The Problem with Navigation in Office 365 Groups


Back in the early days of SharePoint, one of the most pressing issues for the steady growth of SharePoint environments (lovingly referred to as “sprawl”) was the difficulty in navigating these sites. And it wasn’t just that new Team Sites being created, but that you had to wade through the many SharePoint Team Site ghost towns to find what you needed. I can almost still see the tumbleweeds moving across my screen. Your team going through a reorg? Create a new site, grab what you need from the old site, and leave the rest. Back in the day, it was painful to merge and consolidate sites as the company grew and business needs changed. The result was a navigation nightmare.

O365 Groups navigation problem tyGraph

Thank goodness we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past, and are much more thoughtful in how we build the latest collaborative solutions, right?

Navigating Groups

I knew there would be problems the first time I saw Office 365 Groups. Conceptually, it makes perfect sense: creating a Group provisions a shared space for a project or team, giving you a place for shared storage, a shared calendar, a shared OneNote notebook, a shared Exchange mailbox, and the ability to create permissions and policies across that Group. And then almost immediately, everyone was creating Groups without considering naming conventions, whether or not there were other Groups with duplicate goals and members, and without any structure for navigation. To paraphrase a quote from the Cold War era, our ability to create had outstripped our ability to control.

We experienced a flood of new Groups, many of which had one or two members — and which made collaboration more difficult. Because Groups can be created from within SharePoint, Outlook, Planner, Power BI, Yammer, and now within Microsoft Teams, many of our customers have expressed concerns that we have gone right back to the wild west of the early SharePoint era. Not to mention the fact that permissions and policies (and features) may be different depending on where the Group was created, which only makes things more confusing.

I love the way Benjamin Niaulin (@bniaulin) summarized Groups over on the Sharegate blog, and specifically his Groups definition: “Office 365 Groups are about centralizing membership and policies in one place, while providing the best possible user experience for its members.” Unfortunately, a confusing navigation experience is not the best possible user experience.

Navigation Help

One of the things I really like about Office 365 is the app launcher. I know it’s been panned by some within the community, but the ability to add my own apps and sites to the app launcher is rather appealing. And then there’s the concept of “pinning” your apps or content to the navigation bar in Windows. My friends with Windows phones say it is one of their favorite features — the ability to pin what they access most frequently right to the start page.

With such great functionality in Windows and in Office 365, why is the Groups navigation so chaotic? With respect, did the product team forget about the almost two decades of experiences with SharePoint and Intranets, where the failures of global navigation were so prevalent? Are we supposed to rely on Delve to find everything?

What do you think? Where do you see Microsoft going with Groups navigation? Am I blowing this out of proportion, or is this problem also impacting your organization? I’d love to hear your feedback on the topic.

And please, take our survey on the organizational impact of Groups.

13 thoughts on “The Problem with Navigation in Office 365 Groups

  • You’re right that Groups relies on the Microsoft Graph. At least for the frequently visited or recently used Groups. I think this makes a lot of sense when it’s consistent across different experiences. If in an Office document, I want to see my frequently visited Groups so I can save to them or open from them. When I’m in a mobile app or in OneDrive, I need to see these frequently visited Groups.
    If Groups are for activity based work and I’m actively working in 5 work groups, this helps me find my work quickly so I can focus.
    When I Favourite a Group, I have some control of the Groups I see. This is much like pinning a document in a Most Recently Used document list.
    We will still use navigation for more formal intranet structures. But Group collaboration will need to continue to leverage the Graph to surface what we are most commonly using. When we move onto another project, it will bubble up in the Frequently visited list.

    • Totally agree. The MRU and favourite methods are important, but i also thing that explicit navigation is important too. For lots of reasons.

      • Explicit navigation has it’s place in a formal Intranet structure and I believe organisations still need Intranets. But I think the human collaboration style is best supported by machine-learning driven navigation, and pinned Favourites help that along.

        • I don’t think this is an either/or solution. ML-driven nav is great for what I’m working on now, but until the whole world moves to holocracy, we still have org structures that for better or worse drive much of the way we see our internal world. Some structure (or at least some ML-driven suggestions of existing groups during the creation process) is absolutely needed to expose things that are happening that you may not be aware of that you should snap to rather than re-create.

  • I got a little thread going over on the Microsoft Tech Community about Favorites. They are a great feature, but still somewhat disjointed as there are at least three different “flavors” of favorites in different tools. While they may sound or look similar, they are not the same thing and not linked in any way which is often confusing to users. Give it a read and reply if you’re interested:

    For the original topic of Office 365 Groups navigation, I’ve been personally putting all pieces of the Group into Microsoft Teams. Some parts are built in obviously, but the parts that aren’t yet can be added through Tabs. Notably the website tab can be used to “pin” the Modern Team Site, the Group’s Mailbox, and the Group’s Calendar. The Mailbox and Calendar may take a little URL manipulation to make sure clicking the tab is landing you in the right location, and it has its quirks still (If when you click the Group’s mailbox you end up looking at your own mailbox, try it again. The 2nd time seems to work, maybe something to do with the website recognizing who you are and then redirecting wrong the first time?)

    Having all of this based in Teams instead of all over the place has helped keep me centralized, and users I’ve guided to set this up have reported back much more positive comments than those who are still left bouncing around all over the place to get the work of their team done.

    • Thanks for your comments, David. Agree Teams are a handy construct for pulling together Groups but we’re finding as good as Teams is, it may not be for everyone. Going to read your Tech Community post. Thanks for adding it!

  • Interesting to read. I agree with most of what you are writing but want to add one aspect – Age. New and frequently used group will be surfaced perfectly by the graph but what if I need to find a group that I worked with two years ago. There need to be other ways of navigating to groups. Search should be one way but for search to be good there needs to be the possibility to add metadata to groups.

    Ps The navigation to different tools within a group can be better. It is easy to get stuck in one of the tools

  • I have a different issue with Groups navigation. The navigation experience in moving among the different components integrated by Groups — Conversation (Outlook), Calendar (Outlook), Files (OneDrive), Notebook (OneNote), Sites (SharePoint), and Planner — can be disjointed :

    – Conversation and Calendar (Outlook), Files (OneDrive) — lovely horizontal navigation bar with access to all the other components. Moving among them takes place in one browser tab.
    – Notebook (OneNote) — when accessed from above navigation bar, opens in a new tab. And the navigation item in the top bar is actually a link to the associated Site.
    – Site (SharePoint) — opens the site in a new tab. Access from site to other Group components is through the Group Conversation item in the top right. But this opens another new tab, so the overall result of going from Conversation/Calendar/Files to Site and “back” is to have 3 tabs open.
    – Planner – opens in new tab, and no navigation in Planner to associate with the other group components.

    • Excellent point Joseph and one we considered in the dev phase for our solution. Thanks for putting your experience / notes in the comment as well. I found that to be a helpful reminder of how hard enterprise software is to re-wire after the fact. Good summary.

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