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Microsoft Teams on the new Surface Studio computer. Credit: Microsoft.
Microsoft Teams on the new Surface Studio computer. Credit: Microsoft.

It was only four years ago that Microsoft dropped a cool $1.2 billion on Yammer, which bills itself as a social network for work.

Today Microsoft unveiled its long-awaited Slack competitor, Microsoft Teams, which the company bills as a “chat-based workspace in Office 365.” Descriptions of the program, and even the appearance, somewhat reminded us of Yammer. So we asked Mira Lane, UX architect for Microsoft Teams, how Teams and Yammer are different, and how they can co-exist.

Mira Lane
Mira Lane

The difference, says Lane, is that Yammer is about the broader social connections across a company or group. Teams, she says, makes more sense to use with people who collaborate with each other all the time and need to have important documents at their fingertips.

“We actually think about Yammer as connecting the social fabric within an organization,” said Lane, a 12-year veteran of the company who has worked on a number of new products. “When you look at how we use Yammer internally, for example at Microsoft, Satya (Nadella) uses it for his CEO connection, connecting to everyone, broadcasting out to the whole company. We also use it for a lot of interest groups, like people who are car enthusiasts, or art enthusiasts.”

With Teams, Microsoft has also made more of a splash than it might have with an incremental Yammer update. The company unveiled the new program Wednesday at a big event in New York City, its second in the last week, and a satellite gathering in San Francisco.

Available as a preview starting today, Teams becomes generally available in the first quarter of next year, and it will be included in enterprise and small business versions of the Office 365 subscription service in 181 countries and 18 languages.

Its calling card is the ability to pretty much do it all — because it is layered on top of Office 365 — without leaving the friendly confines of the app. It is integrated with Skype, so users can easily jump onto a call that stems from a chat. Tabs at the top of the page let people pin important documents, like a company budget, for easy access. Users can work together on a spreadsheet and chat about it in a window along the side. And if all gets too overwhelming, an employee can send a Grumpy Cat meme to his or her co-worker and break the tension.

“There’s some fun in here that you are bringing in,” Lane said. “If we can laugh at ourselves, I think we can build better things together.”

Microsoft Teams employs threaded conversations, and gives users the opportunity to flag important messages. Credit: Microsoft.
Microsoft Teams uses threaded conversations, and gives users the opportunity to flag important messages. Credit: Microsoft.

The layout and design of Teams is clean, and appears pretty easy to navigate. In some ways it looks a little like Yammer, and it also carries some similarities to other social and communications networks like Facebook and Slack. Lane says the team pulled inspiration from a lot of places in the digital and real world. Message threads come from Outlook, and the chat layout looks a lot like Skype.

If needed, a user can mark a specific message as important and a little flag appears on the right side. Lane said the inspiration for this didn’t come from Microsoft Office. It actually came from physical office supplies.

“I was walking through the mail room, and I was at those looking at the stickies you have when you flag things in books, so we looked at those and we said, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I could just put a sticky here,'” Lane said. “We liked the idea of being able to have these flags on messages so that you have something that breaks that scan pattern a little bit so you can catch those as you scroll through the conversation stream.”

Teams will face some tough competition, as Slack has grown rapidly to become the favored workplace communication tool for a variety of industries. But Slack and other competitors, Lane says, don’t have the engine of Microsoft Office 365 behind them. Because of the huge variety of capabilities of Teams, it can be tailored to different organizations in numerous industries.

“We don’t really have a one-size-fits all model, we have different tools for different teams depending on how you want to work,” Lane said.

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