  • Meeting attendance. Another very useful feature in Skype is that you can trivially copy a list of all attendees in a meeting. That is extremely useful if you want to do a roll-call in a training session – it is one click, instead of ten minutes going through the attendees and marking them up on paper (sharing screen, remember, so I can’t use Excel for it on my machine). There is some kind of argument going on over this still… right now the situation is that the meeting organizer can get the list. But not anyone else. Which is not very helpful since in many cases the meeting organizer is not the same as the presenter. At least we have some way to get the information now.
  • Controlling the display scaling. Skype was really good when sharing a screen in order to show software running, code in a text editor, or a set of files in a file browser. You could set it to show pixels 1-to-1, which made for a nice sharp display and good legibility. If the sender screen was bigger than your window, you got scrollbars. Logical and perfectly implemented for a technical audience. In Teams this is a hot mess where the shared screen changes size and is scaled in uncontrollable ways and it seems more tuned towards sharing pictures than pixel-perfect screen images.
  • Meeting notes. Bizarrely, for a tool that is supposedly all about collaboration and working together, Microsoft Teams entirely lacks a meaningful function for taking and sharing meeting notes. Skype did something really simple and powerful – you got a new OneNote page with all the attendees from the meeting, the date and time, and call title already listed for you. Then it was a breeze to keep working in OneNote, and OneNotes are easy to share. In Teams, you get thrown an empty page on the Team “wiki”. No automatic headers, no attendee list, no date, … ridiculous.

All of the above can be worked around. But work-arounds cost time, effort, and morale. You get annoyed at the tool instead of enjoying work.

Teams is still partially broken. In particular, it is impossible to generate a clean recording of a presentation. I want the recording to show just the slides and the audio. But no matter what you do, you get an annoying line of videos or heads along the top or bottom of the screen in the recording. That is just dumb. For a large-ish meeting, there is zero value in seeing eight out of eighty participants in the recording. It also means you cannot use the meeting recording as an archive on-demand recording of a training. Furthermore, the recording fails to include chat messages. Old Skype did this much better, recording just the shared contents and briefly showing chat comments as they appeared. For recorded trainings or meetings where people ask questions in the chat, that feature was golden.

My opinion as a user is clear – Microsoft should have kept every single piece of functionality in old Skype when moving to Teams. And not even release it until it was all there so that the change-over would be entirely smooth and without any aggravation. How hard can it be?

Consumer roll-out for an enterprise product

In practice, the Teams roll-out seems to apply your typical consumer-grade move-quick user-has-no-say deployment philosophy in the enterprise arena. It is one thing for a free consumer product like Facebook to randomly change behavior over time. I can live with that, as it is not mission-critical, and nothing important depends on it. At work, things are very different. You cannot just discontinue a working product until you have an actual replacement in place.

In a professional tool, individual specific features matter. Even if just 10 percent of users use it, given a sufficiently large population that is a significant set of people. And given enough features, I guess most will only have a rather small set of the population using it. These users pay good money for the privilege of using the tools, and thus there is money coming in to maintain all the features. I see why some people like the idea of “clean” simple tools. I can do that too… but not for the important stuff. Powerpoint, Word, text editors, screen capture, …

A consumer might be OK with a cheap power drill that works mostly most of the time and gives up in a puff of magic smoke when it hits a really hard concrete wall. A professional needs the tool that works 24/7 and that cuts right through that concrete wall like butter. Price does not matter as much as overall performance.

To me, the Teams rollout as a Skype replacement was a bit like replacing Microsoft Word with a new word processor that did not implement paragraph styles. Sure, you can type text into it and get headings to look like headings with a bit of bold and font size… but you do not get the full productivity and expressive power of the old product. Nobody would do that, right? Right?

I think this is an example of where you can apply the product management concept of speed layers as explained by Petra Färm at DVCon Europe last month. Experimenting with bare-bones early versions is fine for the speed layer. But maybe less good of an idea at the edge and especially at the core. In my mind, Teams was racing at the boundary between “Edge” and “Speed”. Skype was comfortable at the Core level and with a rather mature Edge.

Microsoft would have had a much happier customer in myself if they had made sure to replicate everything in Skype before throwing the switch (or rather, having sales people tell customers it was time to move).

Replacement Product

To me as a user, the experience was quite bad. Survivable, but bad. The new functionality was not terribly important at the start, but ruining existing functionality was really bad. Huge challenge here. How do you get the users to appreciate the new if you at the same time break old stuff? I think it is quite possible to add new things on top of existing systems as a pure addition. If they are useful, users will pick up on them eventually.

Another alternative is to let both products live side by side for a long time. Do some new stuff in the new product with the new features, and rely on the old product for stable flows. That is how I think enterprise software evolutions should happen. However, I guess that if this happened here, this blog would have been “why do Microsoft force me to go back and forth between two disjoint communications systems?”  Sometimes you get stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But the major feature loss does feel avoidable – so much of Teams is already a jumble of integrations of other Microsoft products (Sharepoint, Yammer, OneDrive, Word, Powerpoint, …). They could easily have bolted in the top-level communications UI of Skype as the presentation-sharing system while prototyping the new meeting experience at the speed layer for opt-in volunteers. Once the replacement was reasonably complete, the old system could be turned off. It would still be a bit of a change for users, but not as bad as both getting a new UI and losing major functionality.

In all fairness…

If you read the above closely, you realize that pretty much all my complaints are related to one task: presenting Powerpoint presentations.

From a Teams overall product perspective, that is just one module among many. Teams contains much more than just the presentation and calling functionality of Skype/Lync. A big focus is on collaboration and sharing of files, managing groups of users, providing specific channels for specific projects, etc. That part was pretty solid from the start, and I can imagine it required a ton of engineering on the backend. In this perspective, the overall gains might be seen as outweighing the downsides from not having everything in place. For a user, it just meant “writing text messages”, but getting them to the right people with the right access rights is definitely a non-trivial exercise.

Thus, I can understand the product managers at Microsoft – let’s get the new product out (Teams), optimize for the Office365 integration (which is really nice actually), push the “collaboration” angle, and help the very important large customers tackle the Covid-19 work-from-home crisis right now. Prioritizing getting the new functionality out to users in order to compete with Zoom does make complete sense. I.e., there was no time to get everything from Skype ported over before the broad roll-out. I suspect that without Covid-19, the launch could have been better handled and more features would have had time to be added back in.

Furthermore, in all fairness, a year later almost everything that was missing at the start is in place. At least the promise of continuous updates with new functionality has been fulfilled, and the product is getting better every month. I use Teams all the time at work, and it works to get work done. It sits on my secondary screen all the time to catch chats and updates in various channels. I have begun to (finally) understand the rather complex data model and group model underlying the product. OneDrive sync is really handy, and putting Sharepoint front pages on Teams Teams make sense in some bizarre way. When I found the settings switch to open all office documents in the real application rather than in the browser Teams, shared documents started to work pretty smoothly. There is no doubt that Teams is enterprise-grade software, which is never going to be super-simple as soon as you start to become an organizer and not just a basic user of the collaboration features.

Teams has some rather impressive – if also rather pointless – features like generated transcripts and “together mode”. The background-hiding mode unfortunately does not support moving video, unlike Zoom, but that is really just a gimmick.

…but then the sub-minimum product strikes again

In late 2021, Microsoft Teams actually provides most of what I need for work. Or so I thought. Then we had to use Microsoft Teams Live Events for a major internal conference. And suddenly the Powerpoint presentation features are gone. For some reason, this product did not inherit all the functionality of the underlying Teams system. Totally mysterious and totally broken – this is REALLY the time where proper presentation sharing makes the most sense. But it is not there.

Strictly speaking, this last example is not really a replacement product. It is a new capacity from Microsoft that serves to compete with other solutions like Zoom, On24, Intrado, and other major conferencing systems. It is not dumb that they did not bring over all the features from Teams. How hard can it be? I don’t understand the difference. And it annoys me and make the Teams product look bad again.

Viable replacement products

The MVP idea makes perfect sense for a company exploring a new market, especially if the whole idea of the application is novel. I insist it makes less sense when you have existing well-functioning products from the same company. Then it becomes a matter of creating a replacement product. A version N+1. Users expect to have all they had before, and then some. Deprecations should be made carefully, and preferably subject to user input. If the changes are too disruptive, you risk driving users toward competing products. If they have to give up on what they know and love, they can just as well switch suppliers.

The baseline is that the minimum viable replacement product is the current product – even if it is re-implemented in a new way on a new platform with new technologies. Users do not expect to lose functionality in a version upgrade (unless the functionality was extremely niche or actually broken anyway).

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