For many of us who eagerly await the release of the latest and greatest from Microsoft we were shocked and awed when we discovered that this release removed one of the primary tools for Business Users from the product. SharePoint Designer, as we had come to know it, had been drastically changed.

No longer could we use the Design View features to make quick and meaningful changes to our list views and pages or create DVWP (Data View Web Parts) to display a formatted view of data from multiple sources.

Many of us had hoped that things would have been improved and that the tool would have turned into an even better solution to help us quickly develop no-code solutions to solve everyday business problems. As we began to realize that our hopes would not be realized in this release we had to step back and begin to look at things differently and answer the question of “What now?”

This article comes from the time I've spent looking at the new release and answering that question. As someone who can say that SharePoint Designer was a “go to” tool in my arsenal of tools for no code solutions, I faced quite the dilemma!

Through much research, many conversations and a few high level governance chats, I have come to a clear conclusion on my thoughts on the changes and an understanding of what this could mean to the future of no-code solutions. In this article I will start by discussing the differences in the newest release, the changes it will bring to the organization and finally, I will close out with my personal thoughts and opinions. Hopefully by reading this you will be able to see the path more clearly and develop an opinion of your own.

What Remains

The first thing to understand is that SharePoint Designer isn’t really going away. SharePoint Designer 2013 is part of the newest Office release and still provides a way for users to create no-code solutions within SharePoint. The biggest difference is that now, instead of having a rich WYSIWIG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, you only have access to a code view.

The code view is the same as what was available in previous releases and allows you to make edits to your pages and web parts. The missing WYSIWYG features in the past had primarily been used for the creation of customized list views and advanced web part connections. Two common examples that come to mind are:

  • Adding KPI elements to your List Views through the creation of Conditional Formatting (ie, having the font display in Red for any overdue tasks)
  • Creating a web part connection that allowed you to connect web parts across pages (ie, the ability to create a connection that allowed you to select an item in a list on one page and open another page to view data that was associated with the selected item).

The code view that remains would allow you to continue to make changes, however there would be wizards or menus to assist.

In addition to the ability to customize the site, SharePoint Designer is also a tool that can be used to create no-code customized workflows. This doesn’t change in SharePoint 2013. In fact, with many enhancements and improvements to workflow through the implementation of Azure services, the capabilities for Business Analyst and information workers has improved greatly.

SharePoint Designer remains the primary entry point for no-code development of configured workflows and this release has been no exception. The need for organizations to deploy and use SharePoint Designer remains in full force, it’s just that the intended use has taken on a new form. Instead of being a tool used to make minor design and cosmetic changes, it now will be a tool primarily used for Workflows and code level design changes.

Same Process, Different Tools

To fully understand the impact this has on your organization, you will need to step back and look at things from the outside. As an information worker that is focused on building no-code solutions for the organization, your role doesn’t change. What changes is the tools that you use for execution and creation of your solution.

If you step back and think about it, if your role focuses on the tools only, your role probably isn't clearly defined. As an information worker you will still work with the business to gather requirements and then take those requirements and map them to the various technologies within SharePoint and Office. By looking at it from this perspective, it should encourage you to spend time getting to know and learn the new tools included in this release that will become the tools to utilize in the creation of your solutions.

Below are just a small sampling of the new features available:

  • Social Features: The social features included in this release make working with content easier and more fluid for users at all levels. Some of these new features include:
    • Updated My Sites
    • Personal Rollups of Farm-Wide Content
    • Ability to follow content on your personal feeds
    • Microblogging
    • Activity Feeds
    • Community Sites
  • Access Services: Don’t worry, it’s not how you remember it! Access Services 2013 has many new improvements that allow for the creation of relational databases that can be accessed within SharePoint. By taking advantage of the functionality now available in Access Services you will be able to quickly create ways to store and manage relational data sets, without ever needing to work with a developer. And with all the changes that are included with the setup and management of the content that is created in Access, your System Administrators will be more likely to support and encourage use of Access for building these types of solutions.
  • Project Management Tools: SharePoint has always been a great tool for managing projects and, based on the level of project complexity and control, has offered up many solutions that could be implemented. 2013 is no exception, in fact it gets better and more feature rich at every level. If you are using a list to manage a set of tasks or if you are running in a full Project Server environment, improvements exist at all levels to improve and enhance your end solution.
  • Visio Services: Visio Services continues to be a strong component within SharePoint that allows you to create rich solutions that include interactive layouts and diagrams that can be displayed on various SharePoint pages. Because Visio has the ability to interact with data that is stored within SharePoint, you are able to build dynamic real time graphs that can have a huge impact for your users.

Above I have listed just a small sampling of the tools available to information workers as they are working towards developing No-Code solutions. While the list includes quite a few features, what it is missing still is the ability to complete the tasks that we could previously do within SharePoint Designer.

This leads me directly to my next point -- that in addition to using new tools we need to think of our problems differently. Just because I am using a collection of lists to store data in this release doesn’t mean that I need to do it the same once I migrate to 2013. The focus of the information worker to match the technology to the business needs will still remain the primary task, the tools have just been changed.

Missing Pieces

After you spend time reviewing the latest and greatest features with this release you will likely still identify items that simply don’t have an update path or an alternate tool available. For items like these there are two primary ways that this will be addressed:

  • Custom Development: As in past releases, custom development is the tool of choice when you need to expand on the feature set that is available to you out of the box. With this release there are many new approaches to development including SharePoint Apps, Client Side Rendering (CSR) and Mobile SharePoint Apps.
  • SharePoint Apps: Third Party vendors will be releasing various tools and solutions over time to the app store that should help fill the gap between the tools available out of the box and the needs of the organization.

The path forward for your organization will depend on many different factors and should be considered a strategic direction for moving forward. Based on the strategic direction you select, you will then be able to identify the steps you need to take to move towards the new model. This will likely mean change within your organization, but change isn’t always a bad thing.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, I want to share with you my thoughts on these changes. In general, I believe that these changes are a good step forward. I believe strongly that SharePoint Designer in previous releases was a tool that provided much power, but much risk. If a user without the proper training had access to modify a site using SharePoint Designer, the risk for issues with the site was high.

In most cases these issues were not caused deliberately, but were instead accidents that occurred from not using the tool correctly. These changes, while they limit what can be done using no-code solutions, also greatly reduce the risk of having non-educated users create issues. I think that the changes can be summed up in the following items that will likely impact every SharePoint team in one way or another:

  • SharePoint Development: Love it or hate it, you won’t be able to get around it. With this release of SharePoint, there is a clear line between what can easily be done using tools and what must be done using development. As you build solutions the line between how far you can go without needing a developer is more clearly defined and will need to be addressed within each solution. Have no fear though, there are many different types of development and many of the users that had advanced SharePoint Designer skills will likely be able to transition into the role of developer.
  • SharePoint Teams: With all of these changes you will need to review your current team structure and likely make changes to adapt to the new tools and features. If you are going to have a heavier developer presence, then you will likely need to update your development training plans and make sure that the people on your team who will adapt to these new roles receive the best training for them to be successful. The same goes if you are going to stick with no-code solutions. In that case you would want to review the tools available and make sure you have resources that have the appropriate training so that they can take the most advantage of what is available.
  • New Learning Curve: No matter what direction your organization takes, there will be an associated learning curve. As you begin to build solutions in the new environment take time to look at what you did in previous releases and then evaluate the best way to achieve similar things in the new release. None of this is bad, it just means that as you plan you should be prepared for the learning curve and be sure to allow for that in your migration planning.
  • SharePoint Marketplace: I have really high hopes for the marketplace and I will be keeping a close eye on new products that are released. I think there is great opportunity for vendors to step in to fill in some of the gaps we see, so I for one will be watching this with high hopes!

It is my hope that in the future, additional tools or methods will be released that allow for some of the missing functionality that now requires code. Specifically, I am hoping that there will be a way to easily provide conditional formatting on list and web parts and that advanced web part connections will be able to be configured in the browser. For now though, I have accepted that I will likely need to rely a little more on custom development in the next release. And, while it isn’t ideal, I do believe it is a step in the right direction.

I am confident that over time we will see more tools released that will better enable the information worker to build no-code solutions. For this release however we will just need to deal with the gaps by using custom development or SharePoint Applications. Working with the business is all about being adaptable to change, so this is just another opportunity for us to do what we do best!

Editor's Note: To read Jennifer's initial reaction to SharePoint 2013:

-- SharePoint 2013: Not Quite What I Expected