SharePoint, 2014-08-August-Jigsaw-Puzzle.jpgMany people have singled out SharePoint's user experience (UX) as one of the main culprits in lagging adoption and engagement numbers since the launch of the platform. Arguably it wasn't until the 2010 version that Microsoft took targeted steps to remedy this, adding important usability improvements and social capabilities. It was also during the SharePoint 2010 release timeframe that the partner ecosystem grew to support design and UX. This expansion introduced new options for customers, as well as provided feedback and direction for Microsoft, leading to further enhancements in the SharePoint 2013 release, including mobile enhancements and the support of device channels.

But even with SharePoint 2013's focus on the presentation layer and ongoing UX developments inside of Office 365 -- such as deeper integration with Yammer, PowerBI and the Delve (formerly Codename Oslo) interface -- has it been enough to improve adoption and engagement?

How to Make SharePoint Sticky

One only need to take a look at the Microsoft roadmap for Office 365 to see that the company is making huge investments in the UX for SharePoint, from new social and search capabilities (such as Office Graph, inline social and Groups) to deeper integrations with other Microsoft platforms, like Dynamics CRM. Unlike previous platform updates, the focus of each incremental release is clearly meant to improve the end user (and administrator) experience within the platform.

In the June 2014 #CollabTalk Tweet Jam, some of the leading voices in SharePoint design and user experience shared their real-world experiences on the topic. The session asked the panel and participants the question: How can Microsoft make the SharePoint UX more "sticky"?

Some of the SharePoint design and UX experts who participated in the tweetjam included:

  • Barry Jinks (@bjinks), President and CEO at Colligo Networks in Vancouver, BC
  • Eric Overfield (@ericoverfield), President and Co-founder of PixelMill in Davis, CA
  • Harout Katerjian (@haroutkat), CEO at Emgage, Los Angeles, CA
  • Bradley Geldenhuys (@bradgcoza), Co-founder and CEO at GTconsult in Durban, South Africa
  • Randy Drisgill (@drisgill), Manager of the SharePoint Branding and UX Design Team at Rackspace, Orlando, FL

I asked these panelists to expand on some of their online comments following the event.

A Deeper Dive

Buckley: Each of you work for companies that work closely with customers to optimize the user experience, through products or services. As you work with your customers, what do they tell you are the biggest problems with the SharePoint user experience?

Jinks: One of the challenges for SharePoint is that it is stuck between being a platform and an application. As a platform it can do a lot of things ... as an application it is limited to the UX that comes out of the box. Often times customers want to utilize SharePoint as a platform on which to build a business process. It has a reputation of having a poor user experience, but that's often because the out-of-the-box UX wasn't designed to support the process. The solution is generally a third party tool, or customization of the UX that's built on top of SharePoint of Office 365.

Overfield: My primary concern with the out of the box SharePoint UX is the inconsistent UI across the enormous feature set that SharePoint provides. SharePoint bundles so much into one package but each feature, including the backend administrative features, lack a coherent strategy to help improve user adoption by limiting the hurdles to a successful implementation. When users get stuck, out of the box embedded help is limited if not simply missing, forcing users and administrators to either search the web for their answer or to simple abandon SharePoint.

Katerjian: Users have grown accustomed to "consumerized" technologies in their personal lives, which give them what they want when they want it. Take LinkedIn or Facebook. Logging in to any of those sites instantly gives each user a personalized experience that caters to their individual needs.

That expectation is completely shattered when they get into SharePoint. Instead of having their relevant work at their fingertips, they are commonly presented with stale and static content. If they want anything useful, the user has to expend significant effort to find it. This experiential dissonance between consumerized technologies and SharePoint not only frustrates the knowledge worker but also creates apathy and disengagement from which it's difficult to recover.

Buckley: With the increasing demand for mobility solutions, we've seen a huge push for responsive web design, allowing apps and websites to fit the form factor of the device being used. With the release of SharePoint 2013 also came the ability to build "device channels" for consuming SharePoint through company-defined devices. Which do customers prefer -- responsive or designed experiences?

Drisgill: Without a doubt, this is one of the most popular questions that come up in custom branding these days. I like to say that responsive web design (RWD) uses standard HTML5 and CSS3 technology to target mobile design to device features (like resolution width) while Device Channels is a SharePoint publishing feature that allows you to tailor the SharePoint UI to devices based on their browser user-agent string. Both of these techniques has their place in the mobile design toolbox but the bigger thing to consider is that the amount of planning and effort that goes into effectively designing for mobile and desktop is often double what a traditional website would need.

A lot more decisions need to be made up front, for example: will tablets see the same UI as a desktop? Mobile phones will likely have a vastly different UI... how will you deemphasize the unimportant parts of the UI? Will navigation reduce to a small icon with a pop-out (sometimes known as hamburger menu)?, etc. Also, you should keep in mind that pure SharePoint publishing sites lend themselves better to responsive web design than traditional team or collaboration sites. This is because the out-of-the-box lists and libraries don't like to shrink beyond a certain minimum size.

Geldenhuys: While device channels are fantastic, they are tailored and take up a lot of time and money compared to a blanket template using responsive design that will work for 95 percent of the devices out there.