SharePoint has a long, and at times, checkered, history with "citizen developers" who leverage out-of-the-box capability, Microsoft-provided tools, and third-party solutions to develop low or no-code productivity solutions for their organizations.
Historically, SharePoint was billed as a "Swiss-army-knife" platform, which organizations could shape and mold into whatever was needed. But in more recent years, Microsoft has focused the platform on its core intranet and document collaboration strengths, pushing all other business efforts toward other products and features. To be clear, organizations can still support their integrated solutions and customize SharePoint to meet their unique business requirements — but how they accomplish this may include a number of different Microsoft solutions, rather than trying to do everything within SharePoint.
InfoPath and SharePoint Designer were the primary citizen development tools used by most organizations working with SharePoint. Many admins and power users have a love-hate relationship with both, especially now that Microsoft has stopped innovating on both tools, with mainstream support ending on July 13, 2021, and extended support ending on July 14, 2026. In no way does this mean that Microsoft is stepping away from the citizen developer, but it does mean the focus moves away from those two primary tools — with some of their capability being spread across several tools, the new modern UX, and the SharePoint Framework (SPFx).
Microsoft Corporate VP, Business Applications, Platform and Intelligence Products James Phillips made the following case for supporting the citizen developer, stating: "Every organization faces constant pressure to do more with less. While technology is often key to operating more effectively and efficiently, cost and complexity have often prevented organizations from taking maximum advantage of the potential benefits. The growth of SaaS (software as a service) has lowered barriers — no need to deploy servers or to install and configure complex software systems. Just sign up and go. The result? People in departments from sales to marketing, from operations to finance now have the power to select and adopt tools to improve their own processes. And they’re not slowing down to ask for permission."
I asked five globally-recognized Microsoft MVPs and experts to share their thoughts on the changing landscape around citizen development, how organizations should handle the sunsetting of InfoPath and SharePoint Designer, and prepare themselves for digital transformation.
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The Future of InfoPath and SharePoint Designer
Christian Buckley: Do you believe there has been an increase in citizen development, and if so, why? Or is this simply a rebranding of activities that have always been present?
Paul Culmsee (@paulculmsee), management consultant and author: Yes definitely. In part it is driven by a) availability of new tools driven by b) the move to cloud-based services of increasing sophistication, which has led to c) the trend of looser integration of applications via web services. Throw that into the mix with d) organizations seeking innovation while buying into the startup rhetoric of 'fail fast, fail forward,' and e) frustration with IT departments who identify themselves as risk mitigators, at the expense of value-adders, and we have ourselves a perfect storm. Why is this not a surprise? Such activities have always been present, but not to the scale we are seeing nowadays.
Eric Overfield (@ericoverfield), co-founder and president of PixelMill: Absolutely, for a few reasons. Code acceleration tools have been built that make coding smaller projects more readily available to the masses. Coding environments such as VS Code have been released that provide powerful features for free, yet with IntelliSense and plugins, many of the complexities of coding have been demystified in some ways. Most importantly to me, the proliferation of open source communities, in particular GitHub, have been one of the biggest drivers in my opinion. Coders and non-coders alike can download open-sourced projects and utilize them. Non-coders and citizen developers can utilize and begin to look under the hood and begin to make contributions, big or small. They can clobber together these open source tools to make amazing results for their organization and projects.
Buckley: Is there still a role for InfoPath and SharePoint Designer, or have they become irrelevant?
Adis Jugo (@adisjugo), director of product technology at skybow: Many organizations have their data and their processes locked into customizations created by InfoPath or SharePoint Designer — regardless of whether the data is trapped into Form Libraries or complex workflows that fewer and fewer people remember how to read, let alone edit. With those two products being either declared as deprecated, or completely abandoned by Microsoft, the real challenge is to discover, analyze, move and transform the data and the processes into modern SharePoint.
Anderson: InfoPath is still 'supported' until 2026 and SharePoint Designer still works, though best for traditional workflows. People are going to continue using what they know, especially until the newer tools reach feature and functionality parity. That parity, however, often means doing things in a different way — different ways of thinking — so there has to be a lot of education. Marketing can say 'you can solve everything with X,' but that doesn’t get people down the learning curve.
Liam Cleary (@helloitsliam) CEO of SharePlicity, product owner at Rencore: InfoPath and SharePoint Designer have been the de facto tooling of choice for all versions of SharePoint. They were easy to use, were part of the Office suite of tools and just worked. Microsoft over the past few years made decisions to no longer update and support these tools, simply due to the way changes were made, these are no longer supported or wanted within the newer platforms. Now is the time to migrate the forms and customizations to the newer model using PowerApps to replace InfoPath, and the SharePoint Framework for the SharePoint Designer customizations. However, this is no small task and requires extensive planning plus learning new tooling. Choosing this approach will, however, ensure you are following best practice and future-proofing the customizations and solutions.
Culmsee: Very little demand for this based on my own consulting experience.
Overfield: In legacy systems, absolutely. Moving forward with migrations to new offerings such as SharePoint 2016/2019 or SharePoint Online? I have to say no. There could be a place but I would never recommend to any client as my first, second or third option to use yesterday’s technology on a new project. There are use case to be sure where InfoPath or SharePoint Designer could be used in new projects, such as when there are tens of thousands or more lines of custom code with many zeros of dollars already invested. Just be wise, careful and deliberate in utilizing old technology in new projects.
Related Article: SharePoint 2019 Says Hello to 6 Features and Goodbye to 6 Others
Preparing for the End of InfoPath and SharePoint Designer
Buckley: With mainstream support for InfoPath 2013 and SharePoint Designer ending on July 13, 2021 and extended support five years later, what should organizations that today rely on them be thinking about / planning for / actively doing to prepare?
Anderson: My advice is always (once it’s reached the tipping point) to try to use the new tools for net new functionality and then fall back to the old if you can’t accomplish what you need. This can’t be a quick look and decision that it looks too hard, though — it has to be a real college try. I think both PowerApps and Flow have passed the tipping point, and they can accomplish much of what people need, and the gaps are closing all the time.
Now we get to the hard part: what do we do with the old stuff that already works? It’s hard to argue that rebuilding everything makes sense, but on a rolling basis, organizations need to be evaluating their portfolio of applications and making the tough decisions about whether to kill them, leave them be, or recreate them with the newer tools.
Overfield: The low-hanging fruit is moving the processes that required these sunsetting technologies to the cloud and watch Microsoft’s new technology designed to address these needs including PowerApps and Flow. You might want to pay attention to third party offerings as well.
Cleary: Third-party solutions have long filled many of the gaps within the SharePoint platform, from small web part providers adding missing functionality, to comprehensive migration, management and business process management solutions that helped make SharePoint a scalable, enterprise-ready platform. Many of these solutions help drive the customization and personalization movement within the SharePoint community that has helped drive the citizen developer movement within the Microsoft ecosystem. Customers should investigate the many options, and start making immediate plans.
Culmsee: Start learning PowerApps and Flow now — it’s a no brainer. Also Azure functions is a key piece of the puzzle that I am seeing early adopters make fantastic use of as they customize SharePoint.
Buckley: With the shift toward PnP-type frameworks, AI-powered intelligent solutions, and more focus on citizen development tools and solutions, what will be the role of the IT Pro in seven to 10 years?
Culmsee: The ground has already been shifted for many IT pros and will continue to do so. I feel that typical IT pro activities will continue to be commoditized —particularly those who see themselves as the aforementioned risk mitigators. The problem with this, no matter how unfair it seems, is you will be seen as an overhead, not a value creator. Organizations will therefore look to cost effective solutions to manage that overhead. After all, if you can get the same insurance for a lesser premium, most would take the cheaper option.
Overfield: IT Pros are going to be most affected by the shift to cloud, and their emphasis in bare medal to OS/App installation and configure is going to give way to platform configuration and utilization. I look at this as the evolution to DevOps. IT Pros will need to open up PowerShell and simple code editors more, such as VS Code, as well as learn to support open source solutions. There will be a shift to security and compliance management as open source codebases will need to be reviewed and validated for many high security environments. Tools such as SPCAF or Microsoft’s new Page Diagnostic Tool for SharePoint will become important, and IT Pros are in a great place to manage and maintain such standards.
Anderson: I don’t think there’s an impact on the IT Pro (other than as a gatekeeper for code), but there will be a big impact on developers. More and more things will be possible through the UI and using power user tools, thus the need for traditional development ought to decrease. The one thing IT Pros MUST do is stop getting in the way of organizational progress by being a choke point. I’ve been saying this for what feels like decades now — let’s see if this is the wave where it truly happens. IT Pros work for the business, not the other way around.
Related Article: How the Citizen Developer Trend Powers Business Transformation
The Evolution of Citizen Development With Microsoft
The vision of the "modern workplace" is one where the organization is more quickly able to respond to industry and economic changes, better able to capture the collective knowledge and expertise of their employees, and capture and leverage that knowledge to innovate ahead of their competitors. To make that happen, organizations need to embrace the idea of digital transformation, as well as empowering individuals as citizen developers, allowing them to customize and configure the tools and platforms they use to meet the unique, and constantly changing business needs of each company.
According to Microsoft, digital transformation is about reimagining how you bring together people, data and processes to create value for your customers and maintain a competitive advantage in a digital-first world.
When discussing digital transformation, one question that always comes up is, "What are the tools we should be using for citizen development?" While Microsoft and many other partners and independent software vendors (ISVs) are creating and extending solutions for the citizen developer, the primary tools (past and present) are as follows:
- PowerApps. Helps end users leverage SharePoint lists to access, share and collaborate around their structured data, and enabling citizen developers to create apps that utilize SharePoint lists as a data source. They can also be consumed from a mobile device, or embedded within a SharePoint portal where additional contextual data can be added.
- Microsoft Flow. Allows users to create business process automation workflows between internal systems and their favorite cloud-based apps and services, providing notifications, helping to synchronize files, collect data, and more. Microsoft Flow replaces SharePoint Designer Workflows for SharePoint Workflows, but adds much more functionality.
- Microsoft Forms. Enables business users to gather information from both internal and external users through surveys, quizzes and polls, and by adding business logic and branching, allowing them to capture a variety of response types — and review the analytics in real-time.
- Power BI. Allows business users to create powerful reports and dashboards, using data from over 200 different systems, and displaying it within the PowerBI Portal, via mobile app, or in various locations within Office 365.
- Modern Lists. Allows business users to collaborate in an even more productive way with features such as conditional formatting, bulk editing with Quick Edit, integration with Flow, and much more.
- The SharePoint Framework (SPFx). This is a page and web part model supporting client-side development, open source tools, and integration with SharePoint data. It allows developers to use the modern web technologies and tools that they are familiar with, creating apps that are responsive and mobile-ready.
- InfoPath. Enables the design and distribution of electronic forms containing structured data, and features a WYSIWYG form designer through which you could add various controls (e.g. textbox, radio Button, checkbox) and connect them to your data.
- SharePoint Designer (SPD). Allows teams to design and customize SharePoint websites, offering a number of SharePoint-specific site templates.
There are, arguably, other tools and solutions within the Microsoft ecosystem that could also be considered part of the citizen developer toolset, such as the Microsoft Graph, connectors and bots within Microsoft Teams, and many different capabilities within Microsoft Azure, for starters. What this means is there is no longer one way to accomplish your tasks, and transform your SharePoint environment in a way that will better serve your organizational needs. There's a lot to pay attention to, and experiment with. Clearly, the future of the citizen developer is bright.