The Microsoft Approvals platform, which is used by everyone at the company to get stuff done, has a new look and feel that everyone at Microsoft can approve of—at least until it is replaced by something better.
Sumeet Deshpande, principal engineering manager for the Microsoft Approvals team in Microsoft Core Services Engineering (CSE), is wrapping up his team’s overhaul of the key website that managers across the company use daily to approve expenses and purchases.
Though it’s new and improved, Deshpande hopes no one will have to directly use the new Microsoft Approvals platform all that much.
That’s because Deshpande’s team is taking the ability to approve invoices, expenses, and purchase orders directly to the company’s employees. “We are taking the experience to the user,” Deshpande says.
Over the last three years, they have been hard at work modernizing a Microsoft Approvals platform that processes around 1 million approval actions per month and supports 20,000 employees per week.
“Somewhere from $3 to $5 billion passes through our system each month,” Deshpande says.
The key to this modernization was the use of Microsoft’s Adaptive Cards platform, a nimble open framework of snippets of an embeddable user interface (UI) that have the power to adapt to whatever framework they’re in.
Before the work to transform the Microsoft Approvals platform began, each approval process—whether an expense, purchase order or something else—had its own website destination, UI and sign-on requirements. For managers, it was a clunky, inefficient process of budgeting time weekly or monthly for tedious task management in various different tools, with slow turnaround times.
“As a manager, I would have a mental algorithm for how I would spend my time,” Deshpande says. “I would only open my approvals on a Friday, which results in a delay.”
This system was also costly and high maintenance for the Microsoft Approvals team, which was responsible for maintaining around related 25 tools.
One tool to rule them all
The first and most obvious step in the six-year modernization journey of the Microsoft Approvals platform was to create a unified web experience.
Now we’re powering the solution with Adaptive Cards, so the same card lights up in multiple form factors. If we need to change something, we only have to do it in one place.
– Nirav Khandhedia, senior software engineer, Microsoft Approvals
“The challenge was that we had a presence in multiple form factors,” says Nirav Khandhedia, a senior software engineer on the Microsoft Approvals team. “To support that we used to have to write new code for each form.”
They found their solution to this challenge with Microsoft Adaptive Cards.
“Now we’re powering it with Adaptive Cards, so the same card lights up in multiple form factors,” Khandhedia says. “If we need to change something, we only have to do it in one place.”
The Microsoft Approvals team replaced dozens of websites with a single destination that now gives users a familiar look, feel, and end-to-end experience, no matter what they need to approve. For the end user, this greatly reduces the cognitive load of switching back and forth.
This unified code has also saved an estimated 7,500 hours of development time for the tenants they support. The cost savings, both in Microsoft Azure hosting and maintenance labor, have been significant, with 125 approval actions costing the company just $1 dollar.
The central approvals platform has matured, and the integration quality has also improved thanks to solid investments in end-to-end telemetry that worked across service boundaries. The stability of approvals functionality exponentially improved, reducing the user tickets.
Today, for 1 million approvals that are supported, user ticket count is as low as 50 tickets per month—an exceptionally low number considering the service volume.
Following the user
The next step in the modernization plan is the one the team really gets excited about: taking the experience straight to the user.
Allowing users to pick their favorite experience, whether a website, actionable email, or Microsoft Teams, Deshpande says, results in better user engagement and higher user satisfaction. And Adaptive Cards is powering all these experiences with consistency, regardless of the form factor they use.
“Actionable emails were a great new opportunity for the Microsoft Approvals team when the product was announced by Microsoft 365,” Deshpande says.
The solution has evolved and today, Microsoft Outlook actionable emails have also adopted the use of Adaptive Cards. Microsoft Approvals have extended the use of Adaptive Cards far beyond the use of Microsoft Outlook actionable emails alone.
In the process, the team has cut the code by third. A single Adaptive Card now powers all user end points.
62 percent of all approvals now happen in Microsoft Outlook, and the turnaround time for managers has been reduced from 72 hours to just eight.
We’re super happy that Adaptive Cards is useful. Engagement went through the roof. And the cherry on the cake came a year later, when thanks to actionable messages, the Approvals team saw huge savings in time and money.
– David Claux, principal PM architect, Adaptive Cards
Another source of palpable team pride is in the collaboration with the Adaptive Cards team, which ultimately led to improvements in both products.
Adaptive Cards, an early adopter of the open source approach embraced as part of the “One Microsoft” mantra, provided the solution for the Microsoft Approvals platform. At the same time, requests that the Microsoft Approvals team made for additional functionality, such as the ability to toggle the visibility of different elements on the card, were added as regular features to Adaptive Cards.
“We’re super happy that Adaptive Cards is useful,” says David Claux, a principal PM architect for Adaptive Cards. “Engagement went through the roof. And the cherry on the cake came a year later, when thanks to actionable messages, the Microsoft Approvals team saw huge savings in time and money.”
Sahil Garg, principal director of software engineering for Finance Engineering within CSE, says that not only does the modernization of the approvals workflow represent a milestone in Microsoft’s digital transformation with low-touch/no-touch innovation enabling greater productivity, but it is also “a poster child for modern engineering practices.”
“What we took is a more agile approach with flighting concepts,” Garg says. “We thought about what people will really like and we put that out to 10 percent of users, and then based on feedback, we put it out to another 10 percent. We have our customers tell us what they want to see. Now we can proudly say that it’s not our creation—it’s our users’ creation.”
Approving anywhere and everywhere
With platform boundaries erased, the sky is now the limit for facilitating approval workflow tasks with utmost convenience.
The Microsoft Approvals team has recently integrated an application within Microsoft Teams, where users can receive a notification and complete the approval without ever having to leave the app. The future vision also includes the ability to take care of approvals on the go, both in the Microsoft Outlook mobile app and with voice commands via Microsoft Cortana.
Six years into the project, the Microsoft Approvals platform is currently getting another refresh to align with current CSE guidelines and aesthetics. But if all goes well and the Microsoft Approvals team gets their way, the website will be powered by the same Adaptive Card that is powering the Microsoft Office extensions. It will be maintained with no extra cost and will be used more sparingly.