When Chris Pratley and his team ask for user feedback on Microsoft Sway, they sometimes have to emphasize that they’re not building PowerPoint all over again.If the idea of formatting a PowerPoint fills you with dread, then you might want to consider downloading Sway, a new presentation app from Microsoft out Wednesday. Rather than overwhelm users with nitpicky formatting options, Sway sits between the user and the slides like an eager designer, automatically selecting fonts, prepping layouts, cropping photos and placing them flush against the text. That means the digital storytelling tool is launching out of preview for consumers and releasing to all eligible Office 365 for business and education customers worldwide.
The premise is simple: Let users create presentations for the web using text, pictures, and videos, regardless of what device they’re using (phones, tablets, laptops, PCs, and so on). Instead, they can enter an artist’s name, and after rendering judgment on a few songs, Pandora’s algorithms get pretty good at coming up with music recommendations. It’s a much simpler program, with far fewer controls, and most of its formatting is automatic, so each Sway can adapt to any screen size on a PC, tablet, or phone. They observed which buttons the users hit, which buttons they avoided and which buttons they might request. “We understood just how new this concept was,” says Sway’s senior product manager David Alexander, “and we didn’t want to make a lot of assumptions about what the user wanted.” The finished product, now available as a free download in the App Store and for Office 365 subscribers, includes an intriguing new method of building a presentation.
You provide the ideas and raw content, and Sway’s intelligent design engine creates a polished layout that helps everything flow together “in a way that enhances your story.” Join us at GrowthBeat where thought leaders from the biggest brands will share winning growth strategies on August 17-18 in San Francisco. The fact that you can’t tweak things down to the individual pixel, as with PowerPoint, is by design. “Anything where you’re building a complicated layout, that’s really a PowerPoint scenario, and not a Sway one,” says Pratley, who is Sway’s founder and general manager. (Microsoft isn’t the only company taking this approach, as Sway is competing with other new-age presentation tools like Prezi and Haiku Deck.) Sway also diverges from Microsoft’s traditional approach to developing software, especially Office. Instead of building most of the product and collecting a bit of private feedback before launch, Microsoft asked users to get involved early on, giving them a fairly minimal product and adding feature requests over the preview period. The goal is to get users to “focus on the story and the content and the relationships, rather than the nitty gritty of the tool you’re using,” said Pratley, a veteran of Microsoft’s Office team who also guided the team that built the OneNote collaboration and note-taking app.
We asked David Alexander, who heads the Office technical product marketing team, if he sees a conflict between the two Office apps. “No, we don’t see Sway replacing PowerPoint,” Alexander told VentureBeat. Sway lets users embed source material from a wide range of the media common on the Web — Twitter posts, YouTube videos, pictures from cloud storage or a computer or Flickr.
To coincide with general availability, Microsoft is releasing a proper Sway app for Windows 10, joining existing versions for iPhone, iPad, and the web. It’s also adding a bunch of new features in response to user feedback, some of which underscore the balance Microsoft must strike between making something new and appeasing PowerPoint converts. The intended simplicity of Sway contrasts with Office stalwarts like Word and Outlook, tools capable of myriad specific, complicated tasks after decades of user requests for added functions. “Isn’t it amazing we had to learn about fonts and point sizes and leading and all that?” said Pratley. “In the traditional model you straitjacket everything.”
That’s where Sway starts flexing its intuitive muscles, because even if you’re unsatisfied with the cropping, you no longer have to fiddle with the margins. It’s ideal for presentations, and has been one of Sway’s most popular feature requests (though Microsoft seems to go out of its way to avoid calling it a presentation mode).
A teacher, for instance, could use the site to post a semester’s worth of lecture material, compensating for Sway’s lack of tangible document files that could be posted elsewhere. (As before, users can also link to their creations on Sway.com or embed them on other websites.) At what point does Sway draw the line, and declare a feature to be too PowerPoint-like? You can use all of Sway’s integrated content sources and its built-in design engine, but you can also snap photos right into Sway using your computer’s built-in camera, view content offline, and use multiple accounts at once. To Pratley, the ability to work across different screen sizes is sacred; Microsoft can be seen gently dismissing suggestions for pixel-level adjustments on Sway’s feedback board. “We sort of have to remind them that, well if you did that, then what would it do on a phone? Group two images together, and Sway offers to arrange the pictures as a slideshow, a stack, a grid, or even a sliding bar that wipes one image on top of another for before and after comparisons. The recent addition of a shared editing feature enables multiple users to build a presentation simultaneously, and a “publish” button automatically posts the presentation to Docs.com, a Microsoft-hosted website that the company hopes will become a hub for sharing presentations.
The point of Sway is not to worry about those fine-grained details. “Once they realize, ‘Oh right, I’m designing something that works across devices, and the way I do that is by expressing my intent rather than all these pixel-level sizes and so on,’ they have this eureka moment,” Pratley says. Microsoft’s docs.com domain was previously used by “Docs for Facebook,” which as its name implies allowed users to share documents via Facebook. Having said that, Pratley won’t rule out a possible Swayification—my term, not his—of other Office apps, such as Word, Excel, or even PowerPoint itself. Other branches of the Office team are at least intrigued by Sway’s results. “You could imagine a kind of magic wand tool or something that says, “Give me some options, using your smarts, of how this slide could look better, that kind of thing,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s anything written in stone.” The last time I spoke with Pratley, he mentioned that Sway was an experiment in letting users dictate the direction of a product.
While he won’t come to any conclusions yet, he now points to the Windows 10 Insider program as an example of the company opening up more to outside suggestions. “I actually think it’s the new way that everything new will be made, and we’re going to be adapting this to be the sort of agile approach where we react to feedback for everything else that already exists,” Pratley says. Along with adding support for Sway, Docs.com also supports Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, Office Mix files, PDFs, and web links.
It’s not always easy, even with a program like Sway where the team is starting from scratch. “There’s so much stuff we want to do, and it would be tempting to just sort of put our heads down and build all the things that are still to come in Sway,” Pratley says. “But the thing we really have to do is be patient and listen to what people are asking and change that thinking to adapt to them.” Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, believes that on some level this is Microsoft’s attempt to make itself seem more likable, especially among students and younger users who see PowerPoint as a tool for their parents. “When you feel that connection to something that you influence—like I wasn’t on the team, but I helped make a difference—it helps people feel attachment to the technology,” Miller says. Alexander told us that Docs.com is using Office Online to render all the content, meaning it is shown exactly how it was created: Your documents are not being scaled down to just images. The most obvious platform that is missing at launch is Google’s mobile operating system. “We are also working on a native app for Android, so that Sway apps are available on all major platforms and devices consistent with the Office strategy, but we do not have a timeline to share,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat.