Microsoft Sway: Conversation with Chris Pratley

Created: Monday, January 11, 2016, posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 4:00 am

Chris PratleyChris Pratley is General Manager of Microsoft Sway, a new member of the Office suite of apps. His team also develops, a social publishing site for professionals that features high fidelity Office content, and Office Lens, a cross-platform mobile app to turn photos of documents and whiteboards into reusable content in OneNote, Word and other apps. Chris lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.

In this conversation, Chris talks about Microsoft Sway.

Geetesh: Sway is such a fantastic idea – how did it all begin?

Chris: The idea for Sway arose from a number of inputs.

An underlying motivation came from years of watching and interacting with customers, and realizing that many users – and really all of us, at least, some of the time – don’t have the time to master the powerful tools in Office, or the skills to use them properly; both knowledge of the product functions and features and design skills to get a great looking result. I felt it was worth exploring whether we could make a breakthrough in ease of use for such people in such moments.

A few years ago when I was running Office Labs (an internal Office incubation effort), we looked at trends in information publishing and saw that several factors were changing or going to change what people needed to make. The rise of mobile, especially for reading, was going to create havoc for people trying to “write once and be read anywhere”. The classic tools for doing design and layout all assumed a fixed output size, and this problem was going to grow: how to make something that looks great and is readable on any size of screen? (potentially from watch to wall size, but mostly in the 4″-20″ range, and at different pixel resolutions). Just think about the problem of arranging two images when viewed in landscape or portrait– you would make different choices: side by side or one above the other. Text needs to be readable on a phone, so it has to be kept about the same effective point size while other media is scaled and rearranged to fit the device. Simply zooming a print layout usually doesn’t work (we’ve all experienced the horror of trying to read a letter sized PDF on a phone).

On top of that, there has been a shift in the quality and quantity of designed output. Web sites and apps are showing us content that is stylishly presented, with media, animations, and interactive elements. This is true digital media, not created for paper and moved to the web. Ordinary people don’t have the skills to make such output. People aren’t satisfied with canned templates either – often these are too limiting or they make your output look like everyone else’s. One of the strengths of Office is empowering people to easily make great output, and this new type of output is what Sway is designed to make easy.

Microsoft Sway
Sway responsively adapts its layout to optimally fit the device it is being viewed on

The north star for Sway is to let a user focus on their content and message and fully automate the rest (formatting, layout, gathering media, handling references, etc). Our goal is to deliver an experience similar to shopping for a fancy suit or custom wedding dress. As the customer, you can just take the suggestion of an expert (easy!), or choose what you like and don’t like, and an expert will make adjustments and show you options to choose from until you are satisfied. With clothes, you don’t need to know anything about lapels, cuffs, stitches, fabric, etc. All you have to have is an opinion. Similarly, our goal is that Sway will analyze your content and suggest a good design and layout for you. To customize, rather than make you become an expert, Sway will respond to your likes and dislikes, always generating consistent and professionally designed results. If you don’t like what you see, giving direction is easy, much like how Pandora gets to know your music tastes by what you listen to or skip, and what others like you listen to, without you specifying genre, beats per minute, etc. Of course if you have the inclination and skills, you’ll be able to dive in and specify whatever you want, but the great majority of people have neither the time nor the talent for that.

To deliver the full experience, it became clear that we needed to have a new “user contract”. WYSIWYG and direct formatting were great when they arrived in the 80s, but they have trained us all to believe that formatting content is a manual process and every detail must be specified. More challenging for this problem is that people then expect things to stay exactly as they specified, which makes adapting to the device very hard, and makes browsing different designs in a coherent and consistent way nearly impossible. Once you get in the habit of working that way, changing habit and expectation is hard. To give us the flexibility to do automated design and on-the-fly layout for different device sizes, we needed to develop a new user experience where the user could express their intent, rather than specific values or results. We also knew that people would not tolerate such a fundamental change in their familiar tools, so we needed a new app.
From all that came Sway, a tool for telling stories in an authentically digital way.

Microsoft Sway
You can pick one of your images as inspiration for a new color palette

Geetesh: Sway is so different compared to PowerPoint, and yet there are comparisons. What’s your answer?

Chris: Sway is its own thing – another tool in the toolbox. It is great at things other apps are not, and vice versa. But it is natural to try to understand new things in terms of existing, familiar things. True, you can use Sway for presentations, which is where the comparison to PowerPoint comes from. You can also use it for documents – that overlaps with word processors. You can share Sways as a URL viewed in the browser, so they are sort of web pages too. Since you can use Sway to gather media and coauthor together with others, I’ve even heard people say it is like OneNote. The point is that Sway can be used for many purposes. Within Office, it will both add new use cases and displace some usage of Word and PowerPoint – but generally where those apps were never optimal to start with: adaptive, digital-first storytelling, with interactivity, non-linear branching and drill ins, A/V support, etc.

Let me use OneNote as an analogy. I also developed OneNote from the beginning, and back then people would say “Isn’t that Word? Or maybe Outlook, because of the ToDos?” Yet today it is clear that OneNote is a tool for managing information and collaborating with others in an unstructured way. The only similarity with Word is that is does basic text editing. Did OneNote displace some usage of Word for notetaking? Of course it did, but Word was never meant to be a note taking tool anyway – it is designed for writing documents. Now there is a better, more focused experience in OneNote.

More specifically with respect to Sway and PowerPoint, the apps are really very different. PowerPoint offers a huge set of tools to construct 2D layouts (slides) with animations, etc. exactly to a user’s specification. Sway does not make slides at all, and does not offer any 2D layout control (since that is antithetical to being “responsive” to the device). Sway allows a user to view a Sway screen by screen (group by group) which is useful for delivering a presentation, but that is closer to Word’s reading view than to PowerPoint. My theory is that because Sway is so naturally oriented toward media, graphics and design, people see a visual and experiential similarity to PowerPoint, but in reality a Sway is closer to a Word document in that it reflows. Yet unlike Word, it is much more structured, which is what allows Sway to easily adjust style and layout on the user’s behalf.

This line of thinking is missing the point though. A Sway is a new thing, designed for our digital world, not for paper or for 35mm slides. It is meant to be flexible, and to respect the author’s intent rather than rely on rigid programming or specifications. It is alive – dynamic and interactive by default. As we’ve come to say, Sway is a tool for telling your story. That story could be a school book report, a business analysis, a sales pitch, a bedtime story.

As with any new tool, we are seeing early adopters using it and figuring out its strengths. We’ll see others come to it in the next year who are inspired by those leaders, and as more people experience Sways made by others, they will come to understand its use cases better, and usage will spread broadly after that. At the same time Sway will be growing in richness of content types, level of control and customization, and intelligence – all of which will accelerate adoption.

Here is an example of a Sway that uses the screen by screen visualization. It can be used for live presentation or as a standalone story. Click on maps and media to interact.

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1 Comment

  • I've been looking at sway for a couple of months now.

    It looks very interesting, especially as a digitally focused medium.

    The sway embedded in the page doesn't work very well. Is that a limitation of the web page view, or is it a limitation of sway, not being able to fully adapt.

    The number one problem with sway is a universal MS failing. You create a good product, but provide no documentation on how to use it. "How to use …" documentation for new features is even more important creating the feature itself! I wish you would create a single site with all of the user documentation. And I wish you would adopt the standard that BEFORE a feature goes GA, all of the user documentation for that feature must be COMPLETE and ready to release the same day the feature goes GA! Don't leave documentation for mañana, it never gets done.

    In this case, much of the documentation could realistically be done in sway.

    When I first started using MS products, BEFORE Office, we would get a LARGE (hundreds of pages)paper manual with the install disks, "Free". Then MS started to depend on online documentation installed on each computer. Now MS relies on internet documentation. But trying to find about features using online documentation, without already knowing the terminology is a futile effort!

    This looks like a great tool that fits into the "one size fits all" smartphone to wall projection universe MS is peddling, but it won't work if you don't teach users how to take advantage of it!

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