deciding between two doors
Since their introduction nearly three years ago, the SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box solution market has grown, offering buyers more choices PHOTO: Letizia Bordoni

The concept of a pre-built SharePoint intranet or an "intranet In-a-box" emerged roughly three years ago. 

At the time, there were only a handful of options on the market. Today, well over 26 options offer a variety of functionality, architecture, design and services. Due to our early history in the market, many have asked us how to filter out solutions that are less advanced.

9 Questions to Ask a SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box Provider 

Here are nine questions we recommend asking third-party SharePoint intranet providers so you don't waste your time vetting less mature products.

1. Is the Solution a 'Native Intranet-in-a-Box?'

When asking this question, you are asking how the solution integrates with SharePoint. A non-native solution will store information within SharePoint, but otherwise it is a separate application.

This is troublesome for a few reasons:

  • Microsoft updates and releases new features for Office 365 frequently — when it does, non-native solutions will need to push out updates to you. Failing to push out updates that comply with changes in Office 365 often results in system downtime, broken functionality or simply missing out on the new feature or security update altogether. Native Intranet In-a-box solutions are integrated into SharePoint's framework and seamlessly integrate with any changes or updates
  • From a user-experience perspective, non-native solutions also appear disjointed because you are required to move in and out of the intranet and your Office 365 applications. Native SharePoint intranet solutions provide a seamless experience.

2. Does the SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box Have a Product Roadmap?

Ask this question so you can understand how the product has advanced and what's to come. You want to select a proven solution with a track-record of success and big plans to grow with you. 

Since the SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box space is still a new, many immature solutions are entering the market. This means they may not come equipped with a plan as to how the product needs to evolve. 

You will also want to ask about the cadence at which updates are provided and whether they are forced upon customers. For your reference:

  • It is typical for minor releases and bug fixes to be pushed out automatically every month. These releases are often mandatory and largely unnoticeable to the end-user
  • Major releases usually occur annually or every six months. Major releases are also typically something you opt-in for as new features may not be part of your current strategy.

3. Does the Solution Cause Vendor Lock-in?

Organizations can get locked in with pre-built intranets in a few ways. 

The first is a result of how they store your content. You will 100 percent want to select a solution that enables you to host your content wherever you choose. Leaving it in the hands of the vendor could mean it remains with them when you want to leave, or even worse, if the company goes under, your content could disappear altogether.

The second way vendor lock-in happens is through heavy customization. We've worked with many organizations who have built custom SharePoint intranet solutions either internally or by way of outsourcing. Often, this prevents them from being able to upgrade to new versions of SharePoint, and makes switching costs very high.

Another way heavy customization creates vendor lock-in is through non-native solutions that natively are built with heavy customization. This makes it costly for the vendor to provide upgrades, resulting in clunky and aged solutions.

4. Is There a Software-as-a-Service Model Option and Do You Support Hybrid Deployments?

If you are planning on moving to Office 365, a service model will ensure that updates can be provided to you automatically. 

You'll also want to ask if the solution can be deployed both online and on-premises or a combination of the two. Hybrid deployments are important for organizations that, for compliance reasons, must store data in specific regions or locations.

5. Does the Solution Offer a Framework for Developers to Build Upon?

If you are in an industry vertical that requires very specific line of business applications in SharePoint and/or Office 365, you will likely need to develop or own solutions. Another option is to partner with an agency that can build them for you. 

Selecting a solution that has an open framework means you will be able to add customizations and your own applications much faster, giving you the flexibility to create unique applications in Office 365 and SharePoint that drive productivity.

6. Is the SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box Truly Mobile Friendly and Responsive?

Many solutions claim to be responsive and mobile friendly but on closer look only offer this for select features, pages or applications within the platform. Make sure to ask if responsive and mobile-friendly UI exists for all sites, pages and content across the platform. This will make a huge difference, especially if you need a solution for people who work remotely.

7. Is the Solution Multilingual?

This is a requirement for all multinationals organizations. You want to ask if the solution is multilingual and what languages they support. 

Many companies run a translation product as a cheaper and quicker option, so ask how they created their multi-lingual solution. Automatic translation doesn't work for every organization. 

Also ask if the solution uses SharePoint Variations to support multi-lingual in SharePoint. For anyone who has worked with variations, you will understand why removing any reliance between multi-lingual support andSharePoint Variations makes sense.

8. How User-Friendly Is the Product?

The whole idea of having a SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box is to remove the requirement of deep SharePoint expertise to run and manage a SharePoint intranet. Be sure this is not the case and that the solution is easy to use for people with all technical abilities.

9. What Mechanisms Does the Vendor Provide to Ensure You Implement a SharePoint Intranet That Lasts?

These mechanisms typically come as value-added consultancy services to ensure you are set up for long-term success.

Many vendors hand you their product and bid you good luck. For an intranet to last, it requires lots of love and careful change management planning. Additional knowledge expertise in the form of training, content auditing, Information Architecture (IA) exercises and governance guidance all add to the long-term viability of your solution

If you have additional tips to share or questions, please follow up in the comment section below.