Social Business, Familiarity Breeds Usability: Yammer, Office and why A small cottage industry has grown over the years around helping companies become more engaged with their SharePoint platforms. The catch-all term for this practice is “user adoption” and it’s traditionally been important to the enterprise, the user and Microsoft alike.

As of this year, I’d like to stick a fork in it.

It’s dead -- or at least it ought to be, and should be sooner than later.

The grinning culprit? Yammer, with a big assist from Office.

This is unequivocally a good thing, too -- for the enterprise, the user and Microsoft alike. It’s inevitable, and believe me, people will appreciate it.

Don’t think so? Let me ask you this:

When was the last time you saw a “user adoption” program teaching people how to use email?

SharePoint itself hasn't hit the tipping point of ubiquity that email enjoys, but some of its core services (translation: document collaboration, search, social) have -- and the most recent gateway to SharePoint, Yammer, boasts almost immediate usability for most new users. The world doesn't want to talk about “user adoption” anymore.

The world wants to get on with it, already.

What We Mean by “User Adoption”

To accept the idea of “user adoption” for SharePoint, you have to accept the basic premise that SharePoint in itself inherently resists adoption. It’s a simple piece of logic, really:

PREMISE: “User Adoption” services help enterprise users interact with their SharePoint tools.

CONCLUSION: Enterprise users were unable (or unwilling) to interact with their SharePoint tools unaided.

This always presented a bit of a problem for Microsoft. Sure, this belief contributed to a thriving partner ecosystem of training courses, learning materials, communication planning, et cetera, but it also led to some very difficult conversations about the gap between SharePoint licenses sold and SharePoint licenses deployed. Even after SharePoint 2010 largely shrank the deployment gap, the usability and clean user interface were loudly touted improvements of the most recent version.

Why? Because aside from some basic design principles (people in Western culture read left to right, top to bottom) out-of-the-box SharePoint has never been easy to adopt. There’s just too much going on, too many options to choose from, too many ways to get from Point A to Point B.

Solid planning was (and still is) required to impose good information architecture, and Search will always need sound configuration and regular tuning to provide the sort of optimal results that make people happy. Even uploading a document takes a little working out for a first-time user. From these basic scenarios and their close relatives sprang a whole host of quick start cards, lunch-and-learns and the like. I know -- I used to deliver them myself!

In spite all of those tools at their disposal, IT owners in many environments have struggled to help SharePoint become the “killer app” that it could be, or perhaps it should be. In the past, they've turned to user adoption plans to help change that. That shouldn't be necessary anymore.

Want User Adoption? Give Users Software They Understand

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining a small breakout session at Gartner’s Portals, Content and Collaboration Summit. In the room, a Gartner analyst chaired a roundtable of actual participants in enterprise social networking platforms. One truism repeated by several folks in the room struck me: “For a new tool to be adopted, it only needs to be easier to use than the tool it’s replacing.”

SharePoint hasn't always been that easier tool. Sometimes it has and sometimes it hasn’t. If you’re looking to achieve ubiquity, you’re not going to be happy with a split decision.

In the context of the Gartner room, that idea was mooted about in regard to companies looking to augment their internal communications with social business tools. You can apply it just as easily to the success of the iPad -- a multi-tool so easy to use that it replaced a hundred things we never knew needed replacing -- and many of the new, consumer-driven “apps” of today.

For many of us, SharePoint was certainly easier to use than some of the things it replaced -- file shares, legacy content management applications, the sort of unwieldy dinosaur applications that grew to terabytes of size storing files dating back to the 90s. Yet in our headlong rush to embrace SharePoint, we enthusiastic SharePoint evangelists often missed something -- there were plenty of people who liked those old applications.

They were simple. They were intuitive. Drag and drop here, simple keystroke there. To the untrained eye, they were tough -- but through learned behaviors, their users had become tied to them. SharePoint offered a different paradigm and there are still places where that equates with a difficult user experience. By standing that idea on its head, the idea of learned behaviors, we can see why Microsoft already holds the key to future “user adoption” in its own hands.

The key to user adoption isn't spending thousands of dollars on management consulting. It isn't making changes to SharePoint itself. It’s giving users software they inherently understand.

SharePoint Adoption Really Means Office and Yammer

Millions of people use Microsoft Office. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous with its basic tasks -- creating documents, presentations and spreadsheets -- that the few challengers Office has had over the years do so largely by copying its interface. (Take a look at the layout and features of Google Docs if you doubt the supremacy of Office in the productivity experience. It’s a shorthand version of Office, right down to the File Menu.) In fact, it’s safe to say that people expect to create and edit documents in an Office-like experience -- a way that’s extremely familiar to them.

Guess what? You can also upload, save, share, check in, check out, add permissions and metadata to a document in Office. You can work simultaneously on that document with teammates via Office Web Apps. Sure, SharePoint is running in the background for all of these things, but nobody needs to know that. They just need to work on their documents.

And they already know how, because everyone -- Googlers included -- knows Office. That takes care of document collaboration. How about social?

Just about everyone uses Facebook these days. It is, dare we say, ubiquitous. That simple blue navigation bar, with a newsfeed down the middle of the page and various features to left and right? It’s so simple even Grandma gets it (and many, many Grandmas do).

Guess who looks just like Facebook? That’s right, Yammer -- right down to the drag-and-drop file upload interface.



That kind of familiarity makes it easy for people to sit down, spin up the app and start communicating with barely a modicum of training or preparation. I don’t want to say that certain tried-and-true principles of organizational change management will no longer apply -- there will always be a place for such things -- but they become far less necessary when people can intuitively understand how to use an application simply because it works like something they already understand.

People get the telephone, and they get email. Guess what? They get Office too, and they get Facebook (so they'll get Yammer). Move SharePoint functionality to the background, make it the platform and not a product -- front end it with Office and Yammer, which is to say document collaboration and social -- yes, this is already happening -- and you won't have nearly as many “user adoption” concerns. Your users will have adopted it before you even rolled it out.

Title image courtesy of Lim ChewHow (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of Rich's thoughts on SharePoint in his Reports of SharePoint's Death are Greatly Exaggerated