Office Sway, First Take: Digital storytelling, Microsoft-style

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Microsoft is still finding new features to add in to the next version of Office, but the Office team is also coming out with a wide range of new tools -- especially mobile apps with simpler purposes than the standbys of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Some of those Microsoft is acquiring, like the mobile Outlook mail and calendar apps that used to be Accompli and Sunrise and the Wunderlist to-do app. But it's also building its own new tools to work a little differently, and that's where Sway fits in.

The latest project from Chris Pratley, who was behind OneNote (now popular but for a long time a hidden treasure in Office), Sway doesn't fit neatly into any existing app categories. It's very definitely not a replacement for PowerPoint, although you can use it for presentations. It's not a web authoring tool, although Sways can live on the web and you can view them in a browser. It's a great way of showing off photos, but it's not a traditional photo album tool. It's not for building apps, although what you end up with is somewhere between an app, a website and a digital magazine. If you remember the Mac's HyperCard tool, there are similarities to that too.

Digital storytelling

Microsoft says Sway is for 'digital storytelling', and it fits in very well with some recent trends like responsive design and interactive stories. Think of it as a way of collecting content -- anything from photos to maps to tweets to music to charts and even PDFs, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations -- and having it arranged almost automatically into a professionally presented, nicely laid-out, dynamic result that you can see in a browser, that fits to the screen size for whatever device you view it on. What you get isn't quite a web page, or an app, or a photo album, or a report, or a presentation: 'story' is a rather generic term, so Microsoft calls it a 'Sway'.

Sway the app started out on iOS and as a web app, first for consumers using a Microsoft account and then as part of the First Release preview on Office 365 (storing information in OneDrive for Business rather than OneDrive); it's now out of preview on the web and also available as a Windows 10 app.

This has a couple of extra features; you can see and present your Sways offline, even if you created them in the web app, as long as you've synced them first. And you can sign in with both a personal Microsoft account and a domain account at the same time, so you can access your own OneDrive to get a picture for a work Sway, or just switch between personal and work Sways without logging in and out.

Otherwise, it has the same straightforward interface as the web and iOS apps. You can see thumbnails of all the Sways you've made before or click Create New.

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The Sway you're working on is visible in the background, and the storyline for it sits in the middle of the screen, with tools sliding into view in a panel on the left when you choose the Insert, Cards, Design or Navigation buttons in the toolbar. Insert is how you add content from the web, OneDrive, OneNote, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and the PicHit stock site (or your device's camera), one element at a time. Pick a PDF, Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file and those get embedded in the Sway, with a viewer that lets you browse the content.

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All the content in your Sway is laid out in cards, which you use to add or organise chunks of information. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Cards are how you organise chunks of content. There are cards for grouping content into stacks, lists, grids and slideshows, but there are also cards for specific content types. Some of that duplicates content you could insert, like a picture or video, so you can start by thinking you want a photo and then click the placeholder later to add the specific image (including animated GIFs). Or you can start by thinking the photo you want is on Flickr and navigate straight to it. Select a card in your storyline to see options like adding a URL or a bulleted or numbered list, and select two or more cards to group them together.

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The steps for making a chart are similar to PowerPoint, although you get fewer options that end up producing slicker charts. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Cards let you embed anything you can put in an iframe, from a SoundCloud audio track to a 3D model from Sketchaframe to a Google Map section. You can also add a chart: type or paste the data into a table, pick from six types, each with a few options, and then choose the colours or shapes. That's far simpler than most chart tools -- you don't get power options, but you always get a good-looking chart.

Good design via limited options

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Pick the font, colours and look of your Sway from the presets, or customise the details. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

That's the principle of Sway: there are three ways of laying out your navigation -- vertical, horizontal, or one screen of information at a time. There are dozens of design variations on the six basic styles (from classic to folksy). Even if you customize the design, you're picking the font, the colour palette and colour inspiration, and whether the animation is subtle, moderate or intense. However, you're not going in and tweaking individual font sizes or choosing the style for each caption.

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Click on the areas of the image that you don't want cropped out on smaller layouts like a phone screen. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

What you can do is tell Sway what matters, by setting the key area of an image so it never gets hidden, adding an 'accent' of emphasis to a few words or picking a photo to be shown bigger by giving it more stars than the others. Sway comes up with the overall layout -- if you don't like it, you can hit the Remix button to get a new look. This is declarative design; you never draw a text box or choose the alignment of an image . If you want a consistent, responsive design, Sway needs to be able to move and resize things; you can set constraints to make sure it highlights and shows what you care most about, but you're not sweating fiddly details that are both tedious and badly suited to designing for a wide range of screen sizes.

Like OneNote and the Mobile Office apps included in Windows 10, you don't need to save Sways -- they're autosaved to either OneDrive or OneDrive for Business, depending on how you signed into Sway. That even applies to what would be dialogue boxes in another interface: you don't click 'OK' once you've set the focus points that keep the important details of a photo visible, you just close the dialogue box. This does take a little getting used to. You can use the Share button to send links to Twitter and Facebook, get an embed code to use on a website or save your Sway at the revamped docs.com site that Microsoft runs. If you like a Sway you come across, you can choose Duplicate this Sway; that opens it in the web Sway app and saves it to your Sway library, so you can edit it in the app as well.

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This menu option looks as if it lets you select more sources for content, but is actually a feedback form. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Deceptively simple

Sway is deceptively simple. It looks as if there are hardly any options and you can't tinker with obscure settings. If you have a specific design in mind, you might find it hard to get exactly that layout. But the handful of tools you do get let you bring together a wide selection of content, from chunks of the web to traditional documents to photos and videos and things that just don't fit into a PowerPoint-style presentation. The options allow you to identify what you care about and get a layout that emphasizes that. And for anyone who isn't a trained designer, the automatic design features are likely to give you a far better result that traditional DTP and web design tools.

Topics: Microsoft, Enterprise Software, Reviews

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