The topic of SharePoint site usability never grows old. With every new version of SharePoint that comes out, Microsoft has touted that it is extremely intuitive and easy to use, and judging from the number of licenses sold, many organizations seem to have bought into this myth. What they are not told is what it actually takes to make SharePoint sites user-friendly.

I spoke with several SharePoint enthusiasts and got a variety of responses regarding SharePoint's usability. Comments ranged from the interface being “too geeky,” to needing a distinction between usability and branding. Simply tweaking the user interface (UI) to make it look pretty does not translate into a usable site.

The uniqueness of the interface is another problem with SharePoint usability, according to Brad Shannon, owner of DevSoft Solutions. Says Shannon:

SharePoint's UI is unlike any other site on the web. It's unique, which means that if you don't know SharePoint, then it's not user friendly."

Grading a Team Site

SharePoint, Social Business, grading a team site.png

Earlier this year, I graded the SharePoint interface on a standard grading scale. Looking at the basic tenets of usability and how they relate primarily to navigation, I scored several different elements of a SharePoint 2010 team site.

From a basic usability concept, SharePoint team sites don’t score too poorly. If everything is configured properly, the methods for navigating content, including the primary and secondary navigation, as well as search score quite high. Breadcrumbs and page titles score quite a bit lower.

Interestingly enough, if you take the average of these grades on a 4.0 scale, you get a 3.0, or a B. That’s pretty good, right? So where is the disconnect?

The “Missing Link”

If SharePoint team sites score favorably in the area of user-friendliness, then why don’t we see very many user-friendly SharePoint sites in the real world?

Social Business, The Missing Link in SharePoint Site Usability

The underlying truth lies in the human factor. It is people who must design and maintain their sites. This is true of any website, and not just SharePoint sites. It only makes sense that user-friendly websites need to be designed with good usability principles in mind, but what if the person tasked with owning the site doesn’t have this knowledge?

To combat this issue, organizations need to provide their SharePoint site owners with the necessary training that includes basic usability concepts, as well as what their responsibilities are and exactly what is expected of them. Much of the time, however, training is glossed over or not provided at all due to budgetary reasons.

One person I talked with, who wished to remain anonymous in case her company was reading this, told me:

My company has no time or resources to devote to training our site owners. I think we have some basic SharePoint training available through our online learning site, but it's up to the owners to pursue it.”

Hugh Wood, SharePoint Developer at UniTech, stressed that we can’t overlook the user experience in all of this:

Not enough user experience is done; what about the users who are actually going to use it? A user's journey through SharePoint needs to be the number one mission."

While I think most people would concur with Hugh’s statement, it still doesn't address the underlying issue that if site owners don’t understand usability or how important the user experience is, then their site is likely not going to be user-friendly.

Responsibilities of a SharePoint Site Owner

Typical site owners are people in the business, many of whom have no prior experience with SharePoint, let alone creating and managing a website. Many organizations just throw SharePoint out there without realizing that essentially they are asking site owners to be webmasters of their sites. It is therefore important that site owners know what their responsibilities are and then receive training in those areas.

Following are some of the basic responsibilities of a SharePoint site owner. These responsibilities could vary across organizations or even inside them, and they should be defined in the organization’s overall training and governance plan.

  1. Designing the Site and Navigation. When talking about design in this context, I’m referring more to how the hierarchy and navigation are set up, and not necessarily how pretty the site looks (although a site owner can make their site look visually pleasing without having any design skills). One thing that is important to do when setting up the navigation is to always inherit the navigation from the parent site; that way your global navigation will remain consistent no matter what level you are at in the site hierarchy.
  2. Setting up the Information Architecture. If a site’s information is not structured properly, it will be very hard to navigate or find things. Hopefully the information architecture has already been defined at an overall company level, but unfortunately that does not always happen. For this reason it’s very important for a site owner to understand metadata, site columns, content types and why using folders in SharePoint is usually bad (there are a couple exceptions, of course).
  3. Permissions Management. It is imperative that site owners have a good grasp of how permissions work in SharePoint so that users don’t have access to or see things that they shouldn’t. It’s also important to keep permissions as simple as possible, so that a permissions maintenance nightmare doesn’t ensue in the future.
  4. Analyzing Usage Statistics. Usage statistics allow a site owner to see who is viewing their site, what they are looking at and where they came from, among other things. These statistics can help to clarify who is, and perhaps more importantly, who isn’t using the site. This may or may not be important depending on the purpose of the site, however it’s good to know that the capability exists. It is something that needs to be explicitly turned on in order for the statistics to be gathered.
  5. Content Facilitation. Content duties could include moderating blogs and discussion lists, defining document management and archiving policies, or posting news and announcements. Regardless of the type of content, each area needs an owner who is committed to keeping the content up-to-date and relevant. A site owner may be responsible for all of it, or there may be several people who are in charge of content, depending on the size and different audiences of the site.
  6. Assisting Users with Issues. A site owner is often the first line of defense when users of their site have questions or issues. For this reason it is extremely important for a site owner to have a deep understanding of how SharePoint works.

Closing Thoughts

The key point here is that SharePoint sites do have the capability of being user-friendly, if they are designed using good usability principles. In addition, organizations need to provide SharePoint training to site owners that is tailored to their specific responsibilities, and understand that designing and owning a SharePoint site comes with a time commitment attached.

One final thought on usability that I like to share with people is the clean house analogy: a well-designed, user-friendly website is like a clean house -- it doesn't always get the full appreciation it deserves, but when it’s cluttered or disorganized, everyone notices!

Editor's Note: Read more of Wendy's thoughts on SharePoint in 7 Ways that SharePoint 2013's New Mobile Features Fall Short