How Sway could help change our workplaces

2015-08-11

I remember writing an article for an industry magazine about a decade ago where I said that mainstream mobile technology had reached a point where we should start to think about its application to the workplace. I was probably a little too optimistic at that point, but around that same time in early 2005, I had also visited an early form of co-working spaces in Sydney. It had become fairly obvious to me even then that we had to stop thinking just about physical places or space versus the digital tools people were using.

More recently I have found myself working along side interior designers and architects helping companies to jointly optimise digital workplace technology into new office designs, because theory is now finally becoming practice. This also means that more than ever I spend time looking critically at the constant stream of new apps and Web-based services appearing to see if they have the potential to change the workplace (even if only subtly).

One app that has caught my attention is Microsoft Sway. I have been watching the evolution of Sway since the preview was announced at the beginning of October last year. Last week it moved into general availability.

Why is Sway interesting?

The obvious comparison to make is with PowerPoint and other newer presentation tools - such as Prezi and Haiku Deck - but this misses the point about what Sway is attempting to do.

The design and function of PowerPoint - originally released for the Mac in 1987 - entirely reflects the concept of a presentation and the constraints of desktop computing from that era. This is evident in the very concept of a 'slide' in PowerPoint and other features such as speaker 'notes' that lend themselves to being printed.

More recent solutions like Prezi and Haiku Deck have taken advantage of advances in computer power and the Internet, but ultimately these are simply attempts to provide a better presentation tool. For example, look at how Prezi pitches itself:

Unlike slides, Prezi's open, zoomable canvas lets you show the relationships between the big picture and fine details, taking viewers on a compelling, informative journey they're not only likely to enjoy more, but remember and act upon. So you can go from being a good presenter to being a great presenter.

What these tools primarily do is help someone with limited graphic design skills or experience to create a presentation, which will be shown on a screen in front of an audience or printed out and given to them.

Sway has more in common with the digital magazine format made familiar with apps like Flipboard. Rather than assisting users with the job of constructing something that is intended to be presented on a screen or printed out to defined dimensions, Sway is designed for digital consumption. Sway delivers a responsive design for a collection of digitally curated content. And when dynamic rich media and content from social networks like Twitter is embedded in a Sway, people can still interact with it.

It is this change from a presentation to a consumption paradigm and the implications for how people communicate in the workplace that makes Sway interesting, if widely adopted in the enterprise.

For example if you examine the typical meeting space in a modern office, the chances are it has been deliberately setup for one-to-many presentations. This configuration includes a large screen at one end of the room, with a table and seating orientated for the benefit of the presenter. Considering that back in 2001, Microsoft was quoted as claiming "at least thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day", there must be a lot of meeting rooms around the world setup this way.

Now imagine what might happen if we stopped presenting to people in the workplace, and instead provided them with a package of content to browse and explore before, during and after a meeting? What would this mean for the design of meeting spaces, if we were free of the "shrine to PowerPoint" layout?

A few months ago I used a presentation to the NSW KM Forum in Sydney as an opportunity to use Sway in a group setting, rather than deliver a traditional presentation or simply talk without slides. I came prepared with a Sway, which contained more content (include videos) than I could possibility present in the time available.

Being long and narrow, the room we used was an ideal situation to try this experiment because in theory everyone would be given equal access to the content regardless of where they had decided to sit. However, two practical challenges immediately became apparent:

The other issue was that while the room provided a good excuse to try Sway, in fact a more casual or roundtable arrangement would have been better. Ultimately I was somewhat forced into a traditional presentation format, rather than the conversation I was aiming for.

Despite those particular set backs in that experiment, I can see the opportunity to create a completely different dynamic to meetings and other collaborative activities in the workplace - assuming of course we can provide the right kinds of meeting space and every participant has ready access to a device and the network. Sway could actually enable us to make better use of both under-utilised physical spaces and more effective use of the online medium, which are littered with static PowerPoint files that often lack the context provided by the original presenter.

In the latest release, Microsoft has actually included a new feature that provides more control to someone presenting a Sway. But I hope this is really a transitory step and Microsoft continue on a path of developing Sway as unique digital consumption tool rather than a new version of PowerPoint. It might help make our workplaces more conversational, adaptable and creative, and less bullet point driven.

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