Office 365 Admin Center switches to jazzy new interface

Microsoft has released a new user interface for the Office 365 Admin Center. It's bright, breezy, and looks better than its predecessor. However, the new UI is incomplete and seems to be a little buggy. All of these problems will be sorted out in time but the appearance of the new UI as the default for all Office 365 tenants is another example of how change occurs in the cloud - sometimes unexpected, out of your control, and initially not for the best. But it will all be good in the end. Just keep your trust.

At the start of March, Microsoft began the process of switching out the current version of the Office 365 Admin Center to a fresh design. The new interface has been in preview for a couple of months and is now the default view exposed when portal.office.com is accessed by most tenants. Curiously the switch occurred despite the fact that the new interface is not yet functionally equivalent to the older Admin Center.

Anne Michels of Microsoft explained in a Yammer post that: “We reached a milestone where the functionality used by large portion of our customer base is available in the new portal. Based on that milestone and due to very positive feedback from our preview customers, we’re rolling the new portal out as a default experience.” She went on to acknowledge that “there are specific scenarios that are needed … that are not available yet in the new portal… We’re working on getting to feature parity as soon as possible and plan to achieve this within a few weeks.

Michels made it clear that Microsoft has no plans to update the administrative centers for the individual Office 365 applications. In effect, this means that Exchange Online will continue to use the Exchange Administration Center (EAC) while other applications like SharePoint Online, Yammer, and Skype for Business will continue to use their own approach to administration.

Although some question why Microsoft doesn’t impose a common look and feel across all the administrative interfaces used by Office 365 applications, a certain logic supports the continuing use of the same kind of look and field as exists for on-premises counterparts. For instance, using a similar interface for Exchange Online administration to the EAC for Exchange 2013 and Exchange 2016 on-premises reduces the need for administrators to learn new techniques when they switch from on-premises servers to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Microsoft is building specific interfaces for Office 365 when administrative functionality spans multiple workloads. For example, the Compliance Center brings together policies, reports, and other features that work across Exchange Online and SharePoint Online. 

Returning to the new Admin interface, it’s certainly true that it is more graphically “interesting” than the older version. The intention is to highlight common tasks and make them easier to perform, both being laudable goals. Experienced administrators might consider some of the interface to be flashy rather than useful, but you have to remember that the majority of Office 365 tenants are small to medium companies whose administrators don’t necessarily view Office 365 as their full-time focus.

In any case, experienced administrators are as likely to head for PowerShell to get tasks done as they are to open the Office 365 Admin Center. And Microsoft is keeping the old-style Office 365 Admin Center around until the new version is fully functional.

I don’t really have many objections that Microsoft has revamped the Office 365 Admin Center and I quite like some of the changes, such as the way that properties are exposed when an account is selected. For instance, it's good to be able to see all the groups to which an account belongs and be able to clean up by removing memberships in the same context. I also like the way that objects are fetched and displayed as required rather than having to move through data 50 objects at a time. 

The new interface appears to share some characteristics with the Office 365 Admin mobile app (available for Windows Phone,  Apple iOS and Android) and the Office 365 Admin Universal app for Windows 10 that is currently in beta and available in the Windows Store. The mobile app has been in a state of frequent update since its launch last year and is pretty good in terms of enabling "on the go" tenant administration.

Any heartburn I have arises from the fact that the new interface was released when it was not ready for prime time. Compared to its predecessor its performance seems slower at times and some functionality is missing. It’s hard to be definitive on performance and no doubt Microsoft will tweak web pages to restore normal service. I’ve also run into some odd bugs that I can’t reproduce in any meaningful way, like objects not being listed correctly. But hey, this is the cloud and all will be well if you just care to wait. And it would have been nice to see the new Reports functionality rather than just read about it. From what I've read, I don't think that Cogmotive (who offer free reports for tenants with less than 50 seats) will be quaking in their boots just yet.

Patience isn’t my forte. I would have preferred if Microsoft had waited to sort out the bugs and functionality to make a like-for-like swap possible. No doubt the “positive feedback from … preview customers” tilted the balance and convinced the great and the good who gather in conference rooms in Redmond to make decisions that affect the multitude. We should all be grateful that they decided to let us find all the flaws that proliferate in the new UI.

I’ll probably be marked down as an ungrateful old man for pointing out that the new UI isn’t particularly good (just about the kindest turn of phrase I can come up with). But I can live with that label.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

Update: After this post appeared, Microsoft asked me to remind Office 365 admins that they can provide feedback about the new interface through the link provided in the new portal:

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Mar 19, 2016

Response from Anne Michels, Microsoft product manager (posted non Yammer):

Hi Tony,
First of all, thanks for reading my blog posts and for already thoroughly testing the new Office365 admin center.
And thank you even more for your open and candid feedback.
I understand that switching from a well-known interface to a completely new experience is never easy and can be even painful for some customers. Thus, great to hear that you like a lot of the changes we’ve made. As you pointed out, the new interface is now being accessed by the majority of Office 365 admins for the first time, and we’re receiving a lot of detailed feedback like yours that helps us not to only improve the admin center further but to also prioritize which features we bring over from the old admin center first.
Yes, we’re not at 100% feature parity yet – I promise we’ll get there very soon though – but we wanted to make sure to provide access to the improved admin center to everybody as soon as possible. Early access and transparent communication are two areas that we know we can do better in and that are extremely important to our customers. Though, this might lead to a frustrating situation where you read about a coming feature like the reporting portal but you still have to wait a little to get your hands on it. As you’re based in Ireland (correct?) you should be able to see the first reports soon. The rollout for Europe will start in April.
Please keep the feedback coming! As we’re currently adding new features on a daily basis, we’d love to connect with you at the beginning of April to hear how you like the improvements. Please let me know if you’d be available for a quick call then.
Thanks,
Anne

on May 28, 2016

So, if a Microsoft validated vendor expands the solution to cover Office 365 management aspects too that are provided by these 3rd party tools or at least missing ones in OAC and EAC – leaving aside the PowerShell, then surely it is a great option. Even, standalone GUI tools to manage Office 365 operations are good enough – in my opinion.

on Mar 19, 2016

And my response:

Hi Anne,

Thanks for responding.

There are three issues at play here. First, forcing the new interface onto people by making it the default before it was ready. I believe this is acceptable for early-stage products when an attempt must be made to gain traction in the marketplace. Office 365 is hardly in this situation, so it is quite baffling why Microsoft insists in pumping out ill-prepared software at this point. Small customers are disrupted as much as enterprises by premature transitions, so where's the benefit apart from the chance for engineers to gain feedback through the trials and tribulations of tenant administrators?

Second, launching a new interface without communicating exactly what does and does not work in the interface when compared to the previous version. I'm sure such a list exists within Microsoft and suspect that it could not be published because it might have revealed just how unready the new interface actually was.

Third, announcing new functionality so long before it appears. This happens all the time in blogs.office.com. Again, perfectly acceptable when you want to gain traction in the market but unacceptable when you have so many customers who use the product on a daily basis.

All of these issues have simple solutions. Launch when ready rather than forcing the pace when not. Document what is in place to a much better level than now. And make announcements the week before functionality is generally available rather than an aspirational notion on the part of marketing and product management. Quality is always appreciated. Rushing software into production seldom leads to quality.

TR

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Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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