Microsoft Develops Pointers Web App to Improve Windows 8 Deployment Experience

Microsoft IT developed a web application to ease the stress of going through the Windows 8 upgrade process for their users. As of now, it’s only available within Microsoft. So what does this mean for your upcoming Windows 8 deployment? That’s where pointers comes in, an internal training and customer support application used to improve users’ Windows 8 deployment experience.

Pointing Users in the Right Direction

A pointer is not a type of software that you can buy or download, and it’s not required to deploy Windows 8. But when Microsoft IT started their project to deploy Windows 8, they realized that since the User Interface (the UI formerly known as Metro) was such a departure, the Microsoft user community was going to need extra training. Microsoft began to set up a web application for their Intranet, simply known by its URL: “//pointers.” This was poised to become a community for the early adopters within Microsoft to receive training, ask questions, get answers, get and give support, and exchange feedback. (Editor’s Note: Read more about Microsoft’s pointers project by visiting Microsoft’s Office of the CIO blog on MSDN.) [Download Windows 8 Release Preview]

The Microsoft Windows 8 Consumer Preview deployment consisted of over 36,000 PCs. At that scale, the training had to be accommodated with technology. And instead of making an online classroom, they looked at what was missing in their current customer support initiatives online communities. Discussion groups such as Petri’s IT Forum are so useful because once a question has been asked by someone, the post can serve as a resource for years. Likewise, Microsoft blended an online discussion group with social networking, self-service support and training, and fused it with an interactive training platform. They use ratings of answers and topics to help identify quality content. And they implemented a scoring system for the users, so that individuals could earn points and receive badges similar to achievements in a video game.

More than Just a Discussion Group

Discussion groups are usually only as good as their content. A lively discussion board is very useful; an empty one is worthless.

The advancements that Microsoft IT engineered added some great features to their interactive support site to take the concept to an even higher level, but it still needed a community. To help make it a success, the support site was adopted and branded within the company as the first place to go for information. Another important component of its success was that it had appropriate resources on board. Moderators were enthusiasts and experts, as well as deployment engineers and the developers who wrote the code. This gave direct and immediate access to the people that can help for anybody with questions or problems.

This sort of interaction also gave the site an added benefit: By making it more than a discussion group, and adding help desk and social network elements, they got access to real stories about how the deployment experience was for the users. Did performing a task take 20 minutes or an hour? That sort of information would not likely make it to a helpdesk unless there was an error, but since the social aspects were mixed with the support, it was easier for Microsoft IT to see what they were doing right instead of just hearing about the problems.

Their implementation of pointers also wasn’t used to the exclusion of the help desk. In some cases, problems would arise that needed help desk interaction. Since the help desk was included in the deployments, they were also active on pointers. The established protocols for problem resolution and follow up were still used.

The Future of Pointers–Microsoft and Beyond

It’s a great implementation of customer support. Unfortunately, at this point it only serves as an example.

If you want to make your own //pointers using SharePoint, you could try starting with a SharePoint web application

  • Create a web application in SharePoint at //; use alternate access mappings to have it accessible through just the name pointers.
  • Configure permissions for the web application.
  • Create a site collection at the root of the new web application. Use a team site as the template.
  • Create discussion groups for each product that you want to support.
  • Create a subsite for each product to act as a support and training site for it.
  • Add technical experts to serve as moderators for discussion groups, support, and training site.
  • Add training videos and workguides to each support and training site


From the success that they’ve already had with pointers, Microsoft has set two different goals: First, they’re onboarding their top five products into the pointers site for their internal support. Their goal is to have all of this completed by the end of this fiscal year. Second, they’re going to create an implementation of it for customers as a Windows 8-style interface app powered by Azure.

With pointers, there is no software to download, nothing to buy or configure, and unless you are using the implementation at Microsoft, all you can do is read about it. Still, it shows a great approach and implementation of customer support. Pointers is interactive and has great content. And you can’t beat having subject matter experts competing to give the best advice the fastest. Until IT pros can actually use the “real” pointers, we can at least get by with trying to implement more active support.

What do you think? Have you been able to completely commit your support staff to being proactive? Have you been able to engage your user community in the deployment process? Let me hear your thoughts on the topic via Twitter.