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Let’s not beat around the bush. Why don’t you want users to adopt SharePoint?

For the same reason you don’t want them to adopt the .NET framework or the Windows Server system. It’s a base technology platform and people shouldn’t even notice that it’s there.

It’s the solutions that you build on top of the platform that you want them to adopt and this week I am going to explain how to make sure they do, and why a number of popular approaches fail.

This is article 18 in the seemingly endless series The Art of SharePoint Success describing my four part framework for ensuring measurable, long-term returns on your SharePoint investment. The four elements of the framework are:

  1. Governance
  2. Strategy
  3. Architecture
  4. Transition

The Secrets of User Adoption

If you want people to adopt something then you need to make sure that:

  1. it’s useful
  2. it’s useable

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

How to Make SharePoint Solutions Useful

SharePoint is analogous to Lego, it’s a set of components that can be configured into many, many different things. The first step is deciding what to build and that’s a strategic decision. Get this wrong and it really doesn’t matter what you do next, you’ll end up with a useless piece of technology that no one uses and delivers no value.

Many, if not most organizations seem to stumble at the first hurdle. They start off with vague objectives such as, “We want to do collaboration,” “We want to do document management” or my personal favorite, “We want an intranet.” Here’s an example from an RFP that I received recently, this is typical of the many RFP’s I’ve seen over the years.

The development of a global intranet will revolutionize the way [our] people locate and communicate with one another, and how they share information, innovation and best practice. It will be one central hub for people to find, share and contribute information and it will replace isolated failed ventures… has the ability to improve employee effectiveness and productivity."

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you can’t clearly articulate what you are trying to achieve, and define how you will know when you’ve done it, then you’re not ready to start.

The next step for many organizations is to "gather requirements." Usually this involves assembling a group of seemingly random employees and asking them what they want from their vaguely defined collaboration / knowledge management / document management / intranet solution.

Vague objectives lead to vague requirements which is why many intranets for example end up with a requirements list that begins with something like this:

  1. News and announcements
  2. Staff directory
  3. Meeting room booking system
  4. Holiday request process
  5. Canteen menu (arrghhh!)
  6. Intuitive and easy to use -- no training required
  7. An executive blog (because we think that will ‘drive’ adoption)
  8. Collaboration (not defined)
  9. Sharing best practices (not defined)

The 1990’s called. They want their intranet back!

These maybe be useful features, but they don’t justify the time, effort or financial investment in deploying an enterprise class knowledge and information management platform like SharePoint.

If we think of each solution built on the SharePoint platform as a product and employees as a mass market, then the first thing we need to do is to segment the market into groups that share common needs. Perhaps the most useful method of segmentation is business processes.

Organizations have strategic objectives that they meet through business processes that are underpinned by technology. Start with your strategic objectives, identify and understand the processes that relate to those objectives and then design a technology solution that facilitates the process.

Let me give you just one example. A UK based clothing manufacturer and retailer has the strategic objective of increasing revenues. The domestic market is a mature market with little growth and serviced by small number of well established, large organizations. The decision is made to expand into foreign markets through franchised retail outlets.

To facilitate the expansion the decision is made to use SharePoint to create an extranet service which provides each franchisee with an individual portal that can be used to distribute brand assets such as training materials, standard manuals and corporate graphics. The extranet has a clear purpose, is linked to strategic objectives, and has a clear business case. It’s a useful product and the market for the product is clearly defined as the people involved in the management of the franchise operation.

How to Make SharePoint Solutions Useable

Having clearly defined our market and our product the next step is to create a useable product. I use three broad categories of techniques.

Firstly there’s good old fashioned traditional business analysis and software design. Typically this involves process mapping, identifying and profiling users, and identifying use cases and usage scenarios. Although a bit 1990s, these approaches are the basics of good, robust software analysis and design and they still have a place at the heart of your SharePoint solution development process.

Secondly I use two more fashionable product design techniques, serious games and user centered design (UCD). Serious games are games that are used for any purpose other than entertainment. More specifically Innovation Games ® are a set of 12 games used for qualitative market research and they are fantastic for understanding user challenges, and gathering and prioritizing product features or user requirements for SharePoint projects.

My friends at 21Apps have been pioneering the use of Innovation Games ® for SharePoint projects for some time and I’ve recently become a big fan of this approach. You can read more about my views on serious games for SharePoint on my website.

User centered design is a philosophy and process in which, as the name suggests, the needs and wants of the users are the key consideration. Typically the process begins with data collection through surveys, interviews, focus groups and ethnography.

The information collected is used to create a set of personas that represent the key groups of users, and user journeys, story boards, and wire frame models are used to design a product or solution that meets their needs.

Serious games, user centered design and other product development approaches are hugely powerful and the key to creating useable SharePoint solutions, but product design comes after the strategic selection of the right product.

I know a number of SharePoint partners who claim that usability is the key to user adoption. On its own it’s not. Usability is nothing if your product (solution) isn’t useful at both the organizational and individual level. It needs to offer both corporate and personal return on investment.

For Next Time…

Next time we will be wrapping up the final element of the Art of SharePoint Success with a practical discussion of how to create and execute a user adoption strategy. The end is almost nigh….

Title image courtesy of Nip (Shutterstock).

Editor's Note: To read the first in this series: