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Chaos in the Cloud: How New Features Can Impair User Experience in SharePoint and Google Apps

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As all of us know, cloud computing solutions like Office 365 and Google Apps for Work have been steadily gaining popularity since their initial releases and have since become the go-to collaboration software for the majority of large and mid-size organizations. So much so that in 2013, Google reported that more than 5 million organizations around the world were now using Google Apps, including 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies. The number of Office 365 users is also on an ever-increasing trajectory, with the figure of total people who connect to Office 365 being placed around 80 million earlier this year.

Striving for Simplicity

Aside from the convenience of the anytime/anywhere access enabled by using the software over the Internet, increased productivity is considered one of the main benefits of moving to the cloud. Practically speaking, whether or not productivity increases by using SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions can be summed up by the simple question: Does this make my job easier or not?

The logic here is that the simpler the user experience, the greater the yield in productivity—whether it’s an administrator adding a new user to the organization’s network or upper management using Google Docs to draft policy and procedure documents. Both Microsoft and Google have invested heavily in trying to make Office 365 and Google Apps top-notch when it comes to keeping user and administrator experiences as straightforward as possible—but have they really succeeded?

Constant New Features Can Mean Clutter

My main objection to this premise of simplicity and one of the challenges organizations face when subscribing to cloud vendors is the ongoing addition of features that automatically pop up on subscribers’ desktops. Marketed as an advantage by both providers (who doesn’t love product enhancements?), these automated updates can counteract the ease of use both Google and Microsoft aim for.

If you’re using Microsoft SharePoint in your organization, I would say from experience that it’s more effective the more functions you turn off. The more active features you have, the more complicated usage gets and the more clutter those using the service have to deal with.

As with the classic Microsoft applications like Excel and Word: Many people just use a fraction of the available features because an overload of unnecessary functions means a loss in user experience that ultimately leads to the tool being less productive than it otherwise would be.

Of course, this isn’t to say that new features are inherently undesirable―quite to the contrary. But you need a structured way to roll them out that gives organizations enough time to decide which features they’ll want to keep and prepare for and which ones they’d prefer to ignore.

Better Coordinating with Customers

With the Office 365 Roadmap, Microsoft took an important step toward better selling new features to existing users. The roadmap serves as a detailed calendar that lets users know which updates (at various stages, from development to being fully available) subscribers can expect a few months in advance. Another addition, Office 365 First Release, gives users the option to receive updates to the service two weeks ahead of the default release cycle. Jake Zborowski, a group product manager for Office 365, said in a blog post that the changes to Microsoft’s update communication were made in response to user feedback and are meant to give subscribers “the ability to consume change in small chunks”.

But arguably, this isn’t enough. With in-house solutions, organizations always had control over what was happening in the system―something that’s lost when users receive new features automatically under the SaaS model. But given that when intranet tools like SharePoint implement a universal update it affects every user within an organization, a mere preview of the scheduled releases as provided by the Office 365 Roadmap doesn’t truly coordinate releases with customers. It’s essentially a calendar that allows users to see what’s going to happen, with the option for it to happen two weeks ahead of schedule but no equivalent option to delay updating if an organization isn’t ready.

Google offers a similar release calendar, but with one significant improvement: Google Apps subscribers can choose between two release tracks, with the Scheduled Release track giving administrators the option to delay the release of new features to other users within the organization, which, according to Google, is meant to give you “extra time to train your support staff and prepare users for the coming changes.”

The Bottom Line

If new features are meant to enhance user experience, then their release has to be better coordinated with subscribers. While the Office 365 Roadmap does improve visibility around service updates, a calendar of “what’s coming” doesn’t give organizations much, if any, control over how to incorporate new features into their day-to-day business. Since opting out of updates entirely isn’t a realistic or even desirable option, being able to delay the implementation of added features as with Google’s Scheduled Release track is the next best thing.

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