SharePoint design always was one of the most disputable aspects of the platform. As an out-of-the-box SharePoint style rarely satisfies companies, they look for modifying it according to their brand guidelines and tastes. Some SharePoint consultants convince companies to be moderate with changing the platform’s native appearance; others advocate a radical reshaping of SharePoint solutions. So who is right and why? Let’s find out.
SharePoint On-Premises comes out of the box with a tile view that rarely attracts users. That’s why transforming the default SharePoint into a good-looking solution is a frequent request from companies searching for SharePoint consulting. At the same time, OOTB SharePoint offers an opportunity to create a solution with a unique style. This is a great advantage for companies that want to make their document management solution attractive and convenient for users.
The situation with SharePoint Online within Office 365 is a bit different. With the suite’s advance, subscribers switched from SharePoint design issues to collaboration challenges that arrived together with a variety of Office 365 apps. What’s more important, Microsoft reworked the SharePoint design, so the cloud platform offers not only traditional but also modern experience, thus enabling users to customize sites and pages by playing with layouts and web parts.
Still, even with these improvements, the design logic in both on‑premises and cloud deployments remains the same. SharePoint comes with native views that you can either leave unchanged or tweak the way you like it.
At the same time, considering how to design a SharePoint site, you shouldn’t aim at decorating it only.
A SharePoint design has at least three critical functions that, all together, determine how convenient and successful your solution is.
Making the system easier to use. To build a user-friendly solution, it isn’t enough to enable all the needed out-of-the-box SharePoint features. By adding custom design, you can structure your solution, make it intuitive for end users, and emphasize the most important components.
Echoing corporate culture and team values. As SharePoint often hosts corporate intranets and team collaboration solutions, the platform takes up the responsibility to support organizational and team values. Used as part of the design, corporate identity elements and team symbols spread the community spirit. In organizations with hundreds of teams, a tailored SharePoint site can serve as a team identification attribute.
Ensuring user adoption and engagement. Creating a modern and responsive SharePoint design that looks equally well across different devices means ensuring your solution’s long-term popularity among users. On the contrary, badly designed or old-fashioned solutions often face user adoption issues.
If you consider designing your SharePoint solution, there are several components to prioritize.
Homepage. The most critical part of SharePoint solutions, particularly intranets, a homepage is the first candidate for a custom design. Above all, it forms the overall impression of the solution. Besides, it serves as the crossroad for end-users to access other apps and sites hosted within the solution (for example, a DMS) or connected with it (for example, a CRM system). That’s why a homepage design should not only engage but also guide users to the features and solutions they need, exactly as this homepage of a SharePoint Online intranet does.
Team sites. If SharePoint is your team collaboration medium, it’s worth putting your effort into customizing team sites. You can start with theming particular sites in line with team activities. For example, if a team participates in healthcare projects, the site can come with a healthcare-related design. You can also bring 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 domain that organizations often delegate to SharePoint. Custom design, in this case, is what allows bringing together scattered out-of-the-box features on a single SharePoint project site or portal and adapt them to the needs of particular teams. Designing project management areas, SharePoint developers often put additional effort into making the solution inspiring for team members. Custom project timelines, achievements, and rewards, boards with encouraging quotes are frequent companions of SharePoint project management sites.
Community sites. If your SharePoint solution is home to social and professional communities, pay attention to designing community sites. It will engage community members and make them feel part of a limited user group. Informal communities can come with an entertaining design, while professional communities can be designed in line with domains they elaborate.
Knowledge base. If your company practices knowledge management actively, 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 more user-friendly and easy to navigate, as well as help users identify knowledge categories straight away.
External-facing sites. Finally, if your SharePoint hosts customer-facing sites, you have several options for implementing custom design depending on a site’s goal. If you use the site to offer your products and services, design it using your organizational branding. If you create a partner portal, a SharePoint site design should follow your partners’ identities and tastes. If you use a SharePoint site as a co-innovation solution, create a custom design reflecting research topics.
Designing all SharePoint components at once is not only costly but also very time-consuming. So it’s reasonable to stick to the following principles.
Measure value for end users. Don’t try to design every single SharePoint detail, think about the design value for end users first. For example, there is no use in customizing content management areas such as document libraries and lists if users don’t need them. In SharePoint Online, you have to be twice careful with a custom design to avoid the solution’s overload and preserve its high performance.
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.
Create templates. You can customize several types of SharePoint sites. But, let’s say, if you have hundreds of teams that collaborate within SharePoint, you shouldn’t bring custom design to each team site. It’s more cost-effective to elaborate on several templates and apply them across the deployment. In 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 Office 365 or SharePoint 2019. Both the cloud suite and the brand-new SharePoint On-Premises version offer modern SharePoint pages with user-friendly views on the desktop and on mobile devices. It will be much easier to build a good-looking SharePoint solution within these versions, which will allow you to reduce the overall customization effort.
Once implemented, custom design can’t live forever and there will come a day when your solution will lose its shine. If you look at the Nielsen Norman Group study of best SharePoint intranets 2012–2017, you will see that the majority of solutions go through deep SharePoint redesign as a countermeasure against decreased usage and engagement.
To understand the state of your SharePoint design, you can perform the following activities:
Collecting users’ feedback. This way, you will know whether your solution is crisp and coherent or requires restyling. Redesigning a well‑functioning solution is always more reasonable than moving to a third‑party solution and restarting customizations from scratch when it loses users’ loyalty completely.
Monitoring your SharePoint deployment. Regular SharePoint health checks and audits are critical to customized deployments as they help reveal a variety of inconsistencies from the overall solution architecture drawbacks to the custom design errors. Poorly or incorrectly designed solutions or their components don’t just annoy end users, they also affect the entire deployment by slowing it down and provoking the system’s abnormal behavior.
Following the SharePoint design best practices. Going for a custom SharePoint design, organizations should rely on the Microsoft recommendations and real-life positive design examples. The solution’s performance and intuitiveness should always prevail over sophisticated design. Moreover, while developing a custom design, companies should go in line with the SharePoint logic, otherwise, further technical issues are inevitable.