Common mistake – Only looking at what’s new

This is not specific to Office 365 – it is a general phenomenon. IT professionals are especially prone to this “What’s New Syndrome”. Whenever any product is being considered for purchase, deployment or adoption, What’s New becomes an important part of the discussion. Unfortunately, that is NOT the right way to plan rollout or adoption of ANY product. Why? Because focusing on What’s New assumes you already know What’s Old (and are using it effectively) – which is rarely true!


Photo credit: Georgie Pauwels / Foter / CC BY

Read all articles in this series: Knowledge Pack: Office 365 Worst Practices

The Problem

Any technology vendor which has an established product will focus on enhancing it in the long run. Therefore, most of the marketing material available for such products will focus on What’s New.

If multiple products are bundled together, there could be a combined version of What’s New as well – which cuts across the ingredient products.

Nothing wrong about highlighting what is new in the next version or upgrade. The problem is with the audience which is looking at and interpreting the What’s New list.

The vendor assumes that people already know the “old” (or existing) features. Therefore they don’t focus on that part. However, existing users of the product will NOT know the entire product feature set even if they are using it for many years. That is where the gap starts building up.

If the product is widely used and has been around for many years, this gap is so big that you just cannot imagine its size, extent and impact on the world. Microsoft Office is such a product.

Looking at What’s New in Office is a futile exercise when you realize that you don’t even know what existed in it 20 years back. In fact, many of us (at least vaguely) know that we don’t know existing features. But we are not worried – because work is getting done.

Unfortunately, the situation worsens when Office is bundled with Skype, OneDrive, Delve, Sway, Yammer and so on, What’s New has a whole NEW (and confusing) meaning!

Many of these products are completely unknown to users. Therefore the existence of the product itself is a NEW thing! In fact, even within Office there are products which are completely unknown to most users – OneNote being a great example.

Let us look at how this excessive focus on “What’s New” hampers effective adoption and consumption and delivers very poor ROI.

The manifestation

As the deployment and adoption related communication is focused on What’s New oriented features, users simply do not understand the context of what the product (or specific feature) is useful to them. In fact, it confuses them and pushes them into thinking “this is too complicated, let me stick to what I know works!”.

Most of the internal marketing or awareness campaign focuses on features which the vendor has highlighted in their latest promotional material. That is simply not the right starting point.

The Solution

  • Do NOT focus on What’s New while planning the awareness creation and skill delivery of the newly deployed product.
  • What’s New is a list that makes sense to someone who knows what was old.
  • In most cases, users do not know what was old. Therefore, focus on business needs and the set of features which will solve the problem. Whether these are new or old is irrelevant.
  • Focus on what users NEED.
    • If it improves something they are already doing in a dramatic or significant way, users will use it.
    • If it gives users a completely NEW and useful capability, they will use it.
    • There is no third way of making users utilize technology!
  • Deliver knowledge from the place where current knowledge ends.
  • Do not try to teach people level 7 things when they are at level 1.
    You must help them in the journey between 1 to 7.
  • In fact, in most cases level 1 knowledge is also partial and involves MISUSE rather than efficient usage of existing features. Even this needs to be handled.
  • Do NOT use the jargon, language, feature brand names which the vendor is using.
    Those are used with the assumption of the existing feature set is already known. Lesser the jargon used, more effective the campaign is.
    Example: Highlight the fact that whenever a drop-down is opened, you can move the mouse over various options and you can see its effect on the selection in a real-time (live) manner. If you move the cursor away, nothing changes. If you click on the one you like, it is applied. This saves you lot of time which you usually waste in trial and error and undo. (Incidentally, this is called Live Preview. But users need NOT know that name as long as they know its benefits and use it regularly.)
  • Office 365 is NOT about small, patchy improvements. If used correctly, it revamps the most day-to-day activities of users. Therefore, it is better to take a transformative approach rather than a feature-functionality approach.
  • Whether to mention a feature is NEW depends upon the context
    • If users are utilizing the older feature set – show the new benefit and highlight the business context where it is useful
    • If users are not aware of the old feature at all, mentioning what’s new is irrelevant. Just highlight the business need and the solution as it stands now.
    • If it is a completely new feature – illustrate the business scenario or the need or the problem and show how this new thing solves the problem elegantly. Again, no need to mention it is new.

Detailed Example

If you look at Office 365 promotional material, you will see that the NEW things mentioned there are as follows. (http://success.office.com)

  1. More efficient work (Get it Done)
  2. Work even on mobile devices ( On the Go)
  3. Access files anywhere and any device (Your files anywhere)
  4. Better meeting management (Make meetings matter)
  5. Newer ways of working together (Work like a network)

All good. These are features which are combination of individual product features. But if you promote them as-it-is, users simply do not understand the benefits – even though they desperately need the new features and products.

For example, better meeting management involves using Outlook Calendar, OneNote, OneDrive and Skype for Business together.

  1. During meeting right click on Calendar entry and create notes in OneNote
  2. In OneNote, hover over attendee name to see presence information and chat with them
  3. From OneNote add action points as tasks in Outlook and even delegate to others
  4. Record audio to ensure you don’t miss anything
  5. Share the notebook so that everyone can see each others notes and eliminate any ambiguity
  6. Work on browser, mobile or full version of OneNote
  7. Get full auditing capability to know who changed what

If user reads this, they will NOT be impressed. They will be confused. Because each of these items ASSUMES some prerequisite knowledge – which is usually missing. For example:

  1. Most users do not know what is OneNote! (Yes I am serious)
  2. Even if they know about OneNote, they don’t know how to use it
  3. If they know how to use it, they don’t know how to create a shared notebook on OneDrive
  4. They don’t know how to access OneNote on a mobile device or browser
  5. Often the microphones in corporate PCs are disabled by IT
  6. Even if few people know about this in pockets, all people participating in the meeting don’t know all these things (especially bosses)
  7. If some user is genuinely knowledgeable and tries to teach all this to attendees, the attempt will fail: Other attendees will think of it as a waste of precious meeting time rather than empowerment.
  8. Finally, as a user I am worried about accountability, visibility and control I have (and others have) on my OneNote notebook. If I am worried and I don’t have clear answers, I have two choices – find out or give up. Give up has been the default action, at least as far as Office is concerned for decades. So it wins.
  9. What’s New is converted to What’s going to remain forever new!


2 Responses

  1. Nice blog but I think that users do need to know what has changed or what is different to what they are used to when they upgrade to ensure a smooth transition however this should not be confused with introducing new features

    1. Thanks for your comment Dave. I agree that what is new should be highlighted.

      Let me explain a bit more.
      But the approach has to be appropriate. If it an existing feature which was being used and is now enhanced, users have to be told what has improved and how to use it correctly.
      If it is an enhanced feature which is not used at all in the past, the core scenario and benefit of newest form of the feature should be highlighted directly.

      If it is a completely new capability, show the business context, the need and the benefit in a compelling way – while implicitly answering the question “What is in it for me (user)?”

      In most cases, things are not so simple. We don’t use features in isolation. We use them in combinations. These combinations are usually learnt by trial and error – and hence inefficient in most cases.

      Highlighting a new feature is just not enough in such cases. You have to change the complete behavior – change the set of features being used in the context (even if most of the features existed earlier). It is a new “set of features” rather than “set of New features” that is important.

      I intend to cover nuances of these aspects in a separate article in near future.

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