With 'Cohorts,' Microsoft aims to evolve its Insider Program and Windows 10

MS logo
MS logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

A new experimental Windows initiative from Microsoft, known as "Cohorts," focuses on how the company handles feedback from the Windows Insider Program. Cohorts are groups of people with a common passion, characteristic, or area of expertise. Microsoft hopes these highly-focused groups will help bring fresh insights into how existing Windows 10 features are used, while offering a higher quality of relevant, real-world feedback to inform decisions on introducing new features to the OS.

How Windows Insider Cohorts are expected to work

Speaking exclusively with Windows Central, Insider Program chief Dona Sarkar explained that the decision to try out this new approach was part of a broader review of the program, including how feedback is processed. "Feedback generally comes in two forms," she said. "There's 'this is broken, fix it'; and 'we don't have this, build it." That feedback isn't always valuable, though.

Cohorts aren't meant to replace the existing feedback systems but complement them.

While complaints about what needs to be fixed can usually be tracked through telemetry Microsoft receives through Windows 10 preview builds, Insiders often demand features that they don't really need. Meanwhile, features that would genuinely be of use aren't always communicated to Microsoft, as those users may not be well represented in the Insider community – especially among those who actually take the time to send feedback.

For example, if Microsoft is looking for feedback on using a pen to write or draw at various angles in Windows 10, it can only rely on a limited subset of users who own devices with pen support, who are Insiders, and who actually use pens on their devices. Even then, those pen-toting Insiders may not test the full range of pen-focused features available, or submit feedback on all of them.

"People who make massive use of pen and ink on Windows 10, they're the people we need feedback from in that scenario," Sarkar explained. "So instead of just general feedback, what if we focused on getting feedback from creatives that really push the envelope with pen and ink? They're the ones who are going to be using it every day, right?"

Cohorts help dig up additional insight

Microsoft's Dona Sarkar.

Microsoft's Dona Sarkar.

Cohorts aren't intended to replace the existing feedback systems – including telemetry and the Feedback Hub – but rather to complement them. In fact, Microsoft has used telemetry to identify specific Insider power users that it has invited to into a closed preview of Cohorts.

A key goal of Cohorts is to gain insight from people outside the Insider Program.

Only a handful of Cohorts are up and running so far. There's one for Fluent Design, and another for Insider MVPs, along with a Creators Cohort, which includes illustrators and graphic designers. They're are all invite-only for now; a further Cohort for Windows Insider for Business is open to all WIP4Biz users without an invitation. In the near future, Microsoft intends to launch further Cohorts for developers and accessibility, but there's no limit to the range that could be introduced over time. All of the Cohorts also have their own private forums to share feedback and discuss topics relevant to their group. And while they're currently exclusive to the Cohorts, the plan is to eventually open them up to all Insiders. With the exception of WIP4Biz, all Cohorts are made up of fewer than 100 users at present.

Expanding the Insider community from the inside out

Each Cohort is made up of three parts:

  • Someone at Microsoft who "controls code" (i.e. who decides what gets fixed and added to a product or service).
  • A person in the Insider Community who "influences" or "champions" a certain feature (e.g. pen support) or set of features (e.g. accessibility tools).
  • All the people from whom the feedback is gathered.

A key goal of the Cohorts effort is to gain more insight from people outside of the Insider Program. Those within Cohorts are encouraged to identify at least one "hero" for their cause – a real person with specific needs – to help focus their efforts in getting the most useful feedback. That person doesn't have to be an Insider.

That's a result of the "build for one" mentality that Sarkar is a big fan of. "When you build for a single person with a specific problem," she said, "you'll find that there's a lot of people around the world that are pretty much the same, with the same needs."

By more clearly identifying groups of like-minded users in the Insider community and beyond, Sarkar and her Insider Program colleagues believe they'll be able to tap into a rich new vein of feedback from users. This could, potentially, lead to lots more useful and exciting features, as Microsoft's dev teams will waste less time working on features that users don't need and won't really use.

For now, Sarkar is very clear that the Cohorts initiative is "just an experiment … but if it works," she said, "every Insider will be 'Cohorted.'"

  • Build for one? Who they had in mind when they rebuilt a touch keyboard in RS3? A *********?
  • Problem is, coming from trying the insider feedback system on Windows Mobile, the experience of issues being raised and upvoted and pressed in the feedback by significant numbers only to be aggressively ignored for long periods (heck, from release until abandonment for many), this kinda seems like an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I can't help feeling that the insider programme is just a complex form of busy-work to keep fans occupied whilst MS do their own thing. Perhaps it will change, but until evidence is seen it doesn't seem worth getting involved in all that again.
  • I forgot what issue, idea or feedback... but I did get a thank you email saying my idea, issue or feedback is resolved.
    I'm not an insider.
  • Must be nice. I stopped submitting feedback cause I never got any response on the tons I would submit.
  • I think that's because they already have a ton of feedback with your problem. Only when an issue seems new I feel like you get the responding emails.
  • I've got a response myself from some feedback/idea's i've provided but i believe most are noticed if a lot of people upvote em, or least it gets  upvoted to a notable amount in its own section/category.
  • “ Insiders often demand features that they don't really need. Meanwhile, features that would genuinely be of use aren't always communicated to Microsoft”
    I’m sorry, but this part annoyed me. How can Microsoft say that feedback from their Insiders is something they don’t need? Sounds like MS is still doing what it thinks is best while trying to trying to justify it as doing what the users want.
  • Well some of the feedback I've seen constitutes "I don't like this feature" and offers no explanation of why or how it could be improved or is nothing more than a long winded rant about how much they hate Windows 10 and Microsoft so I think having people to champion particular features will help.
  • Sorry, I misspoke when I said "feedback". I don't think it's right for MS to say that Insiders don't need certain features when the product is desigend for us.
  • Which is why "Cohorts" have a member of the Insider Community championing a particular feature and not Microsoft employees. At least that's what I gather from the article.
  • So when a few insiders say they don't want a certain feature where as many others who disagree simply don't search for that feedback thus aren't aware of some people who dislike it and are not providing their input on it, Microsoft has to simply listen to the few who are voting against a service or feature that many others are using ? sounds ..like nonsense to me, whats sensible is that having more options isn't a problem and it never is as long as its "optional" to be used based on preference.
  • Say this to the people, who just write "bring back aero" in the feedback hub, than leave... :D
  • This is all smoke and mirrors.  Microsoft will still do what they want to do.  They are only steering you in a direction they want to go anyway.  Where's Rooms?  There were plenty of people who still wanted that feature.  Nope gone.  Never to come back.  Where's the beautiful panoramic views in Photos.  This has always been a bunch of BS.  Guinea pigs.  Free labor.  And yet they still do what they want to do.
  • Seems to me this is trying to democratize the development process. I think what they need is to use their own products. If they had done that, maybe phones would have been a success. Oh, and recreate a QA group. I don't know what they can really get from telemetry data. They have seemed to only use that as an excuse to drop good features that they didn't make clear were present or how to use.
  • Microsoft is already doing a terrible job with all the telemetry and feedback (Feedback Hub). There are so many issues with Windows 10 since day one that hasn't been fixed and so many good feedbacks (with more than 1000 upvotes) that Microsoft hasn't yet commented on. I don't get what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with this another extra program.  
  • Like I've stated from day one once they initiated this program.  It's all about keeping Microsoft loyalist busy.  Make them think or believe they have a hand on improving their products.  What it really is, is to try to keep loyalist engaged.  It's like a mother shaking a rattler so a baby won't get too noisy.  Make them think something is really happening when there isn't much happening at all.  I never believed they cared what people really cared about and I still don't.  Even if something happens that's coincidental to something people wanted to have, that's all it is.  They were going to do it anyway in some sort or fashion and if it happened to coincide with a request then that's a plus.  Their focus in not really on Windows per se, it's on iOS and Android.  Sure do all the vetting for them so they can introduce it to iPhone and Android user.
  • Somehow unrelated question: Since Dan and company constantly talk about how Surface creates new categories and give Studio as an example, my question is how many devices even remotely similar to Surface Studio have been created since it's release? I can recall exactly 1 from Dell and noone has ever seen one of these, like ever. How many units were sold from both - 10? (lol...)
  • "People who make massive use of pen and ink on Windows 10, they're the people we need feedback from in that scenario,"
      wow it actually dawned on them? marvelous. :P  get rid of the whole bunch if it took them 2 years to discover the basics of UX research.  
  • While already don't have idea how to add the control panel in the settings page, and we have two control panel , Microsoft just now realized that the insider program don't worth the feedbacks of certain people, is amazing how they took off certain features I would love get an survey since use my 950 for photography what problems found and what things needs to get improved but they ignored any feedback but were idiots yelling that come Pokemon go to wm and blaming to Microsoft as feedback in insider with such quality of beta testers is obvious that Microsoft want filter to there people that can give real feedback from the nerd that installed an beta version for impress to its friends that have an version superior before that the rest of the mortals
  • How does one know what features one needs or doesn't if they aren't built? I didn't need My People, yet they built it anyway. People aren't going to use features that don't work correctly.
  • That's the point of the feedback hub though so you can ask for features but you have to remember that Windows 10 isn't just for you or me it's for everyone that runs it so just because you may not use My People there are others that do, including me, so feedback asking Microsoft to remove a feature because you don't use it is being selfish and I've seen plenty of feedback that asks just that.
  • I'm not asking them to remove features.
    Consumer: We need these features.....
    Microsoft: No you don't. Here, have My People.
    Consumer: It doesn't even work correctly. Can you fix the People app first? I can't sync all of my contacts.
    Microsoft: Look! We added Ninja Cats to My People. I personally wouldn't use My People because it's half finished. I can't even link my Facebook contacts to my Outlook contacts on Windows 10 like I can on my phone. My W10M, W10, and Outlook.com should be in perfect sync but they are not.
  • Microsoft can't even get something as simple as get the Menu button in the People app and the Mail app in the same spot.. I mean come on. Those are two products in the same suite.