January 29, 2020
Why SharePoint design matters and how to invest in it reasonably
Digital Experience Strategist
SharePoint design was always one of the most disputable aspects of the platform. Since the out-of-the-box (OOTB) style of SharePoint On-Premises rarely satisfied companies, they looked to modify it according to their brand guidelines and tastes. Cloud-based SharePoint Online initially had a more user-friendly interface, which attracted many businesses that hoped to cut their customization costs. After years of waiting, SharePoint On-Premises owners were finally rewarded: the latest SharePoint 2019 inherited the look and feel of its cloud counterpart.
So as Microsoft made a great step forward with the platform’s design, is there any work left for business users to do? And is it worth investing in tweaking the SharePoint UI at all?
Six SharePoint On-Premises versions had a tile-based default view that rarely attracted users. That’s why transforming the raw SharePoint into a good-looking solution was, and still is, a frequent request from companies searching for SharePoint consulting and planning to build a shiny custom application on top of SharePoint 2016, 2013 or earlier versions.
Microsoft modernized the appearance of the seventh version, SharePoint 2019, thus facilitating the design journey for its owners.
Regardless of the version, companies that deploy SharePoint Server get the opportunity to create a solution with a unique style and advanced customizations.
The situation with SharePoint Online within Office 365 and Microsoft 365 is a bit different. The platform offers a modern design and a wide choice of SharePoint sites, including SharePoint team, communication, hub and home sites.
Overall, even comparing SharePoint On-Premises vs SharePoint Online, the design logic of both remains the same. SharePoint comes with the native views that organizations can either leave unchanged or tweak the way they like it.
But here is a question. If the modern SharePoint looks good as it is, why companies need to customize its design? The answer is, there is still a great difference between an OOTB design and a custom one.
Indeed, using a built-in site constructor, even users without specific knowledge of SharePoint can launch a site—it is really that easy. However, to create comprehensive portals with a truly polished design, companies still need professional SharePoint developers’ assistance.
What’s more, SharePoint design fulfills several important functions outlined below.
Designing a SharePoint solution is never about decorating the platform with custom themes. Its design has at least three critical functions that, all together, determine how convenient and successful the final solution is.
Making the system easier to use. To build a user-friendly solution, it isn’t enough to deploy all the OOTB features. By adding custom design, companies can structure their solutions better, make them intuitive for end users, and highlight the most important components.
It’s the responsibility of SharePoint developers to make the design work. If custom design is poorly incorporated into the platform, it will cause a repeatedly negative user experience. What’s worse, it can also hinder business processes. No matter how nicely a team site is designed, if it makes the system sluggish with pages loading for 30 seconds, the team members will hardly enjoy using it.
Reinforcing corporate culture and team values. As SharePoint often hosts corporate intranets and team collaboration solutions, the platform becomes the voice of organizational and team values. Incorporated into the design, corporate identity elements and team symbols can nurture the community spirit. In organizations with hundreds of teams, a tailored SharePoint site can also become an effective team-by-team differentiator.
Ensuring user adoption and engagement. Creating a modern and responsive SharePoint design that looks equally well across different devices means ensuring the solution’s long-term popularity among its users. On the contrary, poorly designed or old-fashioned solutions are bound to face issues with user adoption.
When designing a SharePoint solution, it is always reasonable to focus on the key components and functional parts of the platform.
Home page. The most critical part of SharePoint solutions, particularly of intranets, home pages are the first in the line for a custom design. Above all, a home page shapes the overall impression of the solution. Besides, it serves as a hub for end-users to access other apps and sites hosted within the solution (for example, a document management tool) or integrated with it (for example, a CRM system). That’s why the homepage design should not only engage but also guide users to the features and solutions they need. Just like in this homepage of the award-winning 3M SharePoint Online intranet:
Team and communication sites. As far as SharePoint is primarily a team collaboration platform, it’s worth customizing team and communication sites. The easiest scenario is to tweak particular sites in line with the teams’ activities. For example, if a team works in charity, their SharePoint site can mirror their values, show their outcomes, and draw a large audience to relevant events. It is also useful bringing a custom touch to the core features, such as calendars, discussion boards, web parts for time tracking and performance assessment, etc.
Project management areas. Project management is another function that organizations often delegate to SharePoint. Custom design, in this case, is what allows bringing together scattered OOTB features within a single SharePoint project site or portal and adapt these features to the needs of particular teams. When designing project management areas, SharePoint developers often put extra effort into making the solution inspiring for those who will be using it. Custom project timelines, achievements, rewards, and boards with encouraging quotes are frequent companions of SharePoint project management sites.
Community sites. If your SharePoint solution hosts social and professional communities, it’s worth designing community sites. It will engage community members and make them feel part of a specific user group. Informal communities can sport an entertaining design, while professional communities can be designed in line with their line of work.
A knowledge base. If your company actively practices knowledge management, you can tweak knowledge management components, such as wikis, knowledge libraries and blogs. In this case, the overall design should help end users find or add new knowledge quickly. Custom icons and themes can make the entire solution easier to navigate, as well as help users identify knowledge categories straight away.
Public sites. Finally, if your SharePoint hosts customer-facing sites, there are several options for implementing custom design depending on the site’s purpose. If the site is to offer products and services, its design can be based on your brand’s style. If it’s a partner portal, the SharePoint site design should reflect partners’ identities and preferences. If the SharePoint site is a co-innovation solution, custom design can echo the research domains.
It should be mentioned that everything around their design of SharePoint public sites only applies to owners of SharePoint Server. Public sites within SharePoint Online were irrevocably dismissed in March 2018.
For many years, companies had to sweat away to design (or redesign) their SharePoint Server solutions. With practically endless options, final solutions could be modified to such an extent that it was impossible to see SharePoint behind them.
The shared nature of SharePoint Online and the Office 365 ecosystem defines stricter rules of SharePoint design. To prevent the service slowdowns and making a negative impact on the entire deployment, SharePoint Online owners are to follow Microsoft’s recommendations on developing custom solutions and applying custom designs.
At the same time, to help their customers, Microsoft came up with the SharePoint look book that brings together best practices in modern SharePoint design and provides ready-made examples of various SharePoint sites. Owners of any SharePoint version can use the look book as a source of inspiration to build a stylish solution.
Looking at attractive SharePoint prototypes, it is easy to get lured into creating a custom design, only to find out it’s actually expensive and time-consuming. To stay on track without overspending, it’s reasonable to stick to the following principles.
Avoid granular design. Don’t try to design every single SharePoint detail. For example, there is no use in customizing such content management components as document libraries and lists—the out-of-the-box ones look just fine. With custom designs for SharePoint Online, you have to be twice as careful in order to avoid bringing down the deployment.
Plan ongoing enhancements. Instead of jumping into a one-time 360‑degree redevelopment of your SharePoint solution, it’s more reasonable to plan a step-by-step advance in SharePoint design. For example, you can start with a home page and several team sites to launch your SharePoint intranet, and then keep on adding custom design across community sites, blogs, or wikis.
Plan ongoing enhancements. Instead of jumping into a one-off, complete redevelopment of your SharePoint solution, it’s more reasonable to plan a step-by-step SharePoint design roadmap. For example, you can start with the home page and a few team sites as the first iteration of your SharePoint intranet and then keep on adding more custom design across community sites, blogs, and wikis.
Create templates. You can customize several types of SharePoint sites. However, if you have hundreds of teams that collaborate within SharePoint, you don’t need to bring custom design to each of the team sites. It would be more cost-effective to come up with a few templates and apply them across the entire deployment. In the SharePoint development terms, this can be achieved through SharePoint site provisioning.
Switch to SharePoint versions that support modern design. If you find that your current SharePoint On-Premises design requires too much investment, consider migrating to SharePoint Online or SharePoint 2019. Both the cloud suite and the brand-new SharePoint On-Premises version offer modern SharePoint pages with user-friendly desktop and mobile views. It will be much easier to build a good-looking SharePoint solution based on these versions, with less customization effort overall.
Custom design can’t shine bright forever: every solution loses its luster sooner or later. The Nielsen Norman Group study of the best SharePoint intranets 2012-2018 shows that the majority of solutions have to go through deep redesign to battle decreasing usage and engagement.
To evaluate the state of your SharePoint design, you can do the following:
Collect users’ feedback. This way, you will know whether your solution is crisp and coherent or requires restyling. Redesigning a solution while it’s still functioning well is always more reasonable than having to move to a third-party solution and start customizing from scratch users’ loyalty is completely gone.
Monitor your SharePoint deployment. Regular SharePoint health checks and audits are critical for customized deployments as they help reveal various inconsistencies, from general architectural drawbacks to custom design errors. Poorly or incorrectly designed solutions don’t just annoy end users: they also affect entire deployments, causing their abnormal performance.
Follow best practices. Going for a custom SharePoint design, you should rely on Microsoft’s recommendations and real-life successful design examples. Your solution’s performance and usability should always come before its sleekness. Moreover, the SharePoint logic should always be respected, otherwise ensuing technical issues are inevitable.
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