Slinger's Thoughts

October 8, 2009

Form or Function? Which one is more important?

Filed under: SharePoint — slingeronline @ 6:52 pm

This is more of a philosophical post, than a technical one. 

I had an interesting question proposed by a coworker recently.  She asked me the question above.  It caught me off guard, but it got me to thinking.  Granted this was for an actual program, but it could also apply to SharePoint.  So which one is more important?  A SharePoint site may have everything that a user needs, but if it’s not laid out in a logical manner, it’s likely the users won’t use it.  A SharePoint site may be a thing of beauty, and look completely elegant, but if it doesn’t have that one most crucial element that your users need, you will likely be on the receiving end of a litany of insults from your users.

These are things that you definitely want to consider when you are setting up a SharePoint site.  Consider the people who are going to be using the site, and what their needs are.  You also want to consider their technical skills.  Not every user is as technically savvy as you are.  Trust me.  At my last post, I had to train users on SharePoint basics.  These users (imagine your typical Department of Motor Vehicles employee) are sometimes frustrated by even the most simple things, like how to attach a file in an email, or how to bookmark a site. 

You’re going to want to make everything as intuitive for them as possible.  Microsoft did a good job with most of the default names for SharePoint features, like “Discussions,” and “Announcements.”  Some of the default names are daunting for some users however.  Make sure that you name all of your lists and libraries in a way that makes sense to your users.  (Best bet? get input from them and let them name the lists and libraries.)  Something else that you want to avoid is a site hierarchy that is so complex that archeologists would have a hard time digging through each of the successive layers.  I think a good place to start, if you have MOSS, is to not nest any deeper than what can be displayed on the tabbed top navigation from the site collection’s home page.  Basically, the home site of the site collection, and then two layers below that.  Each site in your site collection can be reached from the site collection’s home page this way.  If you are working with WSS, navigation is a little more difficult, but similar rules should apply.

When you name your sites and sub-sites, make sure that the names make some sort of sense to you and to your end users.  It also helps to have a predetermined naming convention.  Consistency is very important. For example, in a site collection for projects, the first level of sub-sites could be for clients, and the second under clients could be for projects.  This is where naming conventions are important. Projects will have project numbers, official names and sometimes pet names. I feel that it is okay to use any of these, but if one sub-site is uses a project number for a name, they all should. the site address should also follow a convention.  If you feel you need to have something descriptive about a site, there is a place for that when you are creating a new site.  It won’t hurt to use it.

Consistency is not just for naming sites and sub-sites though.  Your end users enjoy routine.  Don’t believe me?  Watch what they do when they get to work every morning.  Some go straight for coffee before they ever hit their desk.  Some will check their email, check stock quotes, check their favorite websites, check their voicemail, and so on before they ever even think about doing any work.  If one project site is laid out differently than another, there is likely going to be some confusion and agitation.  Fortunately, the gurus at Microsoft thought of this.  You can save a site that you have set up as a template so that you can re-use it.  (There are some hoops to jump through, but you can use it in other site collections as well if you need to.) 

Keep in mind, that just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should.  Yes SharePoint offers a myriad of options to use in your sites, but you don’t need to use all of them.  Before you commit to adding a list or library to a site, make sure that there is a need for it first.  It is also important to note, that you are not limited to only one of each list or library.  If you and your users decide that you need sixteen announcements lists, go for it. Conversely, you don’t need a Project Milestones list on every site.  Choose carefully when choosing which lists and libraries you are going to include. 

The home page for each site is also important.  Remember what was stated in the paragraph above; “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should.”  Only the most used or most relevant items should be on the home page of each site in your site collections.  Keep users updated at a glance, but don’t overwhelm them by putting a web part for every list and library there.  A good place to start, is to put announcements, and probably a “Relevant documents” web part and a “My Tasks” web part. From here, let your users decide what else should be on the home page.  If it’s cluttered, your users are going to have a difficult time finding what they need.  Make sure that your site’s default pages are neat, clean and organized.  Microsoft has also helped you out here also, with their “Fabulous 40” templates.  These are some examples that you can use to inspire you.  Again, you don’t need to have every template that they provide in your site. 

Finally, there are a myriad of technologies that integrate with SharePoint, like Microsoft Groove, OneNote, pretty much any other Microsoft Office application, as well as some other programs that aren’t Microsoft’s.  Each one of them is awesome on its own, and combined with SharePoint you can do some pretty incredible things.  A lot of this is relatively new though, so it can be intimidating to your users who are still learning the “Intarwebs.”  Keep it down to small bites for your users.  Let them get used to one thing first, before you add something else to their plate.  Let them learn all of the ins and outs, the advantages and disadvantages.  It helps to let them complain also.  You can use that fact to your advantage.  Give them a place to complain, but let them use the very thing that they would likely complain about. If they don’t like the discussion boards for any reason, give them a discussion board to gripe about it.  You would be surprised how fast they catch on and begin to like what they thought they hated.

The most important part of all of this, and you would have caught it if you were paying attention, is not to overwhelm your users with the things that SharePoint can do, but to let them tell you what they need it to do, and then do that.  I suppose you could consider this a kind of “Best Practices.” Not from a technical standpoint, but from more of a usability standpoint. 

I’m not an expert, and that kind of gives me a unique advantage.  This is all from my own experience and I have found that a “Least Common Denominator” approach is always the best.  Make everything so easy that your simplest user can understand it, and you’re golden! 

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