Office 365 Planner – Overview and Initial Impressions
Office 365 Planner was recently released, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I waited anxiously for this tool because our organization specializes in solutions on the Office 365 and SharePoint platforms, specifically regarding data management and project management. In addition to the customizations and developments we do for our clients, we use these tools extensively for our own needs – project management, timesheets, budgeting, resource allocation and more. We believe in pushing these tools’ capabilities as far as they’ll go, and our experience gives us a great deal of perspective in helping clients build their solutions. To me, it’s a requirement for Office 365 / SharePoint solutions experts to use the platform for real-world business – not just demos and sales pitches.
In this post, I’d like to give you my initial impressions of Planner’s new set of capabilities, now that I’ve used the program with SharePoint and Project Server Online to manage Timlin’s client projects. I’ll share what I like, what I don’t like and where I’d like to see the software go in the future. We won’t dive too deeply into specifics, but I’m always happy to share more about how we’ve put this platform’s pieces together for our own needs, as well as our clients’ needs. If you’re involved in Project Management, Kanban, Collaboration, Document or Task Management, Portfolio and Resource Management, Professional Services Automation or Timesheets, there may be something here that can help you.
First, Planner is very easy to use. Creating a plan is quick and simple, and the program automatically generates an associated Office 365 Group, which in turn provides its own level of collaboration infrastructure. This infrastructure includes OneNote notebook, conversation feed, calendar, lightweight document library and an easy-to-manage list of Planner members. Simply put, the creation of a plan includes a Group with all the bells and whistles.
If you’re accustomed to Project Server, Project Client, task lists and Gantt charts, this way of working will feel pretty new. Planner’s process is much more ad hoc, fast and notification-based than traditional styles of project and task management, and there isn’t even a task list or a tie-in to a project.
Planner also captures the newer design elements users have come to expect of web applications. We’ve been using it internally for non-client related activities that don’t warrant an entire project plan, resource management and infrastructure and overhead. The classic list and row-driven approach has become stale, and this modern user experience is a breath of fresh air.
The notification system is based on the conversation elements tied to Groups, and assigning tasks and receiving email and conversational notifications along with task comment updates is very helpful. However, I’m not a “stream of consciousness” kind of planner. I may think that way, but when I want to plan things out on paper or screen, I need to stay organized. The Conversation features of Groups is a big catch-all at this point, and the recent addition of “Connectors” allows feeds from external sources, which will further clutter the data. I would like to see a better process for categorizing, bucketing, and filtering all of this data without using the search function.
Moving on, Microsoft has finally brought back task aggregation, but this time it’s in the form of Planner. All tasks created and assigned are available under the “My Tasks” circle in the main navigation menu. It appears this layout is the replacement for the quietly removed classic task rollup in SharePoint, which I very much appreciated. However, it doesn’t include tasks from non-Planner locations, such as those living in task lists, using the task content type or coming from Project Server Online.
Finally, the Charts page looks neat, but it ultimately isn’t much more than a visual indicator for task statuses and assignments. It’s useful, but it’s a little underwhelming. There are some clickable elements, which essentially filter the tasks that you can also group with non-editable metadata elements. It’s a different way to look at the tasks and statuses, but it offers more of a clean-looking veneer than any real functionality.
What I Like
Moving on from the overview, the following are a few of the program’s elements I really enjoy:
- Planner’s user experience is much better than the standard task and list management experience of the Web 2.0 days. Modern UI capabilities, such as web-based drag and drop, minimal mouse clicks and interface simplicity are the name of the game here. Creating plans, cards, buckets and details within a card feels more like you’re in a mobile app than a classic computer interface, and it works surprisingly well on a desktop screen. Overall, I really enjoy the user experience over the classic SharePoint’s, especially for the target usage.
- Planner Task surfacing is also excellent. When you’re assigned a task, you’re simultaneously notified via email through the Group conversation elements, and the interface for viewing all of your assigned tasks is quick and easy to find.
- Card-based tasks – and the UI in general – are easy to read and use, and they offer a decent visual foundation for placing data elements. Each task card has basic, pertinent information and visual indicators for its title, messages, links and assignee. Clicking on it provides a “most needed” set of information, including a few nice features such as attachments, a checklist and a running commentary. All of the document-based data attachments are stored in the Groups library, and updates are automatically surfaced via the conversation feature.
- Planner includes a running comments section, which has proven to be quite useful for sending updates and correlating discussions and information to specific tasks and cards.
- You can email the “plan,” and because that plan is simply an Office 365 Group, everyone in the plan is automatically included and dropped into the conversation history.
- Planner is very easy to adopt. I get the feeling Microsoft kept it light to keep it intuitive, but also to bring it to market with minimal testing requirements. Almost any user can pick the program up in minutes, and most will master the functionality in no time.
Overall, this software is very useful. A highly functional program that can be mastered in minutes hits that magic spot that Steve Jobs always managed to find with Apple products. Microsoft is really on to something here, even if it’s just the beginning. Planner is so easy to use that I can create a plan, drop in some data and notify the right people in about five minutes. I understand why people appreciate Trello, Basecamp and Asana, but I can’t use siloed tools that don’t live in the integrated business world of Office 365. Planner solves that problem.
What I Don’t Like
All that being said, there are still several problems with Office 365 Planner, and this wouldn’t be a critical evaluation if we didn’t take a look at the things that can be done better. I’ll begin with the smaller implementation items:
- Tasks only allow single-user assignment, but tasks are often assigned to multiple users.
- Task communication and notifications occur via “Conversations” in Groups, which, due to Groups’ disconnections from Planner, doesn’t provide the best user experience. Conversations doesn’t categorize or tag notifications, which makes it too linear for my liking.
- There is no customization. What you see is what you get with Planner, and that’s going to come as a shock for anyone accustomed to SharePoint, MS Project or Project Server. Metadata options, task status, charts – it’s all fixed.
- Task data is also fixed. I thought there would be at least a few options to collect more data elements with a task, but you’re locked into the options Microsoft gives you. Tasks are completely independent in nature, with no connectivity to any elements other than embedded links or “attachments,” which are actually stored in the Group files.
- The “My Tasks” page is too basic, displaying only your cards. Those cards are bucketed based on status, but status options are fixed. It would be nice if Microsoft had at least color-coded them, displayed sticky notes or offered some other sort of custom categorization and prioritization. Despite its flaws, the old SharePoint process at least grouped them by location, so you could only view the projects you knew were high priority. What’s more, you’re limited to Planner tasks, but there are a lot of users who use task lists for other reasons.
- The main landing page, Planner Hub, is a simple representation of all the Plans you can access. Landing pages usually represent a jumping-off point, but everything surfaced on a landing page is also in your left-nav. You see your favorites in a chart, followed by a bunch of plans without filtering, grouping or interaction. Landing pages are important, though, and a lot could be done here to make the Hub more useful – especially for users with lots of tasks and plans.
- Navigation elements are locked down. You can pick a color for a plan block, but that’s about it as far as visual updates and access are concerned.
- Permissions are very basic. Everyone either has full access or none. Some type of tiered system is probably warranted for more robust management.
Overall, the big issue with Planner is that the experience is disconnected. The program is related to but not integrated with Office 365 Groups, and it sits in an entirely separate web application (tasks.office.com). Groups, on the other hand, are part of OWA. Accessing the group tools, even automatically, opens up a new window because there’s no path back to the plan. It’s not connected to the plan from the group, even if the group was created from the plan.
My main disappointment, however, is the lack of integration of any kind with Project Server Online or SharePoint sites. At Timlin we use Project Server Online heavily for resource management, robust project planning, budgeting, time tracking and more. We then connect those plans to SharePoint sites in Office 365 with a whole system and template for managing projects, data, communications, workflows, forms, project lists, status and access. This process is the lifeblood of our business, both internally and in the solutions we build for our clients. Planner is in isolation from all of it. You can do some great stuff with Project Server Online, SharePoint Online, Power BI, Nintex Workflow and Forms. What’s still missing is a friendly and flexible end user interface designed for people who work on the tasks.
We’re knee-deep in these technologies right now, and I plan to release a Part 2 of this article in a few weeks to talk about next steps, vision and some potential plans to reach our goals. If Planner and similar tools are important to you and your organization, please reach out and contact Timlin for a discussion!
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