July 11, 2020
Vacuum cleaners are good… except when you are building a product.
All this working at home has some of us staring down unfinished housework every day. I love a freshly vacuumed home. You know what I mean, right? The kind of fresh where you can see the lines in the rug. No one has stepped on it yet, just like a freshly mowed lawn or a frosted cake. It is perfect… until someone touches it.
When you are building a product, it is good to stay away from vacuums. I have often talked about how Microsoft Teams keeps away from that vacuum mentality during the development process and focuses instead on community involvement. Rather than keep people from touching our work, we want involvement every step of the way – before, during, and after.
I believe this is part of what makes my role as community lead special. I am part of the Microsoft Teams Quality and Customer Obsession Team within Teams Engineering, led by Alex Olsen. Our team is responsible for connecting our communities with our engineering team to gather feedback and investigate issues. We meet regularly with the feature teams responsible for prioritizing and building these features or experiences to ensure community feedback is a big part of the development process.
As you can imagine with a product like Teams with millions of users, there is not only a lot of feedback coming in, but there are several listening signals and all of them are important. Here are some of the tools we use to listen to the community signals on a regular basis:
UserVoice is the feedback tool we use to collect feature requests. In UserVoice, there are approximately 44,000 feature requests, and each one is important to the person who took the time to tell us what they want and need. UserVoice allows us to see feedback items and the number of people who have voted on each item. We can dig into an item and read the comments from people to gain a better understanding of why something is needed and the scenarios the feature would be useful for. Your comments are valuable because they help our engineers understand the whys behind the asks and provide context, as well as any urgency or sensitivity behind the request. With the large number of items in UserVoice, it is important for our team to identify trends and keep ideas grouped together to have a true sense of the number of individuals requesting a feature, and we use UserVoice metrics help us keep an eye out for trending items or spikes (items that have a sudden increase in votes). For top voted items, we provide regular updates and do our best to communicate realistic timeframes, though this is not always a straightforward task. Shifts in priorities, internal/external dependencies, and testing are all variables that impact the timeline and sometimes features get delayed. If you vote on an item or open a new item in UserVoice, you may request updates to keep you in the loop.
Suggest a Feature is the in-product feedback that can be clicked on directly from your Teams client. You will see the ‘Help’ icon on the bottom left hand side of your client. When you select ‘suggest a feature’ from that drop-down menu, you will be opening a UserVoice. It is a great way to submit your feedback immediately when you are in the Teams client thinking of it.
The Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals, or MVPs, who contribute to Teams have a direct line to the Teams Product Group (PG) to discuss and ask questions on a regular basis. Because MVPs are under NDA, we use opportunities to share plans with them and get feedback often. At any given time, the Teams PG hosts 2-3 feedback calls a week with MVPs, and their feedback helps solidify what we are hearing in UserVoice and from our customers. We use these conversations to validate assumptions, further understand asks, help us make difficult design and architectural decisions, and to run early designs or concepts by an external audience.
Internal Microsoft employees can provide feedback in an internal instance of UserVoice. A sub-set of Microsoft users are in early rings testing Teams with pre-release features so we can work out the kinks before releasing to the public. It is important not to make assumptions our customers use the product like we do at Microsoft. Just like each individual uses Teams in a different way, each role, each company, each vertical, and each geographical region has different ways of doing things.
Microsoft Support and the Answers Community provide valuable insights into not only what issues might be happening, but what features our customers have questions about, don’t understand, or aren’t using the way they’re intended to. This knowledge can help influence how features are prioritized as well as what additional communication, documentation, or training we might need to develop and provide for our customers.
The Microsoft Technical Community (MTC) is a community made up of over 150,000 of you and although it isn’t a tool to collect feedback, we do monitor the MTC for trends and discussions around features and functionality that people are looking for, and what scenarios customers are trying to fill. The MTC is another good check point for us when there is a UserVoice item that spikes or a support item we start seeing a lot of. Chances are that these things have also come up in the discussion boards, and we can dig into some of the comments to provide us with additional details. Often, you’ll see us push contributors in the MTC to create a UserVoice item. Since we don’t have a way to gather metrics around feature requests in the MTC, and we don’t have a good way to circle back and update you when there is a change in status, we rely on UserVoice as our primary product feedback tool.
In additional to these feedback listening signals, we also have a program for early testing and validation that MVPs, partners, and customers participate in. The Technology Adoption Program (TAP) helps us ensure high quality before releasing new features and is our last stop prior to releasing to the public. If a TAP participant finds a bug or something is not working as expected, a feature could be pulled back in until we get things right. Currently, the TAP program is full but if your organization would like to be considered for future testing opportunities, you may be put on the wait list.
All feedback is valuable and important to the Teams PG. The volume of requests from each listening signal prohibits us from reading and responding to every request daily. To help, we have put systems in place to help us monitor trends and identify spikes closely, and we use an internal tool that collates all the feedback coming in, organizes it by area and issue type, then use machine learning to look for new trends and post a message to a common team. We take this information to the feature teams and access the detail you share with us in your comments to help tell the story.
Once the team identifies different asks, they prioritize them based on a number of different factors. After priorities are identified, the team costs them out – we call this a t-shirt cost, which is our first estimate of how much time the feature will take: small, medium, large, extra-large. Based on that, the staff requirements, and any dependencies the request might have, the team estimates when the work could be completed. Sometimes there are items that seem so simple to complete, yet they have dependencies on other features or other PGs outside of Teams that require additional work to be done prior to working on a request. Other times, something that was in progress might be pushed out when a new item takes priority due to a fix we need to make, or if we see a spike in UserVoice votes that require us to change course.
This change of course has happened to us recently with the COVID-19 situation and the sudden change in the virtual school and work environments. We’ve had to put some work aside to ensure we are meeting the demand of customers who have different needs and requests now than they did as little as four months ago, prior to working or going to school virtually 100% of the time. Jared Spataro, CVP for Microsoft 365, wrote a blog recently outlining some of the updates we made to Teams due to the COVID-19 impact. Jared starts by explaining that our #1 goal was to make sure that people around the world had the ability to do their work and go to school using Office 365 immediately. Any major shift in the environment requires a shift in priorities and you have seen the Teams team prioritize some of the features you told us were most important.
Some of the features you have seen us releasing in the past few weeks is due to user feedback, and as Rish Tandon, Microsoft Teams CVP of Engineering, communicated, “This is just the start.” We began to see a spike in a request for additional video displays in Teams when COVID-19 began to impact work and school, so we reprioritized and made sure we pushed 3×3 video out the door as soon as we could while still ensuring excellent quality. Other features like ‘raise your hand’ and meeting reports have become much more important with the number of virtual classrooms and virtual events taking place. We have also heard feedback on sensitive issues like ‘user left the team’ posts in the General channel; this can be especially difficult for companies who have had a reduction in force or if a person is ill or needs to take a leave of absence for personal reasons. We are prioritizing this work to allow for more privacy.
We want to create an amazing product that gives you the best collaboration experience possible while remaining secure and maintaining excellent quality. I hope you will continue to provide feedback to our product group and know that even when we do not respond to you individually, you are making a difference. I also hope you will remember who is on the other end of the UV, who is scrolling through the Tech Community posts, and who is reading the emails. We are not perfect. We are human. We are working hard to build something great and appreciate your feedback as part of that process. Keep sharing your requirements, your needs, and your nice-to-haves, and we will never stop listening and innovating.
Here are some tips for providing product feedback that helps engineering understand the reason behind what you are asking, the importance of what you are asking for, and how they might go about building something to meet or exceed your expectations. First, search for an existing item in UserVoice that matches your own ask. If there is one there, add your own comments to that existing entry so we have all votes on a single request in one place. In your comments, answer the following:
- What am I trying to accomplish?
- How do I do the task today? What tool do I use and what is the process?
- How do I want to do the task with Teams?
- Explain – if I were able to ‘x’, I could do ‘y’ and that would result in ‘z’.
- Is this a nice-to-have or is a blocker to adoption or my productivity?
- What is the impact to me, to others, to our work?
Now, back to that vacuuming housework I was talking about…
Collaboration means two-way communication!
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