Digital Strategy for Intranet & Web

Sharing insights into strategic approach, new technology and solutions in the ever-changing digital world of Intranets, Websites and Web applications.

The SharePoint User Experience

  • SharePoint
  • John Hedgman
  • 23 Jan 2016
  • Posted 4 years ago

While users are expecting more from online resources, companies are looking to reduce IT costs by increased efficiency through best practice processes. SharePoint has become a system that has proven itself in adapting to meet these changing business needs. The trend over the past few years with SharePoint has been on implementation and integration within the business, while branding has been a secondary consideration.

Today, many organisations are conscious that users now look and judge online resources with a more discerning eye and that it’s not enough to just have an online presence. To manage this expectation requires an understanding of the audience, which will have an impact on the design and development of the solution so that both the user and the organisation have a positive experience and beneficial outcome. How the users feels when they first view the site, to accessing information, page structure, interactive experience and content will influence the user to continue or leave the site. Users often leave web pages in 10–20 seconds, but pages with a clear value proposition can hold people's attention for much longer because visit-durations follow a negative Weibull distribution (Jakob Nielsen's user report 2011)

With organisations understanding the importance of having a successful presence, they are now investing into the design and user experience along with an appropriate information architecture. This process can begin with identifying your target audience, creating consistent branding across all digital media, improving the quality of the content or rebranding and strengthening the organisation's brand.

To improve the user experience within SharePoint, an in-depth understanding of the system around integrating a custom design, managing dynamic content, site features and web parts is required.

Understanding the importance of user-centered design and how it has an impact on both the user and the site including content, design, layout and information architecture is also a requirement. All these elements contribute to the users experience whether the online resource is a SharePoint Intranet portal or public website solution.

SharePoint is a flexible and adaptable platform and has the foundation for a successful online presence. One of the key features is its ability to be customised to the user and the business, but to achieve this requires an understanding of the system and its capabilities.

Creating a positive SharePoint user Experience

SharePoint Capabilities

Understanding the capabilities in the version of SharePoint that you use will determine the options available in functionality and design. SharePoint 2010 is available in 3 different editions, these are: Foundation, Standard and Enterprise. The main difference between the editions is the suite of web parts and features as well the level of customisation that can be applied to the design and the end user experience.

Whether it is Foundation, Standard or Enterprise SharePoint has the capability to empower the organisation through intuitive tools, controls and resources.

Designing for SharePoint

When designing it is important that there is an understanding of how SharePoint deliveries and presents content within the framework. Contributing factors that will influence the design include the edition and version (Foundation, Standard or Enterprise, 2007/2010), type of site such as publishing, wikki or team site and out of the box SharePoint controls including: navigation, ribbon bar, web part property window, site name and general content (titles, text, images and text links). In early versions of SharePoint, customising the user interface was difficult due to the complex code and resources available. In contrast SharePoint 2007 and 2010 allow for highly customised websites that don’t “ look like SharePoint” but can still have all the capabilities required to deliver a solution that will meet the expectations of the business and the user, and be delivered within a reasonable time frame and budget.

Accessibility

SharePoint has evolved from 2007 now to 2010 and there have been major leaps and bounds in the ability to customise, create compliant code, deliver content, and provide more accessible websites for users. SharePoint 2010 now uses fully XHTML compliant code right out of the box, which allows for better browser compatibility and performance. With these significant improvements SharePoint by default is WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 complaint. WCAG 2.0 is a set of recommendations to make web content more accessible for people with disabilities. The full guideline can be found at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/.

When customizing the sites design and structure (master pages, page layouts, web parts, content, navigation, colours) it is important to have a good understanding of SharePoint, XHTML and WCAG requirements as these changes will have an impact on the sites compliance. Not all these modifications require a SharePoint developer, some these can be managed through the SharePoint interface whilst others will require a deeper understanding of SharePoint and its backend architecture.

Metadata

Metadata is widely used to validate site content and contributes to searching and indexing the site within search engines. It has often been a tendency to overlook metadata and its importance to the useability and success of the site.

The process of identifying valuable metadata upfront will aid with the content management processes and offer future benefits. For example, if all your sales pages have a metadata value called “Product”, you can then improve search refinements in SharePoint 2010 and allow your users to refine by Product.

This is where some of the great benefits of SharePoint Content Types and search really begin to pay dividends. The reality is that some metadata schemas can be large and time consuming for content producers. So we recommend the following approach when defining metadata:

  • Identify future metadata needs but be wary of trying to include everything.
  • Resist the urge to make metadata fields required as this hampers content creation
  • Implement default values wherever possible
  • Adhere to known formats and extend if needed

A new feature in SharePoint 2010 is the addition of centrally managed Terms and Syndicated Content Types. Terms are simply metadata values or lookups and in SharePoint are managed in Term Stores. Syndicated Content Types means they are defined in a central location and then made available to be consumed by other sites. This new feature allows for an enterprise strategy around metadata to be developed.

Consider a mining company, with SharePoint sites in different geographic regions around the world. Each time a new region or mine is built, should they need to update the available metadata values in every existing SharePoint site? In SharePoint 2007 this would have been the case. In SharePoint 2010 a metadata hub with syndicated content types can be created allowing their head office to add the new metadata value to a centrally managed Term Store. This information is then available to all the websites around the world saving time and allowing for the system to respond to the changing organisation efficiently. These metadata values (called Taxonomy Fields in SharePoint) can also be used in the search results. Often these types of metadata strategies are developed in large or government solutions, however thinking about appropriate ways to classify content will aid in any type of SharePoint site development.

Know your users

Today, designing and developing an online resource that will attract, represent and retain customers has become somewhat of a science. Many organisations are now conscious the impact that users have to the success of the site and now need to look at the entire experience holistically to make sure that the users’ needs are always met. To have a successful presence is to know your audience. Understanding your audience will help create a positive experience on a functional, accessible, and emotional level. To achieve this challenge is what we call “finding the sweet spot” which is the balance between business objectives, technical requirements and customer needs.

To define customer needs requires determining which research approach to apply and its appropriate application. The research methods you choose are dependent upon a variety of factors, including budget, schedule, development phase and business goals. By completing user research, it will help provide a greater understanding about the audience and contribute guidance and direction to the development of the site.

Where to now

To ensure the outcome meets the expectations of the business and user, invest the time in researching these areas, prior to the development stage. Having resources internally with SharePoint skillsets will reduce time, budget and risk. If resources are not available, don’t guess this has created false expectations and many other issues. Engage with a provider with a proven history working in the specific areas you require. To maximise your investment, training is a must for SharePoint particularly in site management and maintenance.

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