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.

Overfield: Responsive Web Design, or more accurately in practice, Adaptive Web Design, wins the day hands down although I can see a place for device channels. Device channels were great in theory in 2009 but now with the almost endless stream of devices, quickly becomes too limiting and burdensome. Devices channels may work well for an organization's intranet portal where devices are limited for any reason.

As an example, say an organization only allows IE11 and Surface Pro's to access their Intranet. If the interface for the Surface Pro requires features or a layout that would not be necessary for IE11, then I could see device channels being used so that the interface and its underlying code may be tailored directly for said interface without burdening the other interface with superfluous code.

Responsive Design is a no brainer for public facing sites and most intranet portals that must services two or more devices. I believe moving forward that devices channels will be completely replaced with responsive design as in the long run, techniques and strategies will be developed to address responsive design shortcomings and the speed of development will be rapidly increased with new tools, techniques and accepted frameworks.

Jinks: Responsive design can work fine for fairly simple applications, but it can be very hard to get the UX right across a variety of devices and form factors. Device channels can provide a more granular experience tailored for the device, but it's a lot of work to design for many different channels that you want to support. While both of these are fine if the user has a good connection to SharePoint, often mobile workers are in occasionally connected scenarios where bandwidth can severely limit UX. In those cases a third alternative ... native mobile apps with caching ... can provide a much better UX across a variety of scenarios and devices.

Buckley: Microsoft has been focusing a lot on the UX, with the most exciting (in my view) features that are coming up on the roadmap positioned as personalization and productivity-enhancement updates. We have Delve (formerly known as Codename Oslo) and Office Graph, for example. What vNext features will most improve the SharePoint UX, and what are your predictions for the UX roadmap?

Overfield: I would like to see future iterations of SharePoint and SharePoint Online decouple the data of SharePoint with the presentation of this data to the end user, thus allowing for tighter control of the site infrastructure while allowing almost endless front-end customization potential. This is a well-established norm now in MVC, MVVM and the rest. Why not for SharePoint as well?

The app model will help us add new features that may provide a better UX, but there is still room for improvement in the app model itself. It would be nice if the app model could get rid of iframes for some apps. I am having problems predicting what will happen with the UX, but my hope is that with the shorter release cycles, that Microsoft listens to their customers and continue to refine and improve the UX. Oslo looks promising but customers will still want to be able to heavily customize this to fit their own needs and culture and I am concerned this will not happen. I do think that general UI components will start to converge in their look and feel thus providing a more consistent UI, which will in turn improve the UX.

Drisgill: I have no idea what's coming in the next version of the SharePoint UX but I can tell you what would be interesting to see in a future version. I'd like to see the UI layer for SharePoint rebuilt from the ground up without the old concepts. Master pages, page layouts, content types, web parts, etc. have served us well over the years, but modern web design is much more focused on client technologies like Bootstrap and AngularJS.

Also, with SharePoint being hosted more and more in controlled cloud environments, it would be good to have a way to customize SharePoint easily without deep interaction with the underpinnings of SharePoint. Ideally, this UX layer could be HTM5 and CSS3 based instead of using master pages. Creating custom branding could be as easy as making an HTML template, adding SharePoint functionally via tokens, and UI customizations could be made with JavaScript calls to new SharePoint APIs. Having said all that, SharePoint is a huge product and making all that happen I'm sure is a lot easier said than done, even for the SharePoint product team.

Jinks: I actually think that the UX should be more customizable to support unique applications in the future. Making it easier to integrate social, messaging, file shares and email into a continuous user experience is key. Also support for mobile.

Katerjian: I don't have a magic eight ball, but I can tell you that this is a cultural challenge for Microsoft, and not a technology one, and because of this I am keeping my expectations low for now. Microsoft's strengths have always been in backend capabilities and not in driving and managing the user experience. With the exception of Xbox, Microsoft has not had much success in this space. So to tackle the user experience for SharePoint with its varied user expectations and needs will be a major undertaking - not because it's technically difficult, but because it requires a competency that Microsoft has yet to demonstrate.

Geldenhuys: I would love to "Delve" into this but I believe that Microsoft have never been great at UX and that's OK. It's a personal experience, as long as they ensure the framework is flexible, we are heading in the right direction. What is the biggest problem with the SharePoint UX? For customers, it is very simple: how much time does a user need to spend in SharePoint? Unless you are enticing users to SharePoint with viral cat videos or by making them hunt down content they need, a user's additional time spent on SharePoint will be the best measure of increased user adoption and productivity.

At the recent World Partner Conference (#WPC14) in Washington DC, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked about the move away from "devices and services" language and told the audience during his vision keynote that the company messaging was being realigned toward "platform and productivity" messaging. With this top-level messaging, its not surprising that Office 365 and SharePoint roadmaps will increasingly focus on solving the adoption and engagement issues, adding to the wealth of products and services already available through the partner ecosystem.

You can find more feedback from the Tweet Jam on Storify

Title image by Liza (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license