I like big bots and I cannot lie …

… You other users can’t deny
That when a bot loads up with a big knowledgebase
and throw questions in its face
You get answers …

OK, enough of that. I saw a tweet by James Marshall (@jamesbmarshall) which he followed up with a blog post where he spoke about building a bot using in less than an hour with zero code.  His jamesbmarshallbot (a chat bot to handle out of office queries) piqued my interest and I wanted to have a go myself to see if the claims were true.

I used the QNAMaker website which is heavily wizard based and will either take a FAQ from a page, allow you to upload questions and answers in a tab separated text file or you can manually enter the questions and answers on the page.  Following the instructions on James’ blog page I quite quickly was able to create StuartRidoutBot which, similarly to James’ bot, would answer queries if I was out of the office.  You can interact with StuartRidoutBot in the following ways:

Next Steps

I was happy with the bot but not the standard welcome (Welcome You!) or the response if it couldn’t find an answer (the rather abrupt No match found!)

With some help from Gary Pretty’s blog I found that you could change these standard greeting and response.   I had to slightly modify the approach as I had deployed using the Azure Bot Service.

Customising the welcome message

  1. In the Azure Bot Service, go to your bot and ensure you’re in the Develop tab.
  2. Select the run.csx file
  3. Find the code highlighted below and edit the message to suit

Edit the error message

In the Azure Bot Service select the BasicQnAMakerDialog.csx file and find the code highlighted below.

public BasicQnAMakerDialog() : base(new QnAMakerService(new QnAMakerAttribute(Utils.GetAppSetting("QnASubscriptionKey"), Utils.GetAppSetting("QnAKnowledgebaseId"),"Sorry but I can't find an answer.  Could you please rephrase your question?")))

The code highlighted above should be added in (including the comma) as an extra parameter to the QnAMaker definition.


The Microsoft Bot Framework, QNAMaker service and Azure Bot Service make it really easy to get started.   Hope this helps! Let me know how you get on with your bot.

Other useful resources

James Mann’s YouTube video – Creating an intelligent FAQ bot with QnAMakerDialog

Office 365 Planner is here … and it’s awesome!

If you follow any of Microsoft’s Office 365 blogs, Yammer groups or Twitter accounts you’ll know that their cloud based project management and planning tool, Office 365 Planner, has launched this week to tenants on the appropriate plans (Office 365 Enterprise E1, E3, E4, E5, Office 365 Education, Office 365 Education E3 and E4, Office 365 Business Essentials and Business Premium).

If you are a regular SharePoint user you may have noticed the green Planner tile appear in the Office 365 launcher when you click on the launcher icon at the top left of your Office 365 window.

This product has been in development for some time and has been on beta preview to ‘First Release’ customers since December 2015.  Now finally it has launched and it was certainly worth the wait!


Office 365 plans are linked to ‘modern groups’ which provide a collaborative workspace for teams with shared mailbox, OneDrive, OneNote notebook, calendar and now planning workspace.

Tasks are added to the overall plan and are displayed as cards.   These can be arranged as ‘buckets’ to organise the tasks by work type, team or any other way, or can be displayed by progress.  The latter view shows the cards in three categories of ‘Not started’, ‘In progress’ and ‘Completed’.

Tasks can be assigned to individuals and can contain rich data to add more detail including description, start and due date, file attachments, links, checklists and a message log.


Where Office 365 Planner really comes into its own is its tight integration into the Office 365 ecosystem.   If information security is important to an organization (and why wouldn’t it be?) Planner is great as it reduces the number of cloud services a company deals with and is protected by the Microsoft Office 365 Trust Center.

Office 365 Planner has really simple but effective reporting tools with a dashboard view that is easy to use.  You can get a ‘at a glance’ view of the state of the plans showing task completion and allocation so you can see who is over or underallocated.   You can click on a section and the corresponding tasks are displayed in the right hand column.  (In the example below you could click on Alex Darrow and Alex’s tasks would be displayed in the right hand pane organized by In Progress and Late tasks).


It’s still early days for Planner so some key features (for me) are missing.   You cannot share plans externally so you cannot have a plan that is shared with customers and suppliers.  This is shown as being in development in the Office 365 public roadmap and when it arrives it will be a huge step forward for the product.  It would be great if users don’t need to be Office 365 users because it could get complicated if one particular supplier was the only part of your plan that couldn’t use the planner.

After using Planner for only a few days I found some of the notifications a little overwhelming.   It would be good if you could temporarily turn off notifications, especially when setting up lots of tasks as my mailbox went crazy!

These negatives are only minor for me and Planner doesn’t cost anything extra for Office 365 subscribers on an appropriate plan.   Click on the tile and try out Office 365 Planner today!

Could FindTime be the answer to your meeting scheduling woes?

If you’ve worked with people from other companies you’ll be familiar with the pain of trying to schedule meetings blind.   When it’s just you and one other the email exchanges are relatively brief but once it goes above three or four then the group email message “What time/date works for you?” goes into meltdown with a mass of emails stating “This time works for me” … only for another member to say “I’m on leave that day but what about ?”

To help counter this issue, Microsoft Garage has released FindTime as a free plugin for Office 365 users.   Only the meeting organiser has to be on 365, the others can have on-premise Exchange or even commercial accounts like iCloud or Google Mail.

With FindTime you can set up a few options for meetings, each participant states their availability and preference online by clicking a link.   When all the participants have voted, the best meeting slot is selected and the meeting is automatically scheduled.    FindTime even puts tentative diary slots in your calendar to protect the options until the meeting is confirmed and booked.

You can use FindTime to setup both face to face meetings and teleconferences.  FindTime allows you to add your Skype for Business meeting URL, conference telephone number and participant ID, and it will automatically add the details into the meeting invite if you select an online meeting.


You can start using FindTime today if you are an Office 365 user.

Visit http://findtime.microsoft.com to get started and save time scheduling meetings.




I miss Office 365 – life after connected working


Recently I changed employer and moved from a company with Office 365 to a company that doesn’t.   I didn’t really appreciate the impact of losing Office 365 on the way I work and interact with colleagues.   It takes some time to move your work style to take advantage of the super-collaborative, always on, high-availability approach of Office 365.    But when you do, you won’t look back … until you lose it.

Mobile Working

There are those who say that it blurs the lines between work and personal and upsets their work life balance, but I find it a lot more convenient to have access to work information from whatever device I have to hand.   Office 365 makes it easier to bring your own device and use the most appropriate tool at the most appropriate time.   I became a OneNote convert after transitioning to Office 365 and sometimes took notes on my Windows tablet with the stylus, sometimes on my phone and sometimes on my iPad … but I had a choice.    Combined with apps like Office Lens, it became a breeze to accurately record meeting actions, whiteboard sketches, documents, posters or anything else you can snap with a camera.

Sometimes you have one of those ‘corridor queries’ that you can resolve quickly if you have access on your phone and this is easily done with Office 365.   I could get to my email, SharePoint and OneDrive for Business all via my iPhone.

Collaborative Working

When we moved to Office 365 it made a huge difference to how we communicated and collaborated on documents.   Suddenly my inbox stopped being full of file attachments and started to have sharing invitations.  We became an organisation that used versioning and comments, and did it all in one document.   Previously, everyone made their changes in their emailed copy and the document owner had to identify and merge all of those changes into one document.   This was a lot of work and is very prone to error.

It took time for people to ‘get’ sharing but once they did it was a revolution and reduced the chance of people reading out of date information.   We’ve all been there where we’ve sent out a document and immediately realised an error.   That’s not a problem in the Office 365 sharing culture, so no embarrassing follow-up emails to the boss.   In the non-Office 365 environment, you send a link to a document and people respond to ask you to send as an attachment.   This isn’t efficiency!

Home Benefits

When I left my Office 365 employer I lost my home access to Office 365! I had to actually pay for a home subscription for Office 365 so I could continue to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint at home.

Embracing New Stuff

When you’re in the Office 365 mind-set as a company you embrace new technologies and approaches.   This is partly because it’s encouraged and often you can’t control when Microsoft switch on new services.   In the Office 365 company you’re more likely to see a Sway, use Office Mix to create interactive videos and analyse information in Power BI.    This is a whole level of information sharing that is forbidden in the non-Office 365 world.   It stays local or on company servers.   Don’t transfer, don’t share!


Putting the work into Enterprise Social Network


Enterprise Social Networking is an interesting concept and has the power to change an organisation significantly.  One of the best known is Yammer, started in 2008 as a freemium service and later purchased by Microsoft $1.2bn.   Subsequently this has been integrated into the Office 365 service so is sitting there ready as a challenge for the organisation … how do you make the Enterprise Social Network (ESN) work?

It is important to break down the barriers to adoption to allow people to participate in the network.   These are sometimes cultural, organisational or personal and you make need to take a dual strategy of winning hearts AND minds.   Yammer and Microsoft talk about classifying people as dots of different colours depending on their attitudes towards Yammer

  • Green dots – this group just “get it” and don’t need much encouragement to participate in the network
  • Yellow dots – this group have no strong feelings either way and could be converted to be green with little effort
  • Red dots – this group are fundamentally “anti” working like a network and are a lot of work to convert.

When it comes to driving adoption, concentrate effort on the greens and yellows.   The greens need to trail blaze, show best practice and help convert the yellows.


Barriers to adoption

In many cases, the barriers are based around fear and lack of understanding

  • Fear of loss of control – the ESN allows people to reply, comment, like and share but to people who are used to a high level of control this causes them worry.  What will people comment?  What if they don’t agree with me?  What if they say I am wrong?   What if people believe them (even if THEY are wrong … not me!)?    What if users post an incorrect or inappropriate message?
  • Fear of breaking the hierarchy – the ESN puts everyone on a level.  A new starter can post comments on the CEO’s posts and can question him.  What if I am missed out of the conversation or it doesn’t go through the stepped hierarchy?
  • Fear of social – What if people drop the Enterprise from the ESN and it just becomes Facebook for work?  How will I ensure my employees remain on task and aren’t sharing funny pics and videos on the ESN?
  • Fear of being too busy – “I am too busy and important to go on Yammer.   I need one place for my information; I can’t go to Outlook AND Yammer!”

Ways to move your ESN forward

It’s important to keep chipping away and keep the faith.   Rome wasn’t built in a day, and an Enterprise Social Network won’t be built in a week.   It will take time and persistence to push it within the organisation.   Some steps to take include

  • Identifying ESN champions – make sure they are friendly, knowledgeable experts who participate and guide on the ESN
  • Concentrate on the green dots and the yellow dots.   Cultivate the ‘critical mass’ that can sustain the network and make it become common practice within the organisation
  • Don’t force it – People should want to share, discover and praise on the ESN.  If you schedule updates on a rota or force people to participate it sends the wrong message
  • Get the top brass involved – the hierarchy was mentioned above but breaking the hierarchy is the power of the ESN.   If your CEO ‘likes’ an employee’s post then that’s really encouraging
  • Highlight the business value – a good way to move some of the yellow dots is to be able to present the business value and WIIFM factor.

More information

The Yaminade website and podcast is a fantastic resource about the ESN journey.   If you’re on Yammer and want to be better or find out more information about pretty much any Microsoft product (but especially Yammer and Office 365), the Microsoft Office 365 network is a great place to start.

Microsoft removes family safety for local accounts in Windows 10 forcing children to have online Microsoft accounts

I seemed to be in the minority but I really didn’t have anything bad to say about Windows 8.1.  It worked well on my work and personal devices for me and my family.   In particular I liked the Family Safety features which allowed my four year old daughter to have her own local account with her own apps and crucially no access to my Office 365 documents, mail and applications.

Using the computer

She knew how to use Windows 8.1 and felt a little bit of pride when she switched accounts from Daddy and picked her own face.   As she is only four she didn’t have a password as we’re focusing on learning to write but the computer is in the family room and she always sought parental permission.   Despite this, the weekly activity report was invaluable for ensuring that she wasn’t spending too much time on the computer and was interesting to see which apps she used the most.

Fast forward to our Windows 10 download and installation, and I sat down with my daughter to show her the changes in the OS.  She quickly grasped that she could no longer swipe in from the side, and that she has to maximise the ‘modern style’ apps.   But wait, what’s this?  Family Safety is turned off for local accounts.   I dutifully followed the link to find out how to enable Family Safety which told me that to use the feature, the local account must be switched to a Microsoft account.

Set up family features

So to use the restrictions and get the activity reports I need to sign up my four year old daughter to Microsoft’s services.  Of course, there are now password restrictions so my four year old child needs to remember an eight character password with at least two of upper case, lower case, numbers and symbols.   I’m all for teaching children about information security but this is going to be tricky, especially as the password can’t contain her name as that will be preceding the @ symbol.  The Family Safety web page does say that you can use a picture password for a child but if you are using a corporate Office 365 account then this feature will likely be disabled.

I’m also not sure that I want to sell out my child’s identity by signing up to a Microsoft account so now my choices is to either to that and type in her password for her every time or to lose the family safety features.

Has Microsoft just killed the family in Windows 10?

Three UK network announce arrival of VoLTE


Today ThreeUK network had a huge network announcement and shared this online with a Twitter event #ThreeNetwork.

The network has had a tremendous growth in terms of customer base and network coverage with 8.5 million customers.   Of these 3.5 million are accessing 4G at no extra charge.

I have always found the coverage to be fantastic.  Three quote their coverage has grown from 90% in 2007 to 97% in 2014.   I personally rarely experience bad signal and the 3G or 4G is normally faster than my home ADSL signal.

Today was an exciting announcement as they are rolling out VoLTE and 800MHz 4G from Autumn 2015.  Customers with VoLTE enabled handsets will be able to start using it automatically.

Why is this good news?

VoLTE is HD voice calling and when on a VoLTE call it is claimed that the difference is noticeable by both parties.  VoLTE will also give better coverage in areas that have struggled in the past as it is more efficient than 2G/3G services.

Is my handset VoLTE ready?

There are many VoLTE enabled handsets but popular models include the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Samsung S4 and above and some Lumia Windows 8.1 handsets.

More information

Three have published a blog post with more information.

The iPhone office for Microsoft Office users

I read an excellent blog post by Stephen Waddington today “The iPhone office: 25+ apps for working in public relations on the move“.  Whilst it was an excellent list, with lots of crossover between his most useful apps and my own, there were some noticeable appsimage missing that are in my workflow.

I’d recommend checking out his list and then adding to your collection using the apps below.  For ease, I am using the same sections that Stephen has listed on his post.

Social Networking

Stephen listed the common Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn apps but I am adding Yammer into the mix.  The enterprise social network basic version is free for businesses and the premium version is included in certain Office 365 subscriptions.


Before becoming an Office 365 user I was an Evernote user but in recent months I have migrated to OneNote.  This is an excellent fully featured note taking app that syncs to the cloud for easy access.  This has been continually developed by Microsoft and recently added handwriting support for iPad.

In addition, the Microsoft Word app is free for Office 365 subscribers, maintains fidelity for Word documents and gives you access to your OneDrive files with ease.”


I wouldn’t be without Lync for helping me stay in touch with my work colleagues on the move.  It allows me to see my colleague’s presence status, send instant messages and make video and audio calls.  Lync is about to be rebranded as Skype for Business but as yet there’s no word on a new iOS app to accompany it.

I have been a firm fan of the default iOS Mail app having tried and rejected a number of alternatives.  In January, two months after acquiring Acompli, Microsoft released the rebranded Outlook app which connects to Exchange, outlook.com, iCloud, Google, Yahoo and other IMAP accounts.  It’s the first real contender that stopped me using iOS Mail and Calendar.


As a Microsoft user my documents are all stored in the cloud with my personal files in my consumer OneDrive and my work files in OneDrive for Business.  Up to recently, these were accessed using separate apps but Microsoft has unified the app into the OneDrive app.

Other notable apps

I’ve already posted about the recently released Office Lens app which I believe is a game changer.  You can take photos of whiteboards, printed and handwritten documents, and business cards, and share them in a wide range of formats.

Office Lens released on iPhone (and Android as a preview)

Office Lens

If you’ve seen Office Lens on Windows Phone, you’ll surely have been envious of your Windows Phone colleagues.  Evernote’s recently released document scanner is a bit disappointing so I was really hoping for Office Lens to come to iPhone.

There is no longer any reason to be envious as Microsoft have released Office Lens for iPhone and on Android (as a preview).   So what is Office Lens?

Office Lens is an awesome document and whiteboard scanner but what makes it really awesome is that it will OCR the text (it does struggle with cursive writing so it can’t worked magic on your whiteboard scrawl) and the results for printed text are pretty good.    It is certainly more than acceptable to digitise printed documents, receipts, business cards and post it notes.

But what about getting them out of the app?   Microsoft has come good with a wide range of options to allow you to share your photographed masterpiece.   You can send to OneNote, Word, PowerPoint or OneDrive if you’re on Office 365, and you can save to PDF, send via e-mail or save in your photo library.

I gave it a try on the back cover of my PRINCE2 handbook.   I purposefully took the capture at an angle rather than straight on to challenge the application but it cope admirably capturing the text with great accuracy and outputting to a Word document including the text and the original photograph as a reference.  (see screenshots below)

Office Lens Process

Microsoft have published a nice little introduction video that shows the capabilities well.

Office Lens for Android Preview

To get the Office Lens for Android phone, follow these three easy steps:

    1. Go to Office Lens Android Preview in the Google+ community.
    2. Click Join community in the upper right-hand corner.
    3. Under About this community, click the Become a Tester link and then follow instructions on the page.