As I help people build out their SharePoint solutions many groups use the phrases “one single location to access content” or a “single source of truth” to describe their end goals. These are great goals and can play a huge part in successful SharePoint implementations, but in many cases it overlooks one key point: the context of the data.
The last thing that you want to do is provide a solution to your users that is simply a replacement for the current solution. Why go to all the trouble of moving your content to a SharePoint solution without taking the time to look at things differently and provide a solution that aligns with the daily needs of the users? Ideally your solutions are going to provide a way for users to work through a process with your solution supplementing and guiding them along the way. Your solution should be a tool that allows them to be guided through the actions required of them for the task at hand.
One scenario that I have seen lately is one department providing services to another department within a large company. This is common and could apply to any organization. The first department has created a word document that other groups complete and then return via email. This is an old process and as time has passed, the company has grown but the process has remained the same.
The group responsible for providing the services is now feeling overwhelmed and looking for a different solution. They had ideas around creating a central spot to complete and manage the forms. The thought was if we could point people to one spot, the process would be much easier.
When I consulted with them on the solution I encouraged them to think about things at a larger scale. I asked them questions about the current form, how people complete the form and the process it takes to complete the requests. It turns out that much of the process they are following involves back and forth between the two parties as they try to get all the correct information to complete the requests. If we had followed through on the first idea of creating a central repository we would have missed the opportunity to improve a huge part of the process.
As I continued to speak with them and explore the issues they were having we decided to take a different approach to the solution. Instead of just “centralizing” our efforts, we opted to streamline the process and provide guidance to the users as they completed the requests. In an ideal world a form could instruct the users completing it and only allow valid data. This would help ensure that only complete requests would be submitted, thus cutting down on the back and forth time between the requestor and the team completing the requests.
In the end we opted for a solution that guided users through the process of completing a specific request using an InfoPath form. The form itself contained validation error checking to ensure that only forms containing all the required information could be submitted. By taking the time to convert our simple Word document to a simple InfoPath form we were able to greatly reduce the level of effort to complete the requests. We still kept true to the initial goal of creating a central place for requests, but with a difference: instead of just giving them a form to complete with all the required fields, we gave them a single place to access the form, select the type of request they needed and then guide them to complete the specific fields needed for that type of request. Using this approach helps ensure that the users can easily and confidently complete their request.
The following screenshot shows the home page of the updated solution. Instead of giving users a static form, they are now directed to drill down and select the type of request they have. These few small changes in our process can make all the difference in overall efficiency and accuracy.
Data + Context = Proper Action
The main point that I encourage you to consider is that Data plus context will point users in the right direction. When you are looking through the things that you are trying to automate or improve by introducing a SharePoint solution you need to consider the problem from multiple angles.
By understanding how the users will work with the data and what the overall goal is you will be able to help drive them to the correct actions. This will only improve your organization because it will put into play a natural experience for your users to simply do what is required of them. By making the overall process more naturally aligned to what is required we will be cutting down on the amount of user frustration as well as potential errors.
If your solution can point people to the next step in the process or ensure they are providing the correct information there will be a level of confidence in the solution and users will be ensured that they are on the right track to get what they need. This confidence will allow them to then focus on other items, and spend less time within a process. This may sound like a small thing, but remember that the small things applied to many processes can lead to big change within your organization. By improving the smallest of things you can be actively contributing to the future direction of your organization.
Know the Users
The first and key element of being able to do this successfully is knowing your users. How do they think and what is most important to them? You need to put yourself in their shoes and look at the entire solution from their eyes. What things can you incorporate into the solution to make their life easier?
Start by outlining the solution from the user’s point of view. One approach could be to build a checklist early in the design process to complete for each solution that will force you to consider things from their perspective. This is one small thing that you can do that could make a huge difference in the success of your solution.
People today have high expectations of systems they work with -- understanding how that impacts what you are trying to do from the beginning will be of huge assistance to you as you build out a solution for your users. Underestimating your users and how they work with your data can easily result in a solution that is ineffective and not adopted by the organization. In many cases the difference between a highly effective solution and one that isn’t used can be small design element or missing component. The best way to ensure that you avoid these common pitfalls is to really look at your entire solution through the eyes of your users.
Know the Data
The next piece to the equation is the actual data components. What is the data that you are working with and how does the data need to be stored and accessed both now and in the future? Are there requirements around who can see the data and who can edit the data elements?
This should all be accounted for early in the design process and should be a direct compliment to what you know about the users and how they work. You want to care for your data to ensure that the most accurate and correct data is easily available without users having to dig deep to find it. You want them to be confident and have a clear understanding of the data they are accessing and how they should be working with it.
Your solutions can do a lot to drive this level of trust and assurance. It’s the smallest of things that can be done to assure users along the way, so don’t miss out on thinking through this part of the equation early on and often through the design and implementation phases. Once you identify the key components of the data, create a test plan that you can use with the finished solution to ensure that your solution supports, encourages and enforces the data requirements. Again, it’s the smallest things that can make the biggest impact so think carefully about the small things you can incorporate to drive the proper behavior within your solution.
As you go through the process of creating solutions within SharePoint, starting to think with the users and the data as the central focus can be a little tricky! Especially if you have spent ages looking at things from a requirements perspective. If you simply focus on the requirements you can potentially miss so much of the value and power that is available within a SharePoint solution.
As you get started, one way to attack problems is to focus on specific scenarios or use cases that surround your proposed solution. Start by identifying the users that will be working with the solution and then take time to map out their potential interactions with the solution. When you first get started this might require some additional meetings with the users to see what they do or to better understand how they approach the problem at hand. Once you have done this you can easily go back and look at the overall requirements to ensure that you have satisfied those needs. This type of thinking is how you will be able to build the best solutions for your users.
Move Forward & Adapt
Once you deploy a solution and start to gather feedback, you shouldn't be surprised that your user base could very easily adapt to it and in the process once again change how they are working with it! It’s a common thing that happens once you remove a set of barriers for users -- they begin to work within the new solution and then identify additional things that they can do or would like to do differently. The beauty of SharePoint is that as your audience, process or solution matures, SharePoint can be customized to meet those needs as well. This means that you need to allow for checkpoints in your design process that include reviewing existing solutions and implementing additional changes because your design work isn't done on day one.
So as you implement new solutions you should also have a plan for how you will gather feedback and how that will then be processed and incorporated in the future. By taking this approach from day one you will be able to ensure that you are building a long term solution that can grow as the organization grows. This is yet another small thing that can be done, that over time can really transform how your organization can work with the tools that have been made available to them.
Title image courtesy of Christos Georghiou (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: To read more of Jennifer's SharePoint thoughts, check out SharePoint: Empowering Your User Base