Keeping it simple and friendly

Topics: Internet/Extranet Edition
Aug 20, 2008 at 12:55 PM
SharePoint is a wonderful technology and a great enabler. But for non-techies, its pages with a lots of links, text boxes and generally not very friendly. How could one make the pages look very simple and friendly. Any suggestions are welcome.
Developer
Aug 21, 2008 at 12:12 AM
That's kind of an open-ended question, but I'll throw my two cents in...

The short (and long) answer is that you can re-brand it any way you want.  If you want it simpler, you can create your own master page with whatever you want in it.  I do this all the time.  I have a branding project that I deploy that allows me to create a SharePoint site with almost any look and feel I want.  The configuration is stored in a SharePoint list, and as new sites are created, they get the correct branding automatically based on their URL.  A site admin can tweak the branding without needing SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio because everything is stored in SharePoint!

I've also created sites for my clients that don't look anything at all like SharePoint, because they were focused on delivering one piece of functionality in the context of a non-collaboration web site.  I could have built an ASP.NET forms application instead, but SharePoint already provided a rich admin interface, security and it's own version of virtualization that made it a natural for the application.  But then, it wasn't intended as, and wouldn't work as a collaboration site either--all that functionality was taken out.

If there is a problem with SharePoint, IMO it would be the out-of-the-box navigation (I'm speaking of WSS here, not MOSS).  If a particular site is confusing to non-technical users, then you're probably trying to do too much in one place.  It's not SharePoint that's the problem here, it's your Information Architecture and design.  After all, SharePoint is basically just a pre-made ASP.NET application.  I don't think it's inherently hard to use (though that might not have been as true with the earlier versions).

As an example, here's a little story.  Last year my daughter (then 13 years old) and several of her friends were working on a National History Day project.  They were collaborating mostly over IM and email, and I could see they were having the same difficulties that businesses run into; namely version control of documents, losing emails, working simultaneously etc.  So I casually offered her a SharePoint site on one of my servers (I maintain a small farm in a datacenter for my clients).  She was familiar with MySpace (of course), so she said yes.  I set it up, and set up accounts for each of her friends, and then went on my way.  I didn't really think they would use it, because I didn't do any training, or even explain to them the basics of how to upload documents and such.

A couple weeks later, I visited their site and was amazed at how much they were using it.  Heck, they had dozens of documents in their recycle bin, they'd created new folders in the document libraries, and they'd even figured out how to create sub-sites.  They had a picture library where they had photos they took of the local area that their project was based on. They were even using their event calendar to track their meetings and the school "deliverables". 

The thing is, they didn't know it was supposed to be hard, so they just used it.  I think SharePoint suffers from a poor image because people associate the newest version with the pain they felt from the early versions. The SharePoint 2003 object model gave me numerous sleepless nights.  These girls were not sophisticated computer users, but they were familiar with MySpace (talk about an unfriendly user interface!) and to them, SharePoint was just their own private MySpace page, except that they could do more stuff with it than with MySpace.  They only used as much of it as they needed, and when they needed it to do something, they just figured out how to do it!  Once I saw this, I started showing my daughter little tricks and features, and before long they were using it for all their classes (uploading work they did at home to be downloaded on to their school computer in class). 

Of course, when they showed the site to their teacher, she wanted it for all her students!  But if someone had forced it on them, they probably would have balked and said it was too hard, that they're fine with emailing all these word documents and powerpoint decks around...

Anyway, I suspect that any tool that is versatile will be difficult to use at first, but SharePoint has come a long ways.  You can change how it looks, replace the navigation with your own (or a third party's) and you can create site templates that have the un-needed functionality removed.

Just my 2 cents...

Regards,
Mike Sharp