07 June 2010

Does SharePoint Destroy Intranet Design?

In the latest blog entry from Jacob Nielsen, he asks an interesting question: does SharePoint Destroy Intranet Design? The question is interesting in that we get a variation on that question frequently from clients: what sort of design can I use with a site running SharePoint (i.e. what constraints are there on my visual design)?  The answer to both questions is: no and anything you’d like.

In Nielsen’s article, he points out that 4 of the top 10 winning intranets from his 2010 survey use SharePoint.  In fact, this is a trend that has continued from the 2009 survey, where 5 of the top 10 used SharePoint.  Nielsen even has screen captures in his article latest article (and in the reports) showing pretty varied designs across each of the winners.  More evidence of different visual designs (and experiences) can be found in the SharePoint Sites on the WSS Demo site (interestingly, this site is now using SharePoint Foundations 2010, so it’s technically not a Windows SharePoint Services demo…).  So why all the trepidation?  I’ll blame the out of the box experience from SharePoint.

Regardless of whether you’re implementing an intranet, an internet or an extranet site, the SharePoint siren’s call of “out of the box” is very strong.  Microsoft has provided “good enough” standard site definitions, visual designs and functionality; that out of the box design experience is actually (pardon the pun) by design – Microsoft hoped to save people time.  Unfortunately, you can’t please everyone.  As a result, many organizations want to change the visual design and experience.  In the SharePoint community, this is called making SharePoint look less “SharePointy.” (I’m not sure who first coined this expression, but it now seems like common vernacular).

If you’ve come the place where you’re questioning how to improve the visual design of the application you’re building on top of SharePoint or being questioned by others about “constraints” or “restrictions,” here some key advice:

  • There are no restrictions on visual design when using SharePoint
    It’s true that there are some elements that should be included in your new design, like the ribbon (in 2010) or the page editor toolbar (in 2007).  However, neither should stop you from creating a design that fits your organization.  Just keep in mind that SharePoint controls (e.g. web parts and the elements that appear during editing) may not render the way the rest of your design does.  I would recommend rigorous testing to ensure everything works as you expect.  Design what you like and apply it to your SharePoint application.  Really.
  • You don’t have to start with a Microsoft-supplied Site Definition
    Since SharePoint ships with so many site definitions (and visual designs), most firms assume that you have to start there and then customize.  This is far from the truth.  In fact, you can create a custom site definition from scratch.  This option requires lots more work, but you may need to head down this path for any number of valid reasons.   If you decide to create your own definition, just remember that you’ll have to enable the specific SharePoint features that make sense for your design (e.g. the publishing feature or search).
  • If your visual design isn’t complex or matches the “L” navigation natively in SharePoint consider a theme
    SharePoint themes are often a good way to create a unique visual design without the work involved in creating new master pages or, with more effort, site definitions.  Many sites, though visually distinct from the standard SharePoint design, can achieve their design goals simply with a theme.   Consider this: a theme takes a competent developer approximately 8 to 10 hours, while a master page could take two to three days and a site definition could take a week or more (depending on complexity).   If you don’t need the “extras” don’t spend the time.  Another benefit is the reduced testing and maintenance required, since themes are just CSS.

While there are some considerations when developing an intranet solution on SharePoint, the product does not destroy or adversely impact intranet design.  In fact, as Nielsen points out, platforms like SharePoint are optimized to create a solid intranet foundation.  In many ways, SharePoint improves intranet development productivity by reducing the design or implementation effort in other areas of your project.