Updates to Microsoft Teams – The Impact on Accessibility and Usability.

Over the last six months, on-line meeting and coloration tools have been rolled out and utilised at a speed that would probably considered impossible prior to the worldwide pandemic. As such, they are evolving quickly with new features added regularly, to increase capacity, functionality and usability.

One of these tools, Microsoft Teams, will be looked at here. Although it has been in existence since 2016, its usage has exploded in the last 6 months or so. For example in July 2019, it was reported that Teams had 13 million users, and this had more than tripled by April 2020, to 75 million users.

Updates have been published regularly and here we will look at some of these new features and how they may help with accessibility and with running meetings online.

In late July, Microsoft started to roll out a new meeting experience for their desktop Teams app, which brought with it the option of opening calls in a new window. This could be turned on, while in Teams, by going to your profile (found in the upper right corner), choosing settings and then selecting the option to turn on the new meeting experience. A restart of Teams is required to activate the new features. This is not yet available if Teams is opened in a web browser.

Settings page for new features on Teams

The main benefit to this was that the video call now opened in its own window, allowing the main Teams window to be separate, so that the tools and features could be accessed separately, without the Teams call window being minimised.

However, one of the side benefits was that, in the new window, the toolbar for controlling the Teams call is now permanently docked in the top right corner. This gives access to the camera and audio controls, and the leave meeting facility. Previously it only appeared when the mouse was hovered over the active call window, and disappeared in a matter of seconds, making it difficult for those using mouse alternatives, such as head pointers and eyegaze, or using slower mouse movements to access.

However, some of the controls on the toolbar still do not have keyboard shortcut equivalents, making some features inaccessible to users who rely on the keyboard for navigation, for example the option to raise their hand.

Toolbar within Microsoft Teams

Another new feature is the “Together” mode. This allows participants’ video feeds to be presented in a classroom, office or coffee shop background, rather than appearing in a grid format. Although mostly an aesthetic feature, it does have benefits from a psychological point of view, making the meeting feel more informal or formal based on the setting chosen, giving a sense of feeling part of a group etc.

Also, now up to 49 people can attend a meeting with their camera turned on, using a feature called large gallery. This can also help with group cohesiveness, and for presenters to get feedback on facial expressions.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to want to see everyone on screen, and just concentrate on the presenter, focus mode can be enabled.

All three of these features can be found under the More options (…) on the toolbar.

Options on the Microsoft Teams toolbar

Due to come soon is the Spotlight mode, whereby the presenter can ensure that they are the focus of everyone’s Teams experience, by pinning their video or desktop. Unlike Pin Participant, where by the attendees choose to focus on a particular video, Spotlight will be controlled by the meeting organiser, making it a useful tool in educational settings for example.

Another feature to ensure accessibility is the live captions option, again found under the more controls menu. This places live subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

If you are using Teams with children or vulnerable adults, there are some features to be aware of, to help ensure their safety.

If you are planning to record the meeting from your own device, there is the ability (again, under the More Options drop down on the toolbar) to turn off all incoming camera feeds. This helps ensure that no one’s face for example will be accidently recorded.

There is also new functionality added to the “Leave” button. Previously, every participant need to press this icon in order to end the meeting, meaning that the organiser may have left, but participants may still be in the meeting. Vulnerable people may inadvertently continue to broadcast their audio and video feeds. Now, there is an option for the meeting organiser to force everyone to leave by ending the meeting,using the drop down option to the right of the Leave button. .

Leave button on Microsoft Teams

There have also been updates to the Whiteboard and Meeting notes features of Teams allowing for real time collaboration, use of visuals and sticky notes to capture ideas and concepts.

Microsoft continue to add new features and functionality and third party apps to the Teams experience. However, they are keen to understand end user experience and have created the “User Voice” forum to help capture feedback. This can also be access under the help menu (lower left corner of the Teams window, and selecting the Suggest a feature option).

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