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With Sway, Microsoft Reimagines Presentations For The Post-PowerPoint Generation

Instead of reworking its decades-old presentation software, the company is attempting something new–and asking its users to help build it.

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.

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At a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Sway is a new tool that lets users string together images, text, and bullet points in a visually arresting way. In other words, Sway creates presentations, much like PowerPoint. It’s even part of the Microsoft Office suite, having just shed its “Preview” designation after 10 months of private and public testing.

But as Pratley points out, Sway isn’t meant for the same exact audience as PowerPoint. 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. 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 approach is reflective of a company that wants people to feel warmer and fuzzier about its products. Sway is unlikely to be the last example of Microsoft working this way–even if it sometimes means telling people that they’re wrong.

Learning To Let Go

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.

For instance, Sway now includes a slideshow-like layout, so users can advance through one screen at a time instead of continuously scrolling. 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).

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Microsoft is also now hosting Sways on Docs.com, where users can tie multiple Sways into larger collections. 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? 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? Do you really want to do that? Because that’s going to be a lot of work,” Pratley says. 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.

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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.”

A More Approachable Microsoft

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.

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.

Sway in particular could use some early advocates. Although Microsoft won’t reveal user numbers, it says Sways have racked up 5 million pageviews so far. Compare that to 80 million downloads of Office for iPhone and iPad, and it’s clear that Sway is in its infancy. (As for who’s using Sway, Microsoft notes especially strong traction in education, among both students and teachers.)

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In the meantime, responding to the crowd might not be as draining as it seems. “That’s almost a drug that keeps me going in this job, is you just keep doing things that people are asking for,” Pratley says.

Windows 10 is broken down in this video from The 29th Floor:

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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